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Why Conspiracy Theories Persist

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.


What Is a Conspiracy Theory?

We live in uncertain times that seem to be getting even more uncertain as each day passes. Many people are confused about the changes that they see in the world around them and seek explanations. Sometimes these explanations depend on the dubious "facts" of conspiracy theories.

So what is a conspiracy theory? Exact definitions vary, but I will use the following:

A conspiracy theory will suggest that two or more agents are secretly working together to further an aim that has to be hidden from the general public.

If we accept this definition, we will see that a belief that the Earth is flat is not a conspiracy theory, because there is no secret objective other than to persuade people that the Earth is spherical, which can hardly be described as an aim that has to be hidden.

Conspiracy theories provide simple explanations for events that might not be easy to understand. As you might expect, conspiracy theories become more common in stressful times.


The Big, Bad Wolf

Ted Goertzel, writing in the December 1994 issue of Political Psychology reports:

"A survey of African-American church members by the Southern Christian Leadership Council found that 35% believed that AIDS was a form of genocide, while 30% were unsure. Thirty-four percent of the respondents believed that AIDS is a man-made virus, while 44% were unsure. AIDS specialists say that there is no convincing evidence for this argument, but many African-Americans see a parallel between AIDS and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments conducted from 1952-1972."

(The Tuskegee experiment was a study of nearly 400 African-Americans who had syphilis. The disease was left untreated as researchers wanted to see how syphilis would develop if left to its own devices. Over 100 subjects died in the experiment that ran from 1932—not 1952 as stated above.)

Some of the people who were surveyed about AIDS may have believed that there was supporting evidence for their claim in the unethical Tuskegee experiment. But notice that there are similar ideas circulating about COVID-19. Depending on your source, 25-33% of Americans believe that the virus was engineered in a laboratory.

People who believe in conspiracy theories are hard to convince that they are wrong. An expert who offers evidence that a theory is wrong is mistaken or, worse, part of the conspiracy herself.

Some people who refused to be vaccinated against COVID had dubious ethical reasons, but many believed that the whole thing was a hoax (or worse, a plot). Many of them contributed to the death toll of over one million Americans.


The Key

We can identify four attributes that a conspiracy theory must demonstrate:

  1. The event it explains must be significant. The fact that your Amazon delivery driver delivered your package to the wrong house twice might mean that he has something against you, but it is not enough to build a conspiracy theory.
  2. The theory must be attractive. That is to say that it must offer an understandable explanation.
  3. There must be a guilty party. One alternative theory about 9/11 is that President Bush knew that it was going to happen. Having identified someone to blame you then need to provide a reason.
  4. The theory must be internally logical. It will need to tell us who did what and why in a convincing manner

Contrails or Chemtrails?

Let's take an example. If you look up into a clear sky, you might see aircraft leaving trails of water vapor. In fact, this trail is a mixture of vapor and soot from aviation fuel. But you don't always see vapor trails. So why is it that sometimes you do and sometimes you don't?

The answer is that vapor trails only form when the trail freezes in conditions of high humidity. In low humidity, the mixture simply dissipates. However, the fact that you don't always see a contrail has led some to believe that seeing them is explained by that particular plane's fuel having chemicals added.

There are various reasons why this should be so—two examples being the government is using chemicals to keep the population quiet, or more recently, to vaccinate everyone against COVID. This idea that a contrail is a chemtrail ticks all of the boxes above. It is clearly significant, it is a neat explanation, the government is the guilty party, and we are told why. It is, of course, complete nonsense.

Nobody Is in Control

A conspiracy theory tries to explain something that seems to be otherwise inexplicable. Perhaps our predisposition towards this mode of thought goes back to the primal times when we were vulnerable on a hostile planet. A rustle in the bushes may have been just the wind, but it was safer to assume that it was caused by a dangerous predator and get the hell out of the way.

In a globalized economy in which our jobs are shipped overseas and prices climb as wages drop, there must be some malevolent agency involved. The writer Alan Moore said it well:

"The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy theory because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not the Illuminati, or the Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening—nobody is in control."

True, but we find it difficult to accept.


Get Used to It

Although conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, we are entering a new golden age. Modern forms of media allow rumors and tales to spread quickly and effectively. And of course, we are living in challenging times. We can urge people to check the facts, but arguing against conspiracy theories often doesn't get very far— simply because the counter-arguments are part of the conspiracy.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.