American Conspiracy Theories

By Robert Bernstein 

“American Conspiracy Theories” was the latest Humanist Society Talk, given by Joseph Uscinski.

Joseph Uscinski is a political science professor at the University of Miami who specializes in the study of conspiracy theories. He wrote the book American Conspiracy Theories with Joseph Parent, published in 2014.

He chose the same title for his August talk to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara. Humanist Society President Judy Flattery noted that the issue of conspiracies directly relates to the Affirmations of Humanism written by Paul Kurtz.

Humanists are committed to the application of reason and science. Humanists are skeptical of untested claims, while being open to novel ideas. Uscinski wrote an article in the January/February 2021 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. You can read it here.

That brought a lively exchange of letters in the May/June issue which you can read here.

Uscinski started by saying that conspiracy theories are a controversial topic. We all believe some, but we disagree about which ones are true and which ones are crazy.

We are stuck in a strange place since you can’t remove such a basic part of human nature. He said that we would not want to live in a world without any.

Some conspiracy theories are true. If we did not have the ability to form such theories it would let the powerful get away with bad behavior with no accountability.

We should wonder what are powerful people doing when no one is watching.

The ability to believe conspiracy theories is a matter of individual personality. Some are more susceptible than others. Some are so resistant that they won’t believe real conspiracies.

Uscinski noted “I am not one of them”. Whatever “them” may be. For example, he is not part of the “deep state”. He gets emails every day with such accusations.

His mother warned him that religion and politics are issues to avoid in conversation. He would add conspiracy theories to that list.

He defines a conspiracy as happening when a small group of powerful people works in secret against the common good. He is not talking about people conspiring to rob a 7-11 store or kill a lover of a spouse.

He gave the example of Watergate as a real conspiracy. Data was collected. Evidence was presented in open court with witness testimony. We learned exactly who was involved and why they did it.

When we hear a conspiracy theory we should ask what is the evidence. At first there may be very little. If the evidence builds, there is reason to investigate more. If not, it makes no sense to waste time on it.

He claimed that the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories never passed this test. There were many such theories and many were inconsistent with each other. Some said it was the CIA or the FBI. Others said it was Castro. Others said it was anti-Castro Cubans and/or the Mafia.

Uscinski said that none of these theories were established with evidence.

Conspiracy Theories form an infinitely sized bucket. Constantly expanding. You can accuse anyone of anything. All events and circumstances attract them. But only a few get polled on, attract attention and have movies made about them.

What he is not including? Supernatural claims like demons, ghosts, paranormal claims, ESP and alien visitations.

He also excludes cryptozoological claims like Bigfoot, Nessie and Chupacabra.

Misinformation is a bit different. It can include conspiracy theories. Misinformation is false or misleading information that is shared, whether it is designed to mislead or not.

In contrast, disinformation is intentionally spread, often for political reasons. Fake news is designed to imitate real news, but it lacks fact checking and is designed to mislead.

He said that it is important to separate misinformation from beliefs in misinformation. There is a lot of misinformation out there, but not everyone believes it or is influenced by it.

People often ask why do people believe conspiracy theories. He said the correct question is why do people believe anything? For lots of reasons.

Group Attachments do a lot to explain belief. Our group is upright and honest. The other guys are bad and conspiring. They say the same about us.

The most obvious examples of such groups are political parties and religions.

We need to think about the information environment. This includes social media, legacy media (print, radio, TV), trusted government leaders, friends, family and social groups.

The same information can be presented in ways that selectively slant the meaning. When Obama left office, unemployment was at 4.8%, far lower than when he took office. Yet Republicans found ways to claim those numbers were not real and they asked why so many were still unemployed.

Beyond individual conspiracy theories there is the concept of conspiratorial thinking. Some people are quick to decide that the media is in on the conspiracy under consideration.

Some conspiracies are partisan. Examples include birtherism against Obama, “the other side cheated” used by Trump (but also used at times by Democrats).

Others are not partisan. Examples include claims about the secret power of the Rothschilds or the Freemasons. Scary claims about vaccines or GMOs. And he included Holocaust denial in this category.

These examples happen across the political spectrum. But he noted that the anti-vaccine theories are now dominated by Republicans.

Uscinski did a research poll in March 2021 on 23 conspiracy theories. 91% of those polled believed at least one. There is no us vs them. We are all likely to believe one or more.

15% believe the Holocaust was exaggerated.
17% believe the shootings at Heartland and Sandy Hook had been faked as a “false flag” operation to take away guns
22% think Climate Change is a hoax
25% think 5G has hidden dangers that are being covered up
33% think the government has made contact with aliens and is covering it up
42% think there is a Deep State controlling the government
43% think JFK was killed by a conspiracy. He noted that in 1963 that figure was 50% and rose to 80% for decades.
45% think GMOs have hidden dangers being covered up
50% think Jeffrey Epstein was murdered

There are many wacky conspiracy theories involving COVID. These involve Bill Gates and George Soros. Microchip tracking. A scam by Big Pharma. Doctors faking patients. 5G is spreading COVID. Even an elaborate QAnon theory that Trump deliberately engineered COVID to root out the Deep State… In order to liberate secretly held children.

The good news is that most of these have few followers.

What about election conspiracies? He said that going into typical elections, about 40% of the people think that if the other side wins it will be due to election fraud. He claims this kind of thinking was not new in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

This thinking tends to dissipate afterwards among those on the winning side. The 2020 election did have more such thinking than usual.

Republicans claimed that mail in voting would be fraudulent. Democrats claimed that the US postal service was trying to suppress mail in ballots.

One thing he claims about conspiracy theories is that they are stable over time.

The biggest surprise for me in his talk was his claim that there is no more conspiratorial thinking now than in the past. He said that the Internet can actually reduce this because it has allowed people to check things.

We hear about how scary the QAnon ideas are. But he said that only 5% believe them. He surprisingly claimed that QAnon ideas are not especially politically left or right.

He said that mostly people use the Internet to seek out what they already believe.

If you want to find out who is responsible for the spread of conspiracy theories, don’t look to the new technology. It is better to look at the same reasons that go back 50 or 100 years.

The biggest driver of COVID misinformation was Trump. Blame leaders. And blame partisan corporate media.

At this point he took questions.

He gave another example of a real conspiracy: The Iran-Contra scandal where Reagan approved selling weapons to terrorists in Iran. Illegally diverting that money from the US Treasury. Instead, sending it to fund terrorists and death squads in Central America. That really happened. There were hearings and people were prosecuted.

When asked about echo chambers of people being fed what they already believe, he said that is not really true. He said that most people are not even paying much attention to politics.

He made a surprising claim that advertising on Facebook or anywhere else doesn’t seem to have much influence at all.

We hear reports that more people are believing nonsense now than in the past. It is due to more coverage of such belief rather than an actual increase in such belief.

Tricia asked if certain personality traits go with conspiracy thinking. He said there is nothing special about JFK conspiracy people. But Holocaust and Sandy Hook deniers tend to have anti-social personality traits.

Marian and I both asked how to combat people believing nonsense things.

Uscinski answered that there is no magic tool to change peoples’ views. All you can do is wish them a good day and get on with life.

He went on to say that we really should not ask for such a magic tool, anyway. It is not right to monkey with people just to get them to agree with you.

I said I was not asking for people to agree with me. I might be wrong. I am asking for a way to have people take the time to get their facts right and improve their reasoning. Some things like the Climate Crisis and COVID really matter.

He agreed that those things really matter. He said it is a game of whack-a-mole. You might get them to get one thing right, but then they will adopt another nonsense belief.


Written by sbrobert

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  1. It seems like prolonged stress and existential threats like COVID have played a big role in the spread of conspiratorial thinking. I’ve had trouble understanding how a few formerly reasonable and well-informed people in my life have gravitated to Qanon and anti-vax nonsense. They seem to have unconsciously shifted from gradual, reason-based learning and news consumption to a large-scale game of telephone informed by uninformed speculation. In past events like the Black Plague, this natural human tendency towards rumor and hysteria during stress took the form of localized hysteria in a few villages and towns. Now with social media, the village idiots and knee-jerk skeptics have a far larger audience and place in the conversation than they deserve.

  2. From a Gallup survey: what are the chances that someone who gets COVID will need to be hospitalized?
    The answer is between 1% and 5%.
    41% of Democrats thought it was over 50%, another 28% put the chances at 20 to 49. So almost 70% of Democrats are wildly off on this key question and also have a greatly exaggerated view of the danger of COVID.
    Who would the author think is responsible for distributing and promoting this misinformation?

  3. VOR you are so sick. Nearly 650,000 people in this country have died of COVID. How can you trivialize these deaths by parsing what a small percentage of infections that represents? And what does it matter whether Democrats think it more dangerous than Republicans? World wide millions are dying. Grow up or move on to another planet.

  4. Keep telling yourself COVID isn’t serious if that makes you feel better. Meanwhile in the real world, ICU’s and morgues, largely in conservative anti-vax areas, are filling up again. Even the loser-in-Chief seemed to realize that his voters dying is a problem when he started telling them to get vaccinated last month. Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is the sensible approach to a crisis. Not pretending things are the best and downplaying the crisis while over half a million people die.

  5. I never once said COVID wasn’t serious, I posted a true example of the negative consequences of misinformation (a topic of the article we’re commenting on) You even repeated misinformation yourself by claiming it’s the conservative areas that have the ICU’s filling up and low vaccination rates. That is simply false. And bringing up Trump, is that still the go to excuse? But here you are dismissing my factual post with non-facts and thinking it’s okay for a large portion of the population to have a grossly inaccurate picture of how big a threat covid poses to an individual. This drastic overstatement of risk is not “preparing for the worst and hoping for the best” but has had significant negative consequences to people’s overall health and well-being that will last for decades to come, especially with how our response has done more harm to children than the actual virus.

  6. VOICE – dang it man, you’re at it again. I was really hoping you had stopped this nonsense. Ok, well here go….. again:
    You say “So almost 70% of Democrats are wildly off on this key question and also have a greatly exaggerated view of the danger of COVID.”
    Then in almost every other comment section you, at least once, jump all over others for being partisan. There’s a word for that….. 😉

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