Jun 6, 2022
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In Conspiracy, Pipes argues that the fear of non-existent conspiracies has flourished down through the ages, and has sometimes had significant impact, causing coups and revolutions, bringing leaders including Lenin, Perón, Napoleon and Saddam Hussein into power, and driving Trujillo, the Gang of Four and James II of England from power.
Francis Fukuyama describes Conspiracy as a “fascinating account of conspiracy theories down through the ages, from Christian accusations against the Jews to contemporary African-American theorizing about a police conspiracy to frame O. J. Simpson and the CIA’s role in promoting the aids epidemic in urban ghettoes.”
A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable. The term has a negative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence. A conspiracy theory is not the same as a conspiracy; instead, it refers to a hypothesized conspiracy with specific characteristics, such as an opposition to the mainstream consensus among those people (such as scientists or historians) who are qualified to evaluate its accuracy.
Studies have linked belief in conspiracy theories to distrust of authority and political cynicism. Some researchers suggest that conspiracist ideation—belief in conspiracy theories—may be psychologically harmful or pathological, and that it is correlated with lower analytical thinking, low intelligence, psychological projection, paranoia, and Machiavellianism. Psychologists usually attribute belief in conspiracy theories and finding a conspiracy where there is none to a number of psychopathological conditions such as paranoia, schizotypy, narcissism, and insecure attachment, or to a form of cognitive bias called “illusory pattern perception”. However, the current scientific consensus holds that most conspiracy theorists are not pathological, precisely because their beliefs ultimately rely on cognitive tendencies that are neurologically hardwired in the human species and probably have deep evolutionary origins, including natural inclinations towards anxiety and agency detection.
Historically, conspiracy theories have been closely linked to prejudice, propaganda, witch hunts, wars, and genocides. They are often strongly believed by the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, and were used as justification by Timothy McVeigh and Anders Breivik, as well as by governments such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Turkey. AIDS denialism by the government of South Africa, motivated by conspiracy theories, caused an estimated 330,000 deaths from AIDS, QAnon and denialism about the 2020 United States presidential election results led to the 2021 United States Capitol attack, while belief in conspiracy theories about genetically modified foods led the government of Zambia to reject food aid during a famine, at a time when three million people in the country were suffering from hunger. Conspiracy theories are a significant obstacle to improvements in public health, encouraging opposition to vaccination and water fluoridation among others, and have been linked to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. Other effects of conspiracy theories include reduced trust in scientific evidence, radicalization and ideological reinforcement of extremist groups, and negative consequences for the economy.
Alex Jones referenced numerous conspiracy theories for convincing his supporters to endorse Ron Paul over Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican Party presidential primaries and Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 United States presidential election.[ Into the 2020s, the QAnon conspiracy theory alleges that Trump is fighting against a deep-state cabal of child sex-abusing and Satan-worshipping Democrats.
Historian Kathryn S. Olmsted cites three reasons why Americans are prone to believing in government conspiracies theories:
Genuine government overreach and secrecy during the Cold War, such as Watergate, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Project MKUltra, and the CIA’s assassination attempts on Fidel Castro in collaboration with mobsters. Precedent set by official government-sanctioned conspiracy theories for propaganda, such as claims of German infiltration of the U.S. during World War II or the debunked claim that Saddam Hussein played a role in the 9/11 attacks. Distrust fostered by the government’s spying on and harassment of dissenters, such as the Sedition Act of 1918, COINTELPRO, and as part of various Red Scares.