Why Do We Believe in Conspiracies?

When I was young, I believed that adults all had telepathy and it was something that didn’t activate until you were 20. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time, it seems like adults can sometimes read my mind. The natural urge to come up with some type of explanation when you don’t understand something is what has led to creation myths and other beliefs.

In the current pandemic, one of the most egregious claims is that Covid-19 is a hoax, perpetrated by the mainstream media alongside a shadowy deep state cabal of global elites. This doesn’t even include the belief that the virus might be caused by 5G signals. To the majority of us, this seems ridiculous, but it does beg the question of why do we believe in conspiracies?

In her book “Democracy and Truth,” the University of Pennsylvania historian Sophia Rosenfeld argues that conspiracy theories thrive in societies with a large gap between the governing and the governed classes. That is to say, when there is a large education gap, income gap, etc., you get a condition where top-down sources are questioned.

Per Rosenfeld, such conditions allow some of the governed to reject the advice of experts as out of touch with “the people”, and to create a “populist epistemology” associated with an oppositional culture. In short, the elites are out to get us. 

It is true that history is rife with examples of the elites taking advantage of the mass. However, current conspiracy theories paint a picture of elites actively colluding in order to provide the same information to mislead the general population. We get this with anti-vaxxers, climate change, and now, Covid-19.

As with all conspiracy theories, there is a chance it might be true, but nothing is based on evidence.

So why do we fall for these conspiracies? Part of the reason might be rooted in why we enjoy gossips – it’s just fun. It is much easier to believe something that is sensationalized than dry, factual truths. Did an alien spaceship crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947? Or was it simply just a weather balloon? It’s much juicier to believe the U.S. government is hiding aliens somewhere in the desert than to believe something so mundane. 

Another explanation of why we believe in conspiracies is that we need something to blame when we feel powerless. Take anti-vaxxers for example. When an article came out in 1998 linking the MMR vaccine to autism, many parents ran with it. Since then, numerous studies have discredited the original article, yet many parents continue to believe this conspiracy. Whenever a new illness happens to a child right after vaccination, a news article might pop up on the internet, further fueling the anti-vaccination movement.

Aside from missing the correlation fallacy, concerned parents also don’t acknowledge the numerous other cases where vaccinated children are fine. It’s much easier to believe that something tangible can cause illness than to believe that sometimes it’s just bad luck. 

When the original vaccination article came out, there might have been something there. So scientists ran more tests, and through this peer-reviewed process, they hone in on what is true, leading to many articles discrediting the link between vaccination and autism.

In following the scientific method, we learn to process all evidence and provide the best explanation there is. That’s why many scientific ideas are called theories and not facts. The short definition of “theory” is a system of ideas intended to explain something. What this means is that given the current evidence and findings, this is the best explanation. However, many people who believe in conspiracies take this loophole to point out that a theory is not a fact, so other explanations can exist – and that is such a bad way of looking at it.

In the 1940s, Professor Theodore Woodward of the University of Maryland told his medical interns that “when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” What he was trying to explain to his students is that there is no need to arrive at an exotic medical diagnosis when a more commonplace explanation is more likely.

This is a callback to Occam’s Razor, which is the idea that the simplest solution is most likely the correct one. Conspiracy theorists don’t want the simplest explanations. To them, the simplest explanations are created by the elites. These elites make it complicated to confuse the mass. We the people don’t understand it so there must be something wrong with it. So we find like-minded peers and create an idea that we can all get behind. The like-minded group gets bigger and before you know it, their reality is just as valid as the experts – except that it’s not. 

The idea that my beliefs are just as valid as yours has taken to new extremes in the age of the internet. It’s very easy to type in what you believe, find some articles on it, and through confirmation bias, reaffirm that you are correct. But that doesn’t make it any more valid than what it is before. No matter how many people you find to believe the same as you, utilizing the ethos mode of persuasion does not actually address what is reality. Most people are not Steve Jobs and they cannot create a mind distortion field to make something true. 

For as long as societies exist, conspiracy theories will always lurk in the background. Yes, sometimes these conspiracies might turn out to be true, but the majority of the times, they’re not. We cannot even come together enough to address big problems in the world like hunger and poverty. Getting the leaders of the world to agree to fake a Covid-19 hoax is even more impossible. None of us is capable of knowing everything. It’s scary, but we have to let go and trust the experts at times. And when we’re not sure, check our sources. After all, when we hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. 

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