Conspiracy theories are growing to the point that psychologists have started analyzing them. I got involved with conspiracy theories when I asked a friend an idle question, “Have you ever wondered if maybe we never went to the moon, but just filmed the whole thing in a studio somewhere? “Oh, you’re one of them, my friend said in reply. “One of who?” I asked innocently.
Moon Hoax Conspiracy
I was unaware of the vast numbers of conspiracy theories out there, or the vast number of people who believe them to some degree or another. The “them” my friend referred to are the Moon Hoaxers and the classic text for this group is NASA Mooned America. There is plenty of material out there on the moon hoax and plenty of videos on You Tube if you prefer that medium. One of my favorite sites, Top Documentary Films, lists 75 movies in the Conspiracy category and much of the investigative journalism in the Politics and Economics categories would be labeled as conspiracy theories (by those under investigation.)
The term “conspiracy theory” is meant to be negative; it is meant to indicate that that the Conspiracy Theorist (CT) is paranoid; off their rocker in some way. Enter the psychologists to study the phenomenon! Maybe there will be a mental illness listed in the DSM for CT someday, but for now, a diagnosis of paranoia should be sufficient to get the insurance companies to pay for the therapy.
Conspiracy Theories May be Correct
Here’s the catch: Hitler was described as paranoid, but the fact is, there were 42 assassination attempts on the Fuhrer; so his suspicion was quite rational. Behind the conspiracy theories, there may lurk some dark and painful truths. I should mention here that I’m almost terminally skeptical and study conspiracy theories to debunk them, if possible. Having spent thousands of hours doing this, I must admit-I can’t debunk them all.
Some Conspiracy Theories ARE Crazy
Some people seem to swallow CTs whole and I am amazed that quite a few people believe in the alien shape-shifting lizard scenario of David Icke. The Moon Hoaxers, and other CTs, ask a lot of valid questions that remain unanswered, though. I have a friend who studies these things and he said the astronauts never could have traversed the Van Allen belts. I asked how he knew there were such things as Van Allen belts. He said scientists said there are. You see the problem: scientists also said the astronauts went to the moon. I solve this problem rather simple-mindedly by doubting almost everything.
Anxiety and Conspiracy Theories
Psychologists say that conspiracy theories arise due to anxiety. A big event must have a big cause, it is too uncomfortable to think that a random car accident can kill a princess or a random nut can kill a President. A small group of turbaned dudes can’t attack America and kill 3,000 people-there must be a sophisticated world-wide organization (the CT advanced by the U.S. government.) In a way, I think conspiracy theorists are optimistic. They believe there are really smart, well-organized groups orchestrating events in secret. That’s more comforting than my view that people in charge are often just of bunch of idiots and too self-centered to coordinate major, long-term agendas.
Conspiracy versus Consensus
But then you don’t need a conspiracy if you have a consensus. The consensus will hold together long enough to pull off some fiendish plot, especially if there is lots of money and/or power involved for participants. Always ask: “Who benefits?” because groups do not take risks and invest resources just to “do evil.” In fact they only do this to do good-for themselves-and to heck with everyone else.
Conspiracy Theories and Bias
Psychologists mention confirmation bias as one factor in conspiracy theories. This just means that we filter new information through what we already believe, accepting what confirms our beliefs and rejecting what does not. We all do this, though we are mostly unaware of the process. We are more aware when we encounter someone with different biases, and then we exclaim, “You can’t tell him anything! He won’t listen to any facts.” That’s true. It’s quite normal, and we do it, too.
Rejecting “Unthinkable” Conspiracies
While researching the research, I came upon a reader comment that haunts me. She said, “If I believed that the US government deliberately harmed its own citizens in order to fake an attack and justify a war, I could not live here. I’d have to move to another country.” So… because it would be painful and extremely disruptive to believe this, the woman is saying she will not believe the government would do any such thing. She is expressing her confirmation bias that the government would not harm its own citizens, because this is the United States and we are good people.
This haunts me because I find I agree with her. Some things I read cannot get past my belief filter. For example, there are CTs that claim that the government itself is responsible for the attacks on 911. There is plenty of evidence that those in charge at the time wanted very badly to invade Iraq and took advantage of the catastrophe to do so. But that doesn’t mean they did it, it just means they used it. Right?
A Real Government Conspiracy
However, Operation Northwood demonstrates that the U.S. government, at least on one occasion in 1962, planned to destroy American ships or airplanes to propel us furiously into a war with Cuba. Yes, the U.S. government planned to kill American civilians to further its war aims. By comparison, the Gulf of Tonkin incident that propelled us into the war in Vietnam, was simply a lie. Lies and cover-ups are common and almost everyone knows they happen; but cover-ups are only part (though an essential part) of a conspiracy.
Too Horrible to Grasp
I admit I can’t deal with the implications of Operation Northwood. My confirmation bias won’t let me; not yet. As for the Moon Hoax, I don’t know. Some photos were obviously taken in a studio (rectangular reflections on astronaut’s helmets) but that does not prove that we never went to the moon, it just means some of the images were “improved” a bit for public consumption.
There are a few possibilities regarding conspiracy theories: 1) The theory is cuckoo. 2) The theory is correct about the cover-up and wrong about the conspiracy. 3) The theory is correct but the players are wrong. 4) The theory is correct as it stands. Possibility #1 is no problem, we can make jokes about possibility #1; we can shrug it off with, “Oh, you’re one of them.” Possibilities 2-4 make us uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that we might refuse to admit that there even are any possibilities beyond number one. Unfortunately, this kink in the human thought process makes it possible for real conspiracies to slip by unnoticed.