Conspiracy theorists may be right but they can’t explain why
I’m still reading Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” very slowly, because I have approximately 15 spare minutes a week set aside for free reading.
The part I read last night had to do with how we use our brain as a press secretary for what we believe, arguing for that policy using all the persuasiveness we can muster, no matter how weak our evidence is.
Specifically, if we see evidence for our point of view, we jump on it. If we see evidence against our point of view (oh shit!), we wrinkle our foreheads and feel stressed out, causing us to search and search until we finally find evidence for our point of view again (whew!).
This all seems right to me, although I may just be excited about it because it was already my point of view.
Haidt then goes on to explain that our pleasure centers are directly stimulated when we go through this process of confirming our view, especially when it was somewhat challenged by contrary evidence, and especially if our view is pretty hardline. Finally, he explains that conspiracy theorists are addicted to that pleasure center stimulation moment like a heroin addict.
Assuming this is correct, it explains something I’ve been super puzzled by with conspiracy theorists. And I should say that, being part of OWS, you get to interact with more than your fair share of such people.
Namely, they can never explain their position. In fact I’d say that this is their characterizing feature: one is dubbed a conspiracy theorist not by the unreasonableness of one’s position but by the way one tries to communicate it to other people. If you just had a strong opinion but could explain it well and persuasively, then you’ll never be considered a conspiracy theorist, although of course you could be considered an asshole (depending on what hardline opinion you harbor).
Example: when I try to engage my conspiracy theorist friends (because I do think they are for the most part dear people), they very often get into the tangential loops where they concentrate on one of the following:
- They don’t explain this to anyone/ it’s a secret
- It’s too hard to understand
- There’s a small group of people who have all the power
In spite of trying to convince them that you are listening, you are smart, and you understand that we don’t live in a perfectly fair system, it’s really hard (but not necessarily impossible) to get them to settle down and tell you why they believe these things. I think their pleasure centers must also get stimulated when they go over these three points, because as I said they get totally distracted and it’s difficult to interrupt them.
And by the way, they are willing to try to explain their theory to you. I think one thing Haidt forgot to mention is that it must be a huge thrill to convert other people to your point of view when you are a conspiracy theorist, because often that seems to be a very serious goal.
When it comes to our current financial system especially, I’m starting to believe that many of these points are overall valid, but it’s kind of tragic how poorly my friends explain them. Maybe part of my blog can be devoted to explaining the “why” of the conspiracy once I think I’ve got a good argument.
One last thing which Haidt mentioned and that I’ve noticed too (but which I’m wary of exclaiming as his key point since, again, I already believed it). Namely, scientists are trained to look at evidence and admit when they are wrong. In the realm of mathematics this is certainly so: if you see something disproved it’s a simple waste of time to keep thinking it’s true, even if you previously fervently believed it.
But of course this only holds in the context of theorems and proofs- I’m not sure mathematicians are any better than anyone else in admitting they’re wrong outside of the context of theorems and proofs. Haidt mentioned that there’s no evidence that moral philosophers are any more moral than other philosophers, for example.