What Lurks Beneath Conspiracy Theories?

Conspiracy theories are part of human culture, and we cannot just dismiss them.

Some people, despite all proof to the contrary, believe the moon landings were faked. Some people, despite all proof to the contrary, believe the last election was stolen. And those are just two of the many conspiracy theories that are believed by untold numbers of people.

How can we understand the phenomena of conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theories conjure up stories about grassy knolls, UFO cover ups, the Illuminati, and other wild ideas that most people consider to be nonsense. The people who believe them aren’t all asylum inmates wearing tin foil hats in fear of government mind control. Conspiracy theories are part of human culture. We cannot just dismiss them, if for no other reason than we can’t ignore the damage caused by conspiracy theories. We are seeing the deaths of thousands of people who believed conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic.

To ignore or ridicule beliefs in conspiracy theories is to be as dismissively arrogant as the conspiracy theory believers are about beliefs other than their own. We don’t have to agree with the conspiracy theories, but we need to understand what they are, why some people believe them, and what lurks beneath them.

A Definition of Conspiracy Theories

What are conspiracy theories, and why are they so common? First, we need to define what we are analyzing.
Conspiracy Theory: A claim that you have figured out a secret that “normal” people have not.
There are three components of this definition.

One: Conspiracy theories are stories about secret cabals secretly meeting in secret places to secretly concoct secret plans. And yes, I stress the secret aspect of these stories. For a story to appeal to those who believe in conspiracy theories, it has to be about a deep, dark secret. By definition, a conspiracy is a secretive plot, but a conspiracy theory is about some seriously hidden, seriously dark skullduggery being brought to light.

Two: A conspiracy theory is a truth claim. This fact is often ignored but is very important. People believe a conspiracy theory because they believe it is true. No matter how weird beliefs might be, every idea we hold to be true is a belief we feel we are justified in having. It is no different for those who believe in conspiracy theories that others dismiss as wacky nonsense. What makes conspiracy theories different from other beliefs is that the rules of truth are different. It is more than a sense of lowering the standards of evidence. Believing a conspiracy theory comes from thinking differently about reality leading to different beliefs about what is true. More on that later.

Three: Conspiracy theorists, because they believe different truth claims, think of themselves as different from “normal” people. Conspiracy theorists have figured out secret truths that the rest of us have not. Believers in a conspiracy theory claim to have “knowledge” about seriously hidden, seriously dark skullduggery. Their “knowledge” sets them apart from the masses (that’s you and me) who are “still duped” by the conspiracy.

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