This ... is part of the same system that NASA used when they faked the Apollo Moon landings

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The NYT reports that 94% of Americans are gullible enough to believe that NASA really landed on the moon.

In an interview, Mr. Sibrel said that his efforts to prove that men never walked on the Moon has cost him dearly. "I have suffered only persecution and financial loss," he said. "I've lost visitation with my son. I've been expelled from churches. All because I believe the Moon landings are fraudulent."

Ted Goertzel, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University who has studied conspiracy theorists, said "there's a similar kind of logic behind all of these groups, I think." For the most part, he explained, "They don't undertake to prove that their view is true" so much as to "find flaws in what the other side is saying." And so, he said, argument is a matter of accumulation instead of persuasion. "They feel if they've got more facts than the other side, that proves they're right."

Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who has written extensively on conspiracy theories, said he sees similarities between people who argue that the Moon landings never happened and those who insist that the 9/11 attacks were planned by the government and that President Obama's birth certificate is fake: at the core, he said, is a polarization so profound that people end up with an unshakable belief that those in power "simply can't be trusted."

What I find more interesting than the elaborate explanations that people come up with here is the intensity of their belief. This is especially true with the moon landing, since basically nothing rides on the question of whether it happened or not. I mean, say you had definitive proof that the moon landing was faked, what then? You'd basically succeed in embarassing a lot of people who are mostly either very old (Armstrong is 78) or very dead. On the other hand, if Obama was really not a US Citizen, you might be able to change who was president, and if 9/11 was really a government conspiracy that would presumably have a fairly significant political impact.

So, the bottom line here is that you believe that you have a an obvious line on the truth and more or less everyone else is delusional. Equally obviously, everyone else thinks you're crazy and they don't want to hear about it. But of course the same personality type that lets you believe everyone else is crazy appears to preclude you just feeling quietly superior.


Ah, conspiracy nuts! Some industries tend to attract nuts, and I've encountered quite a few people who are prone to believing in conspiracy theories. I've become convinced (admittedly based on anecdotal experiences) that this isn't exactly a personality type, but the lack of the specific brain or mental function that lets most people overwrite erroneous data.

For example, imagine that a mutual acquaintance told you that my middle name is Ronald, but later you learn that it's actually Robert. If you're a normal person, you assume that someone misheard, and update your rolodex.

But a conspiracy nut can't do that. Once they form a factual belief, their brains seem to just refuse to update it. Instead, they'll try and concoct a theory that fits both the old (wrong) fact and the new fact, and the state of affairs in which no one admits to the old fact. So in the same situation, the conspiracy nut might assume — with no hostility or paranoia at all — that my middle name used to be Ronald, but I disliked it so much that I changed it to Robert, and asked all my friends to pretend that it had always been Robert. Then, being friendly, they will play along.

When people believe that the world actually works this way, they need to believe that prevarication and secrecy and much more common than they are in reality. This eventually does lead to paranoia, hostility, and general alienation: "We both know that X used to be Y. Even if we're pretending X now, why won't you admit to Y? Don't you trust me?"

Conspiracy theories are the only situations in which a part of the external world could actually overlap with this type of person's mental model of the world, which I think is why conspiracy nuts are very eager to believe and publicly promote conspiracy theories. So where you write, "you believe that ... more or less everyone else is delusional," I disagree slightly: you believe that everyone else secretly agrees with you, but is unwilling (possibly afraid) to admit the truth. So as a conspiracy nut, you can't "feel[] quietly superior"; you are either bravely denying the conspiracy, or quietly complicit.

In my experience, conspiracy theorists don't think everyone else is crazy. They think everyone else is deceived by the evil conspiracy. In their minds, they are trying to save other people from this deception -- even if this saving would make no tangible difference to their lives, as in the moon case. There does seem to be some kind of psychological drive to enter good vs evil, or right vs wrong, struggles.

The misguided version of this phenomenon.

Also I quite disagree with Dom's comment. I don't think there is much different between conspiracy theorists and everyone else, as I have seen many highly intelligent and rational people buy into conspiracy theories. Also, you can find many many "9/11 Truthers" who have no doubt the Apollo missions actually landed on the moon. So it's not like we can generalize 'conspiracy theorists' vs 'non-conspiracy theorists'.

It seems to me this is a phenomenon based on biases that we all carry, to some extent or another. It's really hard to subject every claim we hear to rigorous rational analysis before accepting it as true, or keeping track of the level of confidence we have in 'probable' truths based on evidence. At some point we all take something as given, and if it's wrong then it can taint the way we look at other evidence, and lead us to more wrong conclusions. I think it's clear that everybody has difficulty learning and accepting they are wrong about something they had previously accepted as truth, even if the original acceptance was based on tentative or circumstantial evidence. This is not unique to conspiracy theorists.

Many other phenomena depend on those same biases, such as nationalism, ideology, partisanship, and religion. Very few people completely eschew all of those things.

Other fascinating examples I have observed where intelligent rational people will refuse to accept a rational result, mostly because it seems to contradict prior knowledge or assumptions:
- Proof that 0.99999... (repeated forever) is exactly equal to 1
- In the Let's Make a Deal 3-door game, you double your chances of winning by switching doors
- the airplane on the reversing runway will in fact take off (if you can overlook the fact that the problem as framed creates a physical impossibility)

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