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Academic Theory vs Conspiracy Theory

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    The evolution and widespread adoption of conspiracy theories indicates that mythologization, for good or ill, is an ongoing dynamic of the unconscious psyche.

    The following, from 2016 but updated a year ago, strikes me as a useful and informative guide in helping differentiate between academic theories and conspiracy theories:



    by James D. Rietveld and  Kristina V. Rietveld

    Originally my daughter and I posted this in August of 2016–this figures in her academic field as well (Communications), but with all the conspiracy theories going on as related to the coronavirus, this information is relevant again. Obviously, I am not doubting the legitimacy of the virus itself or what it is doing, but I see many additional “spins” that are the product of conspiratorial thinking!

    I am teaching a course on conspiracy theories as related to the Social Sciences in the Fall [2020] at Cal Poly Pomona.

    So let’s get started:

    1. A Scientific Theory can be proven false, while a Conspiracy Theory can become more elaborate to accommodate new observations and so is difficult to disprove, morphing so as to circumvent possible challenges to the legitimacy of the theory.

    2. A Scientific Theory is not necessarily based upon a distrust of authority, while a Conspiracy Theory often has the distrust of authority and expert opinion at its central root. “Expert opinion” here is defined as opinions as expressed by government studies, academic research, and privatized think-tanks. They avoid evidence that goes through any legitimate peer review process.

    3. A Scientific Theory always examines the totality of the body of evidence within the context of any given proposition, while a Conspiracy Theory will typically “cherry pick” through the evidence, finding what supports the already pre-believed and conceived proposition and disregard evidence that goes contrary to it.

    4. Conspiracy Theories often involve what is called a “monological belief system,” whereby any and all events can be explained by a web of interconnected conspiracies, often reflecting the individual’s personal sense of paranoia. They often operate like a web, where there is a central truth, but the Conspiracy Theorist focuses upon the interconnectedness of everything as opposed to going through a step-by-step process.

    5. Scientific Theorists apply critical thinking skills and are often skeptics, while Conspiracy Theorists are not Skeptics but “selective doubters”, already favoring a worldview, which they uncritically defend (and so have already made up their mind of what the “truth” is, with no plans to change that part of their proposition).

    6. Those who have trust issues with other people in general are more likely to believe others are colluding against them, and so are often more susceptible to Conspiracy Theories than others.

    7. Conspiracy Theorists often omit situational factors and chance, believing everything has deliberate intention behind it, creating imaginary links to fill in the gaps in order to make the conspiracy idea “fit,” and often entertaining ideas outside the realm of logical deduction in order to do so.

    8. Those who entertain Conspiracy Theories often enjoy mystery and intrigue in general, seeking something sensational and thrilling to relieve mundane daily affairs. The fact that they know something others do not makes them feel special and important. A Conspiracy Theorist’s goal is typically not the advancement of knowledge, but to shock or impress you with information that will demonstrate how intelligent they are, seeing factors that the so-called experts failed to note. At the center of those who design such theories is ego, as opposed to benefiting others.

    9. The simplification of complex events to human agency and evil in Conspiracy Theories overrides not only their cumulative implausibility (which, perversely, becomes cumulative plausibility as you buy into the premise) but also, in many cases, their incompatibility. Morality is applied to Conspiracy Theories, where there is a right or a wrong.

    10. Timothy Melley, in Empire of Conspiracy (© 2000) asserts that Conspiracy Thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone:

    a) holds strong individualist values, and

    b) lacks a sense of control.

    The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators. Conspiracy Theorists at no point will accept fault, but will displace responsibility to factors outside of themselves.

    11. Conspiracy Theorists often gravitate to “echo chambers” in which they often expect to have their own opinion parroted back at them rather than have it challenged as it would be in the academic community.

    12. Conspiracy Theorists attempt to create an alternative reality, whereby they legitimize themselves and their theories by creating supportive networks that seek to displace mainstream consensus. In the age of the Internet, they will create a webpage that provides them with more credibility than they already have—but this credibility is “implied,” having not undergone a peer-review process.

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