Not every conspiracy theory is worthy of the title. A “theory” is based on actual observed data. At least as I understand it. So, we observe that objects consistently fall to the ground when dropped. Our theory to explain the predictability of this most commonly observed data point is the theory of gravity. Doubt gravity at your peril. One of my students in the early 70s said he could do anything because of the strength of his mind. There was a zeitgeist infecting many that truth was no stronger than belief. That same defective thinking has been haunting humankind forever. I advised him against trying to fly.
Of course, the nature of gravity has become better understood over time. Newton recognized the force, could create the basic equation for the force of gravity between masses, and these equations have proven reliable enough to whip spacecraft around the solar system with incredible accuracy. So, the theory is useful in explaining, measuring, predicting. When there is data that doesn’t fit, we question the data, examine the theory, and often come up with a revised or new theory.
Conspiracy theories—personal, political, etc,–start with the theory, the belief, and then the conspiratorial factories create the data. Sometimes the belief is constructed on invented or misinterpreted data. Take that 2020 presidential election. The belief among conspiracy theorists that Trump won is based on three or four premises that seem like but are not data— irrelevant, invented, misinterpreted.
Here is the faulty syllogism underlying one conspiracy theory:
Trump says he won the election. Trump is infallible. There, Trump won the election.
That Trump is infallible is an article of faith widely held by Trump evangelists. True believers need to be blind to so much that contradicts this faith that some people suspect mass psychosis. So, when Trump says that covid-19 is not a deadly pandemic, his followers reject the data of millions of corpses and defy simple cautionary practices like mask wearing to demonstrate their faith that Trump’s word trumps facts—which they will deny are facts at all—the idea of “fake news” is one trap laid early by Trump to bolster his contrived infallibility.
So, if infallible Trump says that he won the election, his minions go on the hunt for the ways the election must have been rigged. They seize on the ways vote counting was managed to create the phony story that ballots were illegal, altered, ignored or miscounted—especially mail ballots. Mailed ballots in some states were reserved to be counted last, so their tallies came in after the Trump “infallibites” had already started celebrating. They just did not like it raining on their charade. The failure to find any evidence to back up these assertions in recount after recount, led to new election laws supposedly designed to prevent the fraud that never happened from happening again. Conspiracy theories have long legs that always march toward the same goal—in this case, reducing the access to voting by non-white, elderly, poor and disabled voters.
In Arizona, a fraudulent recount has gone from the ridiculously seditious to the insanely suspicious. Searching for bamboo fibers among mailed ballots to support an unsubstantiated claim of 40.000 fraudulent ballots from China. Not all bamboo is Chinese, of course. But they believe that Americans are easily bamboozled.
A complete listing of all the kinds of phony data feeding Trump conspiracies would be long indeed:
No one I know did not vote for Trump, therefore everyone voted for Trump.
Fox News is not Fake news, and my favorite anchors say the election was Trump’s
There are more Trump lawn signs in my town, so Trump was the winner nationally.
Alas, there is no way to uproot such conspiracy theories—it is like trying to get a fundamentalist believer in any religion to question or convert. For the die-hard believer, Heaven awaits, believers need to keep on the path because they bet everything on it and cannot afford to lose. It is sunk money. To rescue themselves, they will pour more into the bad investment—in part because they could never face being so wrong. But maybe more important, they don’t want to lose face among their friends, other true believers whose self-doubts, if any, are also still locked behind the pretense of belief.