How Dangerous Are Conspiracy Theories?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

How likely are we to believe things that aren’t true? According to Lynne Malcolm in The psychology of conspiracy theories, “Psychological research suggests that we’re all conspiracy theorists, thanks in a large part to our cognitive makeup.”

“Most of us use the term ‘conspiracy theory’ to refer to beliefs we consider outlandish, paranoid, and almost certainly false…on the simplest definition, a conspiracy theory is simply any explanation of observed events that posits two or more actors working in secret.”

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens, The Ethics of Conspiracy Theories, The Minefield

Why should we be concerned about conspiracy theories if they are merely an “explanation of observed events?” We should be concerned because what people do with them has ethical risks and repercussions.

Conspiracy theories can be very dangerous in a globally-connected society that is rife with conflict. Conspiracy theories may pull together disparate (and sometimes unpopular) pieces of information to create a background narrative that connects them. The problem is that the background narrative isn’t necessarily true, and people who act on it in the belief that it is true may cause serious harm to others.

“With a few notable exceptions, CTs in the past were relatively harmless. With a nation-wide pandemic and deeply-divided population, the CTs can, in fact, be deadly.”

Teri C. Tompkins, PhD and Bruce G. Barkis, Conspiracies in the Workplace, Graziado Business Review

What do experts say about conspiracy theories? Emma Lipkind, in The Danger of Conspiracy Theories, Fordham Political Review, says that “no matter how conveniently conspiracy theories seem to connect all the dots, they should not be immediately trusted.” She points out that it is our responsibility to “weed through” the ideas and connections to determine whether or not they are true. William McCall, in The Hidden Danger of Conspiracy Theories (Liberty Magazine), says that “A problem with conspiracy theories is that they oversimplify world events in order to find a scapegoat.” While the level of harm of sharing conspiracy theories varies, Aly and Stephens emphasize in The Ethics of Conspiracy Theories (The Minefield) that “every conspiracy theory comes at some moral cost. To offer a conspiracy theory is to make an accusation.” They argue that “it’s not OK to accuse someone of fraud or worse simply because their very existence contradicts your favourite conspiracy narrative.”

Since we’re all wired to potentially believe conspiracy theories, it’s up to us to become responsible consumers of information and to carefully check out such stories with an eye to our own vulnerability to their allure. If you are ready for some entertainment that brings home this point, you may want to watch “A Bunch of Smart Orphans,” The Mysterious Benedict Society, Season 1, Episode 1, June 25. 2021. You can view the Trailer on Disney Plus. While watching the first episode I noticed a disconcerting connection between “The Emergency” that is the premise of the show and events happening in the world today, even though the book the series is based on was published in 2007. In the story, no one can put a finger on exactly what’s wrong, but people have been told they should be worried and most have accepted it without questioning.

It is interesting to think about the possibility that conspiracy theories, which have occurred throughout history, are themselves not harmful in isolation. They must rely on a host who tends to believe things that aren’t necessarily true. The problem is that we humans are prone to more than 180 different thinking biases, and conspiracy theories play right into our weaknesses. It is our job to be skeptical consumers of information and diligent truth-checkers to avoid being pulled into their false narratives.

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2 comments

  1. Good post, Linda. Have you read Anne Applebaum’s book The Twilight of Democracy: The seductive lure of authoritarianism? She follows the pattern of “fake news” throughout Eastern Europe, Western Europe and finally the US. I had never put history patterns together like that before and it was fascinating.

    Like

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