Thank you, that was a good concise introduction to a topic that's important at the moment. While conspiratorial thinking may not be increasing, it's quite important at a time when we really need to a lot of social cooperation and common good action to beat a pandemic.

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Aug 17, 2021Liked by Clayton Mansel

This is such an interesting perspective on why people believe conspiracies! Personally, I'm fascinated by conspiracy theories - not in the sense that I actually believe them, but in terms of engaging with another perspective on the world. I feel like intellectually engaging with conspiracy theories, while it can quickly disprove them, can be a great way to develop skills in debate and questioning things you perceive to be universally true.

I used to listen to a comedy/conspiracy podcast in which the host would invite someone to come on the podcast, present a conspiracy, and she would give it two ratings: 'want to believe' and 'do believe'. Basically evaluating how much more interesting and exciting the world would be if their conspiracy was true, and how much she actually believes it based on the evidence they gave her.

This is obviously very different to the types of conspiracies that incite racism, homophobia, or concerning levels of distrust in scientific experts - it's more 'Tom Brady is a cyborg' than 'the holocaust never happened and climate change isn't real'. I think this is one of the reasons that flat earth is so frequently discussed ironically by people who don't believe it. It's not true, but it's so wild and interesting that it's fun to engage with and think about the practicalities of what this would mean. Are we surrounded by a giant ice wall? Do we fall off the edge? How on earth has this information been covered up? At the end of the day, does it really matter if the earth is flat (in terms of our day to day life)? In this sense, it allows me to think more creatively and consider what the world would be like if I suspended my belief of a particular fact.

Also, while conspiracy theories can be harmful, a handful of them have been revealed to be true (i.e. MKUltra being covered up for 20 years). It might sound controversial, but I think there's a place for conspiracy theories provided that you aren't drastically changing your life to accommodate it, hurting people, or denying decades of scientific research. We should be encouraged to question things (to a certain extent).

I know that this kind of creative or ironic engagement with conspiracies isn't what you're discussing here, but it's something I think about a lot. I often wonder what the ratio is of people who actually believe conspiracies, to those who are writing or talking about it from a speculative viewpoint.

Sorry for the rambling comment! But thanks again for another great newsletter :)

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That is a good point about flat Earth theory -- I hadn't considered how conspiracy theories are perpetuated by people who DONT believe them but think they are entertaining enough to talk about them!

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What is a conspiracy? "1. An agreement between two or more people to commit a crime.

2. The act of conspiring together to an unlawful end. Origin: 1325-1375 Middle English Source: https://legaldictionary.net.

Of course, one can find many other definitions, but those are relatively common elements. And judging from the 1350 time-frame, and the tons of laws on the books of probably every nation on earth, the conspiracy topic has been around for a long time. I would therefore posit that some conspiracies do actually exist.

And I am positive that any science trained individual would attest that theories actually exist.

Identifying conspiracies is a regular task of the FBI and other initialized federal and state agencies. That is considered good.

The problem comes when we combine the terms. Suddenly having a theory about conspiracy and potential conspirators is a sign of mental derangement. Oops, better lock up those agents investigating the Mafia because they are conspiracy theorists.

Who determines that a theory is a "conspiracy theory"? That seems like an important piece of the puzzle missing in the discussion.

It seems to me that most often it is politicians (and their media mouthpieces) defining such matters. And, wonder of wonders, it always turns out that it is members of the other political party who are deluded into believing conspiracy theories.

Perhaps if there was more transparent information on all theories and intelligent, reasoned discussion thereof, we could let go of the pejorative "conspiracy". Then we could examine theories on the basis of a continuum of 'little known corroboration' to 'a preponderance of supporting evidence' on any given theory.

Or we can just sit back and let the political class tell us, "Move on, nothing to see here."

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