Conspiracy Theories Forever
Why even the silliest claims will always attract countless true believers
The human animal occupies a highly unusual and somewhat uncomfortable niche in the animal kingdom.
Our brains are evolved to cope with the relatively simple environmental challenges of the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. Unlike our nearest relatives the chimps, our brains have enough neural hardwiring to enable us to adapt to a wide range of different conditions. And, most importantly of all, thanks to as-yet improperly understood genetic mutations occurring somewhere around 70,000 years ago, we live in a different world from all other creatures around us.
Unlike other intelligent animals like corvids, cetaceans, certain gastropods, other apes, and elephants, we humans live primarily not in the real world of the past and present but in an imaginary world in which dreams and desires often take precedence. Furthermore, although other intelligent creatures have to deal with death and bereavement, we humans appear to have a greater capacity for vaguely sensing how vast and impersonal and dangerous the world around us truly is.
For 98% of our evolutionary history we were very vulnerable indeed. Death was everywhere. With relatively weak muscles, slow movements, feeble teeth, and no claws, we were easy prey. In a world without even rudimentary medicine, even a scratch could lead to sepsis and death. A fall could result not only in a painful broken limb but also, thanks again to sepsis, to gangrene and death. Even a decayed tooth could ultimately kill. Invisible illnesses were a constant source of anxiety too, not least because no one knew how and when they would manifest.
In short, our ancestors lived in a near-constant state of dread. And that’s not very adaptive. Any animal that is constantly terrified won’t last long.
So we evolved various cognitive mechanisms to blot out the harsh realities of the world and replace them with comforting fables. Many of these mechanisms were intimately connected to group bonding, because as weak and feeble animals we depend entirely on membership of the group for our survival. The life expectancy of a lone human 30,000 years ago would be measured in hours whereas within a group a person could hope to live into their mid-twenties if they were reasonably lucky. Group rituals reinforced group cohesion and group myths reinforced individual resilience. As this was highly adaptive, it has persisted to the present day and is the fundamental origin of all religions.
Our primary coping mechanism is to ascribe agency to things. This comes naturally to us because as members of a group species we need to infer the intention of those other human agents all around us. People without the ability to guess what’s going on inside someone else’s head are vulnerable to all manner of machinations, so our brains naturally are hardwired to see intent behind action. We then project these inferences onto pretty much everything in our world that seems relevant. Hence in the past people projected intentionality and agency onto rocks, trees, wind, and water. Where concrete elements were unavailable they projected agency onto invisible magical pixies. Primitive people all over the world to this very day have a plethora of sprites and spirits in their mental universe and we have no reason to suppose that prehistoric people were any different.
From these multitudinous imaginary projections ultimately coalesced the pantheons we associate with Indo-European civilizations: the Norse gods, the Hindu gods, the Greek and Roman gods. And then, during the Axial age, these in turn coalesced into the quasi-monotheistic mythologies — though in reality the pantheons were merely renamed and slightly reimagined with an all-powerful daddy god sitting on top of the heap.
The comfort provided by imaginary invisible magical pixies is simple: someone is in charge and therefore someone has a plan. Furthermore, if someone is in charge then supplication is possible. If we placate the gods with sacrificial offerings, ritual behavior, and other OCD-type activities, we can influence (to some degree) our own fates. The vast impersonal stochastic universe can be reduced to a series of bargains and so individuals can temporarily feel slightly less insignificant, powerless, and vulnerable.
Now we can see the appeal of conspiracy theories: just as with religious/superstitious beliefs, the conspiracy theory offers us the illusion that no matter how random and incompetent things appear to be they are really, deep down, part of someone’s cunning plan. There is purpose and order in what only seems, to the uninitiated, to be pointless blundering, mindless babble, and generic human stupidity.
This is no different from the experience of the initiate. Religious ritual and immersion in the “hidden knowledge” of the sect is merely conspiracy theory with a god stuck on top like a cake decoration.
It’s not surprising that conspiracy theories are embraced by those whose real-world situation leaves them more vulnerable and more confused than more functional people. In developed nations with adequate systems of primary and secondary education we see it is the less intelligent and the less educated who cleave to religion; so it is that conspiracy theorists are likewise found generally among the less intelligent and the less educated. Such people struggle to cope with the complexity of reality and gravitate toward comforting easy-to-understand fables instead.
Indeed, the parallels between conspiracy theory and religion abound. For Manicheans, life’s seemingly random events could be explained as the consequence of a perpetual battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. For those adhering to the various Christian sects a very similar explanation is pressed into service (often alongside the vacuous concept of “free will”).
And, just as with any convert to any mythology, conspiracy theorists shore up their fragile self-identity with the belief that they are “in the know” while everyone else is ignorant of “the real truth.” Not surprisingly, conspiracy theorists are eager proselytizers in precisely the same way as newly-minted Catholic and Evangelical converts are eager to impress upon others the supposed truth of their particular beliefs.
The appeal of religions, conspiracy theories, and TV procedurals is essentially the same: someone has a plan, and that plan can be discovered, and when you know what the plan is, you’ll be “on the inside” instead of being vulnerable “on the outside.”
Whether it’s mummy god looking out for you or an international cabal of evil geniuses plotting the downfall of democracy ’n’ freedom or the shabby detective on the screen solving the mystery, the allure is the same: all of life can be reduced to a simple formula.
There is no difference between the “revelations” of QAnon in conspiracy mythology and the Revelations of St John in Christian mythology. Both pretend to reveal why things are happening, both pretend to offer a vision of an inescapable future, and both pretend that things are part of a plan. So we are comforted by the illusion that despite all evidence to the contrary the universe isn’t stochastic but teleological and provided we’re “on the inside” we have a role to play and so our individual lives aren’t without meaning.
And for those for whom life otherwise does seem meaningless, this is a powerful appeal indeed.
The fact that reality offers no support whatsoever for any of these beliefs is irrelevant because we humans have a seemingly endless capacity for self-delusion. Once we believe something we will cling to that belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Our ability to live in a world of imagination is simultaneously our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. It enables us to form groups far larger than typical hunter-gatherer clans via imaginary bonds but it prevents us from interacting adequately with complex reality.
For nearly all of our evolutionary history, this inadequacy didn’t matter. There was a limit to how much harm we could do to ourselves and to the world around us when our greatest technologies were flint and wood. Today, however, the inventions of a few clever people over the ages have empowered us with technologies that mean the rantings of the intellectually impoverished and socially awkward no longer remain in the corners, ignored by nearly everyone else. Today, thanks to our communications technologies, conspiracy theories can spread around the world in seconds and be given credence by purported authority figures that then amplifies their appeal.
The last time this kind of thing happened, we called them wars of religion or we called them pogroms.
Whatever we call them, the consequences can be very unfortunate indeed.