What might we expect these days from a mass market paperback about “conspiracy theories”?
Someone informed about how shadowy elites engage in gaslighting the masses might expect a theoretical defence of the kind of thing we have seen on Twitter recently, where the #SecretSociety hastag, used by Trump supporters in conjunction with #ReleaseTheMemo, drew the following response from the platform:
Someone familiar with the weaponisation of terms such as “fake news” by the left would likely pick up Rob Brotherton’s 2015 pop science work Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories from the remainder table only to leaf through it with a knowing smirk.
Brotherton holds a PhD in psychology, and his specialty is in the “anomalistic psychology” of “conspiracy theorism.” If anyone is able to take an overused smear term and invest it with sufficient intellectual content to stand scrutiny, one would think it would be him. But if Suspicious Minds was supposed to read as anything other than propaganda on behalf of the MSM, Western governments and corporate Antifa, it has failed in its objective.
To begin with, one would think that the first step to be taken would be to define what a conspiracy theory actually is.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all definition,” Brotherton writes when finally, in Chapter 3, he backtracks around to attempt the task. “Not every theory about a conspiracy qualifies as a conspiracy theory. The term is more than the sum of its parts,” he archly elaborates amidst a welter of caricatured examples: cold war “reds under the bed” pamphlets, 911 “inside job” theories, and David Icke’s reptilians (p. 65-6). Surely, he seems to be saying, we can all agree that people who believe in any of the above must be crazy.
Distinguishing conspiracy theories in the pejorative sense from credible theories positing conspiracy is, it turns out, about identifying “rhetorical themes, tropes and flourishes” (p. 63): more a matter of literary criticism than scientific psychology. Here the acknowledged debt is to Richard Hofstadter, whose non-scientific and polemical concept of the “paranoid style” of discourse in American politics apparently goes unchallenged in Brotherton’s milieu as a general definition of the field. (More on this to follow.)
Aside form definitional issues, Brotherton’s thesis suffers badly from his inept and blatantly dishonest use of research data—although, to be fair, it seems that this is a problem endemic to the field.
Exhibit 1: “Rudiment (sic) Wings”
Brotherton explains the findings of one loudly trumpeted study which purported to show, essentially, that those designated “conspiracy theorists” by the authorities are stupid people:
[S]ome people will believe in a conspiracy theory that psychologists have just made up out of whole cloth. For a study conducted in Austria, a team of researchers led by Viren Swami concocted a theory about the popular energy drink Red Bull. The theory alleged that Red Bull contains illegal substances (the aptly named extract “testiculus taurus”) that make people want to drink more of the product, and, more alarmingly, caused lab rats to grow rudimentary wings. The drink only made it to market, the theory suggested, because the inventor pays(sic) off the food inspectors. […] Sure enough, some people rated the claims as being plausible, and as expected, the people who bought into these entirely fictitious conspiracy theories were the same people who thought JFK was killed by a conspiracy, 911 was an inside job, and the New World Order is trying to take over the world, and so on.
First, it bears repeating that Brotherton has disclaimed possessing anything resembling a clear definition of “conspiracy theories,” so it is not clear either what this, or any of the other experimental data is supposed to prove about people who believe in them.
Second, despite what Brotherton states here, Swami et al actually failed to state what the “real world conspiracy theories” in question were. They might have run the gamut from flat-earthism to the well-known activities of George Soros.
Now let’s have a look at the table of data provided by the researchers, and not reproduced by Brotherton:
I have highlighted one particular item casually mentioned by Brotherton as part of the theory in which the cohort supposedly “believed.” In contrast, what the experimenters state in their report about item 6 is that “The factor loadings showed that only one item did not load onto the first factor […] We, therefore, dropped this item and repeated the factor analysis (p. 457).” As the table shows, the end result was that the item still failed to yield any statistically meaningful correlation.
Clearly, this one particular item was intended as a final “gotcha,” a ridiculous punchline to the joke that Swami et al wanted to play on what they tellingly describe as their “white, European” cohort, and which, in reality, backfired on them.
Then take a look at this “entirely fictitious conspiracy theory” in its totality. Beginning at the top, item 7 states or implies (depending on interpretation!) that having chronically elevated dopamine levels is bad for you. Far from being “entirely fictitious,” it is rather entirely true. If the conspiritards knew this and the normie-tards didn’t, so much the better for the former, one would think! Ditto the negative effects of drinking from heated cans. Oh, and here’s a news story about a man who did die of a brain haemorrhage after bingeing on energy drinks.
Further evidence of the experimenter’s bias and ill-intent towards their subjects is present in the phrasing of, e.g., item 11, which I suppose would be in second-place for most ridiculous item on the list. It is written in such a way that “testiculus Taurus” is asserted to be real and present by forming part of the subject of the sentence. Now, when one is asked a question in real life by a linguistically competent interlocutor, one is being asked whether the predicate applies to the subject; if I ask “Are you hungry?” I am not asking first of all whether you exist. Similar remarks could be made about other items on the list. Perhaps the conspiracy theorists had a better grasp of grammar and logic than both the normies and the experimenters?
Like Brotherton, Swami et al do not bother too much about defining conspiracy theories with any scientific rigour. “Conspiracist ideation is usually described as a belief in the existence of a ‘vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character’.” This is a quote from Hofstadter’s anti-McCarthy, anti-Goldwater screed mentioned already.
The language used is not that of value-neutral enquiry, but of outright propaganda. For example, to believe in something “preternaturally effective” is essentially to believe in spooks or spirits of some kind whose effectiveness cannot be rationally explained. And yet, we are expected to believe that, using such a definition, Swami et al conducted a credible scientific experiment showing that “belief in the entirely fictitious conspiracy theory was significantly associated with […] stronger paranormal beliefs.”
Talk about begging the question!
Exhibit 2: Draw the Bike, Stupid!
One reason, Brotherton says, why we believe in “conspiracy theories” is that “We’re overly confident about how we understand all sorts of things” (p. 129). We think we are capable of evaluating evidence to reach conclusions by ourselves, when in fact we would do better to leave it all to the experts. Thus, we turn into Dunning-Kruger cranks who think we understand what a freefall demolition looks like, when in reality 110% of qualified engineers 110% endorse the findings of the 911 Commission report.
You get the idea.
In another experiment, the gulls were shown the following simplified diagram of a bicycle:
What happened next was that
When psychologist Rebecca Lawson set people this challenge, around half of them got something wrong—despite the fact that virtually all of them knew how to ride a bike, and many had one sitting at home. And these weren’t trivial mistakes. They were design flaws that would render the bike a useless hunk of junk. […]
This deceptively simple task reveals that a lot of people lack a basic understanding of how bicycles work. […] What’s interesting is that we don’t realise our lack of understanding—until we’re forced to demonstrate it by completing the doodle and we find ourselves faltering. Before confronting people with the doodle, Lawson asked them how well they reckoned they understood the mechanics of a bicycle. On a scale from one (meaning “I know relatively little about how bicycles work” to seven (meaning “I have a thorough knowledge of how bicycles work”) people rated themselves around a four or a five—reasonably knowledgeable. But for a lot of them it turned out that their understanding was an illusion.
Brotherton does not even attempt to explain what any of this has to do with conspiracy theories. The bad bike-drawers were not quizzed about illuminati, the Holocaust, or elite paedophile rings. Unless the experiment is supposed to show that no one knows anything about anything, the moral appears to be the general one that we all should be more circumspect in advancing claims to knowledge.
It is a lesson that Brotherton and his colleagues, apparently, need to learn.
Exhibit 3: Protocols of the Learned Elders Adorno, Segel, Billig, Pipes, et al…
Much like a badly conceived bicycle design, a theory of conspiracy theories can hardly be expected to “go” anywhere if its parts do not connect together in a coherent way. Surely Brotherton intends to imply that, like the bad artists in the experiment, “conspiracy theorists”—who it seems are everywhere and look just like normal people apart from a peculiar psychological essence that only Brotherton and his colleagues have the nous to intuit—are intolerant of ambiguity.
Adorno et al’s discredited yet still influential study The Authoritarian Personality is clearly an ideological precursor to Brotherton’s book. The stereotype invoked is that conspiracy theorists, who, of course, tend to be right wing nuts, see the world in black and white; It’s us versus them; we have the truth on our side, the light of Christ against the forces of darkness and the Children of the Lie, etc. Then before you know it the inquisition is burning Marrano Jews at the stake, and Der Sturmer is whipping up exterminationist frenzy with tales of a worldwide and completely fictitious Jewish conspiracy as alleged in that totally debunked forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion…
And yet, in fairness, Brotherton is forced to admit that even where a stereotype is unfavourable to white people, it is not necessarily true:
Binjamin Segel, a scholar of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, explained that, through conspiracy theories, the most serious problems of a nation’s existence could be definitively explained by means of simple formula. As Michael Billig put it, ‘in essence … [conspiracy theories] are simple: events do not have multiple causes and the chance factor in history is discarded. All events are traced back to deliberate events decisions taken by conspirators. (p. 121). Daniel Pipes likewise describes conspiracy theories as ‘streamlining’ reality: ‘myriad trouble makers become a single hostile force’ (p. 121)
(((Binjamin Siegel, Michael Billig, Daniel Pipes))): All are cited one after another in a paragraph addressing The Protocols and how they appeal to the simple minds of the goyim, too stupid to understand that Occam’s Razor is not even a thing, and that it’s perfectly plausible to suppose that near-universal anti-Semitism throughout history has nothing whatever to do with the behaviour of Jews.
Brotherton’s anti-Semitic dogwhistling continues, as seemingly he turns against his learned elders:
A team of psychologists led by Maria Abalakina-Paap gave students a stack of questionnaires designed to assess their thinking style. They measured three traits: need for cognition (how much you enjoy puzzles, problem solving and other intellectual challenges); tolerance of ambiguity (how comfortable you are with uncertainty); and attributional complexity (how willing you are to entertain complex, nuanced explanations for people’s behaviour). In line with prevailing stereotypes, the researchers predicted that the more students bought into conspiracy theories, the lower they would score on each of these traits—which is to say, the more simplistic, rigid, and lazy their thinking would be. Contrary to expectations, however, the test uncovered no relationships at all.
How very interesting.
Just a reminder at this point. When you have a theory in science and it makes predictions that turn out to be untrue, you are meant to revise the theory. For example, Michaelson and Morley did a famous experiment to test the “luminiferous aether” theory of light:
It compared the speed of light in perpendicular directions, in an attempt to detect the relative motion of matter through the stationary luminiferous aether ("aether wind"). The result was negative, in that the expected difference between the speed of light in the direction of movement through the presumed aether, and the speed at right angles, was found not to exist; this result is generally considered to be the first strong evidence against the then-prevalent aether theory, and initiated a line of research that eventually led to special relativity, which rules out a stationary aether.
This is why physicists stopped talking about aether. Now, if your definition of a conspiracy theory is that it is “an easy way of telling complicated stories (Binjamin Siegel, quoted by Brotherton, sic.),” and you then do an experiment that shows no correlation between propensity to credence non-mainstream narratives and intolerance of ambiguity—would it not be time to follow the physicists’ example and discard the old theory in favour of one that fits the facts?
It’s almost like “conspiracy theories” don’t really exist as a distinct class of ideas, or “conspiracy theorists” as a distinct class of people…
Let’s see if Brotherton or his masters are willing to go where the evidence leads:
On reflection, it’s not all that surprising that the stereotype doesn’t hold up. I many ways, conspiracy theories are more complicated than the alternative. While conspiracy theories are simple in one sense, ‘at the same time, conspiracy theorists find solace in complexity,’ Daniel Pipes notes. (p. 122)
One could continue to pick apart the evidence presented in this book, but to catch every half-baked crumb the author lets fall would be a tireless task.
Disclaimers by both guru and disciples to one side, it is clear that in their view, although “conspiracy theorists” are “not necessarily right wing,” (Hoftstadter) most are. Brotherton himself asks rhetorically, “Are conspiracy theories more popular among the left or the right, Democrats or Republicans?” concluding blandly that “which side of the aisle is home to more conspiracy theories depends on whom you ask” (pp. 235-36).
Yet, it is not difficult to see where his heart lies. In the chapter entitled “What’s the harm” Brotherton’s exhibit A is “The Jewish Problem.” According to him, it all started with The Protocols of The Learned Elders of Zion, progressed to the assassination of Walter Rathenau, and culminated in Hitler and the Holocaust. Now, as we saw with Swami’s “totally fictitious” Red Bull theory, details matter. For example, there is a reason why accounts of events leading up to the Holocaust generally do not mention that the Jews have been persecuted and expelled not less than 109 times in their history. Did the Seleucids read the Protocols too?
Perhaps Jewish overrepresentation among hostile, exploitative elites throughout history has had something to do with it.
911 provides Brotherton with more material. But hang on, we now have reason to believe that the Saudi Government was involved in planning the attack; meanwhile, it seems to have been common knowledge for years in the US Government that this collusion with terrorists was going on while the US Government continued to provide military aid and cover up what was happening.
How far does the rabbit hole go?
One would think that this kind of thing would be important enough to be decided on the balance of evidence, not a literary analysis of “rhetorical themes, tropes and flourishes.”
Likewise, to take an example everyone is talking about today, whether the FBI colluded with the Democratic Party against Trump, or Trump voters are in fact Russian algorithms, is something that ought to be decided on the balance of evidence and not on any a priori notions about the sorts of things it’s proper for a well-educated person to believe in.
The theory (that 911 was an “inside job”) may or may not be true; either way, to endorse it is to assert that the conspiracy has not yet come undone. Same goes for any other conspiracy theory you care to mention. The deed may have been done, but the perpetrators have not fessed up or been caught. The masses are still in the dark, the cat remains in the bag, the beans have yet to be spilled (p. 66).
It is an extraordinary position to hold. Yes, he says, conspiracies do happen. Theories about them often turn out to be true. Granted and granted. But before any such theory can be regarded by smart, sensible people as proven, likely, or even as lying outside the field of “anomalous psychology,” it must already be in every detail completely uncontroversial within mainstream discourse.
Perhaps there exists a quantum state in which the cat is neither in nor out of the bag, or is both in and out of the bag at the same time…?
Here, in short, is Brotherton’s admission that the purpose of his book and of his career is none other than to stigmatise dissentient viewpoints on a range of sensitive topics. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s some conspiracy Brotherton’s in on, just that…well, look at these people:
Unlike their physiognomy, however, their agenda is no joke. In the Soviet Union, political dissidents were institutionalised as suffering from made-up illnesses such as “sluggish schizophrenia.” Today in the West the dissident right is being banned from social media and the internet, and the pseudo-scientific rationalisations of Adorno and the rest are dusted off and given a new twist by today’s left, which has lost none of their predecessors’ taste for censorship backed with psychobabble.
The only contribution to human knowledge that Brotherton and his colleagues are making is an inadvertent one about where our society is headed if we don’t turn it around.
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