I wrote, recently, about a dress that appeared to be blue and black to some people but gold and white to others. (Blog 7/17/2015) Initially, the cause for the difference in perception was charged to how light waves hit the retina. But, not so fast. Other researchers suspect the difference is based on the assumption the brain makes about the light source, whether it’s direct sunlight or the reflection off a blue sky. In other words, we interpret the dress’s color depending upon what our brain brings to the table. Like the theme of my novel, Trompe l’Oeil, reality seems to be a construct of the mind’s interaction with the external world.
The brain’s assumptions also explain why some people are more prone to conspiracy theories than others. A few of my friends are so afflicted, they see a government plot in the falling of a leaf. I listen to their theories, patiently, nod and then turn back to my mundane life. Some folks, I guess, need an adrenalin high which makes them certain evil is “out there,” somewhere.
Of course, no one with an ounce of sanity would deny the presence of evil. This morning I read about the wholesale murder of destitute children in Brazil; the bludgeoning to death of a 13-year old boy accused of stealing in Pakistan; and a series of random shootings that killed one woman in San Francisco. (The Week, July 24, 2015, pg. s 6, 7, 14.) The world, including its geology, is a violent place. But conspiracies are hard to create, harder to pull off and harder, still, to keep secret. Edward Snowden and other whistle blowers are evidence of that.
So why do conspiracy theories abound? Science’s conclusion is that, like the dress of differing colors, conspiracies are a consequence of the way the brain operates. To help us survive, it looks for patterns. Patterns are a way of organizing information and making comparisons. Without patterns, we’d be paralyzed by a blur of information with no way to process it. In addition, “We all have a natural inclination to give more weight to evidence that supports what we already believe and ignore evidence that contradicts our belief.” (“Ask the Brains,” by Christopher Finch, Scientific American Mind, July/August, 2015 pg. 72.) The debate on climate change is a classic example of how minds can weigh the same evidence yet draw different conclusions. Lastly, we suffer from a “proportionality bias.” (Ibid. pg. 72) We want to believe that big events have big causes. Theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will never die because it’s difficult to believe one man with one gun took down the leader of the United States.
Not all conspiracies are false, of course. The Libor scandal is a good example of how key banks conspired to manipulate interest rates. (Click) Nonetheless, some people gravitate to such theories faster than others. Science has no explanation for the difference except to state the obvious: “some individuals tend to find such theories attractive,” (Ibid pg. 72)
Like writer Carol Anshaw, I’m a firm believer in one conspiracy theory, at least: I’m never sure who I’m writing for, or who’s reading me, but I definitely see myself in a conspiracy with my readers.