At its most basic, a conspiracy theory is any theory involving a number of organized people at work in secrecy toward their own agendas, which generally run counter to commonly held morals or the common good.
However, the term "conspiracy theory" is often used in a more specific fashion. Not only does it describe a theory involving secret conspiracies, but the evidence of such a conspiracy is largely hearsay and often sensational, with the conspiracy itself given as explanation for the lack of proof.
The Example of the Satanic PanicThe Satanic Panic of the 1980s (which continues to attract smaller number of believers even today) was based on the idea of thousands or even millions of American Satanists working together to undermine America. The most immediate threat was the supposed ritual abuse of hundreds of children, most abducted from schools and day-cares.
The evidence ranged from everything from sensational and lurid tales of abuse, torture and murder that had no obvious source to groups of children who admitted being taken (often after much encouragement) but who couldn't agree with each other on any of the details.
Why Do So Many Embrace These Theories?Conspiracy theories generally threaten things very dear to us. If we feel our children are in danger, it's only logical that we will do everything to neutralize that danger.
Conspiracy theories often provide plenty of anecdotes about how real the danger is, and the details are often shocking, which provokes a gut reaction against it.
Finally, conspiracy theories often provide easy scapegoats for societal ills. The Satanic Panic has commonly been equated to the historical witch-hunts. People feel more in control when there is a tangible villain, particularly when they are within reach of "justice."
How to Avoid Falling for Conspiracy TheoriesCertainly there are bad people in this world, and if you are concerned that you might have encountered one, it is certainly reasonable to investigate, be cautious, and, if necessary, notify others. But don't let gut feelings overrule rationality.
Consider the "evidence" before you. If someone tells you that a group is doing horrible things, what is the evidence of these horrible things? The stories may be quite detailed, particularly in regards to the crime itself. Consider asking yourself these questions:
- Where is my source getting this information? Were they an eyewitness (good source), a friend of an eyewitness (potentially problematic), or someone who heard it from someone else, even if that source is "trustable"? "My pastor told me this story about…" is still hearsay, no matter how nice the pastor might be.
- Is there a news article associated with this source? These stories frequently describe major crimes. Major crimes get covered in the news.
- Does the story have identifying details? Names of people involved, a location, a year?
- If the evidence is a case of connecting the dots (such as something in the crime being symbolic of something else), were you able to form that connection yourself, or did it have to be explained to you by the person telling the story? A little fact checking often quickly disproves those sorts of "facts."
Finally, remembering to be objective and skeptical does not necessarily equate to accusing your source of lying. Most people who spread conspiracy theories honestly believe in them. But just because someone believes in something doesn't mean it real.