04 May 2011

The myth of Muslim conspiracy theories

In the wake of Osama bin Laden's death the media can't say enough about conspiracy theories: how our actions are creating them, what they are, who believes what, and so on. Strangely absent from their fascination is their own role in their creation and persistence. Dutifully playing along is Matthew Gray, a writer at Foreign Affairs, who brings us a backgrounder on what is already a growing trend—Muslim conspiracy theory spotting. His piece will likely set some of the terms for the future conversation because he goes one step further and, as his subtitle indicates, purports to explain, "Why falsehoods flourish in the Muslim world."

The piece is not devoid of value; however, it's impossible to talk about who is susceptible to a "conspiracy theory" without clarifying what you mean by the term, as well as the more straightforward "conspiracy." Take, for instance, this assertion of Mr. Gray's:
One reason the region is so susceptible to conspiracy theories is that it has been subject to an unusually high number of actual conspiracies in the past.
What Mr. Gray is referring to here is not the disproportionate number of conspiracies that have taken place in the Middle East, instead he is referring to the number of coups that have occurred. Even more specifically though, he is referring only to coups engineered by foreign governments. This is all well and good in that foreign operatives (particularly those of clandestine services) engineering coups provide solid examples of one type of conspiracy.

The problem is that defining conspiracy by example is incredibly limiting with respect to what one actually is. I will come back to this momentarily, but first a (but by no means the) definition of 'conspiracy theory' (from the American Heritage Dictionary):
A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.
One crucial aspect of this definition is that a conspiracy does not necessarily beget a conspiracy theory. For example, by this definition many of the Middle Eastern coups Mr. Gray mentioned are a matter of undisputed historical record, disqualifying their accounts from being considered conspiracy theories. The implication of Mr. Gray's line of argument is that for people to engage in conspiracy theorizing, there has to be a record of actual conspiracies. While this may make conspiracy theories more likely to take hold (more on this in a few paragraphs) it is certainly not a prerequisite. For example, many beliefs that could be described as conspiracy theories are prevalent in the U.S., with its presumably less fertile conspiracy theory soil than Pakistan; e.g., the JFK assassination, the moon landing, intelligent design, anti-vaccine campaigns, 9/11 trutherism, Obama birtherism, and so on.

Mr. Gray's second point in the article is to advance a theory as to why people—in general—grasp at conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories also flourish where people feel disempowered.
To begin with, there is not a single reason that people grasp at conspiracy theories. There are several, that may or may not work synergistically with one another. The literature (a good primer on which may be found in the bibliography of this paper I wrote) indicates that people who have suffered status loss (in the sense of jobs, money, or relationships) are much more likely to ascribe to conspiracy theories. Additionally, there is quite a bit of research indicating that the predominant motivation for believing in conspiracy theories, contra the accepted explanation, is one's innate desire to avoid cognitive dissonance.

The centrality of cognitive dissonance to conspiracy theories is hugely important, and why it is farcical to claim that any particular people are more or less susceptible to it. When looking at conspiracy theories through the lens of cognitive dissonance the central issue is the hierarchy of entrenched beliefs that a person holds. For instance, Biblical literalists are among the people least likely to accept evolution; meanwhile those holding allegorical interpretations of the Bible are much more likely to believe in evolution. The effect here is two-fold: Biblical literalists tend to place it more centrally to their self-identity and also consider evolution and literalism fundamentally incompatible. Thus they make a choice, consciously or un-, to place their faith in the Bible rather than science (here is a good discussion of why science must be taken on faith by non-scientists). Often times the cognitive dissonance is much simpler, e.g., the case of Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating President Kennedy. Many people refuse to believe that Oswald acted alone because it seems outrageous that a single, pathetic, weak figure like him should alter world history. Rather than upset their intuitive understanding that hugely transformative events require hugely transformative forces, they choose to disbelieve.

Unsurprisingly, what allows people to avoid falling prey to these biases is education. This is why there are few (if any) respectable biologists who disbelieve the basic tenets of evolution. By careful study we are often able to teach ourselves that many intuitive, or previously held beliefs were incorrect, thereby allowing us to discard the old and adopt the new. One often overlooked aspect of this is that the evolution of belief from the old to the new is gradual. People do not discard old beliefs like clothing when confronted with new facts. The process is more like a skin tan. Over the course of hours or days your exposure to the sun darkens your skin, usually in imperceptibly small discrete increments. This constant exposure tends to change your mind slowly, allowing the erosion of old beliefs as new ones take their place.

This constant exposure to education and evidence is a great way to erode erroneous beliefs; however, the same mechanisms works in reverse if one is constantly exposed to incorrect information. What, at first, may seem to be absurd gradually becomes more and more reasonable over repeated exposures. This is the same principle that cults use to brainwash people. Indoctrinated individuals spend time talking with new members, gradually making theretofore strange beliefs more normal.

This is the part that Mr. Gray seems to have intuitively understood with the last half of his article (and perhaps why he believes the prevalence of conspiracies in the Middle East predisposes them to theorizing), in which he indicts many Middle Eastern regimes for creating and perpetuating conspiracy theories. Where Mr. Gray goes astray is to suggest that the forces at work creating, shaping, and sustaining conspiracy theories must be "powerful" institutions like an authoritarian state (incidentally, this is the same cognitive bias that makes people skeptical of Lee Harvey Oswald's individual agency). In fact, diffuse institutions, like the US media, or merely popular sentiment are just as effective at normalizing fallacious beliefs (e.g. Obama birtherism and the anti-vaccine movement, respectively) and advancing conspiracies.

Mr. Gray's piece does a tremendous disservice to the public by focusing narrowly on a few things that allow conspiracy theories to flourish in the Middle East while simultaneously cultivating a sense of otherness about these characteristics. This has the effect of making conspiracy theories a problem which only afflicts them, and imbuing many of our own disputes with undeserved credibility. I suspect this is merely be the beginning of a long series that will seek to explain the Middle Eastern predilection for conspiracy theories; because contentiousness brings in viewers while providing the attention that conspiracy theories thrive on. A terrifying ad-selling ouroboros growing ever larger as increased attention brings increased believers who bring increased attention (in case you were wondering about Glenn Beck's business model…).

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