Thursday, June 18, 2009

Conspiracy Theories, Magical Thinking, and Democracy

This morning on Terry Gross there was a great interview with Chip Berlet, who wrote a paper called "Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating". I've written before about denialists and conspiracy theorists - they're kind of neat to dissect, compare and contrast, that is until they get elected or kill some police.

The central thesis of Berlet's paper is that there has been an uptick in activity by white supremacist and anti-Semitic conspiracy-theory-oriented groups since the election of Obama, and that their focus on secretiveness, conspiracy theories, and ethnic hatred is corrosive to democracy. No surprise there.

His most interesting point was his emphasis on the magical thinking component of conspiracy theories. He went to the other end of the political spectrum, and used the 9/11 Truthers as his example on this: rabid Truthers have the idea that there is an evil cabal within the U.S. government that caused 9/11 (or allowed it to happen), and that once this conspiracy is exposed to everyone, the world's problems will be solved. Focusing on this strange leap is a good approach. Conspiracy theorists obsessed with revealing some deception or central Truth don't talk much about what the effect will be. So there's something for you to ask the next time you're online or waiting in line somewhere, talking to an AIDS denialist, or a vaccines-cause-autism nut, or a Truther, or an Obama-birth-certificate maniac. Ask them to imagine the next day after their particular truth is revealed to the world. How will the world be different? Will poverty be ended, or hunger, or disease? Will dogs and cats play together peacefully? Or (assuming for this thought experiment that their theory is true) will we be just one tiny incremental step better off?

Interestingly, in the case of many creationists, they do directly assert that the day after everyone stops believing in evolution, that peace will break out, and racism will disappear, along with homosexuality, rock music, and drug abuse. (Always a fun discussion: what, exactly, is the link between say chaperone proteins and finches on one hand, and LSD and Pantera on the other?) Same question for conspiracy theorists: walk me through the anticipated process of revelation. Will the clouds part? With the seas boil and the skies fall On That Day?

In the meantime, you might try making a bet with them, and at least getting some cash out of the deal. Remember, it's okay to take advantage of socially functional top-down thinkers!


Joshua said...

Note that Truthers aren't all on the other side of the spectrum. A lot of them are also Ron Paul fans and there's a surprisingly large overlap between Birthers and Truthers.

It isn't surprising that they have trouble imagining what the exact consequence would be of the dissolution/revelation of their conspiracies. If the existence of a conspiracy is a major part of one's worldview then thinking about what the world would be like with that conspiracy gone or revealed is going to be hard. It is similarly difficult for believers to believe in a world without God. One sees similar issues with certain classes of die-hard political fanatics on both sides of the aisle. They are shocked when someone they supported loses an election and they have trouble transitioning. I'd suggest that this is because they have trouble imagining a world in the alternate state.

Michael Caton said...

But I would draw two distinctions between religion in general and conspiracy theorists. 1) I actually wouldn't say most theists are conspiracy nuts. Certainly some of them develop a persecution complex, but most do not seem to think there's a big organized worldly effort to suppress them. (Again, it would be useful to understand the difference between people who do and don't think there's a plot to suppress their particular belief.)
2) In both cases (conspiracy theorists and theists) it's very difficult to imagine the world without their belief. The difference is that conspiracy theorists are motivated by trying to expose the truth. The whole reason (ostensibly) for much of their efforts is to move the world into a state where everyone accepts their theory! So it might be possible to induce some dissonance by getting them to imagine the world after their revelation, since this is why they're supposedly running around trumpeting the Truth so energetically. Your point is well-taken that this mentality does in general seem to have trouble with counterfactuals. I'd like to see a comparison of religiosity in readers of alternate history vs readers of other speculative forms of fiction.

My fantasy is that I'll get a conspiracy nut posting on my blog (I've baited a few of them with search terms but never got anything) and then I'll agree to do a post arguing in a serious tone FOR their theory, just to see what they would do. I might be reading too much Steven Novella; instead arguing with IDiots and the like he tends to reduce them to study subjects, which is actually an effective way to handle things without getting your blood pressure up.