Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Conspiracy files: the truth is (sometimes) out there

A few days ago I had the joys of meeting a healthcare professional with a masters degree and a PHD, who went to great lengths to explain to me how Osama died in Tora Bora and that he was turned into a bogeyman as an excuse to invade Iraq and get the oil.

This inspired some research and some quotes from

The truth isn't out there
Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham

A recent study of almost 1,000 South Africans found that belief in the conspiracy theory that AIDS was introduced as part of a white genocidal population control measure, against black people, was one of the strongest predictors of poorer take up of HIV testing, prevention and care. Public Health experts could also argue that conspiracy theories around the MMR vaccine contributed to a recent decline in take up and subsequent child deaths here in the UK.
 ..The psychological research is also hinting that a vicious cycle seems to be ignited by conspiracy theories - more disillusionment with authority is fostered, which in turn produces heightened scepticism of official versions of events, which then infects conspiracy thinking across other domains of your life.
...Patrick Leman, a psychologist at Royal Holloway College, found we are more likely to believe in a conspiracy if a presidential assassination is successful as opposed to a close miss. This might suggest it's cognitively too stressful to conceive of world events as the outcome from often random interactions of a large number of forces. It's simpler to imagine everything’s been planned. Conspiracy theories also seem to abound whenever there is incomplete information. It's a kind of 'fill in the blanks' our brains naturally do.
..Perhaps the reason paranoia, which lies at the heart of conspiracy reasoning, has survived, and is even genetically wired into us, is because it has some ancient evolutionary and survival benefit. We know from neuroscience research that the brain detects and processes negative facial expressions in others, faster and more efficiently, than it does positive emotions. It seems we are programmed to detect social threat over and above social support. Any small string we notice left untied is naturally, therefore, used to construct a negative edifice. It might be that it's better in the longer term to assume 'they' are out to get you, even if you are wrong most of the time, because of the massive benefits in getting it right, just once.

 Still one important lesson from all this reading is that, whether it is because of the law of averages or intuitive pattern recognition, some people do see deeper meanings in things. The best example is the Watergate break-in, the determination of two journalists went on to prove that a minor burglary had in fact ties to the highest office of the land.

On the other hand how does one challenge Conspiracy theories? From my own converations with people, i think the only cases where i successfully challenged them was when I did not focus on what they said BUT why they said it.

It was not challenging the case of OBL being killed in Tora Bora but why did they think that in the first place. When you deconstruct the theory in its entirety you have more success then challenging one element of it...obviously that depends if you can be bothered!


karachikhatmal said...

point, but that opens it up to why you are asking them that, at which point the word liberal-extremist comes into play.

Hafsa said...

to post comment, I'm given a choice to login to Google account, worldpress etc or simply enter name. In former case, I am required to register as blogger (regular gmail account not enough in contrast to other blogs). In later case, there's no option to subscribe to comments via email

Hafsa said...

At this point, I'm able to classify conspiracy theories originating from more of the following 4 reasons:
dominant narrative, paranoia, lack of trust, tendency of brain to fill-in-the-blanks
this article helped me distinguish b/w 2 & 3 & add 4

Examples where dominant reason is 4: conspiracy theories revolving Strauss Kauhn NYT incident, presedential assassination
This category is easiest to deal with. You simply have to fill in the blanks

dominant reason 3: South Africans' reluctance to HIV testing (mistrust of white race), People not believing anything that politicians say in Pakistan
The reason for mistrust has to be addressed in this case

dominant reason 2: Recent swine flu scare in canada & laws making Raw milk sale illegal
Differs from person to person....its about conquering momentary fear (i think)

dominant reason 1: i think we have enough examples in Pakistan....blaming everything on RAW/CIA/MOSSAD
hardest to challenge...its like changing mindset. The other person would always come-up with a different argument
to replace the one you've refuted. And if you're able to silence them, chances are that you've not convinced them

To some extent, all countries have a certain 'national narrative', 'that captures the popular imagination to keep vast population swaths subservient and in check'
The irrationality of national narrative in Pakistan is both a product & cause of, should I say, bad-governance?

I don't know how to assign weightage to reasons for Conspiracy theories in Pakistan. But they're certainly made worse by the recent security situation (2?)

Also, I wonder to what extent is professional qualification and/or success an indicator of immunity in falling prey to personal fears & being overwhelmed by dominant narrative?

In Pakistan's context, i'd talk about challenging mindset rather than challenging one particular conspiracy theory. The best thing is to have been one of them at some point cuz
that makes those ppl more predictable albeit frustrating & you can always ask yourself 'at which point the word liberal-extremist came into play'.

Conspiracy theorists believe that they 'see deeper meanings in things' while in reality, they are believing in simplest possible explanation with respect to their framework.
In order to see deeper meaning, they've to be able to think out of dominant narrative & overcome their paranoia.