You basically have two choices when it comes to a daunting problem like climate change, says Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor at the University of Bristol who studies the psychology and cognitive theory of conspiracy theories. “You can either accept the science and say, ‘we have to deal with this problem,’ and then look for the solutions least offensive to your worldview. Or you say, ‘the problem doesn’t exist!’ You deny the problem. The moment you do that, you have to figure out how to justify that to yourself.”
Conspiracy theories are security blankets. They protect those that uphold them from their own responsibility in the crisis in question — mass shooting conspiracists don’t want to confront their attachment to guns, an anti-Semitic conspiracist wants to believe she lost her job because of a Jewish world domination plot, and climate conspiracists don’t want to change their behavior.
That’s part of it, but I think conspiracy theories also offer an illusion of control to the people that believe in them. Sure, maybe you are not in control of history, or of the global banking system, or of the pharmaceutical industry, but it is reassuring nonetheless to imagine that someone is in control. Better that than the reality that no one is in charge, that whole thing is a big chaotic pile of selfish, stupid individuals making bad, short-sighted decisions.
Conspiracy theories have the added benefit of promising their adherents special knowledge. If you can decode the secret texts, string the yarn between just the right sequence of grainy photographs and cut-out newspaper articles in your wall, your eyes will be opened and it will all make sense. All this crazy stuff that seems unpredictable and chaotic will all fit together, but only you will see that pattern.
It is a completely empty promise, of course, but reading the news every day, even I have to admit that it might be better if it was all at least going according to someone’s plan.