Thursday, April 10, 2008

Conspiracy Theory

The family of one of my patients has a website up on his behalf, to free him from the horrible injustices the various governments local, state, and national have visited on him by locking him in a psych hospital just because he threatened to kill people and thinks that Special Forces in Iraq put a chip in his head. We discussed the site at team today.

Our PhD psychology student surprised me by asking about conspiracy theories. After my very general answer, he started talking about the website Loose Change and the Twin Towers. By jiminy, he's a Truther! He started in about kerosene mix and jet fuel but I cut him off. "Popular Mechanics has it covered. Straightforward. Thorough. Check it out." He seemed disappointed and wanting to discuss it further. I was brief, and I am sure he thought, dismissive, but I didn't say "It's just nuts," which is what I was thinking. I noted that the evidence offered by the conspiracy theorists was unconvincing - they lean toward an explanation of single events that is barely possible. Additional barely possible explanations do not strike them as reducing the chances that their theory is correct, but confirming it. Aha! Mayor Willie Brown was warned to be cautious about flying at his Sept 10 morning briefing! You see?

But Willie Brown got those warnings about once a month. The mayor of LA didn't get a warning; the mayor of San Diego didn't get a warning; the mayors of Oakland, Sacramento, and Son Jose didn't get warnings. Mayor Brown reported his info immediately in case there was some lead there. And we never heard any more about it! That just goes to show it's possible there is a coverup...

The student shook his head worriedly and said that the scary thing is that it's even possible. Ah yes.

Simple declarative: belief in the probability that some sort of conspiracy is happening precedes all data. I have had folks protest no-no-no! I never suspected Bush in the 1990's, I hadn't even heard of him! I only gradually came to think he and Cheney might be involved. Nonsense. You've believed in some sort of conspiracy for decades, and gradually came to think that Bush might be part of it. The details have been vague and somewhat flexible, but the repeated themes of corporations...conservatives...military...intelligence agencies have been constant.

The belief precedes the evidence.

Update: the team psychiatrist, referencing conspiracy theorists, noted another explanatory bit: they regard secret information (often unsubstantiated) as more important than obvious info. The Physician's Assistant had a good example: conspiracy theorists will believe a convoluted tale about the acquisition of hammers - which can be weapons, y'know - and not ask themselves "why would they go through this when you can go down to the hardware store and buy a couple?"

It is interesting to contemplate what their life experiences have been, and how their minds work, to believe that the doubtful hidden must be more important than open knowledge.

9 comments:

Dubbahdee said...

So, the family of the patient -- are they doing this to humor him, as if it is some sort of palliative? Or are they actually persuaded by his arguments and joining with him against the oppression?
And the PhD Student...how does working in a mental health facility provide him with further "data" for his theories? Does he palaver with paranoid patients to gain more ideas to feed his own paranoia, or does he attempt to treat these people? I'm sure there are many well educated people who are caught up with (not "in") conspiracy theories. I think you are right that the need to believe in these has an emotional/psychological basis, not a logical or scientific one. But this guy is in a special position to feed that side of his thinking -- or so it would seem to me. Is that a problem?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The family believes him. They told me he was fine until the government implanted the chip in his head.

As to the student, he's not that different than many who work in the field. While few would go as far as being full-out Truthers, they definitely believe the Bush administration, and conservatives (corporations, military) in general do secret and nefarious things in concert.

See my update in the original post.

TomG said...

Your update's ending reminded me of the scene from Conspiracy Theory, when Mel Gibson's character is snipping out articles from National Inquirer - uttering that *this* is where the real information is disseminated, rather than in the standard newspapers ;) Cheers, Tom

Adamgv said...

This is an interesting conspiracy. Many people should know about this.

TomG said...

... and links to Alex Jones no less ('nuff said ...)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think these guys all went to the same writing school.

TomG said...

focus on folk tale telling no doubt, but I can't help feel that this Admin does a disservice in dispelling many absurd suspicions by its complacency toward the way such rumor mills feed on people's fears/anxieties that contribute to growing cases of paranoia about the Govt in general ... they should spend as much time on explaining their failures as they do advertising Natl security-threat color schemes ... the populace is owed an allaying of a good amount of their fellow citizens' worries, that are a public cost suffered by everyone as a result.

TomG said...

sorry, meant to say "a disservice in *not* trying to disspell ... "

TomG said...

Excerpt from below well-written AI article: "Some have argued that unjustified fears (or “hysteria”) about the Communist enemy within was created by the media, and some now say the same thing about apprehensions of the terrorist enemy within. But the fear of domestic Communism persisted long after the press had become thoroughly bored with the issue. This suggests that, while the media may exacerbate fears about perceived threats, they do not create them. That is, fears often have an independent source, and then take on a fictional life of their own."

http://www.the-american-interest.com/ai2/article.cfm?Id=418&MId=19

which was just referred to by one commenter here:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/04/aint-my-america.html#comments