The Year of the Conspiracy Theory
Updated: Jan 1, 2021
As we come to the end of 2020, there is one word that keeps ringing around in my mind—tumultuous. This has been one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory. The global pandemic has brought with it economic devastation and political unrest. We’ve seen racial protests and division, wildfires raging out of control on several continents and our thinking is becoming more polarized every day.
What intrigues me more than any of these issues individually is the way people react to the totality of all this chaos. How do humans, when faced with enormous amounts of stress and anxiety, explain to themselves why all of these things are happening? Is it the result of overpopulation and climate change? Is it God punishing humans collectively for our sins? Or is there something even more sinister afoot? Perhaps all these events are the result of a vast conspiracy that is trying to undermine the very foundations of our society?
Of all the explanations I just offered, the last one feels the most implausible, and yet, an alarming percentage of people subscribe to this type thinking. The question I want to explore in this post is why have conspiracy theories taken such a massive hold on the public imagination? What allows for these theories to be propagated among different groups of people? Finally, and most importantly, I want to explore the thin line between religiosity (the strong feeling or belief in religion) and conspiratorial ideation (the propensity to believe in conspiracy theories).
Every good conspiracy theory begins with a catalyst. Although it feels like an eternity ago, December of 2019 is when the world began hearing about a new virus that was causing problems in the Wuhan province of China. At the time, all we knew was that the virus was extremely contagious and lethal. Within a month, the virus has made its way to Europe. By January 20th, 2020, the United States had our first confirmed case of COVID-19. By mid-March, the virus was killing so many people that the economy essentially came to a stand-still.
Concurrent with this event was when the first rumors began spreading across the internet that this virus was part of an effort by China to destroy America through biological warfare. The theory went something like this: Chinese scientists had created COVID-19 in a lab and released it into the human population as a means of retaliation for the United States increasing tariffs on Chinese goods. The virus was designed to cripple the American economy in the same way that Americans were crippling the Chinese economy.
So that no one would suspect foul play, the Chinese government released the virus into their own population first. If the virus initially appeared in the United States, then everyone would know that espionage was at play. The evidence used to support this claim is that, shortly after the virus appeared in China, it all but disappeared. Many conspiracy theorists claimed that the Chinese scientists who created the virus also possessed a vaccine, which they quickly distributed to the population to inoculate them.
Of course, this theory ignores a number of glaring issues. First, American tariffs were not crippling the Chinese economy. They certainly caused economic strain between China and America with increased financial burdens experienced by both countries, but tariffs are different from economic sanctions (like those imposed on Iran and North Korea), which truly can destroy a country’s economic viability.
Second, this theory assumes that scientists are able to whip up deadly viruses whenever it suits them and create vaccines just as efficiently. If you’ve ever spoken with an infectious disease specialist, they will tell you that, although it is possible to engineer an entirely new virus from scratch, in this instance it seems unlikely. After looking at the genetic signatures of COVID-19, infectious disease specialists have determined that COVID-19 was not manipulated by humans.
Finally, this theory also assumes that the Chinese government cares so little for its own people that they would intentionally kill thousands of their own citizens (let alone the millions of other victims around the world) to settle a score. Although the Chinese government is much more authoritarian than the United States and is certainly guilty of human rights violations against their own people, creating a worldwide pandemic as a means of “getting even” is a whole new level of crazy.
And yet, as much as the various elements of this conspiracy theory don’t add up, not only do an increasing number of people accept it as factual, but this theory has also received a decent amount of media attention and promotion by government officials. The question is why has this conspiracy theory gained traction over the real story of the how the Coronavirus began to spread?
Scientists have already provided a pretty solid theory as to where the virus originated and how it spread. The short version is that coronaviruses are common among bats. It is likely that the first person to be infected with COVID-19 (otherwise known as patient zero) came into direct contact with a bat or an intermediary animal that was infected by a bat. Most coronaviruses have no effect on humans, but this coronavirus mutated when it jumped species and gained the unusual capacity to infect humans.
In this instance, infectious disease specialists are still not entirely sure who the very first person was to be infected with COVID-19, but they believe the infections possibly began at a wet market in Wuhan where bats were being sold. These people, presenting flu-like symptoms, unknowingly began spreading the virus by being out in public and at hospitals seeking treatment. Unfortunately, by the time doctors understood what was happening, the virus was beyond their capacity to quarantine from the rest of the world.
The ability of the Chinese government to contain the spread of the virus within their own country is not due to them having a vaccine before anyone else. This is one instance where having an authoritarian regime is to your benefit. The Chinese government was able to enforce stringent lockdown measures that severely restricted movement. The Chinese people complied because violating these protocols could result in severe punishment. This combined with quickly isolating anyone infected with the virus is what allowed the Chinese government to get the virus under control very quickly and keep it from resurging.
The Necessary Seeds
Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist who researches conspiracies at the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge University said in an interview, “You see this kind of boom in conspiracies whenever there’s political or social unrest throughout history. Whenever there is significant uncertainty in the world.” When the world feels like it’s spiraling out of control, people are looking for answers that allow them to make sense of the chaos. The problem is that a pandemic, like the one caused by the Coronavirus, is the result of random mutations. There’s no rhyme or reason for why it happened.
This notion that the world is subject to random chance is very unsettling. This is why a certain subset of people will cling to conspiracy theories. These theories provide a framework that helps reorder the world for them, even if that reordering is negative. Sander van der Linden provides many different examples of when this happened in the past: the Salem Witch Trials, Nazi’s spreading anti-Semitic propaganda about a Jewish take-over, McCarthyism with the infiltration of communists, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 90s.
In the decade following JFK’s assassination, almost eighty percent of the American population believed the true cause of the president’s death was being covered up by the government. This is understandable. If an American President, one of the most well-guarded men in the world, can be shot in broad daylight, then all bets are off. The same chaotic conditions are present as a result of COVID-19. Besides decimating the world economy and limiting our ability to move freely because of lockdown measures, faith in the United States government is at an all-time low. Many people distrust the politicians tasked with making the decisions that directly impact our lives.
All the seeds of fear, powerlessness, and anxiety are present to create the necessary psychological conditions for a person to become susceptible to conspiracy theories. The only thing left is a little bit of misinformation. Today, the internet is most common source for mining information. The algorithms that determine what you see when you perform a search are not designed to filter out fact from fiction. What you discover in your feeds are based on your click patterns. The algorithms are designed to show you more of what it thinks you want to see.
I’m actually going to do an entire post on Artificial Intelligence Algorithms in 2021, but the end result of these algorithms is that we often end up in an echo chamber where we are never exposed to any competing information. Therefore, if you’ve found your way onto websites that promote half-truths or blatant lies, the algorithms will keep presenting you with sites that promote misinformation because it assumes that’s what you want to see.
After a while of reading the same ideas over and over again, you may accept as fact information that has no basis in reality. And because there are literally tens of thousands of people who are sharing these articles on their social media accounts, it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re dealing with fringe theories. In fact, you feel as though you’re enlightened, which only further reinforces your thinking.
The truth is that no one is immune from conspiracy theories. In fact, all of us have assimilated some element of misinformation into our thinking. If we had the opportunity to catalogue every item of information locked in our brains, all of us would find an item here or there that has no basis in fact. Whether or not you fully embrace a conspiracy theory is based on having the right pieces of misinformation and the ability to fit all of those pieces together in your mind. To explain how this occurs, I need to tell you about the split-brain operation.
A Splitting Headache
The American neuropsychologist Roger Sperry won a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work exploring how the left and right hemisphere of the brain divides up the work of interpreting the world. Sperry discovered that the left hemisphere of the brain specializes in verbal skills, writing, complex mathematical calculations and abstract thought. The right hemisphere is nonverbal and specializes in anything to do with geometric forms and spatial relationships, such as recognizing human faces and interpreting emotions.
The way he determined these differences was through experiments he performed with split-brained patients. In case you’re not familiar with corpus callosotomy, it’s a surgery that used to be performed on patients with severe epilepsy where a surgeon severs the neural wiring connecting the left and right side of the brain. Epilepsy is caused by electrical signals in the brain travelling from one hemisphere to the other, which results in seizures. By splitting the connection between the left and right side of the brain, the electrical waves that cause the seizure are prevented from gaining traction.
Sperry was the first psychologist to study split-brained patients. He realized that, following the surgery, the two hemispheres processed information independently, each completely unaware of the other. This allowed Sperry and his team to come up with all kinds of fascinating experiments to test how the two sides of the brain approach the world.
The Spin Doctor
For instance, because the right eye is connected to the left side of the brain and the left eye is connected to the right side of the brain, if you restrict the visual field of a split-brained patient by preventing the right eye from seeing what the left eye sees and vice-versa, then there are some really interesting results. Michael Gazzaniga, one of Sperry’s students, developed a series of experiments with split-brained patients where he discovered how the left hemisphere of the brain is continually in the process of creating stories to explain our internal and external experiences.
In one experiment, a split-brain patient was shown two different pictures with his visual field restricted. The left hemisphere (his right eye) only received the image of a chicken claw, while the right hemisphere (his left eye) viewed a snow scene. The job of the patient was to choose a card that correlated with the scene.
The cards associated with the chicken claw were a hammer, an apple, a chicken and a toaster. The correct choice was matching the chicken with the chicken claw. The cards associated with the snow scene were a dirt shovel, a snow shovel, a rake and a pick axe. The correct choice was matching the snow shovel with the snow scene.
The split-brained patient got both answers correct, matching the correct card with the picture. Where things got interesting was when the split-brained patient was asked to explain the two choices. Because his left hemisphere (which is responsible for creating stories) had seen the claw, he was able to easily explain that the chicken goes with the claw.
But because his right hemisphere had selected the snow shovel, the left hemisphere had no knowledge of the snow scene. And due to the fact that the right hemisphere (which cannot tell stories) is separated from the left hemisphere, it couldn’t share that information. Therefore, when he was asked why he chose the snow shovel, his explanation was that the snow shovel was needed to clean out the chicken shed.
In other words, because his left hemisphere hadn’t seen the snow scene, he couldn’t explain the real reason for choosing the snow shovel. Nevertheless, the left hemisphere, which is responsible for interpreting the world and creating stories, offered an explanation for his selection. Gazzaniga noted that this explanation was not offered as a tentative guess. Rather, the patient offered it as a confident statement of fact.
In another split-brain experiment, Gazzaniga asked the split-brained patient to get up and take a walk. However, Gazzaniga did this by whispering into his left ear, which meant that the information was communicated only to the right side of the brain. His left hemisphere had no knowledge of the request.
As the patient pushed back his chair to get up, Gazzaniga had one of his research assistants ask the split-brained patient where he was going. The patient replied without hesitation, “Oh, I need to get a drink.” The point being, even though the left hemisphere has no clue why he is getting up to leave the room, it quickly creates a reason. Gazzaniga explained in his book The Mind’s Past:
“The [left brain] constantly establishes a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts and dreams. It is the glue that unifies our story and creates our sense of being a whole, rational agent.” - The Mind's Past (p.174)
Why does this matter? Our brains, specifically the left hemisphere, are always attempting to define our lives by helping us to understand who we are through narrative. This is why humans tend to best comprehend their existence in terms of stories. Indeed, what Gazzaniga’s experiments prove is that the job of the left brain is to help us make sense of the disparate elements of our experiences by stitching them together into a cohesive narrative. True or not, these narratives are what bring meaning and purpose to our lives. They are also the way we make sense of a nonsensical world.
The Proper Conditions
Understanding how the brain is always working to create stories to explain our current circumstances, let’s apply this new found knowledge to conspiracy theories. Recall all the important elements that make you susceptible to a conspiracy theory—you are facing a situation you have trouble fully comprehending; that situation brings you a great deal of anxiety and stress because the chaos makes you feel out of control; you have disparate pieces of information—some are true, others are half-truths and many are blatant lies.
So your left brain begins the process of taking all of these disparate pieces of information and stitching them together into a larger narrative. For instance, you know the virus originated China. You know that the United States imposed economic tariffs on China. You know China is mad at the United States and vice-versa. Your left brain then makes a narrative connection: what if China created this virus to get even with the United States?
But simply making that connection in your own mind is not enough. Someone else has to think the same way you think. Interestingly, when you start scrolling through the internet, you come across someone who has had the same thoughts as you. You click on the article that confirms your suspicions, which leads you to another article that further solidifies that confirmation. These articles fill in the gaps with other pieces of “supporting evidence.” Eventually, you’ve read so many articles that reinforce your original suspicion that the search algorithms are only showing you articles about conspiracy theories.
Before you know it, this conspiracy theory, which is filled with misinformation and half-truths, is the narrative you’ve fully assimilated into your mind. It explains the chaos of the world in a way that makes sense to you. Whereas most people deny your narrative as implausible, it makes you feel special that you’re one of the lucky few to uncover this plot, while everyone else walks around with the wool over their eyes.
The Christian Conspiracy Theory
It should come as no surprise that some of the most susceptible people when it comes to these conspiracy theories are also Christians. The way Christians make sense of the world is not dissimilar to the ways in which conspiracy theorists make sense of the world. Take the same conditions that make for a good conspiracy theory and apply them to a Christian: you are facing a situation you have trouble fully comprehending; that situation brings you a great deal of anxiety and stress because the chaos makes you feel out of control; you have disparate pieces of information—some are true, others are half-truths and many are blatant lies.
How does the Christian deal with this? Since most Christians believe God is the director of their lives, they will try to discern what God is doing in the midst of this chaos. Is God trying to test me? Is God trying to teach me something? Perhaps God is using me for a much larger part of God’s plan that I cannot understand? The Christian takes all the information at their disposal and creates a narrative to explain why this situation is happening. Let me give you an example.
My cousin is a conservative evangelical Christian who lives in Australia. She understands very little about science or how viruses work. She also believes very strongly that God is in control of her life. When she speaks about the pandemic, she often talks about how the coronavirus is the work of Satan. In her mind, evil spirits cause illness (this was a common belief in the ancient world and is reflected in the stories of the New Testament) and, therefore, believes the root of all disease is demonic forces.
Since Jesus was able to perform faith healings, God has given her a vision that everyone is misinformed about COVID-19. She believes that faith is the ultimate weapon against disease. She doesn’t need masks or vaccines or social distancing. All she needs to combat the virus is faith. Indeed, faith is all anyone needs to stop this virus in its tracks.
Here, you can see how my cousin has bought into a particular narrative that helps her feel in control of her life. Similar to a conspiracy theory, her narrative is reinforced by her community. She’s not the only one who thinks Coronavirus is caused by evil spirits.
This message gets reiterated by the pastor of her church and her friends spreading misinformation and half-truths, until the narrative is fully assimilated into her entire community. This narrative explains the chaos of the world in a way that makes sense to them. Whereas most people deny this narrative as implausible, it makes her feel special, as if she’s one of the lucky few to uncover this plot, while everyone else walks around with the wool over their eyes.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
The only difference between my cousin’s Christian perspective on COVID-19 and the perspective of a conspiracy theorist is that the Christian perspective is considered acceptable because it’s rooted in religion, while the perspective of the conspiracy theorist is considered unacceptable because it’s based in fringe theories. To me, there is little difference between the two. They are both crazy, which leads me to my conclusion.
If we want the Christian religion to survive into the future, we have to realize that there is a lot thinking within the Christian faith that aligns very closely with the same type of reasoning that produces conspiracy theories. Those outside the church can sense this and I think it’s a big reason why so many educated, rational people want nothing to do with Christianity.
What I know to be true is that no one’s going to take the Christian faith seriously if we continue to promote a version of reality that doesn’t make sense. If people like my cousin are taking the lead in terms of dictating the narrative the church promotes, we might as well throw in the towel. In my opinion, Christians need to choose a narrative that aligns as closely as possible with fact based thinking.
This means allowing science to take the lead and tossing out the elements of our faith that no longer function in our modern world—six day creation, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, spirits and demons causing disease, just to name a few. By removing these from the table, we open the door to a narrative where Christianity rejects magical thinking as a framework for interpreting reality. Only then will the Christian faith stop adding fuel to the fire of a world where facts are relative and truth is malleable. If we don’t adapt and adjust to this new narrative, then I fear one day, not long from now, Christianity will be thought of as just another conspiracy theory.