Why do people like conspiracies?

Here’s a lovely article by Michael Shermer on the topic.

Why People Believe in Conspiracies A skeptic's take on the public's fascination with disinformation By Michael Shermer | September 10, 2009

After a public lecture in 2005, I was buttonholed by a documentary filmmaker with Michael Moore-ish ambitions of exposing the conspiracy behind 9/11. “You mean the conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to attack the United States?” I asked rhetorically, knowing what was to come.

“That’s what they want you to believe,” he said. “Who is they?” I queried. “The government,” he whispered, as if “they” might be listening at that very moment. “But didn’t Osama and some members of al Qaeda not only say they did it,” I reminded him, “they gloated about what a glorious triumph it was?”

“Oh, you’re talking about that video of Osama,” he rejoined knowingly. “That was faked by the CIA and leaked to the American press to mislead us. There has been a disinformation campaign going on ever since 9/11.”

Conspiracies do happen, of course. Abraham Lincoln was the victim of an assassination conspiracy, as was Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, gunned down by the Serbian secret society called Black Hand. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a Japanese conspiracy (although some conspiracists think Franklin Roosevelt was in on it). Watergate was a conspiracy (that Richard Nixon was in on). How can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? As Kurt Cobain, the rocker star of Nirvana, once growled in his grunge lyrics shortly before his death from a self-inflicted (or was it?) gunshot to the head, “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off, and so many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the Men in Black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. So there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.

Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? In previous columns I have provided partial answers, citing patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the bent to believe the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents). Conspiracy theories connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias (which seeks and finds confirmatory evidence for what we already believe) and the hindsight bias (which tailors after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition.

Examples of these processes can be found in journalist Arthur Goldwag’s marvelous new book, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009), which covers everything from the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group to black helicopters and the New World Order. “When something momentous happens, everything leading up to and away from the event seems momentous, too. Even the most trivial detail seems to glow with significance,” Goldwag explains, noting the JFK assassination as a prime example. “Knowing what we know now … film footage of Dealey Plaza from November 22, 1963, seems pregnant with enigmas and ironies—from the oddly expectant expressions on the faces of the onlookers on the grassy knoll in the instants before the shots were fired (What were they thinking?) to the play of shadows in the background (Could that flash up there on the overpass have been a gun barrel gleaming in the sun?). Each odd excrescence, every random lump in the visual texture seems suspicious.” Add to these factors how compellingly a good narrative story can tie it all together—think of Oliver Stone’s JFK or Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, both equally fictional.

What should we believe? Transcendentalists tend to believe that everything is interconnected and that 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 intuitive; empiricism is not. Or as folk rock group Buffalo Springfield once intoned: Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep …


Michael Shermer Interview - The Thinking Atheist Radio Podcast #17

My apologies if it has been posted before but I believe it warrants another read.

My theory is that people believe in conspiracy theories because it makes them feel special–they are privy to information not shared with the populace as a whole. I know what’s going on, you lot are just fools who are being hoodwinked by sinister powers.

because conspiracies are AWESOME.
and i take offence to ‘feeling special’
meanwhile, back at the ranch. how many truths started off as ‘conspiracies’?
the church conspired to keep the populace ignorant of, for argument’s sake, the shape of our earth, and who knows what else.
surely, some conspiracies are dilly. and as much as i deeply like old erich von daniken’s stories, they are more likely than not, bollocks.
other conspiracies, might have more weight, and warrants more exploration. dont diss the conspiracy. it is a valuable tool in digging for truths.

You mean awsome in their entertainment, and not factual value?

and i take offence to 'feeling special'
Ag, shame. :P
meanwhile, back at the ranch. how many truths started off as 'conspiracies'? the church conspired to keep the populace ignorant of, for argument's sake, the shape of our earth, and who knows what else.
But ... your example only illustrates a case in which the conspiracy [i]opposed[/i] the truth, not so? The truth did not "start off" due to the conspiracy.
other conspiracies, might have more weight, and warrants more exploration.
Sure - those are called hypotheses.


uneducated joe’s like me, call it conspiracy. even rumour.

but i mean, really now. what is more fun, sitting around a campfire, and rattling off conspiracy theories with mates?

Yes, exactly. It’s usually told by the guy who tries to impress, and then achieves precisely the opposite. To them truth is to mundane to entertain.

Sitting around a campfire and bashing a conspiracy theorists’ theories to heck using reason.
Much like doing the same to a religious nut.

Hey it don’t make me popular but it’s bags of fun.

100% agreed Nice one BoogieM.

I like Conspiracy theories because the standard theories to explain everything is boring…

Mebbe conspiracy theories are the new spook stories.

That’s exactly it: conspiracy theories make the world more interesting. And they make the believers feel special, seeing as they are privy to secrets almost nobody else knows about.

I agree it is a mix of making the believer feel like he is on the in.
And it is a comfort to people. Because the real truth is more scarier than any
conspiracy out there, and that is there is nobody behind the wheel.

Agreed - yes for entertainment value, alternative theories cos yes some of them are boring, also looking at how ridiculously biased the viewpoints are, the feeling of being 'in" on something even if you’re not - and having the ability to detach yourself from that do some other reading and make your own mind up… regardless of what it is …

There’s so much information, misinformation, disinformation and plain shit information that we might as well have a giggle while we are sifting through it

I have a son-in-law that’s a serious conspiracy theorist/believer (he ain’t religious at all)and has done an enormous amount of research into the Illuminati, the ANC’s pending ethnic cleansing/genocide (8 steps to chaos) camps etc that will be sprung on us in the short term. This has had an impact on my daughter/grand daughter insofar as they intend moving to Panama. My exhortations that this is BS have not had any effect (GCG you know the litey and can vouch for me!!)
How do you address this in a serious and effective manner? As you say it’s all misinformation (or is it?), half truths and preys on people’s fear and is BS but extremely difficult to verify/triangulate with reality/facts. The mining unrest serves as proof to these guys that shit is imminent!

and the rapture? ???

Yeh! and the muti and the BS that goes with this weird mindset. People see what they want to see. Of course there have been many conspiracies and it’s easy to point this out ex post facto…it’s the “privileged” access to mis/dis/information that no-one can verify but is mis-/ab-/used that boggles the mind. I have applied Occam’s Razor, the Bullshit detector and plain logic but to no avail. (wtf!!)

Why? Cause were just microscopic cogs in his catastrophic plan - designed and directed by
his red right hand.

By pointing out that the ANC could not even transport a few inanimate truckloads of high school textbooks from one province to another. How exactly are they going to plan and execute the transportation of several million irate, wildly shooting Boere to death camps?

My main problem with all conspiracy theories is this: they presume that humans are capable of planning to an extent that history has shown over and over we are not. Even perfectly legitimate, above-ground operations routinely go utterly wrong (not to mention above budget) and have to be hastily redesigned on the fly. But relatively small numbers of people can flawlessly plan and execute, without anyone noticing, absolutely vast programs of physical or social engineering? Tell me another one.

I agree brianvds: here is my son in laws’ latest view on Shermer’s article:

It must be really cool to be this guy. Taking everything on face value makes the human condition / situation a lot more bearable. The problem is that he’s boxing “conspiracists” into the loon bin, and not taking any consideration of the investigations that have gone into some of the conspiracies themselves (real evident as opposed to intuition). In order to refute a conspiracy, you have to negate a trend and a thread that links events. Conspiracies are more than single events. True conspiracies - the ones that have a profound effect, require planning and a long term vision to ensure a sustained outcome. This may be over years, decades or even centuries ( particularly economic based) depending on the outcome desired. So any major event that has a conspiracy attached needs to be seen (and investigated) as part of a chain of events. Looking at an event in isolation does not offer a logical contextual explanation. To get to the truth, we have to keep asking why until we cannot any more. Taking mainstream news or popular view on events proves nothing. Not so long ago the popular view was that the world was flat and God saw everything and the Pope was actually chosen by the allsmitley.

I have to say that I’m slightly offended that he suggests that empiricism has no place in conspiracy – that’s a very broad assumption. And any true conspiracy always “depends on evidence for each individual claim”.

The Hon. Mr Shermer makes reference to some of the high profile events and conspiracies - so let’s look at them from a different angle.

World Trade Centre.

The official nutshell view:

A group of nutters went through 2 weeks of flight training in small aircraft and orchestrated the surprise attack of all time utilising jet passenger aircraft. It was a carefully orchestrated and planned chain of events designed to threaten the American way of life, democracy and freedom.

In order to prevent this from ever happening again, the American government had to institute stricter security controls and monitoring of populous behaviour through the Patriot Act, as well as invade two other countries to topple dictators who were connected to this by harbouring terrorist groups.

The unofficial nutshell view.

They thwarted aviation security controls not once, but four times, and even attacked the most secure airspace in the world over the Pentagon. The no-fly zone is a fifty mile radius with a 200 mile monitoring and warning system.

The official account - on both flights, is that flight control did not know where the 767’s were because the transponders were switched off and could not be detected on Radar (WTF??). Radar is “an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects… The radar dish or antenna transmits pulses of radio waves or microwaves which bounce off any object in their path”. Even idiots understand that radar does not require a transponder from aircraft.

Flight 175 crashes into the south tower a full 16 minutes after the first attack – and not one air force fighter jet in sight – the air force’s excuse? The transponders were off and they did not know where the 767’s were. The radar could not detect them…

Officially, after the aircraft crashed in the south tower, the temperature of the burning jet fuel caused the steel skeleton to melt, and the towers to collapse.
Three things raise concerns here:

  1. The towers were designed specifically absorb the impact of airplanes, including Boeings (granted 727 and 707). This is a specific cage design for this purpose.
  2. The maximum temperature of burning jet fuel (specific to the grade used) is not hot enough to melt the particular grade of steel used in the towers.
  3. The towers did not topple or collapse – they imploded – a physical impossibility due to the structure and heights of the impact zones (BTW – these are engineer reports, not my own assumptions)

Supporting the theory that the towers were imploded, are numerous reports of engineers and investigators stating that girders were found at ground zero that had been plasma cut at 45 degrees, consistent with demolition practice prior to implosion of such structures.

Building 7’s collapse was preceded by a (recorded) phone call by Larry Silverstone – the owner of building to “pull it”. The firemen operating rescue missions in building 7 all refer to popping explosions consistent with demolition, and witness (and in some cases testified) to the building imploding as in a controlled demolition and being unaffected by the towers. This certainly suggests that building 7 was pre-charged – not exactly a common practice to buildings in use.

The pentagon crash did not have any debris, and the hole from the crash was inconsistent with the airplane crash aftermath that would be (conservatively) expected.

Four of the identified hijackers have been identified as alive and well in the years since 911.

The “experts” confirming the building collapses and pentagon crash evidence are all government employees or contractors. The experts refuting this were all independent. There were two public employed engineers who refuted the official claim (I’ll have to find their names in the archives). Both were dismissed with gag orders.

Ok, so that should take care of some of the empirical evidence Mr Shermer desperately needs as a sceptic.

So as an example of conspiracy (and why people believe them), we have: Logical Evidence

Let’s look (broadly for now) at trend and tread:
Mr Shermer also refers to Pearl Harbour. Very, very broadly (‘cause I don’t have the time for the hundreds of pages required – but if you like, I’ll send the links and then welcome you to my world! Hahahaha), there is a trend to accompany the thread:

  1. The US government wanted to enter the 2nd world war against public opinion
  2. The US government wanted to go to war with Afghanistan and Iraq against public opinion
  3. Both president’s largest backers (at each time) were arms manufacturers.
  4. And the list goes on

He also refers to JFK. It’s very interesting that he co-drafted and lobbied for legislation to dismantle the Federal Reserve, and provide currency from government and not the private sector as well as an economic system that was gold valued against reserves, disallowing leveraging as a profit principle. He was taken out (If I remember correctly) a week before this went to congress for voting.

It’s one conspiracy that goes a long way to negating the view that generally conspiracies are nonsense with no base. I suppose it depends on who’s making the most noise.

Also adding to the mix is that an incompetent bureaucrat is a conspiracy architect’s dream. The conspiracies like 911 are larger than government. Governments are there to do the bidding of those who hold the purse strings – and there’s enough proof of this.

With reference to paternicity and agenicity – I suggest that it depends on how deep one looks – and certainly not at random events. If certain events were random the same names would not be cropping up. The whole point of identifying a conspiracy is to negate the random noise.

Ironically, this particular sceptic does not seem to recognise the greatest conspiracy of all time (the centuries long type referred to) – religion. How much proof does he need?

Mr Shermer (and many other others of the ilk) is very articulate and clearly intelligent, but perhaps he knows more than he understands?