The Conspiracy Theory of Society

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The QAnon conspiracy theory posits that "a cabal of Satanic, cannibalistic pedophiles run a global child sex trafficking ring which conspired against former President Donald Trump during his term in office." These pedophiles are presumed to be powerful members of society, many of them Democrats.

Although patently untrue, according to a new poll, roughly fifteen percent of Americans embrace the foundational tenet of QAnon – that a cadre of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controls the government, media, and financial sectors. A similar proportion agreed that "Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country."

Though concerning for its prevalence and apparent predilection to violence, we can take minor comfort in the knowledge that the QAnon movement is nothing new. Grand conspiracy theories suggesting that societies are controlled by secret groups have been around for centuries. Past notions have blamed Reptilians, the Illuminati, and a New World Order for humanity's ills. Ordinary people aren't in control, they are.

The omnipresence of these theories caught the attention of philosopher of science Karl Popper. In 1972, he created a term to collectively describe them: "The Conspiracy Theory of Society".

"The conspiracy theory of society is just a version of... theism, of a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything," Popper explained. "It comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’ His place is then filled by various powerful men and groups—sinister pressure groups, who are to be blamed for having planned the great depression and all the evils from which we suffer."

He continued.

"The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as to collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men."

But a great irony of these grand conspiracy theories is that they often only become real when the people who espouse them gain power, Popper wrote.

"The conspiracy theory of society is very widespread, and has very little truth in it. Only when conspiracy theoreticians come into power does it become something like a theory that accounts for things which actually happen (a case of what I have called the ‘Oedipus Effect’). For example, when Hitler came into power, believing in the conspiracy myth of the Learned Elders of Zion, he tried to outdo their conspiracy with his own counter-conspiracy."

History has told us that when grand conspiracies actually do occur, they don't remain in the shadows, and they regularly fall apart. Think Watergate, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or Big Tobacco concealing evidence that cigarettes caused cancer. When more and more people are involved in a conspiracy, the plot will inevitably disintegrate. This, for example, provides strong evidence that the Apollo moon landings weren't faked. Roughly 400,000 people would have been in on it, and after more than fifty years, some would have 'spilled the beans,' whether intentionally or inadvertently.

To Popper, the human proclivity to make mistakes, to create unintended consequences, is the strongest argument against any "Conspiracy Theory of Society" actually being true.

"It is one of the striking things about social life that nothing ever comes off as intended. Things always turn out a little bit differently. We hardly ever produce in social life precisely the effect that we wish to produce, and we usually get things that we do not want into the bargain."

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