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Political Ignorance and Belief in Conspiracy Theory:

Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule have posted an excellent new paper on belief in conspiracy theory. As they point out, belief in highly dubious conspiracy theories about key political events is widespread. For example, they cite survey data showing that some one third of Americans believe that federal government officials either carried out the 9/11 attacks themselves or deliberately allowed them to happen. Large numbers of people also believe that John F. Kennedy's assassination was the result of a wideranging conspiracy in the government, that the AIDS virus was secretly produced in a government laboratory for the purpose of infecting blacks, and that the government is covering up evidence of alien visitation of Earth.

Why are such irrational beliefs so widespread in an open society where information refuting them is easily accessible? Sunstein and Vermeule present some possible answers. But they fail to consider a crucial question: Why is belief in bogus political conspiracies so much more widespread than comparably irrational beliefs about conspiracies in our daily lives? Far more people believe that the CIA killed Kennedy or engineered the 9/11 attacks than believe that a dark conspiracy is out to get them personally or that their associates and co-workers are plotting against them. Millions of people who embrace absurd conspiracy theories about political events are generally rational in their everyday lives.

In my view, the disjunction has to do with the rationality of political ignorance. As I describe in more detail in several of my works (e.g. - here and here), it is perfectly rational for most people to know very little about politics and public policy - and indeed most people are quite ignorant about even basic aspects of these subjects. Because the chance of your vote influencing the outcome of an election is infinitesmally small, there is little payoff to becoming informed about politics if your only reason for doing so is to be a better voter. By contrast, there are very strong incentives to be well-informed about issues in our personal and professional lives, where our choices are likely to be individually decisive. The person who (falsely) believes that a dark conspiracy is out to get him will impose tremendous costs on himself if he bases his decisions on that assumption; he's likely to end up a paranoid recluse like Bobby Fischer (who, of course, embraced political conspiracy theories as well).

In the political realm, on the other hand, widespread rational ignorance helps to spread conspiracy theory in two ways. First, the more ignorant you are about politics and economics, the more plausible simple conspiracy theory explanations of events are likely to seem. If you don't understand basic economics, you are more likely to believe that rising oil prices are caused by a conspiracy among oil companies or that the subprime crisis was caused by a conspiracy among banks. If you don't understand the basic workings of our political system, you are more likely to swallow the idea that the federal government could carry out something like the 9/11 attack and then (falsely) blame it on Osama Bin Laden without the truth being quickly exposed through leaks and hostile media coverage.

Second, the rationality of political ignorance implies that even people who do have considerable knowledge are likely to be more susceptible to conspiracy theories about political events than in their personal lives. As I explain in this paper (see also Bryan Caplan's excellent book), the rationality of political ignorance not only reduces people's incentives to acquire political information, it also undercuts incentives to rationally evaluate the information they do learn. As a result, we are more likely to be highly biased in the way we evaluate political information than information about most other subjects. Many people embrace political conspiracy theories because they are more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than alternative, more prosaic explanations of events. Unlike in our nonpolitical lives, most people have little incentive to critically evaluate their political beliefs in order to weed out biases and and ensure their truth.

That is not to say that people are uniformly rational in their nonpolitical decisions. Far from it. But they are likely to be a great deal less irrational than they are about politics.

KevinQ (mail) (www):
Interesting. I suspect that most of your post is over-analysis, though, and that you capture the heart of the matter with this sentence:
Many people embrace political conspiracy theories because they are more entertaining and emotionally satisfying than alternative, more prosaic explanations of events.

I think few people would describe it this way, but for a lot of people, reading up on their conspiracy theories fills the same need that others fill with soap operas or gossip rags. The world is a generally boring, mundane place for most people, and an ongoing story line filled with chicanery, exotic locales, and interesting people spices up their life a bit.

Conspiracy theories are more attractive the more unlikely they are, because then people don't have to stress about actually being right. If our government really did pull-off 9/11, or killed JFK, would it change most people's lives? No. They'd still have to go to work, pay their taxes, feed their kids. But a conspiracy theory about their work? That's no fun at all.
2.2.2008 5:17pm
MrJustice:
Conspiracy theories survive, I think, because people do not want to accept it was that easy. For example, one lone gunman with no complex plan was able to assassinate JFK. It strikes a cord of fear, I suspect, in some that it could be that easy. What does it say that 19 men with box cutters can hijack planes and crash them into buildings? Do you, or does anyone, want to believe it could really be that simple? A conspiracy theory allows people to believe it was not so simple, and in some measure provides them comfort. Just my thoughts.
2.2.2008 5:19pm
Ilya Somin:
I think few people would describe it this way, but for a lot of people, reading up on their conspiracy theories fills the same need that others fill with soap operas or gossip rags. The world is a generally boring, mundane place for most people, and an ongoing story line filled with chicanery, exotic locales, and interesting people spices up their life a bit.


I agree. But the question still remains why they are more willing to accept conspiracy theories about politics than about issues in their nonpolitical lives. The theory of rational political ignorance provides an answer.
2.2.2008 5:33pm
Chris Bell (mail) (www):
I disagree.

Conspiracy theories are based on the fear of the power of others. The more powerful someone is, the more conspiracy theorists are averse of them. Government, being powerful, is just a natural target.

(and it doesn't help that sometimes our government has done some crazy conspiratorial stuff!)
2.2.2008 5:38pm
Anon Y. Mous:

But the question still remains why they are more willing to accept conspiracy theories about politics than about issues in their nonpolitical lives. The theory of rational political ignorance provides an answer.

Another possibility is that it would be a real stretch for most people to believe that they are so important in the scheme of things that all these forces would go to all the trouble to conspire against them. One the other hand, it's not so hard to believe that the assignation of a president or a terrorist attack that completely changed our foreign policy could result from a "they" who might be more motivated by large geopolitical concerns.
2.2.2008 5:48pm
Fub:
Ilya Somin wrote on February 2, 2008 at 4:56pm:
In the political realm, on the other hand, widespread rational ignorance helps to spread conspiracy theory in two ways. First, the more ignorant you are about politics and economics, the more plausible simple conspiracy theory explanations of events are likely to seem.
Not in any way to deprecate the rational ignorance factors, but there may be other primarily perceptual factors that enhance or exacerbate the effect of rational ignorance.

A few:

-- The difficulty of proving a negative, eg: prove some deity does NOT exist.

-- The ease with which emergent behavior of a system can be perceived as a conscious conspiracy by the actors within that system.

-- The fact that some hideous past government actions have been actual "conspiracies", or long running organized efforts by discernible actors within government. See, for example, The Tuskegee experiment.

The argument by the rationally ignorant for a conspiracy becomes: It looks like a conspiracy; they've done it before; and you can't prove it isn't a conspiracy.
2.2.2008 5:50pm
Dodsworth:
You forgot one conspiracy theory. Conservatives widely believe in the the crazy theory that islamic Caliphate will take over the world if we leave Iraq.
2.2.2008 5:51pm
EH (mail):
Conspiracy theories can be defined as alternate truths that have not been disproven. All conspiracy theories are True in the that theorist does believe them to be, the only thing missing is enough information. That political machinations are subject to theorizing in this way is directly related to the secrecy involved in investigating them.
2.2.2008 5:55pm
Benjamin Davis (mail):
"irrational beliefs" - Who would have thought the United States would create secret prisons, torture people, and the rest of it?
2.2.2008 6:04pm
Chris Smith (mail):
Perhaps there is a basic, neurologically-driven conspiracy afoot.
Conspiracy theories serve a natural function for reducing the complexity of world events: we want a rational reality.
Coming up with a good theory makes us feel like Gauss in the apparently apocryphal story about beating the arithmetic lesson by deriving a formula to capture the answer directly.
Occasionally, too, conspiracies do happen, and we can feel we won a lottery when our dark suspicions (about, say, really rich fellows distorting politics) are proven correct.
2.2.2008 6:31pm
AK (mail):
it would be a real stretch for most people to believe that they are so important in the scheme of things that all these forces would go to all the trouble to conspire against them. One the other hand, it's not so hard to believe that the assignation of a president or a terrorist attack that completely changed our foreign policy could result from a "they" who might be more motivated by large geopolitical concerns.

Anon Y. Mouse wins the thread.

It's easy to believe that someone would kill some people to make billions. It's harder to believe that it's cost-effective for the government to monitor my every move.

Besides, most unpleasant events in our lives have simple explanations. You didn't get that promotion because your boss is a jackass, not because of the Trilateral Commission.
2.2.2008 6:32pm
AK (mail):
I suspect that Ilya may have stumbled upon a Theory of Everything. Is there anything that this Political Ignorance Is Teh Awesomeness theory doesn't explain?
2.2.2008 6:34pm
Maura:
The authors of this paper base their argument on the premise that the U.S. is an open society, where "knowledge-creating institutions" are trustworthy and where the government is "well-motivated".

The tell us that in a closed society, conspiracy theories abound because the citizens don't trust the government and everything is a secret, but "... when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long." (page 7)

What are we to make of this, in light of the Bush Administration's track record?
2.2.2008 6:37pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It is not allowable that giants should be brought low by pissants. See Kennedy--either--or MLK.
It offends some natural order.
2.2.2008 6:40pm
Wondering Willy:
I'm about as rational and well-versed in politics as you can hope to find, and I believe that there was more to the Kennedy assassination than a lone nutball Oswald that did it by himself.

The pictures of Howard Hunt and "the tramps" combined with Jack Ruby killing Oswald are just too suggestive of a broader conspiracy.
2.2.2008 7:05pm
MnZ:

Perhaps there is a basic, neurologically-driven conspiracy afoot.
Conspiracy theories serve a natural function for reducing the complexity of world events: we want a rational reality.


Interestingly, religion often serves the same role. It probably not coincidental that conspiracy theorists and "true" believers in a religion share the same ferver.
2.2.2008 7:18pm
Wondering Willy:
MnZ,

And "true believers" in athiesm are without ferver?
2.2.2008 7:26pm
dearieme:
"You forgot one conspiracy theory. Conservatives widely believe in the the crazy theory that islamic Caliphate will take over the world if we leave Iraq." No, being silly does not in itself qualify for being a conspiracy theory.
2.2.2008 7:35pm
Smokey:
Belief that Katrina was caused by global warming was extremely widespread. But that cause-and-effect has been refuted, so the True Believers now claim that the lack of hurricanes in the past year is also caused by global warming... uh, make that "climate change."
2.2.2008 7:47pm
Mark Gaughan (mail):
hmmmn...
2.2.2008 8:06pm
Crane (mail):
I agree with Fub's point about the difficulty of proving a negative - that goes double for conspiracy theories, where any attempt to disprove the theory is taken to be part of a coverup, which is proof that the conspiracy is real.

An acquaintance of mine believes in the 9/11 conspiracy, and he claims he arrived at this belief via careful and critical examination of all the available evidence. As for how good an examination it was... well, let's just say this is a man who thinks posting a rant on YouTube telling people not to abuse the welfare system has a chance of influencing welfare cheats.

And then there are the conspiracies that are so crazy there's no dealing with them, like the people who believe demons are in everything. Some relatives of mine joined a food co-op during the 70's along with a group of those crazy fringe Christians - they insisted the co-op stop buying from suppliers with "demonic" logos. Like, rainbows were signs of the Antichrist to them, so any company with a rainbow in its logo was bad. Once somebody believes that, they're beyond the reach of reason.
2.2.2008 8:08pm
Elliot123 (mail):
It's interesting that the belief in political conspiracies is far more widespread in the Arab world than in the US. They are also even moe ignorant of world affairs than Americans.
2.2.2008 8:40pm
NickM (mail) (www):
IMO this has a lot more to do with listener perceptions. We quickly forget someone's rant about their work - if we're even listening to it in the first place. But we remember their rant about aliens, the cause of 9/11, or JFK's death because the subject has some interest to us.

If you actually take the time to read through conspiracy nuts' screeds, you will find that a very large percentage of them tie in the secret government (or puppetmaster) plots to bad things supposedly happening to them in their daily lives.

It's a great security blanket for the schmuck with delusions of grandeur to believe that he knows things others don't (which makes him important) and that what is keeping him down is powerful secret forces. It's also a lot easier for many people to decide that something hidden and untoward has happened when things don't work out as they had predicted than to admit they have no idea what they're talking about.

Nick
2.2.2008 8:41pm
athEIst (mail):
Wondering Willy, If you speak of atheism "its "i" before "e" except after "c" except for the exceptions and its one of the exceptions.
2.2.2008 9:08pm
allwrits (mail):
On the other hand, it is easy to dismiss genuine problems with official stories &genuine cover-ups as conspiracy. Also, there is more than a little bit oof elitism in the underlying premise, that is "we know better than the rabble."

But there a numerous legitimate examples of conspiracies that were either correct or had a basis in genuine coverup, often for the public good:
-- it is now almost beyond debate, despite administration assertions to the contrary at the time, that US troops fought in Nicaragua during the 80s with the contras. To have stated that during the 80s, however, would lead one to be called a "conspiracy theorist."

-- similarly, the federal gov't in order to protect secrets creates utterly B.S. cover stories that feed questions about what happened, such as what happenedRoswell, N.M., only to find out decades latter that the gov't lied to us.
-- additionally it is beyond dispute that many UFOs are in fact UFOs. Indeed, hving seen UFOs in Nevada, near the testbed there I am comfortably with stating that I have seen strange lights there. Not to say they are little green men from other planets but were likely "black projects" such as the U-2, SR-71, B-2, &F-117 that won't be publicly acknowledged for years, if ever. Thank god, however, for the USAF and those UFO's in the desert night, they keep us free.
2.2.2008 9:09pm
kietharch (mail):
I discuss politics with maybe twenty different people. None of them believe
that 9/11 was caused by our government actively or passively.

So, why don't I know six people who believe that our government tolerated the attack or actively instigated it? in addition to Ilya's thoughtful and convincing speculations I think that when anonymously answering some sort of poll the respondents may "push" their answer to show that, (a), they are nobody's fool and (b), no evil is too outrageous to contemplate (a clear mark of the sophisticate).

I think polling for social and political attitudes is difficult and frequently gets inaccurate results. The type of poll that gets the "30% believe in a 9/11 conspiracy" is the most likely to get media notice and, probably also, the least likely to be accurate.
2.2.2008 9:15pm
Pensans:
Conspiracy theories function by demonstrating how much conventional accounts rely on trust. They are strongly effective among groups that do not trust the given authoritative makers of a given consensus. Thus, liberals were strongly affected by conspiracy theories involving JFK's assassination because they did not trust the government.

Evaluating the rationality of conspiracy theories requires an evaluation of the rationality of trust generally. I would suggest that trust is not properly a result of rationality but of a sense of moral communtiy. It arises from moral obligation, not from epistemic warrant.

The general rise of conspiracy theorizing among society reflects a breakdown in moral community, where the propriety of trusting can no longer be grounded on a deep sense of moral unity.

Conspiracy theories -- whether we accept or reject them -- force us to confront how much of our beliefs are based on the trust of authorities whose representations can never be grounded with adequate individual epistemic warrant without trust. From an individual perspective, this creates a powerful emotional upset if those we are asked to trust are people who do not share our values and are engaged in projects inimical to our interests.
2.2.2008 9:31pm
JRL:
"Why are such irrational beliefs so widespread in an open society where information refuting them is easily accessible?"

It's a conspiracy!
2.2.2008 9:39pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Agreeing with Chris Bell and Fub and Benjamin Davis and all who noted that sometimes there really are conspiracies. Any time someone in power does something that doesn't make sense, even with a stated reason, until you follow the money, is one of those real conspiracies.

What about the belief that there is a power elite in Washington, folks like Cheney and Rove who have more power than the actual POTUS — true, or irrational?
2.2.2008 10:06pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
In some of the currently fashionable conspiracies, some folks--see Rosie O'Donnell--have made statements such as jet fuel can't burn steel that many take for granted.
Conspiracy theories promoted by public figures....
Is this new?
2.2.2008 10:06pm
Dave N (mail):
Gosh, we are seeing something resembling conspiracy theory even in the comments of this thread. BDS is but a subset of conspiracy theory (as is CDS, but I digress).
2.2.2008 10:17pm
NI:
I agree that most conspiracy theories don't involve real conspiracies -- think about how hard it is to keep your own birthday a secret, and how many people it takes to keep a Kennedy assasination conspiracy quiet, and the fact that those kinds of secrets don't keep well, and pretty soon a conspiracy looks far less plausible than that Oswald acted alone.

I also agree that the government has done some really terrible things in the past, and is so obsessed with secrecy that some things really are conspiracies.

There's one other thing to add to the mix, though. My parents were John Birchers so I grew up among conspiracy theorists. One argument the Birchers made that I still find a little persuasive is that it's a little hard to swallow that honest people trying to act in America's best interests would screw up as often as our government does. I'm not sure Osama bin Laden could have come up with a plan to hurt American interests that would have been as effective as our invasion of Iraq. Ditto the Vietnam War. Ditto Iran/Contra. Ditto Jimmy Carter's handling of the Iran hostage situation. At some point it's at least a fair question how we continually end up with leaders who are that incompetent.

Oh, and I do think there is a small-c conspiracy. I think people who have power and influence will do whatever they have to do, legal or not, to hold onto it, including talking to each other and working together with other people who also have power and influence.
2.2.2008 11:12pm
NI:
One other thing: Conspiracy theorists are probably not much different from people who disbelieve evolution. The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and the evidence against a particular conspiracy theory may be overwhelming, but they didn't come by their beliefs by being rational in the first place.
2.2.2008 11:17pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"'irrational beliefs' - Who would have thought the United States would create secret prisons, torture people, and the rest of it?"

Let's not forget the irrational belief that blacks can't compete with whites and Asians in applying to college. Who would believe that?
2.2.2008 11:18pm
Bruce:
There is no doubt a lot of belief in conspiracy theories. But I have to believe that the "yes" responses spike when a pollster from a respectable organization calls and asks, "Do you believe that UFOs landed in Roswell?" (Sure, if you say so!)
2.2.2008 11:24pm
SteveMG (mail):
Oh, lord: the Howard Hunt and the three tramps theory?

Complete nonsense.
2.2.2008 11:36pm
Wondering Willy:
athEIst,

If you have nothing better to do than criticize a minor spelling error on the Internet, I can understand why you have concluded that life is meaningless and rejected the notion of a dEIty.

And I love how this thread has turned into "I disagree with it, therefore it's a conspiracy theory."
2.2.2008 11:49pm
Wondering Willy:
athEist,

And by the way, if you write a post criticizing spelling, you probably shouldn't make a grammatical error regarding contractions in the post. Pots and kettles, you know.
2.2.2008 11:51pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I think one of the reasons why the 9/11 Truthers are so big is this very understandable psychological reaction to fear: If the greatest thing we as Americans have to fear is terrorists, then there's not much we can do about it, except hope that our government does its job well--while always obtaining all necessary warrants, and treating suspected, alleged, possible, maybe terrorists with tea and crumpets.

On the other hand, if 9/11 was all an elaborate conspiracy by neo-cons, Jews, and all the rest of the enemies of the 9/11 Truthers, then there is something that can be done: electing a new government. That electing Obama isn't going to stop the terrorists--it will probably embolden them, if anything--doesn't matter. It is the desire to have something that you can do something about that drives this.

I'm reminded of the story about the police officer who asks a man why he is crawling around under a street light. "I lost my contact lens over there" and points to an alley some distance away.

"So why are you looking here, if you lost it over there?"

"The light's better here."
2.2.2008 11:59pm
NI:
Wondering Willy, some of us reject the notion of a deity because, well, there's no real evidence for her existence. Amazing as you may find it, most of us have meaningful lives (or at least no less meaningful than our friends who are theists).
2.3.2008 12:02am
allwrits (mail):
Of course somethings help spread a rationale belief in conspiracies, such as the former CIA director becoming president, his son winning an election due to voting irregularities in the state where his brother was Governor, the near impossibility of the Oswald's shot given the rifle &angle (of course the conspiracy theorists never mention his years of training as a rifleman in the Marines), etc.
2.3.2008 12:03am
Wondering Willy:
NI,

Learn to recognize hyperbole and you might understand the teachings of Jesus better.
2.3.2008 12:14am
NI:
Wondering Willy, I will probably regret asking this, but what exactly do the teachings of Jesus have to do with the existence of a deity?

From my standpoint, theism fits under the same general heading as conspiracy theories. There's no real evidence for it, but people nevertheless believe it because it gives them emotional comfort, it makes their lives more important and interesting than they would otherwise be, and they prefer it to the alternative. OK, if it makes you happy, believe whatever you want.

It only becomes dangerous when people try to use it to set policy.
2.3.2008 12:19am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Was the military lying when it said it didn't have planes over Stephenville, Texas last month,

A spokesman for the 301st Fighter Wing in Fort Worth says no aircraft from his base was in the area, and says the objects may have been an illusion caused by two commercial airplanes.

or when it said it did have planes there?

Interestingly, in looking for a primary source for the statement that they did not have planes in the air I found this O'Reilly Factor transcript in which Bill says

O'REILLY: Now you know the military denies that any military aircraft were in the proximity of Stephenville that evening.

ALLEN: Yes, of course.

O'REILLY: Well, you know, it sounds like you might be a conspiratorialist here. Are you positive that U.S. military planes were hovering around or flying around these UFOs?
2.3.2008 12:33am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Millions of people who embrace absurd conspiracy theories about political events are generally rational in their everyday lives.

46% believe they have their own guardian angel or angels.

70% of adults said it was very or somewhat important to have a doctor who is spiritually attuned to them...Among those who experienced a doctor praying with them, almost all (93%) think the doctor's prayers helped them deal with their medical problem. In addition, most (97%) believe the prayers helped them recover.

one in five sports fans...say they do things in an attempt to bring good luck to their favorite team or avoid jinxing them

About three in four Americans profess at least one paranormal belief

That is not to say that people are uniformly rational in their nonpolitical decisions. Far from it. But they are likely to be a great deal less irrational than they are about politics.

Hmm...I wonder if law professors heavily invested in their own pet political theories are also susceptible to the logic of "rational ignorance"?
2.3.2008 1:00am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
I think you can chalk up the arrogance of academics patronizing conspiracy theorists to a combination of naivete and elitism. The simple fact is that there are conspiracies out there and it is naive in the extreme to claim there are not. Just to name a big one: The Gulf of Tonkin incident. I'm not claiming that every conspiracy is credible or possible, but there are certainly many that are.

Those who are lawyers have less of an excuse - they have at least heard about rigged legal proceedings, crooked judges, etc. and are supposedly trained to investigate and analyze evidence. I guess its too tempting to try to get a cheap self-esteem boost by looking down at other people than to actually employ your skills to find out that they might be right.

As to the the claim that "people can't keep quiet for that long": Sure they can. Happens all the time. There are criminal operations that stay hidden for decades and longer because people are afraid to talk.
2.3.2008 1:26am
PersonFromPorlock:
I'm a little confused as to why you think a belief in government conspiracies is irrational; what do you think the Duke rape hoax was? Or the less famous but ongoing Cory Maye case? Surely the brouhaha in Florida in 2000 was a conspiracy by somebody, either the Republicans or the Democrats, acting in concert to steal an election they didn't win. Or go a little farther afield and consider the recent Canadian elections and the Liberal party misdeeds - and coverup - they exposed.

Of course not every conspiracy theory is true; but enough conspiracies have existed in the past that downplaying the liklihood of their existing now is irrational itself.
2.3.2008 8:18am
Federal Dog:
Dan Simon has got it right. Do we have any basis on which to believe that people are rational about their personal lives?
2.3.2008 8:24am
Brett Bellmore:

have made statements such as jet fuel can't burn steel that many take for granted.


Well, it can't. What it CAN do is a real number on the heat treating, at which point the steel isn't strong enough to hold up the building anymore. You've got to explain these things to people.

Person from Porlock has it right: Conspiracies occur all the time. A lot of people may irrationally believe in conspiracies for which there is little or no evidence, but the conviction that there aren't conspiracies is every bit as irrational as belief in ones that didn't happen.

Part of this is driven, I think, by media laziness. They can't be bothered to investigate things, or explain, and so, somebody sees a black helicopter, they're dismissed as lunatics, even though the government actually HAS black helicopters. It's just too much work to find out what was really going on.

And seeing before you evidence of something the media won't admit happened will create a paranoid mindset in otherwise rational people.
2.3.2008 10:03am
DonGRO:

"Why are such irrational beliefs so widespread in an open society where information refuting them is easily accessible?"


Well, I tell you Mr Somin. It is, because the "refuting" comes from the mainstream media, which lie to us time and again.

And, by the way, where is the official government engineering report on why WTC 7 collapsed long hours after the 1 and 2?

Why was not McGreevey' Israeli lover arrested for attempt to extort $50 million on behalf of a small Jewish college in NYC?

Why is Vatican exluded from DEA' yearly reports on money laundering?

And so on.

Perhaps, sometimes truth is stranger then fiction? Possible?

I will end on a higher note. A conspiracy theory directly from The New York Times:


" To enforce the myth that diamonds are rare and valuable, most of the world's rough stones are hoarded in London and then carefully fed back into the world market.

De Beers, the South African conglomerate that controls two-thirds of the world's rough diamonds, decides how many will be sold, when, to whom and at what price."


NYT authors, according to Harvard "scentists" cited, clearly "suffer from a crippled epistemology". Wow!
2.3.2008 10:25am
WHOI Jacket:
DeBeers isn't a conspiracy, it's a cartel.

The great Bill Whittle wrote this on JFK:


Who in the general public knows that Oswald tried to defect to the Soviet Union, was rejected, and slit his wrists in a Soviet hotel when he learned he was to be thrown out of the country? Who knows that the Russians reluctantly granted him asylum, shipped him to the boonies, gave him an obscure factory job making television sets, and that when his fifteen minutes of novelty were up, he desperately lied and cajoled the Soviets into letting him return to the US? Who can read about his disappointment at the lack of press coverage upon his return to America, or his desperate attempts at attention with Fair Play for Cuba, or his self-documented assassination attempt on Texas anti-communist General Edwin Walker, without seeing a pathological narcissistic loser just waiting to show the world how exceptional he really was?

Once you know Lee Harvey Oswald, you realize that he would have pulled the trigger on Cantinflas or Bozo the Clown if either one of them had been parading beneath his window that November day. It is so obvious, so straightforward, so simple... so inevitable.
2.3.2008 10:45am
Wondering Willy:
NI,

Dude, you better go try to buy a sense of humor before it's too late.
2.3.2008 10:57am
TGGP (mail) (www):
Steve Sailer's grand theory of conspiracy theories is discussed here. He emphasizes the importance of extended families vs impersonal institutions in a culture.
2.3.2008 2:33pm
Elmer:
It has been proven that in any logical system, it is possible to make statements that cannot be proven or disproven within that system. Conspiracy theories are not part of a logical system, and can be self-contained. All evidence supporting the theory is true, while any that refutes it is misinformation. However, in practice it becomes more difficult to ignore personal experience that contradicts the theory. Most people have evidence that casts doubt on the theory that GWB took their car keys and put them between the couch cushions, while very few have personal knowledge of 9/11.
2.3.2008 3:37pm
James in Wisconsin (mail):
I don't find the people who promulgate conspiracy theories to be ill-informed. Peter Dale Scott, for example, who has advanced conspiracy theories about both 9/11 and the JFK assassination and connected the two, is nothing if not well informed.

Conspiracy theories thrive for many reasons, and not the least of which is that there are conspiracies. The 9/11 attacks were certainly the result of a conspiracy. The question is who was involved in the conspiracy, and what they were trying to accomplish, and the answer to those questions is far from clear.

Another reason is that well informed people know that the U.S. government lies and suppresses information. This contributes to the sense that the government has something to hide. In the case of 9/11, the something that the government is trying to hide may be the immense incompetence of the people in the various intelligence, airport security, and military organizations charged with protecting us. Or, it could be something deeper.

It seems to me that the well-informed/ill-informed divide can work in just the opposite fashion. A person who has superficial knowledge of an event is inclined to accept the explanation given by the government or the media, not having any been offered any contradictory explanations or not being aware of evidence that runs contrary to the official conclusions. The more that one knows, the more one becomes aware of problems or gaps in the official explanation (all explanations are going to have gaps), and the more open the person will be to alternative explanations.
2.3.2008 3:46pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
TGGP-

Steve Sailer's theory on conspiracy theories ignores organizations like intelligence agencies that have secrecy and exceptionalism (exceptionalism in that they think they are above or outside the law, supposedly due to an overarching mission) as characteristics and values. And an organization doesn't have to be large or organized to have these characteristics or values. And it doesn't have to be governmental either, there are fraternal organizations and churches or religious organizations that have these values.

Take the semi-criminal police unit chronicled in the TV show The Shield. They are not related genetically or even ethnically (a couple are Irish, but they could really be of any nationality or ethnicity) and they could potentially operate and keep secrets for long times as long as no one made serious mistakes or betrayed the group.
2.3.2008 3:49pm
markm (mail):
NI:
One argument the Birchers made that I still find a little persuasive is that it's a little hard to swallow that honest people trying to act in America's best interests would screw up as often as our government does.


Aside from politician's own pretentions about themselves, who claimed they were honest people, or that they were acting in America's best interests rather than their own? There's a whole world of possibilities between that and assuming that they are all colluding with the Trilateral Commission.
2.3.2008 4:01pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Does anybody believe we have been stripped of Habeus Corpus? Has anyone heard well educated and politically well informed say we have? I think we have to distinguish between politically well informed people who foster conspiracy belief, and the poorly informed who accept it.
2.3.2008 4:19pm
Ricardo (mail):
I think you can chalk up the arrogance of academics patronizing conspiracy theorists to a combination of naivete and elitism.

I think it is the other way around. Conspiracy theories tend to be attractive to people who are pretty average but have a need to feel that they are in a rarified elite due to their superior understanding of the way the world really works. Hence the need to chuckle at others' naivety.

Along the same lines, conspiracy theories provide some people with a sense of community. People who live in the suburbs and work at boring office jobs can log onto their computers after work and be convinced that they are fighting big and powerful people and helping to unravel some grand deception. Talking with other conspiracy theorists is like having your own language; you can talk with people who think exactly as you do and have a way to distinguish insiders from "naive" outsiders.
2.3.2008 7:27pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Well, I tell you Mr Somin. It is, because the "refuting" comes from the mainstream media, which lie to us time and again.

And, by the way, where is the official government engineering report on why WTC 7 collapsed long hours after the 1 and 2?

Why was not McGreevey' Israeli lover arrested for attempt to extort $50 million on behalf of a small Jewish college in NYC?

Why is Vatican exluded from DEA' yearly reports on money laundering?

And so on.
One of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theorist is to ask, with portentious music swelling in the background, profound-sounding questions. There's no real reason to believe that the answers to those questions would support the conspiracy theory at issue; it's the fact of asking the question that's supposed to prove the theory.

For instance, "Where is the engineering report on WTC 7?" We're supposed to think, "Ah, they didn't produce a report, which must prove that the real reason is that it was deliberately brought down." But of course if the Truthers' theory were true, wouldn't the government have produced a false report just as the Truthers think they did for the twin towers? The lack of report has no real significance to the Truther conspiracy theory.
2.3.2008 7:48pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
I think that when anonymously answering some sort of poll the respondents may "push" their answer to show that, (a), they are nobody's fool and (b), no evil is too outrageous to contemplate (a clear mark of the sophisticate).

When I get anonymously polled on dumb stuff like this, I make stuff up for the heck of it.
2.4.2008 8:53am
Scared to say!!:
If there is one thing that I've learned, it is: being a skeptic will keep me from being anyone's fool. Ask questions and analyze the information yourself, and refrain from coming to a conclusion too quickly.

Oh, while the "experts" and the Warren commission found conclusive evidence that Oswald acted alone, the investigation was poor and too many loose ends have never been resolved.

And wasn't Frank Olsen secretly drugged by the CIA. Of course not, because that would require a conspiracy and coverup at the highest level.

I guess 9-11 is best explained by incompetence at the government's highest levels... or are did the terrorist just outsmart the Clinton Administration, or were the Clinton Administration just too busy worrying about those Americans that politically opposed them? And the Clinton scandal coverups... oh, where to stop.
2.4.2008 11:34am