What we can learn from conspiracy theories

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I just read an article I found very interesting, about the psychology of and possible reasons for conspiracy theories:

What we can learn from conspiracy theories (BBC, 25th May 2020)
http://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200522-what-we-can-learn-from-conspiracy-theories
"From political upheavals to anxieties about sex, technology and women, it turns out conspiracy theories can tell us a lot about what’s going on in our societies – and how to fix them."

Article said:
In 331 BC, something was wrong with Rome. Across the city, swathes of eminent men were succumbing to sickness, and practically all of them were dying. The losses were as baffling as they were alarming.

Then one day, a slave approached a curule aedile – a kind of magistrate – and hinted that she might know why. The girl led a team of investigators to various houses, where she claimed they would find an alliance of upper-class women secretly preparing poisons. They did.

[...]

In fact, the women probably really were preparing medicines – and the rest of the story was heavily embellished or entirely made up. The infamous poisonings of 331 BC are thought to be a conspiracy theory, to explain deaths that had an obvious cause all along.

[...]
 
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  • #3
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The article is interesting, but it kind of glosses over the most obvious factor that inspires conspiracy theories; which is that conspiracies are widespread, both now and throughout history. I mean, we've had at least 4 mass genocides in the last ~100 years. If people didn't have a reason to be so distrustful, then they probably wouldn't be I guess. Sadly, deep pessimism, and extreme distrust is pretty rational.
 
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  • #4
256bits
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A similar story happened with the Witches of Salem. The prevailing theory is that wheat tainted by a fungus with caused hallucinogenic visions among other things:

https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/witches-curse-clues-evidence/1501/
Rye tainted by ergot.
If everyone ate rye bread, question is why was only a small group of girls only affected.
20 people and 2 dogs were executed for the crime of witchcraft in Salem.
It seems that an accusation led to an irrational pointing of fingers at others, maybe to just deflect any fingers pointing at you. In fact, one married woman objected to the behavior of the girls and was subsequently accused. Her husband objected, and was executed as being a wizard by stone weights placed upon him. It wasn't until a high ranking individual's wife was accused, that the enthusiasm began to peter out for this odd civil justice.
 
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256bits
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The article is interesting, but it kind of glosses over the most obvious factor that inspires conspiracy theories; which is that conspiracies are widespread, both now and throughout history. I mean, we've had at least 4 mass genocides in the last ~100 years. If people didn't have a reason to be so distrustful, then they probably wouldn't be I guess. Sadly, deep pessimism, and extreme distrust is pretty rational.
I guess people would like to know, rather than being kept in the dark.
As the saying goes, " The devil makes work for idle hands minds."
 
  • #6
f95toli
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The article is interesting, but it kind of glosses over the most obvious factor that inspires conspiracy theories; which is that conspiracies are widespread, both now and throughout history. I mean, we've had at least 4 mass genocides in the last ~100 years. If people didn't have a reason to be so distrustful, then they probably wouldn't be I guess. Sadly, deep pessimism, and extreme distrust is pretty rational.
I disagree. The type of large (often global), conspiracies that people in these communities are talking about are extremely rare or non-existent (especially in the case where they violate the laws of physics, such a "flat earth" or "Bill Gates want control my brain with vaccines").
Of course there are examples of e.g. intelligence agencies running illegal operations etc but whenever these get big or complicated enough you can be quite sure there will sooner or later be a leak and the secret will be out.
In a way, the best weapon we have against conspiracies is incompetence.
The idea that there are huge, secret operations that have been running for decades with hundreds or even thousands of people in the loop without it becoming widely known is entirely implausible.

Mass genocides are a bad example. These were not conspiracies but were done more or less in the open; the mere fact that they involved large number of people meant that it would have been impossible to keep them a secret even if they had tried.
 
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The idea that there are huge, secret operations that have been running for decades with hundreds or even thousands of people in the loop without it becoming widely known is entirely implausible.
I totally agree. :smile:
 
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atyy
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I totally agree. :smile:
That exposes you as one of them.
 
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  • #9
russ_watters
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In my opinion there's definitely two separate motivations; distrust and mystery/imagination. But I think mystery/imagination is the critical factor. Some have elements of both (UFOs), and you can have a mystery without a conspiracy (ancient aliens, loch ness monster), but you can't have a conspiracy without mystery. At its core, people use their imaginations to fill in gaps in knowledge/information (the thesis of Sagan's "A Demon Haunted World"). Scientific thinking is the antidote to that.

The popularity of each waxes and wanes, but I don't detect a strong latent crackpot vibe these days.
 
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  • #10
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I disagree. The type of large (often global), conspiracies that people in these communities are talking about are extremely rare or non-existent
Even those wackiest theories, while they are ridiculous from a logical perspective, the moral aspect is believable; people would be cruel, foolish, or bold enough to do those types of things.

Mass genocides are a bad example. These were not conspiracies but were done more or less in the open;
Not really, there was a conspiracy to cover up the Armenian genocide, and it was successful for some time and in some places still to this day. The Holodomor was also successfully covered up.
 
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f95toli
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[



Even those wackiest theories that people hold up as examples, while they are ridiculous from a logical perspective, the moral aspect is believable; people would be cruel, foolish, or bold enough to do those types of things.
Sure, but the point was that you would not be able to keep it a secret for very long.

Is this an argument that intelligence agencies aren't running illegal operations? All of them in every place, or just some of them? If so then something fundamental must have changed very recently.
No, it is an argument that explain why intelligence agencies always try to keep the complexity and number of people involved in their operations a small as possible. Most of the popular conspiracies would require the participation of a large number of people spread over many organisations (and in many cases several countries) and I am arguing that no organisation run by humans would be competent enough to pull that off and keep the secret for very long

What about criminal organizations? Are you arguing that organized crime doesn't/couldn't exist? It's impossible?
[/quote[

Of course they do. But organisations that are powerful enough to count as "conspiracies" are hardly secret. The fact that e.g. the Italian Maffias are (or at least have been) hugely influential and e.g. controlled politicians is not exactly a secret. The maffias are only nominally a "secret conspiracy"; in reality everyone knows what is going on (and who the members are) which is my point.






Not really, there was a conspiracy to cover up the Armenian genocide, and it was successful, and is still ongoing. The Holodomor was also successfully covered up. The first person to expose it was branded a conspiracy theorist and assassinated.
 
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Sure, but the point was that you would not be able to keep it a secret for very long.



No, it is an argument that explain why intelligence agencies always try to keep the complexity and number of people involved in their operations a small as possible. Most of the popular conspiracies would require the participation of a large number of people spread over many organisations (and in many cases several countries) and I am arguing that no organisation run by humans would be competent enough to pull that off and keep the secret for very long
I edited my post, because I realized I misread your arguments. I still think it's too narrow. It's hard to draw the lines I guess between what is a conspiracy theory and a whatever the word is for a sane theory about a conspiracy. But however wide a brush we use to paint them with is how wide we should analyze the phenomena I guess. When you stick to lizard people and flat earth, of course it's kind of easy to peg. But then that only applies to those ridiculous ones. A JFK theory wouldn't even fit that mold.
 
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Another aspect might be the trauma, and abrupt perspective changes people go through when they become aware of the horrible things that have happened throughout history. Besides the pessimism and distrust, the trauma and emotion could result in clouded judgement.
 
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