Conspiracy | How do we know what we can trust?

Updated: Feb 15

This post was much tougher to write than I expected, as there is SO MUCH that could be covered and talked about. Do you have any competing thoughts or comments? Let me know, I'd love to continue learning with you :)

It seems that almost everyone I know subscribes to at least one conspiracy or another, especially in the last year or so. But why? What draws someone to conspiracy? And what does that mean? In this blog post, we're going to:

  • Examine the phenomena of conspiracies and their consequence.

  • Understand them in relationship to the concepts of trust and support;

  • Consider the impact of experience and epistemology on perception; and

  • Explore a challenge for everyone in the conversation.

Conspiracy Theories

What if I told you, that the Earth was not in fact a sphere, but a flat disk controlled by a powerful group of people? You would probably point to the many pictures taken of Earth in space, showing a round sphere. I would then point out, that you are only referring to those pictures because you trust those space agents, and you don't know that they are actually lying to you. You might come up with some other form of evidence to share with me, but that will only reinforce my argument because, according to Wired Magazine's Argument Clinic (2017) "...any evidence which might contradict a conspiracy, is only further proof of the conspiracy." In other words, conspiracy is not open to argument, because it lacks falsifiability, the logical possibility that an assertion, hypothesis, or theory can be shown to be false by an observation or experiment.

According to Douglas (2021), a conspiracy theory can be defined as: belief in a proposed plot which is carried out in secret, usually by a powerful group of people who have some kind of sinister goal and something to gain. And while conspiracy theories appear to be everywhere nowadays, according to research by Karen Douglas, conspiracy theories are not actually any more prevalent then they have been in the past. Even so, with our cultural use of social media, it's hard to believe it. According to Ehrenreich (2021):

2020 was a banner year for conspiracy theories. First there was the proliferation of QAnon, whose followers insisted that Donald Trump was all that stood between us and a “deep state” cabal that was running a global sex trafficking ring and harvesting a chemical from children’s blood. Then the COVID-19 pandemic... The outbreak was intentionally caused; the virus was created in a lab; the virus was caused by the rollout of the 5G cellphone network; the virus was spread by Bill Gates so that he could use a vaccination program to implant microchips into people that would let him track and control them; and, of course, the virus isn’t even worth worrying about. For a grand finale, we got the myth that the presidential election had been stolen—a “myth” that triggered an invasion of the Capitol.

Some other popular conspiracy theories that draw followings from millions of people of all kinds believe in are:

While many people feel a level of skepticism towards those in power/authority, not everyone turns to conspiracy. So, what causes someone to be more drawn to conspiracy than others? It's very tempting to place "those people who believe in conspiracy theories" in a particular demographic, but we can't! For one, it doesn't appear to be nailed down to education. Despite research which suggests a relationship between education and belief in conspiracy, it does not explain why the same theories are also common among those who have higher levels of education (roughly 15% of those with postgraduate degrees). Secondly, it's not necessarily down to political alignment either. “Politically motivated conspiracy theories find a receptive audience among both Democrats and Republicans,” said Daniel A. Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life. People at the political extremes of both the “left” and “right” seem more likely to endorse conspiracy beliefs than more moderate groups on either side.

The Consequence of Conspiracy

While there are many instances of conspiracy being uncovered as true, we need to also recognize the serious consequences they have, because these are not just opinions--what "actually happened" matters. The conspiracy of Holocaust Revisionism for example has a serious consequence in its denial of a fundamental part of Jewish history. According to Time Magazine (2019):

Despite overwhelming evidence and an admission and apology from Germany decades ago, revisionists continue to claim that nearly 6 million Jews were not killed by Nazis during the Holocaust...most revisionists do not deny that Jews were interned in prison camps during World War II; rather, they argue that the number of deaths was greatly exaggerated. Gas chambers are a particular sticking point: Holocaust deniers say they were purely a rumor or, if they indeed existed, were not powerful enough to kill — though evidence and history indicate otherwise. And the photographs of emaciated and dying Jews? Attorney Edgar J. Steele, a revisionist, says, "All those pictures of skinny people and bodies stacked like cordwood were actually of Czechs and Poles and Germans [who] died of typhus, which was rampant in the camps."

Another is from famous conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, who spread information that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax, among many other things.

Not only can conspiracy theories be incredibly harmful; but they also lead to a greater distrust and lack of confidence in education and expertise. In the following video, Quassim Cassam (2017) points out that we're all prone to belief in conspiracy with prolonged exposure to doubt over time. Whether or not a conspiracy is true/false, the consequence of this repeated exposure to conspiracy leads to disappearing knowledge in things we should have confidence in--like our medical system, for example.

Trust and Support

As an existential therapist, I believe that the phenomena of conspiracy represents a lack of basic trust in the presented information offered by those "in charge" of our existence. Trust is an agreement to surrender oneself to a supportive structure in order to transcend a perceived risk. Information, particularly presented by experts and those in positions of authority, is a significant source for support. In this sense, trust takes courage, because you are put in a position of vulnerability as you rely on another person/thing/idea/etc.

The phenomena of conspiracy reflects a lack of basic trust in the presented information offered by those "in charge" of our existence.

During one of our training sessions for Existential Analysis, we were asked to do an interesting exercise. While sitting in our chairs, we were asked to consider the following questions: Can I trust this chair? How do I know that I can trust in this chair? Am I fully giving my weight in accepting the support presented by this chair? Or only partially? In considering these questions, I began to realize how vulnerable I was; and also became more aware of the uncertainty which emerges from making a personal choice. But this didn't change my position, trusting in the support offered by the chair was ultimately quite easy for me.

But what if I saw someone fall out of their chair? Or rather, what if my chair had broken in the past? How would this impact me? I believe that I would at least think a bit more critically before blindly trusting in something that I assumed would support me. I would perhaps, take a look at the various components of the chair, test it out a bit maybe, before finding my personal answer to the presented support of the chair. In this, I have moved from blindly accepting the support from what I supposedly should trust, to a more critical-perspective.

The question of support challenges us to give a personal answer: Trust. So, in taking a critical perspective, we say, "Before I give my trust to something, I want to examine it's reliability." We do this because, the more trust we choose to give, the more control we give up. This is why trusting can be so scary! It takes courage because, you are choosing to accept a level of uncertainty.

The question of support challenges us to give a personal answer: Trust...And the more trust we choose to give, the more control we give up.

A critical perspective though, is not the same thing as belief in conspiracy. In this instance, to take a conspiratorial perspective would be to believe that someone had intentionally loosened various screws in the chair in order for me or someone else to fall. So, what factors impact someone's perception to believe in a conspiracy? I want to attempt to offer an idea over how particular personalities could be generally drawn to ideas of conspiracy due to their experience, epistemology, and perception. In other words, I want to make a distinction between a conspiratorial perspective; and belief in conspiracy theories.

Experience, Epistemology and Perception

The word epistemology refers to a philosophy of knowledge. It asks the questions, "How do I know what I know? How can I determine what is true? Is it because I see something for myself or something else? Is Reality or Truth even possible to totally comprehend?" Our individual epistemology is shaped by our experiences in the world and it informs our perception or, our way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; our mental impression.

Our experience in the world significantly shapes our perception. For example:

In a study done by Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University, it was reported that contemporary hunter/gatherer tribes from Namibia did not contain the color blue in their language. Furthermore, they were not able to report any real distinction between the colors green and blue; but they could identify over sixty different variations of the color green. Their language structure was based off of their experiences in the world; and their experience, informed their perception.

One component of our epistemology refers to our fundamental beliefs about those in power who influence our cultural structure of support, our cultural ground, our cultural assumptions; which then in turn, impacts our perception of the information/knowledge presented by those who are in power. In having a conspiratorial perspective, one's epistemological position assumes that what is presented cannot be trusted--leading to a perception which is informed by a suspicion of those in power--and that one can only really trust information when they have uncovered the "real" motivation behind those in power--to gain more power/money/etc.

A Challenge for Everyone

The consequence of repeated exposure to doubt and conspiracy is the belief that you have two options: Stay naïve and blindly trust authority or grab onto the narrative of conspiracy. But there is a third option for everyone. To find our way towards a critical perspective, otherwise known as intelligent skepticism.

In taking a critical perspective, one remains in dialogue with both their inner skeptic while holding a position that is falsifiable, meaning that it is open to evidence (by experts, not 4chan bloggers) which may contradict/enrich their belief. In doing this, we move closer to what the truth might actually be (and sometimes, it might even be a conspiracy).

Check out some of the following videos which helped me in writing this post:

Do you have any feedback/questions on this article? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. I'd love to continue learning with you :)