In the mind of a conspiracy theorist

The last blog post we did that touched on Conspiracy theories was punctuated with the name David Icke. My point was not to discuss David Icke. Rather I was audibly wondering how and why some of my Christian brothers and sisters were quickly being carried away by ridiculous and nonsensical conspiracies in the name of end times pronunciations. How one can weave a pattern that involves SARS-CoV-2, Bill Gates, 5G and eschatology were, and still are mindboggling. Fortunately, this kind of comic filigree has somehow made a clean disappearance. Time is proving our ‘prophecies’ and conspiracy theories wrong. From my little science, there is no connection between COVID-19 and 5G. From my simple Christian study, I cannot see the connection between Bill Gates and eschatology. I haven’t come across evidence that is to the contrary. Nevertheless, the pertinent question remains. How can one (including my fellow believers) end up believing baloney – in the name of conspiracy theories? I do not have a precise answer. However, follow me for a while, so that we can at least scratch below the surface of this werewolf.

Belief in conspiracy theories

Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘Conspiracy Theory’ as a belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people. 

Jan-Willem van Prooijen from the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, an expert both on the psychology behind conspiracy theories uses the acronym CUES to condense his structure for comprehending conspiracy theories. According to the good professor, Conspiracy theories are Consequential (their presence can make far-reaching differences in people’s lives, influencing things like whether they get needed healthcare e.g. vaccines), Universal (they begin in almost every observed society and time), Emotional (they rise from System 1 emotional and intuitive processes. A little explanation is needed here: System 1 refers to the quick, intuitive way of thinking that our brains use to make thousands of small, easy, and nonconscious judgments every day.), and Social (they typically assert conspiracies among members of a recognised dominant group, where the conspiracies are intended to secure continued control). 

Van-Willem van Prooijen states that “You might think these people don’t think about things. But they do! They have an answer for everything. You’ll find this if you argue with a flat earther.” And from my experience, getting into an argumentation (debate) with a conspiracy theorist is an utter waste of time. They ‘know’ everything. They know medicine more than a medical doctor who has spent years in higher learning institutions. They know history more than a history professor. They know Law more than a law practitioner. All the scientists are stupid and they know nothing. Conspiracy theorists are the only intelligent guys. They observe and comprehend stuff the rest of us can’t decrypt. If this is not an extreme level of the Dunning–Kruger effect, then I don’t know what we can call it.

Van-Willem van Prooijen illustrates his point in this way, “Explain to a flat earther that there are satellite photos of the round earth. Those are from NASA. NASA’s not trustworthy! Point out that people like Magellan sailed around the world. Of course, a government history curriculum would say that! Point out that you can see the curvature of the earth from the window of an aeroplane. The aeroplane windows were designed to make it look curved!” You see how it becomes pretty hard to help a conspiracy theorist out of their labyrinth!

So a regular flat earther has a method of cohesive (though eccentric) thoughts that encapsulate the meanings of their theory. The same stands, mutatis mutandis, for conspiracy theorists of other stripes, including the ones for 5G and COVID-19: in most cases, conspiracy theorists espouse the odd entailments of their fundamental views. Now here is the weird part: adopting entailments of one’s beliefs is reckoned to be a trademark of rational thought. Isn’t it?

Connoisseurs of the philosophy of science will notice the hidden ghost of the Quine-Duhem problem: any empirical hypothesis can be interpreted as consistent with the known observations, as long as the right auxiliary assumptions are also adopted. Also, take note that many conspiracy theorists are if van Prooijen is right, adept at embracing the right auxiliary assumptions.

Viren Swami and colleagues, for example, published a paper (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2014.08.006) pointing out that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with lower scores in analytic thinking. That means that the sort of mental processing usually called System 2 (conscious effortful reasoning) is dissociated with acceptance of conspiracy theories. 

So does conspiracy theoretic ideation require deliberate reasoning or not? And how do intuition and emotion play into this?

According to Neil Van Leeuwen, a Philosophy faculty member of Georgia State University, ‘conspiracy theoretic ideation’ Firstly concerns an original intuition or suspicion that is the outcome of emotional, automatic processing (feeling tyrannised or needing in control seems to be partially behind the initial conspiracy theoretic impulses). Secondly conspiracy theoretic ideation entails a great deal of quasi-rational thinking that weaves out how stuff would be if the initial intuition were accurate. And people like David Icke furnish ideas that endorse the suspicious intuition and give a pattern for the downstream quasi-rational thinking. A great number of people swallow those ideas hook, line, and sinker.

Thus, the problem with guys who hold bizarre conspiracy theories is not lack of thinking. It is the absence of thinking that would annul one’s initial intuitions. Therefore when those initial cryptic intuitions are powerful enough (they want to introduce vaccine microchips!), one ends up with not only a suspicion but a complete clump of culturally sustained ideas that would not just seem to make sense of the intuition but also arm it against refutation.

This view is consonant with the methods that multiple researchers have employed to measure analytic cognitive style. Good tests for analytic cognitive style evaluate whether people use conscious thought to cancel or override intuitive responses.

Leeuwen concludes that being feeble in analytic cognitive style does not necessarily mean that one does not think consciously rather it means that one’s conscious thinking hardly goes against what one intuits: post-intuition thinking is more like a one-way highway. 

Deleting David Icke (and any other purveyor of outlandish conspiracy theories) from Facebook or Youtube is a solid start, yet this leaves a vacuity in the minds of suspicious people with low analytic cognitive styles for some other harmful merchandiser to misuse. Therefore it is deserving to endeavour to nip the initial conspiracy theoretic intuitions in the bud. That is quite significant than refuting the post hoc reasoning because by that point many conspiracy theorists have already considered objections you are likely to bring to their views. 

Alas! How on this planet earth, where aliens from Nibiru are constantly surveilling on us, might one do that – i.e., nip the initial intuitions? I posit that the Nibiru hit squad aliens would do to us what they did to Stephen Hawking. 

Closing remarks

Conspiracy theories are characterised by their Unfalsifiability, Fallacies and Naivete. On naivete, Philosophy professor Jerry Goodenough at the University of East Anglia, U.K., points out in his article “Critical Thinking About Conspiracy Theories” that confronted with a choice between a complex, suspicious explanation and a simple, commonplace one, conspiracy theorists favour the complex. In the process, they break the principle of Occam’s Razor, which dictates that the better explanation be the one that requires fewest unsupported assumptions. 

Since real life sometimes parallels conspiracy theories, the best we can do is examine what we read and hear. Test for falsifiability, if possible. Test for logical errors. Test the veracity of witnesses. Test the quality of testimony. Test for unsupported assumptions. Use common sense. Because the truth is out there.

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