Nothing happens by accident, everything is connected, and there are no coincidences: that is the essence of conspiratorial thinking. Long a fringe part of the American political landscape, conspiracy theories are now mainstream: 147 members of Congress voted in favour of objections to the 2020 presidential election based on an unproven theory about a rigged electoral process promoted by the mysterious group QAnon. But this is only the latest example in a long history of ideas that include the satanic panics of the 1980s, the New World Order and Vatican conspiracy theories, fears about fluoridated water, speculations about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the notions that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false-flag operation and 9/11 was an inside job.
In Conspiracy, Michael Shermer presents an overarching review of conspiracy theories —who believes them and why, which ones are real, and what we should do about them. Trust in conspiracy theories, he writes, cuts across gender, age, race, income, education level, occupational status—and even political affiliation. One reason that people believe these conspiracies, Shermer argues, is that enough of them are real that we should be constructively conspiratorial: elections have been rigged (LBJ’s 1948 Senate race); medical professionals have intentionally harmed patients in their care (Tuskegee); your government does lie to you (Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Afghanistan); and, tragically, some adults do conspire to sexually abuse children. But Shermer reveals that other factors are also in play: anxiety and a sense of loss of control play a role in conspiratorial cognition patterns, as do certain personality traits.
This engaging book will be an important read for anyone concerned about the future direction of American politics, as well as anyone who’s watched friends or family fall into patterns of conspiratorial thinking.
In this interview, I speak to Dr. Micahel Shermer, Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine. We talk about conspiracy theories, conspiratorial thinking and why the rational believe the irrational.
Q: Have conspiracy theories and conspiracism as a concept been with us in society? .
[Michael Shermer]: Yes, they have always been with us in society. Conspiracy theories go all the way back to the founding of civilisation. There is a rationality to believing in conspiracy theories that purport to identify somebody acting in secret to harm or gain an advantage that’s illegal or immoral, over somebody else without their knowledge or consent. That is how you define a conspiracy theory, and they are true.
The earliest records we have, people think that the emperor or the king are unjust and often they were. When Rome burned, Emperor Nero was accused of either letting it burn on purpose or making it happen on purpose, to use modern 9/11 truther language.
It was the truth in the case with Roosevelt with the bombing of Pearl Harbour, that he had either let it happen or made it happen on purpose. Roosevelt’s motivation was that he wanted to get America involved in the war to support Great Britain against the Nazis. Roosevelt was not getting the professional support that he wanted as there was a large strong vocal America First movement led by Charles Lindbergh, to keep America out of European entanglements. That is what galvanised it, the attack on Pearl Harbour and then Hitler declaring war on the United States.
It was not that Roosevelt knew it was going to happen, although they had information that the Japanese were going to attack somewhere, they just didn’t know where exactly.
Another example is with the well-known former US President, George W Bush, who did not know the attack on 9/11 was going to happen, he didn’t let it happen nor make it happen, but he certainly capitalised on the September 11th attack to aggressively retaliate through congress’s desires to raid Afghanistan and particularly destroy Iraq.
Q: What is it about conspiracy theories that make us believe them so much?
[Michael Shermer]: In the book I discuss about why people believe conspiracy theories. There’s a rich body of scientific literature on the subject, social scientists who study the subject have done quite a bit of research on it. Overall from the proximate to the ultimate, there is race and political orientation, religious beliefs, age, education as the influencing factors that go into which conspiracy theories people are interested in believing or focusing on.
It is very common in politics that each party assume the other party cheated in every election if they lose. It’s not that republicans are more suspicious than democrats or vice versa, but their constructive paranoia leads them to believe that the other party is doing something sinister. Then usually after a few weeks, no factual evidence is found, and they disregard the ‘conspiracism’ and move along and focus on the next election.
However, what is unusual this time is that Donald Trump is keeping the rigged election conspiracy theory alive, he may believe it himself, who knows, and he won the 2016 election, and he still thinks it was rigged! Quite extraordinary.
Black Americans are more likely to believe the government invented AIDS and planted crack cocaine in inner cities to decimate black populations. White Americans are more likely to believe the government are trying to steal our guns or lock people up in FEMA camps who own guns etc.
Education attenuates conspiracism such as those without a high school diploma are twice as likely to believe conspiracy theories than people with a graduate degree. But 1 in 5 people with a graduate degree believe in conspiracy theories, which is 20% – that is a high number. Education does not entirely eliminate it, and again the deeper ultimate reason is my argument is that enough conspiracy theories are true, it pays to believe more of them are true than actually are, make a type 1 error, false positive, you thought something was real when it wasn’t, as opposed to a type 2 error where you failed to recognise a real conspiracy which could be costly.
Q: Is there an element to which a society becomes more secular with us as belief and meaning seeking creatures, the absence of a theological centre in society? Do you think that means we are naturally searching through the things to believe it, and conspiracy theories give us that sense of connection with something bigger that’s happening?
[Michael Shermer]: A conspiracy theory is an explanation for things that are happening, which is no different from anything else. I understand how the world works, we want to be able to learn and gather information from the environment to survive and reproduce and flourish. It’s called learning, and learning is just connecting the dots. It’s association learning, we associate A to B and tend to assume A is connected to B, somehow causally. It may be, it may not be. Correlation does not mean causation. Sometimes it does. So, it’s a signal detection problem. Does the signal stand out from the noise enough for you to say ‘that’s a real pattern’, or is it a fake pattern and there’s just nothing there? So that’s modern science that develop the tools to work it out. But our brains are not so well equipped, we just tend to assume patterns that look connected are causally connected. So a conspiracy theory is just another causal theory – why did these things happen? Why was there a plague? Why did the black death decimate 1/3 of Europe’s population? Some would say ‘Oh, it was the Jews poisoning the wells!’ but they didn’t have any science or epidemiology or the germ theory of disease or meteorology to defend this idea.
Even with the witch crazes of Europe, were largely driven by conspiracy theory that women were cavorting with demons in the middle of the night and believed them to have supernatural powers by flying on brooms and cursing that in turn caused death and destruction and accidents and so forth, therefore we have to burn the witches. That’s also aspect of conspiracy theory.
Q: How can we create that defence mechanism in our own mind to determine which ones are true and which ones we should be robustly ignoring?
[Michael Shermer]: My signal detection theory analysis should nudge us to the fit category of identifying a conspiracy theory as true or false. The more people that must be involved, the less likely the theory is to be true. A couple of people could pull it off, hundreds or thousands of people would have to be involved, and it’s not likely because we would hear about it. Most conspiracy theories which in turn were actually true such as Watergate or Iran-Contra, in fact the CIA and the FBI were involved in during the 60s and 70s, as the public later found out.
The Pentagon papers leaked to what extent it was lying to its citizens about the Vietnam War, and their Wikileaks revealed to what extent both the Bush and Obama administrations had conducted warrantless wiretaps, warrantless surveillance, (that is without a court-ordered warrant to allow you to do this, you can’t do it). It’s illegal. But they did it anyway. Eventually we do find out about the truth as people talk – people are unable to keep secrets for long – somebody tells somebody who tells somebody else, before you know it they are writing a tell-all book or going out on TV shows to talk about it! That’s how it happens, that is how things are exposed.
To use the Wikileaks example – Millions and millions of highly classified documents were revealed. Not one piece of evidence showed about 9/11 is an inside job. Not a single memo, not a letter, not an order, not a receipt. To have hundreds or thousands of people in on 9/11 as an inside job, they’d have to be paid, so what would they pay? And one of them was a disgruntled employee of Bush and wants to tell all, that happens all the time. When politicians leave office, they go on the lecture circuit, they write books, they go on TV shows and talk about what they saw. You’ve already seen probably 100 books about Trump from people that worked for him. This is what people do. If a conspiracy theory involves lots of people, it is very unlikely to be true as a lot of elements must be involved. Components must come together perfectly timed – because we know the way the world works, nothing ever happens according to plan. Even if you have got the best laid plans and it almost never works out that way and the more complex it is, the less likely it’s going to work out perfectly and the more grandiose it is, the less likely it is to be true.
It’s known that powerful corporations conspire to cheat the regulatory state so they can make a bigger profit, or they collude or whilst street traders do inside trading, we know that certain government agencies do certain things that they know they wouldn’t get professional approval of, so they just do it anyway in the interest of a narrow goal, often just keeping their financial budget stable for the next year. Most of the Homeland security and the NSA (National Security Agency) is driven by pure terrorism so they’ve got to keep the fear going or else it’s going to be cut. That is a narrow focus, rather than ‘we want to control the world’ or Bill Gates or George Soros want to take over the world, track populations, or decimate the world populations, or the Jews.
Q: Is that something that you’ve seen on this journey in terms of the meaning that we might have in life and the meaning we therefore attach to this other grandiose plan that we sense we have this inside knowledge of?
[Michael Shermer]: Yes, for sure. Conspiracy theories not only explain things, but they also explain things in a way that are a lot more interesting and entertaining and purposeful that gives people meaning than that regular life which is usually boring. People just take that Qanon or Pizzagate because they found them very appealing.
As we know the government does certain things that the public do not know about – call that the deep state if you want. Then Trump’s going to expose it and arrest Hillary and the other democrats, and they’re all going to prison. Suddenly there is a secret satanic paedophile ring, where thousands and millions are being sacrificed, without their parents somehow noticing. It just gets spun out of control and I think this was fuelled further during Covid, because people were off work, had the time as they were at home and online with nothing to do and they go down the rabbit hole and it’s entertaining. Such as Alex Jones, he’s completely full of it, but he is entertaining!
Q : How do we engage, and I listened to your conversation with Joe Rogan which was a wonderful conversation, and I was particularly intrigued by the section where he was talking about his theories on JFK and you were coming through with the evidence based approach.
[Michael Shermer]: Yes. Joe Rogan and others do what we call ‘anomaly hunting’, which is when you find some little peculiar entity that doesn’t look right, such as the magic bullet that Joe was talking about. How is it possible a bullet could do all that and look like it does. It’s deformed a little bit but should have been deformed a lot more. This has been tested, people have shot bullets through ballistic gel, through animals, through their bones and muscles and ligaments – they can come out where they are just slightly deformed and not completely deformed and you could have taken the shot in 3 shots.
If you already have a bullet in the chamber ready to go, you fire one and now the clock starts – 2, 3. That’s 4.5/5 seconds, no problem. So, the theory turns on the details, the details matter to people who are really into it. Part of the problem with a conspiracy theory like JFK, there’s thousands of them. Somebody who’s steeped in it, they will come back at you with anomaly after anomaly after anomaly, what was this guy doing on the grass with an umbrella? It wasn’t raining, it was a sunny day, why did he have an umbrella? So, what needed to be chased down, it was a guy who protested politically and his umbrella was a sign of a protest because of the appeasement of Hitler and Kennedy’s father, who was a supporter of Chamberlain and used to have an umbrella, so the umbrella became a sign of political protest.
We didn’t know that until a decade after, it was almost 15 years after and the actual person came forward and said, ‘I’m the umbrella man’ and explained to that everybody’s making a big deal out of this, it’s nothing, I was just out there, it’s not a gun, it was just a political protest, that’s it.
The woman that had the strange dress on, the weird shadows in the polaroid film, all blurry, you see Abraham Zapruder and Kennedy starting to fall over into Jackie’s lap after he’s been shot, and it looks like, if you squint and use your imagination, you see a little puff of smoke in the shadows. It just goes on and on and on like that.
Vincent Bugliosi’s book Reclaiming History is 1400 pages long, dealing with all these claims. This is the problem with countering conspiracy theories when there’s a lot of details – there’s always some anomaly that I’m not going to know about. Then the conspiracy theorist goes ‘a-ha! If you can’t explain that one, then it’s true’. Well, no – no theory explains everything. Most of science progresses. Anomalies, we just don’t know. Then later somebody has an answer to it.
Q: Do you think there are ways we can rebuild trust in the truth? How can we rebuild trust in the truth, in a meaningful way?
[Michael Shermer]: Now, trust in the mainstream media, the right calls it lamestream media, the problem is there’s a little bit of an availability bias where just think of the big stories that they got wrong.
Let us assume they always get it wrong. New York Times publishes 100 stories a day, you can maybe find one a week that they get wrong in a bad way, or one a month. The Kyle Rittenhouse case, or the Covington kids coach accident. Okay, they got it wrong, but what’s the base rate? How many do they get wrong compared to how many they get right?
We must remind people how to think rationally about these kinds of claims, and that the truth matters.
Alex Jones being punished in a way financially is a signal to everybody, that you cannot make up stories that hurt people. You can’t lie as that’s a form of libel and slander that you’re culpable if somebody is harmed, and they were.
I didn’t know about the Manchester shooting that people were accusing them of being crisis actors. Astonishing! I think Alex Jones just invented that word crisis actor, I’d never heard of it before – where did they learn to be crisis actors, is there a crisis actor studio? How are they paid?
Q: After the 7/7 bombing in London and the arena bombing in Manchester, there’s been a whole clump of conspiracy theorists who said that they never happened, a lot of them have been in the US bizarrely enough. But people have been going to the homes of people who were injured, setting up covert surveillance to see if they’re really injured or not. I think for a lot of people they see conspiracy theories as being these funny, benign things. I really want to get home the fact that conspiracy theories have real big consequences, in fact they’ve started wars before.
[Michael Shermer]: Yes. I have that whole chapter on the launching the first World War, I called the deadliest conspiracy of all time, that is the assassination of the Austrian-Hungarian Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in the back seat of their open convertible car going through Sarajevo. This was a conspiracy theory, I mean it was a conspiracy – there was a plot to assassinate them by a group called the Black Hand of Serbia Nationalists that did not want to be under the thumb of the Austria-Hungarian empire, and there he is, he’s coming to town so let’s get him.
They had the parade route which was conveniently published in the local paper, so the guys are all ready to go, they go to the places they are supposed to go to get their guns and hand grenades and they get their secret code or password and one of them went to the wrong place, somebody else chickened out, somebody else went to the wrong street and one guys pulls the pin, throws the hand grenade, it bounces off the back of the car, goes underneath the car behind the Archduke’s car, and explodes there.
So, the Archduke survives and speeds off and the whole thing is a bust and Gavrilo Princip, he’s depressed and sitting on the side of the road on a kerb after going to a deli to get a sandwich – then Franz Ferdinand decides we are going to go back on the parade route back to the hospital to see how our comrades are doing after he’d went and gave a speech anyway, crazy.
To take the same route back, the driver makes a wrong turn, the coupe that they were driving in had no reverse, so he puts it in neutral and is backing back down this sloping road at 2 miles per hour. Right there in front of Gavrilo Princip who looks up and goes ‘oh my god there is my target’, and at this point-blank range just shoots him dead.
I use that an example versus a real conspiracy that had massive consequences. Of course, after that happened, obviously Austria-Hungary has to declare war, then Germany has to mobilise in support of them, and then Russia has to mobilise against Germany, then France and then England, and it’s a World War. All this because of that one incident.
But notice how it went – it didn’t go right because they almost never go right. President Lincoln was assassinated by a conspiracy; we knew within hours who did it. The conspiracy was to decapitate the entire administration, kill the president, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war and so on. Only Booth succeeded in killing Lincoln, the rest of them failed. One chickened out, I think it was the Secretary of State’s steward, he was upstairs in bed and somehow the guy got past the son downstairs and got up there, but he was in bed with a brace or something because he was in a carriage accident, and the stabbing knife hit the brace instead of the neck. So, he survived. Not every plan is perfectly strategized.
Q: What was it specifically around this whole area of conspiracy that made you want to write this book – what was it that sparked you to write the book?
[Michael Shermer]: I have always covered conspiracy theories. We founded Sceptic and for decades we have covered many theories, but they have always been treated as pretty marginal by both academics who study human behaviour and by the media who thinks of it as tin foil hat wearing wackadoodle weirdos in their parents’ basement. On the contrary it’s not that, it’s never been that. However, finally when it elevated all the way up to the president of the United States, the conspiracist in chief it was taken seriously.
It was clear that we are not fooling around here, this is not just about UFOs or psychic power or astrology or Bigfoot. It’s in the deep state (as it were) and there has been intellect research in the last decade by social scientists on conspiracism. My motivation was that I simply wanted to summarise all that research in one volume.