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Why Some Rational People Believe Conspiracy Theories

Personal Perspective: How nonsense can make the ridiculous believable.

Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

When we browse for something to buy online, say a coffee maker, we see “coincidental” ads on our screens for days after. Of course, those ads are not coincidental but rather a result of hidden search-engine algorithms that monitor browser clicking. Sometimes we experience things that give us feelings that our thoughts are weirdly connected to a world beyond. As soon as you buy a car of an unusual color, you suddenly notice all other cars of that color. You could call it a coincidence, but it is not. Those cars that you now notice were always there to be seen because it turns out that the color of your new car is not so unique. Events that we think are coincidences are merely happenings of elevated awareness.

Conspiracy theorists, always searching for weak connections between truths and coincidences, find opportunities to fabricate facts. As one example among many, take the alleged connection between major Democratic donors and pedophilia. It’s not a statistical correlation. There was only one such donor: Jeffery Epstein. But one weak connection is all that’s needed to build a fiction that sounds like a true story. Some Democrats may in fact be pedophiles, but pedophilia is not a symptom of any political affiliation. We know that Epstein was a pedophile from his high-profile case, interest in which was heightened by his wealth and connections. Seventeen witnesses testified against him. But if a billionaire living in West Palm Beach is a Democrat and a pedophile, implanting the connection in someone's mind is not difficult. Repeat the words Democrat and pedophile a hundred times, and you may soon imagine a hundred cases. One becomes 100 like one red car becomes many.

Coincidences are not as rare as we think.

The myth of coincidences is that they are rare. But they are not. It all depends on how well one notices one’s surroundings. By definition—at least by mine—a coincidence is a surprising overlap of two or more circumstances with no apparent causal connection. Any coincidence must have a presence of surprise, and if there is any cause, it must be undetermined. Coincidences pull our enormous world together to give us meaning and a sense of purposeful existence. Unfortunately, the connections can also be distorted and abused.

Humans naturally tend to make connections where there are none, and to miss connections that are too complex to predict. We search for causes so we can build reasons for being. We see coincidences as events that are mysteriously fated by some deeply significant design. In a highly connected world of interconnected phenomena, some connections are so subtly coupled through long chains of indirect links that we can never envision the effect of one on another.

Flukes can be abused.

When the significance of a fluke is intentionally mistaken, the distinction between fact and fiction hits a blurry suspension of objective reasoning often driven by delusional leaders who promote conspiracies from hints of truth explained as significant when they are circumstantial. The QAnon movement took one case of someone who “coincidentally” was diagnosed with autism soon after being vaccinated and ran with it to tell its followers that vaccinations cause autism. That ridiculous story and others like it are pumped into a social-media pipeline that tends to overwhelm the news cycle.

Why should anyone believe unknown sources of false stories from a ridiculous and dangerous virtual cult? Because, with the new ease of browsing for news, we are more easily connected to pundit “experts.” They navigate through the confusing politics of our present to get millions with the inner need to feel part of a team to follow and applaud anything, like QAnon, that seems to be an insider worldview.

Remember Pizzagate? Online commentators successfully convinced people that the nouns “pizza” and “pasta” in email exchanges between John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff, and James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong Pizza, actually stood for the nouns “girls” and “little boys." The conspiracy theory took off from there: Given Podesta’s connection to Hillary Clinton, followers surmised that Clinton was involved in running a child-sex ring out of the back rooms of the pizza shop.

The ease of believing those who tell us what we want to hear.

When we don’t know how to reason because we don’t understand a cause, we latch onto someone who will tell us a "truth" without having to do it for ourselves. It’s much easier if someone else can untangle Gordian truth knots for us. We don't have to labor through tedious reasoning if someone else says they've already done it. And so, Democrats are Satan worshipers; school shootings were staged; the moon landing never happened; Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election; and vaccines cause autism. And believers then know what to think.


Joseph Mazur, Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidences,” (New York: Basic Books, 2016) 128.

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