Every time I hear someone repeat a conspiracy theory, it makes me question my stance on torture. Be honest, whom would you rather waterboard, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or billionaire birther Donald Trump?
Conspiracy theories allow many people to feel more in control. It’s simply more comforting to imagine some grand conspiracy was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy than to accept the fact that one lone man, Lee Harvey Oswald, was able to assassinate the leader of the free world.
A recent study at the University of Kent in England shed new light on the minds of conspiracy theorists. It found that factual details were far less important to conspiracy theorists than their belief that secret and powerful forces are controlling everything.
The study also found people who believed Osama Bin Laden is still alive were just as likely to sign on to the theory that he was already dead at the time of the raid, a sort of SchrÖdinger’s Cat approach.
I have seriously studied the Kennedy assassination since 2003 and have read a stack of books on the subject taller than I am. I’ve also made countless trips to Dealey Plaza and to the Sixth Floor Museum’s research room to educate myself further on the assassination.
During a recent trip, I overheard a gentleman saying there must have been a second shooter positioned on the grassy knoll because after the shot the president’s head snapped back and to the left. This is a common misconception.
I explained to him that, according to Nobel prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez, a bullet approaching the speed of sound transfers little resistance to the head as it enters the skull. However, upon exiting, the bullet pulls with it bits of brain matter and skull fragments creating a jet blast effect that sends the head in the direction of the shooter.
His response: “That actually makes a lot of sense, but I still think there must have been a second shooter.”
Christopher Hitchens called this the “exhaust fumes of democracy,” a result of a large population with unlimited access to large amounts of information that is often wrong or misleading.
The more often we hear a story, the more likely we are to believe it. This is known as the illusion of truth.
This is how extreme right-wing talk show host Alex Jones keeps his audience on the conspiracy dole. He uses the airwaves to propagate his conspiracy-driven nonsensical ramblings.
“No matter how you look at 9/11,” Jones said, “there were no Islamic terrorists involved. … The hijackers were clearly U.S. government assets who were set up as patsies like Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Jones’ statement might be funny if not for the 11 percent of the U.S. population who buy into his madness on this issue.
What can you do to prevent this from happening to you? For one, stop believing all the crazy forwarded e-mails and Facebook posts.
Other than that, the best was to guard against conspiracy theories is to follow Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest of competing theories tends to be the one that’s correct.
In a conspiracy theory, information that is often wrong or misinterpreted is unnecessarily multiplied in order to reach a conclusion that most closely resembles their worldview. This intellectual paralysis is due to over-analysis.
Other than the minds of the people who believe and repeat them, there is nothing simple about conspiracy theories.