Science Questions with Surprising Answers
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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Category: Society      Published: August 12, 2013

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Public Domain Image, source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL.

People are all different, so the reasons for them believing in conspiracies cover a broad range of factors. In general, though, people tend to believe in conspiracies because of helplessness. Ted Goertzel, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, found that belief in conspiracy theories is strongly linked to insecurity about employment, alienation, lack of interpersonal trust, and minority status – all forms of helplessness. Conspiracies are easily disproved by a wealth of evidence and some basic, sound reasoning, and yet sizable portions of the population continue to believe in absurd ideas such as the following:

Despite the fact that conspiracies such as these run completely contrary to a giant body of evidence, and indeed go against logical reasoning itself, such conspiracies continue to be believed by many people. Why? The main reason people believe in conspiracies despite their absurdity is helplessness. Unemployment, under-employment, lack of education, substance addiction, chronic illness, dysfunctional families, and failing relationships all contribute to a person feeling helpless. In order to cope emotionally with such situations, many people blame their helplessness on conspiracies; giant secret societies with amazing power that control everyone for sinister purposes. The belief in conspiracies gives those in hopeless and destitute conditions something to hope for. "If the conspiracy can just be exposed", they think, "I will no longer be destitute". The belief itself becomes empowering to many in helpless situations. They see the rest of the world as mindless sheep controlled by the elite, and themselves as the enlightened few. The belief in conspiracies also enables such people to emotionally cope with the chaos that surrounds their life by believing there is an overall ordered society of elites that controls the world. Even though they see this society as secretive and evil, the belief itself in an ordered, controlling society is enough to offer comfort to one who feels surrounded by chaos and helpless to their situation.

Although a person may be safely employed in a rewarding career, a lack of education can be enough to render him subconsciously helpless and therefore susceptible to conspiracy theories. When a person does not understand the basic physical laws that govern the universe, daily events seem random and nonsensical. Being confronted day in and day out with a jumble of incomprehensible events is harrowing. To deal with this mental commotion, many people see conspiracies as the driving forces behind the seemingly random string of events. In reality, the laws of science run the world. But it is much easier to believe a secret society runs the world than to try to understand the laws of science if you have a poor education.

Helplessness can take many other forms. Even wealthy, educated people get cancer. The miserable, ongoing, and terminal nature of serious diseases can make even the richest and smartest of people feel helpless. When modern medicine fails to help them (or just takes too long to help them), many people turn to conspiracies to cope. It's more comforting to believe that a miracle cure is available but is kept just out of reach by a conspiring pharmaceutical industry, than to accept the reality that some diseases simply do not have cures. It's more comforting to believe that your cancer was caused by chemtrails, water fluoridation, genetically modified crops, aliens, western medicine, tooth amalgam, household cleaning supplies, or power lines than to accept that cancer is a natural part of life that just happens.

Goertzel states, "...during periods of insecurity and discontent people often feel a need for a tangible enemy on which to externalize their angry feelings. Conspiracy theories may help in this process by providing a tangible enemy to blame for problems which otherwise seem too abstract and impersonal. Conspiracy theories also provide ready answers for unanswered questions and help to resolve contradictions between known ‘facts' and an individual's belief system."

Note that some conspiracies are real. But the real conspiracies are quickly dismantled by the justice system and are well documented by mainstream scientists, journalists, and historians. Also, real conspiracies tend to involve only a handful of people and are rarely successful. Most real conspiracies fall apart before they even get started, while the rest are eventually exposed and dismantled. Giant, powerful, successful conspiracies do not happen for the following reasons:

  1. It only takes one whistle-blower to bring down an entire conspiracy. The more people there are in a conspiracy, the more potential whistle-blowers there are, and the shorter the conspiracy lasts. The most successful conspiracies (such as Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme) involve only a handful of people, and they still eventually fail.  Sustaining a global conspiracy among medical doctors would require convincing every single one of the millions of doctors from all religions, nations, and cultures to participate in a coordinated cover-up.
  2. People are inherently independent minded. Sustaining a global conspiracy would require making millions of people from all walks of life have the exact same goals and motives, and be willing to do what ever they are told to perpetuate the conspiracy. In the business world, people quit their job, move, start their own business, and campaign for reform whenever faced with too little independence. These types of actions would doom a conspiracy. History teaches us that the level of authoritarianism needed to sustain a global conspiracy leads to violent revolution by the masses. A large conspiracy would be doomed by internal warfare before it ever got off the ground.
  3. People are inherently decent. The vast majority of people on the earth are ethical, law-abiding citizens that pursue careers and causes in order to benefit society. A giant conspiracy would require a large number of people to lie, cheat, and purposely harm their family, friends, neighbors, and country.
  4. We are all human. Doctors get sick too. Doctors therefore have a strong personal incentive not to suppress medical treatments that succeed. Government employees live under the same sky and drink the same water. They have a strong personal incentive not to poison the water or fill the sky with chemicals.
  5. Large organizations are inherently too inefficient, cumbersome, and complex to carry out a large, coordinated plan of evil secrecy. Even the most successful large-scale secretive agency in the world – the CIA – has security leaks (such as the Snowden affair). The difference between the CIA and a conspiracy is that the CIA's mission is supported by the will of the people and is seen as generally beneficial, so it survives its security leaks. A large-scale conspiracy would not.

Note that this website, Science Questions with Surprising Answers, does not attempt to disprove conspiracies. I believe such an exercise is pointless and futile. Presenting conspiracy theorists with logic and evidence won't change their minds as such people are not thinking logically to begin with. Because helplessness is the root of belief in conspiracies, the best way to dispel their paranoia is to help them get out of their destitute situation. Improving the general educational level, career prospects, community involvement, and family relationships of conspiracy theorists will do more to dispel their myths than arguing directly against their myths. Something as simple as participating in a town hall meeting can help a neighbor realize that the world is not as evil and colluding as he imagines.

Topics: New World Order, conspiracies, conspiracy, conspiracy theories, contrails, flouride, free energy, hoaxes, psychology