Author: The Great Courses Staff
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Eight-time presidential candidate and noted conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche died Tuesday, February 12. He became famous for his extremist and apocalyptic views. What makes a conspiracy theory? Also, can paranoia be good for us?
News of LaRouche’s passing comes from his organization LaRouche/Pac. During his colorful career, LaRouche once claimed that Queen Elizabeth II was secretly plotting his assassination and that the Bush family worked in secret with Nazi Germany during World War II, according to his obituary in The New York Times. Claims like these sound preposterous, which leads us to ask how someone could believe them. Psychology plays a large and multifaceted role.
Components of a Grand Conspiracy Theory
“Conspiracy thinking is a way to make sense of a complex and mysterious world,” said Dr. Steven Novella, M.D., Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. “It provides the illusion of certainty.”
According to Dr. Novella, conspiracy thinking involves pattern recognition. “A conspiracy theory is often just that—a pattern. In this case, it’s a pattern imposed upon disconnected events.” Dr. Novella said that our brain then filters the conspiracy through “reality testing,” or asking if the recognized pattern makes sense and is plausible. Unfortunately, reality testing can fall victim to our own prejudices and what we wish to be true. This cognitive trap, “confirmation bias,” causes us to conjure excuses for our theories when evidence seemingly disproves them. It also makes us latch onto any evidence supporting our theories.
“For these reasons and others, the conspiracy theory tends to become immune to refutation,” Dr. Novella said. “It quickly becomes what we call a ‘closed belief system.’ All evidence against the conspiracy—all evidence that can prove the conspiracy is not true—can be explained away as part of the conspiracy itself.”
Two final components remain. First, let’s consider “anomaly hunting.” “Anomaly hunting is just looking for anything that seems out of the ordinary or quirky or that defies an immediate or obvious explanation,” Dr. Novella said. And the second? “They combine this with the ‘false dichotomy.’ ‘The standard explanation is wrong; therefore, my conspiracy theory is correct.’ All they have to do is find anomalies, cast doubt on the standard story, and then use the false dichotomy logical fallacy to replace the standard story of events with the conspiracy theory.”
The Benefits of Conspiracy Thinking
Surprisingly, a bit of paranoia can be good. “We all have a little conspiracy theorist inside each of us,” Dr. Novella said. “This is, in fact, an adaptive trait like anxiety. It can be useful in moderate amounts.”
Conspiracy theories challenge authorities and bring light to genuine deficiencies in political narratives. “They further promote the need for transparency and full disclosure,” Dr. Novella said. “Many conspiracy theorists also engage in freedom of information requests that bring information to the public’s attention.”
Often, grand conspiracy theories rob our genuine public inquiry of its credibility. They send our concerns of government operation into “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” territory. Lyndon LaRouche was a prime example of that. However, if we use common sense and learn to let debunked theories go, we can pursue truth in a healthy fashion.
Dr. Steven Novella contributed to this article. Dr. Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University. An expert in neuroscience, Dr. Novella focuses his practice on neuromuscular disorders.