As we will see, there can be many ways that a conspiracy theory comes to be, and people may have many different sorts of motivations in coming to believe them. There may not be a single general theory of conspiracy theories that captures the essential nature of them all. Indeed, there is good reason to think there is no set of features that all “bad” conspiracy theories have in common since some conspiracy theories turn out to be true. But we will consider one “rational reconstruction” of conspiracy theories that seems to be true for a great many of them.
We might see a conspiracy theory as beginning with a “seed belief,” or one that gets the theory planted. The seed belief may be that it is simply too difficult to send humans to the moon; that it is worrisome to put a chemical like fluoride into drinking water; that Elvis Presley is too important to have died from drug abuse; that a small group of terrorists could not have organized the terrible events of 9/11; that the Earth simply could not be spherical; that Barack Obama must be from Africa; that the vapor trails left by jet airplanes must be dangerous; and so on. Each seed belief may seem to have a degree of plausibility, given some basic beliefs and without looking any further into the matter. A person may have some separate motivation for wanting the seed belief to be true (Elvis may have meant a lot to them, for example, or they may wish to have some reason for rejecting the legitimacy of an African-American president). For now, we will set aside the question of exactly why the seed belief gets planted; let’s assume that, for some reason, it does.
The seed belief quickly sets down some strong roots by making use of the human tendency toward confirmation bias (as discussed in Chapter 8). Humans very naturally seek out evidence for beliefs they have, and it takes additional effort for any human to seek out evidence that goes against their beliefs. And it is relatively easy to find confirming evidence for many beliefs. Most information is either irrelevant to the seed belief (in which case it is at least consistent with the belief), or with a bit of further interpretation, the evidence can be interpreted in such a way as to be consistent with the belief. So, for example, there are newspaper reports of Elvis’s death. But stories in newspapers can be faked, or reporters can be given false reports from the police or the coroner. There was a funeral for Elvis, but funerals can be staged. Elvis isn’t seen in public anymore, so he could be in hiding. And when it eventually happens that some people report seeing someone who looked a bit like Elvis (though he had lost weight and had grown a beard). Aha! The King is alive and in disguise! Confirming evidence!
Once the seed belief has secured itself in the mind of the believer, the believer will have to face a very awkward question. The question is why there are not more people who share the seed belief. The seed belief is supported by a lot of confirming evidence, after all, as the believer has discovered. The only explanation (so it seems) is that other people are being actively misled. They are constantly being fed some story that simply isn’t true in an effort to keep the seed belief from spreading to more people. And so there must be a conspiracy that is manipulating people into false belief. A group of conspirators would do this only if they had something to hide, of course, which indicates that the conspiracy must be malicious. And because the conspiracy is so successful at keeping the seed belief from spreading, it must be an extraordinarily widespread and intelligent conspiracy. There is hardly any evidence for its existence, which may just show how crafty the leaders of the conspiracy are!
But the dedicated individual will be able to find evidence for the conspiracy by looking for clues in the right places and by discovering the absence of information where the theorist believes there should be some. And through this process of finding evidence first for the seed belief, and then for the conspiracy keeping others from sharing the seed belief, the seed belief itself becomes justified. The theorist has interpreted what they have seen, read, and heard in such a way as to support the seed belief, which is no longer just a belief that happened to take root in someone’s mind but is now documented with scores of newspaper articles, YouTube interviews, and independently-published books by the small circle of other people who share the seed belief. And now comes the clincher: why would there be all of this evidence if the seed belief were simply false? Why would people take so much trouble to find evidence for something that didn’t happen? Why would this dedicated individual devote so much energy and effort to documenting something that isn’t real? There is only one way to explain all of the work people are putting into justifying their belief: the seed belief must be true.
Two further patterns of reasoning also help a seed belief to grow strong roots: the conviction that a single explanation is better than a set of independent explanations, and the conviction that when someone benefits from an event, they must be causally responsible for it.