Monday, October 16, 2006

We the Sheeple?

It's no secret that conspiracy theories have gone mainstream, especially since 9/11. But why? Why are an increasing number of seemingly intelligent people drawn to improbable constructions that fly in the face of common sense and advocate complicated and bizarre theories?

Philosopher Edward Feser has written the most thoughtful analysis I've seen on this issue: We the Sheeple? Why Conspiracy Theories Persist.

Here is one of his observations:

A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as "willing to think," "educated," "independent-minded," and so forth, and with invective against the "uninformed" and "unthinking" "sheeple" who "blindly follow authority." The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.

One of the great things about this article is that in addressing the issue of conspiracy theories, the author instructs us on a range of relevant subjects, like the false but persistent "official storyline" of the Enlightenment, the role of authority in epistemology, the hermeneutics of suspicion, etc. I'll quote his closing paragraphs, which certainly have application to more than just debunking crazy conspiracies:

I would suggest, then, that the post-Enlightenment pretense of hostility to authority, tradition, and common sense as such, and especially the extreme form of it represented by the likes of Marx and Nietzsche, is what really underlies the popularity of conspiracy theories, particularly those involving 9/11. The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person, has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position. And it also explains why even mainstream outlets like Time and Vanity Fair, while by no means endorsing the views of the conspiracy theorists, have tended to treat them with kid gloves, as if they were harmless and well-meaning eccentrics instead of shrill and hate-filled crackpots. The belief that extremism in the attack on authority is no vice has a powerful appeal even for suit-wearing journalists and media executives (especially if they are liberals), even if they have too much sense to follow it out consistently.

Yet no civilization can be healthy which nurtures such delusions, for they strike at the very heart of a society's core institutions - family, religion, schools, political institutions, and so forth - and replace the (sometimes critical) allegiance we should feel for them with a corrosive skepticism. Conspiracy theories are only the most extreme symptom of this disease. Less dramatic, but in the long run more dangerous, is the relentless tendency of the Western intelligentsia to denigrate the Western past and present, massively exaggerating the vices of their own civilization and the virtues of its competitors, and putting the worst possible spin on the motives and policies of its current leaders while minimizing or excusing the crimes of its enemies. This would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. It is doubly so while we are at war with enemies who know no such self-doubt and self-hatred.

(HT: Amy Hall and Charlie at