It’s good to be cautious, especially with the health and safety of our children. But how cautious is too cautious?’ Where is line drawn between being safe and being paranoid? That line can be hard to determine and there are extremes of risk like sky diving or even drunk driving and there are extremes of caution that bring about distrust of even well educated professionals like doctors and research scientists. Unfortunately extremes of caution do sometimes run rampant, like in this article that is awash with paranoia and fear-mongering. The real question is: what could lead a person to this kind of thinking?
Conspiracies do exist from small time neighborhood plots to vast government cover-ups; this is a fact of reality. These are not the conspiracies we are concerned with in this article it’s what some sceptics refer to as PCT’s or Paranoid Conspiracy Theories as the UK Skeptics accurately describes:
Paranoia figures strongly in the theories put forward by PCTs. Whether it is governments colluding with alien powers, the Illuminati plotting the New World Order, drug companies withholding cancer cures so they can keep selling expensive drugs, or governments mind-controlling populations by sending signals from mobile-phone masts, there is a common theme behind the supposed conspiracies: a malevolent intention by some hidden power.
There isn’t a lot of serious research on why people can end up being a paranoid conspiracy theorist but in a book by Tom Melley called Empire of Conspiracy he explores the psychology of Conspiracy theories. Psychology Today writes:
Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.
When fervent individualists feel that they cannot exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces are to blame for usurping this freedom. “For one who refuses to relinquish the assumptions of liberal individualism, such newly revealed forms of regulation frequently seem so unacceptable or unbelievable that they can only be met with anxiety, melodrama, or panic.”
The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking.
Melley is one of the very few I have found that have seriously studied the subject but I was able to find one other good, scientific look:
The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, fourth edition (DSM-IV), the US manual of the mental health professional; lists the following symptoms for paranoid personality disorder:
- preoccupied with unsupported doubts about friends or associates
- suspicious; unfounded suspicions; believes others are plotting against him/her
- perceives attacks on his/her reputation that are not clear to others, and is quick to counterattack
- maintains unfounded suspicions regarding the fidelity of a spouse or significant other
- reads negative meanings into innocuous remarks
- reluctant to confide in others due to a fear that information may be used against him/he
- Feelings of Inferiority: Low self-esteem and self-worth.
- Emotional disorders and complexes: There are many like Social Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and depression.
- Personality: Upbringing and personal experience.
- Heredity: Hardwired for paranoia and suspicion. I.e. Paranoid Schizophrenia.
PCTs have found a natural home on the Internet where their beliefs are supported and enhanced by the communal reinforcement offered by like-minded people. (UK Skeptics)
There are many popular Conspiracy Theories, here are a few:
- September 11th: The newest and possibly the most popular conspiracy theory. Theorists believe that the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon were part of a government conspiracy to give them an excuse to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. They believe that the Jetliners that crashed into the towers were a distraction from what was actually a controlled explosion carried out by the government. Here is a closer look.
- Vaccinations: Vaccinations are dangerous they can cause many serious health issues and are even cited as causing Autism or so conspiracy theorists believe. I did an article on this last year.
- John F. Kennedy Assassination: Decades later this conspiracy theory still has many believers. The belief is that the late president was assassinated by his enemies because of his strong, liberal leadership. Lee Harvey Oswald was a fall guy for the true assassin that was from some government agency. There was a lot of confusion and bungling in resulting investigations and so conspiracy theories abound. The Wikipedia entry is a good starter look at the subject.
- Aliens: Conspiracy Theorists believe a wide variety of things about aliens from visits by extra terrestrial life and abductions to government complacency of alien control of our entire planet. It’s hard to pinpoint a single good resource but the Roswell incident and Area 51 are quite popular.
This is a handful of some of the more popular conspiracy theories; there are hundreds and quite possibly thousands.
The truth is anyone can believe anything they want no matter how out of touch with reality it may be. You can even believe in things as bizarre as shape-shifting lizardmen from outer-space disguised as world leaders in order to control our planet (a list of some really far fetched conspiracy theories) or anything you want to. The trouble with PCTs lies in ethics:
- They are simply untrue: Paranoid conspiracy theorists spread their ideas as true despite lack of or easily refutable evidence. Deliberate or not this is lying.
- They foster unreasonable fears in the masses: The kind of fear conspiracy theorists generate is unhealthy, even dangerous. There is nothing moral in causing people this kind of undue stress and dismay.
- They are a waste: Too much time, energy and resources are put into conspiracy theories when there are far bigger, more realistic problems.
Also known as scare tactics fear mongering is the deliberate use of fear to manipulate people. This can be used on a personal level in things like bullying or it can be used on large groups such as when Churches tell members about the possibility of hell for ‘sinners’, it is even used on the societal level by dictators and unscrupulous politicians for power and control over entire civilizations. The media is also a major offender of fear mongering bringing doom and gloom to the masses every day.
Conspiracy theorists use fear mongering to try and get people in agreement with them even though they do not reach their conclusions in an unreasonable or scientific manner (control).
A person has a right to believe what they want and express it in anyway they choose, I would support this to the death no matter how absurd, crazy, irrational…etc. that belief may be. But every thinking person must take offense to a belief or idea when it causes people to be afraid of things they don’t need to be. No one should deny a paranoid conspiracy theorist their right to express their ideas but no one can deny our right to express what is wrong with them. This is what all freethinkers should always do. Factual knowledge of all kinds needs to be out there in libraries, schools and cyberspace. If even one person sees this blog and decides, for example, to have their children vaccinated after all then it will have served its purpose.