Humpty was pushed: An account of origin and effects of conspiracy theories

By Jagriti Arora

15, 7, 67, 99: If these numbers were thrown at an average person, they might start trying to reach from one number to another by a set of operations. The truth, however, is that no pattern was intended behind these numbers. To explain further, if one stacks the text of Moby Dick in a rectangle, one can find words that predict details of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Does that make Herman Melville a prophet, asks Patrick JMT. The answer is no, and its basis is Ramsey’s Theory. The theory states that “Given enough elements in a set or a structure, some particular interesting pattern among them is guaranteed to emerge”. Ramsey’s Theory also forms the basis for us seeing patterns in the night sky. Any four stars, provided no three of them lie in the same line, are bound to form a quadrilateral. We can, in turn, find creatures in the sky if we look for them. TS Modzkin, a mathematician, contends while disorder is more probable in general, a complete disorder is impossible.

Blame the order-loving brain

While the examples mentioned above point to the existence of patterns in nature, they also point to humans constructing them. This pattern-seeking mind could often lead humans to believe in things that are far from the truth. Most people like to make sense of the world; they see patterns that may or may not exist.

As innocent consumers of content, we should seek self-awareness and identify our predispositions. In the deluge of information on the internet, one can make a list of conspiracy theories around the world. We do not even need to look far. Recent Indian controversy over the Taj Mahal being a Hindu Temple is a good example. Some people believe that Gandhiji wanted Bhagat Singh dead because he disapproved of his methods. Other questions that lack clear answers have continued to be susceptible to conspiracy theories to date. For example, did the Government of India mislead Agni V’s missile range on purpose? Does the CIA have anything to do with Homi Bhabha’s death? Does India have a UFO base? Due to a shortage of information and evidence, our order-seeking brain tends to connect the dots and often falls prey to mistaking correlation to causation.

An error in interpretation

Comedian John Oliver calls conspiracy theories “science fiction for people who don’t know they’re watching science fiction“. Interestingly, satire has been lost on the populace in the past too. In the 60s, a bunch of progressive intellectuals, with an intention to challenge elitism, came up with a small text called ‘Principia Discordia’. This text promulgated worshipping of Eris, the Lord of Chaos. Little did they know, they were fighting fire with fire. The document was referenced in the Illuminatus Trilogy too. The Trilogy touted Illuminaties as overlords who, with the purpose of creating a new world order, controlled the World Affairs. The authors would send out, often conflictingly, fake letters to their readers with the rationale of making the masses think and question the authority. But the masses misinterpreted it and established a cult around the idea. If the authors were alive today, they wouldn’t know what to fight this fire with.

The propagation and how it harms

Fuelled by websites like 4chan and Reddit, these theories have spread like wildfire. Celebrities like Beyonce and Jay-Z have been seen making Illuminati symbolism with their hands in concerts. While some conspiracy theories may be harmless, some can have far-reaching consequences. For instance, in 1972, John Yudkin, a British professor of Nutrition, exposed the perils of excessive sugar consumption in his book Pure, White and Deadly. Although his work received mainstream attention posthumously, it came at a personal price. He died of an unrewarded career. The sugar industry, in the 1960s, paid scientists to downplay the link between sugar consumption and heart diseases. Another scientist, Keys, ‘backed’ the claim with data. He surveyed 5000 people in Italy, which is already known for occurrences of heart diseases, very conveniently leaving France. On being questioned, he would reiterate the number of surveys he conducted. He correlated heart diseases with fat consumption to take attention away from sugar. An article in NYT revealed that Coca-Cola had funded researchers to downplay the correlation between sugary drinks. With misinformation and large corporations with vested interests, it’s hard for consumers to see the truth. Not only does the aforementioned tells us how disinformation infiltrates our innocent society but also how power plays a role in propagating a theory. It’s hard to strip down a claim and locate where it comes from.

Why are people taken in?

What makes people believe in conspiracy theories? Viren Swami, a professor at Anglia Ruskin University, narrows the cause to some kind of psychopathy. His study reveals that people who have experienced stressful events are more susceptible to believing a conspiracy theory. His study also found that less educated people are more likely to fall for conspiracy theories. A study conducted by Jan Willem Van Prooijen supports it. The study finds that a higher education level increases the capacity to detect nuances in arguments. This, in turn, reduces the belief in conspiracy theory.

Largely, apolitical in nature, scientists have time and again shunned these claims that lack an iota of evidence. For instance, climate change deniers continue to get stronger even in the face of produced evidence. Climate change sceptics, a bunch of people who disregard solutions to climate change, believe that its cause is not anthropogenic. As scientists respond to deniers with facts and pieces of evidence, they only receive disagreement in return. Deniers suggest that the consensus on climate change is manufactured. This denial extends beyond climate change and questions the integrity of scientific dialogue itself.  It’s hard to reason with someone driven by conspirational thinking because they’ve shut their cognitive doors already. How can one then address conspiracy theories? While education is an intuitive answer and already discussed, one can always log on to Snopes.com


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