What about…conspiracy theories?

I wish I had someone beside me while surfing on the internet, looking for answers. I was just about sixteen when I firstly got to meet conspiracy theories’ mindset. And I had no tools to face it, except my adolescent thinking process.

It increasingly influenced my world’s view, until I felt totally powerless and frustrated. Every path which was set in front of me was invariably spoilt by a handful of evil, wealthy supermen. Studying? I didn’t want to give away my efforts and talents to those who were wrecking my life already. Getting a job? No point I could ever talk to people who didn’t see that everything was so evidently wrong with the world, while doing nothing to change it. Everyone seemed stupid and powerless around me, and I felt miserably alone.

I had some companions whom I could share that black vision with. All of them were leading an “alternative” lifestyle, looking for easiest and cheapest way to make a living. A bunch of them were very wholehearted, they took the alternative side as their own perspective and made it a source of connection, sharing and joy. I feel so thankful to them, they inspired me to pursue simplification, joy of living and the overcoming obstacles. They definitely could have embraced any type of lifestyle – at the core they were lovely people, occasionally bothered by common issues. They just simplified those complexities, labeled with an average form of “world’s fault” explanation – conspiracy theories.

The most of the alternative fellows though, weren’t happy people. I was one of them. Conspiracy theories had a greater influence, acting as the perfect exit strategy from personal responsibilities that were somehow neglected. Expecting others to do what you need to do simply is a sad symptom of a powerless and frustrated mind.

Year after year, I felt increasingly tight and uncomfortable, looking at the world through conspiracy’s lens. I needed something different, in order to believe that I had a future and I could act. Now.

Surely spiritual teachings do not let any space to complaint, if taken wholehearted. I slowly became to understand how I could deal with my emotions and with my thoughts. I understood that I couldn’t go on but growing out of compassion and finding a way to support others. Thich Nhat Hanh made it so clear to me it his highly inspiring interview at OnBeing. Ho’oponopono teachings helped me to develop a wider concept of what I am responsible for.

Vodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch and the fabulous You Are Not So Smart Podcast episode #16 opened my eyes wide on the topic.

Aaronovitch smoothly introduces the Occam’s razor while defining a conspiracy theory as

[…] the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended. […] a conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable.

Keep it simple! Which is radically different from any kind of clumsy misinterpretation due to helplessness in handling reality’s complexities… As A. K. Coomaraswamy once stated,

To be able to perceive post hoc and propter hoc, concurrence and causality, is a clear sign of a remarkable intellectual development.

Conspiracy theories have been explored and classified in different, helpful ways. The United States of Paranoia, a Conspiracy Theory author, Jesse Walker, divides them into

  1. “The enemy above” – conspiracy that forms at the top of the social pyramid (Big Pharma);
  2. “The enemy below” – conspiracy among the poor or the workers  (revolutions, riots, overthrows);
  3. “The enemy within” – conspiracy among people of your own group (spies, impostors);
  4. “The malevolent and benevolent” conspiracies (Matrix, Inception, UFO’s-liked theories).

Steven Novella, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine, suggests conspiracy theories divide the world into three parts: Conspirators, usually incredibly evil, an Army of Light and the vast majority – The Sheeple.

Aaronovitch extracts 7 main characteristics that ensure their wide-spread propagation:

  1. […] conspiracists work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited.
  2. A conspiracy theory is likely to be politically populist, in that it usually claims to lay bare an action taken by a small power elite against the people. […] belief in the conspiracy makes you part of a genuinely heroic elite group who can see past the official version duplicated for the benefit of the lazy or inert mass of people by the powers that be. […] Those who cannot or will not see the truth are variously described as robots or, latterly, as sheeple.
  3. The theorist is just asking certain disturbing questions because of a desire to seek out truth, and the reader s supposedly left to make up his or her mind. The questions asked, of course, only make sense if the questioner really believes that there is indeed a secret conspiracy.
  4. The conspiracists draw upon the endorsement of celebrities and “experts” to validate their theories, and yet a constant feature of modern conspiracy theories is the exaggeration of the status of experts.
  5. The conspiracists work hard to give their written evidence the veneer of scholarship. The approach has been described as death by footnote. Accompanying the exposition of the theory is a dense mass of detailed and often undifferentiated information, but laid down as an academic text.
  6. Conspiracists are always winners. Their arguments have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself.
  7. Conspiracists are inclined to suggest that those involved in spreading the theory are, even in the “safest” of countries, somehow endangered.

Furthermore, conspiracy theories are a surprisingly vivid journey into the world of cognitive biases.

Walker cleverly states that

[…] Even when a conspiracy theory doesn’t have anything in it that it’s that it’s true about the object of the conspiracy theory, it says something true if it catches on about the anxieties and the experiences of the people who believe it.

Steven Novella argues that we don’t like disconnected events. Our tendency to make up apparent patterns attempts to connect events and explain anomalies.

[Conspiracy theories are] a form of pattern recognition in order to generate a narrative that makes sense of a complex world.

A further explanation could be that we are hardwired to be threaten by external groups from ancient times, when humans lived in small tribes, always fighting each other. Globalization in the modern world exalted the bias as a threat by governments and big corporations, Novella suggests.

He further reports interesting studies showing the psychology that backs conspiracy-oriented people:

People who tend to believe in conspiracies are more likely to see patterns in random visual images as well.

It is somehow fascinating that a large number of smart and well-educated people can be found among conspiracists. Henry Ford, for instance, actively spread the Protocols of the Eldest of Zion, and Bertrand Russell promoted the Who Killed Kennedy Committee. How could that be? Here you have some crucial differences between so called “intelligence” and “critical thinking” (not to say Russell and Ford had no critical thinking skills, of course!):

Intelligence makes you better at rationalizing your own beliefs, you’re much more sophisticated at locking yourself into your own belief. […] Factual knowledge, memory and other measures of intelligence actually work against you, they will give you the tools [to do so]. You really need critical thinking, you’ve got to be able to get outside and think about your thought process.

Steven Novella

Metacognitive skills seem to be the only way out of destructive conspiracy thinking. Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool to soften and deconstruct negative biases that get into our way towards a peaceful, worthy living.