Thursday, July 19, 2007

I have no credentials to be speaking on this issue!

Denialism Blog has a post up, Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? This is a topic that's come up quite a bit in my house lately--specifically with regard to those who don't believe we landed on the moon--so I thought it might be of interest. One thing that they highlight that may be significant is this:
So what kind of thought processes contribute to belief in conspiracy theories? A study I carried out in 2002 explored a way of thinking sometimes called "major event - major cause" reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging.

I gave volunteers variations of a newspaper story describing an assassination attempt on a fictitious president. Those who were given the version where the president died were significantly more likely to attribute the event to a conspiracy than those who read the one where the president survived, even though all other aspects of the story were equivalent.

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes - for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

But I also found this very interesting:
Age is not the only demographic to influence conspiracy beliefs. Several US studies have found that ethnic minorities - particularly African and Hispanic Americans - are far more believing of conspiracy theories than white Americans. In our recent UK study, we found a similar race effect, coupled with an even stronger association between income and belief levels. People who describe themselves as "hard up" are more likely to believe in conspiracies than those with average income levels, while the least likely to believe are the well off.

How can we account for the link between race, income level and conspiracy theories? Theorists tend to show higher levels of anomie - a general disaffection or disempowerment from society. Perhaps this is the underlying factor that predisposes people more distant from centres of power - whether they be poorer people or those from ethnic minorities - to believe in conspiracies.

Essentially, societal disempowerment increases the probability of belief. One could read this two ways. First, that disempowerment leads to coping mechanisms to protect one's ego. You're not poor and powerless because you are unintelligent, or are lazy, or some other simple explanation. It's because the man is keeping you down. The system is against you. A perceived enemy at odds with you is easier to face than one's own defects.

A second explanation - that the wealthy and elite are no more rational than the disempowered, but because of their status, they have no desire to rock the boat.

In comments, someone offers a third possibility:
Third explanation: you are poor and disconnected, so you don't have access to education and trustworthy information, you cannot develop a rigorous, scientific way of thinking or a stock of general information for checking facts, and, ultimately, you believe the first load of BS you receive, because you cannot detect it.

And someone else touches on something that occurred to me in relation to the point in the main article:
It seems to me that most (if not all) of the wildest theories preface their particular version with stories about past government lies (or theories about lying). As if to say...'see, they've done it before'

For instance, when Spike Lee appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher in October, 2005, he (and Maher, to a degree) defended the wild theory that the government conspired to blow up the dams by pointing to other things that have gone wrong. A partial transcript:
Maher: And this past Saturday, Louis Farrakhan did a kind of reunion of the Million Man March--I don't think we got a million people this time. But, uh, he was saying, last Saturday in Washington, that he thinks that the federal government--there was a conspiracy to actually blow up those levees so that they would flood the poor, black districts in New Orleans. I have to tell you, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I don't believe it. But, when you see some of the things that have gone on in this country....

Lee: Exactly. It's not far-fetched.


Michel Martin: We can all understand, anybody with any knowledge of history can understand why a lot of people would feel this way. That that's a reasonable theory.

Martin also disagreed with the theory but prefaced her remarks with the above conciliatory message to Lee. And when she objected, Lee brought up the 2004 elections--"If they can rig an election, they can do anything!"

But furthermore, Lee went on to say that because blacks have traditionally suffered at the hands of whites, this theory was not beyond the pale, specifically bringing up the Tuskegee Experiment when another guest, Tucker Carlson, objected (and I never thought I'd be rooting for Tucker Carlson):
Lee: We're in L.A. And there's an emergency situation. We call from Beverly Hills, and we call from Compton, which one the cops coming to first? [Here the audience applauded]


Lee: [To Carlson, after he objected] With the history of this country... have you ever heard of the Tuskegee experiment?


Lee: I don't put anything past the American government when it comes to people of color in this country, I'm sorry.

To Lee, the fact that black people suffered--and continue to suffer--at the hands of larger society was proof enough that this conspiracy theory was feasible. So I might add that a fourth option is: those who are societally disempowered have learned to fear and distrust the power structure that shuns and rejects them and, because of their past experiences with the system, are willing to believe anything bad about it; that it has no limits.

It may also be that those who are disempowered tend to overestimate the power of the system, for any number of reasons (simply because they are not a part of it and can't objectively judge it; because it is larger than they are and therefore they project god-like size to it; etc.). This may help them to rationalize conspiracy theories which would require nigh-unfathomable resources, where "everyone is in on it." In fact, this conspiracy may simply reflect the power system that they are not a part of, which would again allow them to accept that "everyone is in on it."

Further, disenfranchised groups may be more likely to accept conspiracy theories like this, where there is not a shred of evidence and everything "logically" must be "covered up" because historically their voices have not been heard. So they don't find it so unreasonable that other voices have been silenced by "the Man" or whatever.

Well, that's a enough mindless speculation based on a single incident.... Besides, we all know that belief in conspiracy theories are caused by bumper stickers.

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