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March 25, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Lizard People, Church Steeples & Tin-Foil Hats

The truth behind conspiracy theories

whEN MosT oF us hEAr ThE words ‘CoNsPIrACY ThEorY’, wE ThINK oF uFos, BIg FooT ANd ThE loCh NEss MoNsTEr. ThEsE ThEorIEs ANd ThEIr FollowErs hAVE goT A BAd rAP oVEr ThE YEArs, FroM ThE dEPICTIoNs oF TIN-FoIl-hAT-wEArINg FANATICs wE sEE IN ThE MoVIEs, To JourNAlIsT ChrIsToPhEr hITChENs’ dEsCrIPTor oF ThE ThEorIEs As “ThE ExhAusT FuMEs oF dEMoCrACY”. BuT BEForE wE CoMPlETElY dIsMIss ThEsE grouPs As ‘CrAZY’, IT MAY BE worTh AT lEAsT TrYINg To uNdErsTANd whAT MoTIVATEs ThE dIsBElIEVErs.

From the truly bizarre to the borderline-believable, there are alternative theories for almost every aspect of human life and history, whether they are widely followed, or lurking in the darkest corners of the internet. In its simplest form, a conspiracy theory is “a proposed explanation of events that postulates secret plans and actions on the part of a group and conflicts with the official story (or stories) of the same events,” explains senior Philosophy lecturer Dr Stuart Brock. Brock, who teaches Victoria’s 200-level ‘Conspiracy Theories’ course. He says that conspiracy theories don’t necessarily deserve the ‘crazy’ label that society has painted them with. “If we understand conspiracy theories in this way they need not conflict with reality. Sometimes they correspond to reality and sometimes they don’t.” Why then, do we always put the theorists in the crazy box?

The first official study of conspiracy theories was American historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1966 essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’, which described a conspiracy theory as a belief in the existence of a “vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character”, concocted by a group of “right-wing paranoids”. Hofstadter went on to argue that conspiracy theorists were “uncommonly angry minds” whose judgment was somewhat “distorted”. These early depictions set the tone for future research in the area. Scholars began to view conspiracy theories as a product of mental disorders such as extreme paranoia, delusion or even narcissism. Indeed, in their essay ‘The Truth is Out There’, psychologists Dr Viren Swami and Dr rebecca Coles wrote that, in all of these earlier studies, conspiracy theories were simply assumed to be incorrect.

However, conspiracy theories aren’t always quite so untrue.   During the 1950s conspiracy theories had been flying around that white males were doing medical experiments on the black race. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (‘The Tuskegee Experiment’) conducted in the years 1932 – 1972 turned out to be more than just a conspiracy theory.  Scientists from the U.S. Public Health Service had round up 399 illiterate and poor syphilis-infected black males promising them free treatment for their ‘bad blood’, but in reality only measuring the progressive effects of syphilis on the participants and conducting autopsies on the deceased. They were never told they had syphilis, their ‘treatment’ only being aspirin, even when penicillin became a standard cure for syphilis in 1947.  As a result 28 of the participants died due to the disease and a further hundred or so died of related complications. After the study and its consequences became front-page news in 1972 the experiment was ended within a day, with only 74 of the original participants still alive.

Conspiracy theories on the Iraq war may be turning out to be true as well. The war that was started 10 years ago by Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush based on evidence that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD) “beyond doubt”  seems to have evidence mounting of its own conspiracy as well.  New information released states that it wasn’t “beyond doubt” and that two highly-placed sources close to Saddam Hussein had affirmed, previous to the war, that Iraq did not have any active WMD only “some chemical weapons left over from the early 90s” writes Peter Taylor in his BBC article Iraq: The Spies who fooled the World.

So are conspiracy theorists really restricted to a small class of UFO-spotting psychopaths? Apparently not. According to research conducted by Victoria Associate Professor of Psychology Marc Wilson, 78.7 per cent of 6000 New Zealanders surveyed believe that it is likely that the “Iraq war is about oil, not democracy”. 3.3 per cent of those interviewed consider it is likely that Elvis faked his own death, and 35.7 per cent suspect that it is likely that the us government knew about, or planned, 9/11. Given these figures, “I’m fairly confident, based on the research I’ve conducted, that everyone believes in the reality of at least some conspiracy,” says Wilson.

So why is it that some of us seem bent on questioning the world around us, while others just swallow the pill?

Wilson explains that “generally speaking [they] don’t think ‘differently’ because they are us.” However, the “less than five per cent” (as Wilson claims) who believe in a ‘monological belief system’—a network of conspiracies, where one conspiracy may prove to be sufficient evidence for the findings of another—have quite different tendencies. Swami found that the beliefs of this particular group were significantly associated with the Big Five personality trait of ‘Openness to experience’, suggesting that intellectual curiosity, an active imagination and a proclivity for new ideas results in greater exposure and subsequent assimilation of conspiracist beliefs. These types were also found to be more supportive of democratic principles, considering the conspiracies to be examples of non-democratic activity, thus leading to their political cynicism and a tendency to support minority parties as well as a distrust of the powers-that-be. In his research, Wilson has also noted a correlation between belief in paranormal activity and belief in conspiracy theories, and a weak but consistent correlation between paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories.

While paranoia has become synonymous with belief in conspiracy theories, a correlation between the two does not necessarily mean that these beliefs are the result of a psychological disorder. As Swami notes, “over time theorists may also become more distrustful of others… because in extreme cases they feel under constant scrutiny and rejection.”

In New Zealand, conspiracy group seeks to uncover the truth behind 9/11, citing New Zealand’s involvement in “an illegal war” as motivation to push for an independent inveatigation into the attacks. Despite these pacific motivations,’s Phillip Rose says that the group “are outcasts in the local ‘peace’ community. While we have an obvious anti-war position, and consider ourselves peace activists, we are shunned by almost 100 per cent of the peace activists we have met… they don’t want to have anything to do with us.”

So, what is it that motivates so many of us to create stories that question the world around us? One study found that conspiracy theories are often based on epistemic biases, meaning that we expect significant events to have significant causes. When we find that information is lacking to adequately explain major events, a narrative is created in order to “provide a convenient alternative to living with the uncertainty”. This is especially true in traumatic situations, where a conspiracy theory may provide for the psychological needs of the individual as a coping mechanism. “When people are outraged or distressed [they] seek to justify their emotional state by claiming intentionality of actions even in the absence of evidence,” explains Swami. Humans will also tend to judge fictitious accounts as more plausible if these accounts are more consistent with pre-existing beliefs; a tendency called ‘confirmation bias’. In a poll of seven predominantly Muslim countries, for example, almost four fifths of respondents did not believe that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs, but instead was the work of the us or Israeli governments.

Given that some conspiracy theories do end up being true, and how much our psychological needs can impact our perception, I ask Dr Stuart Brock how can we decide which purported truth to believe?

His answer: “Enrol in PHIL236 (Conspiracy Theories). This is not a question that can be answered in just a few words.”


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  1. Non believer says:

    I would not “believe” in any theories. Let experiment and real world observations dictate the answer.
    The many believe, the few research and know, and another few march steadily towards their own self made destruction with futile attempts at preventing the Internet reformation from triumphing their directed history and their psychological meme based games.

  2. Mick says:

    Once labeled with the “conspiracy theory” tag it’s an uphill struggle to credibility ,is this an accident or sometimes by intent ?
    I don’t think of myself as being a “conspiracy theorist” . “conspiracy” is often cited in every Justice system on the planet ,be it a group of individuals conspiring to rob a bank or a group of Banks conspiring to rob individuals (LIBOR comes to mind). Therefore it would be foolish to dismiss “conspiracy theories” out of hand .
    I personally have issue with events that occurred on September the 11th. 2001 in America ,known as “911” (an ironic date for Americans ,it being their Emergency phone number, to state the obvious).
    “911” has demonstrably changed the world ,creating a “before 911” and an “after 911” mindset. So it’s examination should not be dismissed or down played considering the loss of human life and human rights it has already cost.
    Seeing as it is a very complex scenario i will not write a novel length response to your article but I will list (some) aspects of the “911” conspiracy theory ,remembering that the “Official” explanation is also known as the “Official Conspiracy Theory”.

    1) How did 4 commercial aircraft fly around the most protected air space on the planet for over one hour without challenge ?
    2) How does one explain the near free fall collapse of three steel framed Skyscrapers for the first time in the history of construction and all on the one day and on one site ?
    3) How does one explain the successful attack on the Headquarters of the most powerful Military in the history of mankind ,without a response ?
    4) How does one explain the fact that the so called ring leader of the religious fanatic suicide hijackers Muhammad Atta was in a relationship with a pink haired American stripper and had been seen to drink heavily and snort cocaine ?
    5) How does one explain the fact that six weeks after the event molten pools of metal where seen under the rubble pile of ALL three Skyscrapers by attending firemen ?
    6) How does one explain the the lack of any aircraft debris at the Shanksville crash site ?
    But not limited to .
    This is a short list of unexplained occurrences related to that day ,even the victims families complained that less than 30% of their questions where answered by the 911 Commission and to this day they want ALL the answers as is their right.
    When and how does a “conspiracy theory” accrue enough information to show proof of a conspiracy ?

  3. For the record is not a “conspiracy” group. We are a group of concerned citizens, who after having examined the evidence of 911 are asking for a new investigation. We are part of a global 911 truth movement that includes recipients of scientific awards, fulbright scholars, defence and intelligence experts, political leaders, architects, engineers, physicists, fire-fighters, and of course the 9/11 family members who work to share the scientific information of 911 with the wider public.

    I would recommend that all students who examine the official 911 conspiracy theory watch the documentary 9/11: Explosive Evidence – Experts Speak Out, released in May, 2012, by Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth. Link to documentary here

    The documentary features dozens of experts and represents over 2000 architects and engineers who have signed AE911Truth’s petition for a new investigation of the three skyscrapers that were destroyed on 9/11, killing almost 3000 Americans and initiating a decade of global war and all of its horrors and costs, as well as the increasing loss of liberties.

    This documentary has been given to Professors Wilson and Brock and I sincerely hope it is included in the course material. I often wonder if like myself when I initially dismissed this overwhelming body of information as “conspiracy theory” there is perhaps a collective suffering from “cognitive dissonance” (a theory I learned from my Professors at Victoria University when I was a student there in the school of psychology) with regard to this disturbing information. Like many now admitted government conspiracies (eg The Gulf of
    Tonkin, Operation Northwoods) it was difficult for me to come to terms with the scientific evidence I have learned about 9/11. I hope the beliefs about conspiracy theories and 911 do not prevent the academics and students at Victoria University to look at and deal with this empirical evidence.

  4. Laetitia Laubscher says:

    @Helen Waddington who says ‘for the record is not a “conspiracy” group.’

    Going by the definition given by Dr Brock in my article, a conspiracy theory is “a proposed explanation of events that postulates secret plans and actions on the part of a group and conflicts with the official story (or stories) of the same events… [which may be true or untrue]”, if we’re going to get technical on the matter that is exactly what the NZ 911 group are doing, but this isn’t a bad thing.

    What I proposed to do with my article is an attempt at washing away this instant ‘bad rep’ that it seems even conspiracy theorists feel towards having the name of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ – that there are conspiracy theories (as per the defintion above, again) that are plausible, that all people should do more research.

    • Phillip Rose says:

      @Laetitia Laubscher, who agrees that all people should do more research, and may not yet be aware that she is herself a conspiracy theorist.

      You will now be aware that by agreeing to promote the course presented by Drs Brock and Wilson you have opened the door on a subject that forms an important part of our individual world views, both psychological and political. We are all conspiracy theorists, and as you say, that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it is a necessary thing if one is to have any consideration for what goes on in everyday life, where conspiracies abound. What do you believe about 9/11? Whatever your belief, you are a conspiracy theorist, regardless of Dr Brock’s errant re-definition of the term to suit his purposes.

      Does the course you promote correctly identify the official 9/11 myth as a conspiracy theory? Even if it does, citing Cass Sunstein’s own admission, a course entitled “Conspiracy Theories” has an obvious propagandistic, not academic, intent.

      PHIL206 students are asked to examine “conspiracy theorists” not through a microscope, but through a kaleidoscope, conflating all doubters of received opinion into a crazy quilt of psychological study material – perhaps more to be pitied then censured – but in any case, not to be taken seriously. When Dr Brock et al say “conspiracy theorist”, what do they mean? They mean someone who does not subscribe to received opinions, particularly those held by the speaker.

      Some of us non-subscribers may be deranged, disgruntled or under the influence of some sort of indoctrination. Others of us may simply have spent enough time educating ourselves outside the confines of taxpayer funded institutions and corporate owned media to be able to think for ourselves.

      I do not question your intent, but your limited background in this field along with your blatant promotion of an obviously politically motivated “academic” course serves Authority, not Truth.

      “They must find it hard to take Truth for Authority who have so long mistaken Authority for Truth.” (Gerald Massey)

  5. Phillip Rose says:

    I was asked to contribute information for this article, most of which was not included. Fair enough, but I do hope that I will be allowed a response.

    I will let the title pass, allowing for the possibility that the author did not create the title, which contained unexplained references to lizard people and church steeples. Church steeples?

    The sub heading is “The truth behind conspiracy theories”. Perhaps the author did not also invent the misleading subheading.

    The ALL CAPS lead paragraph contained references to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, which are legends, not conspiracy theories. The last sentence contains what is either a nonsensical clause or a Freudian slip, “…it may be worth at least trying to understand what motivates the disbelievers.”

    Perhaps the author did not write this paragraph, either.

    The first normal paragraph promotes the VUW PHIL206 conspiracy theories class currently on offer. Dr Stuart Brock is quoted as saying that some conspiracy theories are valid and some are not. This point is later expanded upon by Ms Laubscher, citing facts originally disputed by governments and corporate/foundation-funded media sources that were later admitted to be factual, if not by governments, then at least by most media organisations. Once these admitted facts become received opinion, they are in fact official conspiracy theories, but are no longer referred to as such.

    In the next paragraph, the author cites Richard Hofstadter’s 1966 essay, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ as “(t)he first official study of conspiracy theories,” which “described a conspiracy theory as a belief in the existence of…(etc.)” “Hofstadter went on to argue that conspiracy theorists were ‘uncommonly angry minds’…” This essay, the first forty pages of which are freely available on the Internet contains twenty-three uses of the word “conspiracy”, but sadly, no uses of “conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist(s)”. There is one instance of the word “theory”, with the word “consistent” in front of it. Can a “conspiracy theory” also be a “consistent theory”? I will venture to say yes, but they are not synonymous.

    Perhaps the “CT” term appears later in the essay, but I did find the quotes that Ms Laubscher referred to in the first forty pages. They refer to right-wing paranoids and other such fearsome ogres of the 50s and 60s, but not conspiracy theorists.

    I was wondering how Ms Laubscher could make such a gaffe until I discovered the source of her misinformation about the Hofstadter essay: a 2010 paper entitled “The truth is out there“, by Swami and Coles, also freely available on the Internet.

    This essay is a richly footnoted load of quackademic twaddle, which I encourage you to examine for yourself, if only for the photograph of co-author Viren Swami. Is this essay representative of the required reading for the PHIL206 course? From the tone of this article and the comments I have read here and elsewhere about the course, it would seem so. Is the Cass Sunstein paper part of the course? I’ll bet it is. What about David Ray Griffin’s book about Cass Sunstein’s paper? I’ll bet not. Is Otago University Professor Charles Pigden’s excellent conspiracy theory paper part of the curriculum? I hope so.

    My objections to this meme of Conspiracy Theory Studies, aside from its obvious propagandistic intent, are its pretensions to academic legitimacy and its abnegation of scientific method. This course is co-presented by a department of philosophy. The foundation of philosophy (original meaning: “love of knowledge”) is not airy fairy pop psychology; it is classical logic based on the Trivium, Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. The other co-presentor, the department of psychology, is presenting material that is more properly in the field of sociology.

    If one were to seriously study conspiracy theories, one would first isolate a particular conspiracy theory, examine the facts (Grammar), form and test conclusions based on the facts (Logic), and finally expound upon the conclusions (Rhetoric). Take 9/11, for example. What is the official story about 9/11 other than a conspiracy theory? What are the facts that underlie the official conspiracy theory? Do they hold up under scientific scrutiny? Does the course ask why people came to believe the official story in the first place? I’ll bet not.

    “The truth about conspiracy theories?” I would laugh, but a million dead Iraqis isn’t funny.

  6. rogermorris says:

    “While paranoia has become synonymous with belief in conspiracy theories, a correlation between the two does not necessarily mean that these beliefs are the result of a psychological disorder.”
    This is certainly a relief and thank you for saying so, although I would imagine ‘believing’ in ALL conspiracy theories just because they ARE conspiracy theories, is certainly some kind of psychology, probably resulting in paranoia. To mitigate, one would have to identify individual ‘conspiracy theories’, then examine each in order of merit. A different result will ensue.
    Or is that a different question?
    “Openness to experience, suggesting that intellectual curiosity, an active imagination and a proclivity for new ideas results in greater exposure and subsequent assimilation of conspiracist beliefs” would certainly apply to the majority of those I have spoken to in relation to nearly ALL the ‘bundled’ conspiracies of our time. Our greater exposure to brutal acts of power, treachery, and subsequent illumination of method, have produced an understanding that fear based programming, connivance, murder, lies greed and slander are ‘tools of the trade’, crafted by experts in pointing the populations this way or that, and hidden behind denials of them.

    The Bush/Blair conspiracy, manufacturing the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, case in point. These dreadful men, on their way to active invasion and open murder of over a million souls in Afghanistan/Iraq, now onto Libya, Syria, probably IRAN, ‘conspired’ between themselves and others to CREATE a WAR. Their ‘new pearl harbor’ ‘sexing up the data’, throwing the ‘curveball’, the odious ‘yellowcake’ lie in the UN has 78.8% of 6000 of ‘us’ now understanding ‘them’ all part of a vast conspiracy to facilitate a hate war in the Middle East.
    Yet All major players are still alive, still active in the field, and earning GOOD money from their work.

    But that too, is another question.

    And just who utilizes the ‘conspiracy theorist-as-nutbar’ “meme” will be an interesting part of the course. In fact, to teach the ‘bad rep’ as a concept ‘to be used’ – a tool – involved in control of ‘conspiracies’ will surely lead to greater inquiry by students learning of it. To realize ‘designers’ of a ‘real conspiracy’ absolutely know modern intellectual thinking; understand the ‘human need to ‘create a narrative’ in the absence of one that makes any SENSE; providing a convenient alternative to living with the uncertainty by PROMOTING uncertainty itself, would be a very timely lesson.

  7. Mike Woods says:

    All of us at some time in our lives have disbelieved the official account of events. That makes us all “conspiracy theorists”. It is a highly pejorative, condescending, degrading and derogatory term used to disparage anyone who has the temerity to question the official version of the facts. The 9/11 Truth movement does not postulate who did it, but questions the lack of scientific evidence supporting the official story told by President George Bush.

    • Phillip Rose says:

      OK, probably no one is watching this thread any longer, but just in case, the best one-stop exposé on David Icke is from the Christian web guy, Chris White:
      While I do not subscribe to Chris’s religious beliefs, he does a very thorough job of researching David Icke. What he doesn’t mention about Theosophy (the obvious source of David Icke’s beliefs) is that Theosophy is in large part lifted from the *novel* by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “The Coming Race”, later known as “Vril: The Power of the Coming Race”. This book also influenced the early Nazis, or proto-Nazis if you will. I encourage people to watch Chris’s video. There is also an excellent source on the influence of Bulwer’s book,
      but I encourage you to simply search on
      influence of Bulwer-Lytton

      You will be amazed.

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