Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Conspiracy Theories and Gossip

Phil Molé (writing in eSkeptic) does a very nice job explaining why there is NO evidence supporting the 9/11 conspiracy theories. He then gave a number of reasons why these stories are believed regardless of this. But I think that he missed one important cause, and this has to do with the nature of gossip. Conspiracy theories are a kind of rumor, and like other rumors, one is more likely to believe and pass on one which tend to confirm what you already believe or want to believe. (Thus rumors tend to tell us more about the person who tells them than what the world is like.) But another purpose of gossip is to hurt (or attempt to do so) the person you are gossiping about. You are less likely to pass on a juicy bit of gossip about someone you care about.

Molé, reporting on a 911truth.org conference he attended, observes that those conspiracy theorists do not act as if they “believe what they are saying”:

Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present, or would at the very least have conducted behind the scenes arrests and jailed the movement’s leaders. Yet even the most vocal leaders of the 9/11 Truth Movement are still going strong, and no one at the conference seemed very worried about government reprisals. This fact seemingly indicates that at some level, the conspiracy theorists themselves don’t really believe what they are saying.
So why might they say it anyway? For the same reason that you might pass on (or make up) a nasty rumor about someone you dislike: it can damage their reputation. Thus gossip can be seen as indirect way of attacking someone. Unable to successfully attack the Bush administration (e.g. in recent elections), conspiracy theories try instead to spread a nasty rumor. Doing so is bound to be counter-productive, as such poisonous discourse will make many of us likely to regard such people as kooks and dismiss their legitimate criticism out of hand. However, it may be that poisoning the discourse, and thus the body politic, is precisely what is desired (perhaps to make governance more difficult).

So when Sam Harris, in a must-read article from Monday’s L.A. Times, writes:

A nationwide poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University found that more than a third of Americans suspect that the federal government "assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East;" 16% believe that the twin towers collapsed not because fully-fueled passenger jets smashed into them but because agents of the Bush administration had secretly rigged them to explode.
I don’t believe that these poll respondents are being honest. Instead, I take their answers as a swipe against the Bush administration. Thus the poll is really a measure of hostility rather than belief. And these numbers demonstrate that the conspiracy theorists have been somewhat successful in poisoning the body politic.
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