Arguments: ConspiracismThe Danger Is Real: Why We’re All Wired for ‘Constructive Conspiracism’

Published 5 November 2019

Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, says that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories should not be dismissed as a mere folly. Rather, we should adopt the concept he calls “constructive conspiracism”: “Sometimes ‘they’ really are out to get you, so it pays to be careful,” Shermer writes. “Imagine you lived three million years ago on the plains of Africa as a tiny small-brained bipedal primate that was highly vulnerable to the region’s many terrifying predators. You hear a rustle in the grass. Is it just the wind or is it a dangerous animal?” Over time, those who imagined the rustle in the grass to be a predator will survive, while those who imagined the rustle to be nothing but the wind will be eaten by the predator, if there was a predator. “Conspiracy theorists have dedicated their lives to searching the long grass for the still-hidden creatures that supposedly engineered these tragedies. They’ll never find them because they don’t exist. But given all the very real predators that have tried to devour us over the eons, you can’t blame them for looking.”

Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, writes in Quilette that heonce met a politician who told him that he believes water fluoridation is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public.

“I have been confronted by ‘truthers’ who insist the 9/11 attacks were an ‘inside job’ engineered by the Bush administration. Others have regaled me for hours with theories about who really killed JFK and Princess Diana—not to mention the nefarious goings-on of the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, and the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) that secretly runs the United States,” Shermer writes.

He adds:

While I’ve been writing about conspiracy theories in Skeptic and Scientific American for decades, it’s only recently that I’ve had occasion to summarize all of this research for a downloadable course called Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories, produced in conjunction with Audible and The Teaching Company’s Great Courses. This exercise gave me an opportunity to catalog the common characteristics shared by all conspiracy theories—including the fact that almost all forms of conspiracism have a negative valence. Rarely do people believe that there’s a conspiracy afoot to make the world a better or safer place. Conspiracy theories invariably feature nefarious agents seeking to do bad things. This quality is embedded in the definition of a “conspiracy” that I provide to listeners: “two or more people plotting or acting in secret to gain an advantage or to harm others immorally or illegally.”

In recent years, psychologists and political scientists have identified several factors that influence conspiratorial thinking, such as political orientation, race and power (or the lack thereof). These are proximate causes of conspiracism. But lying beyond this, I propose, is a deeper cause rooted in evolutionary pressures that have shaped our brains, disposing us to the pessimism and negative assumptions that are the hallmarks of conspiracy theories.