Comment deleted
Expand full comment

"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?"

It seems worthwhile to think about belief, and belief of belief. Someone may think that they believe something, but not exhibit any of the characteristics that we (or likely even they) would think ought to correspond to such a belief.

For convenience, we can refer to this as belief of belief. The believer thinks that they believe it, but do not actually believe it in the sense that they believe in other things.

A common example of such a belief is religion. If many religions are true, they would imply a radically different model of the world than if they were not true. This can either lead to believers of these religions having entirely different models of how the world works than nonbelievers (which we could call true belief) or very similar models to nonbelievers (which we could call belief of belief). Both categories seem common when it comes to religion.

Coming back to conspiracy theories, it seems likely that some people nominally believe them (i.e. a hypothetical perfect lie detector would detect no lies in these people were they to say that they believe them), but in truth, only believe that they believe them, rather than actually believing them.

They may think that they believe that the Illuminati are real bad dudes, but that nominal belief is completely divorced from any model they have of the world. If they hear a bump in the night, for example, they won't for a moment consider that it may be Illuminati.

Expand full comment

Tangential point but there’s a history podcast called MartyrMade which has a 3-episode series on Epstein, and somewhere in there the host spends 40 minutes going over the evidence for, but stopping short of endorsing, Pizzagate. It was an interesting listen and while I still find these conspiracy theories to be lunacy, I do think the world is weirder than I realized and I became a bit more sympathetic to its believers.

Not an easy listen since it goes into the gruesome details of child abuse rings, but I recommend it for those interested.

Expand full comment

Scott, please, I'm begging you -- stop posting the good articles at 12AM Eastern, it drives me crazy. I see the post in my RSS feed, I click the post, then I'm too tired to read and go to bed and I don't read it in the morning when I'm fresh.

Expand full comment

> 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 am very sympathetic to this line of inquiry.

Expand full comment

"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."

But it wouldn't explain why aliens used metric measurements at a time when they had not been invented. Hence, any theory for aliens doing so would imply either:

a) the aliens were time travellers; or

b) the aliens instigated the adoption of metric measurements.

Note: I am generally wary of any claims relating to measurements, as measures are inherently arbitrary. (Does the speed of light theory also work for cubits and whatever time measure they used back then? (did they have a standard measurement of time like seconds?))

Expand full comment

I tuned out Trump-Russiagate after it faded from the news, without ever updating to "oh, that's false." Is there a good summary of what people thought and how it turned out not to be true?

Expand full comment

Seems like the obvious reason you can think that Hillary Clinton, who you hate, rapes babies and eats their organs, but you can't think the same thing about your wife, who you also hate, is that you actually know your wife and have a pretty realistic idea about what she's capable of. As far as most people are concerned Hillary Clinton or Trump or other conspiracy targets might as well be fictional characters.

I think something a lot of popular conspiracy theories have in common is that the specific theories address subjects that are way outside of the theorists' actual experience, where anything could be true as far as they know.

Expand full comment

This reminds me I recently came across an astounding example of “bitch eating crackers” syndrome. Some politician had a pet pig and had to give it away when they moved. A long time later, that person then gave the pig to a third owner, then the pig got injured, the politician reached out to the place that was taking care of the pig to express his thanks, and this proved he was a terrible pet owner who never cared about the pig, somehow.

This was a viral tweet with thousands of likes.

Expand full comment

Donald Kingsbury's 'Psychohistorical Crisis' ends with a numerate, sensible argument that the units of measurement used in the Great Pryamid and later in ancient Rome were derived from an ancient version of Foucault's Pendulum. Kingsbury gets this from Livio Stecchini, who was a real expert on ancient metrology, but according to Wikipedia's passive voice was also considered wrong.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

I don't foster any hate or resentment towards individuals in positions in power, The matter-of-fact is, people have aligned interests, and they coordinate together in real life to get to certain objectives. There is no objective reason to presume everyone in the world has the same interests as you, it is more of an advantage to assume a cynical position that people have interests that are counter to your own (i.e. stranger) and hence our levels of trust are variable/decreased relative to people whom we do know and encounter.

Just because individuals spend a majority of their lives working and ignorant of the things that occur around the world (i.e. men who enjoy blowing up people's bodies like ragdolls as shown in WikiLeaks videos of military officers commanding others, or the funding of bio-warfare labs amongst the Russian border) does not mean people don't act in concerted ways that may be deemed as 'evil'. There are many such quotes made by people in positions of power, the question is why do we possess a normalcy bias that just because everything in our every day life seems 'normal' and that there are no people who enjoy doing 'evil' or 'harming' people, why that applies to every individual in position of power, given the fact that there are many geopolitical interests of the elite that are not necessarily in the same lieu of interests as the general public.

There is also a notable vestige of available play-books and operation books by various think-tanks and well-funded conglomerates online which anyone can read, which also coincidentally aligns with many of the various narratives pushed out by the media.

The main question is, if you are in possession of the ability to instrument credit in any form without repercussion, why would it not lead to the concentration of power in the long-term if you pass an intergenerational dynasty of similar natures (i.e. being the best propogandists)? There are liability exclusion clauses, there are special interest groups, there is regulatory capture, there are groups with conflicts-of-interests -- if I gave you X amount of money and resources and ensured you the safety of your family and friends just to tell a modest lie, or to look the other way, why would it not be conceivable to do it for large entities of people who possess large influence, whether it be the media, the intelligence agencies, technocratic enterprises, etc? Is there a similiar 'trust' bias that people seem to possess or something?

There is often a tactic used in politics, ''poisoning the well' and 'limited hangout' where individuals make associations between the opposition strawman and the purported reality, with obfuscation of truths through half-truths/delayed-truths to make it more amenable/disagreeable to the general public, or co-opting. Not to mention the fact that behavioural scientists are employed to change the opinions, attitudes and behaviours of people. I find it difficult to reconcile why people believe it's hard to coordinate large factions of people who possess aligned interests. If I'm a CEO I would lobby for X if I know my ROR exceeded my costs. If I owned the ability to generate credit, I could tie it to explicit policies with vague criterions to further any ideological pursuit I wanted. If anything, the greater you ascent to power, the more likely you will be to abuse and use it. There are more self-interested and selfish people in the world than there are altruists, and high-trust individuals. From a game-theoretical point of view, groups are superior to individuals at a resource level. And groups that are highly 'kinship' oriented outperform humanitarian altruists because of their ability to use a strategy similiar to psychopaths (negative-frequency dependency) because they are able to mimic positive perceptions of themselves as cooperators while in reality they are defectors. While tit-for-tat with forgiveness/contrition might be the predominant solution, the reality is incrementalist policies with imperceptible changes that are seemingly innocuous is an intelligent method to subdue any population, because they increasingly become conditioned and accepted to a general prevailing environment -- in the same way we artificially select for domesticated dogs that best 'respond' to us, the 'elites' can do the same methods to the general public in the name of greater social good or social collectivism.

If I loudly preclaim ''I prefer the existence of X individuals over Y'' 50 years in the past and my descendants still live on, and the general public has not accepted ''X over Y" it does not mean I would not be working towards my political goals, it would just mean I would be more discrete about it. There is a scientific method towards anything, including political change and acceptance. The fact that people can't understand this and still think ''it can only happen in the past, it will never happen'' is a testament to the fact that the general population is becoming increasingly docile and self-domesticated, in a belief that there is an authority figure or some consolation of appointed experts that can dictate what is deemed to be truth or consensus when in reality, only independent self-investigation can affirm those notions or reject them on the precipice of merit (i.e. similar to geniuses outcast by the orthodoxy) simply because humans are social/herd animals that have a disposition to conform to those with similar views and have a hard time rejecting counter-evidence without a change in association of emotion with those beliefs.

It is not just X entity of people whom control everything, it is a network of networks of individuals who possess various modalities of power. In the similar way that the net used to be structured as an organic sphere of many nodes has consolidated, in the same way that our media companies, our banks, our food companies are all owned by the same supranational organizations (i.e. you can look it up, there is an illusion of choice with all these sub-brands of X entities). Just as network theory would predict.

We know age correlates with wealth, because people had more time to accumulate wealth. In the same way, dynasties with people who live and continue to share those values of preserving, maintaining and growing their wealth should see similar outcomes in reality. I am lambasted by the idea that people are incapable of imagining people planning to harm others, because I am one of those individuals who do possess said capacities to think so without such conscience, and I share certain inclinations and beliefs to those held by the elite. There are more than eight billion humans with various genetic configurations and environments, some must undoubtably have the ability a greater capacity for influence than others, whether by social control or not; to suggest the opposite, the orthodox view that humans are mostly equal, humans are not capable of organizing in large collectives (i.e. like corporations), humans are not interested in harming other humans for their own self-gain, humans cannot get away with large crimes (i.e. like FTX) seems to me like the largest ideological fallacy that anyone can possess, but I digress, I suppose if you lots believe that most people are nice and innocuous and that people are simply misguided or emotionally biased then I will give you the doubt of doing so as a post-ad hoc rationalization.

Here is a clip of what I am demonstrating; https://vimeo.com/788900508#t=0 https://vimeo.com/788903031#t=0


Personally I believe many people are lacking in the knowledge of area of political sciences, economics, biology and other fields which might be way higher-intelligence individuals are more susceptible to propaganda because they possess a higher aptitude for being capable of holding more complex belief structures. Usually you guys are given simplified models of the universe to operate on which are not-full descriptors of reality (i.e. lies of omission); e.g. it is not just the adaptive+innate immune system, but also includes the interferon, siRNA, virome, biome -- it is not just one form of gaseous mixture of radiative effect but a cumulation of solar flux densities, intergenerational cyclicities of distance/tilt/dynamic equilibras between interlinked processes within the environment, and the disposition to focus on metrics over a comprehensive understanding of the underlying assumptions of those metrics (i.e. efficacy in measures of purported test rates of various success rates vs mechanism-of-action explanations) which leads to an overabundance of above-intelligence individuals not engaging in the pursuit of truth, but some abstracted model/projected rooted not in ground truth.

https://isgp-studies.com/intro#box-model-of-politics https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2021-05/1-20-cv-11889-MLW%20-%2011.06.20%20-%20Plaintiff%20Amended%20Complaint%20Against%20Defendants.pdf

My biggest problem with people-who-think-others-who-hold-the-belief-that-people-have-collective-self-interests-and-the-capability-to-enact-them-can't-possibly-do-so-because-it's-too-big is the fact that there can be incontrovertible lines of concordant circumstantial evidence that there is an established effort to enact something, but that the nature of such behaviour is too-out-of-normality to be propositionally testable.


(i.e. metrics of mentions of A, B, C in media going up; the associations of those editorials/authors being similar descendancy, many such articles/videos/media published directly by such individuals) and yet there is a post-ad hoc rationalization/justification that it is immiscibly impossible to have such preconscious thoughts.

Expand full comment

Speaking based on some of the people I know who've gotten into various conspiracy theories (several friends got into the weeds around the GameStop stock mess), a common factor I observe is wanting an explanation that gives order to the world as they perceive it.

Politics is horribly complicated, extremely contingent, and yet intrudes in people's lives in myriad ways, sometimes quite horribly so. "The illuminati control everything and the bad stuff is their fault" is a much simpler concept than any real causal explanation for most things. Do the details work? No, but that isn't the point, which is why they're often vague about the details. The point is there's a simple concept that explains their reality.

Beyond being bothered/offended by Trump, I think a lot of people are simply baffled by him. He doesn't make sense to them. Russiagate provided a coherent story for why he was the way he was. It didn't matter if that story made sense in detail (i.e. explained any particular of why Trump did X), so long as it gave them a nominally sensible narrative to fit him into their world.

Expand full comment

You're going to want to do a clarifying post about "Russia gate".

"Trump is an active Russian agent either due to malice or blackmail" is the strong version and I don't think many people believed that.

Then you get to other things that may be called part of "Russia gate"

1. Russia actively helped Trump's election.

2.Trump's campaign knew about this and had some degree of collaboration.

3. The hacking of podesta's emails was done by a Russian agency

4. The leak from wikieaks was timed to bury the access Hollywood tape.

5. Some people in Trump's campaign knew about the wiki leaks dump before the release. "

These have all been proven to be true. And I think the debunking of "Trump is an active Russian agent" has been used to motte and bailey the other questionable things he did.

The fact that the podesta emails with banal info info were treated as scandalous by a credulous US media ecosystem is not the fault of trump or the Russians.

I would love to see a reasoned, researched deep dive on this.

Expand full comment

I'm sure it's their own emotions. Emotions are powerful things.

Expand full comment

The thesis that Elders of Zion style conspiracies and Trump-Russia conspiracies are driven by a desire to justify a preexisting hatred by simplifying and amplifying alleged wrongdoing, seems ad hoc, short of evidence, and dubious.

"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."

Really? Is the average conspiracist bothered by the global powers that be specifically because he thinks that he can't personally stop them?

And does the average conspiracist think that he can't stop the global powers that be *specifically because* he can't prove their wrongdoing?

And does amplifying the magnitude of their alleged crimes really make it easier to "prove" that they're evil? Are worse crimes necessarily easier to prove than less severe ones? Surely their crimes of globalism, "globohomo" (sic), free-trade, promotion of immigration, etc. are sufficient in the minds of those predisposed to believe in such conspiracies.

"Sure, they have billions of dollars while other people starve, but capitalism has lots of advantages and all the alternatives seem worse."

Do average conspiracists have a firm a priori model of optimal economic policy? And if they do, are they typically overtly market-oriented?

"Sure, they’re complicit in climate change and moral decay and so on. But so are the rest of us..."

Does the average such conspiracist even believe in (anthropogenic) climate change (that should be mitigated)?

I realize I'm picking on what are meant to be vague subconscious musings of conspiracists, but I think that their complete implausibility is reflective of a difficulty articulating the thinking speaks poorly for the theory as a whole.

If anything, it seems like the theory is more useful for someone like Trump, than for "global elite" conspiracies.

In the case of the former, it does indeed seem likely that people would have strong feelings about him from the outset, and it is therefore conceivable that they would then try to justify them more simply (as per the theory).

But in the case of the "global elite", why would anyone have such strong opinions about them a priori? Even the very existence of the group seems a posteriori to the sentiments. Who is the global elite? Is Hillary Clinton part of the elite? Donald Trump? Carlos Slim? Klaus Schwab? Sean Hannity?

Membership in the mental category seems to depend on the conspiracist already feeling negatively about them.

It seems relatively likely, that the simpler explanation - that when a person dislikes a group or person that he is apt to see the worst in them, is correct.

The supposed evidence against this theory (the “bitch eating crackers” theory) is that people (presumably even conspiracists) don't tend to believe that their spouses are cannibalistic pedophiles.

However, this counterevidence seems underwhelming. After all, the alternative hypothesis would seem to suffer the same weakness. If someone disliking someone intensely and not being able to sufficiently and succinctly explain why, leads to coming up with conspiracies about them, then again, why would this too not apply to spouses?

[After all, it seems likely that the intensely negative feelings that a person may feel for a spouse would be even more apt to lead to the proposed phenomenon than the Trump example for a couple of reasons, one of which is that a person will have a much greater number of exposures to their spouse, than to Trump. If someone forms a negative feeling for a spouse, it could more easily be based on a larger number of potentially smaller factors, that ought to be smaller, and therefore more difficult to articulate, that should make the desire for simple dramatic conspiracies more acute.]

I suspect that the reason that many believers in the global cabals of pedophile cannibals don't project such beliefs onto spouses, is due to the phenomenon I mentioned in my other comment [https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/conspiracies-of-cognition-conspiracies/comment/11861497] of true beliefs and beliefs of beliefs.

I suspect that many nominal believers in such conspiracies believe these things in a vacuum, mostly without integrating such beliefs systematically into the rest of their thoughts and behaviors.

It is easier to maintain belief in such a belief about distant figures than about one's spouse.

If one's spouse were really a cannibalistic pedophile, one couldn't go on acting normally.

Therefore, even conspiracists are much less likely to believe that they believe that their spouses are cannibalistic pedophiles.

However, as with other religions, believers in QAnon come in both varieties - actual believers, and believer-believers. The former *do* sometimes integrate the beliefs into practice, leading to acts of violence, including against family members.

Expand full comment

This feels right to me. It's not that they want their to be a literal pedophile cabal (or for Trump to be a Russian spy) per se, but they want a clear fact that justifies their own emotions. That's easy to relate to.

It's also important to understand that it is hard to let go of those emotions, and to understand that trying to convince them that the conspiracy is wrong won't fix the underlying emotional issues.

Expand full comment

I think there is something to be said for this taxonomy but I think that even the "conspiracies of cognition" are based on conspiracies of emotion.

People didn't start believing weird things about JFK because they analysed the footage frame by frame and thought something was weird. They started out from the point of view of not wanting to think that this huge event had the prosaic cause of one unconnected communist loony, and then they started analysing footage until they found something that looked weird. Same deal with 9/11 conspiracies or pizza gate or Obama's birth certificate -- you start with the desire to believe something and then go find something you can fool yourself into thinking is evidence.

Expand full comment

There is a conspiracy theory on the left that Russia/Putin helped Trump win in 2016. One needs to believe a number of extremely low-probability contradictory statements at the same time:

- the balance of power in the US is very precarious and easily tipped over.

- at the same time neither the US left nor right can tip it over, despite being well-versed in the politics, very well financed and with few scruples, and not for the lack of trying.

- and yet a foreign power spending less than 0.1% of that in the US, with little presence in the US politics beyond an army of twitter bots, and not nearly as familiar with the intricate details of the US politics, and not nearly as technologically sophisticated can still tip it over.

This strikes me almost as likely as 9/11 truthers and moon fakers being right.

Not sure if it fits the first or the second type in the OP's classification.

Expand full comment

> 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.

I don't like the T-word. It's almost exclusively used as a rhetorical slap, which is still an *upgrade* from being used as a catch-all reason to execute dissidents. There is a reason it is the only crime expressly spelled out in the Constitution.

If Trump was explicitly on Putin's payroll and was actively working the interests of the United States with every scrap of power he legitimately was elected to hold *and* criminally acquired, that *still* would not be treason. "Enemy" does not mean "people we are mad at". There is a decided difference between cold and hot wars.

I don't like Trump, but I dislike accusations of capital offenses being thrown around for political expedience even less. Maybe this is nitpicky, maybe not. But even if it is, I feel like it's invited after such a tripling down.

Expand full comment

Once again, Scott posts an article proving that my deep-seated convictions have been correct all along ....

I'd better go reblog this to all my friends!

Expand full comment

In the book The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould makes the interesting argument that bias correlates with margin of error. That might neatly explain why some people have wilder ideas about issues that are important (so they're more encouraged to form an opinion) but are less experienced with, with more opportunity to be selective in their sources.

* The book was plagued with certain serious issues related to Gould's intellectual dishonesty, where he misinterprets data to favor his thesis. I still think the particular idea he presents in the text about bias correlating to margin of error is interesting.

Expand full comment

I'm reminded of a series of experiments, the institution, date, and PI of which I have completely forgotten, but which I think was stashed away in Eliot Aronson's 1980s textbook on social psychology. Paraphrasing this mightily, since it's been 40 years since I read about it, if I recall correctly in this clever series of experiments the canonical college student volunteers received an injection of a small amount of epinephrine, and then were asked to complete a long boring survey.

During the survey, a confederate would act in one of two ways: (1) angry. He would mutter and shift around sharply, complain about the form and low pay, and eventually wad the form up into a ball and throw it away, stalking angrily from the room. (2) delighted. He would hum cheerfully, chortle at things he pretended to find amusing in the survey, smile and chat with the (real) experimental subject.

The subjects were debriefed afterward, but first they were asked a simple question: how are you feeling? Not surprisingly, the epinephrine-hyped subjects that had been in the room with the "angry" confederate reported feeling annoyed, even angry. Those with the "happy" confederate reported feeling pleased and happy. More interesting, both sets of subjects gave *reasons* why they felt this way. The angry ones had a list of very rational reasons why they were angry, and the happy ones had a list of very rational reasons why they were excited.

And of course, it was all invented out of thin air, because the physiological symptoms were merely the result of the epinephrine. Neither set of subjects was genuinely angry or happy at all -- they were just suffering from a set of ambiguous physical symptoms induced by the drug, and then they used the cues of the confederate to interpret their symptoms as the result of rage or excitement, and then went further on to rationalizing their "emotional response" as the logical response to some plausible chain of cause 'n' effect.

Was it not also Heinlein who acidly observed that Aristotle was wrong, man is not the rational animal, he is the rationalizing animal.

Expand full comment

One effective thing about Trump smears was that they knew the guy wouldn't effectively rebut them.

Also, rather than believing in conspiracy theories, I just try to articulate why the people running my country are stealing from me and why we should call it stealing and theft and crime. Doesn't seem to be working. The "black pill" view is probably correct.

Expand full comment

There are a few things which need to brought up when trying to analyse conspiracy theories.

One of the first and most important lessons one has to learn, is that the system of power itself is the source of numerous conspiracy theories, the tactic is called poisoning the well, which is used in tandem with the limited hangout.

If for instance we take the government child trafficking rings. The entire Epstein affair amounts to a limited hang out, one which connects in interesting ways to plenty of interesting things, vit those ties are not a part of the hang out. So we have some definitive dark shit going on but we only get to see a glimpse of that, which of course leads to speculation.

Here comes the other leg, the poisoning of the well with the adrenochrome business, pushed through the Qanon psyop which in turn was perfomed by military intelligence, the ONI to be specific.

Now this narrative is dessiminated into the "pizzagate" story specifically to 1: pull in the crazies, the gullible and the black pilled, and thus repulse all sceptical normies from doing their own research.

And yes, pizzagate is the epstein affair. Tht pizzeria owner tagged those photos of unknown children #carisjames, which is the name of epsteins island. So the question for the serious researcher (who are swamped by the manufactured hysteria and astroturfing of crazy voices), becomes why do we have child trafficking rings connected to power? The Franklin scandal being one of the most important pieces to add.

And the answer becomes, because power is a blackmail operation, so all powerful faces are beholden to masters who control them through blackmail and leverage like any other criminal organisation. A child fucker front beholden to drug running intelligence services with videotapes and assassins on payroll.

So who killed JFK? The CIA did, Bush ran the op, then iran-contra and presided over the Franklin scandal, and hisnson took control over the Afghanistan poppy fields. Epstein is just another generation of the same power.

Expand full comment

I agree with your main point but feel that this is becoming a bit of a technique at this point -- make a fairly small point but illustrate it with culture warry examples that are likely to divide/annoy people enough to engage and come back for more skirmishes in the comments.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

A third category, or maybe a variant of the second, is taking arguments-as-soldiers and "cui prodest" reasoning to their most extreme. E.g. a school shooting helps the cause of gun control activists, therefore it wasn't real and it was staged by them (or at least we want to say so).

Holocaust denial fits into this too: the holocaust is used to argue that nazi-adjacent people are bad, and it got Jews sympathy, therefore nazi-adjacent people say it didn't happen.

Expand full comment

Lee Harvey Oswald was definitely a CIA agent, though.

Expand full comment

I'm afraid I don't understand what "Trump-Russiagate" is. I'm aware of various claims having been made regarding Trump and Russia, some of which are laughable and others of which are plausible. I don't understand what conspiracy is or was being alleged. It would be very helpful if you, Scott, could state the claim you assumed was probably true but now know to be false. I assume it isn't, "Trump was secretly an agent in the pay of Vladimir Putin, sent to destroy democracy."

Expand full comment

I think you're being uncharitable towards Russiagate here--it's much closer to a "Type 1" conspiracy theory than theories like the Elders of Zion or QAnon or NWO or what not, in the sense that it is grounded in real factual discrepancies that are interpreted through faulty reasoning. There's some sense in which accusations of Trump-Russia collusion are obviously true--there was clearly some illicit connections between some figures in the Trump campaign and figures associated with the Russian government. Russiagate is a conspiracy theory when people take these real facts and exaggerate them into an accusation that Trump committed treason and was directly an agent of the Kremlin, usually because they have an incorrect understanding of what legally constitutes "treason" and/or because they believe in the veracity of certain pieces of weak evidence like the Steele dossier. There's more motivated reasoning and less "merely" poor evidence-processing here than in other Type 1 conspiracy theories because of the political context, but the actual content of the belief is just that the facts about a specific issue which the mainstream interprets one way should actually be interpreted a different way.

The central quality of "evil global cabal" conspiracy theories like QAnon or the Elders of Zion can't just be that they're an attempt at rationalizing their followers' emotional dislike of the elite--there are plenty of people who loathe the elite without believing anything like these theories, and that doesn't explain why one of those people would become a conspiracist and not, say, a communist. Moreover, just saying that the global elite actively colludes to undermine democracy and maintain poverty alone would be enough to create a clean, simple reason to justify hating them that almost everyone would buy--so why all the truly bizarre obsessions with pedophilia and satanism and subliminal messages and what not?

These sorts of theories are probably best thought of as a sort of hamartiology. Moishe Postone's Antisemitism and National Socialism is a good read here, albeit one where a lot of people will probably have to read past the Marxism of the original text (thankfully, this isn't hard since Postone is one of those critical theorists that conflates capitalism with all of industrial and technological modernity rather than merely the system of a private market economy, and is famously a rather poor interpreter of what Marx actually said). To generalize his observations about antisemitism a bit, one might say that "evil cabal" theories are a sort of revolutionary conservatism (in the small-c sense of being averse to change, but often also in the political sense) created by a failure to come to a systemic understanding of modernity.

People arrive at these theories because they have deep anxieties about the modern world and reject mainstream institutions, but don't recognize how the problems they're worried about are created by the underlying economic/technological/social/etc. foundation of society; doing so would imply that fixing these problems would require broad and radical changes (Postone specifically means socialism here but you can equally apply this to any other belief system) and that we can't just have "the world like it is now, but without all the bad stuff", which they either don't want to accept or aren't intellectually curious enough to realize. And so instead, because one neither thinks that these problems can be solved within the current system nor is willing to accept a different one, the only recourse left is to offload all the problems onto the deliberate malfeasance of some set of people and imagine that the problems can be made to go away if those people are gone.

Even then, there's nothing *innate* about the above that should make you believe that the evil cabal is not only immiserating people but also doing human sacrifices to Satan, but I think that's best explained by the fact that this sort of theory tends to snowball as it absorbs more and more separate anxieties from different people, especially since the people that they attract are the sorts who are already primed to see spurious connections between unrelated misfortunes. Once such a incoherent jumble of bad things are all attributed to the same evil cabal, the original wrong but at least semi-rational (in the sense that you can see why a normal person who is part of the cabal might want to do these things) explanation like "the Jews want to control the economy" or "the Clintons are murdering opponents for political advantage" will no longer be sufficient--the only real way you can explain why the cabal is doing *all* these things, trafficking child prostitutes and putting satanic messages in rock music and making the frogs gay and so forth, is that they're just evil people who want to make you suffer.

Expand full comment

“I feel like conspiracy theorism is just a flaw in evidence processing.” That’s quite a generalization. There are conspiracy theories that arise from flawed evidence processing and conspiracy theories that arise from reasonable inferences from the evidence. Conspiracies are a real thing. History (and the present) is full of powerful people colluding to do bad things. If your model of the world is “powerful people don’t collude to do bad things, and theories claiming otherwise are based on flawed evidence processing,” your model of the world is dead wrong. Iran-Contra, Operation Mockingbird, Tonkin Gulf, NSA mass surveillance, overseas assassinations and coups, JFK, WMD, tobacco, the Ford Pinto, Vioxx, Perdue Pharma, Enron, FTX, all kinds of PsyOps, etc., etc. Conspiracies are a major part of how the world works. Categorically discounting them offhand is a pretty ridiculous heuristic.

Expand full comment

Recognising that emotion comes before - and therefore colours - reasoning is an under-appreciated insight.

I was once a tiny 'name' in the 'disinformation' exposure field. But I came to believe that treating supposed disinformation as a supply-side problem was exactly the wrong way to approach it. It's a demand-side phenomenon.

This makes cognitive hygiene a question of personal responsibility. Which is why efforts to censor, suppress or silence ridiculous stuff are pointless.

Yes, this makes it an insoluble problem. If you think it's a problem.

Expand full comment

One thing I find strange about the more emotive conspiracy theories is that people seem surprisingly chill in response to them. If you sincerely believe there is a literal cabal of baby eating pedophile satanists running the country, you'd feel like that would affect your actions in some concrete way. As we observe with people who are dissidents in actual authoritarian regimes who do their best to leave for somewhere safer, or work against the government in some way. They certainly don't spend all their time loudly complaining about it because that's what gets you disappeared.

Expand full comment

If you steelman the Trump-Russiagate thing instead of strawmanning it, not only is it plausible, not only is it definitely true, but it's actually almost boring.

Expand full comment

>If we built an AI, what kind of mistakes might make it believe conspiracy theories, and how might we correct them?

I find it interesting that we are reaching the point where we justify our interest in human psychology with "we might learn something about AI".

>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.

We have a word for this and it's rationalisation. "Trying to explain their emotions" sounds a bit like predictive processing where they say that we eat when we are hungry in order to "fulfil our prediction of satedness".

Imo all thinking works this way, i.e. any thought is an expression of more or less subtle emotions/feelings/sensations many of which go unnoticed.

Expand full comment

I've heard it proposed that people share articles without carefully checking them (or even without reading past the headline) as a way of expressing their group affiliation. i.e. this headline is favorable to the XYZ group, so I'll retweet it to show that I'm aligned with the XYZ group.

This seems kind of similar to your "finally there's a way to show the bad thing is bad!" feeling, except that your thing seems like it has an extra layer of actually-caring-about-underlying-reality piled on top.

Expand full comment

>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?

This rings true to me. I'm reminded of Jer Clifton's research on "primal world beliefs"; perhaps 'a single web of elites controls society' is just what you get when your perception of the universe's interconnectedness or intentionality is at a certain point between 'everything is an emergent phenomenon of mechanistic processes' and 'the cosmos itself speaks to me personally'. (And to stereotype broadly about chill hippies, dabbling in psychedelics definitely seems related to perceptions of interconnection.)

Expand full comment

>If only they were literally raping children

Jeffrey Epstein would like a word...?

Expand full comment

"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'm not sure that I accept the cognitive v emotional classification, and I actually find this second type of conspiracy to be way more understandable and sympathetic than I do the first type (from an epistemological point of view, not an ethical one). As others have pointed out, what you're calling conspiracies of cognition involve people concocting fantastic explanations explanations for fairly straightforward but boring stories. There's not much cognitively challenging about the Great Pyramid of Giza once you've realized that it was the end result of hundreds of years of evolving design that began with burial mounds then ziggurats then mastabas and finally pyramids. Aliens is just a way more exciting story than incremental engineering improvements.

On the other hand, what you're describing as conspiracies of emotion tend to be the result of fairly complex and somewhat shrouded happenings. Take Jeffrey Epstein for example. Here's guy who's reportedly a billionaire, but no one in finance really knows what he does. He flies around the world with powerful, influential people like Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew. He's got a private island in the USVI that the locals know as pedophile island, and oh yeah, there's a weird structure on it that looks like a temple. And when he's arrested, he ends up killing himself while the guards are shirking and the cameras are out. Even when you tidy it all up with a fairly mundane story about blackmailing rich men, you still have to explain things like how he got hired to teach math at an elite prep school even though he didn't have a college degree and it just so happens that the guy who hired him was Bill Barr's father, or that his right hand woman is the daughter of a billionaire publishing tycoon who dies under mysterious circumstances and had reported ties to the Mossad. Even the mundane story implicates rich and powerful people in high crimes.

Or what about Andrew Tate? A year ago, I had never heard that guy's name. Then one day he was all over my socials and then he was banned from socials and then he gets into a Twitter spat with Greta Thunberg and then he's arrested in Rumania for human trafficking. It just reads like it's been scripted.

If anything, I would swap the categories. The latter seem like attempts to construct a coherent narrative in the absence of a clear story, while the former cases seem like people filling an emotional need to be the ones who "know what really happened" or who aren't naïve enough to believe the official story.

Expand full comment

Fine post. Not much new for long-time readers of SSC/ACX - as in the recent post x and x+1 about bounded distrust in the media. But then: nihil sub sole novum / אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ‎ (en kol chadásh táchat hashámesh) “there is nothing new under the sun” - nothing is said that has not been said before.

Expand full comment

We shouldn't be calling the idea that aliens built the Great Pyramid a "conspiracy theory." A CONSPIRACY theory must involve a CONSPIRACY, and landing from the stars in the middle of Egypt is not a conspiracy. but a waste of time and effort. Let's call that an "unsupported claim." For example, the "Black Athena" theory about Egyptians being (Sub-Saharan) Black is also not a conspiracy theory, but an unsupported claim. We dedicated conspiracy theorists like to keep our field clean from intrusions, please. Thank you.

Expand full comment

“Global Adrenochrome Pedophile Cabal”. Doesn’t exist but Hollywood has a problem with child abuse and Epstein’s island was hardly a holiday camp for the trafficked.

Which is something that’s missing here, conspiracies do happen.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure how wrong the Russiagate is. I believe in the following (didn't really dig deep into any of this issues, so feel free to correct me):

0. Russia was capable of influencing elections in various "unfair" ways (e.g. via fake social network accounts spreading lies in a loose sense of the word, releasing the information they obtained illegally)

0a. Russia's influence could increase by coordinating it with the candidate they chose to support.

1. Russia was favoring Trump in 2016.

2. Russia did, in fact, attempt to influence the elections in Trump's favor.

(2a, weak: Russia was also favoring Brexit and did attempt to influence it.)

3. People who are most likely Russian emissaries did contact Trump's campaign.

4 (weaker). There is nothing in Trump's character to show he would refuse a mutually beneficial deal with the Russians, if they didn't ask too much. Maybe if he thought he couldn't get away with it, but he tends to get away with a lot, and is rather sloppy.

So I don't think it's hard to believe if Trump actually made a deal and maybe promised a favor or two in return for Russian help. Not "destroy America" kind of favors (that would be a different conspiracy theory: that he came to stay, and was receiving Russian help for that. I like it, but I don't think there's much evidence for it besides "It seems like Trump would like to be a dictator and Putin is helping his allied dictators to stay in power"), but something he wouldn't feel strong about. He wouldn't be seriously bound by that promise unless Russia has some kind of hold over him (financial aid? blackmail?) which I find unlikely. But if Russia was capable of giving him more favors, he'd have incentive to return them.

To put numbers on it:

Trump receiving orders from Putin: <1%

Trump receiving "suggestions" from Putin he could be seriously inconvenienced to ignore (e.g. by releasing something Putin has on him, or cutting financial help): <10%

Trump signalling to Russia his agreement to receive their help in the 2016 elections, regardless of him actually using presidential powers to return the favor: 25-75%

Russian actions actually changing the result of the election: 20%.

Expand full comment

My last substack post explored our natural need for scapegoats and monsters. I think it's related to your post above about the attraction of conspiracy theories and biases.

Five minute read. Apologies in advance to Seahawks fans.


Expand full comment

Major, MAJOR props to Scott for being the first person I know who has spread this "Russiagate" crap who has copped to it and apologised for it.

Expand full comment

I'm surprised that you haven't mentioned your previous related post, which describes a somewhat different emotional appeal: https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/epistemic-minor-leagues

Expand full comment

Conspiracy theorists often seem to be people finding out that when you look at something closely then the generally accepted explanation for it has lots of grey areas and uncertainties that aren't evident when it's looked at from a distance - and then these people go on to assume that this is more meaningful than it actually is. I wonder if you're more likely to be susceptible to conspiracy theories if your education is mostly being told what the truth is and rewarded for regurgitating it. Then you find out a lot of things about a certain specific area, and realise that that's not actually the reality of that area (experts disagree, crucial facts are disputed, the consensus has changed over time, different cultures/countries/academic disciplines may have very different consensus views of the same thing, etc) and assume that this is something that is unusual and interesting, rather than just being how things work. Then you get pushback by acknowledged experts defending their turf, the experts make mistakes in doing so because they're fallible, those mistakes are uncovered, and you become even more convinced that you've found something important.

Yes, we don't know the truth about [x], experts have claimed wrongly to know the truth about [x], people have been misled about [x], lots of people assume that the truth about [x] is clear and they're wrong, and the more you find out about [x] the more you realise that there are lots of things we don't know about [x]. But that applies to nearly everything! Including your proposed solution [y]!

That might explain some of the intellectual attraction of conspiracy theories, but it doesn't explain the emotional attraction. I might be wrong, but I get the impression that this emotional attraction tends to be specifically linked to loss. Having something taken away from you that you rely on emotionally makes you vulnerable and scared, and when people are afraid they will do strange and terrible things. Fear is the most powerful emotion.

The anger is there on the surface, but it's the fear and loss that really matters.

Expand full comment

It seems to me like the post is largely correct but mentioning the Russia stuff as an example may have been a rhetorically bad call. Most of the comments are now discussing whether your version of Russiagate is a weakman and whether such and such object-level claims are true. I don't think it undermines the core point of the post too seriously, but there have certainly been other conspiracy theories regarding Trump, occasionally involving Epstein and occasionally some level of underage rape and other gruesome stuff. I realize you wanted to choose something you yourself believed but I wonder whether this personal connection actually drove the point home.

Of course my main takeaway is that it is a small blessing that Russia has decided to just slaughter their way through Ukraine. I have no need for conspiracy theories, I can just relax and enjoy hating Russia and Little Putin!

Expand full comment

I think some conspiracy theories are down to humans being, amongst other things, explanation-producing machines.

What was that rustling in the bushes? Was it the wind? Or was it a lion?

Well, Jim went out on a windy day, and got eaten by a lion because he thought the rustling in the bushes was just the wind, so it could be a lion. We better check to make sure.

Okay, there's no sign of a lion, so it was just the wind. Probably. Because there are lions in this area, so we should always be careful just in case.

Except some people then jump on that "probably" and use it as a rationale for why they are right about "it's *always* lions, it's *never* 'just the wind'" theories. It may be very wearisome to constantly be vigilant about lurking lions, but the one time it really is a lion, you'll be prepared and will have the last laugh.

We look at the world and we see a lot of things that upset us and we say "This isn't right, someone should fix it". Except nobody knows how to fix it, or when someone tries, the explanation is that it's too big and complex and a lot of things are involved and yes, it's terrible but no, there's nothing we can do.

And we know about cause and effect, so for this thing to be happened, it *must* have a cause. So that means *somebody* must have caused it. In a way, it's a relief to think that there are a bunch of bad (possibly lizard) people out there pulling the strings and making bad things happen, because that's awful but at least if we find that bunch we can stop them.

If it's just Moloch in action, what do we do? We're helpless and we're going to get ground into dust but that's just the way things are so here, have this cheap smartphone and don't think about the millstones getting closer and closer to the top of your head.

And some theories *are* just fun if you don't take them seriously. Maybe it *was* aliens, tell me more about the Pyramid inch. Maybe it *is* the Illuminati, why yes "Weishaupt" and "Washington" are suspiciously similar!

Expand full comment

I'm from Russia. I extremely dislike both Trump and the Russian government (especially since last year). But the idea that Trump is a Russian puppet looked like absolute bullshit to me from the very beginning. I was disappointed to see in one of Scott's longtime posts a hint that he believes in this. Now I'm happy!

Expand full comment

I'm surprised Scott's example of a group he considers evil in a way that's difficult to express convincingly is just "woke people shutting down schools for the gifted because they dislike meritocracy", that seems really innocuous to me (maybe even neutral to potentially good-ish).

That doesn't seem like it should be enough of a emotional provocation to be any kind of threat to his characteristic rationalism (which means it illustrated his point, I guess).

I'm not sure if he just used that example because it's unlikely to aliennate us readers, or if he really is so closely aligned with mainstream morality that there isn't a more salient example. What about all the potentially extremely immoral things, factory farms etc.? the CIA? big Finance?

I'd be interested in a longer list of things he thinks are evil without needing to provide an objective reason for.

Expand full comment

“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.”

These are both explanations I was given when growing up for why well-meaning scientists consistently got the wrong answer about evolution vs creationism.

Expand full comment

This post made me remember about reading a piece about differences between "old-school conspiracy theories" where people would go to great length and elaborate explanations to convince you of something, versus "new conspiracies", related to fake news and post-truth, where there are no real explanations involved (e.g. Pizzagate, IIRC). Would have loved to retrieve it and share it but I can't seem to find it anywhere. Could as well have been a preceding post here for all I remember.

Expand full comment

Nice essay. I suggest you look more into the group aspects of this. David McRaney's book "How Minds Change" talks about how people stop believing in conspiracies, and IIRC it has a lot to do with finding a replacement for the emotional support that they were getting from being part of the cult that believed the conspiracy. Also I recommend Randall Collins on "Interaction Ritual Chains" on how social interactions raise or lower emotional energy. I suspect that trying to tie conspiracy theory in with anger is not the right path. I think it is more the gain in emotional energy from being part of a tight-knit group that is "onto something." Like being an early adopter of a scientific breakthrough or a new technology or a cool music or a social movement, but in the case of a conspiracy theory you've made a bad choice.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

I think this is part of the story. I think another part of the story is vibe warfare. People want to influence the emotional valence of a concept in someone else's mind, so they adopt beliefs (or at least make factual arguments) without regard for truth.

They (if I'm being honest, we) don't necessarily notice this dynamic, in part because there is no incentive to notice. The social consensus about vibes is a big deal. Surely the ends justify the means?

I think Scott has basically written about this before, but the posts about media lies, plus this post, make me suspect that this is sometimes a blind spot. Or else he's just trying to emphasize a different part of the story without getting distracted.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

All the conspiracy theorists I personally know find their research stimulating and gratifying. Conspiracy theories seem like a fun hobby, and the feeling of tapping into forbidden or concealed knowledge adds to the excitement.

Above all else though, very engaged conspiracy theorists (who create and propagate most content) can find vibrant communities of like-minded believers over the internet. Membership in these communities provides immense value (social support, genuine care and affection, validation, etc), contingent on continued belief in the founding creed.

I would suspect that social isolation, rather than any particular cognitive model, is the key determinant of strongly adhering to conspiracy theories.

Expand full comment

Random aside regarding the Kennedy assassination, but my favourite conspiracy theory about it is one where the Secret Service killed him... by accident. Basically, the theory postulates that one of the Secret Service personnel in the car behind Kennedy had very poor trigger discipline and when he was startled by Oswald's shot, accidentally fired his own rifle. This second shot was the one that actually hit and killed the President, leading to a panicked attempt by the Secret Service to cover up their own incompetence.

I like this on multiple levels because it explains away a lot of the weirdness involved in the case in a way that is salacious enough to count as a conspiracy theory, but one that is fundamentally unsatisfying to conspiracy theorists. After all, what's more banal than an honest mistake and a frantic attempt to hide it after the fact?

Expand full comment

Another point about conspiracies is that they are insight porn. They cheaply make a person feel like they have seen through the illusions of the masses into a deeper reality. This is enjoyable for a few reasons (other than the emotional content of the belief system):

(a) an insight moment (a-ha moment) is a coming together of information in a way that feels like it fits the world better. This is a fundamental function of cognition that probably involves large regions of the brain and has a spiritual, almost religious dimension (an epiphany). "I was wrong about everything before, but now I understand."

(b) Having seen through the delusions of the masses into this "more real" world, you are one of a select few. You have special knowledge; knowledge that no one else has. In a way, this makes you part of an elite few, and it may even be your job to save everyone else.

If rationality is the inheritor of Platonism -- truly seeing through illusions and delusions in a way that connects us more deeply with the world in a more real way --- then conspiracy theories are the inheritors of Gnosticism -- the decadent, twisted version of Platonism, which takes the whole real world to be a delusion and illusion.

'Gnostic' cultural patterns have been baked into American culture since at least the sixties, and probably beyond, all the way back to Puritans. There's an addiction for the feeling that the mainstream narrative is wrong, for the reasons listed above.

It's no coincidence that the current myths of the culture war, the red pill on one side and being 'woke' on the other follow this self-same structure. The Matrix films, which the red pill meme is based on, explore these patterns of Platonism and Gnosticism: the idea of waking up and realising that what you took to be reality was wrong. Whereas in Plato this is a spiritual process of anagoge, as you ascend towards a more real world; in Gnosticism this is a horrific process, as you realise the world is far darker than you realised, and you've been controlled and manipulated. The Matrix is more of a Gnostic story for this reason.

People are addicted to the feeling of waking up to a "truer" reality. In many ways it's a parody of rationality because it relies on much of the same machinery of fascination and belief change.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

It seems a bit of a coincidence that the moon subtends exactly the Sun's diameter during a total solar eclipse. This hasn't always been the case: When the Earth first formed, the moon was much closer to the Earth, and would have loomed overhead, occupying a quarter of the sky, causing literally mountainous tides! Over the aeons since it has spiralled away, rapidly at first but now at around 1.5" per year. So in a few million years the alignment will be less exact, and the Sun will blaze round the circumference of the moon's shadow even during a total eclipse.

It also seems a coincidence that the stars of orion seem to resemble so much a figure with four outstretched limbs and a belt of three collinear stars with a sword hilt or some clobber attached to the belt. But even if aliens with a sense of humour nudged the moon so that descendents of the apes they had observed would see impressive eclipses, I imagine they would draw the line at moving whole stars considerable distances to achieve at best a marginal effect as viewed from Earth. Also, with around 4000 stars visible to the naked eye, presumably there is considerable scope for chance alignments, such as some of the other constellations. (I still think Orion is by far the easiest to spot and the most impressive.)

Expand full comment

Those last few paragraphs remind me of this quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

Expand full comment

I love this distinction which seems super clear to me, and I also am ABSOLUTELY certain that a lot (maybe even most, possibly even all) Type 2 Conspiracy Beliefs are rooted in some form of anxiety/misery/unsatisfied or badly regulated emotion. My experience of T2CB in the wild (ie NOT online) suggests that fear/anxiety/generalized threat perception is at the root in more cases that anger/outrage/hate, but that might be due to my own bias in seeing hate/anger as pretty much always driven by fear or frustration.

The one aspect I wanted to add, which I've not seen covered in any studies, relates to the "general model of the world" that conspiracy (actual conspiracy) thinking supports. It's a model of the world that makes sense, and in which someone (even if evil, malicious or at least self serving) can both predict and effectively control the events.

This, however scary, is likely to be SIGNIFICANTLY less scary for a person who finds the randomness and chaos of the actual world, it's fundamental unfairness and the fact that we (the humans) can neither make effective predictions nor control what's happening. If the idea of a morally neutral universe that doesn't "care" makes you feel very very scared (for example because you're anxious or depressed or feel a need to be parented/cared for or [insert any other reason]) or if you feel a need to explain horrific occurrences, conspiracy theories fill that hole. So do some types religion, I suppose, on some level.

Expand full comment

A thought that sticks in my craw is how much of what is at the heart of conspiracy theories is correct. There’s usually some boring reality involved that removes a lot of the glitz and glamor, but Epstein for instance does seem like the social irritant that makes people believe in global elite satanic pedophile cabals. Ghislaine Maxwell is currently in prison for sex trafficking minors to no one.

I do believe in a sort of “decentralized self-interest” that causes things to look like conspiracies but not actually involve anyone meeting in blood red robes in secret rooms that you can only get through by pulling the right book off a shelf in a giant library.

Pedophilia for instance is a fundamental biological urge for sex. It exists in all social classes. So if there are places where pedophiles could go to abuse children, I tend to believe that it happens. If there’s a place where it becomes structurally hard to oversee and protect children, I’m of the opinion a structured abuse system will just evolve itself there, the same way that dandelion spores will find a lawn to grow in. Do I believe Hillary Clinton a Seventh Level Illuminatus Warlock who eats children to keep her power? No. Do I believe that there are probably some very shady travel companies in places like Thailand? Yes.

It’s the same kind of thinking financial institutions use to try to spot employee fraud, and it’s usually prudent. Lay out of a pool of water, simply know that thirst exists, and someone will eventually show up to take a drink. Now replace that water with some kind of vice and the same reasoning applies.

Expand full comment

Isn't "Russiagate" a pejorative term people have developed to describe the belief that there was some collusive relationship between the Trump campaign/admin and Russian government, of which there is in fact a boatlaod of evidence? Usually the rhetorical move is to take the fact that the Mueller report, while having its investigation actively obstructed by Trump's inner circle and being limited in scope, did not find evidence to charge criminal conspiracy and equivocate that with a lay sense of the term "collusion" even though these are naturally quite different things. Trump's "Russia if you're listening" is, unto itself, collusive.

The term seems to be used in an effort to win the narrative of the past where people who believed there likely was collusion in some meaningful way are taken to be conspiracy theorists, but that's all undergirded by having a much more stringent idea of what said cooperation might've looked like. But then people turn around and use that to argue something to the effect of, "People thought there was something to a Trump/Russia connection, but it turns out there wasn't. That's been proven to be false." Only, that's not true at all.

Expand full comment

"If only they were literally raping children and then eating their body parts, then everyone would have to admit they were bad."

This is an easily overlooked sentiment that can lead people towards accelerationism, another 'black pill' . (We need to hyper-charge the current unjust, capitalist system, so the flaws become evident to everyone and only then true change can happen. Reforms just strengthen the system)

I think this logic permeates more debates than we think.

For example, in *Right to Sex* Srinivasan describes the rift between feminists who are pro and anti prostitution legalization:

"Proponents of decriminalization like Smith and Mac argue that strengthening the labour power of sex workers wouldn't just make their lives more livable; it would give them more power to demand a restructuring of economic and social relations such that they will no longer have to sell sex to live. [...] As anti-prostitution feminists might see it, thought, decriminalization is at best a reformist measure, which marginally improves the lives of sex workers, while shoring up both patriarchal and neoliberal commodification of sex." (158)

From that viewpoint, it could actually be "good" if prostitution stay illegal, with zero regulation and therefore a worse life for prostitutes. Only this way it reveals how evil prostitution is, and accelerates a future where prostitution does not exist. The same can be seen in other activist movements like animal rights.

Applied to conspiracy theories, a similar logic applies: it's actually 'good' if children are raped/eaten/harvested as that makes efforts to dethrone 'the elite' actionable.

Expand full comment

" then that’s literal treason."

A charge of treason requires that the US be fighting a declared war. The last declared war was WWII. We've technically been at peace since then.

Expand full comment

One also can be angry about, for instance, the QAnon conspiracy theory, because there are clear good guys and bad guys, clearly defined victims ("the children!") and a clear injustice supposedly involved.

Expand full comment
User was banned for this comment. Show
Expand full comment

I don't think this post really does a good job of dismantling JFK conspiracy theories. Here's an entirely down-to-earth theory (which I don't believe and just made up on the spot) that is in line with all the evidence presented in this post.

Oswald was working with an accomplice. They positioned themselves in separate places to improve the chances that one of them would get a clear shot. The accomplice succeeded in this first, and then got away and only Oswald got caught. There was no conspiracy larger than the two of them, and investigators simply screwed up and missed this.

Expand full comment

Conspiracy theory, when done properly, should be considered a branch of sociology related to elite theory, as I explain here: https://overduerevolutions.wordpress.com/2022/12/27/elite-theory-as-the-intellectual-basis-of-conspiracy-theory/

Interest in pseudoscience fields like ufology, cryptozoology, and most pseudoarcheaology often overlaps with interest in conspiracy theory, but these fields would be considered "conspiracy candy" where the objective is to titilate the reader rather than investigate how the ruling class manipulates the masses.

I also think it is highly unhelpful to throw up your hands and say that the ruling class will do what it wants and get away with it. The ruling class must offer concessions proportional to the amount of pushback in the population, which would be reduced by accepting your interpretation. People globally rightfully hate the ruling class, but based on some as yet unpublished research of mine the adrenochrome conspiracy theory is linked to the conspiracy candy subjects above, being a titilating (fallacious) narrative.

Expand full comment

I think there are two major emotional drivers of conspiratorial thinking that aren't touched on here:

* In-group belonging--for most of the pizzagate/qanon folks, their beliefs grant them acceptance in a very supportive online community. Where We Go 1 We Go All, etc. Many of these people don't explicitly hate the elite--most would call themselves capitalists and actively engage in hero worship (e.g. Trump)

* Feeling smarter than other people, or being in on a secret--for the intelligent people analyzing bullet trajectories and such, this is a bigger driver of their beliefs than any logical error. The feeling is wildly gratifying and addictive.

You could argue there are people who start looking at the evidence dispassionately and are actually convinced by bullet trajectory evidence. But the second you start to entertain the conspiracy belief as maybe true, you feel this surge of ego. You've discovered a secret. You've taken the red pill, escaped the matrix, achieved enlightenment. You pity your former self, and all your friends and family who can't see the truth.

And the effect only gets stronger with time: every time you're confronted with evidence against the conspiracy, you can either accept that you've been duped by magical thinking and are considerably less smart than you thought--dumber than all the people you've spent the last X years feeling superior too--or you can go on believing you're better than everyone else. I think this describes Graham Hancock well.

I can't imagine getting caught up in a heterodox narrative and *not* feeling superior to all the normies.

This, IMO, is the biggest driver of conspiratorial thinking.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

The thing about Trump-Russiagate is that there actually was a conspiracy and Trump's campaign chairman was in on it (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_interference_in_the_2016_United_States_elections#Paul_Manafort).

Analogously, if it turns out that Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager was actually killing children in the basement of a pizza restaurant, but there was no evidence that Clinton was in on it, my reaction would be less "that dumb qanon conspiracy theory about Clinton killing children in the basement of a pizza restaurant was wrong after all" and more "wow those qanon believers were onto something big".

Expand full comment

> 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.

You know, Scott, this would be a much more persuasive argument if we did not know of one existing, global, elite, pedophile conspiracy - I'm speaking, of course, of the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, granted, it would be very wrong to say that the RCC was (much less is) a pedophile conspiracy first and foremost. However, what we already know points to a widespread problem with priests abusing minors, but also - much more damningly - the Church hierarchy and officials taking great pains to hush the matter up for decades, whilst extracting, essentially, no penalties against the abusers (those came later, when the matter broke into public perception).

So, while in the strictest sense the RCC isn't a global pedophile cabal, in another - more practical sense - we'd be hard pressed to tell the difference, given a history of enabling pedophiles and shielding them from the public.

Given that we have one example of a global pedophile cabal, is the existence of another such a big stretch of the imagination?

I mean, Epstein was hosting those island parties for *someone*, as other commenters have pointed out.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

Great article overall, but I would point out that in my experience the people interested in the Kennedy assassination actually do tend to be very worked up and emotional/angry about it. I have seen adult marines crying about it, and other adult people yelling. This was like 10-15 years ago. Long after the fact.

Expand full comment

Did you hear the one going around last year?

Q: What’s the difference between a conspiracy theory and the truth?

A: About six months, these days.

Which I mention to point out how “conspiracy theory” is also one phase in the dialectical process by which a dominant culture absorbs information contrary to its unifying narrative.

Expand full comment

I think it's weird one of the things you labeled the global elite as being responsible for as being "a woke takeover" instead of the much more obvious political corruption and bribery they engage in. They do not undermine society by perpetrating wokeness, they do so by perpetrating corruption. I didn't realize you had such a strong bias against wokeness which to me seems unwarranted.

Expand full comment

Before continuing to advertise your intuitive mood swings about politics -- a clumsy subject for you, since you are naturally more curious about other things -- I suggest you tackle your research responsibly. For instance, read the Mueller Report in its entirety, Volume One and Two, before proclaiming to know the truth about anything referred to as "Russiagate." How do I know you haven't read it? Because your understanding of the subject matter has never been anything more than shallow.

Expand full comment

I think any attempt to understand conspiracy theories needs to look at the social aspect. Believing a conspiracy theory makes you part of a group. It provides kinship and emotional support. The flat Earth documentary from a few years back makes this very clear.

What makes a group organized around a conspiracy theory more attractive than mainstream social groups? Part of it might be the biases you mention. Part of it might be the ego boost that comes with thinking that you have access to a special truth that most other people discount or are ignorant of. Or maybe conspiracy theories attract people with similar personalities along other dimensions and they just have a lot of fun together. You don't necessarily have to start off hating elites to believe in Qanon -- you just have to meet some people who believe in Qanon, get along with them, and then start hating elites.

This latter explanation appeals to me because it seems true in other contexts. People that are *really* into sci-fi and fantasy often hew towards certain stereotypes that aren't directly related to genres of fiction (or at least don't seem to be). Similarly for sports fans and outdoor enthusiasts. I'm sure you can come up with other examples.

Expand full comment

I broadly agree with the two categories of conspiracy theories. But I think the first type is the primary factor in conspiracy theories, and without it the second type wouldn't get off the ground. There must be more going on in the first type than just a bunch of people with flaws in their evidence balancing analysis.

As some other people have suggested on the comments here, there's some drive pushing people to believe/give some weight to conspiracies. Just read through the comments here and you see people getting caught up in Epstein, JFK, Pizzagate and whatnot. These conspiracy theories draw our attention.

I think there's two natural urges behind this. First, we have a natural urge to uncover mysteries. Second, we generally have some feeling that there is a deeper truth behind things. So when we see a thread to pull, some facts that seem intriguing, we are pushed to tug on that thread. And the more the answer seems to reveal a deeper truth, on some level we'll find it more acceptable.

I think there's a deep truth behind that, but you'll probably say I'm a conspiracy theist :)

Expand full comment

> 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.

I was thinking about this distinction recently, but I came to the exact opposite conclusion on JFK. Isn't the whole point that some shadowy forces wanted Kennedy dead, possibly orchestrated by LBJ to take power, or by the military-industrial complex to keep us in Vietnam? It might have been weird anomalies that kicked off said theories, but I think the biggest catalyst was Jack Ruby killing Oswald (allegedly to silence him).

Expand full comment

Not much discussion about the election of 2020 and the perceived conspiracy on the right that “the fix was in”. I would say that this view is obviously emotional, but at the same time, I do feel some empathy, as I feel they had evidence. Bad evidence, but still... when you really want to believe something, and you think you see “proof”, and then later on your “proof” is bunk, but then you say the refutation of that “proof” is the real bunk, isn’t that a third type of conspiracy? I remember election night in 2022 vividly. I live in California, which is on a later time zone than most of the US. In the evening, I was actively watching the online map of who had won which state, and said to myself “oh no he is going to win again.” It seemed very evident at that time that Trump was going to win. Now, later on the evening, when I woke myself up at midnight because I was a little distressed by this and was having trouble sleeping, I woke up , checked the map, and felt relieved. I believed the new “evidence”. As the all the mail in votes were counted, the votes swung the other way. I believe that this is the main reason that voters for Trump thought that the fix was in. The oversimplified maps of which state was going to what party, which were all over the internet that night, gave a very false impression of how the election was going on the night of the election. It doesn’t matter that later on that we can explain why the shift happened. If I wanted Trump to win, I would have thought that the fix was in. It makes me think of that famous picture of Truman holding the paper with the headline “Dewey defeats Truman” on the day after that election. I am sure there were many dissatisfied and conspiracy minded voters at that time when Truman beat Dewey. I think rather than hating on those who believe in conspiracies, or worse yet , trying to “convert them to the truth”, we need to find ways to make the situations less fraught. Obviously better counting and processing of mail in ballots would help in this. And yes I know many states made it deliberately difficult to count the ballots... Probably because a few cynical smart people realized they even if they lost, they could sow distrust, but that is an entirely different conversation.

Expand full comment

Conspiracy theories are fun. That's reason enough for plenty of people like my uncle who has zero desire to find out if the zany things he reads on the internet are true. He get lots of excitement from these theories which he rarely gets from real news. I'm not sure if he actually believes this stuff or it just kayfabe from him.

Expand full comment

I am extremely interested in what people actually mean when they say they "believe" something. It's clearly more complex than a simple statement of literal fact. It might be that literal fact is irrelevant but I think there's symbolic or emotional truth that people are endorsing that beats literal fact. I very much agree that it's a simplifying maneuver - instead of having to express a difficult-to-defend but obviously correct (at least to you) milieu of evidence, it's easier to have a silver bullet.

But if you're going to hold the belief no matter the literal evidence, and you're very certain in the milieu of emotional evidence, what's the point of defending it? That's what strikes me about the conspiracy epidemic. It's an attempt to mentally defend a belief against a hypothetical other. Not a real other, because they don't believe your conspiracy theory. But the beauty of a conspiracy theory is that you can tell yourself that you understand better than them, that you're smarter than them, and that if they were more intelligent, they *would* agree with you.

All of this assumes that the goal in all things is to justify yourself to other people - it feels like the point is to crowdsource your own critical faculties to the internet, and in doing so absolve yourself of doubt.

Expand full comment

> The most recent time I fell for a conspiracy theory was Trump-Russiagate.

This is a fascinating test case. I still encounter people who insist, twisting this way and that, that there is evidence for Russiagate after all.

Expand full comment

What's seemingly different this time 'round is that conspiracists don't care that the evidence refutes their position. For example, when I asked a friend what evidence she has that Mr. Trump won the 2020 election for president, or that the Center for Disease Control is misrepresenting mortality statistics from Covid-19, she shrugs and says none is needed.

This Santos gentleman (?) who somehow goofed his way into Congress with an entirely fabricated identity is just taking Unreality to a new level. In winning, trust or character seem acceptable casualties; the important thing is to win.

Expand full comment

Can someone give me a succinct explanation for why the belief that trump was inadvisably influenced or beholden to russian interests was indefensible *at the time*? or was that reasonable? I remember never thinking he was an actual russian plant, but idea that his indisputably secretive business couldn't have problems with foreign leverage never seemed crazy to me.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure this is a real distinction, although it may be a useful spectrum.

Just to throw out some examples:

- Qanon (which heavily overlaps with the adrenachrome stuff) is extremely evidence-focused. They're all about Q's Nostradamus-esque prophecies and elaborate numerical proofs. The core idea is "this guy has inside info, and he's repeatedly proven it by predicting things".

- Pizzagate, which also heavily overlaps with the adrenachrome stuff, is/was also very focused on evidence - long lists of emails that seemed confusing normally (large or unusual pizza orders) but made sense if they were in code (cheese pizza = children), alleged photos of pedophilic artwork on display, a guy went to "shoot up" the pizza place but only destroyed their hard drive, etc.

- Conversely, I've been hate-watching Netflix's recent much-derided Ancient Apocalypse show, starring Graham Hancock, and the guy *absolutely cannot shut up* about how close-minded, dogmatic, and fearful mainstream experts are and how much they hate him. While I kind of appreciate that he's at least honest that no-one takes him seriously, it's clear that he and his team think "look how much this pisses off the mainstream, you can't trust them" is their most compelling argument.

Expand full comment
(Banned)Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 14, 2023

I will again suggest as a starting point Eco's Serendipities

Language and Lunacy (1998). The first essay is "The force of falsity".

Secondly, as part of rationalist program and because you are psychologist, you should present your thoughts in the context of a review of the literature. It's not like you're the first person to think about this.

Lastly, conspiracy theory is a type of myth-making. Myth-making is not just a personal process, it is social process. So thinking about a personal motivation (or pathology) will be insufficient. As a myth-making process it is a shared process of attempting to explain and shape and participate in reality. Voegelin might provide some insights for serious investigation.

Expand full comment

Every conspiracy theorist will point out that some conspiracies are actually true. Indeed, with recent revelations from the Twitter Files, it looks like a lot of the "We're being targeted by the government and our speech is being secretly shut down" was true. People complained about being shadow banned, but then Jack Dorsey came out and testified before Congress that they don't shadow ban. Anyone claiming that their speech was being shadow banned became a conspiracy theorist. They would point to very specific screenshots of account activity, "I usually get [X] number of reactions to my post, but they're now down >90%!"

"No, that's just because people stopped engaging with you for some other reason. I may not have an explanation for this specific instance, but coincidences happen and you're looking at one. You're asking me to hyper-focus on this very specific and not-signal-boosted piece of evidence over the Twitter CEO's Congressional testimony? In order to believe your conspiracy theory, we'd have to prioritize this one piece of evidence while also believing that:

1.) Twitter is shadow banning thousands of people

2.) Their CEO was willing to lie to congress

3.) A bunch of people at Twitter know about 1+2

4.) Nobody is coming forward as a whistle-blower."

This is the standard argument against conspiracy theories: the larger the conspiracy, the more difficult it is to keep it a secret. Someone will spill the beans. Sometimes conspiracy theorists will reply that, "maybe the CIA or the FBI planted people high up in the company to intercept this kind of thing." But then they just look like stark-raving loons, willing to make up excuses for why there are no whistleblowers.

Yet with the Twitter Files, we're seeing that - absent Musk's multi-billion-dollar over payment for his favorite apptivity and a strangely-inconsistent-but-probably-sincere commitment to free speech - there were multiple ongoing conspiracies with exactly this kind of fact pattern. They even included the FBI plant!

The two big questions are "doesn't this count as a whistle-blower event?" and the more difficult to answer, "was this a one-off event, or is it representative?" Let's start with the first question. I think there are multiple reasons to believe that but-for Musk we wouldn't see another whistle-blower:

1. If the criteria for whistle-blower starts with a person actually going through with a $44 billion purchase of a failing company, the bar is high enough we should not expect to detect conspiracies this way.

2. We've seen other whistle-blowers pay a high price for their activities, like Manning (convicted under Espionage Act) and Snowden (threatened to be tried in secret courts if he ever steps foot in a country with extradition to the US). It's certainly not the case that there ARE no whistleblowers, but it's also clear that conspirators are willing to set a high price on whistleblowers to keep them from talking (life-changing non-monetary prices, not just $44B). We should expect fewer whistleblowers depending on the potential costs of coming forward.

3. Multiple other social media companies were implicated in the Twitter Files, including Reddit, Wikipedia, Apple, Meta, and Alphabet. I'll admit that the hypothesis, "lots of people know about this thing, so it will make its way into the public domain" is compelling. I've believed it for years, and made that argument countless times to my Illuminati/Bildaberg/global conspiracy-believing friend. I'm as surprised as anyone to discover that this explanation doesn't match the evidence. Indeed, now that some of the Twitter Files have been out for a while, where are the shocking revelations from these other companies, even years after the conspiracy started?

This brings us to the second question, "is this representative of a larger ability to conceal conspiracies?" We appear to have some evidence that the USG was involved with many other social media/tech companies in the same way they were with Twitter. All that seems to be coming from the Twitter revelations, though. Where are all the whistleblowers from Meta? Why hasn't some intrepid news outlet reported about this from Wikipedia? We're literally talking about yesterday's conspiracy "theory" confirmed as today's news story, and yet we're not seeing leaks.

Or are we? Is there some small-town paper somewhere that reported Reddit's story, but the national and social media haven't picked it up? We know at this point that such stories can be suppressed. That they are suppressed. If the conspirators have the ability to make sure any story is suppressed, and the Wikipedia page edits out attempts to signal boost by people motivated enough to use DuckDuckGo or get around the censorship, can we really rely on the argument that it's too difficult to cover up a conspiracy?

"These are new tools." Maybe, but they've had a name for a long time: gatekeepers. Meet the new gatekeepers, same as the old gatekeepers.

Finally, I don't think all (or even most) conspiracy theories are true. Indeed, Twitter Files #14 outline a situation where Twitter was being accused of allowing Russian bot farms to run rampant on their system. They did an internal review and concluded that wasn't happening (for that specific case, not that this never happened). Despite this, a bunch of conspiracy theorists - including people in Congress! - kept pestering them about it and the conspiracy theory became a story.

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

This is the fundamental problem, as I see it: At the heart of scientific knowledge/discovery is the process of distinguishing something that was previously overlooked because it didn't fit into the broad categories we put it into, or because we'd missed some very specific piece of evidence.

Before Watson and Crick published their groundbreaking structure of DNA, Linus Pauling published his own. He had the same 'B-form' X-ray crystallography data W&C got from Franklin, which is the rationale he gave for making his structure helical. But he put the hydrophobic bases pointing outward and even had some small Van Der Walls overlaps. Why make such monumental mistakes? Pauling explains in his original paper: the bases wouldn't pair. He tried, but it didn't work. He figured some not-yet-identified structural molecules were keeping the whole thing together. After all, usually in biology we find it's more complicated than it appears at first.

But base pairing WAS the simple answer. Why did it work for W&C, but not for Pauling? Because a chemist in their department noticed Crick working (unsuccessfully) on getting the bases to pair and asked why he was using the less-stable Enol form and not the Keto form (cf Enol-Keto tautaumerization in your o-chem textbook). Crick didn't know about this. Pauling had overlooked it (despite making Nobel-winning discoveries in other aspects of Chemistry).

The idea that discovery of a deeper truth hinges on "a very specific detail" is how a lot of scientific discoveries have been made. Minor mutation in HBG gene causing sickle-cell anemia? Minor measurement deviation in the orbit of a moon of Jupiter? Got some mold growing on your agar plate?

What's the difference between an eccentric scientist and a loony conspiracy nut? (Maybe there isn't always a difference:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kary_Mullis#Views_on_HIV/AIDS_and_climate_change) If we define the same method of hyper-focus as a flaw in evidence processing, do we lose more than just a few people pursuing outlandish ideas? Is there a way to dismiss details that don't matter without dismissing the kind of details that change the world?

Expand full comment
Jan 13, 2023·edited Jan 13, 2023

> 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.

This seems like the sort of model that would be reinforced based on the free energy principle/predictive processing. Simple, salient, and easy to shoehorn observations into supporting. In your second class of conspiracy theories, there might be a little rim around the low energy states but it seems like all it takes is a little push for some people to go up and over that hill

Conspiracy theories in the energy landscape seem a bit like black holes in spacetime: point-like attractor states. It's weird though that defending the conspiracy often involves what seems like a lot of complexity and epicycles of conspiracy (e.g. pizzagate). Maybe the hole is too deep to get out of by that point, or too intertwined with the person's identity?

Expand full comment

If more than a few people get really worked up about a given belief, I start thinking it’s probably false. Nobody gets really passionate about the law of gravity, but people spend massive amounts of emotional energy trying to convince themselves and others that various scams, superstitions, quacks, and political agendas are super-awesome. It’s like they know, somewhere in the back of their minds, that it’s all bs, but they really wish it were true and are desperately trying not to notice

Expand full comment

> 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.

I've been circling around the same thing. You should read about Vervaeke's work on relevance realization and Klein's Data-frame theory of sensemaking. It seems to me that arbitrary relevance realization is indistinguishable from schizophrenia. If your body kept telling you over and over again that the buzzing in your ears was relevant, you too might conclude that the government put something in your brain.

Though buzzing in the ears may be a bad example because salience is primarily a visual phenomena in humans. And isn't it interesting the lack of overlap between schizophrenics and the blind? My abnormal psych teacher used to say that schizophrenia was primarily a perceptual issue. I never understood that till I thought about it this way.

Infowars is also arbitrary relevance realization. They include irrelevant context (eg FBI death numbers) and exclude relevant context. This makes them basically indistinguishable from a schizophrenic.

Expand full comment

This group that prides themselves on their intelligence so, still believes the Warren Commission report, and seems to be unaware that, just for example the House Committee on Assassinations and every other post-Warren report has concluded that Oswald did not act alone. That's bizarre. Not as bizarre as JKF, Oswald, Jack Ruby, and Robert Kennedy all being killed by lone nuts, and the Trump and Buden administration's both refusing to release the last of the files.

How many coincidences does it take to pique your curiosity?

Expand full comment

A thought occured to me, and I need to type it down in order to force my brain to form it clearly, and to implant it in my memory by associating it with the context of this post, the process of typing it, etc.

Anyways, here goes postmodernist drivel:

Empathizing with "conspiracy theorists" and describing their thought processes in terms of universal modes of human reasoning goes a long way, but it still unfairly singles them out. The very same universals of reasoning that lead people to mistakenly believe a false alternative theory can lead them to mistakenly believe a false established one, yet we don't speak derisively of "status quo theorists". Or rather, some people do speak derisively of "sheeple" and "NPCs" and so on, and we'd rightly recognize those as pure insults, emotionally-loaded and self-serving, so maybe it's time to relegate "conspiracy theorists" and other terms for people holding views outside of mainstream to the same status.

We're all trying to make sense of the world with limited knowledge and even more limited first-hand experience, and we're all bound to make mistakes, so the least we can do is to recognize that and stop shaming other people for making theirs. Not just because they're ultimately just like us, just working with different inputs and brain tuning. Also because, every once in a while, one of them will be on to something. We need individuals who differ, who strain from conventional wisdom and investigate alternative theories, in order to generate new hypotheses, and to be able to ever collectively change our mind.

If we need to call some of them out, let's not call them out for differing from status quo (many people who moved human knowledge forward did) or for believing in conspiracies (conspiracies do exist). If they're factually wrong, illogical and/or close-minded, there should be plenty of that to point out. If they're neither, but still sound weird, it's perfectly possible to remain unconvinced and respectfully differ.

PS: I am not sure that "your enemies are fundamentally just people like you, trying to balance their universal human selfish and pro-social instincts in a way that best matches their circumstances" isn't a bigger blackpill. On one hand, it allows you to trust other people (if not never to harm you, then at least to act within some comprehensible bounds) and retain your hope for humanity. On the other, where do we even go from there? You can defeat other people, but how do you defeat Moloch?

Expand full comment

I think you're confusing a lot of things here. First, what is happening with a conspiracy theory.

All conspiracy theories are primarily a failure of contextualising information. As such, conspiracy theories do not explain away evidence or facts, at least not in the way that normal theories do. Conspiracy theories incorporate evidence. To explain away something is to say that it is not true or relevant. To incorporate it is to say it is true/relevant, but the broader context points to the same or similar conclusion. Hence the "conspiracy" part of the theory.

To expand on this , consider normal reactions to conspiracy theories. The normal response tends to reject them completely and immediately. If you hear that the moon landing is fake and somehow never heard this before, the first response is to say that isn't true and move on, without knowing a single extra fact about the moon landing. No extra facts will change this, because you're just so certain about your prior that you're never going to change it. On the face of it, it sounds similar to a conspiracy theorist, their prior being "there is a conspiracy". But actually, conspiracy theorists don't start that way, and they change their theories all the time. The conspiracy follows from the fact pattern they see. The problem is an inability to understand which facts are relevant.

Second, emotions don't have anything to do with this. The evidence for the illuminati isn't a gut feeling of hatred of elites, it's things like "Why do twelve supposedly separate news agencies seem to publish the same article at the same time without openly talking to each other?" or "Why does the government lie to us?" or "Why is seemingly basic information kept hidden?". In other words, the evidence for the Illuminati is the noticed gaps in the narrative. The gaps need to be explained, and are filled with conspiracy.

Third, I think you may not understand the difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. Conspiracies happen. Conspiracy theories don't. MKUltra happened. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was propaganda. ECHELON was confirmed in 2015. But we have yet to uncover the fake moon landing. The Illuminati hasn't been revealed. Nobody has found a single lizard person. The difference between these is conspiracies get found out, and conspiracy theories keep updating to new evidence forever. Conspiracy theorising is rationality turned towards nothing.

My point here is that Trump-Russiagate wasn't you and everyone believing in a conspiracy theory. It was more or less falling to a conspiracy. It was a psy-op. Political warfare. Propaganda. These are synonyms. Like other conspiracies, it was found out. And since it is different, believing in Trump-Russiagate is not the same thing as believing the Illuminati control everything. It's a failure, but the opposite failure. Conspiracy theorists are extremely critical of consensus, because conspiracy theorists are constantly taking in new evidence which they can't contextualise properly. They end up noticing say, certain IQ and wealth distributions and notice that the average person doesn't know or care about it, and then *that* gets thrown in as further evidence for a conspiracy about the Elders of Zion or whatever. People like you who fell for Trump-Russiagate, as you said, "...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."

One final thing that isn't quite here or there, but I found it kind of irritating. Jeffrey Epstein was arrested and died from a suicide nobody believes, while Ghislaine Maxwell was convicted of trafficking children... to a clientele list which has been and is still deliberately kept secret from us. Is this evidence to a conspiracy theory, or a partially uncovered conspiracy?

Expand full comment

Didn't Sam Harris say that he if he found out that Joe Biden had literal dead babies in his basement (and presumably Biden was the one who killed them) he would still vote for Biden of Trump?

That's pretty close to your example.

Expand full comment

how would u distinguish this type of thinking with say, believing in the simulation hypothesis

Expand full comment

On the pyramid thing. What are the odds that the aliens would have adopted our systems for measuring either latitude or the speed of light? To me the 1:1m coincidence is proof that we live in a simulation. It's the only way this could have happened. So, aliens!

Expand full comment

Apologies if someone has already made this point, but 1) chill hippies often aren't really chill, they've just developed a convincing affect; and 2) it's hard to talk about conspiratorial (or any) beliefs if we can't say exactly what a "belief" is.

It could just be that certain ideas are worthwhile to hold. They make you feel exalted over others bc you are wise (you know a secret truth), or calm or reassured (God loves you), or free and invincible (COVID is just a government manipulation of public fear), or categorically superior (that other group of humans is vastly less good/deserving than mine).

But I'm not convinced holding an idea in your head, or even arguing vociferously in its favor, is always the same thing as *believing* it. And in fact I think a lot of conspiracists spend a great deal of energy thinking and talking about conspiratorial notions in order to convince themselves that they believe something they don't necessarily believe.

So I have a test I put certain arguments to (albeit, for obvious reasons, only mentally). It's called The Meatgrinder of Truth.

The MOT determines whether the person arguing, say, that the Democrats are a front for alien lizard people, genuinely believes that narrative or has simply convinced himself that he does (or wants to believe it and hopes that by persuading others, he will himself feel more justified in truly believing it, or whatever). Because we are all more careful when something personal is at stake, and because belief tends to be cheap (ht to Pascal), what the MOT does is erase the value of fake belief.

The test is simple: Would the conspiracist place himself in the maw of a giant meat grinder whose gears are activated by the recitation of a falsehood the reciter knows to be false or unlikely--and then utter the thing he "believes"?

The MOT obviously is unquestionable and unchallengeable itself: it can't be accused of bias or corruption because it is, essentially, God as Fleischhacker. And the subject of its test, confronted with the possibility of being reduced to hamburger, should become motivated very quickly to learn to identify his own capacity for self examination and self-preserving doubt.

Expand full comment

I think the part of my brain that makes other people believe in conspiracies is broken. (Hi, other Asperger's/HFA people!) In 11th grade English class, we were asked "Who really killed Jay Gatsby?" I was literally the only person in the class who answered "George Wilson," i.e., the guy who was found dead with a gun next to Gatsby's body, and who believed that Gatsby had killed his wife. Every other kid latched on to one conspiracy theory or another. I believe that in my case, that mental module is instead devoted to cataloguing Star Wars lore. (Star Wars never hurt anyone!)

Expand full comment

This is why we need to engage in black magic to ressurect Hitler twice, once as an adult and once as a child, and convince the adult Hitler to rape and eat the child Hitler so that we can unequivocally have legitimate fully justified hate. If we automate this process and add in recliners with robot arms that feed us grapes whioe in space then we will have fully automated luxury space justified hatred.

(This is not serious, do not ressurect Hitler. Do not take this post seriously. It is a joke).

Expand full comment

There was a question in the survey that I have been thinking about; it nags at me.

It was to do with internal dialogues and asked what grammatical person they took place in.

I have forgotten what I answered but I have been trying to pay attention to it whenever I wander off by myself. (I cycle between you I and we (never they).

YOU was the front runner, and what I realized was that whenever it was something vaguely negative or judgmental at issue YOU ruled. When I was pleased with myself "I" was the preferred form of address. "We" is very special. I would like it to show up more often.

It's always the other guy.

Expand full comment

You just spent 1500 words reinventing the concept of motivated reasoning. Yes, people come up with reasons to justify their emotional stances. This isn't news.

Expand full comment

I think you're right to examine the motivating emotion, but I propose a different one. Everyone I know who fell down the conspiracy rabbit hole derive great entertainment value from it. They especially enjoy saying, "man, you won't believe what's really going on," in a spooky, aloof way, and they love hearing people talk that way to them. It's just very fun to get the kinda of special "insights" your second kind of conspiracy theory offers.

A second motivation is group identity. Pinker points out that people process evidence differently when their paycheque or survival depends on it. Conspiracy theories are likely processed by a different part of the brain, the one that handles mythology and group identity, not eating and surviving bear attacks. It makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective, to believe in wacky conspiracies if it helps make you part of a group.

Expand full comment

Related to Russia: A new study of Russia-based Twitter posts by New York University researchers buries the canard that Russian bots played any significant role in swinging the 2016 election for Donald Trump.


Expand full comment

I never thought the idea that Russia had kompromat on Trump made any sense and it still doesn't. And the Steele dossier was pretty obviously just a collection of wild rumors.

On the other hand I find both the Senate Intelligence Committee's and Mueller's investigative conclusions regarding the 2016 election -- that Russia actively tried to help Trump and hurt Clinton, that multiple Trump campaign staffers including the campaign chair actively tried to coordinate with Russia's efforts, and that Trump was negotiating business deals with the Russian government while running for president -- to be solidly sourced and credible.

Apparently, based on the conversation here, the above means that I have "fallen for Russiagate"? Heh....that's ridiculous but also a bit saddening somehow.

Expand full comment

> 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 think there's more to this than you're letting on.

1. Many years ago I was in a not-very-good romantic relationship with someone who had a tendency to make me feel very self-conscious. One day I found myself feeling worse about the whole thing than ever, and ended up dumping a bunch of my insecurities out on her. The following day, I was still feeling awful, assuming it was from the relationship issues. I left work early, got home… and threw up everything I'd eaten.

And then shortly afterwards I realized I felt a lot better. Much more relaxed. Turns out for the past two days, I'd been eating leftovers of some food that had given me indigestion, but I didn't notice the physical symptoms, or misinterpreted them as the general sort of upset stomach that sometimes comes with anxiety. It was the opposite: being sick had made me anxious. The relationship problems were still there and did end up (much later) leading to us breaking up, but they weren't the only explanation for why I felt especially like shit that day.

2. People going through a manic or hypomanic episode often deny that they have a problem, instead explaining their emotions by saying they've experienced a spiritual awakening of some kind, or fallen desperately in love, or something else like that. I'm sure you've probably seen this in your psychiatry work.

3. Misattribution of arousal is a well-known psychological phenomenon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misattribution_of_arousal

If you're a man, and a pretty lady chats you up on a wobbly suspension bridge, you might subconsciously assume that the excitement you're feeling, those butterflies in your stomach and your pounding heart, are because of her rather than the bridge, and be more responsive when she asks you for your number.

(Caveat: although this is commonly talked about in psychology, I just checked and found it predates the replication crisis, and there seem to have been failures to replicate this research since then, see https://twitter.com/stephen_want/status/1156615935949754368 or https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1980-29578-001. Take it with a bit of a grain of salt I guess.)

The point I'm trying to make is that I think there is something to the idea that people have to create explanations for their own emotions, and that they sometimes get it wrong. Given that, it would make sense that simpler, clearer, and less-embarrassing explanations would be more attractive.

Expand full comment

Not only is the latitude of the great pyramid equal to the speed of light, but PI squared equals the speed of gravitational acceleration on earth (9.8m/s)! Another conspiracy, centuries in the making, by the illuminati, in the setting of measurement units.

Expand full comment

is there a link of this?

woke people trying to shut down schools for gifted people because “believing in merit is racist”

Expand full comment

I feel like the strong undercurrent for those crazier ones is importantly undergirded by racism and anti-semitism. Like, people receive all of this hatred against Jews and POC from their environment and parents and such, but find when they encounter normies there's no convincing way to explain why they hate them so much, so they come up with QAnon and George Soros related conspiracy theories and such. The key point being that the emotions they feel so strongly are received when they're very young and don't care about evidence and logical arguments and such, and the conspiracy theory is the post-hoc Zamboni explanation.

Expand full comment

It's worth pausing on your description of archaeologists aligning loosely with a bit of suppression of evidence of aliens, because archaeologists have a common experience that doesn't require deliberate, intentional coordination.

Of course, I don't think aliens built the pyramids. But I do think Donald Trump was, in some sense, a Russian agent, even if he and those around him didn't specifically think that. I I think he was cultivated and promoted and indirectly funded and aided through a specific Kremlin-run operation. When his campaign was approached by someone credibly claiming to be a conduit to the Kremlin, offering to coordinate the release of illegally obtained documents, his campaign eagerly instructed them on when to release these. (The source of this information is his campaign itself, which publicly released the email exchange.)

Do I think Donald Trump was trained as an FSB agent, and as a mission to destroy America? No, but I do think he was secretly allied with the Kremlin, in a you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours way that he has used throughout his career.

Expand full comment

I posted something in another thread that seems to be relevant here. My definition of anxiety is knowing something to be true but refusing to believe it. I use this framing to guide my internal inquiries. If i am feeling anxiety, then what am I missing?

Expand full comment

This all seems speculative (nothing wrong with that at the hypothesis stage) and it’s a field that has actually been studied a fair bit so I’m just going to inject some peer-reviewed research. This is literally just the first link I got from Google, so I have no special knowledge here.


Expand full comment

Your antepenultimate Graf, "if only" echos a line from Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I've always found this observation powerful, as is yours.

Expand full comment

I am eternally thankful to you for regularly injecting thoughfulness and clarity into my life, and those of thousands others.

The whole post was wonderful. But this paragraph, tangetial though to the central point, hit something deep -

" (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) "

Expand full comment

I was interested in your account of having fallen for the Trump-Russiagate conspiracy theory - and also your characterization of it as binary (either Trump was in the pay of the Russians or he wasn't). I wouldn't view it as binary in that sense - there are a lot of ways to coordinate and accept influence that don't include literal suitcases of cash.

Is your view of Trump-Russiagate affected at all by the recent news that Charles McGonigal, an FBI manager involved in the Russiagate investigation, has recently been indicted for having worked with and taken money from Oleg Deripaska? https://www.newsweek.com/charles-mcgonigal-trump-russia-2016-investigation-muller-1776049

Expand full comment

Tl;Dr -- cognitive dissonance is super powerful

Expand full comment

I think there is a good amount of confusion around the concept of a conspiracy theory. Calling every outlandish theory a conspiracy theory keeps us from understanding what a conspiracy theory is and the psychology behind such theories.

For a theory to be a "conspiracy theory", there has to be some conspiring in it. Alien stories made up about how pyramids are built are not conspiracy theories because they are just poor explanations for something that looks otherwise inexplicable--aliens are not conspiring against anyone. Also, belief in them can heavily involve beliefs about "knowing what others do not know", which I feel are connected to narcissistic feelings that are typical among believers in bullshit.

What you call "conspiracies of emotion", on the other hand, are actual conspiracy theories because they involve, for example, Trump conspiring against the US or the global elite conspiring against ordinary citizens. They can also be driven by a lack of good or easy explanations for some phenomena: For example, many Turks do not understand why the US keeps supporting PKK-ally Kurdish militia in Syria. Given the difficulty of digging deeper into the intricacies of international relations to understand the reasons, Turks often swiftly reach the seemingly easiest conclusion: The US is conspiring against Turkey because a stable Turkey would pose a threat to Israel (a considerable amount of Turks believe Israel rules the US) or some other US interests in the region. The real explanation is perhaps much more complex than just the US being mean to Turkey--I assume it involves keeping the power balances in the region, keeping a NATO ally away from facing Russia and Iran on the battlefield, logistical solutions etc.

In conclusion, I think the overarching category here should be "bullshit theories" rather than conspiracy theories. Every bullshit theory may have some cognitive and affective background, and a specific subset of those bullshit theories are conspiracy theories. Of course, I also need to add that some conspiracy theories are built on a well-established evidential basis and true.

PS: I recommend everyone to read "van Prooijen, J. W., & Van Vugt, M. (2018). Conspiracy theories: Evolved functions and psychological mechanisms. Perspectives on psychological science, 13(6), 770-788." It is an excellent paper on the psychology of conspiracy theories.

Expand full comment

Damn. I'm way late to the party. Whatever.

I think humans mostly behave—or react—based on emotions, which often turn to irrational actions and thoughts.

Expand full comment