Thursday, August 31, 2006


Conspiracy Theory Appeal

What is the appeal of conspiracy theories?

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy have several things in common. They were terrible events that remain seared in the memories of all Americans who are old enough to remember them. And they’ve both given rise to numerous conspiracy theories. Because there is no evidence for these conspiracies, mutually contradictory conspiracy theories are advocated, based on the prejudices of the believer. For JFK’s killing, stories about Cubans, the Mafia, and the CIA circulated. Regarding 9/11, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists blame Israel, anti-Americans blame Bush, and pro-lifers blame abortion. Peter Bagge’s cartoon at: makes this point much more eloquently than I can. (A picture is indeed worth 1000 words.) It is interesting that there seems to be a positive correlation in believing in conspiracy theories for both these events.

Appeals to ignorance (we don’t know what caused X, so you should accept my far-fetched hypothesis) are a common part of conspiratorial arguments, but I think there is a more fundamental fallacy. It is the expectation that causes should be proportional to effects. (Does anyone know if this fallacy has a proper name?) That is, it should not be so that a loser like Lee Harvey Oswald should be able to bring down the President, so he must not have. The naturalistic fallacy, confusing what is so with what ought to be, is clearly at work here. But I think there is a bit more.

These two events had a big emotional impact on Americans. And the explanations, a lone gunman and a group of foreign terrorists, were emotionally unsatisfying to many, even if they were correct. So the conspiracy theories are believed not based on any evidence for them, but because they are more emotionally satisfying to the believer. Thus, they are a lot like religious beliefs, and seem to be held with the same fervency.
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