Sunstein on Conspiracy Theories

Most people who have heard about the Holocaust believe it was either a complete or a partial hoax. A majority in the United States believe that there was more than one gunman in the JFK assassination. And the majority of the British public believe the moon landing was faked.

Given that so many believe in conspiracy theories, and how dangerous they can be, it’s amazing how little serious scholarship exists on why people believe in them.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 2008, Cass Sunstein, the most cited and influential legal scholar alive, wrote a paper with Adrian Vermeule to figure out why so many believe things that aren’t true.

Sunstein starts off by explaining why these conspiracy theories so pernicious. He argues that if you are willing to believe that the Holocaust was faked or that 9/11 was an inside job, that your mistrust of institutions runs so deep that you’ll believe just about anything.

To think, for example, that U.S. government officials destroyed the World Trade Center and then covered their tracks requires an ever-widening conspiracy theory, in which the 9/11 Commission, congressional leaders, the FBI, and the media were either participants in or dupes of the conspiracy. But anyone who believed that would undercut the grounds for many of their other beliefs, which are warranted only by trust in the knowledge-producing institutions created by government and society. How many other things must not be believed, if we are not to believe something accepted by so many diverse actors? There may not be a logical contradiction here, but conspiracy theorists might well have to question a number of propositions that they seem willing to take for granted. As Robert Anton Wilson notes of the conspiracy theories advanced by Holocaust deniers, “a conspiracy that can deceive us about 6,000,000 deaths can deceive us about anything, and [then] it takes a great leap of faith for Holocaust Revisionists to believe World War II happened at all, or that Franklin Roosevelt did serve as President from 1933 to 1945, or that Marilyn Monroe was more ‘real’ than King Kong or Donald Duck.

Sunstein offers a few different explanations of why people want to believe conspiracy theories. First, he cites Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies for the idea that people need to find someone to blame for all of society’s ills. People aren’t hardwired to believe that complex problems may have complex origins. Conspiracy theories appeal to a desire for a simple cause-and-effect resolution—and a clear scapegoat—for every scary problem.

When Germany struggled after World War I and thousands starved, people looked for someone to blame. The combination of reparation burdens, bad monetary policy, and a worldwide financial crisis probably caused their problems. But these are complex and abstract causes. It was easier for Hitler and the Nazis to find a convenient scapegoat in the Jews.

While Sunstein acknowledges that the desire to find a scapegoat often happens, he finds Popper’s “hidden agent” hypothesis to be limited in its predictive scope. For example, there is no question that the events of 9/11 were caused by someone. The problem there is that conspiracy theorists think the wrong people did it.

According to Sunstein, more often conspiracy theories are caused by crippled epistemology—belief systems that are rooted in flawed decision-making, factual error, and lack of quality information.

For most of what they believe that they know, human beings lack personal or direct information; they must rely on what other people think. In some domains, people suffer from a “crippled epistemology,” in the sense that they know very few things, and what they know is wrong. Many extremists fall in this category; their extremism stems not from irrationality, but from the fact that they have little (relevant) information, and their extremist views are supported by what little they know. Conspiracy theorizing often has the same feature. Those who believe that Israel was responsible for the attacks of 9/11, or that the Central Intelligence Agency killed President Kennedy, may well be responding quite rationally to the informational signals that they receive.

Next, Sunstein points to rumors and conspiracy entrepreneurs. As we have seen in our most recent election, when there is financial incentive to give people certain information that they would like to believe, entrepreneurs are often eager to fill the void.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, Sunstein points to the problem of group polarization. As groups become increasingly polarized, they are more at risk for conspiracy theories. This is because of a well-documented phenomenon of group members coming together to form ever-more extreme positions. If you get ten conservatives in a room together, they’re likely to end up much more conservative after they deliberate than when they began. The same phenomenon occurs with liberals. In a mixed group, individuals’ opinions will tend to converge, but when a group already starts out with a certain directional lean, when left in isolation that group will grow more extreme over time.

This, when combined with a deep distrust of authority, leads to conspiracy theories. When two groups are polarized, one group may feel quite logically that the other group does not represent its interests. If one group is in power and the other is not, this scenario is fertile ground for conspiracy theories for the group not in power, because all information from the opposing group is inherently suspect.

Think of enemy propaganda leaflets dropped from airplanes during a war. If enemy planes dropped leaflets on you, and those leaflets contained arguments and beliefs that ran counter to everything you had previously believed, you would be disinclined to believe the substance of the leaflets.

For purposes of understanding the spread of conspiracy theories, it is especially important to note that group polarization is particularly likely, and particularly pronounced, when people have a shared sense of identity and are connected by bonds of solidarity. These are circumstances in which arguments by outsiders, unconnected with the group, will lack much credibility, and fail to have much of an effect in reducing polarization.

Because the proponents of these theories’ have inherent skepticism toward authority, Sunstein argues that the most effective means of rebutting these theories is not formal government action, but rather cognitive infiltration.

In one variant, government agents would openly proclaim, or at least make no effort to conceal, their institutional affiliations. A recent newspaper story recounts that Arabic-speaking Muslim officials from the State Department have participated in dialogues at radical Islamist chat rooms and websites in order to ventilate arguments not usually heard among the groups that cluster around those sites, with some success. In another variant, government officials would participate anonymously or even with false identities. Each approach has distinct costs and benefits; the second is riskier but potentially brings higher returns. In the former case, where government officials participate openly as such, hard-core members of the relevant networks, communities and conspiracy-minded organizations may entirely discount what the officials say, right from the beginning. The risk with tactics of anonymous participation, conversely, is that if the tactic becomes known, any true member of the relevant groups who raises doubts may be suspected of government connections. Despite these difficulties, the two forms of cognitive infiltration offer different risk-reward mixes and are both potentially useful instruments.

The inherent difficulty in combatting conspiracy theories is obvious. But the value in studying and analyzing conspiracy theories, rather than dismissing their proponents entirely, as Sunstein as done here, seems like a positive step in fortifying an open society with a strong epistemological foundation.