Someone should tell you,
They own the CIA and the IRS
They tell us where to shop and how to dress
They own the workers, they own the boss
They know what’s in the secret sauce
They own the drugs, they own the narcs
We all know they own Dick Clark
They own it all, they own everything
They write the songs that make the whole world sing
(“Conspiracy Song”, Dead Milkmen)
Psychologists, when you can tear them away from their rat mazes, undergraduate surveys, and cocaine, often find a high positive correlation between indulgence in conspiracy theories and belief in the paranormal, attributing this to a common pathology which they label a “reality-testing deficit”, or more politely, a “failure to subject individual explanations of sensory experience to critical evaluation” (Drinkwater, 2012). This amounts to saying, from the safety of jargon and the unfortunate fact that dueling is currently illegal, that if you are foolish enough to suggest that we’re fighting a secret war with aliens in Antarctica, we faked the Moon landing, the Curiosity Rover is having high tea with Tau Cetians at a Martian bistro, or that god forbid, Oswald didn’t act alone, the most parsimonious explanation is that you are mad as a hatter. The more personable skeptic will at best warn you not to attribute anything to conspiracy that can more easily be attributed to incompetence, but this is still an albeit friendlier version of pointing out that you are seeing things that aren’t there or overlaying an organized structure on common stupidity. One might reasonably argue that our species has a love-hate relationship with both the anomalies of the universe and the notion of conspiracy, rooted in a seemingly irreconcilable tension between a visceral loathing of unpredictability and an equally heartfelt fear of organization. Do you suspect the world is a little more complicated than our current scientific gospel allows for? Do you think there are others with similar suspicions? Well, if there are, they are certainly a quiet bunch, leading the impassioned inquirer into strange phenomena to wonder if the deafening silence of most of humanity, who nonetheless seem perfectly willing to believe in imaginary friends in the sky and eternal rewards (including unlimited harp budgets, direct and continuous stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers, not to mention accessible virgins) for following the correct theological protocols, suggests a particularly good reason for being cautious, or alternatively, active suppression. Insanity is a confounding variable when in fact it seems that the common ground between the conspiracy theorist and the anomalist is actually a puzzlement over the relative disinterest in and alarmingly active disdain for our world of ubiquitous weirdness.
The universe is a strange place, filled with coincidence, synchronicity, and the repeated occurrence of the implausible, if not the impossible. Our understanding of that ghostly mélange we call consciousness is fragmentary and unsatisfying. We like to think there is greater meaning to why we are here over and above reproduction (or reproduction of the means of production, should you have “commie pinko” inclinations), but the suggestion that we are some sort of clockwork automaton, simply fulfilling a predetermined plan (be it divine or genetic) rubs us the wrong way. We want to believe that our reality is predictable, but are deathly afraid that this is so. We want to believe that our little lives have a transcendental significance, but worry that the meaning of it all isn’t embedded in a philosophy that we would advocate. Reality isn’t a tension between what is and isn’t, it is a dynamic between fears, fear that it’s meaningless, and fear that it is not. When the Air Force tells us that UFO’s are instances of swamp gas or meteorological misidentification, most sober individuals recognize that this is a dodge, but blandly accept such a statement because (a) they don’t particularly care whether such things happen, and (b) an explanation, any explanation, that allows us to avoid the unresolved dichotomy between fear of unpredictability and fear of predictability is palatable. Yet, the savvy anomalist, no less subject to the same fears, knows that there is something wrong with this interpretation. Thus, the narrative becomes one of conspiracy, a story arc that conveniently sidesteps any conclusion about reality, instead interpreting the truth as “hidden”, regardless of what that truth might be.
There are few among us that can successfully reconcile our world as it is, with the way we think the world should be. It’s disingenuous to label some 200,000 years of human history as largely “barbaric” and steeped in ignorance (“brutish and short” is not synonymous with unaware), when ever since we could paint a cave wall, we have been depicting the presence of the unnatural, invisible, uncanny, and unexplained as a fundamental component of our existence. Conspiracy is everywhere, and it always fails, since the conspiracy is not of them against us, rather a cabal to defend ourselves from ourselves. A conspiracy is nothing more than our noting the fact that the inconceivable transpired, yet we were mostly willing to ignore it. And as with all conspiracies, shining a light in the dark recesses of our fears, sends those fears scampering further into the shadows, to find another conspiracy to partake in. Every conspiracy you can imagine has been true at one time or another because all the theorists were remarking upon (no matter how firmly they maintain that the Illuminati, or the Nine Wise Men of Ashoka, or the Reptilians are the responsible party) is the incongruous nature of what occurs, with what we wish to believe. Umberto Eco once said, “Conspiracies do exist. Probably in this moment in New York there is an economic group making a conspiracy in order to buy three banks. But if they succeed, they are immediately discovered”, highlighting the fact that a conspiracy, once remarked upon, vanishes, failing in its role as an emotional buffer between our fears and our hopes, our desire for free will and our suspicion that such concepts are pure fantasy. Our greatest fear is that we are merely mechanical monkeys that are dreaming of being men of mystery.
You might mistakenly think I am casting aspersions at conspiracy theorists as wishful thinkers, and anomalists as well-intentioned fabulists, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both serve the vital role of questioning what we wish for, and how we go about wishing for it. Director John Ridley wisely observed, “As a coping mechanism, or as a way to make a little hard count by shilling demons in the shadows, I try not to belittle the thought process of the conspiracy theorists. As a cocktail waitress in Vegas once schooled me: never get down on anybody else’s hustle”.
Drinkwater, Ken. “Reality Testing, Conspiracy Theories, and Paranormal Beliefs”. Journal of Parapsychology Vol. 76, No. 1, Spring 2012.