As reported in Scientific American (Dec. 2014) two political scientists* at the University of Miami find that about one-third of Americans believe Obama is a foreigner, and about as many believe that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “inside job” by the Bush administration. And it isn’t only crazy people who hold conspiracy theories—unless everybody is crazy. The political scientists found that conspiracy believers “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” Some 42 percent of those without a high school diploma tend toward conspiracy thinking—but so do 23 percent of folks with postgraduate degrees.
These political scientists define a conspiracy theory as a group acting in secret to alter institutions. The underlying concern is power—those without power create myths about those who have power. The problem for the rest of us is that beliefs warp a sense of reality and thereby have a strong influence on American political life.
Other psychologists at Duke University** found that when confronted with potential solutions to problems about which they held beliefs (such as climate change), both Republicans or Democrats were likely to deny that the problem existed. That is, if you don’t like the solution, you deny the problem exists. Individually, some of us routinely deny uncomfortable medical problems, such as the effects of aging. However, when the problem concerns all of society, denial can become shared as a form of conspiracy—as when groups (including congressmen) regard climate-concerned citizens as rabble who are trying to take over the government. That’s a strange view when it comes from those (including officially the Republican party) who promoted unlimited political spending by corporations!
Scientists concerned with climate change are seen as an organized political movement. Likewise, climate deniers are cast as conspirators who seek only promote the power of corporations. Each of these views may be true in individual cases. However, there may be something larger going on—something larger than the simple tendency of people to be right by making a group of others wrong. As Charles Blow, writing in the New York Times said, Americans are self-sorting themselves “into hardened, impenetrable citadels of ideological sameness …” Blow’s key word is “self-sorting.” That’s emergence, a characteristic of complex systems like the weather, or schools of fish, or traffic jams. Emergence is a characteristic, a conjoint behavior of many separate agents, displaying a behavior different from that of any single individual. As described in previous blogs, society itself is a complex system.
Those in power now try to maintain power by generating conspiracy theories about the opposition, while groups seeking power generate conspiracies about the powerful.
This is not dialog. There is no apparent way to initiate dialog. Individual politicians are captured by the group-think. A person on either side who seeks dialog will be disowned by his own fellows because he is not a true believer. In this political polarity, as in warfare, horrific destruction will occur before peaceable talk begins. Perhaps a radical new politics can break the polarity. Unfortunately, in revolutionary movements everybody loses something.
The political scientists showed that conspiracy theories have always been with us as individuals. However, an entire political system in which each side seeks to raise fears by pointing to its opposition as a dangerous conspiracy appeals to voters who feel that something—whatever it is—has stripped them of control of their economy and their society. Conspiratorial fears, amplified by misinformation cast in simplistic slogans, cannot solve global problems. Society is now global—what we do affects the world.
So what’s the message?
Stay with the facts. Examine your beliefs. Don’t slip into supporting beliefs by finding a conspiracy of those who deny the facts to support THEIR beliefs.
* J. E. Uscinski and J. M. Parent, American Conspiracy Theories, Oxford University Press, 2014.
** The Week magazine, Dec. 5, 2014, p. 22. See also T. Campbell and A. Kay, “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(5), 809-824, (2014).