An article titled “What a Hoax” by Sander van der Linden (Scientific American Mind) got me to thinking: are all those conspiracy theorists insane? If that were true, the capacity for such a maladaptive behavior would have become extinct thousands of years ago — or at least the individuals who possess this distorted view of the real world would have. But no, it seems that rather than disappear conspiracy theorists are still with us and enjoying a bull market of unprecedented proportions. So what gives?
We can dispense with the paranoids and schizophrenics -they are a small minority (I hope). The vast majority are considered sane, some of them highly educated. My encounter with a Palestinian Ph.D. in genetics who was convinced that Israeli doctors who volunteer to vaccinate children in West Bank villages are agents of the Mossad, spreading the HIV virus, left me shocked and bewildered. How could that happen? Or, how could anybody believe that the 9/11 disaster was a CIA conspiracy? Or that man-made climate change is just a hoax concocted by thousands of scientists around the world? Oklahoma is being devastated by droughts and monster tornadoes, yet Senator James Inhofe’s book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future does not require further reading. Its message is in the title.
As Alexis de Tocqueville said in 1842 “in democracy, people get the government they deserve.” Even this insightful political scientist could not foresee the ironic twist his phrase has taken 270 years later.
The common thread is deep distrust of institutions
There is a common thread running through these beliefs: deep distrust of institutions, be it government, or science, or corporations.Where did that come from?
Here is a clue: in a poll asking “do you trust the government to do the right thing?” people answering in the affirmative topped 75% through the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s. Vietnam, Watergate, and the Reagan era (“Government is the problem”) marked the long decline in trust in government, which now stands in the low 20’s. The incessant demonization of “government bureaucrats” has accomplished its goal: privatize, dismantle, defund.
The overarching distrust of institutions can lead to some baffling contradictions: In a 2011 study by psychologists Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton of the University of Kent in England asked college students to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how strongly they supported the official account of Osama bin Laden’s death in a military raid. People who doubted the government’s report and thought instead that bin Laden was already dead at the time of the raid were, surprisingly, also more likely than others to claim that he was still alive.
How can we be so dumb?
So, how could educated college students be so dumb? It is because all of us, educated and less so, have lazy brains. No, this is not an indictment of the human brain; it was wired so for a good reason. We think on two tracks: a fast, intuitive one (system 1 according to Daniel Kahneman) and a slow, analytical one (system 2). We form our first judgment almost instantaneously (measured in milliseconds), based on impressions, familiar patterns, biases. If this system “feels” satisfied -no more action needed. If it needs some confirmation from system 2, it will present its case in a form that minimizes the need for deep analysis -purely an energy and cost saving gambit. Only when the case clashes violently with reality (“Rush Limbaugh said that the Democrats will make the sun plunge into the ocean and never come up again”) does system 2 take charge and overrules Rush. You don’t have to be an ignoramus to fall into the trap of linear reasoning (“Obama is black, his father is a Kenyan Moslem, so
Only when the case clashes violently with reality (“Rush Limbaugh said that the Democrats will make the sun plunge into the ocean and never come up again”) does system 2 take charge and overrule Rush. You don’t have to be an ignoramus to fall into the trap of linear reasoning (“Obama is black, his father is a Kenyan Muslim, so he is a black, Kenyan-born Muslim”).
Many a brilliant scientist succumbs to the temptation of “it makes sense” with not a shred of empirical evidence to back up their belief. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, inflammation causes the release of oxygen radicals, hence mega doses of vitamin C should suppress common cold symptoms. Remember that? Clinical evidence showed later that high-dose vitamin C, if anything, exacerbates the symptoms. Did Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner, change his mind? Not to his last day.
Why this behavior persists?
Why should natural selection tolerate such a manifestly dysfunctional system? Because it is useful for survival. If you perceived a movement in the grass and stopped to analyze it -you wouldn’t survive the day. You react to pattern recognition (movement in the grass), biases (“every time I got away whether or not there was a snake, I stayed alive”) and stored memories (“papa was screaming in agony because he didn’t get away in time”). This is your system 1 in action, keeping you alive. It was not designed to vet demagogues, to analyze claims, to think statistically — that would simply take too much time and consume too much neuronal energy.
Herein lies the problem of modern society. Charlatans, demagogues, politicians and conspiracy theorists exploit this biological vulnerability to hoodwink the populace. Is it a mere coincidence that the same politicians who peddle falsehoods also cut the funds for education? Is it just a random occurrence that the same people who purport to commune with God before making a “Christian” decision also prohibit the inclusion of critical-thinking courses in schools?
But now I am straying into conspiracy theory territory myself. And yet… paranoids do have enemies, don’t they?