By Jessy Hegland
On a pleasant June morning in Moorhead, Minn., the sounds of summer construction went underway as it always does; however, on this particular morning something very strange was afoot. A large digital construction sign did not say “slow down, men at work” but instead, “Bush Did 9/11.” This summer I had been submerging myself in ‘90s nostalgia, binge-watching episodes of “The X-Files,”which got me to wondering about conspiracy theories and the kinds of people that believe in them. Throughout the last few decades conspiracy theories have become alarmingly more mainstream, and in 2015 I believe this is something to be concerned about and something that needs to be pushed back against otherwise it will pull us all back.
When someone says “conspiracy theorist,” what is the first thing that pops into your head? For me it was the iconic stereotypical image of the foil-hat-wearing street-babbler, telling us to “Wake-up, Sheeple!” It’s easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists as loons or mentally ill, “othering” them in some way and not taking them seriously. But ask around and you’d be surprised at how everyday ordinary folks may believe in a conspiracy theory or two. Whether it’s interesting conversations about who really shot JFK or if Bush really did plan 9/11, or paranoia-driven topics of black helicopters, FEMA concentration camps, New World Order, Illuminati and reptilian overlords, pick your poison. These beliefs have become more widespread and people that are cognizant and completely sane are just as susceptible.
Conspiracy theories have always been around. Whether it's hearing urban legends and folklore being spread from word-of-mouth, millenialist stories about the End Times and other apocalyptic visions, conspiracies have always been there, and mostly in small niches of people. For me growing up, I remember hearing stories about the town of Tagus, N.D., just a few miles away from Minot and how there was a Satanic cult that would kidnap children and sacrifice them. In the early ’80s to the mid-90s, Satanic ritual abuse was a hysteria that even some folks up here believed in. I think back to how in some parks in Minot I’d see graffiti of pentagrams and “hail Satan” and think to myself, “what a fun trick to play.” Tagus became this local urban legend that branched off of the main conspiracy beliefs of Satanic ritual abuse. Devils Lake has stories and urban legends about a Loch Ness-type of monster lurking in the depths of the lake. So this isn’t a new phenomenon, and it isn’t specific to only certain areas of the country. What is concerning though is how it has become an unstoppable, festering mold that has begun to spore. Conspiracies know no political or religious barriers. Granted, context of certain kinds of conspiracies are relevant, and certain groups of people tend to believe in certain kinds of conspiracy. Religious fundamentalists, new agers, secularists, left-wing, right-wing, college educated, school of hard knocks educated, it doesn’t matter. In fact, a consistent finding is that people that believe in one theory tend to believe in another and another. Conspiracy ideation can sneak its way into anyone’s mind when given the right circumstances.
These sorts of things have become much more common than we realize. According to Michael Barkun’s book, “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” it is no surprise that new technology and devices of marketing have increased the availability to these sorts of ideas and ways of thinking. Bookstores hold a plethora of this type of printed material from magazines to books. David Icke, Mr. Reptilian super-conspiracist, makes an estimate of $475,000 per appearanceand lecture in the U.K. on top of the amount of money he makes from his books. In the ’80s, the Fairness Doctrine expired under Reagan, which was a doctrine that required political opinion to have equal amount of time for different points of view and rebuttal. That’s when the rise of conservative-rage talk radio shows hit, giving birth to Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. Conspiracies have turned from being things people would talk about and theorize to becoming a million-dollar industry. Alex Jones not only makes money via traffic to his websites and ratings from his shows, but he also peddles “male vitality” snake oils, supplements, survivalist gear and books. Scaring people into buying your products is as American as apple pie. These sorts of scare tactics are reminiscent of Bert the Turtle “Duck and Cover” fears and bomb shelter products in the 1950s. Both of these guys make close to $10 million to $45 million a year.
Sadly, conspiracy believers think that they are the right ones, but they are unfortunately victims of exploitation. I want to emphasize that this does not make them stupid or unintelligent.
According to an article by the Skeptical Inquirer entitled “Crazy Beliefs, Sane Believers: Toward a Cognitive Psychology of Conspiracy Ideation,” Preston R. Bost notes that “conspiracy ideation has not been linked to lower levels of education, conspiracy ideation does not appear to reflect an inability of disinclination to think critically. In certain cases, education may enhance conspiracy ideation.”
Education may enhance? What does that mean? When I was taking my generals in college, I learned about the Tuskegee experiments, and that was indeed a conspiracy and a cover-up. I’m not arguing that conspiracies do not exist -- they have happened. However, this doesn’t mean that the government is going to round us all up and throw us in a FEMA camp. Thinking critically doesn’t automatically make you a conspiracy theorist, and asking questions isn’t what the problem is.
According to Bost, as human beings we have the characteristic of suspicion, and conspiracy ideation is related to that. Suspicion is an adaptive trait that is relied on to promote equity in the matter intrinsic to social living. Having attention to others' motives is an element in everyday social interaction.A person without the ability to be suspicious is a target for exploitation, and the necessary seed of suspicion that exists in all of us may go into hyperdrive under the right circumstance. “Seen in this light, conspiracy ideation represents not an irrational departure from reality but perhaps a rather intensified focus.” Bost wrote.
This is an important thing to remember. Some of the earliest findings is that those that demonstrate belief in conspiracy theories experience feelings of alienation and powerlessness—vulnerability, which in turn creates a sense of hypervigilance to threat which is one of the central things to conspiracy ideation. It’s a coping mechanism. What could be more empowering than believing that you are one-step ahead of everyone? That you have access to the stigmatized knowledge. That you are the one that’s really awake and knows who the man is behind the curtain while everyone is in the la-la land of Oz.
In his book “A Demon Haunted World,”Carl Sagan points out that, “Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us -- then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.”
With the rise of the internet, ideas of every conspiracy available are at the touch of key. The ability to surround oneself in an echo-chamber of conspiracy has intensified and increased. Those who don’t agree are just part of the conspiracy! Cognitive dissonance has been a chess piece that I’ve been trying to figure out for the longest time. Even when a theorist is faced with facts debunking their beliefs, it only makes them hold onto it even stronger.
What’s the harm in people having these beliefs? They aren’t hurting anyone by having them, right? “What’s the harm” fallacy is what it is -- a fallacy. Unfortunately, these sorts of beliefs have had impacts on our society with very real consequences. When the horrible tragedy of Sandy Hook happened in 2012, Alex Jones drummed up the alarm of a conspiracy in which the government was behind all of it and the grieving parents were actors. His followers took heed and harassed the parents and defaced memorials of the children who were lost in that senseless act of violence. In the ’90s, a man who believed that there was a government conspiracy surrounding the infamous Davidian Compound in Waco went ahead and bombed Oklahoma City as an act of revenge. This brought attention to the beliefs of the militia movement in the ’90s, fears of black helicopters coming to take people's guns away, New World Orders and FEMA camps. Timothy McVeigh, who was a little too intense for some militia groups, was inspired by the racist dystopian novel “The Turner Diaries” to blow up a building, killing innocent people. Does conspiracy belief always lead to acts of violence? Not necessarily. However, beliefs in Big Pharma vaccines causing autism, when it has been proven to be completely false, making some parents stop vaccinating their kids altogether, has revived diseases like measles and others that had been eradicated, endangering not only children but adults too. Beliefs that global warming is a conspiracy and denying all the science that points to the contrary is already having impacts. It’s not just the beliefs that are causing these problems, it’s the actions that accompany them, and that is holding all of us back.
Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Well, I’m a skeptic so this doesn’t apply to me. They are the ones that are crazy.” I’d like to share some more quotes from Carl Sagan: “The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them -- the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is non-constructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.”
It’s ironic how both skeptics and conspiracy theorists find themselves identifying with this. This quote is relevant to everyone. We mustn’t polarize and dehumanize. That has never gotten us anywhere; it only divides us and actually affirms others’ beliefs so they hold on to them even harder.
“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” -- Carl Sagan
It’s time we fold up the image of the foil-hat-wearing “other” and instead look at circumstances surrounding these beliefs putting them into context. Factors like socioeconomic background, class and identity have an effect and can make people susceptible to the siren song of conspiracy. We need to bridge together understanding, because we are all in this together as human beings. Reminiscent of “The X-Files,” I want to believe!
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