Wednesday, August 18, 2010


I spoke with a longtime coworker just as I was leaving today. She's quite the conspiracy theorist, and I was surprised to find she is now a Truther in addition to being a Birther. She voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but now thinks he's part of the oOne World conspiracy. She is a full-fledged CFR/Bildeberg/Trilateralist at this point.

When I have known someone for many years, I tend to think of their recent self as their "real" self, and earlier versions as stages. For the last ten years, I have seen her as a fundamentalist Christian, considerably more interested in endtimes prophecy than I ever was, and drawn to political things that outraged her. The items she would pass on to me often involved finding significance in what I saw as relatively minor events. I now think that the last two years or so she must have been something a bit more eccentric than that. About five years ago she married a pastor from Georgia who had been serving a church up here. I imagine his politics may be involved.

Here's the interesting part: I've known her since she interned and then was hired here, over fifteen years ago. Not only was she quite liberal then, especially around women's issues and redistribution, but she was something like a conspiracy-theorist then. In more public conversation, she was in the patriarchy/rigged-economy/plutocrat camp, but privately, she let on that she was quite convinced that powerful males in the government were not merely unenlightened sexists - not really a conspiracy - but that they intentionally sought to pass legislation that would insure that women were kept subservient in future generations.

Before I knew her, she had been a member of the Boston Church, an intentionally apolitical sect which has rigid hierarchical discipling practices and some suspect theology, described as a cult by some.

Well, I'm making her sound foolish - she's a lovely person actually, and bright enough. Flamboyant, funny, kind.

But it leads to an interesting speculation. I am not the first to note that a tendency to believe in conspiracies often precedes the data, which is acquired later. Confirmation bias seems to be incredibly powerful with these people. And though conspiracies have more than their share of loners, they seem also to be easily influenced by the small circle of people they hang with. They communicate with each other a lot, sending each other stories and links. And while they often have an extreme left or extreme right overall tendency, they also usually have these oddities of belief that come from the other side of the spectrum, and even more often, conspiracy beliefs that can go either way, like alternative medicine or anti-corporatism.

Do any of you know any conspiracy theorists who are, well, centrist? I was about to type "moderate," but that seems self-contradictory. I know pessimists who will wish a murrain on both the houses of our current political alignment, but I'm not discovering any conspiracists in that census.


Brent said...

A lot of Americans are excitable, easily agitated people. I'm one of them. Stir in democracy, public opinion and mass communications, and you have a volatile mix.

Lewis's observation about modern politics has wisdom:

'In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers except at rare and short intervals was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement, and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live "a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty" and "pass their time in rest and quietness." But now the organization of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of "appeals," "drives" and "campaigns".'

De Descriptione Temporum

ELC said...

Not an answer to your question.

Familiar with Jungian psychological typology? The Myers-Briggs derivative thereof?

It's only a half-joke to say that the INFJ type is the stereotypical conspiracy theorist: the dominant introverted intuition sees all kinds of connections that aren't really there, and the auxiliary extraverted feeling screens out any evidence to the contrary.

Kurt said...

Hey, watch what you say about INFJ's! I tested as one in graduate school (about twenty years ago). I have no idea whether or not I'd still test as one, but who knows.

Anyway, with regard to conspiracy theorists, your work friend sounds rather like a guy I've been friends with from high school who now lives in L.A. He has run a pretty full gamut politically, from environmental leftist who wanted to work for Greenpeace to (now) a religious conservative who is always talking about end times prophecy and the North American Union. He regularly sends me links to conspiracy-type videos that are almost unwatchable. And I sometimes worry that in his zeal he is pushing another mutual friend of ours (who voted for Obama) further into the Obama camp than he would otherwise be.

Nevertheless, while this is just anecdotal evidence, I think it does point to the tendency of certain kinds of personalities to be drawn towards conspiracy theories, and once drawn, to follow them to rather extreme conclusions. I don't remember (if I ever knew) what was behind this friend's initial leftism and environmentalism, though I suspect a lot of it was rebellion against his very conservative parents. His change in political philosophy came about after he moved to California in the mid-1990s and became upset about illegal immigration, but it also was a reaction against what I have referred to in other comments here as the puritanical nature of so many leftists and environmentalists. For a few years there between about 2000 and 2006 or so, he didn't seem too far gone in his views, but since 2008 I keep hearing him talk about end-times prophecy, and although I try to point him in the direction of other (and what I could consider more rational) reasons to be bothered by what has been going on, he never really seems to get the clue.

Texan99 said...

I'm not really sure what a real "centrist" is. Most of the people I encounter who describe themselves that way strike me as only peripherally engaged in political questions. Now and then they get interested in and informed on a particular issue, and then they adopt a strong view one way or the other. Maybe the closest thing I know to a centrist is someone with eccentric enough views to be leftist on some matters and rightest on others, as often happens, say, with a libertarian, or someone with conservative views about private behavior but small-government views about politics.

But I'd expect a conspiracy theorist to adopt fringe views, left, right, or some wacky combination of the two, just like an eccentric but for different reasons. Conspiracy theorists seem to thrive on intuited connections without much interest in logic or data testing, so I guess it shouldn't be too surprising if they're willing to hop on a train going in almost any direction, just as a truly independent thinker would do.

Anna said...

Proverbs 22:13 "The sluggard says, There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets!"

I dunno if this is what the writer of the bible actually meant by that, but that is how I have traditionally interpreted that verse, as a warning against conspiracy theorists.

(another) Jonathan said...

I think that some conspiracy theorists are characteristic believers while others are simply uneducated in inference. There is overlap between these groups. Also, people who are both ignorant about logical inference and extremely cynical are often impossible to reason with, because they are unable to evaluate evidence and often reject it out of hand.