Home > musing > Conspiracy theorists may be right but they can’t explain why

Conspiracy theorists may be right but they can’t explain why

May 12, 2012

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.

Categories: musing
  1. May 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

    There must be a great deal more to be said about conspiracy theorists than addiction, since anyone can be addicted when exposed to the lure, and we all are exposed to rationalizing our views and wanting to be right, but we aren’t all conspiracy theorists. There’s something marginal about conspiracy theorists, and I’d like to see much more empirical study of their social and educational patterns. Do you categorize UFO conspiracy theorists with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists? On the less extreme gradient, the Diver school of linguistics seems to think the Chomsky school is a conspiracy — syntactic theory responds to recalcitrant data with ever more elaborate theoretical schemes. We all justify our basic values, and if we are pushed far enough, we all have this trouble of justification: loyalty or justice, take pride or revulsion in defending the tribe. I don’t know what the influences are that lead in one direction or another, but looking at sports it seems deep in our social nature: “Every Englishman born alive is either a little liberal or a little conservative.” (I’ve probably mangled that from Gilbert.) And there are studies that conservatives and liberals have differences in attention. There may be genetic or birth-hormonal influences as well.

    In that context, I find Haidt overcome by his own research. He has changed his political views, predictably. Wouldn’t he have to? It endorses his academic “correctness.” I find it too convenient. I haven’t got hold of the book yet, but I’ve seen his traditional Durkheim piece on the happiness of conservatives, ignoring the empirical and very un-academic observations of a hospital chaplain friend of mine who sees repeatedly that conservative religious patients face illness and death with excruciating psychological anguish — they take it as punishment and abandonment from their god — while the secular non religious face illness and death without that anxiety and with relative equanimity, under the circumstances. And she’s religious — she’s a chaplain, for god’s sake — she sees this despite being on the god-side of the debate, a counterexample to all this side-taking. (But she’s also a social liberal and Catholic who left Evangelicalism, so that may explain her openness.)

    About moral philosophers: Shouldn’t you expect moral philosophers to be less moral, not more moral? And on which code or standard of morality — on their own, or Haidt’s, or conventional folk-morality? And do moral philosophers teach morality, or just investigate it? If the latter, no reason to expect any particular kind of moral action from them, just maybe more thoughtfulness about their actions. I knew a doctoral candidate in philo who couldn’t pass the ethics exam because he simply couldn’t buy into basic notions of ethics. He himself was profoundly unethical, yet he couldn’t lie on the exam, apparently. He did manage to persuade me that punishment for crime makes little sense.

    Sorry for this rambling, but I love your blog — having come here from seeing Frontline, where you were super, really super. They placed your words to frame the whole picture they drew. It was great.


  2. JurisV
    May 12, 2012 at 11:44 am

    We should all be thankful that conspiracy theorists can’t explain their misinformed ideas. Unfortunately, many of us can’t effectively counter misinformation with what we think are gems of fact, wisdom and truth — even when they are objectively the “truth.”

    Why is this ? It’s because of the way our brains evolved over billions of years and they developed amazingly powerful ways of quickly and efficiently coming up with “solutions” that enabled our evolutionary ancestors to survive — in a hunter-gatherer world. Unfortunately, for us in our “Modern” times most (99% ??) of this incredible processing is done in our non-conscious brain — and we are not aware of it; its autonomous. Our cognitive problems stem from the way our “old” brains process information in our modern circumstances — and that can severely conflict with our real needs.

    So how do we deal with BS arguments that are based on faulty logic and misinformation?
    I found an extremely short, but excellent guide (6 pages of substance, with graphics) that
    provides a concise approach of how to deal with “misinformation arguments’ and how to refute them. Particularly, how not to make the common mistakes that wind up making the arguer even more entrenched in her view due to the “backfire” phenomenon.

    Here’s a paragraph from the intro to “The Debunking Handbook”:

    “The last thing you want to do when debunking
    misinformation is blunder in and make matters
    worse. So this handbook has a specific focus
    – providing practical tips to effectively debunk
    misinformation and avoid the various backfire
    effects. To achieve this, an understanding of the
    relevant cognitive processes is necessary. We
    explain some of the interesting psychological
    research in this area and finish with an example of
    an effective rebuttal of a common myth.”

    Here’s the link:



  3. suevanhattum
    May 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    Cathy, I have trouble with the term ‘conspiracy theorist’. What does it mean to you? I feel like it’s a label thrown onto anyone who questions the ‘official line’. I’ve read enough evidence that I have to wonder whether we have the story right on the 9/11 attacks. Does that make me a conspiracy theorist? There’s a show on KPFA called Guns and Butter. Either it’s full of conspiracy theorists, or it’s airing evidence that doesn’t usually get airtime. (I’m never 100% sure which…)


    • May 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm


      Thanks for the comment. I’m writing this term loosely, and it’s intentional, because I think it’s an overused term, not to mention that it excludes lots of interesting ideas and people from discussions.

      To answer your question, I meant people who are ignored because they come across as unreasonable or somewhat unhinged, in other words people who other people sometimes label “conspiracy theorists” as an excuse not to listen to what they’re trying to explain.



  4. Becky Jaffe
    May 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Confirmation bias is an interesting phenomenon. I see it in my own mind’s machinations, and often more clearly in others’. Perhaps we gravitate toward confirmation bias because maintaining a skewed organizational framework is more comforting than having no organizational framework at all. There are few things more disorienting than uncertainty.


  5. JamieH
    May 17, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    I dig your rationale and your point of view, mathbabe.
    Like your OWS experience, I have had many experiences with conspiracy theorists being part of the Ron Paul movement. The one thing I feel they are not willing to grasp/accept – and that is – the reality behind a perceived conspiracy could just be a bunch of aligned organic circumstances that may have well came to be, at least in part, by malevolent forces – but most likely more often than not – they came to be by the lack of action to the status quo by the benevolent.


  6. April 30, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    It is an interesting exercise to calculate mathematical probabilities of so-called “conspiracy theories”. The mainstream media and their cadre of online gatekeepers use the term “Conspiracy Theorist” (CT) as a derogatory label for those who seek the truth. According to the media, there are never conspiracies. But they avoid factual discussions based on the scientific evidence.

    These myths are promoted non-stop in the mainstream media.
    – Oswald acted alone in 1963 – with a magic bullet and defective rifle.
    – Bush won Florida in 2000 and had a 3 million “mandate” in 2004.
    – Nineteen Muslims armed with box cutters who could not fly a Cessna, hijacked four airliners and outfoxed the entire U.S. defense establishment – while Bin Laden was on dialysis, near death and hiding in caves.

    But the media can’t refute the mathematics that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a massive conspiracy to hide the truth of these events from the public.

    Scientific notation is necessary to express the extremely low probabilities of the following events. For example, the probability P that at least 15 material witnesses would die unnaturally in the year following the JFK assassination is 0.000000000000006 or 1 in 167 trillion. There are 15 zeros to the right of the decimal point (represented in short-cut scientific notation as 6E-15).

    Here is the mathematical proof for those who are willing to reject the conspiracy theory that there is no such thing as a conspiracy:


  7. Earl
    November 19, 2013 at 1:35 am

    So if people are instinctually programmed to reinforce their own beliefs, where do the beliefs come from in the first place?


  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: