Matters of Opinion

Conspiracy theories…a valuable tool or political paranoia?

911September 11, 2013 marks the twelfth anniversary of the world trade center bombings, explosions that continue to echo around the world. While the most of us are content take stock of the causes and effects of the attack and lay blame on those who admitted responsibility, there are others for whom the case is still is open, who believe Osama Bin Laden’s planes were merely a noisy distraction and that the Trade Center buildings were actually wired to explode from the inside by mysterious plotters from—take your pick—the Bush White House, Israel’s Mossad, or a team of Black Ops from the CIA.

kenNovember 22, 2013 is not only the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy but a marketing opportunity for a profusion of books, movies and docudramas, many of them rehashing the mafia/CIA connection, but some positing theories that are new to me, like Robert Kennedy covering up the purported fact that a bullet from a secret service man’s gun was found in his brother’s skull.

false flagMore recent conspiracy theories involve the Boston Marathon bombings. Most of them are as implausible as the theory that the bombings, like the moon landings in 1968, were faked and staged by actors. Another one posits that the Tsarnaev brothers actually were CIA agents who were hired to infiltrate Muslim groups but betrayed their mission and went over to the radical Islamists. This one claims to answer the question of why an FBI agent shot and killed a friend of the Tsarnaevs in Florida during a routine FBI interview.

And that’s the enticing thing about conspiracy theories. They try to answer troubling questions and create rational narratives to explain things we just can’t get our heads around.

The historian William Manchester explained the Kennedy assassination theories this way: “If you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something. . . . A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.” Manchester, like Oswald, had been trained as a Marine sharpshooter and believed that Oswald was the lone triggerman.

Like Manchester, many of us think conspiracy theories are ridiculous—at least until they’re proven correct, such as the one that suggested a President of United States would actually conspire to cover up the fact that he sent goons to break in to the offices of his opponents.

Americans have always loved a juicy conspiracy, from Freemasons being responsible for the federal income tax to aliens being hidden at Roswell, New Mexico. When I was growing up there was a persistent rumor about Fluoride. The theory was that communists were putting it in public water supplies to control our minds. At the time nobody ever thought TV was contributing to mind control…that would have sounded ridiculous.

You would think that because there’s so much information on the internet today that wacky theories would be easily be disproved. Think again. According to a poll conducted by Farleigh Dickinson University, 63% of registered American voters believe in at least one political conspiracy theory and the internet increases the tendency to do so.

Turns out there’s something that political scientists called the ‘backfire effect.’ They say that the more you try to convince people their information is bad, the more they believe in bad information. It’s sort of like talking to your teenager. Conspiracy theorists like to hang out in places where people agree with them and their biases are confirmed. Places like chat rooms. And psychologists say that the more you believe in government conspiracies, the less likely you are to vote, or protest, or join a social change movement. The people who most embrace conspiracies are convinced that social change is hopeless.

So where does that leave the rest of us? Surely you don’t have to be a psychopathic loner babbling about the New World Order to believe that our so-called democratic process is being manipulated. Not at all. According to studies, being a little paranoid is a normal reaction to feeling politically powerless. In fact, there’s a correlation between conspiracy theorizing and strong support of democratic principles.

I actually think political paranoia can be valuable tool in the right doses. It keeps you sharp. It keeps you asking the right questions. Because, at least in the words of Thomas Pynchon, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

I’m Ira Wood…and that’s my opinion.

Matters of Opinion are Ira Wood’s short, personal, often rather odd takes on current events. They wrap up the WOMR News on most Fridays at 12:30 PM and are available as podcasts HERE. Feel free to email Ira to tell him what you think.