I have an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories. Now, when I say this please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t actually buy into the stated details of conspiracy theories, I’m just fascinated by how much devotion and faith people put into them. How a person will take several halfway demonstrable, halfway ludicrous details, and then loosely connect them into something which at first glance sounds like a plausible narrative, but on any close inspection falls apart under the most basic level of scrutiny.
Despite what some might think, I am wholly unconvinced that either intelligence or education plays a significant role in deterring people away from believing in conspiracy theories, because such theories are not really about filling the gaps of our mind’s ignorance and shortcomings. It’s about satisfying a base desire for witnessing something greater, higher, that is closed to the majority of the “deluded” masses. This is what makes conspiracy theories appealing to its proponents.
I was still young when Lady Diana died in 1997, but I was old enough to take note of the reactions people around me had to the news. It took about four minutes after hearing the news for several members in my family to staunchly announce how they didn’t accept the “mainstream” story. Why didn’t they accept it? What tangible evidence did they have to make them doubt the news report? Essentially none, but it didn’t matter. There suspicion was that the simple answer must be a distraction to cover up the real story. Or, as one person put it, “I cannot believe that there isn’t more to this whole thing.” This sentence, I believe, captures the mindset most of us have, most of the time, when we are confronted with some awestruck piece of data.
Of course, the official report of the incident was that Diana and her boyfriend died after crashing in a road tunnel in Paris, due to the driver losing control of the vehicle. But this just wasn’t grand enough for some people, who to this day maintain that there has to be more to it. And no investigation will be enough to convince any of them otherwise, because any investigator who comes up with a different conclusion will simply be evidence of the greater conspiracy. Most conspiracy theories follow a similar line of reasoning, regardless of the facts or details presented to them to negate their favored narrative.
We have an innate aversion to simplicity. Just repeating a story we hear isn’t enough, we need to add more complex details onto it to make it more digestible for wider consumption; refine it and move the narrative forward with facts we think ought to be included with the official details.
It can’t be that politicians are simply corrupt and self-serving, they must also be secretly operating under the direction of an unknown shadow government, which is menacingly pulling the strings behind the curtain. And (occasionally) this shadow government has to be made up of shape-shifting, inter-dimensional lizards, whose bloodline traces back to ancient Babylon; or a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles using the blood of their child victims to maintain their youth and power.
It’s not enough to say that life on earth is simply adaptive to its environment, there has to be more to it; some kind of grand purpose and intent operating on a level too complex, too powerful for out meager minds to fathom. This line of thinking is even stronger when we don’t have enough facts to draw any kind of clear conclusion, in such a case we’ll reason that even a conspiracy theory is better than no theory.
Simple reasons and answers are often not enough to do the job for us, because simplicity can never meet the expectations of our innately suspicious imaginations. What does satisfy our suspicion is a narrative that goes counter to the mainstream. That only those of us who are of the most elite intellect can grasp: “The Illuminati may be fooling you but it’ll never fool me.”
Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is the layer of excitement they bring to everyday facts. It is stimulating beyond belief to lose oneself in all the various plots and details of a hidden world, even if its veracity is only verified by a very questionable set of complex circumstances; this just makes it more exciting. The other part of the appeal is the strange level of remote plausibility it brings to the table. For instance, there is no denying that people have conspired in the past (and still do today), often for ominous reasons (an example being the documented long history of unethical humane experimentation in the United States). And this air of remote plausibility is more than enough to keep peoples suspicions on high alert, except when it comes to scrutinizing the various details being used to support the particular conspiracy theory they have chosen to embrace.
We know that the human mind is in many ways constrained in its ability to rationalize the world, thus we are constantly seeking the higher, the greater, the unimaginable as our answer of choice. The strange thing is that as the answer we are seeking becomes more nuanced and complex the simpler it will begin to seem to us, and we will insist that our highly elaborate, immensely complicated and circumstantial answer, is really the most simple and obvious of them all. Because by that point we have already accepted the narrative of the conspiracy, where the grand conclusion is being used to fill in the details, instead of the observable details being used to arrive at the most possible conclusion (be it simple or complex).