Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories?

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Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories?
Why do so many people believe in conspiracy theories?

You've probably heard that the coronavirus outbreak is the machinations of pharmaceutical companies. Or the Chinese. Or their enemies. There is no hard evidence, but people still believe this - conspiracy theories. Why? Where do such theories come from? And can you do something with them?

“In 2008, he [Israeli immunologist Yehuda Schoenfeld] was asked to speak before the US Congress on the benefits and dangers of vaccination. interventions have a certain level of complications. What can I say - nothing strange. "And on the sidelines, they explained to him that, unfortunately, whether we wanted to or did not want, we would not break the vaccination lobby: this is a lot of money," says Professor Alexander Poletaev, answering the question about whether the World Health Organization (WHO), government agencies and most doctors on the planet have conspired. The round table, organized because of the scandalous book of the anti-vaccine blogger, is in its third hour. Everyone is tired, no one is ready to give in.

The supposed lies of elites about vaccine safety is one of many conspiracy theories. Such theories provide alternative explanations for important events and present them as the secret plan of some small but influential community. The new coronavirus was created in a laboratory in Wuhan and it was no coincidence that the PRC authorities are buying up depreciated shares of local companies on the sly. Climate change was invented by corrupt scientists and the UN. The September 11 attacks were staged by the American special services. The earth is flat, surrounded by an ice wall and covered with a dome, and NASA and everyone else is lying. "Don't trust flies: they spy on the government," sings the English band Slaves, half in jest. Fresh conspiracy theories appear almost every day.

The adherents of these theories, conspiracy theorists, cannot be persuaded by pointing out inconsistencies, holes, factual errors (for example, on the websites of Congress, the US National Archives and in a Google search, it is not mentioned that Yehuda Schoenfeld ever spoke at a hearing on vaccination - only in court as a dubious expert), new information, and that key claims of conspiracy theories can rarely be verified.

“A suspicious person always has something on his mind. He looks at the world with a stable prejudice, constantly seeking to find confirmation of his suspicions. It is simply impossible to persuade him to drop suspicions or a plan based on them. On the contrary, he will not only disagree with rational arguments, but he will also find in them something that confirms his point of view. Anyone who tries to influence a suspicious person, if he does not have enough intelligence to stop his attempts in time, inevitably himself becomes the object of suspicion ", - writes psychoanalyst David Shapiro in the book" Neurotic Styles " …

Because of this, conspiracy theories are often viewed as paranoia and delusion, and conspiracy theorists are often viewed as insane. But, firstly, when conspiracy theories are equated with paranoia, sometimes it is just a rhetorical trick to discredit an opponent in an argument and dismiss his ideas. Like, look, this is a conspiracy theorist, why talk to him at all, he has lost touch with reality (this trick is discussed in more detail in the book "Secrets and Conspiracies" by the French sociologist Luc Boltanski).

Second, conspiracy theories have too many supporters. In 2013, a Gallup poll showed that 61% of Americans believe that the assassin of President John F. Kennedy Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, although the findings of an official investigation suggest otherwise.And here, according to VTsIOM, a year and a half ago, 66% of people believed that there was a group of people who were trying to rewrite Russian history, to replace historical facts in order to harm Russia, to belittle its greatness. It is hard to imagine that hundreds of millions of people in two countries are clinically paranoid.

Thirdly, as Nirvana sang, even if you are paranoid, it does not mean that you are not being followed.

They lied to us

Governments, corporations and other elites are suspicious for a reason. In the 1940s, the US National Institutes of Health funded a nightmare study in Guatemala. In a country where half of the people lived in extreme poverty, for the sake of experiment, American doctors for years infected with gonorrhea, syphilis, chancre, children, orphans, prostitutes, Indians with leprosy, patients in psychiatric hospitals, prison inmates and soldiers who had no idea about anything. unlike Guatemalan politicians. The details of this experiment remained under wraps for half a century, and only in 2010 did US President Barack Obama apologize.

In the 1930s and 1970s, the US Department of Health and Human Services conducted another heinous experiment. For 40 years, doctors have followed hundreds of black syphilitic men in Alabama to understand the course of the disease. When antibiotics appeared that deal with the pathogen - treponema pale, they were not given to patients, and in some cases, doctors specifically prevented such treatment. In 1972, the story was unearthed by journalists, there was a big scandal. Not surprisingly, a decade later, many blacks decided that a deadly new virus, HIV, was developed in government laboratories to exterminate their fellows.

In our country, the most memorable example is the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, when the authorities tried to hide the incident, risking the lives of people. Less well known is the accident at the Mayak plant near Ozersk. In 1957, a radioactive waste storage facility exploded there, and a poisonous cloud floated towards Sverdlovsk. In "Chelyabinsk Rabochiy" they wrote that the Urals were lucky to see a rare natural phenomenon - the aurora borealis. What actually happened was revealed only during perestroika, after the Chernobyl disaster.

These stories are too scary to forget. When a helicopter flew over the school, the physics teacher gazed dreamily out the window and held out: "Dosimetrists …" Beloyarsk NPP is located thirty kilometers in a straight line from our town. As a child, my parents and I went there to pick mushrooms and go fishing. Once we stopped near the planting and looked at each other: the tops of all the trees at the same height turned yellow. We never found out what happened, but at that moment, without saying a word, we thought: "Beloyarka". After all, no one would have warned us, as always.

Three temptations of conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories aren't just paranoia. Karen Douglas and two other social psychologists at the University of Kent cite three reasons, or motives, why people believe in the machinations of secret societies. First, we are all curious and looking for causal relationships in order to understand what is happening. But often important information is incomplete, contradictory, vague, or contradicts what we have heard before - it does not add up to a complete picture. Conspiracy theories seep into these cracks.

It is also beneficial to understand the world around us: safety and well-being depend on it. Karen Douglas and her colleagues write that people turn to conspiracy theories when they feel threatened, powerless, and anxious. Even if you cannot influence life, you at least know where the catch is coming from. And in the case of vaccines, you can even do something, like not vaccinating your children and educating other parents. This is the beginning of the messianic legend of that blogger, because of whom they argued at the round table: supposedly once he received his sight and could not help but tell about the revelation that descended from the aggregators of medical articles.

They also turn to conspiracy theories for this: to raise self-esteem and exalt their collective, blaming the misfortunes of someone else, strong and evil. According to the studies cited with colleagues Karen Douglas, outcasts, ethnic minorities, the poor, political outsiders are inclined to conspiracy theories. These people often have narcissistic traits, they tend to feel like victims and as if they and their like are not appreciated enough.

"Conspiracy theories are not at all irrational and not indicative of mental pathologies," social psychologists Viren Swami and Adrian Fernham write in another review article. "In fact, they provide insight into how society works."

Conspirology is a product of our time

Conspiracies have been known at least since Antiquity, but, as the historian Gordon Wood writes, for a long time they were perceived simply as a method of political struggle, and there was nothing speculative about them. For example, Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus actually persuaded the Roman nobility to overthrow Gaius Julius Caesar. The philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote in the first half of the 16th century, also spoke in the same vein about conspiracies.

Everything has changed in the New Time. After long and bloody religious wars, an unprecedented economic boom began in Europe, and the population grew. It was difficult to judge who was who now. People moved away from each other and became more and more suspicious. And the scientific revolution turned the idea of ​​how life works. Previously, the ways of the Lord were inscrutable, and after Isaac Newton, the veil of secrecy slid from the world. Causes and effects emerged from under it, and man felt more power over them than before. But power can be abused.

In other words, conspiracy theories flourished at the dawn of modernity and are probably inseparable from it.

Nevertheless, something has kept societies from collapsing from then until today. Political theorist William Davis believes that it is trust. "It's not just about politics. Most of our ideas about the world are actually taken on faith from the words of journalists, experts, authorities. Although we all sometimes witness something, with many statements that seem fair, we just agree," Davis writes in a column for The Guardian.

This system began to take shape in the second half of the 17th century, when traders and scientists figured out how to record data and share it with others; later, these methods were adopted by the state and everyone else, as the economy became too complex to do business alone. Even then, the system aroused suspicion. General knowledge based on statistics and reports was mainly produced by a narrow circle of educated men. Gradually, they began to be represented as a kind of closed club, an elite, despite the fact that the interests of these people do not always coincide, and sometimes contradict each other.

Speaking about the rise of populists in different countries, William Davis speaks of a crisis of confidence: journalists, politicians and other dignitaries do not seem honest by default. The entire public sphere, not individual villains, looks rotten through and through. “Several of the key scandals of the last decade were so big that no one could be blamed. Edward Snowden's disclosures, the Panama Papers, HSBC's tax fraud - these are tens of thousands or even millions of documents. Bureaucracies built on papers, have never faced such a threat to their legitimacy, "writes Davis.

With people like Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning becoming the main sources of truth, old hierarchies are crumbling. If expert points of view are not credible, then alternative opinions are not worse. When it comes to vaccination, the judgments of an electronics engineer, a surgeon, and a director of a center where they work with autists take on the same weight as those of a vaccine specialist, as was the case at the aforementioned roundtable.

A special type of alternative opinion, conspiracy theories, also seems more plausible. Moreover, now they stick together in someone, and it is not always clear what the benefit of the imaginary conspirators is. "They want people to be stupid, blind and deaf to the truth, so they can pump us up with vaccines and send us to school," says the flat-earther from Netflix's documentary Behind the Curve.

What remains

Karen Douglas and her colleagues at the University of Kent analyzed the needs that drive people towards such theories. But psychologists also tried to understand whether these needs are being met. Apparently, not, or only partially.

With the help of conspiracy speculation, a person is able to protect his picture of the world. But at the same time, in experiments, conspiracy theories acted paralyzingly on people. After listening to information from researchers, compared with control groups, they were less likely to do something that would reinforce their sense of control over the situation. Other experiments have shown that due to conspiracy theories, trust in government institutions, politicians, and scientists decreases. It turns out that this is not only a symptom, but also a reason for alienation.

Conspiracy theories will remain simply because we believe in their key elements: free will and cause and effect. But the predisposition to these theories depends on the changing circumstances in which we live. It is almost impossible to influence them alone. Nevertheless, when there is an intellectual temptation to explain what is happening as the evil will of some kind of clique, it is worth remembering that the real threats still become known thanks to honest people, and everything secret becomes clear, and conspiracy theories will not bring peace and prosperity.

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