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I think it is interesting to look at why conspiracy theories are as popular as they are. I don't have a complete answer, but as a first step I submit the following:

First, what are conspiracy theories? Look at specific examples and see what they have in common. Three off the top of my head: government coverup of UFO activities; the many versions of assassination plots against JFK (in which someone else is ultimately responsible for his death and got away with it); and the many, many claims of sabotage put out by the USSR.

Some key elements:

- lack of evidence. If any particular case actually had evidence for such a theory, it could be dealt with rationally, and would not be associated with the others. (IOW, the theories are arbitrary.)

- the omnipotent "Them". The conspirators are able to do amazing things, and keep the details secret. "Somehow" is the common refrain, when believers are pressed to explain how some of these conspirators do what believers claim.

What is the appeal of these theories for those who really buy into them (as opposed to plain-old liars)? I suspect it could be several things.

It could be a by-product of a concrete-bound mentality's inability to deal with principles. For example, when Soviet factories could not meet production quotas, sabotage was a common charge. Instead of checking their premise that communism could increase production, which would require questioning the ideology thrust on them at the point of a gun, this would be an out: "someone" "somehow" was disloyal. Grab a scapegoat, and the ideology is safe once again for the moment -- until the next failure.

Moreover, for the concrete-bound mentality, the idea of challenging a principle is untenable. They just accept the platitudes given to them. When confronted with a contradiction between their accepted "principles" and concrete reality, their mind would be unable to challenge the accepted principle; it would be accepted as a metaphysical given, outside the scope of rational justification or exception. So there must be another concrete intermediary -- something prevented the theory from working in reality, and if we just get that thing out of the way, then the theory would be free to succeed.

For those committed to an irrational principle, regardless of facts or reason, something must be made to explain the contradiction -- and it damn well can't be their sacred, unquestionable principle.

I'm sure there are additional explanations for the appeal of conspiracy theories, but this psycho-epistemological element is the most interesting aspect of the subject to me.

Ive searched around a bit on this topic and havent been satisfied yet. Im looking to see if anyone has any ideas specifically about the epistemic problem that causes people to believe wacky conspiracies. I know some of these types, and I cant put my finger on the root of the breakdown. Is it subjectivism, is it skepticism, where does the epistemic breakdown occur? Its certainly an epistemology issue, because if you find a person who buys into one consp. theory, they most likely believe them all. Do these beliefs make them feel good/safe/important, and why? The old post above is helpfull, but Id like to hear more "theories" on the matter from a epistemological pov.

Thoughts?

j..

Edited by JayR
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Thoughts?

j..

I think, strange as it may sound, a conspiracy theory can provide a sort of peace of mind when you consider that the alternative is that no one is making the grand decisions. It can seem preferable, in a sense, to think that some selfish, diabolical cabal of rich guys is making all the decisions because then you can assume that it will never be that bad. "They" would never destroy the world, for example, because they need to live here too. The idea that all of the big happenings in the world occur in a haphazard, unplanned way, is a little disturbing, when you think about it. Fuck, anything could happen! :)

Also, it's important to keep in mind that conspiracies on smaller levels happen all the time. From LBJ having a river rerouted through his own property at the expense of the taxpayers to the S&L "crisis" where Clinton and a great many other politicians were complicit in the partial deregulation of the s&l banks that allowed them to steal untold billions of FDIC insured dollars, to bernie madoff. The relative success of these little conspiracies lend credence to the big ones.

A third issue which makes them believable is that, like evolutionary psychology, they tend to work like "just so" stories. When looking backwards on events it is quite easy to form a consistent, meaningful, logically coherent story that explains all of the facts. Personally, I use this as an indication of dishonesty in dealing with other people. Some level of doubt or missing information is usually a part of any knowledge set that someone has of a story, so someone with absolute knowledge of every detail of some story, I usually find, is either being dishonest or is a narcissist if they are like that consistently.

Edited by aequalsa
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Those feelings of peace or perhaps irrational relief could arise for a few reasons in these types of people. It seems that they do a lot of thinking from the top of their head as Peikoff would say, but Im looking for the deeper rooted problem. It has to have something to do with the validity of their concepts. What types of errors are they making on the deepest (or shallowest) levels of consciousness? Theres a straight forward explanation, I just cant single it out. Ive pondered the traditional subjective/intrinsic dichotomy, I cant make a solid connection.

j..

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I think conspiracy theories are the result of over reliance on a particular method of understanding things, particularly seeking out certain types of relationships. In terms of generalities, rather than entities causing and defining relationships it is relationships that cause and define the entities. No understanding of an entity (or event) is complete without finding those relationships.

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I think conspiracy theories are the result of over reliance on a particular method of understanding things, particularly seeking out certain types of relationships. In terms of generalities, rather than entities causing and defining relationships it is relationships that cause and define the entities. No understanding of an entity (or event) is complete without finding those relationships.

I was hoping youd chime in on this, your posts on Oist epistemology are always thought provoking. So you think its a result of a sort of top down approach to defining these connections (if that makes sense). A deductive rather than inductive approach maybe. Besides the fact that these types of people seem to derive pleasure from these beliefs, it seems that they also find comfort in willfully not integrating their ideas with the whole scope of their knowledge. I also wonder if, like religion, many people who spread this junk actually believe it themselves. Actually, the intrinsic approach as you would find in the religious seems like a similar kind of belief structure. But, the subjective "it makes me feel good" and "its true because I believe it" aspect cant be overlooked.

j..

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it seems that they also find comfort in willfully not integrating their ideas with the whole scope of their knowledge.

I don't think that I'd go so far as to call it willful. More likely, it's just a confirmation bias at work. They wish to be right and do not notice when they are not or, at least, they don't attribute import to counterexamples they run into.

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I was hoping youd chime in on this, your posts on Oist epistemology are always thought provoking. So you think its a result of a sort of top down approach to defining these connections (if that makes sense). A deductive rather than inductive approach maybe. Besides the fact that these types of people seem to derive pleasure from these beliefs, it seems that they also find comfort in willfully not integrating their ideas with the whole scope of their knowledge. I also wonder if, like religion, many people who spread this junk actually believe it themselves. Actually, the intrinsic approach as you would find in the religious seems like a similar kind of belief structure. But, the subjective "it makes me feel good" and "its true because I believe it" aspect cant be overlooked.

j..

Thanks. An even more general way to understand the conspiracy theorist is as just another way to be a "social metaphysician" (as opposed to being a Peter Keating type of conformist). If you review the conversations of the villian characters in Atlas Shrugged they actually do conspire against each other in their pursuit of status and power. It would be natural for that kind of conspiring mentality to search for conspiracies in the world. Come to think of it, Keating plots and schemes pretty well too.

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As a different approach to this, I went to Wiki answers for a new perspective.

This is what I found:

Lets see how many arbitrary claims we can fit into one paragraph, GO!

Most conspiracy theories are written by good people who are warning people of bad things that might happen, often they do that to outwit the conspiracy, to prevent further horrible things happening, for the benefit or for the betterment of mankind and all Life on Earth. The theories are warnings.

Some of the theories were actions foreseen 2,000 years ago by St John the Divine who saw the future, some of his Prophesies are about these days. He was one of the very best and finest of all Prophets, a good man and kind to others. He always did what God wanted him to do, regardless of all else.

Wow! What a lucid and enlightening analysis. I wonder what St John had to say about 9/11, and the Moon landings.

j..

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This is unfairly singling out those who believe in conspiracy theories!!!

I'd say most people's understanding of history, health, science, and politics is no more based on evidence than most conspiracy theories. Where there's an emotional narrative, disparate facts, knowledge of a particular lack of knowledge - there's always a theory.

It just so happens that for about 300 years there have been experts who do sort out the evidence and who have been more or less trusted. Social pressures in an empirical society are what make history and science 'fact-based'.

A lucky achievement.

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This is unfairly singling out those who believe in conspiracy theories!!!

I'd say most people's understanding of history, health, science, and politics is no more based on evidence than most conspiracy theories. Where there's an emotional narrative, disparate facts, knowledge of a particular lack of knowledge - there's always a theory.

It just so happens that for about 300 years there have been experts who do sort out the evidence and who have been more or less trusted. Social pressures in an empirical society are what make history and science 'fact-based'.

A lucky achievement.

Indeed. I'm not saying conspiracies dont exist, they certainly do. And questioning everything, and not accepting anything on faith is a virtue imo. But, you know the type I'm referring to, the prison planet, new world order, 9/11, kennedy assasination, moon landing, area 51, bilderberg etc. types, and their specific epistemology. Its the deepest roots of their thought processes that I'm interested in.

j..

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I think conspiracy theories function the same way that religion does. People that believe in conpiracy theories simply take it on faith. What they get from it is a sense that they are special because they have secret information/knowledge nobody else has.

David McBride

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Indeed. I'm not saying conspiracies dont exist, they certainly do. And questioning everything, and not accepting anything on faith is a virtue imo. But, you know the type I'm referring to, the prison planet, new world order, 9/11, kennedy assasination, moon landing, area 51, bilderberg etc. types, and their specific epistemology. Its the deepest roots of their thought processes that I'm interested in.

j..

Of course. I was speaking with some irony. I agree with you.

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I think conspiracy theories function the same way that religion does. People that believe in conpiracy theories simply take it on faith. What they get from it is a sense that they are special because they have secret information/knowledge nobody else has.

David McBride

I agree completely.

Of course. I was speaking with some irony. I agree with you.

:D

My reply was just before bed, just after a few drinks. Kinda foggy.

j..

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  • 2 weeks later...

Of course conspiracy theory creations are a result of flawed thinking, but I also think that there's a different side of things, and often these theories play a specific role in politics. It is important for the ruling regime to create an aversion not just to conspiracy theories, but to any "alternative explanations for popular accounts of things" when the motives of specific rulers are sought out, rather than the state of things being just a result of out-of-control forces, or of whatever scapegoat the rulers have chosen ("the jews" "the bourgoisie" "the free market" "greed" etc.) then the label of "conspiracy theorist!" must be applied. The only acceptable view must be that men enter politics purely out of concern for the Common Good and Public Welfare.

For example, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs has a website which offically declares that there are no conspiracies:

http://www.america.gov/conspiracy_theories...CFRMsbwodJ21xKg

Of course it features the usual, 9/11, Jews, moon landings, "The US is at war with Islam" etc. But it also has a section about "economic conspiracies" which tells us:

“Economic conspiracy theories are often based on the false, but popular, idea that powerful individuals are motivated overwhelmingly by their desire for wealth, rather than the wide variety of human motivations we all experience. (This one-dimensional, cartoonish view of human nature is at the heart of Marxist ideology, which once held hundreds of millions under its sway.)”

Lol? So I guess that makes Ayn Rand a Marxist conspiracy theorist.

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“Economic conspiracy theories are often based on the false, but popular, idea that powerful individuals are motivated overwhelmingly by their desire for wealth, rather than the wide variety of human motivations we all experience. (This one-dimensional, cartoonish view of human nature is at the heart of Marxist ideology, which once held hundreds of millions under its sway.)”

Lol? So I guess that makes Ayn Rand a Marxist conspiracy theorist.

Neither Ayn Rand's heroes nor her villains are motivated overwhelmingly by their desire for wealth.

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  • 3 weeks later...

The answer I suggest to this question is that the human brain dislikes doubt and uncertainty. It refuses to accept the idea of an infinite universe, for example. For, we, human beings, have been taught since infancy that everything knows an end. Our brain, that is to say our perception of the surroundings in which we evolve is shaped thus way; this explains why religion and belief in irrational invariably took place in all past civilizations all around the world.

So, in a time when religion and the belief in a supreme being providing an explanation for everything goes over our understanding has been seriously challenged by science since some centuries, already, there is a need for a substitute: a solution or a scenario providing an explanation to a world too hard to understand from a rational standpoint to the average brain.

For wants of a supreme being there is still the recourse to a solution introducing itself as a bunch of bankers, tycoons, politicians and other Saint-simonians wise men who would secretly lead the world unbeknown to everyone, the whole thing borrowing to History some brotherhood attempts such as the Illuminati, the Knight Templar, the Freemasons and the like, including UFO for the most enthusiastic, so as to give it the credibility of age.

Yet, those believers are well aware that such a thing is impossible since cultural and racial differences forbid its happening – even Chinese and Russian communists proven unable to get along in order to conquer the whole world. But without such beliefs, our modern world would be a scary and unpredictable pandemonium, a concept which arouses an unbearable angst. And a bunch of “secret masters” regardless of their aims and goals, be they spirited by evil thought, capitalism, altruism or anything else, is still preferable to the fog of the unknown for the most anxious among us.

On another plane, conspiracy theories, as a narrative, or as myth a Sorel describes it, serve also the aims and goals of the left, particularly in European countries and in Russia, in order to convince people that a bunch of nasty and selfish capitalists are accountable for the rise of unemployement and poverty everywhere unemployement and poverty arise - in this last case the conspiracies involve the Trilateral, the CFR and the the Bilderberg Group.

However, conspiracies exist at the lesser scale of a single state, indeed. In this last case, it consists in holding the political and economic power thanks to the use of local secret societies, political polices and intelligence services.

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But without such beliefs, our modern world would be a scary and unpredictable pandemonium, a concept which arouses an unbearable angst. And a bunch of “secret masters” regardless of their aims and goals, be they spirited by evil thought, capitalism, altruism or anything else, is still preferable to the fog of the unknown for the most anxious among us.

That is an interesting thought. The Conspiracy Theory provides a psychological coping mechanism to deal with the constant panic eating away at their consciousness.

Any thoughts on how to deal with those individuals. I would like to know because I bump into a few when I go to the Tea Party Meetings.

David McBride

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That is an interesting thought. The Conspiracy Theory provides a psychological coping mechanism to deal with the constant panic eating away at their consciousness.

This is along the lines of what aequalsa said above, and I agree, that seems to be a big part of it.:

I think, strange as it may sound, a conspiracy theory can provide a sort of peace of mind when you consider that the alternative is that no one is making the grand decisions. It can seem preferable, in a sense, to think that some selfish, diabolical cabal of rich guys is making all the decisions because then you can assume that it will never be that bad. "They" would never destroy the world, for example, because they need to live here too. The idea that all of the big happenings in the world occur in a haphazard, unplanned way, is a little disturbing, when you think about it. Fuck, anything could happen! :)

Just switch off your rational faculty for the purpose of "feeling" more at ease with the unknown, just like religion.

Any thoughts on how to deal with those individuals. I would like to know because I bump into a few when I go to the Tea Party Meetings.

Your dealings with them should be in inverse proportion to their wackiness. Let them know where you dont agree, and proceed from there. I think many of these types assume that everyone thinks this way to some extent, just like religion, and letting them know thats not the case is a way of not sanctioning their irrationality.

j..

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That is an interesting thought. The Conspiracy Theory provides a psychological coping mechanism to deal with the constant panic eating away at their consciousness.

Any thoughts on how to deal with those individuals. I would like to know because I bump into a few when I go to the Tea Party Meetings.

David McBride

Hello, David,

It’s very hard to reason people who believe in things like that. To some extent, they belong to the “true believer” category as it is described by Eric Hoffer. It means that they have a need to believe in something, be it rational or not, as long as it is not too complex, in their case. The only sure way to convince them that conspiracy theories as they conceive it do not exist, is to provide them with something else (this is the reverse of my previous explanation).

Let me use the following historical parallel for a while as a way to explain what I mean.

During WWII, it was not that difficult to convert a deeply committed Communist into a Nazi, and Joseph Goebbels claimed that this could be done in about one month, and that the reverse was possible as well (these two political commitments are extremists, and somewhat close, after all). It is understood that I am talking about commitment and not just belief, of course. However, and in my opinion this time, I believe that both are rather close as seen under a purely psychological angle. I mean in this sense that a sincere and deep commitment is the same thing as a strong belief, especially when it turns out to be a myth or even something completely irrational. For it claims something akin to a strong will to firmly believe in something irrational – a will to believe.

So, why? Whence come such a will?

Still in my opinion, this strong will to believe or to commit oneself steams from angst, which itself steams from fear as a visible feature of the “drive to survive” that originates in our “reptilian brain” (as described by Dr. Paul McLean and Dr. Henri Laborit).

When fear arises within us, we have an alternative with three options only: “escape behavior”, “combat behavior”, and “inhibition behavior” when neither escape nor combat is possible.

In the case we are debating about, our believers are overwhelmed by a situation too complex to be analyzed. As those believers feels they cannot escape this perception of their immediate surrounding (social surrounding in this instance) that frightens them because it is gives them “vertigo” as an abyss would do, they struggle to find an explanation, a justification (I prefer to call it an “alibi”) that is conceived, built, by the part of their brain called “cerebral cortex”. This alibi may be God, the “little green men”, a big and fanciful conspiracy theory, or anything pertaining to the same category of irrational beliefs.

Why irrational?

Because we are entering at this point a realm in which rationality claims above-the-average intelligence. One cannot expect that everyone is entitled to analyze how the whole world works from an economic, social, political, strategic, and technological standpoint, all at the same time. Those whose can’t can still turn to irrationality, which is another realm that is satisfying because it provides ready-to-consume and simple-to-explain descriptions.

The recourse to irrationality is to be put into the category of "escape behavior" –“this is much too complicated for me and I do not have the brain to get it, so I can get away from it in choosing a much simpler irrational option.” This process does not occur as clearly as I’m roughly describing it – as it is not as clear too when someone escape a situation in choosing to drink. Our subconscious does this work for the conscious part of our mind which, in turn, converts it into an explainable and acceptable “alibi”. But we cannot exert control over the unconscious part of our brain that is a collection of experiences we all start from infancy. And we all had a different infancy, a different social middle with very different experiences. If your parents were professors in a university, there is much chance for that your perception and your understanding of our social surrounding be very different of this of another person whose parents were farmers.

Well, I would be glad to push the matter farther (about behaviorism and brain), but it would make my answer a bit long (I’ll do it in a next answer, should the need arise). But I believe that I went far enough at this point to explain why our believer can give up his belief in a conspiracy theory only if you can provide him with a substitute.

Joseph Goebbels (sorry to quote twice such a person) knew too that it was much harder to convert to Nazism an indifferent, a passive person without opinion. This does not mean that an atheist is an indifferent, not at all. The atheist will need to believe in something too, anyways. We, who are reading this forum, are often atheists, but we believe in Objectivism, we believe in something nonetheless, because Objectivism, in our particular case, provides us with arguments that fit our perception of our social surrounding and of our analysis of the situation.

But what is going to happen to you and to me if ever the set of value and premises of Objectivism are taken out of our consciousness? We would be a bit unsettled - lost maybe. So let me assume that many among us would probably find refuge in Republican Conservatism.

That’s what would happen to our believer in conspiracy theory if we ask him to get rid of this other premise. He would be unsettled, lost. And he would instantly seek refuge in "something else". I let you with the choice to fill this other void.

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  • 8 months later...

there is generally a common theme to all conspiracy theories, the government ( or illumintai or whoever ) are taking away individual rights to increase personal power.

perhaps people who are drawn to conspiracy theories are actually looking to answer deeper questions about freedom, rights and society.

maybe it is more accessible ( a pop culture form ) of philosophy.

at the same time, there is often evidence supporting the theories. There is often obvious lies from the government. If you can admit they can lie, then the door is open.

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there is generally a common theme to all conspiracy theories, the government ( or illumintai or whoever ) are taking away individual rights to increase personal power.

perhaps people who are drawn to conspiracy theories are actually looking to answer deeper questions about freedom, rights and society.

maybe it is more accessible ( a pop culture form ) of philosophy.

at the same time, there is often evidence supporting the theories. There is often obvious lies from the government. If you can admit they can lie, then the door is open.

There's a common theme to conspiracy theories: they all use concepts and words. Concepts and words are a useful tool of thinking and communication, therefor conspiracy theories are at worst a more accessible form of logical thought.

I think both of these lines of reasoning fail to properly define conspiracy theories. Sure, they contain words, and they are about the government or some other group assuming undue power over individuals. But neither of those statements define them.

I haven't read the whole thread, so maybe I'm not adding anything new, but here's my Genus–differentia definition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genus%E2%80%93differentia_definition) of conspiracy theories anyway:

Genus: a theory about powerful men's actions/plans

Differentia: arbitrary.

In other words, what distinguishes conspiracy theories from other theories on the same subjects is that they're not based on actual evidence. They're meant to fill a void in a man's knowledge, but not by further studying reality, but rather by adopting whatever pure fantasy happens to fit into that hole, as truth.

Edited by Tanaka
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Genus: a theory about powerful men's actions/plans

Differentia: arbitrary.

In other words, what distinguishes conspiracy theories from other theories on the same subjects is that they're not based on actual evidence. They're meant to fill a void in a man's knowledge, but not by further studying reality, but rather by adopting whatever pure fantasy happens to fit into that hole, as truth.

Thanks.

You've supplied the proof for my hypothesis that conspiracy theories are essentially 'primacy of consciousness'.

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In other words, what distinguishes conspiracy theories from other theories on the same subjects is that they're not based on actual evidence. They're meant to fill a void in a man's knowledge, but not by further studying reality, but rather by adopting whatever pure fantasy happens to fit into that hole, as truth.

That definition does not quite square for me with individuals whom I have known who advocate conspiracies. They usually cite a wide range of historical facts and information. Rockefeller's letter to the governor of Colorado ordering him to send in the national guard to deal with the miners, for example, or the name change from Bauer to the "less Jewish sounding" Rothschild. The epistemological mistake is not, in my opinion, laziness or an unwillingness to research. They live for that.

I think that it has more to do with their reasoning and drawing of inferences without adequate support or proper rules of logic...Confusing causation, confirmation bias, and the like. That absence of reason leaves them no choice but to fill in the gaps with whatever makes sense to them or what they want to believe. Honestly, I'm surprised they don't make up a majority in the US since collecting and memorizing facts without the requisite methods needed to reason about them is modus operandi for most public education. Although revisionist history might fairly be considered and agreed upon set of conspiracies, so maybe they do.

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  • 2 weeks later...

It would be natural for that kind of conspiring mentality to search for conspiracies in the world.

I'm a newcomer here. I hope my response isn't too inane.

I think this may be an important part of it. People with "that kind of conspiring mentality" may well believe that everyone thinks the way they do - that is, they expect such conspiratorial behavior from everyone/everything - and so no one can be trusted to be honest or truthful. Seeking truth or even the existence of truth may have no meaning to these folks.

But this doesn't address the deeper question of what premise has gone awry to lead to this approach. There must be an underlying assumption, conscious or not, that all men are evil and so they must hate all men, including, unconsciously, themselves. I would think life, to such folks, must be a most unpleasant experience.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've entertained conspiracy theories. Not believed in any, but at least entertained them. The conspiratorial view offers explanations for certain observations that are hard to explain otherwise. I agree there isn't sufficient proof to conclude that these conspiracy theories are correct, but I can see why people find them attractive explanations. I actually find conspiracy theories a lot less irrational than what people on the left believe.

Edited by iflyboats
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