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15 September 2009

Why People Believe in Conspiracies

I always like Michael Shermer's writing style, and the topics he tackles. I know that sometimes I just have to sit and stare open mouthed at some of the incredibly ridiculous and downright insane things people believe. And how desperately they cling to those beliefs! No matter how much data to the contrary is presented, they absolutely refuse to give in. As a matter of fact, they become more convinced of the legitimacy of their conspiracy theory as opposed to actually evaluating the data. So I found this article interesting:

After a public lecture in 2005, I was buttonholed by a documentary filmmaker with Michael Moore-ish ambitions of exposing the conspiracy behind 9/11. “You mean the conspiracy by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to attack the United States?” I asked rhetorically, knowing what was to come.

“That’s what they want you to believe,” he said. “Who is they?” I queried. “The government,” he whispered, as if “they” might be listening at that very moment. “But didn’t Osama and some members of al Qaeda not only say they did it,” I reminded him, “they gloated about what a glorious triumph it was?”

“Oh, you’re talking about that video of Osama,” he rejoined knowingly. “That was faked by the CIA and leaked to the American press to mislead us. There has been a disinformation campaign going on ever since 9/11.”

Conspiracies do happen, of course. Abraham Lincoln was the victim of an assassination conspiracy, as was Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand, gunned down by the Serbian secret society called Black Hand. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a Japanese conspiracy (although some conspiracists think Franklin Roosevelt was in on it). Watergate was a conspiracy (that Richard Nixon was in on). How can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? As Kurt Cobain, the rocker star of Nirvana, once growled in his grunge lyrics shortly before his death from a self-inflicted (or was it?) gunshot to the head, “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off, and so many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the Men in Black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. So there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.

Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracies? In previous columns I have provided partial answers, citing patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the bent to believe the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents). Conspiracy theories connect the dots of random events into meaningful patterns and then infuse those patterns with intentional agency. Add to those propensities the confirmation bias (which seeks and finds confirmatory evidence for what we already believe) and the hindsight bias (which tailors after-the-fact explanations to what we already know happened), and we have the foundation for conspiratorial cognition.

Examples of these processes can be found in journalist Arthur Goldwag’s marvelous new book, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (Vintage, 2009), which covers everything from the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Bilderberg Group to black helicopters and the New World Order. “When something momentous happens, everything leading up to and away from the event seems momentous, too. Even the most trivial detail seems to glow with significance,” Goldwag explains, noting the JFK assassination as a prime example. “Knowing what we know now ... film footage of Dealey Plaza from November 22, 1963, seems pregnant with enigmas and ironies—from the oddly expectant expressions on the faces of the onlookers on the grassy knoll in the instants before the shots were fired (What were they thinking?) to the play of shadows in the background (Could that flash up there on the overpass have been a gun barrel gleaming in the sun?). Each odd excrescence, every random lump in the visual texture seems suspicious.” Add to these factors how compellingly a good narrative story can tie it all together—think of Oliver Stone’s JFK or Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, both equally fictional.

What should we believe? Transcendentalists tend to believe that everything is interconnected and that all events happen for a reason. Empiricists tend to think that randomness and coincidence interact with the causal net of our world and that belief should depend on evidence for each individual claim. The problem for skepticism is that transcendentalism is intuitive; empiricism is not. Or as folk rock group Buffalo Springfield once intoned: Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep ...

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Paranoia Strikes Deep."

7 comments:

JD Curtis said...

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut.

Interesting. I recently learned of one of Liddy's Watergate co-conspirator's personal testimony. From Chuck Colson, quote: "As the Watergate scandal unfolded and I went to prison, I learned—to my surprise—just where the true power in life really is. It was in a little prayer group where two dope pushers, a car thief, a stock swindler and a former special counsel for the President of the United States got down on our knees at night and prayed. We saw men give their lives to Christ, their hearts transformed by the power of the living God.

Why Jesus and not some other religious leader? The truth turns on the fact of Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead. I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true.

Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

Today, I thank God for Watergate. It taught me the greatest lesson of my life, the paradox of power: that he who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for Jesus’ sake shall find it."
Link to full article

Larian LeQuella said...

Of course the 12 guys kept the story up for 40 years. The stories written about them were not written BY them. They were written by some Greek guys that wanted to perpetrate the story, so elements were made to paint them as holy men.

If you say that raising from the dead is a sign of Divinity, remember the crisis the church faced in the 3rd or 4th century, where there were people coming alive all over the place by some miracle (thus giving the cult lots of stories that would sucker in more followers).

The entire history of the jewish zombie and and his 12 groupies can only be found in ONE source. The bable.

Which is more probable: It really happened, or it's a bunch of made up shit? Given the inconsistencies, lack of proof, lack of supporting documents, outright false assertions, etc... I think you know where it stands as a reliable frame of reference.

And you count con men and prisoners as good character references for your cult? That's rich...

JD Curtis said...

So basically, Lunk, what you are saying is that the apostles faced all manner of torture and imprisonment for 40 years (in John's case) in order to support a lie? I was unaware that the crucified remains of jesus Christ were discovered, thus discrediting the resurrection. Could you please provide a link? If not to the discovery of His body then at least to one of them recanting?

JD Curtis said...

I just found this website and thought it was quite interesting...

""The only apostle whose death the Bible records is James (Acts 12:2). King Herod had James “put to death with the sword,” likely a reference to beheading. The circumstances of the deaths of the other apostles are related through church tradition, so we should not put too much weight on any of the other accounts. The most commonly accepted church tradition in regard to the death of an apostle is that the apostle Peter was crucified upside-down on an x-shaped cross in Rome in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy (John 21:18). The following are the most popular “traditions” concerning the deaths of the other apostles.

Matthew suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia, killed by a sword wound. John faced martyrdom when he was boiled in a huge basin of boiling oil during a wave of persecution in Rome. However, he was miraculously delivered from death. John was then sentenced to the mines on the prison island of Patmos. He wrote his prophetic book of Revelation on Patmos. The apostle John was later freed and returned to what is now modern-day Turkey. He died as an old man, the only apostle to die peacefully.

James, the brother of Jesus (not officially an apostle), was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was thrown from the southeast pinnacle of the temple (over a hundred feet down) when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. When they discovered that he survived the fall, his enemies beat James to death with a club. This is thought to be the same pinnacle where Satan had taken Jesus during the temptation.

Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael, was a missionary to Asia. He witnessed in present-day Turkey and was martyred for his preaching in Armenia, being flayed to death by a whip. Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross in Greece. After being whipped severely by seven soldiers, they tied his body to the cross with cords to prolong his agony. His followers reported that when he was led toward the cross, Andrew saluted it in these words: “I have long desired and expected this happy hour. The cross has been consecrated by the body of Christ hanging on it.” He continued to preach to his tormentors for two days until he died. The apostle Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India during one of his missionary trips to establish the church there. Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot, was stoned and then beheaded. The apostle Paul was tortured and then beheaded by the evil Emperor Nero in Rome in A.D. 67. There are traditions regarding the other apostles as well, but none with any reliable historical or traditional support.

It is not so important how the apostles died. What is important is the fact that they were all willing to die for their faith. If Jesus had not been resurrected, the disciples would have known it. People will not die for something they know to be a lie. The fact that all of the apostles were willing to die horrible deaths, refusing to renounce their faith in Christ, is tremendous evidence that they had truly witnessed the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Here's the link. I enjoy discussing such matters and thank you for enriching my faith!

Larian LeQuella said...

JD, you really must be dense. A dullard even... Did you even read or comprehend what I said in my comment?

The whole bit of their faithfulness and adherence to the cult are made up stories where the actors are painted in a better light to suit the story tellers purpose.

The Romans and pretty much everyone else killed people for whatever reason they felt like. Pick a person killed for insulting the emperor, and you can make up all sorts of stories about them...


Really JD, I tire of explaining the simplest of my comments to you...

Ivan3man said...

JD, I am often puzzled as to why the Christian faith makes a religious symbol of the cross -- which was a violent Roman method of execution -- and depicting an emaciated figure of Christ on it, instead of something more, er... peacefully symbolic?

What if the Romans had used the guillotine as the method of execution and they had Jesus Christ guillotined? Would Xtians now be wearing silver/gold miniature guillotines around their necks? Would Xtian sportsmen, instead of crossing themselves before entering the field, gesture a cutting motion across their necks?

What if hanging had been the Roman method of execution; would Xtians today be wearing a hangman's noose instead of a necktie around their necks? Would Xtians in church, instead of crossing themselves at Holy Communion, grab their own 'neckties' and pull them up in a hanging gesture while sticking out their tongues to "receive the Eucharist"?

Larian LeQuella said...

Here are some more comments regarding the made up stories of the appostles: http://unreasonablefaith.com/2009/09/18/how-did-the-apostles-die/ I particularly like some of the comments.

Keep in mind that many of the folks on this site are former evangelicals even.