Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why people believe Conspiracy Theories

One cannot go through too many days on this planet without running into a conspiracy theory or two. My first experience with a believer in one of these theories was many years ago, when I ran into a John Birch Society representative. They actually believed in quite a few conspiracies at once, but the foundation stone of their theories was that Dwight Eisenhower was the chief communist agent operating in the Western World. How else to explain his meteoric rise from Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army to (Four-Star) General in three short years? Of course, the easiest explanation would be that he was good at his job, and that the U.S. entered the Second World War during that time which saw the need for active officers increase twelve fold. Additionally, lots of people on active duty in 1941 were quickly promoted after the war began in earnest. Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton, three of the most famous American generals of the war, all started out as (Full-bird) Colonels in 1941, before the U.S. entry on 8 Dec. 1941. All became Four-star Generals by 1945.

As I spoke with the Bircher, I suggested there were four simple, and believable, factors that influenced Eisenhower's quick promotion: there was a war; officers who fought and commanded well were needed; a lot of officers died, so those who lived were promoted quickly to fill in gaps; and finally, his reputation for exceptional personal and organizational skills - exactly what a high-placed general officer needed to put together such huge operations with multi-national forces. But this was too simple for my Bircher acquaintance: he preferred to believe a vast communist conspiracy placed Eisenhower in just the right positions, and ensured he was promoted quickly, so he would be in position to be President -as if anyone could predict all of the events that culminated in his ultimate election. I suggested that such a belief defies simple logic. But the Bircher would have none of it.

Many skeptics and debunkers, such as Michael Shermer, point out the obvious shortcomings in many of these theories. For instance, to pull off a faked moon landing would require that thousands of people were in on the hoax, and stayed quiet all this time. A similar problem plagues Kennedy assassination theorists.

As David Aaronovitch states, "After the JFK assassination, it was unbearable to many people that they could live in a country where a lone gunman could kill a president. In those circumstances, it’s not surprising that an overarching conspiracy theory emerges." In his new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, he posits that it simply makes people feel more secure to think that organized human agency was responsible for horrific acts such as the JFK assassination than to allow the chaotic power of a crazed gunman to intrude into their comfortable worlds.

Recent examples include the various 9/11 theories, which suggest everything from blaming Israel to blaming an enormous conspiracy within the Bush administration, and the Obama birthers, lest we be accused of partisanship, who contend that President Obama was not born in the U.S. and that his parents faked their announcement in the Honolulu newspaper in order to ensure he could be President someday. Numerous flaws can easily be demonstrated in all of these theories. Obviously, these theories fill an emotional or psychic need within their advocates, and very few will allow reason to intrude as long as their need is met by their conspiratorial claims.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just because your paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.