Am I a Conspiracy Theory Crackpot?

Carl slots conspiracy theorists as lonely losers looking for an affinity group. As a comment I offered my own conspiracy theory: Trump and associates are plotting a herd immunity strategy. After a week of waiting for a reply I’ve tentatively hypothesized from his silence that Carl is in on the fix, not unlike the space aliens who don’t reply to SETI pings as they hatch their insidious plots of invasion. So I figured I had better move my elaborations over here to my own safe space.

Here’s a 2017 article reviewing the psychology of conspiracy theory — I reference it throughout the post.

As well as their purely epistemic purposes, causal explanations serve the need for people to feel safe and secure in their environment and to exert control over the environment as autonomous individuals and as members of collectives. Several early theories of conspiracy belief suggested that people turn to conspiracy theories for compensatory satisfaction when these needs are threatened.

At an abstract level, I’m looking for an explanation — a way of embedding observations in a context of meaning. A meaningful explanation can’t be read directly off the evidence; it must be inferred, operating beneath the surface and behind the curtain. When trying to arrive at a meaningful explanation of observable human behavior, I look for intent, for a purposeful activation of specific cause-effect cascades that achieve the individual’s ends.

Purposeful intent might not be accessible to the agent under observation; it might be operating beneath the surface and behind the curtain of their own self-awareness. Alternatively, hiding their motivations and intentions from observers might be integral to the agent’s purposes. That’s where conspiracy theory comes in.

In general, empirically warranted (vs. speculative), parsimonious (vs. complex), and falsifiable explanations are stronger according to normative standards of causal explanation.

Agreed. But, as the authors acknowledge, conspirators seek to hide the evidence, distracting observers with seemingly simple explanations while also precluding falsification with bucketsful of red herrings strewn along garden paths. And it must be conceded that there are situations in which a conspiracy offers the most concise explanation for the facts on the ground.

Studies have shown that people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious and feel powerless. Other research indicates that conspiracy belief is strongly related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psychological empowerment

I acknowledge that with respect to the pandemic I am vulnerable and impotent, potentially amping my motivation for finding someone to blame.

Conspiracy theories may promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy individuals are recognized and the threat they posed is reduced or neutralized…

I also acknowledge a longstanding personal mistrust of Trump. He lies, a lot. He’s been accused of other conspiracies, with the accusations supported by what many who’ve investigated the cases regard as a preponderance of the evidence. Would I feel greater control over Trump if I could see through his charades? Would I feel safer upon realizing that a powerful cadre really is out to get me?

…Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this motivation. On the contrary, experimental exposure to conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress people’s sense of autonomy and control…

Like I said.

These same studies have also shown that it makes people less inclined to take actions that, in the long run, might boost their autonomy and control. Specifically, they are less inclined to commit to their organizations and to engage in mainstream political processes such as voting and party politics.

If I believed that Trump wanted me as a casualty of his race-purifying, herd-culling project, would I be less likely to do social distancing and sheltering at home? No, I don’t think so. Would I be less likely to vote against Trump? No, not that either, even though I recognize that voting offers only an illusion of personal autonomy and control.

Conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction.

The pandemic is fraught with uncertainty. My series of posts have focused on the uncertainties, attempting not to arrive at precise truth but to narrow the confidence intervals. Trump spawns uncertainty and contradiction: his actions and utterances can be subjected to systematic procedures for separating signal from noise.

The epistemic drawbacks of conspiracy theories do not seem to be readily apparent to people who lack the ability or motivation to think critically and rationally. Conspiracy belief is correlated with lower levels of analytic thinking and lower levels of education…

Do I see a drawback in identifying a Trumpian conspiracy for achieving herd immunity? Sure I do. Things would surely go worse for those of us most vulnerable to the virus if we’re specifically targeted for removal in pursuit of national purity and strength of the Fatherland, rather than merely being added to the body count as collateral damage in an attempt to juice the economy and hence Trump’s prospects for reelection.

…It is also associated with the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events and the tendency to perceive agency and intentionality where it does not exist.

I don’t regard myself as susceptible to the conjunction fallacy: I don’t think that Republican crooks are more prevalent than crooks full stop. I am, however, captivated by synchronicities — the improbable conjunction of seemingly independent events. We need to think of ourselves as warriors AND we need to open our country up — when Trump strings together two seemingly contradictory ideas in the same sentence, I’m more likely to find a way to fit them together than to dismiss one or both as empty sloganeering. And I am a sortilege enthusiast, as evidenced in my relying on a random number generator to select the short stories I’ve read and interacted with on this website. Do I interpret these convergences as revelations, or as raw materials for constructing meaning? Hmm… can I say both?

Experimental results suggest that experiences of ostracism cause people to believe in superstitions and conspiracy theories, apparently as part of an effort to make sense of their experience. Members of groups who have objectively low (vs. high) status because of their ethnicity or income are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories. People on the losing (vs. winning) side of political processes also appear more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Conspiracy belief has also been linked to prejudice against powerful groups (Imhoff & Bruder, 2014) and those perceived as enemies. These findings suggest that conspiracy theories may be recruited defensively, to relieve the self or in-group from a sense of culpability for their disadvantaged position.

At last we get to Carl’s loser affinity theory. In coronaworld I’m decidedly of lower status: older, more likely to incur heavy medical expenses without contributing proportionately to the GDP. And I certainly was on the losing side of the 2016 presidential election. Am I looking to justify my societal value by positioning myself as a victim of the powerful ingroup? Sure.

In keeping with this defensive motivation, conspiracy belief is associated with narcissism—an inflated view of oneself that requires external validation and is linked to paranoid ideation.

Well I have been talking a lot about me in this post…

Conspiracy belief is also predicted by collective narcissism—a belief in the in-group’s greatness paired with a belief that other people do not appreciate it enough.

Older is better? Nah. I do believe that the Democrats stand on higher ethical and political ground than the Republicans. Maybe that makes me more prone to attribute evil intent when mere incompetence is to blame.

Experiments show that exposure to conspiracy theories decreases trust in governmental institutions, even if the conspiracy theories are unrelated to those institutions. It also causes disenchantment with politicians and scientists. So far, therefore, empirical research suggests that conspiracy theories serve to erode social capital and may, if anything, frustrate people’s need to see themselves as valuable members of morally decent collectives.

Trump sounds like a prototypical conspiracy theorist. The virus is a conspiracy of the Chinese; high infection rates and body counts and lockdown defenses are a conspiracy of the left. Does he truly believe these crackpot theories? Or are they part of his own conspiracy — acts of verbal legerdemain intended to throw his enemies off the track and under the trolley, techniques for replacing evidence with wild speculation and faith in his authority, ways of neutralizing dissent and consolidating power?

Maybe that’s the real conspiracy here: Trump feigns a conspiracy of herd immunity in order to alienate me from government and to deplete my social capital and self-worth. That unscrupulous bastard!








11 thoughts on “Am I a Conspiracy Theory Crackpot?

  1. I’ve noticed with conspiracy theorist a breakdown in causality checks. Information which counters their specific theory however obvious is ignored. They are so keen on following the course of the action of their particular ball that they fail to notice the man in the gorilla costume. The excess deaths are denied because that does not fit with the ‘plandemic’. The other thing is the failure to distinguish between conspiracy and convergence of interests.

    Rene Girard whose Le Bouc Emmisaire I’m reading now has it that the scapegoat emerges at the early stages of ‘the scourge’. Who did we send out to stay the epidemic?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Send out those who can’t afford to stay home as well as those who can’t afford not to, championed neither by capital nor by labor in the mounting mutual antagonism of plateaued deadlock, the wave washing the nations clean of the refuse.


  3. From yesterday’s Vox, a synopsis of Jake Tapper’s interview of Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services:

    When Tapper initially asked Azar to explain why the virus is “worse for us than it is for anyone else,” referring to the number of Americans who are dead, Azar first responded by pointing out that the US’s mortality rate as a percentage of reported cases was not exceptionally high. But when Tapper pressed him further, and emphasized that the overall number of deaths in the US is the highest in the world, Azar said this could be explained by ethnic demographics. “Unfortunately the American population is a very diverse, and, it is, it is a population with significant unhealthy comorbidities that do make many individuals in our communities, in particular African American, minority communities, particularly at risk here, because of significant underlying disease, health disparities, and disease comorbidities,” Azar said.

    Azar is right that public health inequities are contributing to disproportionate casualties among communities of color. But pointing to that as the primary reason the US has surpassed every other country in the world in terms of coronavirus-related deaths is a troubling dodge: it seems to imply that racial minorities are to blame for their deaths rather than the federal government. The more immediate and larger explanation for the US’s exceptional number of deaths is the disorganized and anti-scientific response by the federal government to the pandemic.”

    As of today, May 17, 91,000 people have died of the virus in the US. Here’s the end of my post from April 9, when the total US body count was 21,000:

    A Harvard white paper proposes the creation of a new national agency to take charge of viral containment: “Throughout the periods of quarantine, individuals who can be tested serologically and shown to have immunity would be exempt from quarantine as soon as they have immunity and on condition that they deploy in the Medical Reserve Corps, a group of volunteers overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services that supports pandemic services “including surveillance, vaccination, mitigation measures, communications, and education.”

    The Secretary of HHS is Alex Azar, appointed by Trump just over a year ago; before that he was CEO for Eli Lilly. Big drug companies like Lilly deploy thousands of representatives across the land, tasked with schmoozing with doctors and hospital execs in efforts to increase sales. Azar is a lawyer by training and a sales guy by inclination. He’s not an ops guy or a science guy. Still, it’s conceivable that Azar could use his big-pharma experience to hire the right people, getting a Medical Reserve Corps up and running in short order. Serologic testing for antibodies is already underway, so it might be possible to find enough already-immune workers to staff the Corps.

    Would Trump authorize this sort of aggressively proactive, systematic effort to stay ahead of the next wave? Or would he take a half-assed stab at it, blame everyone but himself for failure, then fall back into “surrender” mode, letting the virus run its course, killing a couple of million people, before declaring victory in time for the November elections?

    Now we know. Newspeak: Surrender is Victory.


  4. I like all of this and I find it consistent with what I said. I’m not sure I’d characterize my analysis as loser affinity theory, unless we’re all losers. I located conspiracy theory squarely within the ordinary dynamics of self and identity formation and maintenance, as your source here does. A spectrum disorder, perhaps. I think we both explain passably well how the connections drift askew.

    Still I’m sorry, very sorry, to miss the ping. In the first instance it takes a special mood for me to be interested in talking about Trump and his doings at all. He doesn’t work for me as a scheming supervillain, he’s just a loud and swiftly boring schmuck who excites the passions of other loud and swiftly boring schmucks. That’s in itself really important and worth talking about of course, but as I said it takes a special mood. More generally, WordPress on a smartphone is not a conversation friendly experience, and this being summer this is the first time I’ve checked in on the laptop in quite awhile. For better or worse (mostly worse) I’m doing most of my conversational social mediating on Facebook these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Carl.

      I woke up at 4am resenting your reply, feeling alienated and isolated and thoroughly dismissed. To quote your post: “It may be that for some people sometimes, somewheres, the mismatch between their pings and the available echoes is profoundly alienating.” In the light of day — well actually it’s still dark as I write — I see the nuance and the acknowledgment on your part of a kind of alienation of your own from certain topics, media, discussions… I also see areas of possible exploration on substance, but I’ll leave them be. Instead I’ll go for history…

      When on May 9 I commented on your conspiracy post, I had just written my 23rd corona post. Introducing a covid conspiracy seemed a bridge that might support some traffic between your agenda and mine. McCreery had tossed in a comment citing some org psych topic; you asked him to elaborate; he didn’t. I expected that there had been quite a bit of psych research on conspiracy, so writing a post gave me an excuse to explore some of that work and to elaborate on it for my own benefit and potentially for yours as well.

      The “lonely losers looking for an affinity group” was triggered by the last line of your post: “Although this feedback loop is likely to be identity and community defining, it’s not in the first instance about ‘believing’ the conspiracy theory at all.” Implicitly I was disputing that claim in my post. I wasn’t looking for identity or community; I was looking for an explanation as to why the US hadn’t been doing more to shut down the epidemic, to which as a 65+ year old man I’m particularly vulnerable. And I certainly don’t regard my persistent search for understanding as a symptom of a personality disorder — though I suppose my failure to recognize it as such might itself be an Asperger marker, or perhaps paranoia or OCD. That’s what they used to call blaming the victim back in the antipsychiatry heyday.

      When after a week went by with no response to my comment, I wrote this post hoping that, in linking it would generate a “pingback” back at your place, which I thought would be cute in context. Sadly, your post called my link a “trackback.”

      Since May 9 I’ve written 36 more coronaposts, including this one. Since May 9th the US corona body count as increased by more than 53 thousand.


      1. Thanks, John. There are always so many things one might say, and so many ways it might go wrong. I saw someone use the phrase “translational friction” earlier today and it really resonated. Again you can see why people get anxious and attempt to construct epistemological silos. With you I just lean into a deep and permanent simpatico.

        Also, I’m a cat and react badly to being interpellated into other critters’ projects. Dead voles and all that.

        As to a fraction of the substance, I’ve come to the position that any question taking the form “why didn’t we / they [act decisively and effectively according to an accurate and rigorously reflective understanding of the situation] is badly formed, and dissolved by an accurate and rigorously reflective understanding of the situation — which, if we’re asking the question, is complex. Complexity doesn’t yield engineering solutions, but uncertainty and risk distributions with long, awful tails. Even reading all your stuff and a lot more like it, I don’t feel any confidence I know what ‘the right’ approach would be. There are dilemmas. Eventually Grant just got ruthless and used his weight to pound the Confederate armies into pulp. This was objectively horrifying, but so were slavery and the war itself, and it ‘worked’. Until Reconstruction, anyway. This way of looking at things is itself a tail phenomenon. I’m constantly reminded that persistently searching for understanding is expensive, with low investment and poor payoff. Under complex conditions of radical uncertainly “beliefs” of various kinds work better as risk absorbing and distributing approximations.

        So I think New Zealand requires special efforts of explanation, because it’s a system at a scale we should expect not to coordinate easily or effectively. And it turns out they’re an outlier in multiple dimensions. The US is much easier, in broad outline: loosely coupled evolutionary systems respond to threats with chaotic scatter. Letting the phages take their cut is ecosystem dynamics 101.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the reply, Carl. You and I have been around the block together enough times for me to recognize at least the broad contours of your position on complex systems and self-organization and nonlinear causality. And I think you get my enthusiasm for multivariate interactions and probabilities and confidence intervals hedging in the uncertainties.

        To be clear, I don’t believe that Trump is smart or powerful enough to pull off a herd immunity conspiracy. Nonetheless, the US has done remarkably badly at containing the epidemic. Granted, NZ is one small success story where the virus never even got a foothold. But then there’s Germany, South Korea, France, Italy, Spain… lots of countries have brought the tidal wave down to a trickle. Various engineering solutions to the problem aren’t all that difficult either to think up or to implement: just stay the fuck home for a month, ‘kay? Not that complex, and it does seem to work… elsewhere.

        All the data capture and modeling efforts, interesting though they may in their own right to some of us nerds, don’t really add a whole lot to what needs to be done. What ecosystemic features have come into play to make the US fail so disastrously where other countries have eventually succeeded? Surely Trump is one factor militating against mitigation, but there’s plenty of deplorables out there who’d rather live free and die, among other flies in the ointment. And of course it remains to be seen how Europe survives tourist season, even with their wall to keep Americans out.


  5. Yes, for sure. Well for one thing we have to specify the parameters of success. So if we start with an ecosystem default we don’t need Trump to be smart or powerful at all, we just expect him to go with the flow. And at that point, the ‘success’ scenario is the fire that burns out the underbrush and dead wood. This is just routinely what happens when systems reach tipping points of overcorrelation and carrying capacity. We’ve learned that fire suppression is a very, very bad land management strategy. So at just one step of reflection the costs of preserving the surplus and deadfall look ruinous, and compounding. Flatten the curve a bit to manage the catastrophic tail risk but otherwise let nature take its course.

    As to more aggressive and intentional engineering, it helps with the Italians that their economy is always already permanently fucked, and with Germany that they’re German. It helps in all cases but the US that they’re not the US, which depends existentially on perilous overcorrelation with the global economy. This means the network effects of any nation level economy-facing policy are amplified and reflected in ways even Germany doesn’t have to worry about, and China manages by brute authoritarian force. If there’s one sort of amazingly bold play the Trump regime is making, it’s trying to disengage from that correlation in many dimensions without losing the wealth and power that accrue from it.

    It’s also starting to look like the ‘successful’ countries are in for big second waves as they open back up. Since they can’t not open up eventually, and some of the pressures are very strong to do it sooner than later (who knew schools were essential to our social and economic order in so many dimensions), you start to wonder about the opportunity costs of more severe lockdowns.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your analysis is a cogent one, and likely an accurate one as well. Shelter at home, social distance, masks, contact tracing — there’s a set of interventions engineered to slow or stop the contagion, and that have in fact reduced infections and deaths to varying degrees in various places. And the effectiveness of those interventions are affected for better or worse by systemic intervening variables like economics and societal norms and politics. Could we have predicted that the US would have a harder time slowing the epidemic than some of these other countries? Probably. Could anything else have been done about it? Hard to say.

      Shifting back to the original topic, is conspiracy a plausible intervening variable, in which some powerful figures secretly manipulate the system in order to undermine the interventions and accelerate the contagion? It’s certainly worth considering, and not just by paranoiacs. One wants to believe that a guy like Trump, a world leader who has actively undermined sociopolitical consensus on treating the virus with the seriousness it deserves, is himself a serious person, an intentional agent making rational and informed decisions in accord with some agenda that might not be obvious to those of us being manipulated. It’s also plausible that, based on prior experience, Trump acts erratically and irrationally in order to advance some far more narcissistic personal agenda, or merely because he’s just not that much of a stable genius.

      Sweden is the only country I know of that intentionally went for herd immunity. I guess the UK did too, sort of. Even if the Euro countries experience a second wave, they managed to quell the first one, reducing the cumulative damage already incurred and slowing the climb of the next wave. I wish we’d done as well. So many deaths…


      1. World hunger? Man, that’s a low blow. I think I got troubles because I gotta rely on somebody else to pick my groceries off the shelves for me, ’cause it’s for damn sure I’m not going in there. But yeah, this is a whole ‘nother set of variables. In passing I’ve noted that in the US the economic underclasses are the most vulnerable, including essential workers as well as old people living in, and staff working at, for-profit, understaffed, poorly managed nursing homes. And I’m pretty sure that neither the Dems nor the Reps, neither the urbans nor the rurals, take starvation in Yemen or Congo into account in their responses to the virus.

        At your place we discussed how the 2007-8 recession revealed that money is a kind of fake news, created out of thin air by central banks and governments. Wall Street is nearly back to where it was in February before the shit hit the fan. I suppose the advantage of war-ravaged, plagued countries like Yemen and Republic of Congo is that their median age is around 20, which means the direct health impact of corona on the populace will be minimal. It’s not going to be the shortage of food but the disruption in supply chains and the capitalist markups that’ll bring the hunger.

        Meanwhile the Guardian wants me to register before letting me read the article, and I’ve got other fish to fry. Steam actually — I’m making a fish and shrimp soup with fennel and crispy polenta “croutons.”


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