A Reflection on Conspiracy Theories

15 March 2010


Freud observed in The Future of an Illusion that an individual who participates in the socially accepted neurosis of organized religion is spared the effort of constructing their own personal neurosis. I think this is an accurate way to put the matter, and I think that with the recent ascendancy of conspiracy theories that we are witnessing the emergence of a new socially constituted neurosis in which individuals can participate without having to re-invent the wheel, as the saying goes. There is, in other words, a psychodynamic formulation of conspiracy theories that remains to be written.

From what I have personally seen in regard to the dissemination of conspiracy theories, it is that the same small group of influential conspiracy theorists who are interviewed repeatedly on the same radio shows. The conspiracy enthusiasts listen to the radio shows, read the books, read the websites, and totally enclose themselves in a world complete unto itself, specifically, the conspiracy community.

This is very similar to highly motivated religious groups. Such communities exemplify what Erving Goffman called a “total institution” in his book Asylums. One suspects that the Branch Davidians under David Koresh exemplified a similar pattern. With this womb-like enclosure of the individual within a community, which supplies all needs and many if not most wants, there is no reason for the majority of people to look beyond this community.

But there is more than this at work. Most people (perhaps not all) want to feel important, and want to feel that they are part of something (indeed, important to something) larger than themselves. (This can have a petty dimension or a noble dimension to it: Bertrand Russell testified to the latter in his formulation of what he called an ethic of impersonal self-enlargement.) Many people (perhaps not most) in addition want to believe that they have recognized a truth that others have failed to recognize or which others have refused to recognize out of pure cussedness or some similarly perverse motive. All of this contributes to self-aggrandizement. Conspiracy theories in particular appeal to the desire of individuals to view themselves as part of a small elite that knows certain truths that others do not know or are too stubborn and hidebound to accept.

These mostly understandable human desires can reach a level of near desperation when they are denied. Bertrand Russell (in a different context than that cited above) compared the human need for sexual satisfaction to hunger, noting that when it goes unfulfilled it can blot out all other desires. I think the case is analogous with the need for self-aggrandizement. Intensely committed, ideologically focused groups provide for this need. Each individual is assured of their importance both within the group and generally their importance in the grand plan of the universe. While I don’t believe that I have ever personally been in the midst of a mass movement, I have read testimonials of those who have, and many of them have expressed a profound sense of being a part of something greater than themselves. Even a cheering and surging crowd can provide the sense of identity, importance, and participation in great events that so many people seem to desire.

In the complexity, busyness, and bureaucracy of the modern world it is difficult for individuals to maintain a sense of personal importance. Everything in industrialized society makes individuals anonymous. One is treated like a number, an interchangeable cog in an enormous and indifferent machine. Science underlines this development of industrialization and the emergence of the mass man. Almost every important discovery of the sciences since Copernicus has reduced the individual in his importance.

Pre-scientific cosmologies flattered the individual and the human species by making individual human beings a privileged form of being, a special and important part of creation. Science in the modern period has become steadily less anthropocentric, removing human beings from the center of the universe, denying their special creation by a personal deity who listens to their prayers, assimilating ever greater portions of human life to mechanistic laws that leave progressively less and less to the individual, his motivations, his desires, his feelings. (I hope we call all agree that purportedly scientific attempts to deal with “soul” and “spirit” are paradigms of junk science.)

While there are a few people — as with Russell’s ethic of impersonal self-enlargement, or even his memorable characterization of mathematics in his famous essay, “The Study of Mathematics” — who feel an intellectual exhilaration in the progress of science, and find a degree of personal satisfaction in this, I think this represents a vanishingly small proportion of the world’s population. A far greater number of people need the kind of support offered by religion, political ideology (communism, fascism), and conspiracy theories.

The belief on the part of the conspiracy theorist that he and a select few have learned the truth that others refuse to see, or the belief on the part of the Man of Faith the he has found the One True Church, or the belief of the political ideologue that he knows exactly what is wrong with the world and how to fix it, is rooted in a desire for self-aggrandizement and a sense of self-importance. Precisely the kind of person with whom this motivation is the strongest will gravitate to those conceptions that most flatter this desire and contribute to this sense. In other words, such an individual will gravitate away from non-anthropocentric science with its methodological naturalism (genuine science) and toward bad science, junk science, and pseudo-science that tells such a person what they want to hear.

I do not offer this analysis as a counsel of despair, although even its best face is not such as to offer comfort. The third part of Russell’s The Scientific Outlook considers the possibilities of artificially created societies, “created deliberately with a certain structure in order to fulfill certain purposes.” (Chapter XII) I think it would be possible to employ the techniques of science to create a better society. It is also possible, unfortunately, to use the techniques of society to create a worse society. This is the “New Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science,” of which Churchill warned. It is possible to plan for a better world, but it is not easy to keep such a plan from going off the rails. Given my own limited acquaintance with conspiracy theories, however, I know that some the greatest hysterics of the conspiracy theorists are saved for efforts at world government and scientifically designed societies. Whatever science can contribute to society, its contribution will be fought every step of the way.

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