Why are conspiracy theories popular?

This morning’s article on the LSE politics blog was a thought-provoking discussion of conspiracy theories and the increasing weight of social scientific evidence concerning their emergence and dissemination. This is a topic that’s fascinated me for years and one which, until I started to realise that reading these sites on a daily basis would drive me mad,  I was seriously considering as an idea for post-doctoral research. I couldn’t agree more with the article’s dismissal of psychopathological explanations of conspiracy theories – in effect a kind of reductive psychologism:

To begin, let’s take the often used psychopathological explanation, that those believing in conspiracy theories are crazy. Despite Alex Jones’ recent efforts to convince BBC viewers otherwise, mental illness is neither an antecedent, nor the product of conspiracy theorising. Most people believe in at least one conspiracy theory; many people believe in several. It would be difficult to label them all crazy. Some attribute conspiracy theorising to more benign afflictions such as paranoia, feelings of powerlessness, and alienation. These explanations don’t get us very far either: first, the causal direction is not clear. People may believe powerful actors are out to get them because they are paranoid, but conversely, people may feel paranoid because they believe powerful actors are out to get them. Second, given the numbers of people that believe in conspiracy theories, we could not label all or most of society as paranoid.

However what I find less compelling is the article’s dismissal of the argument that conspiracy theories represent a form of cognitive simplification, allowing individuals to make sense of complicated events in simple terms:

Conspiracy theories are often seen as the result of cognitive quirks, that in a complex world, people seek to account for complicated events and messy circumstances with simple theories. However, this often cited explanation does not stand up to scrutiny. While each person can decide for him or herself how complicated an explanation is, conspiracy theories are generally far more complicated than the official stories they often attempt to refute. Which is more complicated, the suggestion that 19 terrorists boarded planes and crashed them on 9/11/2001, or that Bush, Cheney, the FBI, the CIA, Israel, all major news outlets, the NYPD, the 9/11 Commission, and Popular Mechanics magazine are all secretly conspiring together to hide airplanes, plant explosions, destroy evidence, and deceive the public? Put simply, conspiracy theories are usually never more parsimonious than the official explanations they rival.

Part of the problem here is the seemingly linear understanding of ‘complexity’ invoked. This may very well be a consequence of writing for the web, in which case I withdraw my objection, though I suspect it isn’t. My difficulty with the counter-argument is in its conflation of narrative complexity and moral complexity. The stories conspiracy theorists tell are certainly complicated – though it’s important to recognise that this is likely as much a result of the constant argumentative elaboration required when most of the people you make it too will, rightly, see it as ridiculous and offer objections – but, I’d argue, this narrative complexity obscures an underlying moral simplicity. Conspiracy theories work to sustain a sense of moral order which is profoundly simplified: good America has been thrown off track by bad neo-Conservatives who have conspired to manipulate the public for their own ends. The reduction in cognitive load which stems from affirming such a sense of moral order is a consequence of the questions it forecloses – those concerning government policy, geopolitics, differences and similarities between successive governments, one’s own complicity (wilful or otherwise) in the ensuing difference these governments have made in the world.

These are reflexive questions – ones concerning our place in relation to the world and what we should do given we are in such a place. Conspiracy theories do not so much foreclose reflexivity – ‘truthers’ do vigorous and committed activism which any adequately sociological treatment of conspiracy theories has to recognise – but rather constrain the projects which might be reflexively enacted as consequence of such deliberation. It leads individuals to ask some questions, predisposing certain answers & ensuing projects, but not others and it is the nature of the questions it leads one to ask which constitute the ‘simplification’. But this is not something unique to conspiracy theories. It is a characteristic of all lay theories about socio-political processes and, assuming we wish to avoid a lazy liberal relativism that is chronically suspicious of political conviction, then it is precisely this continuity with other forms of political belief (rather than the divergences so theatrically embodied by Alex Jones on the Daily Politics) that we must examine.

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