Last week I interviewed Brett Salkeld for the PFG podcast. He’s a theologian who has written some great insights about conspiratorial thinking. That episode will be released in a couple of weeks, but as a preview, I wanted to share this post I wrote a couple of years ago about the same topic.
Since the pandemic and the election I’ve seen an increase in conspiracy theories being spread both online and in person. When I hear a conspiracy theory, my gut says, "that's not right" or "this is crazy" but I often don't know how to articulate exactly what is wrong with it or how to respond.
I recently came across some resources (linked below) by Brett Salkeld, a theologian for the Archdiocese of Regina, Canada, that have really helped me recognize conspiratorial thinking and know better how to respond.
Salkeld made the point that what makes a conspiracy theory a conspiracy theory isn't just the content of what's being said, but the way it's being argued. He compared it to a math problem. If a student in algebra class answers a test question correctly but, upon inspection of how she came to her answer, the teacher realizes she just guessed, the student won't get credit. Simply getting lucky with an answer isn't enough.
So the problem with conspiracy theories isn't that they are talking about conspiracies—conspiracies do happen in the real world—the problem with conspiracy theories is the conspiratorial thinking, the way something is being argued.
So right away we see a distinction between critical thinking and conspiratorial thinking. We all should be critical thinkers, but while conspiratorial thinking presents itself as critical, it's really the opposite.
Critical thinking looks for evidence and comes to conclusions, or changes conclusions, based on the evidence. Conspiratorial thinking, however, has pre-established conclusions in search of the evidence to support them. There's a tendency to not critically examine if a source or piece of evidence is true and reasonable as long as it aligns with previously held conclusions.
Conspiratorial thinking also selectively uses authorities. For example, someone saying that we cannot trust the mainstream media but then when the mainstream media reports something they agree with saying, "Look, even the mainstream media says this is true!"
Also, while conspiratorial thinking claims to be critical, unbiased, or objective vs. those who believe anything they hear from mainstream sources, it's really just swapping trust in one authority for another authority. Except conspiratorial thinking denies that its conclusions are built on trust as much as anybody else's conclusions are.
Human beings cannot know anything except through trust. At a most basic level we must trust that our five senses can actually tell us about the world around us and we trust that our minds can make reasonable sense of that information.
More than that, society cannot function without trust. We trust the mechanic when he says our vehicle is safe to drive. We trust the surgeon when she says we have a tumor that needs to be removed. We trust farmers, packers, and grocery stores that our milk isn't poisoned.
If we didn't trust authorities we would go crazy from suspicion and fear. But also, we wouldn't have time to do anything else but confirm everything for ourselves. If we stopped trusting experts then everyone has to become a medical expert, but if everyone spends time and resources becoming medical experts then they won't be able to spend time and resources becoming engineers or teachers or farmers and society wouldn’t be able to function. Salkeld wrote:
“At the root of conspiracy theory thinking is often precisely this refusal to acknowledge one’s faith commitments. But in conspiracy theory thinking, this takes on a kind of inverted form. The conspiracy theorist on your social media feed is, at one and the same time, both the loudest in their assertion to be a critical thinker and also the least likely to have their mind changed by evidence.
A critical thinker is skeptical of various claims made by all kinds of media outlets. It is healthy and necessary to double-check claims, investigate sources, distinguish between facts and interpretation. This is what conspiracy theorists imagine themselves to be doing.
In reality, however, the conspiracy theorist has crossed the line from healthy skepticism into unhealthy suspicion. This leads to the ironic situation in which they reflexively reject any and all facts that do not comport with their preconceived notions and accept almost any claims at all, even mutually contradictory claims, provided that those claims counter what they take to be the mainstream narrative.”
Now, in our reaction to conspiratorial thinking, we are tempted to just automatically distrust anything and everything a specific person or outlet says, but that isn't critical thinking either. It is important to critically investigate claims or wait for additional media outlets to report a story before blindly accepting, or rejecting, whatever is being said.
Finally, as I was thinking through all of this, I asked myself why would someone fall into conspiratorial thinking? Like many things, I think it's because of fear. Specifically, fear of being taken advantage of or the fear of being deceived.
This fear may come from experiences of being deceived in the past. I've known people who were habitual liars, master manipulators. They would spin tales that at first, sometimes for weeks or months, seemed real. But then their stories would unravel and I was left not only feeling hurt, but also doubting my ability to know what's true and wondering if I can really trust anyone. And my experiences with people like this have been mild compared to others.
Or the fear may come from being in an ideological minority and having a defensive and suspicious posture towards the secular world.
Regardless of what experiences may have provoked this fear, I believe it is ultimately rooted in a lack of trust in who God is. If we doubt God's goodness and his power then we become afraid of what's out of our control and in turn we may try and grasp at control ourselves. I think conspiratorial thinking is that kind of grasping.
In any case, if you're struggling to know how to recognize or respond to conspiracy theories, I hope these resources are a help to you:
Catholic Creationism as a Conspiracy Theory
Faith, Reason, and Conspiracy Theories
The Critical Catholic (two part interview)