What’s a Conspiracy Theory Anyway? - BCB #37
Some people believe nutty things, but that doesn't mean this word is useful in partisan conflict.
“Conspiracy theory” has become a part of our political vocabulary. Like “fake news” it can be literally true, or just a way to avoid thinking too hard about something uncomfortable. In this issue, we’re going to try to find that thin line between crazy and different — and to answer the question, are they crazier than us? As it turns out, there’s been a lot of good research and writing on conspiracies lately. (Coincidence?)
Isaac Saul of Tangle defines a conspiracy theory as “a belief or set of beliefs that connects unrelated observations together based on a set of fundamentally false conclusions.” It’s the this-explains-everything vibe that distinguishes a conspiracy theory from any other kind of political theory. Yet conspiracy theories always have at least an element of truth, because they’re based on some undeniably puzzling observations. For an even deeper look at definitions, check out this epic attempt at a “metatheoretical framework” for conspiracy theories.
But why do some people hold such bizarre worldviews? Knowing the underlying psychology might help us talk to people who believe outlandish things. Scott Alexander distinguishes between two kinds of conspiracies. The first starts with finding flaws in a narrative, and then creating an alternative story that explains them — such as noticing that the latitude of the great pyramid matches the speed of light, and concluding that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens. He made this chart to illustrate:
This can be considered some sort of flaw in evidence processing. Alexander notes,
You can sort of see how someone with weird evidence-processing styles might get this wrong. The fact on the right is compact, simple, and quantifiable (the two numbers match to about six digits, so it’s a one-in-a-million coincidence). The facts on the left are vague and holistic.
But there’s another kind of conspiracy which is emotionally charged, and requires a vilifying story to justify hatred of a group. This is how we get people believing that the “global elite” are all part of a secret pedophile ring. This story provides the necessary moral clarity to justify the conspiracy theorist’s pre-existing revulsion. Perhaps it’s this kind of conspiratorial thinking we should be concerned about, because it might ultimately be used to justify discrimination or violence.
Naturally, many people have claimed that this is a partisan issue. A 2021 study by van der Linden and colleagues surveyed 5000 people, and showed Red was more likely to endorse not only specific conspiracy theories (“Global warming is a hoax invented by the United Nations”) but conspiratorial thinking in general (“events which superficially seem to lack a connection are often the result of secret activities.”) For the latter, there’s even an internationally validated conspiracy mentality scale. This research claims that this is due, in part, to Red’s “distrust of officialdom.” Other work finds many correlated factors including lower income, lower education, being male, being unmarried, not having friends, lacking media literacy, and unemployment.
For many of our Blue readers, it certainly does feel like America is living through an era of Red-tinged paranoia. And there is a real asymmetry here; in general there is more low-quality information in Red discourse. (We realize that’s a sweeping and controversial statement; we’ve got an upcoming issue that makes the case carefully, but for now consider that this is the conclusion when judged by politically balanced panels.)
However, whether there is a partisan slant to conspiratorial thinking in individuals — rather than information quality at the ecosystem level — depends a lot on what you ask. The above study only asked about two specific conspiracy theories, around global warming and the (upcoming) 2016 election. A more recent study surveyed 38,000 Americans over 8 years, and an additional 26,000 people from 20 countries, asking them about 52 different conspiracy theories.
“In no instance,” the authors write, “do we observe systematic evidence of a political asymmetry.” Instead, Blue just preferred different conspiracies. If Red has Soros and China, Blue has Koch and Russia. Holocaust denial is, perhaps surprisingly, equally popular across the political spectrum.
The authors specifically call out the earlier study, saying the results are due to selection bias:
We argue that contradictory findings [on whether conservatives believe conspiracies more] are the result of researchers’ choices and assumptions. For example, most studies center their test of the asymmetry thesis on only a small number of conspiracy beliefs (e.g., van der Linden et al., 2021).
If these researchers are right, then conspiratorial thinking isn’t a partisan issue; polarization and major salient examples have just made it look like it is. As we’ve said before, it’s usually a mistake to dismiss the ideological out-group as irrational or evil. With the country split nearly 50/50, chances are that most people on the other side are actually pretty average.
If Red cries “fake news” to discredit inconvenient truths, Blue is all about “conspiracy theory.” Of course, both completely fabricated news and real conspiracies actually exist! Conversely, some conspiracy theories are harmless, but some are not – particularly around health issues and justifications for violence. The better question is whether calling something a “conspiracy theory” is useful — and the evidence so far suggests that it isn’t; this does not reduce belief in the theory.
This phrase has been so abused, so stretched to cover anything the speaker disagrees with, that it might do more harm than good if what you want is a real conversation. We need new ways of talking to each other.
Quote of the Week
Unfortunately, loosening the grip of conspiratorial thinking in politics is extremely difficult; it means trying to make the storytelling animal give up on one hell of a story.