Aww, What’s the Harm: Conspiracy Theory Edition

Aww, What’s the Harm: Conspiracy Theory Edition September 8, 2018

I don’t subscribe to the notion that something that does great harm should be tolerated–even encouraged–because of whatever nebulous good it might do. Religious faith is one of those harmful ideas that brings with it a great many other harmful ideas. Someone who holds demonstrably false beliefs can easily slide into other false beliefs. Today, we look at one place where that’s already happened. Christians have been primed for decades to fall into a mindset that accepts conspiracy theories as facts. We’ve talked in the past about some of this, but today we cruise into the underpinnings of it all. Here’s how so many Christians buy into conspiracy theories and why it’s so hard for them to escape those beliefs.

Is that a pervy snek I see on the left? (anokarina, CC-SA.)

A New and Fascinating Study.

Today’s topic came up because of a comment that happened to coincide with a report I saw online. The report concerned a new study released recently about a psychological link between Creationism and conspiracy theories.

That link involves teleological thinking. Now, we covered this style of thinking way back when, with apologetics. Remember the oldie-but-no-goodie Teleological Argument? Apologists love that one. You might have heard it as the argument from design. Allow me to summarize it briefly:

  1. When people see something complex like a watch or a skyscraper, they know someone designed it.
  2. The universe is super-duper complex.
  3. Therefore, someone designed it.
  4. Hmm….
  5. BUT WHO?
  6. Gosh, it had to be someone really, really big and powerful.
  7. OMG IT WAS GOD, WASN’T IT.
  8. OMG IT TOTALLY WAS.
  9. CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS.
  10. Wait, why aren’t you convinced by my stunning display of logic?
  11. Aha! It must be your closed mind and hard heart!
  12. I’ll pray for you.

I’m not exaggerating. It’s really that daffy.

Another Way Religion Hijacks Normal Development.

In similar fashion, teleological thinking involves perceiving something in terms of its imagined function. Have you ever run into a small child who talks about stuff in those terms? They see the whole world (for a little while at least) in terms of perceived functions. As one psychology grad student put it way back in 2008 (bonus: she’s actually talking about Christian adults who engage in science denial),

Ask a three-year old why it rains, for example, and you are likely to hear something like “so that plants have water to grow.” Likewise, lions exist “for going to the zoo,” and mountains “are for climbing.” This tendency of children to infer design suggests an explanatory default: In the absence of competing knowledge, the best explanation for an object with a plausible function is that it was designed to fulfill that function.

Psychologists sometimes call this style of thinking promiscuous teleology.

And this is a perfectly normal developmental phase in children. They grow out of it eventually.

They do, at least, unless they happen to have parents who belong to a religion that seeks to keep adherents in a childlike, even childish frame of mind forever.

Same Shop, Different Window Dressing.

We’ve got a post slated for mid-month that talks about the way Christians blame the wrong things for stuff that happens to them. In similar fashion, the religion itself isn’t the real problem here. It functions as window-dressing for Christians–a way to express their personal ideologies. Without the religion, terrible Christians might not become so terrible, sure. But someone terrible gravitates to a worldview and group that’ll let them operate the way they like best.

That’s why terrible Christians worship a terrible god, and kind Christians worship an altogether different god who inexplicably shares its name with that other one. The problem isn’t Christianity. That’s only the label that Christians use. The real problem is the interior behind that window-dressing. The religion very easily allows believers to construct and then defend any worldview that makes them happy.

So this new study discovered that people suffering from teleological thinking often go in for both Creationism and conspiracy theories. They feel like everything must happen for a reason–a purpose. And they find ways to shoehorn and mold facts to fit into that overarching belief.

In a very real way, people who find themselves indoctrinated into that style of thinking become marks for the having for the shills peddling junk science and snake oil.

The Usual Suspects.

Besides teleological thinking, Scientific American summarized a few different cognitive biases that make it easier for people to buy into conspiracy theories. A lot of folks like to theorize about how these biases might have evolved or how they helped early humans survive into the modern day. I’m not going to do that. I just want to show them to you, so we’ve got ’em all in one place.

The first one is confirmation bias. This one’s HUGE in conspiracy theories. People naturally seek out and accept facts that confirm what we already believe. Worse, we tend to ignore information that contradicts those beliefs–or work to disprove that information rather than anything that fits our beliefs.

Confirmation bias explains how Bob Larson could write a whole book about cults–one that I still think is decently-done despite some flaws–while not once applying his criticisms and tests to his own flavor of religion. John Loftus’ blog specifically positions his Outsider Test for Faith as a way to jolt people out of that form of confirmation bias.

Proportionality bias is our tendency to assume that any big event must have a big cause. This is how so many people have trouble accepting simple explanations for a huge, complicated situation. They want shadow governments, humongous cover-up conspiracies, and dark, demonic forces conspiring to drag down TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

Projection is people’s tendency to assume that others suffer from their own flaws and shortcomings. For example, someone who gossips often assumes that other people do the same and to the same degree.

Apophenia and its subtype pareidolia address a conspiracy theorist’s false-pattern recognition. Apophenia is seeing patterns where none exist. We naturally seek out those patterns, and we often enjoy discovering one that we hadn’t noticed before. Patterns surround us in the natural world and in human and animal behavior. (It’s why we often love medical-mystery shows and mysteries generally.) But when the pattern is a false positive, just an unrelated coincidence, we can run into trouble.


Case in point of someone delighting in the real pattern of Fibonacci’s Sequence.

Crank Magnetism.

RationalWiki asserts that physiologist Mark Hoofnagle came up with the term crank magnetism in 2007. The term seeks to explain why nutjobs often believe a whole bunch of different irrational, unsupported beliefs. A very good 2018 blog entry at For Better Science discusses a whole bunch of crank theories put forth by one particular pseudoscientist, Michael Persinger.

Conspiracy theories run along very similar lines. Once someone’s bought into one of them, buying into others is all but inevitable. Provocateurs like Alex Jones constantly push some downright WTF conspiracy theories. The wilder, the better!

But in their wildness, they all feel so familiar–especially to believers. People who already believe that their government routinely engages in vast cover-ups can move very easily from one to another. The engine of the conspiracy theory remains the same–it just manifests in slightly different beliefs. That’s how someone goes from 9-11 was totally an inside job to OMG CHEMTRAILS.

Some of these conspiracy theories are mutually contradictory (like the more fervently someone believes that rogue MI6 operatives murdered Princess Diana, the more likely it is that the same person will also fervently believe that OMG Princess Diana is totally still alive, you guys). That fact matters little to the people who believe in them.

All that matters is that the theory feels familiar, and gives believers the little jolts of the dragon they’re chasing.

Christian Conspiracy Theories.

Here, then, is the anatomy of a Christian conspiracy theorist.

They distrust large, well-qualified bodies of experts, especially if those experts contradict their beliefs. From university professors to general-practice doctors, conspiracy theorists distrust all of them. They assume that these real experts seek only wealth or power, which means that they must of necessity deliberately steer their victims into solutions that they know don’t work and won’t help.

Instead, conspiracy theorists trust people who speak their own language. That means that Christian conspiracy theorists trust a fellow Christian–like Alex Jones or Andrew Schlafly–over an outsider. They assume that their fellow tribemates tell the whole, unvarnished truth to them, and want only the best for them.

They have great respect for anything very old, that evokes nostalgia, or seems self-taught. One of the rallying cries of the conspiracy theorist is educate yourself. But the educations evinced by snake-oil enthusiasts is anything but good. They “learn” their fake facts from fellow conspiracy theorists. Any one of the snake oils of preference will have dozens of reputable-looking websites discussing it, and entire professional-sounding bodies of fake “experts”.

They don’t have much in the way of critical thinking skills, and distrust the entire idea of critical thinking. Alternately, they may possess fine critical thinking skills, but their cognitive biases prevent them from using them consistently. Either way, somehow they don’t ask the questions they need to ask, consult people who are real experts in the field, or look up debunks of their crankery. Their leaders egg on this mindset.

They can be really narcissistic. Not always–just way more often than not. They often see themselves as TRUE BELIEVERS fighting impossibly great odds and impossibly evil enemies. They’re the people who truly care–about the truth, about children, about health. The conspiracy theory makes them feel good for believing in it.

They’re masters of projection. Often they don’t realize they’re describing their own group when they criticize their enemies.

Believing the Salespeople.

One of the first and easiest questions someone should be asking about a potential conspiracy theory involves monetization. In short, does the conspiracy theorist slam conventional medicine, yet offer their own “medicine” aimed at fixing the problem? That’s a very good indication that we’re not just dealing with a crank, but a salesperson whose bottom line depends on sales.

When we looked at the supposed Miracle Mineral Solution, we discovered that the leaders in that conspiracy theory seek to sell gullible parents their supposed miracle cure for autism. AIDS denialists seek to sell books, magazines, and advertising space–as well as seats in convention halls–to their victims. Creationists have all kinds of financial motivations, from selling products to homeschooling curriculum to convention-and-debate seats to tickets for their stupid theme parks. (Incidentally, Michael Persinger makes a good living doing “readings” for people, For Better Science revealed.)

The rallying cry is Don’t purchase THAT stuff! Purchase MY stuff instead! 

The Christians who buy into conspiracy theories often forget that the people pushing their favored snake oil are there to sell them an alternative to the real science they scorn so much. These thought leaders are hardly disinterested third parties who just happen to have lucked into this interesting new idea they wish to share with their audiences. They have a very big dog–or at least a very big mortgage–in that fight.

It never fails to astonish me to see the way that Christians always believe their salespeople about the products those salespeople must sell to make their living.

Reaching Escape Velocity.

Escaping conspiracy theories can be difficult. As I’ve likely illustrated here today, a complex web of cognitive biases and personality quirks forms the base of the mindset. The mindset also receives constant reinforcement from the culture that the Christian conspiracist inhabits.

In the case of the study at the center of today’s post, one avenue of escape presents itself clearly. The study didn’t find any links between propensity toward teleological thinking and age, gender, religion, or political orientation. I know it might feel like a conspiracy theorist is always a swivel-eyed conservative religious nut. But the study didn’t find support for such a link.

But they did find two intriguing links: educational level and social status.

And that makes a lot of sense. The less-educated someone was and the lower on the rungs of the social ladder, the more likely they were to buy into conspiracy theories.

People like that don’t know what they don’t know, as the old joke goes, and they’re already more inclined to distrust authority figures. They don’t know how to evaluate information, so they’re critical about all the wrong stuff and too trusting of stuff that should need stronger-than-usual evidence to support itself.

Learning What We Don’t Know.

To correct these shortcomings in ourselves, we can start by figuring out what we don’t know.

We can start by learning what makes a qualified expert in our chosen topic. Figure out why people criticize that expert. Do large bodies of assembled experts in that field reject that person’s ideas? And why? For example, why do so many actual doctors overwhelmingly reject the woo put forth by people pushing weight-loss snake oil? Why do almost all working biologists tend to reject the wild guesses put forth by Creationist zealots? Why do the most professionally-accepted bodies of counselors, pediatricians, human-rights advocates, and community leaders reject the Christians pushing so-called reparative therapy?

Like with essential oils, finding about the scam artists involved in crafting the various multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes selling them can stagger someone into questioning the oils’ legitimacy, which can tumble that person into all the medical warnings about the ways that MLM shills often suggest using the oils to try to bolster their sales numbers in their scam.

We can learn about cognitive biases and logical fallacies. I’m not sure anybody can really lose the tendencies themselves forever. But just knowing about this stuff and trying to move past it can be a real shift in how we engage with stuff we believed that turns out to be untrue.

We can “check in” with people whose opinions we trust–and who aren’t part of the conspiracy theory. (If we don’t have anybody like that close to us, that, itself, should be a warning sign.) We’re social creatures, which means that we depend upon each other–our support networks and families–to keep us from steering our ships too far from safe waters. Our networks aren’t always completely accurate, but often they can provide feedback that we’ve been ignoring.

We can ask where the money leads in the group. Remember, conspiracy theorists’ leaders often want something from their followers. What are they asking for? And are they receiving it? What happens when they don’t get it?

What Shrivels Conspiracy Theories.

Information, then, becomes the cold water that shrivels the endowment of conspiracy theories. An angry, burned ex-believer raising enough of a stink can topple even the most untouchable leaders of even the longest-running conspiracy theories. And lately, those ex-believers have an easier way to find fellow ex-believers–and questioning believers–than they ever have before.

If Christian leaders and conspiracy theory leaders alike could simply bar their followers from using the internet entirely, I’ve got no doubt that they would already have done it. The genie escaped the bottle before those folks even realized that the bottle existed, much less was falling off the end table! Some people lament how easy it is for conspiracy theorists to find each other–and validation of their crank ideas–online.

But the cure also exists there.

NEXT UP: It’s important to remember that conspiracy theorists aren’t stupid. Indeed, our next post covers the reasons that I at least bought into one of the oldest conspiracy theories around, Christianity. Remember those two links the study found? One is very fixable, and the other can be defanged through the first fix. See you soon.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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