Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving The Crises of Expertise and Belief: Sample Chapter

The Crises of Expertise and Belief: Sample Chapter

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Van Prooijen (2018) describes the enabling effects of a conspiracy theory. First, the conspiracy theory enables those who believe in this theory to demonize outsiders. Extremist fringe groups make rather sharp distinctions between “us” versus “them.” Conspiracy theories enable these groups to solidify a strong identity among their members by fueling aversion against different groups. The second form of enablement is engaged when a conspiracy theory directs extremist groups to discredit criticism within the group. Dissenting voices may threaten the cohesion of extremist groups, but conspiracy theories enable these groups to portray critics as part of a hostile conspiratorial threat.

There is a third form of enablement. Conspiracy theories can give extremist fringe groups the feeling that the threat is existential and that violence is the only remaining option to protect themselves and their way of life. More specifically, conspiracy theories can add to the sense that the group – or the cause that the group stands for – is under imminent attack by a hostile enemy. There is an urgent need for an adequate response. A peaceful reaction is unlikely to be effective.

Conspiracy theories may have always been with us. We envisioned the threat of a neighboring tribe or the mal intentions of that family living down the street. These theories are a natural function of people attempting to understand a complex and increasingly rapidly-changing (VUCA-Plus) world. These theories are a guide for developing reasons and rationales that serve a protective function. In terms of the formal definition of a conspiracy theory, there is always some form of threat that is omnipresent, multifaceted and complex. People viscerally respond to these threats by attempting to identify patterns, causality and culpability:

“Such illusory pattern perception is a result of the evolved human tendency to make sense of the world and, by extension, could produce a sensitivity to conspiracy theories” (National Institute of Health, nd1).

These threats are almost always perceived to be orchestrated by powerful individuals in out-groups. When leaders and experts associated with these out-groups attempt to explain the dynamics of what is emerging (like Covid-19, terrorist threats, economic hardship etc.) they are almost always disbelieved by in-groups. In effect, any expert attempting to explain away a threat, is perceived as part of the threat.

Conspiracy theorists are almost always at odds with experts in the specific field of science involved in dealing with threatening social issues such as Covid, other diseases, terrorism (9/11) and disasters such as war or assassinations (Uscinski, 2018a). Uscinski notes that going back to 1956, observers have noted that science and experts were often powerless at the hands of conspiracy theories. One can imagine the frustration experienced by experts and medical scientists such as Doctor Anthony Fauci when confronted by angry cynics who reject almost all scientific logic and reasoning ultimately to their own detriment.

The Nature and Function of Conspiracy Theories

Uscinski (2018a) considers a conspiracy theory to be an explanation of events – past, current or potential future – that includes the notion that a small group of powerful and secretive people are acting for their own diabolical benefits and to the disadvantage of society in general (or at least to the in-group). These powerful individuals or groups are always considered dangerous – they have power and will leverage that power over others that don’t. Conspiracy theories, by definition, have not been proven – indeed if they are or can be proven, they are no longer considered conspiracy theories.

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