How Conspiracy Theories Work

Conspiracy Theory

I must admit I find conspiracy theories fascinating. They are usually good examples of a lot of psychological aspects that I’m interested in, like obsession, selective reasoning, paranoia, determination to reveal the “truth” which always carries either a savior component, or megalomania. Not to mention they cover the entire cognitive dissonance spectrum. *oh goodie*

While not all conspiracy theories are created equal (and some of them actually turned out to be true), they do have a few traits in common that allow you to recognize them, and even build your own in your fiction.

 

How to recognize (or build) a conspiracy theory?

1. The most obvious common trait of all conspiracy theories is that they seem to have a monopoly on the truth. The proponents claim (and actually believe) they are the only ones who see beneath the lies, who know what’s really going on and who’s behind it. It’s fairly obvious they cannot be deterred by repetition of the established consensus, since they believe this consensus to be an elaborate lie. Their ideas are only strengthened this way, while the credibility of their opponents is weakened in their perception.

2. The second most important characteristic of a conspiracy theory is the creation of false dilemmas. In order to make extravagant explanations seem plausible, conspiracy theorists must first raise extravagant questions, and they do that best by creating dilemmas or unexplained mysteries where none in fact exist. The quickest way to convince people they’ve spotted a genuine hole in the official version of events, or in the official theory, is to rip things out of context. By removing a piece of evidence from its context and disregarding everything already known to be true around it, it suddenly becomes mystifying and puzzling. Of course the conspiracy theory then comes to the rescue with a plausible explanation, and sees this act as a genuine validation.

3. The third thing every good conspiracy theory does is to use strawman arguments. Theorists take an obviously weak argument or a couple of seemingly contradictory ones (and of course every official theory has those), pretend these are their opposition’s majority view, then use them to show their own arguments’ superiority.

Yeah, but what about evidence?

4. While credible and authentic figures should always be able and willing to point you to the evidence supporting their views, to the research material and information which would allow you to verify all of their claims and retrace their steps, conspiracy theorists have a tendency to cast shadows over their resources, to claim that evidence is withheld by their opponents on purpose, or that it was destroyed. It also helps that they don’t cite clear resources for their materials, or cite obscure and unrecognized sources which themselves fail to prove credible and thus cannot offer credible support. Also fairly common for conspiracy theorists is their absolute trust in an “expert”, who was either an eyewitness, is in possession of an artifact that no authority ever gets their hands on (to verify), or is a self-taught master on the subject. This person’s words (and works) are highly regarded and are repeatedly referred to in the theorists’ circular arguments.

5. Another common technique for conspiracy theorists to circumvent their inability to provide enough credible evidence, is to debunk the evidence supporting the contrary. This is actually common practice even in sensible intellectual and scientific circles, and what’s good for them, is more than good enough for conspiracy theorists. The best tactic to debunk something is to make it sound ridiculous, to only discuss its shortcomings, and to deny it any merit other than the financial or power merit it brings its proponents. This is a trait common to all debunking crusades, regardless on which side they fall.

6. And even when there is plausible evidence available on a topic, conspiracy theorists can always resort to forcing that evidence to fit their theory. Since evidence in itself is only an observation or record of events, it requires meaning for it to become valuable. And any evidence can be interpreted multiple ways with enough imagination and perseverance. Conspiracy theorists’ habit of employing argumentum ad nausea (debating a subject until their opponents give up engaging them) is fairly common, and they use this as proof that their interpretation has, in fact, won the argument.

It’s really not that hard to spot one when you see it, after the initial impact of fascination and curiosity. It’s even easier to build one for your own stories! Just try not to take sides, the readers will sense it and the tension will be smothered. The conflict potential of a conspiracy theory is enormous—no fronts are more fiercely defended than those of opposing ideologies. Even if it’s not the center of your story, adding a little contrast between what your characters believe is really going on behind the scenes can give the entire plot a real boost. 😉

 


 

Speaking of conspiracy theories, I must admit I meanwhile have serious doubts about the dedicated proponents of the Electric Universe theory. Particularly about their disturbing obsession with its authority figure Wallace Thornhill and his book (which kinda reminds me of Zecharia Stichin and his “masterpiece”). Also, something just isn’t right about their aggression toward mainstream science (which, I sorrowfully admit even had me riled up at one point). While I don’t doubt these are highly intelligent and dedicated people and that they are raising some serious questions, I’m increasingly skeptical of their methods and general ideology.

You know, I’m an enthusiastic person who is always open to consider alternatives, because I always imagine how I can use them in fiction. That’s all I ever care about. Everything I do and everything I learn is funneled toward writing science-fiction. And I’m open to discuss anything if I’m presented with compelling arguments, if not for my own insatiable curiosity, then because it’s an excellent exercise in switching POV.

So of course I became interested in what the Electric Universe theory had to say. EU’s use of Plasma Cosmology and the accredited theories and experiments of Kristian BirkelandHannes Alfven, Halton ArpNicola Tesla and many others, offer them the necessary credibility to claim they are a fringe science (which make for awesome science-fiction material), when in fact—and after additional studies on my part—they seem more and more like an ideological cult than a scientific community. So while I continue to respect Plasma Cosmology’s counterarguments to the gravicentric cosmological theory, and its contributions to modern science, I’m taking a distance from its illegitimate offspring, the Electric Universe Theory.

Anyway.

Conspiracy theories have a terrific appeal in fiction. They are most effective when the writer succeeds to create reasonable doubt in the reader, and thus gets him involved in the conflict (much like in real life, no?).

In my WIP, for example, there is a rebel faction opposing the political and economic establishment (as a undercurrent to the story problem). Both parties appeal to the techniques I described above to support their cause in front of the wide public. Of course the establishment has all the resources, but the rebel faction has noble intentions and reasonable doubt on its side. Its supporters have the dedication necessary to live and operate on the fringes of existence.

However, both sides lie, commit atrocities and disregard the interest of the public for their own interests. You could even say there really are no good guys in there, except… the ones who honestly and truly believe their side’s point of view. The genuinely dedicated and kindheartedly supportive (either because they don’t know the other side of the coin, or because they are emotionally invested in some way) are the only ones who are essentially good people, and who eventually suffer the consequences of the conflict.

Have you ever used or created a conspiracy theory in your fiction? What was it about, and how did you present its supporters and opponents? 

17 Replies to “How Conspiracy Theories Work”

  1. Great post… Looking forward to reading your book.

    I thought you might like this quote from James Harvey Robinson’s The Mind in the Making as it relates to why we (a) so readily accept conspiracy theories and (b) hold to them so vigorously.

    “We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds without any resistance or heavy emotions, but if we are told we are wrong we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem that is threatened…”

    And if you’ll permit me one more from the same book, “The little word my is the most important word in human affairs… it has the same force whether it is my dinner, my dog, my house or my faith, my country and my God. We not only resent the imputation that our watch is wrong, or our car shabby but that our conception of the canals of Mars, or our pronunciation of “Epictetus” could be subject to revision… We like to continue to believe what we have been accustomed to accept as true, and the resentment aroused when doubt is cast upon any of our assumptions leads us to seek every manner of excuse for clinging to them. The result is that most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.”

    As you note, there are legitimate conspiracy theories. Most of those we’re familiar with, though, like questioning the Moon landing or 9/11 truthers are easily debunked with a bit of science and yet people still cling irrationally to them because they’re a comfort blanket.

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    1. What James Harvey Robinson describes in those quotes is the inner life of a cognitive dissonance—when facts disprove the beliefs we use to define ourselves or our level of knowledge. This is a natural psychological reaction in all humans, and it occurs both when cult members are presented with the failure of their ideology, or when regular people are presented with theories that contradict their beliefs (be these religious, or scientific). It’s just incredibly hard for anyone to change his belief, when reinterpreting the evidence is so much easier. Which actually also reminds me of the arguments fringe theorists use in describing mainstream’s reluctance to accept new angles on their views.

      Thanks for the comment, Peter. And great quotes. 🙂

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  2. Very insightful post, Vero.

    I always looked at conspiracy theories as first cousins of religion, aimed at people who are not quite religious and not quite scientific (even if they started as such), but somewhere on the spectrum between the two. 🙂

    That EU theory is fun, but peer reviews or never happened. 😀

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    1. Thanks, Jelena.

      Unorthodox, scientific and quasi-scientific theories are always fun! They offer an incredible amount of ideas for fiction. I think their preferred target audience are people who like to defy authority, who like to see themselves as “living and thinking dangerously” and who relish poking people’s comfort with a sharp stick. *grin*

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      1. The funny thing is, the comfort they are poking is also their own, for many of them have quite an amount of fear of things that don’t actually exist. 😀

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  3. You already know that I share your interest in conspiracy theories. It’s so fun to play with them in fiction. It taps into that inner voice that many of us have that says, “No! Don’t trust them!”

    You can come up with an entire premise for a story just by taking the sheer scope of some of the proposed conspiracy theories out there and then asking yourself, “What would it take for this level of conspiracy to actually happen? How many people would actually have to be in on it? What kind of technology would be needed? What would they need to do to successfully keep it a secret from everyone? What are the benefits for the guilty party and the repercussions for the poor, gullible sheeple?” It can add flavor to pretty much any story that involves a character struggling against authority of some kind.

    And kudos to recognizing and acknowledging a moment of your own where someone got their sexy-idea hooks into you. The world would be a more sensible place if all of us could do that from time to time! There are lots of very subtle ideologies out there, and one of the most common tactics they use to get those hooks in is to piggyback on something ELSE that is already established and has grown legs of its own. We typically see this in the world of nutrition and fitness, for instance, where fad diets/workouts will come along, often with no scientific evidence to back them up, but those “HEALTH FOOD” or “SUPPLEMENT” umbrellas are so large and accommodating that they sneak right in and start infiltrating. The same thing can and does happen in other areas of science, and I think we writers can be particularly vulnerable to getting attached to “fringe” ideas due to the reasons you mentioned. An open mind is our greatest weapon, but it can be a hindrance if we let it.

    Great post!

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    1. Thanks a big bunch for the encouragement, James! 🙂 It’s been bugging me for quite some time, but I couldn’t pin point why. The more I read and studied, the more I noticed the circular arguments and lack of accredited resources, and all that beyond any excuse like “we don’t have the funding to experiment.” Just sloppy, and almost vengeful.

      Conspiracy theories and fringe scientists are quite common in science-fiction, and they enjoy a great variety. They’re even a… trope. Eh? Whatta ya say? *wiggles eyebrows*

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      1. HMMMMM.

        It’s funny you say that actually, as the next trope entry I’m writing definitely involves a shade of conspiracy, though it’s not about conspiracy theories themselves. 😉

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  4. I’m using somewhat of a conspiracy theory in my current WIP. It’s a group of the greatest minds of the world forming a guild that keeps all of the greatest scientific discoveries for itself…it does this in order to protect the world from itself.

    I LOVE conspiracy theories…especially since there is a little bit of truth in most of them.

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    1. Wow, that sounds great, Jay! I’ve toyed with a similar idea at one point (but didn’t implement it), that the world’s lead scientists kept the latest inventions and discoveries related to longevity & instant communication to themselves, aiming to take over the world. 😀

      Man, conspiracy theories are really awesome!

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  5. I will keep these points in mind as I used to be obsessed with conspiracy theories until I saw how much I was wasting my life away as opposed to living in reality(have a bad tendency to debate with crackpot people, this could allow me to see it coming from a mile away). Same as when I was hyper religious when I was younger(am 33, was religious most of my life till I was about 25) and fringe religious groups seem to be obsessed with conspiracy theories similar to their secular counterparts(Antichrist is in hiding manipulating the government/phones are tapped/B.E.A.S.T. is a super computer that has all of our social security numbers in it and will network with an implantable microchip to eliminate cash, NWO is actually running the show due to Illuminati, devil people live in my Elton John CD’s and I need to get rid of them to close the window for “demonic spirits”, backward masking is being used in Liberal broadcasts to hypnotize me into giving up my guns, etc etc). So many similarities between crazy ideas like those and mental illness such as Schizophrenia-neighbors are giving people messages through the TV or listening in on our thoughts. Great post.

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    1. The appeal of conspiracy theories is based on the fact that they effectively play at our fears, exaggerating them and taking skepticism toward paranoia in a slow, insidious way, reducing people’s intelligence and rationality to fear-mongering nonsense. The only way to counteract this is by retaining a healthy dose of skepticism toward everything we cannot verify ourselves, and only trust sources we can verify are trust-worthy and have nothing to gain from our belief in their claims. And when in doubt, just go with the simplest explanation as that is nature’s way to function, and humans are part of nature (particularly in groups).

      Thanks for commenting, David! 🙂

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  6. Due to the quantity of people and friends posting about conspiracy theories, I decided I wanted to do a research to try to understand why people believe in conspiracy theories. Being Psychology one of my college majors, I was convinced that there should be a connection between the obsession in conspiracy theories and paranoia. I have read several articles trying to find a reasonable explanation. The nearest explanation I could get was the cognitive dissonance theory, which basically explains that people create their own reality and beliefs and accommodate everything else according to it. I am fascinated with your article and I think no study can explain it better! I am still on the look of ways to help people to come back from this sinkhole. It must be really exhausting for a person to try to explain the world around them as a bunch of conspiracy theories….

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Lorna. I’m glad you liked my article. 🙂

      I’ve always been interested in psychology and psychiatry. Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful thing, a condition of profound shock that has people lose their sense of self, of reality or of truth. Faced with the destruction of their core beliefs (the beliefs they use to form and understand their own identity) people would go to almost any lengths to escape this state of confusion and fear, and regain their stability. They’d sacrifice weaker beliefs and risk altering everything else about themselves to only become secure in their core belief again. Many cults, religions, political ideologies, etc. employ such powerful theories of reality, life or human identity, that their followers always risk cognitive dissonance when faced with opposing ideologies or with objective facts. Depending on the purpose of the organization (or cult), this is the best way to create fanatics — expose them to cognitive dissonance, and they will do anything to return to the “safety” of the cult’s teachings.

      If you’re interested in helping people recover from such traumas, I suppose the best way would be to help them regain a healthy sense of identity without employing any elements of their former ideology. Only after the cognitive dissonance is reduced, are they at all receptive to objective arguments and the introduction of new ideas. 🙂

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