Psychologists are trying to determine why otherwise rational individuals can make the leap from “prudent paranoia” to illogical conspiracy theories
According to a Public Policy Polling survey, around 12 million people in the US believe that interstellar lizards in people suits rule our country. We imported that particular belief from across the pond, where professional conspiracy theorist David Icke has long maintained that the Queen of England is a blood-drinking, shape-shifting alien.
Conspiracy theories in general are not necessary bad, according to psychologists who study them. “If we were all completely trusting, it would not be good for survival,” explains Rob Brotherton, an academic psychologist and author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “Sometimes people really don’t have our best interests in mind.”
But when people leap from thinking their boss is trying to undermine them to believing their boss might be a secret lizard person, they probably cross from what psychologists refer to as “prudent paranoia” into illogical territory.
And there are a lot of illogical ideas to pick from. Around 66 million Americans believe that aliens landed at Roswell, New Mexico; around 22 million people believe that the government faked the moon landing; and around 160 million believe that there is a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.
While aliens and fake moon landings probably trigger eyerolls in many of us, defining what constitutes a conspiracy theory is difficult, Brotherton says. The government, for example, does sometimes conspire to do the unspeakable, such as the infamous 1930s Tuskegee study, initiated by the US government to examine untreated syphilis in African-American men. Researchers blocked research participants from receiving penicillin or exiting the experiment to get treatment. The study continued until a media report made it public. In this case, believing that the government was conspiring to keep people sick would have been completely accurate.
There are characteristics that help differentiate a conspiracy theory from prudent paranoia, Brotherton says. Conspiracy theories tend to depend on conspirators who are unduly evil, he explains, with genocide or world domination as a motive. Conspiracy theories also tend to assign an usually high level of competency to the conspirators, Brotherton adds, pointing out that when the government really does “shady stuff” it often isn’t able to keep it secret.
Chances are, we all know someone who believes some version of a conspiracy theory, which is why psychologists have been trying to understand what makes someone jump from logically questioning the world to looking for signs of lizard teeth in public figures. Research has shown that feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty are associated with a tendency to believe in conspiracies, says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK. Or as Joseph E Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of American Conspiracy Theories, puts it, “conspiracies are for losers”.
YouTube videos and spiffy websites espouse the conspiracy theory – but is the movement doomed to once again fall flat over countless schisms?
YouTube user TigerDan925 shocked his 26,000 followers recently by conceding a shocking point: Antarctica is a continent. It’s not, as he previously thought, an ice wall that encircles the flat disc of land and water we call earth.
For most of us, that’s not news. But TigerDan925’s followers, like Galileo’s 17th century critics, are outraged by his heresy. Welcome to the contentious universe of flat-Earthers – people who believe the notion of a globe-shaped world orbiting the sun is a myth.
Through popular YouTube videos and spiffy sites, they show how easy it is to get attention by questioning scientific consensus. Unfortunately, we don’t really know how many people believe in the movement because so many people in it accuse each other of being as fake as Santa Claus (or perhaps the moon landing).
That being said, TigerDan925’s admission was not a concession that the world is shaped like the globe. He merely said flat-Earthers need a new map. But for his community, he might as well have abandoned them altogether:
“Next he says the Antarctica is not governed and protected by the Illuminati, that somehow any group deciding to buy and invest in equipment is free to roam anywhere by plane or on land,” writes a user by the name Chris Madsen. “This is absolute rubbish … 2016 is the year it becomes common knowledge the earth is flat, just like 9/11 became common knowledge, no stopping the truth now. ”
Such schisms are commonplace in flat-Earthdom, where at least three websites are vying to be the official meeting ground for the movement to save us all from the delusion that our world is a globe.
Also See: Flat Earth Theory Is Still A Thing
David Cameron was right to identify antisemitism as a step towards extremism. But how to tackle it remains a major challenge
But for the conspiracy theorists . . .
I firmly believe in the importance of skeptics attending psychic shows, to see firsthand how the biggest touring psychics in the country claim to put audience members in touch with the spirits of their dearly departed – for entertainment purposes only, naturally. In seeing such shows up close and witnessing their effect on devoted audiences we get to see how seriously people take the word of a psychic, and therefore how serious an issue it is if the person making the claims doesn’t have the supernatural powers they profess.
One such show I recently attended was that of psychic Paula O’Brien, whose Liverpool show saw a modest audience of around 150 gather in a hotel function room, eager for Paula to make contact with the other side. Among the usual fare of scattergun names (“Is there a Stephen or a Stewart or a Scott?”) and random numbers and dates (“What does the number three or the month of March or the 3rd of any month mean?”) there were a few points that particularly stood out to a skeptical viewer.
Most disturbing was the lady who told Paula she had attempted suicide on two occasions since the death of her husband. Clearly this was a sensitive subject, and one which needed to be handled with care – or, ideally, left to qualified experts. All of which made Paula’s response shocking: “I promise you, if you try again – and this is your husband’s words – you’ll be in a wheelchair sucking through a straw.”
We then learned that the audience member in question had taken to smearing her deceased husband’s ashes on her skin before leaving the house, after being advised by another psychic that she should abandon her plans to scatter his ashes, and instead should keep them close at all times. It is hard to witness such cases and still wonder whether there is any harm in seeing a psychic.