Breaking Down Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories are simplistic and exhaustive causal theories that attribute widespread natural and social calamities to the intentional and organized activities of certain social groups that are seen to form conspiratorial bodies set on ruining and then dominating the rest of humanity.
Conspiracy theory is an explanation of widespread, complex and worrying events in terms of the premeditated actions of small groups of highly organized conspirators.
One of the best documented conspiracy theories is the myth, dating from the Middle Ages, of the Jewish world conspiracy (Cohn, 1966), which surfaces periodically and often results in massive systematic persecution.
Other conspiracy theories include the belief that immigrants are intentionally plotting to undermine the economy, that homosexuals are intentionally spreading HIV, and that witches (in the Middle Ages) and Al-Qaeda (most recently) are behind virtually every world disaster you care to mention (e.g. Cohn, 1975).
Conspiracy theories wax and wane in popularity. They were particularly popular from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century:
- Everywhere people sensed designs within designs, cabals within cabals; there were court conspiracies, backstairs conspiracies, ministerial conspiracies, factional conspiracies, aristocratic conspiracies, and by the last half of the eighteenth century even conspiracies of gigantic secret societies that cut across national boundaries and spanned the Atlantic. (Wood, 1982, p.407)
The accomplished conspiracy theorist can, with consummate skill and breathtaking versatility, explain even the most arcane and puzzling events in terms of the devious schemes and inscrutable machinations of hidden conspirators.
Mick Billig (1978) believes it is precisely this that can make conspiracy theories so attractive—they are incredibly effective at reducing uncertainty (Hogg, 2007b, 2012). They provide a causal explanation in terms of enduring dispositions that can explain a wide range of events, rather than complex situational factors that are less widely applicable.
Furthermore, worrying events become controllable and easily remedied because they are caused by small groups of highly visible people rather than being due to complex sociohistorical circumstances (Bains, 1983). Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories are almost immune to disconfirming evidence.
For example, in December 2006 the outcome of a three-year, £3.5 million enquiry into the death in 1997 of Princess Diana was reported—although there was absolutely no evidence that the British Royal family had conspired with the British Government to have her killed to prevent her marrying an Egyptian Muslim, this conspiracy theory still persists.
There are also conspiracy theories about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001—some Americans are absolutely convinced it was the doing of the US government, while historian Bernard Lewis (2004) reported that many Muslims believe that the same attacks were perpetrated by Israel (Lewis, 2004).
A recent conspiracy theory has it that the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, is not only black, and presumably not white, but not really an American at all!