Wise Words Podcast Now available on all major podcast channels.


Suspicious Minds Book Summary – Rob Brotherton

What you will learn from reading Suspicious Minds:

– Why people believe conspiracy theories and the type of people more prone to believing them.

– How the human capacity to connect dots and read intentions can lead to creating theories that may or may not be true.

– The prototypical conspiracy theory and the key elements that great the conspiracist style.

Suspicious Minds Book Summary:

Suspicious minds is a fascinating book to read in the ‘age of disinformation’. It offers insights into why we are all conspiracy theorists to some extent in our lives and how our natural wiring gives rise to this style of thinking. 

A must read to have a more balanced view on conspiracy thinking in general and how people can come to believe these types of theories. If you have a friend of family member who’s insistent that their’s an insider plot that’s going to take over the world then this is the book that will help you understand that style of thinking and come to sympathise with it.


How common are conspiracy theories?

As for the idea that conspiracy theories are a fringe affair, nothing could be farther from the truth.

All told, huge numbers of people are conspiracy theorists when it comes to one issue or another. According to polls conducted over the last decade or so, around half of Americans think their government is probably hiding the truth about the 9/11 attacks. Almost four in ten suspect that climate change is a scientific fraud. Something like a third believe the government is likely hiding evidence of aliens. More than a quarter are worried about the New World Order


Rethinking conspiracy theories:

Much as a historian of art might speak of the motifs that collectively constitute the baroque style, or a music critic might parse the subtle differences between dubstep and grime, our task in distinguishing conspiracy theories from regular old theories about conspiracies is to identify some of the most important rhetorical themes, tropes, and commonalities that are share by the conspiracist style.

Plenty of journalists-or, at least, their headline-writing copy editors are happy to write off conspiracy theories as self-evidently delusional, judging by the frequency with which the term conspiracy theory is accompanied by adjectives like crazy, wacky, and debunked in the click-baiting headlines of otherwise more demure authors. Politicians, too, generally sling the term around when they want to imply that unflattering allegations are entirely unfounded

So pretty much everyone seems to agree that there is a distinction to be made. Conspiracy theories are bogus;  yet a claim of conspiracy that’s true isn’t really a conspiracy theory at all. Does that mean we can go ahead and define conspiracy theory as a false claim of conspiracy? Some scholars think so. According to historian Daniel Pipes’s definition, “a conspiracy theory the fear of a nonexistent conspiracy.” Some conspiracies are real, he admits, but conspiracy theories “exist only in the imagination.


The elements of a conspiracy theory:

The problem with going down this path is that it treats the distinction between true and false, real and imaginary as entirely uncomplicated -a matter of simply consulting the facts.

More importantly, getting hung up on determining whether a contested claim is true or false misses a crucial feature of the conspiracist style.

Kathryn Olmsted said it most clearly when she wrote that “a conspiracy theory is a proposal about a conspiracy that may or may not be true; it has not yet been proven.” At first glance, this might seem to simply invite more bickering about the definition of proven.

For believers, a theory may be true beyond doubt; for doubters, it may be unquestionably false. But that’s not the issue. Rob doesn’t say that conspiracy theories are unproven merely because they have failed to meet some evidential bar. Rob Brotherton suggests something deeper. Conspiracy theories are unproven by design.


1. Unproven by design:

Being as yet unproven is baked right into it. Even if you are convinced that it’s true, the theory itself tells us that the cover-up is ongoing. Kissinger hasn’t come clean, the public is still in the dark, the truth is yet to be fully revealed

As scholar Mark Fenster explained, conspiracy theories don’t merely aim to describe something that has happened; they purport to reveal undiscovered plots in the hopes of persuading the as yet un-alerted masses.

They come with a tacit admission that the ultimate truth is just out of reach, behind the next curtain, able to be glimpsed but not yet grasped. The conspiracy is forever being unraveled, but the holy grail of incontrovertible proof-the undeniable evidence that will alert the masses and finally topple the house of cards-has not yet been produced. Whether they turn out to be true or not, conspiracy theories, deep down, are unanswered questions.


2. You are being fooled by a group pulling the strings:

The second crucial element of the conspiracist style is the idea that we’re not merely being kept in the dark about something we are being actively fooled. In the world according to conspiracy theories, appearances mislead, and nothing is quite as it seems.


3. Explains anomalies:

As philosopher Brian Keeley has pointed out, by weaving every niggling anomaly into a grand unifying theory, conspiracy theories can look stronger than the official stories by sheer virtue of completeness.

Conspiracy theories “always explain more than competing theories, because by invoking a conspiracy, they can  explain both the data of the received account and the errant data that the received theory fails to explain.” But this apparent virtue, Keeley argues, is an illusion. You can find anomalies everywhere if you look hard enough. Our understanding of complex events will always contain errors, contradictions, and gaps.


4. Irrefutable logic:

Warren provided a stark—and particularly consequential—illustration of the final motif of the conspiracist style which we will include in our definition. Conspiracy theories are constructed around an unassailable, irrefutable logic, according  to which absolutely nothing can disprove the conspiracy-even evidence to the contrary.

If absence of evidence is evidence of conspiracy, the existence of contradictory evidence can be even more damning. For many 9/11 Truthers, the official investigations were at best willfully biased and incomplete, at worst entirely fraudulent, while videos of Osama Bin Laden taking credit for the attacks were faked using a lookalike.

Thanks to this self-insulating logic, attempting to refute a conspiracy theory is like nailing jelly to a wall. Since conspiracy theories are inherently unproven, the theory is always a work in progress, able to dodge refutation by inventing new twists and turns. Each debunking can be construed as disinformation designed to throw truth seekers off the scent, while the conspiracy theorists’ continued failure to blow the lid off the conspiracy merely testifies to the power of their enemy (and the gullibility of the masses)

Yet after all this it’s more thinking that unthinkingly dismissing every claim of conspiracy would be as misguided as uncritical acceptance. Sometimes appearances do deceive. Sometimes powerful forces do attempt to suppress evidence and sow misinformation. Sometimes even seemingly implausible and unimaginably malicious plots really do take place.


The concluding prototypical conspiracy theory:

The prototypical conspiracy theory is an unanswered question; it assumes nothing is as it seems; it portrays the conspirators as preternaturally competent; and as unusually evil; it is founded on anomaly hunting; and it is ultimately irrefutable.


Who believes conspiracy theories:

To buy into a claim that ticks the boxes of our definition, it would help if, for instance, you are open to any and all unproven allegations of conspiracy, if you habitually shun conventional wisdom, if you suspect that nothing happens by accident, if you’re into grand stories about good facing off against evil, if you have a penchant for connecting the dots between anomalies, and if you can sustain your belief whatever the evidence (or lack thereof).

All this illustrates one of the central features of the conspiracy mindset. Conspiracism is a lens through which the world can be viewed, and it has the potential to distort everything in its field of view.


Conspiracism as a personality trait:

In short, the details of the theories don’t seem to matter much. If you know a person’s attitude toward one conspiracy theory, you can predict his or her attitudes toward other conspiracy theories with a fair degree of certainty, even when there is no obvious connection between the theories.

This is because your feelings about each individual conspiracy theory are determined in large part by the extent to which you buy into an overarching set of all-purpose assumptions about how the world works, like the idea that somebody is always engaged in deception, there is always more to events than meets the eye, we are never told the whole story—in other words, we might say, by how conspiracy minded you are. Seen in this light, conspiracism is a lot like any other personality trait.

Moreover, conspiracy theories appear to be especially popular among people with particularly good reason to feel powerless and discontented with society: members of racial or ethnic minorities (in the United States, at least, which is where all the research has been done).

Conspiracy theories seem to be popular among people suffering a surfeit of paranoia, as well as people who find themselves alienated from mainstream society and feeling like they are at the mercy of forces outside of themselves. And it’s tempting to stop there, having neatly confirmed our stereotypes about the paranoid fringe. But if we did stop there, we would have seen only one small piece of a much bigger puzzle. For all Hofstadter’s insight, he failed to grasp the true scope of conspiracism.


Paranoia and conspiratorial thinking:

It is precisely when our sense of control is threatened that we are most likely to get a little paranoid. Realising that the world is chaotic is, for most of us, deeply unsettling. The existential anxiety spurs us to find other ways to satisfy our need for order and control; when we can’t be in control ourselves, we’ll settle for thinking someone (or something) else is in the driver’s seat. Psychologists call this compensatory control.

We’re so good at spotting ulterior motives that we sometimes see them lurking behind innocent behaviour. In this light, we can begin to see why conspiracy theories are so widespread. The fact is, we have pretty good reason to be prudently paranoid when it comes to many of the perpetrators of the most popular conspiracy theories, among them governments, intelligence agencies, corporations, and secret societies


The draw of the unorthodox:

Back in the 1970s, sociologist Colin Campbell wrote about an intellectual “underground of society,” where all manner of weird and wonderful ideas flourish and mingle. He called it the cultic milieu.

The term might bring to mind charismatic cult leaders enticing vulnerable people into handing over their life savings (or their lives). But these kinds of fully fledged cults, Campbell wrote, are just the tip of the iceberg-the most visible manifestation of a much broader, more nebulous, more pervasive way of thinking. The cultic milieu, according to Campbell, is an ever-present feature of every society. Wherever there is orthodox wisdom, there are people who are irresistibly drawn toward the unorthodox.

What’s more, conspiracist logic, more than any other unorthodox ideology, essentially requires the believer to dive ever deeper into the cultic milieu. If mainstream sources of information are part of the conspiracy, then the very fact that an idea has been rejected by scientists, academia, or the media can be taken as evidence of its validity. In effect, conspiracy theories turn the cultic milieu into the only source of trustworthy knowledge.

The cultic milieu allows us to hold on to our autonomy. It tells us that we can be experts too, we don’t have to listen to what we’re told, we can find the answers we’re looking for only  by journeying down the road less traveled. Wake up! The truth is out there! Dare to know!

As Richard Hofstadter wrote, the conspiracy theorist gets to be “a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as-yet unaroused public.” Or as Damian Thompson put it, unconventional beliefs can be a passport to a thrilling alternative universe in which Atlantis is buried underneath the Antarctic, the Ark of the Covenant is hidden in Ethiopia, aliens have manipulated our DNA, and there was once a civilisation on Mars.”


We are ignorant of our lack of understanding – The Illusion of Explanatory Depth:

Do you know how a bicycle works? If asked, could you draw or say where the chain, pedals and frame would be? 


According to a 2006 study by the University of Liverpool, many people can not.

Participants in the study were asked to draw a picture of a bicycle. The result was that over 40% of participants couldn’t do it. Many participants drew bicycles that would be completely non-functional. This cam after the fact that people were scoring themselves on average 5/7 for knowledge on how bikes worked. 

What this study illustrates is even though we know how to use a bike our knowledge stops at a specific level.

What’s more interesting is that we don’t realise our lack of understanding-until we’ve been forced to demonstrate it by completing the doodle, and we find ourselves faltering.

When we’re forced to plumb the depths of our knowledge, we often hit bottom much sooner than anticipated. For the most part, though, we get by in life floating on the surface, never realising all the things that we don’t know we don’t know. Our illusions often go unchallenged. We rarely encounter psychologists brandishing incomplete schematics of bicycles at us, our friends are often too polite to call us out, and we’re good at surrounding ourselves in an intellectual echo chamber where the people around us reinforce our beliefs.


The Archetypal story and The Archetypal Conspiracy:

The best conspiracy theories have all the trappings of a classic underdog story. The enemy is formidable. From the Elders of Zion to the New World Order, from the weapons-industrial  complex to Big Pharma, the names given to the conspirators often play up their allegedly overwhelming power and influence.

Like every villain, however, the conspiracy has one fatal weakness; if only their schemes can be exposed to the light, the enemy becomes powerless. And the motive for the fight is noble. Christopher Booker notes that archetypal heroes act not to further their own interests, but on behalf of others.

According to Christopher Booker, archetypal monsters represent everything in human nature that is somehow twisted and imperfect-the distilled essence of the very worst elements of the human psyche. They are driven purely by greed, self-interest, cruelty, cunning, ruthlessness, and egotism. And vet, for all their inhuman wickedness, the best baddies inspire not only feelings of repulsion, but fascination, curiosity, and even pleasure. Evil, it seems, has a paradoxical allure.


Connecting the Dots:

A coincidence by itself, however, is supremely unsatisfying, like an itch waiting to be scratched, or an unfinished tax return.

Our brain wants to complete patterns, and spotting a coincidence is merely a prelude to learning something useful about the world. When we see some kind of connection between two events, we have potentially unearthed a clue about how things work. If one thing happens, the other is likely to happen; the relationship might be causal.

The medical community has an expression to remind themselves not to mistake coincidence for cause: “true, true, and unrelated.”

It is true that symptoms of developmental disorders like autism often become apparent between one and two years of age. It is also true that, if parents follow the recommended vaccine schedule, their children receive a large number of vaccines at the same time. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, however, shows that the two are unrelated.


Intention Seekers:

An event takes on an entirely different significance depending on whether it was accidental or intentional. As psychologist Adam Waytz put it, “a tree branch that another person drops on you is more noteworthy than one that the wind blows down on you.” There is a huge difference between an airplane that malfunctioned one that was sabotaged.

When something bad initially happens, the absence of facts leaves our minds free to speculate. And sensing a plausible motive led people to believe a theory just as confidently as actual evidence. The disappearance of MH370 set off our intention detectors and provided a blank canvas onto which we could project our darkest impulses.

Our ability to read and project intentions often leads us to trouble, where we project imagined intentions which weren’t there which can merely be explained by an accident.


The Conspiracy Projection:

According to Douglas and Sutton, their findings reveal projection at work. Finding conclusive proof for a theory, such as a confession by the alleged conspirators, is difficult. We’re forced to look for other clues, and one thing we can easily do is project ourselves into the minds of the alleged perpetrators.

Judging the probable guilt of an accused conspirator, we search within ourselves. Just like the cheaters who thought most people cheat, people who imagine themselves willing to conspire appear to see conspirators lurking in every shadow.

Pondering the curiously high incidence of conspiracy among conspiracy theorists, Daniel Pipes suggested that “what begins as a search for subversives ends in subversion; haters of the hidden hand take on the very characteristics they loathe.” But with projection in mind, perhaps rather than us imitating the enemy, our imagined enemies are a reflection of ourselves.

Conspiracists see a world crawling with conspirators, which in turn calls for counter-conspiracy. As Douglas and Sutton put it-channeling the wisdom of countless children in playground squabbles-it takes one to know one.


Big events need big causes:

The “official” version of events, Bethell wrote, requires us to believe that the assassination and all its consequences-including, perhaps, the disastrous Vietnam War-was the doing of one man “who had, as it were, gotten out of bed on the wrong side that morning, and found a gun lying there. The cause doesn’t fit the effect.”

Assassination buff Kenneth Rahn put it similarly. “It’s preposterous on the face of it,” he wrote, “to believe that a mousy little guy with a $12.95 rifle could bring down the leader of the free world.” The uncomfortable reality is that small things can have big consequences. Sometimes kings are struck down by peasants. When that happens, we can’t help longing for some alternative explanation more befitting the effect.

We all fail to realise the day that terrible things happen tend to be on days like no other, yet we want to believe that big events have big causes!


Play The Paranoid Style Game:

If you go looking for evidence of even the most far-fetched conspiracy theory, it’s not hard to find.

This was playfully illustrated by historian Rob MacDougall. MacDougall came up with a game he called “The Paranoid Style” (named in honor of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, which we talked about a few chapters ago). You can play at home. First, get a few friends together, and have everyone pick one well-known historical figure-it can be anyone they like.

The object of the game is to find evidence that the figure was secretly part of a “conspiracy of vampires that has pulled the strings behind the world for hundreds of years.” There is, as far as I know, no such conspiracy; MacDougall just made it up, but that doesn’t stop people from finding evidence anyway.

When playing the game it’s easy to see how the brain can great evidence by projecting fantasy onto ambiguous information.