(Crystal A. Proxmire, 01/15/2012)
Conspiracy theories have existed for as long as society has. Secret societies have sprung up through history with groups like the Free Masons, the Knights of Columbus, and the Bavarian Illuminati being thought to have completed secret missions and quests for power. Historically, fears between tribes, countries, and religious groups have bred distrust and rumors of secret plots.
On Jan. 4, 2012 the Ferndale Public Library and the Friends of the Ferndale Public Library presented their third lecture in their Meet the Professor Series. Over 30 attendees listened as Mark Huston, PhD, of Schoolcraft College talked about conspiracy theories, their history and the reasons they exist.
America the Conspirator.
America’s obsession with conspiracy theories has risen in the past century.
“Up until World War I most people worried that an outside force would come in. According to Kathryn Olmsted, it changed in World War I because people saw how powerful the government was and they assumed that outside forces must have already infiltrated and were now in our government,” Huston said.
The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, which gave the United States entrance into World War II, is often under speculation by conspiracy theorists, and certain events over the following decades only fueled distrust of the government, particularly agencies like the CIA and the FBI. Some actual conspiracies include the horrid medical experiments done on US Soldiers in the Tuskee experiments, the spying done by the Nixon administration known as the Watergate Scandal, and Operation Northwoods, during which the CIA considered various plots including creating an attack on Americans and blaming it on Cuba.
Other popular conspiracy theories surround the assignations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King as well as Area 51 and the belief that aliens or alien technology are housed there, plots by groups like the Illuminati to acquire world power, and the idea that airplanes spread chemical trails to poison Americans.
Conspiracy Begins at Home.
There was even a nationally-recognized theory network called “A-Albionic,” which Huston discovered in Peter Knight’s “Conspiracy Theories in American History, Volume 1.” A-Albionic describes themselves as “a private network of researchers dedicated to the identifying the nature of the ruling class/ conspiracy.” Their website (http://a-albionic.com) offers much discussion on conspiracies, and the overall premise of the group is best described by Robert Anton Wilson’s account:
“The most plausible of the multiconspiracy theories–i.e., those scenarios
that do not claim that one super secret criminal gang rules this planet, but
rather that at least two such “gangs” exist, at war with each other–comes
forth from an outfit styling itself A-Albionic Consulting and Research, in
‘A-Albionic began in 1985 with a common or garden-variety uniconspiracy
theory, blaming everything on the British royal family–rather like Lyndon
LaRouche, who may have served as their original inspiration. In 1989,
however, A-Albionic revised their model of the world (yes, they actually use the
scientific word “model” and show other signs of some technical education). The post-1989. A-Albionic scenario holds that, in their own words (capitals included), “The
Overt and Covert Organs of the Vatican and the British Empire are Locked in
Mortal Combat for Control of the World.”
The Psychology of Conspiracy.
Because conspiracies have happened, it is easier for people to believe that others, like those listed above, are possible.
But even apart from the evidence of past plotting, there are some strong psychological factors that influence people when they begin to think of conspiracies. While not everyone may understand why someone would think that aliens have taken over the bodies of government officials, or why tinfoil hats will keep the CIA from doing mind control, it may be easier to start with a more commonly accepted, yet completely unproven, belief: “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Why do people say that?” Huston asked. The answer is because having an explanation for things gives humans comfort and a sense of control over events that just happen – either by nature (tsunamis, earthquake), or by human nature (assassination, war, torture).
Huston said that conspiracy theories increase following large traumatic events, such as the attacks which occurred on Sep. 11, 2001 where the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC were attacked. US officials blamed the attack on Middle Eastern terrorists, but polls show that many Americans believe their own government did it, or at least knew about it.
“Knowing ‘what really happened’ and being able to share that information with others gives people a sense of control. It also gives them something to do,” he said. Conspiracy theorists share their knowledge with others as a way of fighting the unsettling thoughts and feelings after a traumatic event. It gives them comfort and intimacy among others who have similar beliefs.
Pattern recognition is also a part of why conspiracy theories are a great psychological band-aid. The human brain thrives on learning and making connections. “Finding patterns feels good. People get dopamine when they discover patterns, and studies show that people seek patterns more when they’re in emotional distress.”
While they typically start as tools for explanation, conspiracy theories can be harmful. They can polarize opinions and increase tension between groups. They can perpetuate racism and cause even more emotionally and psychological distress than the triggering events did – and spread those negative feelings to others.
Huston’s motives for talking about Conspiracy Theories are really not so secret. “I hope people came to appreciate the variety of theories out there as well as the influence they have, especially at the political level. One main point being that even unwarranted conspiracy theories can play a serious role in how people act individually and at the political level,” he said. “From an academic standpoint, I started using conspiracy theories in my logic class to help students understand the nature of explanation and proper theorizing.”
Huston originally became interested in conspiracy theories through literature. “Three books that really hooked me were “The Illuminatus Trilogy” by Robert Anton Wilson, “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon, and “Mumbo Jumbo” by Ishmael Reed,” he said. He regularly gives presentations at the Plymouth Public Library, and said he is glad to speak in Ferndale because that’s where he lives.
Lots to Learn at the Library
The Ferndale Public Library’s Meet the Professor Series started as an idea by the Friends of the Ferndale Library, and it features teachers from local colleges talking about a variety of subjects. Kevin Deegan-Krause gave the first talk about political apathy, and Brad Roth talked about Pearl Harbor in December. Coming up in 2012 there will be discussions on Wrongful Convictions (Feb.), Russian Elections (Mar.), and the Pacific War (Apr.).