Now, I love hearing a good conspiracy theory. Who wouldn't want to hear about a secret Pentagon spaceship piloted exclusively by Sasquatches? (Short answer: they're leaving Earth because humans invented camera phones.) 

And yet, I have a real problem with conspiracy theorists. For me, it’s sorta like Star Trek: love the stories, can’t stand the fan club. But I’ve noticed that these theories all seem to follow the same basic narrative structure. They’re all high-stakes political thrillers with tons of intrigue, government corruption at the highest level, scientists that no one takes seriously, and a whole lot of “by God, if we don’t do something about this now the world as we know it will be doomed.” And just like any form of entertainment, I’ve noticed quite a few plot holes, and I have some questions.

“Just … Why?”

The goal of every conspiracy theory is to try to give a simple explanation to something we cannot comprehend or are unwilling to accept, to give some sense of order to all of the chaos. It’s just a flashy answer to the age-old philosophical question of “Why?” Well, let’s throw that question right back at the conspiracy theorists: Why? What reasons do you have to believe these things? No, seriously, what are the real reasons you choose to believe them?

fist punching

Dan Burton/Unsplash

Note: These are also 8 questions to get conspiracy theorists to punch you in the throat. 

According to an article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, three key reasons people are compelled to believe in conspiracy theories. The first is their desire to understand the world around them, but they’re not willing to accept an answer that doesn’t automatically jibe with their own worldview. Accepting the ugly truth might go against their most deep-seated beliefs, so instead they latch on to a comfortable lie. 

The second reason is their need to have some form of control in their lives. These people have already reached a comfort level, and any inconvenient truth that threatens to take them out of that bubble must be fake news. Anything that might force them to accept responsibility for their behavior going forward has got to be some sort of a hoax, right? 

“Is This About You Being Right, Or Do You Just Wanna Make Other People Appear Wrong?”

The third and possibly most common reason people believe in conspiracy theories is because it makes them feel special. The further down the internet rabbit hole these people go, the more they uncover supposedly privileged information the infamous “they” don’t want anyone to know about, and that leads them to believe that they now know more than even the world’s foremost experts on the subject. But worse than that, it also makes them cocky enough to pick a fight with everyone they encounter online. And now, we witness the Dunning-Kruger Effect evolving into a Debate-Me-Bro.

Woman Lying on her back Covering her mouth with a marked hand

piqsels

Chris uses interrupt. It's super effective!

Let’s stop referring to this culture as “the marketplace of ideas” because that label is being way too generous. If anything, it’s a flea market of brain worms. It’s a rap battle for people who have never heard a song before. It’s a dick-measuring contest where no one brought a ruler and nobody drops trou.

Engaging in a debate with an internet troll is a pointless endeavor, mainly because at least three of those words do not accurately describe the experience. It is not that engaging, trolls are supposed to let you pass after you answer their riddles, and it sure as hell is not a debate. In a proper debate, there are rules. There are time limits. You’re required to be civil, organized, and clown emojis are not allowed.

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“OK … What Are You Selling?”

There is now a fourth reason conspiracy theories are so prevalent lately: It’s become a hugely profitable business model. The doomsayers used to be relegated to dark web bulletin boards and self-published manifestos, but now many of them have gone mainstream and built their own media empires. If it feels like conspiracy theories are getting crazier every day, it’s because they’re designed that way for a reason. Outrageous, inflammatory rhetoric generates clicks, and clicks boost ad revenue. Then the algorithms kick in and start suggesting similar content. Lather, rinse, repeat, and don’t forget to like, comment, share, subscribe, check out our Patreon, and buy our merch!

A woman who enters her bank details while shopping online.

Pickawood/Unsplash

There's a conspiracy behind these conspiracy theories, and it's no mere theory. 

Cynical? Absolutely, but it’s still a valid point. People like Alex Jones didn’t get where they are because of their bubbly personalities. No, they’re successful because they know how to scare their listeners and make them exit through the gift shop. 

Like modern American gun culture, the message comes out to, “Society could collapse at any moment, so stock up on our line of food buckets and tactical cargo pants! They’re putting chemicals in the water supply that’ll turn us all into beta male soy boys, so use the promo code ALPHA for a discount on our wide range of branded water filters and testosterone booster supplements (warning: may contain soy)!”

When the herald of the apocalypse tells you they accept credit cards, be skeptical. You know how you’ll know when the world is really coming to an end? When survival gear no longer comes with free shipping and overnight delivery. 

“You’ve Never Been In A Group Project, Have You?”

Every human being is fallible, and if you think you’re an exception to that rule … there’s your flaw. Regardless of your talent, your training, or your confidence, there is always a chance you could mess something up. When multiple people work together, one person’s strengths might balance out some of the others' weaknesses, but everyone involved brings with them their own unique potential to completely screw the pooch. That is true of any group project, be it in a classroom or the workplace, and if the tiniest speck of shit hits the fan, people will hear about it … but that strangely never seems to happen in a conspiracy theory, does it?

Girl Programming on a laptop

Árpád Czapp/Unsplash

No, an all-caps anonymous forum post doesn't count as "people hearing about it." 

Every shadow government and super secret organization hellbent on world domination has the most extreme hiring criteria ever. They have to recruit an entire workforce capable of pulling off the impossible, in total secrecy, without making a single mistake along the way. But they also have to find enough dirt on each of their members to completely discredit anyone who tries to blow the whistle on the operation. Oh, and not to mention disloyalty could also be punishable by a mysterious and unsolvable death. Can you imagine how stressful it must be to get called into a meeting with that HR department? 

“Couldn’t They Accomplish The Same Goal Without Being So Cartoonishly Evil?”

Let’s ruin a movie: Thanos already had everything he needed to succeed ten minutes into Avengers: Infinity War. His goal was to use all of the Infinity Stones to eliminate half of all life in the universe. He had already spent years traveling from planet to planet killing half of the population with his army. By the ten-minute mark of Infinity War, he had acquired the Space Stone, which would allow him to travel to anywhere in the universe instantly, and he had already taken the Power Stone, which meant he could kill an entire planet if he wanted to. 

With just those two stones, he could have achieved his goal a million times easier than he could before, and without needing spaceships or armies. He could just teleport, genocide, teleport, genocide.

Avengers assemble

Walt Disney Pictures

"Thanos, we have united to stop you, and ... damn, he's gone again. And now, he murdered Naboo."

The only reason he went after the other stones was to be a greedy, dramatic prick. But since Marvel had spent 18 movies building up to this, and Robert Downey, Jr.’s solid gold pool house wasn’t gonna pay for itself, they had to stretch the plot out to 2.5 hours plus a 3-hour sequel. The end result was awesome, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t exactly practical.

But that’s how big event movies have warped people’s minds on conspiracies. No one is gonna give a shit unless the stakes are ludicrously high and there are tons of A-list celebrities involved. If you were to tell people that there’s a cabal of Satanic child sex traffickers harvesting their victims’ adrenal glands to make psychedelic drugs, you’d get laughed out of that pitch meeting. But if you say Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey are attached to the project, that will get you some press. 

oprah winfrey

aphrodite-in-nyc/Wiki Commons

"We already hate her and/or love her, you see, because she is richer than us."

That’s why theories like QAnon make no damn sense. They wouldn’t have to go to that much trouble. If Oprah really was a Satanist, she wouldn’t need to hide it. She could just select The Necronomicon for her book club, and two weeks later soccer moms everywhere would be sacrificing virgins. Tom Hanks wouldn’t need to harvest children’s organs to make drugs when it’d be much easier for him to take whatever his son Chet is on these days.

Another example would be the rumor that Bill Gates is putting a microchip in the COVID vaccine to track everyone who gets the shot. According to Forbes, he is currently the fourth-richest man on the planet, and the other 99 people in the top 100 are way more likely to be a Bond villain than he is. If Gates truly wanted to track people’s activities, he would’ve either hidden a subroutine in the Windows source code decades ago, or he would’ve made a smartphone that people actually wanted to buy. 

“Does That Technology Even Exist?”

One of the weirdest tropes in conspiracy theories is when they involve the use of outrageous technology that even Roland Emmerich would think is lazy writing, and that guy’s next movie is about the moon falling. Yeah, a movie where the moon just … falls

Back to the Bill Gates vaccine microchip theory … If you honestly think a microchip that could fit through a 25-gauge medical needle would be powerful enough to send out a tracking signal, then you obviously haven’t seen someone pay for their groceries using an Apple Watch. Just so we’re clear: a $400 top-of-the-line smartwatch can barely conduct a payment an inch away from the reader, but a microscopic implant they’re secretly giving out for free can be picked up by satellites in outer freaking space?

Microchip implant in a cat

Joelmills/Wiki Commons

Yes, we inject chips into pets. But no, we can't use those to track them. 

Even if you were to accept that the incredible technology “they” are using in these theories was actually real, it doesn’t mean they’re using it wisely. If the U.S. Government really did have devices that could control the weather, why do nearly all deadly hurricanes head towards the United States? If George Soros really had a space laser, wouldn’t his critics would be piles of ash by now? If MKUltra was anywhere close to perfecting mass mind control, advertising would’ve tricked us into buying all of our products from just a handful of corporate conglomerates-wait … that one kinda checks out.

“How Do You Make A Peanut Butter And Jelly Sandwich?”

This is gonna be a weird analogy, but bear with me here. Grab a sheet of paper and write down instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Next, have a friend go into the kitchen and try to make that sandwich using only the literal wording of your instructions. They are not allowed to improvise or fill in any steps they know you forgot to include.

jar peanut butter

Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash

"Put the peanut butter ..."
"What, all of it? Cool, got you."

The sandwich you receive is gonna be horrible, and here’s why: Unless you were freakishly meticulous with your PB&J instructions, you most likely skipped over multiple minute details that your common sense, not your friend’s, would’ve filled in. Maybe you forgot to specify what kind of bread to use, or tell them to open the jars, or use a plate … And now your friend just handed you a couple of leftover garlic knots with two jars smashed between them. Bon appétit!

When trying to convey to another person how events are supposed to happen, the human brain tends to paint the picture with an extremely broad brush. Step 1 and step 2 might make sense together in the abstract, but when you start to break it down into step 1a, 1b, 1c, etc. you may find a detail (or lack thereof) that sends the whole thing crumbling down. Now that you’ve seen how that principle could ruin something as simple as a sandwich, shouldn’t potentially world-changing conspiracy theories be held to the same standard?

door

Dima Pechurin/Unsplash

For instance, the famous "there are no doors" theory falls apart, when you consider all the doors. 

It’s not even about demanding proof of these claims, it’s about filling in the gaps in the narrative. In order for a story of that magnitude to be remotely credible it has to be told in baby steps, not giant leaps in logic. No expert in any field needs to disprove anything you’re saying when your theory wouldn’t even get a passing grade in a creative writing course.

“What Happens If You’re Right?”

The one thing that all great conspiracy theories have in common is they all seem to be perpetually stuck in the middle act of the movie. The bad guys and their motivations have been established. We sorta have an idea of the magnitude of the threat we’re facing. If the story even has a hero, they're really not doing a great job saving the day so far. But let’s just assume the theories are correct and cut straight to the climactic showdown. Who do you think is gonna win?

Thanos

Walt Disney Pictures

Probably whoever already has two infinity stones. 

It’s pretty safe to assume that any shadowy group that secretly rules the world (and/or wants to destroy it) is not going down like a Scooby Doo villain if they are finally exposed. They didn’t spend all that time, money, and effort to devise that evil plan without having contingencies. Most likely, they’re just gonna accelerate their backup plan, which might not get them everything they initially wanted, but at least now they don’t have to be subtle. If you thought the New World Order sounded bad before, now imagine the store-brand version!

And to all of the internet sleuths who busted this case wide open: What are you expecting, a cookie? Are you gonna be the leaders of the resistance now? If these boogeymen were half as powerful and dangerous as you had made them out to be, your best-case scenario is you’ll be the smuggest person at the prison camp.

As the old saying goes, perhaps the greatest conspiracy is there is no conspiracy. Maybe the world is just a pile of chaos held together with dumb luck and wishful thinking. It’s comforting to believe that ultimately there’s someone to blame for this world not being an absolute paradise, but you have to keep things in perspective. Because while we’re distracted trying to guess who’s pulling the strings behind the curtain, the leaders in front of the curtain are not shy about what they’re actually doing. 

Top image: Kajetan Sumila/Unsplash

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