Oliver Willis

Why People Believe Conspiracy Theories (And Why You Shouldn’t)

I’ve been a strange sort of “fan” of the conspiracy theory movement for a long time now. As a nonbeliever, I enjoy watching the creation of an alternate reality that generally has no relation to reality.

I got interested in the conspiracy that is the granddaddy of the modern conspiracy movement, the John F. Kennedy assassination, which was the dominant conspiracy theory until 9/11. The myths surrounding the Kennedy assassination set the table for the modern conspiracies that would follow, including the manner in which known facts are either dismissed or assimilated into a concrete “theory.”

A friend describes me as an Alex Jones hipster, someone who was well aware and entertained by America’s leading conspiracy theorist long before he started showing up on CNN or hanging out with Charlie Sheen. Jones is particularly skilled in the tactic that makes conspiracy theories sound believable to the converted, while opening the door to the interested.

(At this point I should stipulate that while Jones makes money off of these theories, I believe that he is a True Believer. If you listen to his radio show, he comes across as someone who honestly believes the insane things he’s saying – compared to someone like Rush Limbaugh, who has been phoning it in for nearly thirty years.)

What Jones does well is connect his conspiracy theories to a real thing. He’s just willing to take that leap a little further than a responsible normal person would take it. For instance, it isn’t in dispute that the U.S. government has intervened in the affairs of foreign nations in order to produce results that are more in favor with us geopolitically. Now, the difference is between those of us who acknowledge known, uncomfortable facts and the conspiracy theorist who cites these cases as evidence of a globe-spanning conspiracy that controls the levers of power.

It really is that simple. You take something that is true, and use it as a launching pad into what is ludicrous. Then when challenged, someone like Jones can always refer to the true fact, and ask the interested party if they can believe “X” then why can’t they believe “Y” which is at least an adjacent set of ideas.

Why are people willing to take that leap?

The world is a complex, scary place. It always has been, but nowadays it’s even more immediate and in our faces. Take 9/11, for instance. The idea that 19 mostly unarmed men could cause such chaos, death, and destruction does not compute. It almost begs for a more complex explanation. Why not remote controlled bombs, secret cannons, anonymous men in penthouse apartments ordering the extermination of innocent lives? That, in an odd way, makes way more “sense” than what really happened.

A conspiracy is the mind’s way of dealing with a world that seems to be turned on its ear. And how does one get roped into belief? Well, we know our government does things we’ve never heard about, so is it that great a leap to imagine an entire succession of absurd, horrible things done in the name of our government and secretive corporations?

Which leads to why you shouldn’t believe conspiracy theories.

I’ve come to be a strong believer in Occam ’s razor, that is, given multiple explanations for something the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK on his own.

James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King on his own.

9/11 happened almost exactly as we saw it play out on our television screens.

And on and on. The real world is messy and chaotic and works without rhyme or reason. Sure, it somehow feels better to think that there are men behind the curtain orchestrating false reality, but it really isn’t likely.

Stuff just… happens. A marathon in a major city explodes into chaos, and as thousands witness the event in person and through mass and social media, the odds are that it happened exactly as we perceived it. There wasn’t any “false flag” or other, nefarious occurrences, but rather early reports that proved to be false because human beings are humans and not characters in a movie or television script.

While bad people and organizations do engage in horrible behavior in concert with one another, the very same human chaos also works against these grand conspiracies actually ever working out. The sheer amount of people who would have to play along to keep an event like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination quiet works against the theory.

A bad thing happened. Let’s deal with that and leave the wild conspiracy around it to wither on the vine.