Interest in conspiracy theories periodically blooms in April (along with their attending violent events like Oklahoma City bombing, Waco, Columbine, Virginia Tech Massacre). Last week Public Policy Polling released its survey results of US beliefs in such purported things--a data-based varietal featuring the breakdown of adherents' partisan affiliations.
But what do such statistics tell us? Surveying the media landscape, one senses that the numbers validate expectations, giving a semblance of precision to otherwise woolly (but strident) judgments. They inspire headlines that seem informative: "20 conspiracy theories you should know," declares the Houston Chronicle, as if identifying strains of poison sumac. Others take a more alarmist tone: Vanity Fair warns us of "The Creeping Danger of Conspiracy Theorists” while The Atlantic Wire announces that “12 Million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country.” The form of these headlines mimics their targets, slightly altering the content to bifurcate an Us/Them.
The affective power of data becomes clearer when we note the wide variety of beliefs that get amalgamated into the master category “conspiracy theories.” It lumps beliefs in extraterrestrial or cryptozoological creatures (nothing more conspiratorial about that than, say, believing in God) together with views regarding Bush regime coverups, adding narratives about shapeshifting global elites and claims about vaccine-autism links. Nothing holds these twenty beliefs together except that someone at some point has ridiculed them. Their grouping is thus rooted in tradition. Numbers retroactively justify a fuzzy category, a recent conceptual invention based in commonsense. The inconsistency (euphemism for willfully ignorant conceptual synthesis) betrays a collective political wish. We want to believe in conspiracy theories. After years of repetition, the term has become an article of faith, one with strong institutional support, canonical works, and now quantitative authority.
The persistent, cyclical quality of these concerns indicates that the desire to believe is never satisfied, resulting in a repetition-compulsion. Whether reacting with dismissive humor or low-intensity panic, the root affect remains an anxiety over politically incorrect knowledge claims. Matthews’ alarmist incredulity mixed with a smug-jectivity signal a desperate need for epistemological security. Sometimes these collective reactions are so strong, you’d think the pundits were afraid of something; something so pervasive yet unseen that only the revelatory power of “research” will illuminate the truth out there. Even with measuring tools taken as weapons, we remain spectators in a game of “Crackpot Calls the Kettle Wack."