The German psychologist Klaus Conradcalled this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich.
Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.
. . . leading us to….
The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.
. . . . The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control.
He stresses the importance of recognizing that conspiracies do in fact exist. Don’t come across like a condescending know-it-all and lazily resort to appeals to authority (the mainstream media sources, for example). Acknowledge that the conspiracy theorist may be motivated by a genuine concern for real injustices, so by laughing in the face of a QAnon believer in a vast pedophile ring led by the Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden, you can come across as not caring about child abuse. Colin Dickey proposes better ways to approach that kind of conspiracy theorist.
Here I would like to focus on his explanation of the differences between real and hoax conspiracies:
How Real Conspiracies Become Known
Conspiracies are real. Think of Watergate, the Iran-Contra episode, (I would add COINTELPRO and the conspiracy to lead the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq), the tobacco lobby, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. The more widespread a conspiracy the more effort is required into keeping more people quiet.
When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. . . . What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?
After all, even highly organized conspiracies with limitless government backing and resources can’t stay hidden forever.
Successful conspiracies take hard work to keep them secret. The bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved. Watergate became known through a bookkeeper for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, Judy Hoback Miller, who “felt frustrated” that the “truth was not coming out”.
People like Miller [are] the “so-called ‘minor people’” — the secretaries, security guards, and other low-level employees who worked behind the scenes for the big players who were often the first to talk. Such people are rarely ideologues nor are they being paid enough. The complexities of QAnon likewise would require a massive number of such minor people; people who, it stands to reason, have no ideological commitment to such horrors but are nonetheless employed in carrying them out. Such people ought to be easy to get to talk. When no such whistleblowers emerge, it speaks to the thinness of the story.
Compare the exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in the early days of the war on terror. This was
documented by none other than hobbyist plane spotters, who noted the tail numbers of flights taking off and landing.
The more wide-reaching a conspiracy — the more victims it has, the more perpetrators involved, the wider geographical distance covered, etc. — the more traces it will leave. A conspiracy theory that is widely hypothesized and yet unproven, in other words, requires a level of human infallibility that we have never heretofore seen.
Hiding 35,000 children
QAnon alleges thousands of victims yet has produced none. Timothy Charles Holmseth, a conspiracist who claims to be part of a (nonexistent) Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, alleged in May that this same task force rescued some 35,000 children from an underground network of prisons beneath New York’s Central Park.. . . . Who are these victims, and where are their families? Where are the obituaries, the memorials, the tearful mothers on the steps of the Capitol holding press conferences, demanding justice? “There’s not one of them out there who said, ‘Yeah, we’re glad our child was rescued from this giant underground war,’” Craig Sawyer, an anti-sex-trafficking activist and critic of Holmseth, told the Daily Beast.
Colin Dickey’s article is worth reading for his insights into the psychology of the conspiracy theorist and for becoming aware of smart ways to approach discussions with those who may be part of something like QAnon. I mentioned above one possible concern: that people really are concerned for some injustice or crime or abuse. Another point he elaborates on is the possibility that for some of us, the idea of a vast and highly successful perfect crime is in one sense reassuring: the world is not so subject to the chaos, the randomness, the lack of controls, – the world is thereby, most ironically, made a more tolerable, safer, place.
Dickey, Colin. “How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.” GEN, October 8, 2020. https://gen.medium.com/how-to-talk-to-a-conspiracy-theorist-20122a39ac8a.
“[Josephus] was employed to write the official history that we have. The other histories from this period have been destroyed ruthlessly by the Romans. Josephus tells us this in very chilling passages how the Romans exerted complete control of the literature of this period. There were alternative histories of the Jewish war written, while the Romans rounded up the writers of those histories and executed them. They rounded up all the copies of those histories and destroyed them. That is to say they ruthlessly wiped out any alternative history, so that the only history we have is written by Josephus.” — Dr Rod Blackhirst, Lecturer in Religious Studies, La Trobe University
On my shelf I have a book titled Telling Lies for God by I.R. Plimer. I was a bit disappointed in it when I read it because I thought it was itself misrepresenting some of the apologist arguments and could have had more credibility by not sometimes garnishing the facts at hand.
Not long ago I took up a request to engage with a video on youtube, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Christianity. The presentation contains so many exaggerations and falsehoods that it would take me forever to address in detail, but I did tackle some of them here and here. Some of the contributors interviewed, namely Dr Robert and Timothy Freke, did not make any extravagant claims, but others did — namely Joseph Atwill, Rob Blackhirst, John Hudson and D.M. Murdock/Acharya S.
One point I have not yet addressed in depth, however, and that is the claim I placed in the quotation box at the top of this post, the one made near the video’s beginning by Dr Rob Blackhirst. To fast forward to the conclusion, I am astonished that a serious academic employed at a bona fide university could mouth such total fabrication. Not a word of what is quoted is true, but that’s what he claimed for the “benefit” of viewers of the video.
Point #1. Josephus’s history of the Jewish war is not an “official history”. It was Josephus’s personal history that did not have to be submitted for approval to the emperor or his agents.
Point #2. We have no record to substantiate the claim that “other histories from this period [the period of Josephus in the time of Vespasian and Titus] have been destroyed ruthlessly” — or leave off the “ruthlessly” and just say “destroyed”. There is absolutely nothing in the sources that permits Rob Blackhirst to make that claim.
Point #3. Alternative histories were written? Romans rounded up their authors and executed them? These claims are absolute fabrication. There is not a shred of evidence in our records that any such things ever happened.
Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.
Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.
What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.
Twenty years since Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, or is it the anniversary of her murder by British Intelligence acting on behalf of the royal family? The Royal Family certainly had motive enough to want her dead. She was destroying their reputation as a bastion of conventional morality and without that bastion the royal family could not survive. So — arrange for a drunken chauffeur, lots of paparazzi, a narrow tunnel on the route, a pre-positioned strobe-light and alert operator, and plots to delay ambulances, and the deed is done.
Nothing happens by accident. For this reason, the horrible machinations of “evil” conspirators become more believable than a fluke or an accident.
Nothing is as it seems. Successful conspirators hide their identities and actions; we must, therefore, always be wary, even when there’s little reason for suspicion.
Dots can always be connected. Though conspirators attempt to hide their actions, patterns exist everywhere.
Another book I would like to read.
Today’s 24-hour news cycle also cultivates an opening for conspiratorial thinking. Among journalists, the race to break a story can lead to gaps or errors in reporting. We also tend to forget that as readers, many stories, especially breaking ones, are a work in progress. It can take months – even years – to ever know the full story.
Oh yes. One really notices the differences among various media here. A few (less popular ones, unfortunately) conspicuously stress how little is known in the early days, and they do not broadcast speculative figures of “numbers dead” or “suspected identities” of perpetrators of atrocities in the first twenty-four hours of an event — which I suppose is why they are too boring for a wider audience.
But perhaps the biggest reason we tend to give credence to conspiracy theories is our own mortality.
Return to the similar reasons for believing in god.
To simply think of Princess Diana’s death as a “tragic accident” gives us less control over own fate. No matter how logically messy the details of a conspiracy theory might be, they do, strangely, soothe our own sense of worth and place in our world.
Like asking Jesus or Mary or God, lords of the universe, to take time to interfere with a burst of rain to allow us to get to an important appointment on time.
(I bet the Queen really did order MI6 to get rid of Diana, though.)
Australia’s national radio broadcaster, Radio National (RN), aired an interview with Rob Brotherton, Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, trying to explain to us why conspiracies are generally “all in the mind“. Obviously Brotherton and RN are controlled by the Illuminati and are being used to convince a gullible public that a secret cabal is not manipulating the world economy, the world’s governments, the events in the Middle East and major terrorist attacks in the West.
There’s no denying that the label has less-than-favorable connotations in some intellectual circles, at least. “If you’re down at a bar in the slums, and you say something that people don’t like, they’ll punch you or shriek four-letter words,” Noam Chomsky once said. “If you’re in a faculty club or an editorial office, where you’re more polite— there’s a collection of phrases that can be used which are the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums. One of them is ‘conspiracy theory.’”
Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 931-935). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Ah, so that’s why a handful of scholars sometimes toss out “conspiracy theory” at arguments they appear not to have seriously investigated and that for all the world seem to me to have nothing to do with “conspiracy theories” at all.
I just want to isolate and share one thought from chapter 3 in this post. Brotherton rightly points out that defining what we mean by conspiracy theory is problematic given that at some point “one person’s conspiracy theory is the next person’s conspiracy fact. . . . ” so “blithely asserting that conspiracy theories are bullshit doesn’t get us very far.” Instead, Brotherton speaks of a conspiratorial style:
Richard Hofstadter, an influential scholar of conspiracism, talked about conspiracy theories as a “style” of explanation. Much as a historian of art might speak of the motifs that collectively constitute the baroque style, or a music critic might parse the subtle differences between dubstep and grime, our task in distinguishing conspiracy theories from regular old theories about conspiracies is to identify some of the most important rhetorical themes, tropes, and flourishes that collectively constitute the conspiracist style.
Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 925-929). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Not that these style-points are foolproof rules, either. Think of them more as indicative guides, Brotherton says.
So we’ve laid out six crucial elements of the conspiracist style. Before we take stock and move on, however, a note of caution is required. Coming up with a checklist can give a false impression of objectivity . . . .
Think of our six characteristics as useful rules of thumb, rather than immutable laws. . . .
It’s worth reiterating that none of the features we’ve talked about, in and of themselves, distinguish conspiracy fact from conspiracy fiction. Just because a claim meets our six criteria doesn’t mean it can’t be true.
Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1198-1215). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.