I asked my phone to define “conspiracy theory” and it said, “What conspiracy? There’s no conspiracy. Who told you that?” Actually, it told me that a conspiracy theory is “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event.”
I have a confession to make. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I have sympathy for conspiracy theorists. Let me explain myself before you label me a kook.
I will start by reminding you that conspiracies really do happen. Small influential groups of people do covertly influence circumstances and events.
Consider these crazy questions:
- Would an energy company intentionally cause blackouts to artificially create an energy crisis in order to manipulate their stock prices?
- Would a company continue selling a product while keeping secret the knowledge that it causes cancer?
- Would a government dress soldiers in the uniform of another country and attack its own facilities to justify invading that other country?
These are not things that most people would do, so we dismiss them. But just because you wouldn’t do something doesn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. History is littered with plans, manipulations, and operations that most of us wouldn’t dream of perpetrating. For the record, the three crazy questions listed above were actually carried out by Enron, tobacco companies, and Germany, respectively.
Little “conspiracies” happen all the time. A city planner once told me that whenever I see a highway bend in an unnecessary direction, chances are almost 100% that somebody well-connected owned property and influenced the path of highway construction in their favor to increase the value of their land.
The reason I am sympathetic to conspiracy theorists involves trust. Specifically, a lack thereof. People, organizations, and countries have demonstrated that they, in fact, cannot completely be trusted when their self-interest is at stake. The Bible says as much: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 37:9)
Most people and corporations are trustworthy most of the time. But there’s always that possibility of something nefarious behind the scenes. That leaves the door open for a conspiracy theory.
We must also recognize that “Conspiracy theory” is not a black-and-white concept. There is a scale of conspiracy theories. They range from “healthy skepticism” of people or organizations that would have a vested interest in perpetrating deceit to “Really? You believe that?”
Let’s talk through a couple of true conspiracy theories and how people come to believe them.
Anti-vaxers believe that vaccines cause autism. They believe that the manufacturers know this but are keeping it from the public because it would stop people from using their very profitable product. How do they arrive at this belief? There has been an unexplained spike in autism which roughly corresponds with widespread vaccination. Since we have no good explanation for the spike in autism, the only place our fear of this disease can land is on the vaccine manufacturers. Since we know that tobacco companies kept the carcinogenic nature of cigarette smoking secret to protect their financial interests, it’s not beyond possibility to consider that the vaccine manufacturers might not be telling us everything they know, either. Ergo, conspiracy.
The earth is flat. This is the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories. A conspiracy of this nature would involve the collusion or deception of all the people and industries involved in the exploration and use of space, from scientists around the world to communications companies and more. You might ask, “What interest is served by maintaining the illusion of a spherical Earth?” I have a friend who is a flat-earther. He believes that the deception of the spherical earth is part of Satan’s plan to discredit the Bible.
So, to put my sympathy for conspiracy theories on some sort of scale, here’s a four-scenario list in order of surprise and shock:
- I would not be surprised at all to find out that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was the result of a plot carried out by a secret group of powerful elites. Why would it surprise anyone to find out that an influential leader was assassinated by those who oppose his leadership?
- I would be quite surprised but not shocked if it turns out the government has an alien spacecraft in their possession. Think about it. What would you do if you had to decide whether to keep an alien spacecraft secret if the best psychologists and sociologists warned you that such knowledge could completely destabilize the western world?
- I would be completely shocked if it turned out our own government knew about the 911 attacks before they happened. But I also think that anyone who dismisses that as utterly impossible hasn’t studied much history.
- The earth is not flat.
What do you think my list says about me?
Let’s make this even more interesting. What would be on your believable conspiracy scale? What wouldn’t surprise you at all? What would completely shock you?
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!