How And Why People Come Up With Conspiracy Theories

Aug 13, 2019
Originally published on August 13, 2019 3:40 pm
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President Trump says he does want a full investigation into the death of Jeffrey Epstein at a federal detention facility in New York. Over the weekend, Trump had retweeted an unsubstantiated suggestion that Epstein may not have taken his own life but was instead murdered. There is absolutely no evidence to support that allegation, but conspiracy thinkers don't necessarily need evidence, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: It can be hard to know what to make of an unfounded conspiracy theory. Terence Williams, who, on Twitter, calls himself an actor, comedian and commentator, got things rolling on Saturday with this little video rant on Jeffrey Epstein's death.

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TERRENCE WILLIAMS: And you know what? He had information on the Clintons, and the man ended up dead. Now, for some odd reason - for some odd reason - people that have information on the Clintons end up dead.

GJELTEN: Since that tweet, Williams has followed with several more in the same vein. He may have been encouraged by Donald Trump retweeting his post.

Being a comedian, Williams could simply have been out to get attention by saying something outrageous. Whether President Trump actually believes the conspiracies he highlights is also debatable. He's often employed conspiracy theories to denigrate his adversaries.

Kurt Andersen, who wrote the book "Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire," says when a bad thing happens, it's easy to blame it on some secret cabal.

KURT ANDERSEN: So if you're Donald Trump, my enemies the Clintons did this. If you are somebody who believes that Donald Trump is in league with the Russians, then, of course, you think, oh, no, the Russians did this.

GJELTEN: But people don't need a partisan motivation to come up with a conspiracy theory. Consider such discredited claims as that vaccines cause autism, that 9/11 was an inside job, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. People genuinely believe these things, and that may trouble those who take logic or evidence seriously.

Reverend Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, felt the need on his podcast to explain why conspiracy theories take hold.

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ALBERT MOHLER: We as human beings do not like unanswered moral questions. We want to know who did it. We want to know how it was done.

GJELTEN: All the more so, Mohler said, when an event is associated with some strange coincidences.

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MOHLER: We're looking for a pattern. Our intelligence, given to us by God, is a pattern-seeking intelligence.

GJELTEN: And a conspiracy theory can offer a pattern.

Joe Uscinski at the University of Miami has studied conspiracy theories. He says people also see conspiracies even when there are no coincidences to explain.

JOE USCINSKI: It doesn't matter because people can take whatever they want and turn it into whatever they want.

GJELTEN: He cites the example of Supreme Court Justice Scalia dying in bed. Some conspiracy thinkers suggested he was smothered simply because there was a pillow by his head.

USCINKSI: You know, everybody has a pillow near their head (laughter) when they're sleeping. That's not strong evidence of anything. But to them, that was very strong evidence.

GJELTEN: Uscinski says his research suggests that people who ascribe to conspiracy theories are often those who feel they're under threat or out of power or somehow left on the outside. So connecting the dots may satisfy an emotional or intellectual need.

Kurt Andersen says it can also be fun.

ANDERSEN: Look at this. This person was here at this time. And look. It connects to this. That is part of the pleasure of puzzles, of detective fiction, of thrillers. It is a form of entertainment.

GJELTEN: But a potentially dangerous form of entertainment if people take action based on a perceived conspiracy.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "SAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.