55 Where Seed Beliefs Come From

So far, we have an account of conspiracy theories as growing from seed beliefs and being nourished by confirmation bias, a bias toward monocausal explanations, and the temptation to make cui bono inferences. The biases and temptations are perhaps easily enough accounted for. Our evolutionary past has not given us perfect reasoning capacities. But where do the seed beliefs come from? How does a person come to believe and then insist upon a belief that should be discarded after even a little bit of research?


Sometimes, a seed belief may result from some of our other weaknesses in reasoning such as anchoring or in-group bias. For example, we first hear that vaccines cause diseases or that Barack Obama is African or that UFOs are commonly seen from friends and family members we trust. The credence we give to those beliefs only has to be strong enough to get us to look for further evidence in support of the belief, or to defend them against others’ objections, and then the other features of our cognitive machinery will kick in to add more support for the belief making it stronger and stronger the more we defend it. What began as a simple belief becomes a well-defended theory and then an unshakeable conviction. In these cases, a conspiracy theory is seen as something like a parasite or infection that lands upon a hapless believer, and the believer’s own cognitive machinery is harnessed to give the invader more strength and vitality. “Curing” the infection will be difficult as it will require somehow re-orienting the believer’s entire cognitive system to cause them to recognize the invader as an invader and to begin to recover from the disease by re-examining one’s entire structure of beliefs.


An example of this sort of re-orientation can be found in the case of Derek Black, the son of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who was a young and rising star of white nationalism. Black was raised in an environment encouraging the belief that the races should be separate from one another and that the United States should be “kept pure” as a white nation. He believed that a vast government misinformation campaign was behind popular attitudes in favor of desegregation, multiculturalism, and antiracism.


Black went to college and encountered many people who wanted nothing to do with him or his beliefs. But a small Jewish community at the college invited him to weekly dinners and patiently offered evidence against his views. In an interview Black recalls the discussions:


I would say, “This is what I believe about I.Q. differences. I have 12 different studies that have been published over the years, here’s the journal that’s put this stuff together, I believe that this is true, that race predicts I.Q., and that there were I.Q. differences in races.” And they would come back with 150 more recent, more well researched studies and explain to me how statistics works, and we would go back and forth until I would come to the end of that argument, and I’d say, “Yes that makes sense, that does not hold together, and I’ll remove that from my ideological toolbox, but everything else is still there.” And we did that over a year or two on one thing after another until I got to a point where I didn’t believe it anymore (“Derek Black”, Wikipedia entry).


Over a year or two, Black became convinced that the entire framework of beliefs in which he had been raised was false. He publicly renounced his beliefs even though this came at the cost of alienating him from his family.


Black’s case is one in which his seed belief in white nationalism was caused by his home environment, and his belief in a conspiracy theory grew from that seed belief. In other cases, however, a seed belief is chosen precisely because it is widely rejected by a culture that an individual rejects for one reason or another. In these cases, the more extreme the seed belief, the better because the individual wants to distinguish themselves from the wider culture judging the belief as “crazy.” In these cases, adopting the seed belief is a conscious act of rebellion against prevailing norms, and the conspiracy theory that grows from the seed belief is meant as an indictment of the prevailing culture that so confidently denounces the seed belief.


The recent growth in Flat-Earthers may be an example of this. A Flat-Earther believes the Earth is a flat disk and that there is a conspiracy of scientists and others who brainwash people into thinking that the Earth is a globe. There were Flat-Earthers many centuries ago, but the view seems to have resurfaced in small communities in the 19th century, and a Flat Earth Society was formed in the 1950s. This community has been very small historically. But with the growth of the internet, the community of Flat-Earthers has grown considerably.  In recent years, many celebrities have at least said they doubt the official account of the Earth’s shape. Most famously, the rapper B. o. B. announced his skepticism and in 2017, started a campaign to send multiple satellites into space to document the true shape of the Earth. (Previous satellite missions apparently were not trustworthy.)


There is something in the recent Flat-Earther phenomenon that goes beyond a seed belief “accidentally” taking root in someone’s set of beliefs. Many Flat-Earthers are eagerly embracing a belief precisely because it is at odds with the belief of a dominant culture; the act of rejecting a belief as obvious as the belief that the Earth is a sphere is a way to confront and deny the authority of the surrounding culture. The surrounding culture (in this case) affirms the value of science and the value of a history of progress in knowledge, but it is also a culture from which many people feel alienated, perhaps for ideological, political, racial, or economic reasons. In this case, accepting the seed belief is an act of rebellion against that surrounding culture. It is a declaration that the dominant culture has no authority over the beliefs of the individual.


The deliberate acceptance of implausible seed beliefs also seems to be the primary cause of the QAnon conspiracy theory. The fundamental QAnon seed belief is that the world is being run by a conspiracy of people who rape and eat children, worship Satan, and that Donald Trump is the only person who can save the world from them. (It is sometimes further claimed that the Satan-worshipping pedophiles are members of a lizard race that lives below the surface of the Earth.) The conspiracy theory associated with this seed belief maintains that the U.S. government and governments around the world have managed to keep these facts undiscovered—except for one brave and anonymous individual, known as “Q,” who was somehow able to thwart the global conspiracy and post messages about it on 4chan, an online forum for various hate groups. None of the early adopters of this seed belief were raised to believe it, and never has any positive evidence been given for it; rather, people embraced the ludicrous belief precisely because it was utterly ludicrous, and in so doing, declared their epistemic emancipation from the entirety of world media, educational institutions, scientists, and governmental bodies.


Recall the Baconian claim that knowledge itself is power. Some conspiracy theorists develop their theories in order to develop a base of power to challenge the power of a dominant culture’s knowledge. In such cases, proving the falsehood of the beliefs will do nothing to diminish the believers’ confidence in their theories. The deeper issues of power inequities will have to be addressed. Better epistemic practices will not be directly helpful.


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Knowledge For Humans Copyright © 2022 by Charlie Huenemann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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