Q: What’s the appeal of conspiracy theories?


Humans are storytellers. We like narratives that take the random chaos of life and put it into a coherent structure. The alternative is too difficult to live with: a world where nothing adds up to anything, nothing results from anything else, and people are just free-floating organisms in a sea of other organisms with nothing to connect them. Even history is just a way to make sense of life and is far more creative and subjective than most elementary and high school textbooks acknowledge. 

But when we tell stories to make sense of real events, we have two options: fabricate and make connections based on speculation or research what happened and form narratives based on facts.

In a nutshell, this is the difference between a conspiracy theory and an actual conspiracy. In recent years, the extraordinary growth of social media has enabled the former to spread more rapidly than ever before, to take root in communities, and to undermine efforts by scientists, journalists and others to inform the public with credible information. The most prevalent example today is QAnon, the conspiracy theory that a high-level intelligence officer has been leaking highly classified information about “deep-state Democrats” controlling society from the shadows and even trafficking children for sex. 

In 2016, just before a user with the name QAnon appeared for the first time on message boards, a man named Edgar Welch drove from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., with a carload of artillery, intending to liberate children from the basement of a pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong. Welch had read about an alleged sex-trafficking operation on social media and decided to take matters into his own hands. The idea that Democrats, with all their power and ties to big industry, were abusing children on top of everything else was too much for Welch to bear. 

But when he arrived and even fired a round inside the restaurant, he found no children. Police arrested Welch at the scene, and he is now in prison for numerous offenses. None of them, however, is believing in the conspiracy theory. That’s because simply believing conspiracy theories is not illegal; in fact, QAnon believers have even been elected to Congress. No one is saying that believing in conspiracy theories should be illegal, but we need to do more to understand their popularity and their spread.

So what’s the difference between a conspiracy theory and a real conspiracy? Basically, a real conspiracy would hold up under scrutiny. One example is Bridgegate, a scandal from 2013 in which New Jersey government officials conspired to shut down part of the George Washington Bridge as a way to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, for not supporting the Republican governor, Chris Christie. A local reporter broke the story by starting with some very simple questions, like “Why is there so much congestion on the bridge if no work is being done?” He ultimately uncovered a plot involving numerous people close to Christie to put pressure on the Fort Lee mayor, and eventually, the facts came to light. By reporting the story, he showed that the connections were not mere coincidence or speculation.

Researchers at UCLA recently did a study on conspiracy theories and found that this is the key difference between a theory and an actual conspiracy. If you sever any major connection in a conspiracy theory, the whole thing falls apart. But if you sever a connection in a real conspiracy — that is, if you prove that two people who were alleged to have had a secret meeting, for example, have never met — then further investigation will show that other connections nevertheless exist. A conspiracy theory would fall apart the moment such a connection was severed. In other words, everything has to line up exactly as the conspiracy theorists say, even without direct evidence to back up their claims. 

And yet, many people believe in conspiracy theories. The reason is very simple, and it goes back to the beginning of this post: They explain the unexplainable. We may never know, conclusively, where the coronavirus originated, who the first infected person was, or how it mutated early on to become even more deadly than it might have been otherwise. And that’s tough to sit with, the not knowing. Conspiracy theories like the notion that the virus was developed in a lab and intentionally leaked into the population, and then spread around the world with the help of Bill Gates so that he could plant tracking technologies in our bodies through vaccine injections, may sound ludicrous to some. But to others, such a theory is much more palatable than living with not knowing.

The problem is not our natural tendency to seek out structure but our inability to discern facts from fiction. That’s where critical thinking comes in. We need to be able to separate credible information from fabrication; we need facts to navigate life. If we believe in fictions, we risk nothing less than life itself–of ourselves, our loved ones, and the well-being of the planet.