370: Michael Shermer | Why The Rational Believe The Irrational In “Conspiracy”

Welcome to episode 370 with Dr. Michael Shermer, author of “Conspiracy”, historian of science, executive director of The Skeptics Society, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

“This book is a must read for understanding conspiracy theories, who believes them and why, and how to counter them. When author Michael Shermer saw the video of a middle-aged man named Kevin Seefried walking across the rotunda in the Capitol Building dome on January 6, 2021, proudly waving a large Confederate flag representing bigotry and hate, he could not help but wonder, “What went wrong with this man’s beliefs?”

With the legacy of January 6th and the conspiracy theory of a stolen election still plaguing the country (two-thirds of Republicans believe President Biden is illegitimate), the problem of today’s conspiracism is more pressing than at any time in our history. In Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational, best-selling author Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, presents his own original theory to explain why people believe conspiracy theories, and in an engrossing analysis shows how we can determine which conspiracy theories are likely true or false, and how we can break their power.

Conspiracism has been part of the fabric of society for centuries; we evolved to detect external threats of dangerous coalitions. Many conspiracies are real. For instance, the most consequential conspiracy of the 20th century was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, resulting in a war costing tens of millions their lives. And conspiracies often grow up around a shared traumatizing event, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the death of Princess Diana, or the events of 9/11. But the conspiracy theories that have gained popularity of late are markedly different from those in the past, in that they require little to no proof for their adherents. Mere assertion of a conspiracy claim suffices—“fake news” or “rigged” or “people are saying” is all the evidence many people need to be convinced of their veracity.

Historically, popular American conspiracy theories tended to reside on the fringes of society, but today conspiratorial thinking has gone mainstream. Shermer cites Skeptics Society polling research showing that, for example, a remarkable one in five Americans believe that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the United States are controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation” (QAnon), and one in four believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration.

While the impulse to see conspiracies might be a natural human trait, it is not necessarily healthy, especially not for a diverse society and a liberal democracy that depends on institutional trust. How might we combat the rise in belief in conspiracies? One answer is education. Shermer notes that 42% of people without a high school diploma score highly in having conspiratorial predispositions, compared with those holding postgraduate degrees, who come in at 22%. Another is transparency: the checks and balances in the institutions that make up a liberal democracy must be immune to conspiracies.

In Conspiracy, Michael Shermer provides an urgently needed model to explain who believes in conspiracy theories, why, and how to debunk them when they are false. As former president Barack Obama wrote in 2020, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work.””

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of the podcast The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. For 18 years he was a monthly columnist for Scientific American. He writes a weekly Substack column. He is the author of New York Times bestsellers Why People Believe Weird Things and The Believing BrainWhy Darwin MattersThe Science of Good and EvilThe Moral ArcHeavens on Earth, and Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist.