Friday, June 14, 2013

Where do conspiracy theories come from, and why do they matter?

Mass delusions, including paranoid conspiracy theories and other widely shared myths, may be factually and logically absurd, but it's important to remember that they're also social facts worth noticing and trying to understand—and if enough people believe them, they can sometimes be quite important and consequential social facts.

Apropos of which ... a recent post by Andrew Sullivan, Where Conspiracy Theories Come From, is worth looking at just to watch this priceless video clip from a BBC interview with David Aaronovich (author of Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History) and American talk-radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones:

Sullivan also quotes a perceptive passage from an interesting-sounding book:
Jesse Walker discusses his forthcoming book on conspiracy theories, The United States Of Paranoia:
A point I try to stress in the book is that even a conspiracy theory that says absolutely nothing true about the external world does say something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe it. One example that I mention in the book is the claim that white doctors were deliberately injecting black babies with AIDS. There’s no evidence for that. But while investigating that theory, you can’t stop there. You have to go on to ask, “Why did people believe this was true?”

And in fact, there is this long history of the secretive medical mistreatment of black people, which includes the Tuskegee experiment and all sorts of other things. There were these rumors about night doctors [who would supposedly secretly experiment on African Americans] and it’s really unclear to what extent those were true. Historians who look at this are very cautious, because it’s entirely possible that hospitals were seriously abusing the rights of people from the underclass. We’re trying to piece it together from such incomplete evidence that there’s always going to be question marks. There’s a spectrum that on one end has stuff that’s accepted as historical fact and on the other contains weird fantasies. But these aren’t completely separate categories because there’s this whole realm of possibilities in between.
Sometimes, it is important to add, the underlying anxieties don't have any grains of empirical truth in them, even symbolically transformed grains of truth, but instead are based on social-psychological mechanisms of projection, displacement, the transformation of guilt into resentment and self-justification, etc. ... but those are also linked to forms of social experience, which also need to be analyzed and understood.

Yours for reality-based discourse (though without illusory expectations),
Jeff Weintraub