Evolution of the Conspiracy Theorist

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via Center for Inquiry

I’ve recently written about conspiracy theories, which means I have been recently attacked by conspiracy theorists. I thought I’d take a moment to briefly reflect on the evolution of conspiracy theorist…

The conspiracy theorist is, of course, not a new breed of human. All the basic psychological building blocks of conspiracy thinking are inherent in the human psyche, including distrust of authority, wantingagent smith 928_250px “inside information,” and real or imagined persecution-and, to be fair, often a dearth of critical thinking skills such as the ability (or desire) to separate anonymous rumor from established fact.

The conspiracy theory is at its heart a profoundly populist notion. It’s the common man demanding a peek behind the curtains of power-power in the form of information. Knowledge is power and information is the currency of conspiracists. For millennia there were no conspiracy theorists to speak of because most people had little or no access to independent information. News traveled very slowly from region to region, and anyway it didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much news anyway (“uncle Abraham’s cow died, more news as it happens”). Information and knowledge about the world came mostly from religious leaders. What went on in distant lands (or even neighboring countries) had little relevance to most people who spent their lives farming or fishing, living and dying without ever having strayed more than a few hundred miles from their birthplace.

conspiracy box secret package_250pxThe invention of the moveable type printing press was a boon to conspiracy theorists for the simple reason that books and knowledge was transportable. Instead of one source of knowledge there were dozens, or perhaps hundreds, and in some cases the authors had different viewpoints on the same subjects. As the old saying goes, a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two watches is never sure. If two authors disagreed, then someone claiming to be an authority was wrong-or even perhaps intentionally deceptive and intentionally hiding a truth.

Modern technology helped give birth to the modern conspiracy theorist as well. Decades ago conspiracy theorists largely relied on short-wave radio and crude stapled-and-photocopied mailings to gain followers and spread their enlightened truths. In the 1980s personal computers allowed conspiracy writers to create much more professional publications-in appearance, if not content-as well as “underground” magazines. One fascinating exception is the curious case of the . . .

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One response

  1. M. Scott Peck defined mental health as dedication to reality. A healthy person’s internal “map of the world” is constantly undergoing revisions, as the person seeks out and encounters new information. Those revisions are usually minor, as the person learns things previously unknown, but occasionally the new information will contradict conclusions previously reached. In that case, a healthy person will weigh the strength of the evidence for the two contradictory possibilities, and revise his internal “map” accordingly. He will willingly, even eagerly & gratefully, change his mind, to correct errors in his “map,” so that what he believes to be true will more accurately reflect reality.

    As a mentally healthy person goes through life, his internal “map of the world” becomes progressively more accurate.

    An unhealthy person will very often be incapable of accepting that he made a mistake. He will refuse to correct errors in his map, because doing so would mean swallowing his pride and admitting, at least to himself, that he was mistaken.

    As an unhealthy person goes through life, his internal “map” accumulates inaccuracies, and becomes progressively less and less useful for navigating the world around him.

    Everyone makes mistakes, but the mentally healthy person will acknowledge and correct his mistakes, and the unhealthy person will not. That’s why mentally healthy people make better decisions.

    That’s also why, like the White Queen, conspiracy theorists believe so many impossible things. Everyone makes mistakes, but unhealthy people are too proud to correct theirs.

    So when Alex Jones or someone like him persuades someone that, for example, the WTC Towers could not have been brought down by fires, because, they he persuasively claims, “fire can’t melt steel,” the either a mentally healthy or an unhealthy person might make the mistake of believing it. But the healthy person can be persuaded by contrary evidence to revise his opinion, and an unhealthy person will believe the lie forever. When the unhealthy person encounters counterexamples, like this and this, he stubbornly refuses to change his opinion. He knows what he believes, don’t bother him with facts. Evidence that he’s wrong will only annoy him, never persuade him. He will continue to believe that the WTC Towers could not have been brought down by fire, regardless of the amount of evidence he encounters to the contrary.

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