“For all the talk of Donald Trump’s unpresidential behavior, the Republican enfant terrible does share one notable trait with that paragon of presidentiality, George Washington: a fondness for conspiracy theories. Washington once wrote in a letter that he believed an Illuminati conspiracy was at work in America, while Trump is the figurehead of the birther movement, which claims Barack Obama is not a natural-born American citizen. The psychologist and science journalist Rob Brotherton’s new book, “Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories,” helps explain why someone with such seemingly outlandish views can gain widespread public support. It turns out we are all conspiracy theorists.
“Brotherton attacks the stereotype, which he says was popularized by the historian Richard Hofstadter in his influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” of conspiracy theorists as a small band of tinfoil-adorned loonies — the paranoid fringe. Brotherton’s main argument is that we all possess a conspiracy mind-set to some extent, because it is hard-wired into our brains. “Suspicious Minds” details the various psychological “quirks and shortcuts” that make us susceptible to conspiracy theories.
“For example, psychologists have discovered that we possess an “intentionality bias,” which tricks us into assuming every incidental event that happens in the world is the result of someone’s intention. A “proportionality bias” convinces us that momentous events must have equally momentous causes, which is why some people vainly shake a die harder when they want to roll a large number as if it were a fairground strength tester. We are all predisposed to see patterns in coincidental events. Normally these biases help us navigate the world and stay out of danger, but left unchecked they can lead us astray.
“Brotherton argues that conspiracy theories are so seductive because they hit many of these psychological biases at the same time. Paradoxically, the illusion of an evil, all-powerful conspiracy guiding events can be more comforting than the reality that humans are rarely in control. This impulse is not limited to rambling YouTube comments; it’s all over the mainstream media. For instance: While the most obvious explanation of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance was a freak accident, New York magazine ran a cover story suggesting it was hijacked by terrorists who landed it safely in Central Asia.
“Brotherton’s aim in reframing conspiracy thinking as a common psychological phenomenon rather than a dangerous form of social pathology is to force us to confront the uncomfortable fact that many of our own beliefs rest on the same logically shaky ground as 9/11 truthers and anti-vaxxers. And it did make me ponder whether the intensity of my own disdain for some of these groups might not stem solely from my more enlightened attitude toward Truth and Science. Unfortunately, Brotherton’s effort to render conspiracy theories banal is a bit too successful. The bloodless summaries of study after study marshaled to back up his points read too much like a textbook. Many of the chapters are repetitive, slight variations on the circular point that we believe conspiracy theories because our brains are set up to believe conspiracy theories.”
I’d say the final appraisal is harsh, unfair, and kind of misses the point.
This is a subtle and well-written book that eschews the hyperbole and bombast that are half the problem with political discourse generally and conspiracy theorists specifically, as well as avoiding the more acute and biased standpoint, the decidedly more partisan approach, and the sharper contention of political essayists that might have created more of a stir, sold more copies, and caught the imagination of this New York Times reviewer.
Rob Brotherton would be well advised, in his next outing as a social commentator, to say something indefensible, generalise grossly and nail his colours to a mast, any mast, as opposed to offer the reading public a balanced and careful account of what is a very interesting and important topic.
Insightful and well put together.