I’ve long been fascinated by conspiracy theories, not for the conspiracies themselves, but by the reasons people believe them. Some of the theories sound downright crazy.
There are people who think that an unseen force causes things to happen in their world, and that their very thoughts are being monitored!
Are such people delusional? The highlighted phrase was carefully crafted to sound delusional, but to literally apply to billions of adherents of the world’s religious. As I noted back in 2009,
The DSM defines a delusion as:
A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.
By this definition people who believe in God are not clinically delusional, and I would argue that neither are conspiracy theorists such as birthers. Through the Internet, subcultures arise easily, and the network of birther web sites gives the illusion of ordinary acceptance.
Birtherism may well have been an engineered conspiracy theory rather than something that arose naturally as an attempt to explain a set of facts. Still it grew, according so some reports, as a chain email. Such emails are passed from contact list to contact list, and so they exist within an existing subculture. It is not some unkempt fellow on the street with a sign saying “Where’s the birth certificate,” but rather a family member, a co-worker, or a social friend passing made up citations from authoritative sources. The mutual support of a community, along with confirmation bias gets these conspiracy theories growing.
I think we can expect phenomena like the birther movement to be common in the future.
(I don’t suggest that all conspiracy theories are false, but I’d bet money that the birthers are wrong.)