Conspiracy theories are an imaginative rejection of the complex. This is my simple thesis. A conspiracy theory is a type of theory that tends to conceptualize large, global or complex events in terms of secret transactions that are unknown to the public and driven by agents with hidden motivations and agendas. Currently, these theories find niche in popular culture and particularly along the political spectrum. As philosopher Quassim Cassam puts it in his recent book, conspiracy theories are functionally a form of propaganda designed to promote particularly extremist worldviews. Cassam emphasizes that, unlike scientific theories, conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable—that is, they can never be disproven. Evidence that runs contrary to their claims can be explained away as another fold in the conspiracy. Furthermore, these theories almost always tend to be iconoclastic and are deeply suspicious towards conventionally accepted wisdom while ironically professing a naïve faith in the core tenets of the theory, which can never be falsified (and therefore verified as well). On opposite sides of the reality spectrum, conspiratorial ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’ may accuse one another of perpetrating a body of knowledge which may appear to contain some truth but is in fact deeply misleading and motivated by hidden agendas. From a psychological perspective, this projective mirror may prevent each side from meaningfully engaging the with the other.
Dr. Cassam’s scholarship is quite helpful in explaining the form and function of conspiracy. But there is an additional feature of conspiracy theories that becomes apparent upon studying their currency within our psychological lives. That is to say, conspiratorial thinking is a rejection of the complex in favor of the complicated. The complexity/complicated dichotomy is best described here by Dr. Roberto Poli (see also here, for an accessibly written blog post). In brief, complicated systems tend to be linear in causality, highly predictable/controllable, and summative of its parts; once you understand the structure and function of each part, it is therefore possible—and consequential—to know a complicated system in its totality. Due to its monofactorial, predictable and knowable properties, the nature of knowledge produced by complicated systems tends to be totalizing—i.e., these systems describe the world in a linear, orderly and predictable manner where Truth can be definitively obtained by faithfully adhering to certain procedures. Several examples of complicated systems are: following a recipe, assembling a car engine, developing a missile guidance system, developing a chess-playing algorithm, and playing billiards. In contrast, complex systems are multifactorial and multidirectional (i.e., non-linear) in their networks of influence, have emergent (i.e., unpredictable) properties at different levels of scale, and non-summative (i.e., the whole cannot be known from its parts) and are deeply contextual (i.e., embedded in other frameworks). Because of their inherent dynamic and emergent properties, we cannot make definitive truth claims about complex systems; and due to their deeply embedded contextuality, complex systems cannot make absolute truth claims upon the world—i.e., there is always a bigger picture. Examples of complex systems include: learning to cook, marketing a car engine, interpreting rules of engagement in missile warfare, developing an AI neural network, and playing football. Conspiratorial theories and knowledge eschews the complex in favor of the complicated. I will attempt to describe some of their more complicated features below.
A single origin story
Conspiracy theories often suggest that complex, global events can be explained in terms of a few key actors who are “pulling the strings” and their origins can be traced to a small set of actors or a given event, place or time. Examples: crop circles are caused by aliens; natural disaster like a flood or sinkhole created by the military.
Conspiracy theories may be incredibly detailed and convoluted however, it is like following a maze; the path twists and turns but is ultimately linear. Example: the Davinci Code reveals the location of a hidden artifact, whose existence drives many current events and is the key to the future.
Similar to the origin story, conspiracy theories propose a simple set of factors that explain away a complex phenomenon. Example: Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government to make US manufacturing uncompetitive.
As with a simple narrative arc, the conspiracy believers categorize actors into good/believers and bad/heretical sects. Example: According to QAnon, Donald Trump and his followers are ordained by Jesus and are a force for good against the demonic forces led by Hillary Clinton.
This feature of conspiracy theories suggests that, much like an elaborate set-up of dominoes, if all the variables are known, then it is possible to explain the past and predict/control the future. Example: JFK’s assassination can be explained by deconstructing the trajectory of the bullets and concluding that their was in fact at least 3 killers present. The People’s Temple cult leader Jim Jones effectively led the biggest mass suicide in American history on the revelation that the military would soon storm their compound and brutally murder their children.
Like a Rube Goldberg machine, the mechanics of a conspiracy theory are often indirect, seemingly contradictory and so patently absurd that they immediately provoke a reaction, whether it be scorn, amusement and curiosity. However, these theories should not be underestimated just because they may lack face validity. Like those spectacular machines, conspiracy theories are powerfully attention grabbing and to some degree, once our attention is solicited, it is difficult to resist the persuasion. While it is beyond the scope of this brief post to venture too deeply into the social and psychological sequelae of such propaganda I can offer a few general comments. There will always be a subset of people who are attracted to the linear, knowable and predictable features of conspiracy theories and their prophecies. Furthermore, there is a simple morality to these theories, which generally favors individualistic actions and responsibility as more important determining factors over more complex, systemic factors. As such, I hypothesize that conspiracy theories may tend to be more popular amongst anarchist, libertarian and conservative populations which may eschew the role of bigger systems and organizations in determining current events. Another, probably understudied factor, is that conspiracy theories cannot be massively propagated without significantly charismatic presenter. One needs charisma to convince many others of the validity of the theory even though it may appear outlandish and anathema to traditional canon. Individuals who are particularly susceptible in fact seek charismatic individuals who appear to simplify complex and often unsettling world events (e.g., climate change, economic depression, racial tensions, war) while also conferring social privilege to the true ‘believers’ who must only sacrifice scepticism for wholesale acceptance and endorsement in order to be on the right side of judgment.