“[W]e had discovered that metal was relatively impervious to the telepathic effect and had prepared ourselves…[C]aps of metal foil enormously reduced the effects on ourselves.” from “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous) in Amazing Stories. August, 1927. Generally believed to be the first reference to tin foil hats as a protection against mind control.
Because of the world we live in right now, a lot (and I mean, like, a lot a lot) is being written about conspiracy theories in general, and a handful of conspiracy theories specifically. We’ll get to the specific theories soon, but for now: welcome to the general conspiracy theories post… in which we will be discussing why such theories seem to be endlessly fascinating to humans. Put on your tin foil hat and join me!
As I so often do, I got lost in the minutiae when I was researching this post, but the silliest rabbit hole I went down was the origin of the image of the tin foil hat. A recent article in Popular Mechanics May/June 2021 issue pointed out that in 2005 a group of MIT students conducted research that showed that tin foil actually amplified rather than muted mobile communications and satellite frequencies. The tongue-in-cheek conclusion being that perhaps the origin of the tin foil hat was itself a governmental conspiracy to make its job of surveilling us a bit easier. I can now debunk this (never quite serious) conspiracy theory: the origin of the tin foil hat image appears to have come from a short story by Julian Huxley called “The Tissue-Culture King.” Aside from telling us all we need to know about how far we’ve come in terms of good titles for short stories (far, we’ve come very, very far), it also points out that protecting ourselves against mind control has been a “thing” for nearly a century!
In the broadest terms, a conspiracy theory generally involves one or more people plotting in secret to gain an advantage over someone else. The theories that really spread tend to involve powerful people and, especially, governments doing these things. It’s been suggested that our brains are wired to do that “seems legit” thing with conspiracy theories, in part because those of us who were suspicious of our environment were more likely to survive. The argument goes like this: a naturally suspicious prehistoric person (those from whom our present-day tin foil hat wearers are descended) was constantly of the belief that a saber-toothed tiger attack was imminent. Their thought process might have been, “there might be a creature that wants to eat me in those bushes. I’m not sure there is, but behaving as if there is results in me being prepared in the (likely rare) event that one actually is lying in wait and about to go on a murderous rampage.” At the moment the saber-toothed tiger leaps out, our prehistoric person in the cunning hat is prepared and survives. Meanwhile the prehistoric peer of the tin foil hat wearer presumably gets eaten as they blissfully go through their non-paranoid day… and this is how paranoia got bred into humans. In addition, there are a lot of reasons some of us are wired to be suspicious of our environments, some due to traumatic experiences, some due to specific mental health diagnoses. Not all of us who fall into these categories gravitate towards conspiracy theories.
While the Darwinist “we come by it honestly” argument has some merit (and a comforting narrative arc) it does not explain the whole scope of the problem (or maybe I’ve gotten ahead of myself, so let me just tip my hand and say, this is actually becoming a real problem and we will be talking about this in future posts). Another factor in the ease with which humans build and accept conspiracy theories is the fact that our government has been, on occasion, a truly bad actor. These stories stand out as reasons why we might file subsequent conspiracy theories as “seems legit.” Watergate is often brought up as an example, but more compellingly there’s the Tuskegee Experiment. If you haven’t heard of it yet, prepare to be horrified. Between 1932 and 1972 (yes, that’s a 40-year period) the United States Public Health Service studied 600 African American men infected with syphilis who were left untreated, with the intent of learning the natural progression of the infection. One-hundred twenty-eight of the participants died. You can read more about this here. The fact that the US government has done some pretty shady stuff in the past lends credence to the idea that they continue to do such things behind the scenes today. The key difference between conspiracy theories and both the Watergate and the Tuskegee Experiment examples is the availability of actual evidence. The thematic similarity between unfounded conspiracies and their evidence-backed counterparts is a lack of trust in our government. However, Watergate and Tuskegee sowed distrust, whereas conspiracies are based on an initial presupposition of untrustworthiness. So the whole thing is a loop without an obvious off-ramp.
Taking all this into account, we find ourselves in a situation where humans are just really inclined to accept conspiracy theories as fact for whatever reason. How significant is this tendency? The answer turns out to be “really quite significant.” In 2016 Chapman University asked some questions about conspiracy theories as a part of its annual fear study. Respondents were asked whether they believed the government was withholding information about a list of popular conspiracy theories: the JFK Assassination, the Obama birth certificate, etc. Included on this list was also a vaguely ominous sounding “North Dakota Crash,” which was completely made up by the researchers. The joke of the whole thing is that the “North Dakota Crash” ranked sixth out of the conspiracy theories in the study for believability. It’s pretty easy to dismantle this study in part because of how the questions are framed. At the time that the study was conducted there were definitely still classified documents related to 9/11 and the JFK assassination. Were respondents in those cases adherents of conspiracy theories, or simply readers of the news? It’s an entertaining anecdote rather than a bellwether of the current conspiracy theory gestalt… but it is an amusing look into how easily we “seems legit”-ify the world around us.
No matter what makes us wired to find conspiracy theories appealing, we’ve kind of come full circle. There are no longer saber-toothed tigers in the bushes around us, but there are, gasp, conspiracy theories lurking everywhere these days. And these theories are currently doing real harm to the world around us… and I’ll tackle those next, but only if I can find where I put my tin foil hat.
I mostly used articles for my research for this post, but there are books in our collection as well… to read more, click here.