Almost anyone you speak to will tell you they believe in one or another conspiracy theory. Over 80 percent of Americans believe there was some kind of conspiracy involving the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 30 percent believe the government is hiding something about President Obama’s birth certificate (not a surprising statistic if you look at President Trump’s approval ratings) and 54 percent believe in a conspiracy involving 9/11. It’s always good to ask questions, but it is never good to make up answers. Conspiracy theories are not really theories. Real theories are grounded in fact. Conspiracy theories are simplistic and wild speculations almost never rooted in reality.
Conspiracy theories come from of a lot of places. Some are born out of denial. People cannot conceive of something so horrible happening that they invent fantasies or alternative outcomes. In this way, it’s a coping mechanism. “People don’t like things that are really random,” said Jan-Willem van Prooijen, an associate professor of psychology at Vrije University in Amsterdam who studied the psychological reasoning of conspiracy theories. “Randomness is more threatening than having an enemy. You can prepare for an enemy, you can’t prepare for coincidences.” This goes along with a person’s proportional bias – the inclination to believe the size of the cause conspiracy must be proportionate to the size of the event. People are also more willing to believe in conspiracy theories if it aligns with their point of view or because it gives them a sense of agency. By believing in a conspiracy theory, they know something that you don’t. It makes them feel special and unique.
Some theories I understand. The magic bullet in the J.F.K assassination is a perfect example. How could it be that a bullet could travel down, up and side to side? This would make one consider the theory of a second shooter, until one looks at the seating arrangements in the convertible. President Kennedy’s seat was slightly higher than that of the Governor of Texas. A bullet traveling at an angle proportionate to the height of the seats would hit both Kennedy and the Governor in the exact places it did. This is usually the way it is with all conspiracy theories. With a little bit of research grounded in firm science and history, one can usually come to the sensible conclusion.
Some are just racist or stupid, like President Obama’s birth certificate or that jet fuel couldn’t melt the steel beams in the World Trade Center. President Obama has already presented his birth certificate. There is no evidence he was born outside the U.S.. Senator Ted Cruz was not born in the U.S.. He ran for President in 2016. No one besides John McCain found this problematic. As for the steel beams, they don’t need to melt, they only need to break. No one has ever claimed the World Trade Center melted to the ground and I have never heard of any building actually melting. If there are any cases of this I’d be glad to hear them. Do I really have to say George W. Bush isn’t smart enough to cook up such a clever and sinister plan?
Of course, there are real conspiracies. In 1972, five men broke into the DNC headquarters in the Watergate plaza. Some at the top levels of government, which later included Richard Nixon’s campaign manager John Mitchell, White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and even President Nixon himself, tried to cover it up. This conspiracy involved five men and this could not be contained or kept quiet. Why would anyone think a vast and complicated conspiracy could last this long without being uncovered or at the very least show some solid evidence of its existence? Whenever you’re listening to a conspiracy theory, remember Watergate and how such a simple and fervently protected conspiracy could not be kept quiet. It is the best template to use.
It is proper and healthy to ask questions and to be skeptical of your government. However it is mentally unhealthy and irresponsible to tout conspiracy theories while denying the facts we already know. “Practice must always be founded on sound theory,” said Leonardo Da Vinci. Let us practice the use of sound theory.
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