Why do we embrace conspiracy theories?
May 6th, 2011
04:17 PM ET

Why do we embrace conspiracy theories?

by Fareed Zakaria, CNN

A number of you on Facebook and Twitter have been asking me about the “birthers” and “deathers” (the former question Obama’s birth; the latter question bin Laden’s death). These questions got me thinking about the prevalence of conspiracy theories in America and around the world.  Here’s what I think:

The propensity of Americans to embrace conspiracy theories has long been attributed to their great suspicion of state authority. America was founded as a revolt against centralized power and there has always been a fear of coordinated action taking place in the dark behind closed doors. American conspiracy theories implicate Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. government, the intelligence community and many others. But conspiracy theories are certainly not confined to the United States.

Pakistan is rife with them. A leading Pakistani journalist, Jugnu Mohsin (who will be on GPS this Sunday at 10am ET/PT), attributes conspiracy theories in her country to a population that feels deeply disenfranchised. There are so many double and triple games being played on them by the Pakistani military and the Pakistani establishment that it breeds conspiracy theories. The Arab world is also full of conspiracy theories and many analysts blame them on the prevalence of dictatorships.

Conspiracy theories are indeed an odd phenomenon since they are widely present in the world’s leading democracies and the world’s leading dictatorships. They can’t be entirely related to political institutions.

There must be something deep in the human psyche that makes us believe there are patterns to events – order, purpose and meaning.

The simplest alternate explanation to a conspiracy theory is usually incompetence. When people say, “Why did these things happen?” and then point to a series of seemingly implausible events, it’s usually because the government messed up. The right arm didn’t know what the left arm was doing. Government is made of human beings. They are remarkably ordinary in their ability to make mistakes.

There is also a certain amount of life which is luck, chance, coincidence and happenstance. You can’t always divine some larger pattern from the fact that two events seem related or happened in the same month. Often it is just chance.

As you see, I’m not particularly partial to conspiracy theories.

I can’t tell you how many times people ask me about the conspiracy of the Bilderberg Group. It is a conference I’ve occasionally been invited to and have attended once or twice.

If only the people who wrote the alarmist treatises on the Bilderberg Group were allowed in. They would be so utterly disappointed. It’s just a conference like dozens of others around the world. And anyway, the idea that a finance minister or a banker would say something with a group of 150 people that is any different than what he would say in public is crazy in today's world where everything leaks instantly. In my experience, they say the same fairly banal platitudes inside as they say outside.

So on the few occasions in my life when I’ve been inside centers of the conspiracy, I’ve been disappointed and relieved to find they were pretty much like the world on the outside.

Those are my thoughts. I invite you to join me on Facebook and Twitter to pose questions and continue the conversation.

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Topics: Culture • From Fareed • Reader Q&A

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