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Conspiracy Theories and Incredible Tales

We lead off this issue with a two-article section on Conspiracy Theories and Incredible Tales, a timely look at thinking and behaviors that are at the root of many modern claims and confusions. Nearly every day’s news brings new evidence of conspiratorial thinking or word of someone embellishing the truth about their own lives and obsessions.

Jeffrey S. Debies-Carl, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Haven, shows how social science research can help us understand conspiracy legends. He begins with last year’s notorious “Pizzagate” incident in which a young man shot up a popular Washington, D.C., pizzeria after being persuaded by online conspiracy-promoting sites that something nefarious was going on there. Preposterous as this series of events was, it typifies how conspiracy theories work. Folklorists see stories like the one that appealed to this troubled man as a legend, in which the events are presented as possible, even if they are bizarre and not necessarily plausible. No firsthand witnesses can be found. Multiple versions surface with varying details. Their lack of credibility isn’t necessarily obvious. The Internet supplies an abundance of sympathetic websites and posts that seem to confirm the weird claim. Conspiracy theories are notoriously resilient to criticism, as sociologist Ted Goertzel made clear in his 2011 Skeptical Inquirer cover article “The Conspiracy Meme.” Debies-Carl notes that psychological research shows how difficult it is for people to admit they were wrong once they have strongly committed to a belief or course of action. And action, not just talk, is regrettably sometimes the result, a form of “legend-tripping.” As he notes, “Legends, like fake news, can lead to real-world consequences.”

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Pizzagate and Beyond: Using Social Research to Understand Conspiracy Legends Becoming Fantastic Why Some People Embellish Their Already Accomplished Lives with Incredible Tales Is Eating Vegetables Truly Safe? An Examination into Contemporary Anti-Vaccination Arguments