Conspiracies of Cognition, Conspiracies Of Emotion
Some conspiracy theories center on finding anomalies in a narrative. For example, Oswald couldn’t have shot Kennedy, because the bullet came from the wrong direction. Or: the Egyptians couldn’t have built the Pyramids, because they required XYZ advanced technology. I like these because they feel straightforwardly about styles of processing evidence
(Remember, I use the word “evidence” in a broad sense that includes bad evidence. By saying that some conspiracy theory has “evidence”, I’m not suggesting it’s justifiable, just that someone somewhere has asserted that they believe it for some particular reason. For example, someone might say they believe in alien abductions because of eyewitnesses who claim to have been abducted; I’ll be calling the eyewitnesses “evidence” without meaning to assert it is any good.)
Consider the pseudohistory claims I discuss in The Pyramid And The Garden. The Great Pyramid’s latitude in standard notation equals, to within seven decimal places, the speed of light in tens of millions of meters per second. In a strict sense, this is a one-in-a-million chance, although the post tries to explain why this might be less impressive than it sounds.
So the evidence in favor of “aliens who knew the speed of light built the Great Pyramid” is that it would explain this otherwise baffling coincidence. The evidence against is everything else we know about history, archaeology, architecture, and common sense. Why would superadvanced aliens have visited Earth, created one primitive stone structure, and left without doing anything else? Why does the Great Pyramid look so much like other Egyptian pyramids, and fit into our narrative of Egyptian history so well? What about marks on the Great Pyramid suggesting it was made with primitive tools? Et cetera.
You can sort of see how someone with weird evidence-processing styles might get this wrong. The fact on the right is compact, simple, and quantifiable (the two numbers match to about six digits, so it’s a one-in-a-million coincidence). The facts on the left are vague and holistic.
The mainstream archaeologist has to explain away the evidence on the right. Maybe “has to” is a strong phrase - they can just say “that’s weird, but the common sense evidence is so great that I choose to dismiss it as coincidence”. But it’s an awkward hole in their theory. I talk about how you might go about explaining it away here.
But the conspiracy theorist has to explain away the evidence on the left. This is a harder task. Sometimes you can just stretch a lot of things to make it work - I’ve seen people argue that the supposed mentions in Egyptian texts are less definitive than imagined. But one very strong explanation would be “archaeologists are so invested in protecting the mainstream narrative that they cover up all the evidence that would prove me right”, ie a conspiracy. This neatly sweeps aside a lot of the problem.
Here the “conspiracy” part of the conspiracy theory is secondary. Some believers in the ancient-aliens theory might not think there’s a conspiracy at all; maybe mainstream archaeologists just made an honest mistake. Others might think there’s a minor, almost sympathetic conspiracy - the reality of alien influence is so mind-blowing that archaeologists gibber in horror and repress the evidence for the sake of their own sanity. Most ancient-alien believers don’t have a strong commitment to believe in any particular conspiracy. They might not be especially angry at the conspiracy. It’s just a useful hack for supporting their weird evidence processing style.
I think this is even true of more classical conspiracy theories like the Kennedy assassination. If you talk to a Kennedy conspiracist, they’re most interested in talking about anomalies like how the bullet angles don’t work out. These tend to sound a lot like the Pyramid-reflects-the-speed-of-light fact - attention-grabbing, inexplicable, easy to quantify how unlikely they are, and the only problem is a lot of vague holistic arguments that it can’t be true (Oswald seemed pretty assassin-y, it would be crazy for two people to be shooting the President at the exact same time, lots of government agencies say they investigated and didn’t find anything else). So in order to keep their favored fact (about the bullet angles) they propose a conspiracy that explains away why Oswald looked so guilty, why all the official investigations said it was just Oswald, and so on. Like the alien theorists, often these people aren’t especially invested in the exact details of the conspiracy, and they’re not very angry about the conspiracy. They’re just using it to make sense of otherwise confusing facts.
These conspiracy theories make sense to me. Sometimes I even find them seductive. They usually do a pretty good job presenting their argument, and even when I don’t believe it, I can see why other people would. When I look at these conspiracy theories, I feel like conspiracy theorism is just a flaw in evidence processing. I remember things about how conspiracy theories are linked to schizotypy, schizotypy is linked to schizophrenia, and schizophrenia is a condition of aberrant salience, ie your brain getting confused about how much different facts matter in relation to each other. All of this seems to fit together and I feel like I’m on the verge of understanding the whole phenomenon.
But there’s a second type of conspiracy theory. Consider the Elders of Zion, or the Global Adrenochrome Pedophile Cabal. These conspiracies weren’t invented to explain away any facts. Usually believers are more invested in the exact nature of the conspiracy than in any of the facts they supposedly explain; often they’re very angry about the whole situation.
I know what my readers are thinking: this is the point where we admit that people believe conspiracies because they’re biased and stupid and hateful, right? I agree that a true explanation will involve this. Maybe it will look like these things when zoomed out. But I still think it’s worth figuring out the smaller parts these adjectives are made of. If we built an AI, what kind of mistakes might make it believe conspiracy theories, and how might we correct them?
I don’t have a great answer, but here are two thoughts:
First, emotions are priors for cognitive processing. Anxiety is a bias towards processing information in a threat-related way: you hear rustling branches that you might otherwise ignore, you think “lion” when you might otherwise dismiss it as the wind. Or when your boss invites you into their office, you think you hear a stern tone in their voice, and are more likely to think of explanations that involve being fired than explanations that involve being given exciting new projects.
Depression is a bias towards processing self-related information in a negative way. When you have a social interaction, you dwell on all the ways it went wrong, instead of the ways it went right. When you look back on your life, your failures stand out and your successes seem trivial or fake.
Anger seems like - processing other-related information in a negative way. I’ve written before about “bitch eating crackers”, where you hate someone so much that you come up with ridiculous reasons why even neutral facts are new reasons to hate them. When you’re angry at your partner, it’s easy to remember all their flaws and hard to remember what made you marry them in the first place.
I want to say something like: if you hate (let’s say) the global elite enough, then you become very very biased towards believing any bad thing you hear about them. And maybe there’s some level of hatred at which you become amenable to believing that they rape children and eat their organs. This suffers from the disadvantage that as far as I know, nobody - no matter how bad their marriage or how many fights they get in - suspects their spouse of this (if someone did, surely any psychiatrist would diagnose delusional disorder). Maybe we can rescue this by saying that social interaction is an environment-of-evolutionary-adaptiveness-trained skill and we have good instincts, but politics comes unnaturally to us and is prone to reasoning errors.
But also, some conspiracy theorists don’t really seem to hate their subjects this much. A lot of Illuminati believers tend to be kind of chill hippies who believe without really worrying. Maybe these people are more akin to the Kennedy and Pyramid believers in Part 1?
But second, I like when I have personal experience with a cognitive bias, so I know what it feels from the inside. The most recent time I fell for a conspiracy theory was Trump-Russiagate. I didn’t believe in an active way, so much as hear that lots of other people believed it, assume it was probably true, and not bother looking into it. Still, this seems easier to think about sympathetically than the Elders of Zion, so let’s think about it.
When I ask why Trump-Russiagate was so appealing, I get an answer like this: lots of people really hated Trump. But there wasn’t a single, pithy, irrefutable reason to hate Trump. You could say that he violated a lot of important social norms, had many terrible policies, and said offensive things. But other people could hear you say this and still like him. They could counterargue that the social norms he violated weren’t really important norms, his policies were actually good, and his opinions weren’t offensive after all (or that that certain kinds of “offensiveness” are good). People hated Trump more than they could easily justify.
(I’m not making the value judgment that they hated him more than he deserved. I’m saying that most people don’t know much about politics and are bad at putting their opinions into words. If they tried to output their exact reasons for hating Trump, it would come out wrong, or it would feel less convincing than they thought it should be).
But if Trump was secretly an agent in the pay of Vladimir Putin, sent to destroy democracy, then that’s literal treason. There are no gray areas. You could explain in a single, objectively true sentence why he was one of the greatest villains in American history. There is a sense in which Trump being a literal traitor compresses information elegantly; instead of a mountain of vague cues suggesting that he is evil, there is a single fact that sums up his evilness perfectly.
The misinformation I find myself most susceptible to accidentally spreading is when there’s a group who I very strongly feel are evil (eg woke people trying to shut down schools for gifted people because “believing in merit is racist”), but it’s hard to do more than gesture incoherently and say “Obviously this is bad, come on!” Then someone does a study or something that finds that this ruins children’s lives and causes them to turn to drug abuse at age 16 or something, and I am tempted to hit the “reblog” button without checking too hard, because finally there’s some kind of objective way to prove that the bad thing is bad.
When I get in the frame of mind that makes me think this way, I feel a kinship with the believers in the Global Adrenochrome Pedophile Cabal. I think most people, deep down, are not fans of the global elite. Probably they’re screwing the rest of us over somehow. But realistically they’ll keep getting away with it, because you can’t exactly prove that they’re evil. Sure, they have billions of dollars while other people starve, but capitalism has lots of advantages and all the alternatives seem worse. Sure, they’re complicit in climate change and woke takeover and institutional decay and so on. But so are the rest of us, and they have good press secretaries who explain why their policies make sense in words that convince the people on their side of the aisle. The global elite are totally going to get away with it and there’s nothing we can do.
(the biggest blackpill of all is that your enemies are just as bad as you think, but careful to only do evil in illegible boring ways that just barely avoid crossing any bright lines - not only will they ruin your life, they won’t even grant you the satisfaction of moral clarity when you’re hating them)
If only they were literally raping children and then eating their body parts, then everyone would have to admit they were bad. There would be an extremely specific, objectively bad thing you could point to, that would completely justify basically any level of antipathy to them! And so (the theory goes), people get busy looking for the evidence that they’re eating children.
For these conspiracies, maybe the evidence that people are trying to explain isn’t weird bullet trajectories or pyramid-related coincidences, it’s their own emotions. I don’t know if this is an overly clever way of putting it, or if it’s just literally true.