It has come to my attention that a lot of otherwise quite intelligent people believe in conspiracy theories that are, for want of a better term, complete fucking pseudo-scientific bullshit of the highest order. But, as I said, a lot of them are intelligent, motivated, thoughtful people (we'll ignore the Jack Chicks and Alex Jones's of the world, I'm talking about the grass roots.) I have come to wonder why they believe such proposterous crap, and have come up with a few underlying reasons:
1) Epistemology and critical thinking aren't taught in schools outside a few specialist subjects. Teaching kids about things like Occams razor, the scientific method, falsifibility, deduction/induction, how to analyse a source and a few other basic little things like that would clean up a whole heap of this shit: you would no longer get people getting instantly sucked in by something like 'Loose Change' or 'JFK', nor would have idiots believing in their own straw-man arguments. It might also make young people into more aware beings capable of questioning the official line, which is maybe why it isn't done: there's always the possibility that if we teach kids too much they'll realise most of what they're taught in school is in fact a carefully fabricated lie geared to what the textbook writers believe them capable of comprehending (just analyse a physics text-book for 13 year olds next to one for 17 year olds, or check up a GCSE textbook on the Russian revolution next to some books by Pipes, Figes and Service and you'll see what I mean) and then come to realise that pretty much everything we're ever told by people in authority is meaningless horse-shit, which leads us to...
2) Fanatical but misplaced hatred of those in authority and what they stand for. People want to believe conspiracy theories because people who don't are, like STOOGES OF THE MAN! Especially when there's another underlying ideology driving the conspiracy theory (Nazis and their holocaust denial, the Christian right and their various 'antichrist' conspiracies) people seem to be more than willing to dump objective reasoning for a fanatical bias against the government, especially the US government. An increasing number of people go in to things like the JFK assasination and 9/11 not asking 'have we been screwed over' but more 'how have we been screwed over'. Even when you stack up masses of detailed sources written by top experts in their field, dissect the logic of their argument to a degree that would make Kant nod in approval and rebut every single point they make, there is not a snowflakes chance in hell that they will change their position. A conspiracy theorist would much rather believe one cold fusion theorist (HE'S A SCIENTIST LOL) than 100 structural engineers and demolitions experts concerning the collapse of the WTC towers. This also helps other aspects of the theories as well: people seem to have no problem believing that the US government would calmly nerve gas three flight-loads of people in a bunker somewhere in Wyoming and then murder another two-thousand of their own citizens and then none of them involved ever say a word. Hows that for hearts and minds?
So, basically, it's poor education, but also, a misdirected hatred of authority itself. What conspiracy theorists do is turn their anger at the state of the world into highly specific vendettas: rather than rightly attribute what happened on and after 9/11 to the complex effects of nationalism, greed, religious fundamentalism and beaureucratic incompetence, they would rather just say 'BUSH DID IT LOL'. I mean, fair enough, the guy is easy to hate, but the reasons he is easy to hate are the reasons why he could never have sanctioned 9/11. The truth is, all conspiracy theories are abstractions of the fundamental fact of modern civilisation: that it is a system carefully orchestrated to give a small and relatively static group of people immense privilege and prosperity whilst doing a big shit on everyone else. What people don't want to grasp is that it is not necessarily evil people in power who cause all this shit to happen, but the entire system itself. Subconsciously, people realise that, basically, they are completely powerless: that despite all the artifices of free speech, free association and what have you, the government has a perfect right to fine them, imprison them and in some circumstances maybe even kill them based on a complex set of laws that they don't actually, in most cases, understand, and which, in most cases, make hardly any sense. They can spy on you with cameras and microphones, stop you in the street and search your pockets, stop your car and search your car, maybe tap your phone, and goodness knows what else. However, because people have been bought up in this society, and because their morality is, essentially, what society tells them it should be, they cannot accept that the whole thing is ridiculous and evil, because that would make themselves and their willing participation in the whole sorry affair similiarly ridiculous and evil. So instead, they externalise their awful knowledge (THE GOVERNMENT CAN KILL US ON A WHIM) in to single, powerful incidents, all the time, supposing of course that it is individuals who aren't abiding by the systems laws that are causing all the trouble. Similiarly with corporations: people are far readier to tell fantastical urban legends about New Coke being a scam than admit the fact that mass advertising, half of which we're not even aware of, is essentially destroying our free will (If you drink Coke you obey the Coca Cola company, if you drink Pepsi you obey Pepsi Co. Neither choice is your own.), brainwashing our children and co-ercing us with the help of a herd-mentality society into buying useless shit we don't need or want: clothes that will fall apart in a year, soft-drinks that slowly poison us, expensive kitchen gadgets capable of only one function that can easily be performed by a frying pan, and so on. It's the cognitive dissonance that is astonishing. People recognise that, as the immortal Bill Hicks so eruditely said 'all governments are lying cocksuckers', but they still vote. People recognise that corporations are money-grabbing arseholes but they still buy their tat. People see plainly hundreds of examples of how when abstract concept such as God, Race, Nation etc. are held to be more valuable than human life then Auschwitz, the Gulags, the Spanish Inquisition, The Rwandan Genocide, The Killing Fields, the Red Terror and all their ilk are not far behind, but still they applaud their soldiers who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It's those lovely ridiculous arguments of scale again: because Stalin, an atheist, killed more people than the Spanish Inquisition, it's obvious that atheism is more evil than religion (I've actually seen someone use this argument.) People just don't want to admit that Stalinism and Catholicism are both fundamentally fucked up.
The problem is, these conspiracy theories (and other methods of 'defusing' peoples innate rebellion against the monstrous strictures of society) take attention away from the real problem. Conspiracy theorists pour all their time and energy into analysing the Zapruder tapes or the 9/11 commission report, and never consider any wider social issues. The truth is, that by wasting your energy arguing about the angles of shadows in the moon landing photos, rather than developing a social consciousness and engaging in more serious thought, argument and activism, you are pandering to the man far more than if you took Occams razor and rightly dismissed 99% of conspiracy theories as bullshit. The other problem is, of course, that 1%. When you have people babbling on quite happily about the Illuminati, Lizardmen, the Merovingian bloodline, ZOG, the Knights Templar, the New World Order and goodness knows what else, it can be quite easy for most people to parcel up every single thing that runs against the 'party line' and dismiss it all as bollocks. There's plenty of evidence that governments have done some real fucked up things and then lied through their teeth about it (MK ULTRA, Portland Down, blah blah blah) but without critical thinking, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater as far as conspiracies go. Because there is of course that grain of truth: the government and the corporations really are watching you, and they really are out to rob you, and they really are out to enslave you. However, it's not going to be with a 666 barcode on your head: it's called surveillance, income tax and debt, and they've already done it.