One person believes that Jesus was resurrected after dying on the cross. Another person believes that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks.
Each belief lacks a foundation of demonstrable evidence. Each belief almost certainly is untrue. Each belief has many adherents who vehemently hold to it, despite how bizarre their blind faith is.
I'm a religious skeptic. I'm also a conspiracy theory skeptic. What seems strange to me is how people who decry fundamentalist religion often cling to fundamentalist conspiracy theories.
But after reading Michael Shermer's new book, "The Believing Brain," I'm better able to see the connections between religiosity and conspiracy theory'osity. Shermer has a chapter, Belief in Conspiracies, which lists some of the active conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories are a different breed of animal than conspiracies themselves.
Whether there was or was not a conspiracy behind the assassination of JFK (I contend that there was not), theories of JFK conspiracies abound, as they do for the assassinations of RFK, MLK Jr., and Malcolm X; the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa; and the deaths of Princess Diana and assorted rock stars, not to mention conspiracy theories behind the fluoridation of water supplies, jet contrails depositing chemical and biological agents in the atmosphere (chemtrails), the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases, the dispersal of cocaine and guns to inner cities, peak oil and related oil company suppression of alternative energy technologies, the moon landing that never happened, UFO landings that did happen, and the nefarious goings-on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee of 300, Skull and Bones, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the BIlderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the Learned Elders of Zion and the Zionist Occupation Government, satanists and satanic ritual cults, and the like.
The list is seemingly endless.
I'd add "global warming is a hoax," because this conspiracy theory shares one of the characteristics that makes such wild-eyed hypotheses so unlikely to be true: a belief that humans are capable of pulling off a highly complex, wide-ranging fraud which escapes detection even though hundreds or thousands of people are involved with it.
As Shermer puts it:
The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy are elevated to near superhuman power to pull it off. We must always remember how flawed human behavior is, and the natural tendency we all have to make mistakes. Most of the time in most circumstances most people are not nearly as powerful as we think they are.
The more complex the conspiracy, and the more elements involved for it to unfold successfully, the less likely it is to be true.
The more people involved in the conspiracy, the less likely they will all be able to keep silent about their secret goings-on.
So conspiracy theorists have to believe that those responsible for a nefarious act, like faking the moon landing or detonating explosives in the Twin Towers on 9/11, have almost divine powers.
Otherwise, how could they successfully plan, carry out, and keep secret their activities without a single shred of solid evidence leaking out that would unquestionably confirm the conspiracy theory which purports to know the truth about some event?
After discussing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which helped trigger the First World War, Shermer writes:
This is how conspiracies really work -- as messy events that unfold according to real-time contingencies. They often turn on the minutiae of chance and the reality of human error. Our propensity is to think otherwise -- to believe that conspiracies are well-oiled machines of Machiavellian manipulations -- is to fall into the trap of conspirational patternicity and agenticitiy, where the patterns are too well delineated and the agents superhuman in knowledge and power.
Early on in the chapter Shermer talks about how transcendentalism isn't only a factor in religious belief; it also lies at the root of secular conspiracy theories.
Why do people believe in conspiracies? A useful distinction here is between transcendentalists and empiricists.
Transcendentalists tend to believe that everything is interconnected and all events happen for a reason. Empiricists tend to think that randomness and coincidence interact with the causal net of our world and that belief should depend on evidence for each individual claim.
The problem for skepticism is that transcendentalism is intutive; empiricism is not. Our propensity for patternicity and agenticity leads us naturally into the transcendental camp of seeing events in the world as unfolding according to a preplanned logic, whereas the empirical method of being skeptical until a claim is made otherwise requires concerted effort that most of us do not make.
Thus, the psychology of belief first and evidence second is once again borne out. Or as Buffalo Springfield once intoned: Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep...
Over on my other blog I shared an example of how jumping to conclusions often leads to getting mired in unreality. Check out "What I learned from a cut phone line."