Conspiracy theories and conspiracies without the theory

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Creation Date November 27th, 2019
Updated Date Updated May 7th, 2020
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From Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein, conspiracy theories are more common than ever. They're also a symptom of a larger divide in how we receive, process, and value information. These episodes explain what's happening and what we can do about it. I originally curated this list for the Hurt Your Brain newsletter by Erik Jones.
  1. How can you be sure that the things you know are true… are actually true? We have access to more information than any humans in history but we can't process it on our own. In fact, almost all of what we know comes from others. We come to rely on people and institutions to tell us what to believe and not to believe. And it turns out there are huge consequential differences in how Americans form those relationships, relationships which serve as the building blocks for how we shape our own views of the world. So what happens when someone tries to manipulate that trust? If you ask David Roberts, you need only look at the current conservative movement to get your answer.Email us at WITHpod@gmail.comTweet using #WITHpodRead more at
  2. The “birthers”, “Pizzagate”, anti-vaxxers. Since the election of Donald Trump, it’s seemed that belief in conspiracy theories is on the rise. At the same time, our polarization is worse than ever. People can hardly even maintain a conversation across political or cultural lines. Could the underlying force driving conspiracy theories also be the same one that’s dividing our country? University of Chicago Political Science Professor Eric Oliver, who’s been studying conspiracy theories for over a decade, says his research shows how one basic tension explains both belief in conspiracy theories and our political divide. Deeper than red or blue, liberal or conservative, we’re actually divided by intuitionists and rationalists. Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.
  3. From Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein, conspiracies seem to be more prominent than ever in American political discourse. What was once confined to the pages of supermarket tabloids is now all over our media landscape. Unlike the 9/11 truthers or those who questioned the moon landing, these conspiracies are designed solely to delegitimize a political opponent — rather than in service of finding the truth. As you might imagine, this is problematic for democracy. Democracy scholars Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum call it “conspiracy without the theory” and unpack the concept in their book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Russell is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth. Nancy is the Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics at Harvard. As you’ll hear, the new conspiricism is a symptom of a larger epistemic polarization that’s happening throughout the U.S. When people no longer agree on a shared set of facts, conspiracies run wild and knowledge-producing institutions like the government, universities, and the media are trusted less than ever. This is not one of our optimistic episodes, but it’s one worth listening to. Additional Information A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy A look at the science of conspiracy theories from The University of Chicago’s Big Brains podcast Interview Highlights [5:30] What is the new conspiracism and how does it differ from what we’ve seen in the past? Nancy: In the past we’ve had conspiracy theory. That is an explanation that works the way any explanation works which is in terms of evidence and dots and patterns that often try to make the unbelievable believable and the unconceivable conceivable. What we have now is conspiracy without the theory. That is the two things have become decoupled. And we have claims of a conspiracy that come without the dots, without the patterns, without the evidence, without the argument. [6:23] When did you begin to see this pattern emerge? Russell: As scholars of parties, we-we kind of take an interest in conspiracism and conspiratorial thinking. Parties were-were thought of as conspiracies before the idea of a legitimate opposite took hold. That’s how parties were-were conceived. We began to notice that um, that today’s conspiracism involves are assertion, like a one-word accusation like rigged, onstead of an effort to carefully explain the world as it is. It’s more of an effort to impose um, a kind of unreality and idiosyncratic understanding of the world on others, rather than to describe the world as it is. [10:24] What’s the goal of the new conspiracism? Russell: Often, the goal is certainly not to equip us to really understand our world so that we can navigate our way, you know, control you might say our fate more successfully. Classic conspiracism starts with something in the world that many people have hard time understanding, like the September 11 attacks. If you look at Pizzagate on the other hand, what is that trying to explain? It doesn’t take a world that’s hard to explain and make it more understandable. It takes a world that’s shared, that’s transparent and makes it one that is very disorienting, confusing, and disempowering. Nancy: The validation of these claims has nothing to do with argument or evidence or dots or patterns. It has to do with the number of followers. And that, I think that explains part of the importance of social media for this kind of conspiracism. It’s obvious that it increases the scope of it and the speed of the spread of these things. But these Tweets and Facebook likes and so on actually allow you to measure that a lot of people are saying this. [14:46] What is epistemic polarization and how does it relate to conspiracy? Russell: Epistemic polarization bears on whether we think something really happened, or didn’t really happen. It gets at the basic factual question of how many people were there on the Washington mall on that particular day of the inauguration? And once we can’t even agree on the most elemental aspects of our shared reality, it starts to become really hard not just to compromise, it becomes really hard even to disagree intelligibly with each other. [19:13] Is there an opportunity for things to go in a different direction? Russell: One of things that Nancy and I think is really crucial is that people who really care about politics understand that this, this force the new conspiracism which might seem to help their cause really ends up destroying it. We’re hopeful that if we can reveal how, how universally destructive this is, people will understand that t’s not friendly to any cause, and that partisan officials will be more courageous in standing up to it. [22:20] What role does the media play in spreading conspiracy? Nancy: I think that what’s important about social media for this kind of conspiracism is, is just the numbers of people who like and retweet and tweet, because it’s what gives, it’s a form of political participation that gives them gratification and it gives validation to these crazy claims. I will say that there are some studies that show that it’s not just social media, that we shouldn’t put all of our emphasis on it and trying to explain what happens. That Fox News for example has enormous audiences, and enormous audiences of people who aren’t necessarily paranoid and conspiracist or even going along with this stuff. And insofar as this is the news they get, or insofar as this is the discussion or the news that goes on in local, you know channels, where most people still get their news, through these things. It’s, dangerous and unstoppable so long as these privately-owned corporations that find that their profits go up when they do this. [28:05] Can common sense serve as a counter to the new conspiracism? Russell: If I say, looking back to the dawn of democracy, and Thomas Payne in his essay is that, you know modern democracy was founded on this conviction that the, that they might say, you don’t want to use the word common sense, the epistemic capacities of ordinary citizens are sufficient for, for them to understand the world in a way that equips them to make good decisions. We believe that this basic capacity is, we, we share the faith that is widely distributed across the entire population, and, and that it can prevail. And so we really do want to call on people to use their common sense in responding to things that seem too fabulous to be true. They just very well might be untrue.
  4. American society is deeply divided at this moment—not just on values and opinions but on basic perceptions of reality. In their latest book, One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2019), Morgan Marietta and David Barker attribute such division to the natural human tendency towards having different versions of reality. They introduce the concept of ‘dueling fact perceptions’ based on years of research, and for our interview, Morgan Marietta explains how they arrived at such conclusions and their implications for our country’s future. We have a sobering conversation about how fact-checking and greater education will not fix the problem of dueling fact perceptions, and we address the importance of trust—in our politicians, media, and other information sources—can ultimately shape how we use information to advance our beliefs. This interview is essential for those seeking to making sense of our current political climate and will provide realistic but thoughtful answers to many of your persistent questions about it.Morgan Marietta is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he studies the political consequences of belief. His prior books include The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric: Absolutist Appeals and Political Influence, and A Citizen’s Guide to American Ideology: Conservatism and Liberalism in Contemporary Politics. He and co-author David Barker write the "Inconvenient Facts" blog at Psychology Today.Eugenio Duarte, Ph.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing in Miami. He treats individuals and couples, with specialties in gender and sexuality, eating and body image problems, and relationship issues. He is also a university psychologist at Florida International University’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center, where he coordinates the eating disorders service. He is a graduate and faculty of William Alanson White Institute and former chair of their LGBTQ Study Group. He is also a contributing author to the book Introduction to Contemporary Psychoanalysis: Defining Terms and Building Bridges (Routledge, 2018). Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
  5. On this episode of Reveal, we look at #Pizzagate. This story takes us into the world of right-wing Twitter trolls, pro-Trump political operatives and fake-news profiteers from St. Louis to Macedonia. Reveal unravels how this conspiracy theory spread and tries to answer one big question: How did America become a post-truth country? — To explore more reporting, visit or find us on, Twitter @reveal or Instagram @revealnews.

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