Special infographics explaining in detail what conspiracy theories are, how they spread and how to counteract them were published in September 2020 by UNESCO – the United Nations agency responsible for education, fostering a scientific worldview and ensuring high intellectual standards.
In these attractive graphic documents, we get – among other things – a condensed definition of conspiracy thinking.
This is “the belief that events are secretly manipulated behind the scenes by powerful forces with negative intent”.
Right next to it we also have the six most characteristic views that can be detected in any conspiracy theory. What is included in this list? An alleged secret plot; a group of conspirators; “evidence” that seems to support the conspiracy theory; the belief that nothing happens by accident and that there are no coincidences; nothing is as it appears and that everything is connected; they divide the world between good and bad; they scapegoat people and groups.
Furthermore, the materials prepared by UNESCO inform that conspiracy theories reduce anxiety and uncertainty, because they offer a simple explanation for extremely complicated matters. And they are born – this is an accurate diagnosis – sometimes imperceptibly, from a single doubt or distrust, on which a huge edifice of increasingly absurd beliefs and suppositions is then built.
In fact, it seems that sometimes, through such a seemingly small and insignificant crack – some tiny gap in the image of the world, some minimal, innocent deviation from some specific rules of mental handling of reality called skepticism and rationalism – an unstoppable wave of conspiracy thinking bursts into our minds. Behind this disturbing regularity lies as much the logic of our cognitive apparatuses as the logic of contemporary electronic media.
It starts with a small doubt about the safety of vaccination, with a commentary, a text that seems to be a solid scientific work. And then, unknowingly, without any tangible moment of crossing any border, without experiencing any deep inner transformation, even without feeling that our views have changed, we discover the existence of a great, universal conspiracy. A web – invisible to the naked eye – entwines this world and determines everything that happens in it – from the simplest aspects of everyday life to political decisions at the highest level, from car accidents on the country road to gigantic natural disasters.
Like the victims of various forms of psycho-manipulation, like people seduced by various more or less home-grown charismatic gurus, as well as members of radical groups or staunch supporters of criminal, ideological political systems, someone who has fallen into the mire of conspiracy thinking does not realize at all when and how such a fundamental transformation has occurred in him or her. As if in a thriller or a phantasmagorical film by David Lynch, he wakes up one day in a completely alien place, in someone else’s clothes, among strangers – and he has no way of finding an answer to the question of how he actually got there.
Perhaps the analogy should be drawn a little differently, because – and this is precisely the point of the drama – someone who finds himself under the power of conspiracy narratives does not even realize that he has woken up in a completely different world. And although he has long since found himself on the other side of the continuum – in a world populated by shape-shifting lizards, in a world where everything that is really important remains carefully hidden and accessible only to those who make a kind of “voluntary suspension of disbelief” – so although he has long since found himself in this world, even for a moment he has not lost the sense of continuity, he has not felt that his surroundings have changed.
It is possible that this is one of the key elements of this particular mechanism, characterized – to quote the British philosopher Ernst Gellner, who used the term in the title of his excellent book on psychoanalysis – by an irresistible “seductive charm”.
In the universe designed by conspiracy theories, nothing is obvious and everything is possible. What is visible, observable, nameable, what is officially presented as true, in the media, schools, universities – is only a thin surface layer, under which a game is played by forces that create this layer in order to hide their existence and their real rank from us.
Somewhere out there, out of our sight, there is therefore some completely different hierarchy, some completely different structure. They, who “have eyes, but cannot see; have ears, but cannot hear” (Psalm 135), They do not know about it – and do not want to know. But whoever has the courage to look through all these external decorations will see straight through to the “things hidden since the foundation of the world”. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” declares Jesus in the Gospel of John.
But the sources of this metaphysics obviously go much further back in time.
“The hidden harmony is better than the obvious” – says Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who lived at the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, in fragment B54. And this seems to be the most condensed and to the very core definition of any decent conspiracy theory and, at the same time, the founding intuition behind the entire western culture. In a sense, then, the whole of Western civilization is founded precisely on the idea of such conspiracy, for it is founded on Plato and his dualism – a stunning in every respect development and systematization of Heraclitan intuition, or rather, who knows, Heraclitan insight.
It was Plato who set the basic parameters of our thinking. Christianity and Cartesianism – the pillars of the Western thinking, the pillars of the Western spirituality – work on the structure designed by him, on the understanding of the hierarchy of beings, which he proposed in a remarkably exquisite intellectual and literary manner. This hierarchy has a simple structure: what is visible, what is here and now, does not count. It is but a distant shadow, an inferior reflection of a perfect model, which can be reached only through intellectual speculation and a special extra-intellectual, extra-sensual insight.
Yes, this is the metaphysical framework of our entire perception of reality – and it may seem a bit risky to build an analogy between conspiracy theory and this sort of set of beliefs. However, I am by no means claiming that it would be possible to put Plato and David Icke in the same line, I am only claiming that somewhere deep down, at the very foundations of our thinking, at the very foundations of our imagination, there lurks some doubt, some disbelief that what is around us, what is visible, accessible, concrete, tangible – that all this really is as it appears to be.
Some fundamental temptation to discover the undiscovered, which is stronger and more real than what it has been disguised as, for various reasons. This impulse permeates the Western culture. It enlivens Christianity, especially in its tradition of Plato and St Augustine, it is particularly evident in ancient Gnosticism, and much later it returns in a peculiar guise in the concepts of the three great masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion – Marx, Nietzsche and Freud.
In each of them we have this basic observation: the essential cannot be seen, while what is visible is almost a camouflage for forces and interests of a completely different nature, which, however, constitute the authentic “center of command”. The exploitation of some at the expense of the wealth of others, producing a specific consciousness that delays any emancipatory processes and, consequently – a social revolt. The power of resentment transformed into a mythology with the help of which the weak enslave the strong, stifling in them the impulses of self-determination and all life-giving expression.
Finally – a complex code of seemingly meaningless dreams, mistaken actions and bizarre symptoms hiding a dark ocean of desires and wants, on the surface of which our proud and self-confident consciousness floats like a small boat. Tossed about every now and then by powerful waves, but at the same time certain that it chooses each direction in a free, conscious and rational manner.
In each of them we also have a specific methodology for reaching the hidden and forbidden, bringing it to daylight and then, in its rays, disassembling it into primary components, blowing it apart, neutralizing it – and consequently freeing it from this overwhelming influence. It is these particular applied hermeneutics – dialectical materialism and psychoanalysis (in Nietzsche’s case, it is simply a thorough reading of Christian texts against their declared content and values) – that allow, at least in theory, access to the “harmony of the invisible”, which is manifold more powerful than the visible.
However, the perspicacity of these methods, their ability to reach where the unaided eye cannot, gives rise to a particular feature of this kind of thinking that makes it structurally similar to classical conspiracy theories in a disturbing way. It is their non-reproducibility, their non-falsifiability, a term coined by the Austrian philosopher Karl Raimund Popper in his famous work “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”.
Popper looked particularly closely at psychoanalysis in this context, pointing to a peculiar circumstance: it self-justifies as such. That is, it derives the justification for the truth of its own assertions from within the universe that it projects. With regard to the statements of psychoanalysis, it is impossible to indicate the conditions under which they would turn out to be false, for no matter what happens or does not happen, they are always and irrevocably true.
Therefore, there is no accumulation of knowledge in this field, for in the strict sense of the term no knowledge exists there. There are only sentences which, by coincidence, may agree with some state of affairs, but they are neither an effect nor part of any mechanism which serves to build up an adequate picture of the world. This is because it presupposes a laborious process of hypotheses formulation and then their verification. And for verification to be possible – i.e. for us to be able to check whether a sentence is true or false – a hypothesis must be falsifiable, i.e., susceptible to refutation.
Meanwhile, says Popper, Freud’s concepts are “simply unverifiable, irrefutable. No conceivable human behavior could contradict them”. In practice this works as follows: If a psychoanalyst diagnoses “resistance” in a patient and defines its source as hidden aggression or desire towards himself, then it is over, the door has been closed, and there is no way (except possibly the good will of the analyst) to escape from the power of this interpretation.
Even if the patient answers that he or she likes the analyst, this will only prove that the interpretation is correct. It simply means that the patient resists even more intensely, not wanting to allow his authentic feelings into his consciousness, which he is not yet able to “contain” in himself at this stage. This applies to probably every interpretation that the psychoanalyst presents, while the method he uses to produce them is purely arbitrary – because it removes all conditions for verification of own judgements.
The point here, however, is not to argue that psychoanalysis is simply one big conspiracy theory, but to realize how deeply Western culture – and its dominant perspectives, institutions, languages and viewpoints – is imbued with the mentality characteristic of conspiracy theories.
And although researchers of the subject agree that the founding moment for conspiracy thinking, that we today call it, was the Great French Revolution – or, more precisely, the shock of the sudden collapse of the old world, the dissolution of its seemingly eternal, immovable foundations – it is at the same time this fundamental distrust, this fundamental doubt (originating perhaps in the sense of alienation) about how visible and invisible things are, that is as old as human culture. It has always been with us.
Perhaps that is why, when today the old world is also falling apart, when the multifaceted and multilevel crises – from the economic one, the mother of all crises, to the identity crisis – have erased in us the remnants of a sense of security and have made the future into one great unknown, perhaps that is why this primordial distrust is growing today to truly gargantuan proportions.
Many researchers nowadays dealing in conspiracy theories are inclined to similar conclusions. While for a very long time the way sociologists or philosophers approached this phenomenon was limited either to seeing it in terms of mere errors in logical reasoning, or to seeing it as a symptom of psychological disorders – the charismatic thinkers who defined the field in this way were Karl Popper, already mentioned here, and the American political scientist Richard Hofstadter – while for some time now sociologists or philosophers have been looking at conspiracy theories in a completely different way.
Some even say – and this is very close to the understanding I am proposing here – that conspiracy theories, or rather: people with a conspiratorial mindset, are by no means a marginal phenomenon, nor isolated from the rest of the world of social institutions. On the contrary, there is only a quantitative difference between the defined “conspiracy theory believers” and all of us who, on a daily basis, watch with suspicion the scheming of politicians and large corporations, read about various scandals, or learn about people who secretly lead completely different lives than we thought.
The American lawyer Mark Fenster says in the introduction to his book “Conspiracy Theories. Secrecy and Power in American Culture”, that today “we all are followers of conspiracy theories”. He is echoed by the British cultural studies scholar Peter Knight who, instead of conspiracy theories, speaks of a “culture of conspiracy”.
What they both have in mind is, above all, the universality of conspiracy beliefs and perceptions – pervading popular culture and so-called “common wisdom” – but also the peculiar completeness of conspiracy viewpoints. And their – paradoxical – idealism. The desire for a better, fairer, more transparent, cooperative and empathetic world.
Of course, conspiracy theories are very often vehicles of racist or, in any case, stigmatizing ideas about certain social groups, but at the same time, the vision of reality hidden in them, which can be extracted by looking at their a contrario diagnoses, allows us to see that “conspiracy theories reject the existing political and social order, but they do so in the belief that a better order is possible”.
Let’s take, for example, one of the most exotic, yet steadily gaining in popularity, concept that the entire political and economic elite of the Western world is in fact composed of reptilians, or shape-shifting lizards, who arrived thousands of years ago from the distant constellation of Draco. It would seem that a more absurd idea could hardly be conceivable, and yet – according to a poll carried out a few years ago, as many as twelve million Americans admit to this kind of belief.
Judging by the way things are going today – by the number of YouTube videos demonstrating beyond any doubt the alleged moments of “transformation” of well-known politicians or movie stars, but also by internet posts and subsequent books devoted to this subject – there may be many, many more supporters of the hypothesis of a bloodthirsty, lizard-like conspiracy.
Of course, on the one hand, rationalistic arguments can be made against this mythology. It can be pointed out that we have no evidence, not even the slightest, to support this thesis, because no one has ever managed to capture such a cunning lizard and then make it reveal its true shape.
Reptilianologists will immediately reply, of course – by the way, it is impossible to deny this reply at least a minimum degree of probability – that this proves nothing, because, firstly, the reptilians are so powerful that capturing any of them is almost impossible, and, secondly, even if we did capture them, they have such advanced technology of camouflaging their reptilian nature that we would not get any eye-witness testimony anyway.
If, however, we look at the story of ruthless lizards who wield indivisible power over humanity, who hold the reins of government and the largest corporations, who are rich and prosperous, who prey on the unwitting majority, and who in addition feed on – in the most literal sense – human blood. For if we look at this story as a specific metaphor, a modern myth, with the help of which some kind of current experience is symbolically captured, don’t we suddenly see that it is, yes, fanciful and caricatured, but nevertheless quite an insightful diagnosis of contemporary, predatory capitalism?
The UNESCO starts from an otherwise intuitive assumption that the growing susceptibility to conspiracy theories stems simply from a lack of reliable knowledge and a misunderstanding of what the scientific method is all about. It follows in the footsteps of Karl Popper rather than Mark Fenster or Peter Knight.
In this perspective, which is nowadays the dominant one – both in relation to the ever-growing anti-vaccination movements and to less socially harmful ideas, such as the belief that the moon landing never took place and that the alleged film documentation of it was created in Hollywood studios under the professional eye of Stanley Kubrick – a simple assumption is made. It reads: if followers of conspiracy theories – or, more broadly, of various pseudo-scientific stories that have nothing to do with facts, although they very cleverly pretend to be them – were able to distinguish between reliable and unreliable beliefs, they would cease to adhere to these peculiar viewpoints.
It is assumed here that knowledge is the key to the “right” worldview – just as for Socrates it was the key to the “right” ethics. – For all evil, Socrates argued, stems from ignorance. Whoever acts badly, does so because he lacks information as to what good is and how one should act well. If he is provided with this knowledge, he will change his behavior.
If, however, conspiracy theories are much more than just erroneous beliefs, erroneous reasoning, and if the very structure of these beliefs, once set-in motion, cannot practically be stopped – because everything confirms it, like psychoanalysis, everything always works in its service, everything permanently feeds this particular theoretical perpetual motion machine – this must inevitably mean that education alone is not enough.
That the oppositions rationality-irrationality, knowledge-ignorance, facts-mythologies, correctness-incorrectness, realism-paranoia, health-pathology, do not exhaust the field of possibilities of description. That to confront this complex being – the culture of conspiracy – some other tools are needed, some other perspective.
This missing link, which may be what this is all about, is clearly visible in two recent documentaries – “We Believe in Dinosaurs” the 2019 film directed by Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown, and a year earlier, “Behind the Curve” directed by Daniel J. Clark. Both take a close look at adherents of beliefs that are peculiar and in stark contradiction to the very elementary facts provided by modern science.
The first introduces us to the circle of American fundamentalist Christians gathered around the organization “Answers in Genesis” – who believe that the Bible tells the literal truth about the history of the world and mankind, and that the theory of evolution is one big lie. And that therefore the Earth has existed for barely 6.000 years, and quite recently the eponymous dinosaurs lived on it, with whom homo sapiens co-existed peacefully.
Until recently, “Answers in Genesis” was headed by its founder and long-time president, Ken Ham, who appears frequently in the film. Ham is a tireless promoter of creationism and has participated in many TV shows and debates, including a famous debate with American science popularizer Bill Nye in 2016, which attracted a massive audience and provoked much discussion about the legitimacy of publicly debating pseudoscientific mythologies.
The second is a probe into the believers of the flat earth theory – one of the most eccentric and patently absurd concepts, which, as the main character, self-appointed leader of the American Flat Earthers Mark Sargent, says, is the genuine queen among all possible conspiracy theories. After all, what could be more spectacular than a mystification lasting for no one knows how long, consisting in carefully concealing from public opinion that the earth is completely flat, surrounded by a special dome, and that the sun and stars are simply large lamps suspended from this dome?
The importance of the secrets revealed by the adherents of the flat earth theory is demonstrated by the fact that, as the film carefully documents, their circle is constantly divided internally. Anyone who becomes even slightly more visible immediately becomes suspect. Could it be that he or she is some kind of camouflaged CIA envoy, whose aim is to discredit the ideas of flat-Earth theories, to make them appear to be associated only with an eccentric group of enthusiasts, so that no one takes them seriously?
One of the leading characters of “Behind the Curve”, Patricia Steere, a popular podcaster and promoter of the flat earth theory, experiences this most acutely, falling victim to a whole series of insinuations and suspicions: from collaborating with some government agencies to concealing her real gender.
Eventually, after the shooting was over, Steere disengaged herself from the flat earth movement, cancelling all her social media channels and accounts. In an extended interview she gave to Noel Hadley, which was published as an eBook entitled “Everything that was beautiful became ugly: escaping flat earth with Patricia Steere”, she expressed deep disappointment and despair that the community to which she had devoted so much of her life had so violently and irrationally rejected her. It was, literally, a real tragedy for her.
This is precisely the link that UNESCO experts are unaware of, and that all of us who claim to be committed to rationality and science, who do not order bizarre books from small online bookshops, who do not belong to eccentric Facebook groups, who do not declare a desire to participate in conferences on the harmfulness of vaccines, on the MK Ultra program or on the influence of the Bilderberg Club on the fate of the world, are often unaware of. It has nothing to do with a question of education or knowledge of the scientific method.
Among the staunch creationists and believers in biblical literalism we watch in “We Believe in Dinosaurs” there are also people with doctorates in molecular biology – which demonstrates a truth that has long been well known: the human mind is so flexible that it can reconcile almost anything, including water and fire.
However, the question “how can one believe in all this” ceases to be so pressing if we realize that the characters presented in both of these excellent films form tight, consolidated communities.
And the beliefs they so passionately profess and propagate are not just quaint, anti-scientific nonsense. They are part of a whole complex web of beliefs, symbols and behaviors. What we are dealing with here, then, is not so much alternative viewpoints as entire alternative cultures which – we might add – are the perfect panacea for all the ailments associated with late modernity.
This phenomenon was characterized in detail by the French sociologist Gilles Kepel in his famous book “The Revenge of God”, first published in 1991, which, achieved bestseller status – and that of a prophetic work – only in 2001, immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The thesis of this book was as follows: religious fundamentalisms, the development of which we can observe especially in the second half of the 20th century, are a thoroughly modern phenomenon.
Despite the fact that they present themselves as faithful to the most grassroots traditions, as movements returning to long-forgotten and disregarded original meanings and lifestyles, they are in fact strictly contemporary products. This is because the tradition to which they claim to refer is produced by themselves – opposing it as monolithic, radical and consolidated to all the qualities that constitute Western modernity.
What are these qualities? Here is a rough list, which – with minor modifications – can probably be found in every major sociological or philosophical work on modernity. The disintegration of coherent, comprehensive stories about the world; the crisis of institutionalized religions as the main source of meaning and a coherent image of the world; the disintegration of traditional bonds and social hierarchies; the development of science, which presents an image of a world lacking any higher purpose, and of human life as based solely on biological processes and ending at the moment of physical death; loneliness, uncertainty, emptiness, the imperative to succeed in a brutal, ruthless market.
Here is perhaps an answer, and at the same time an apparent panacea for all these ills and ailments characteristic of our times, in the form of fundamentalisms, conspiracy theories and pseudo-scientific narratives that are growing today with great intensity.
And this is perhaps the most important thing there: the sense of a consolidated community; collective rituals; a clear division into good guys and bad guys; the conviction that the world really has a clear and obvious structure, and only some evil forces obscure and complicate it. And then there are the specific hierarchies and institutions, conventions, conferences, mutual support and the feeling of being among one’s own people.
And above all, what Carl Gustav Jung once wrote about, that it is one of the basic human desires, especially nowadays – although at the same time very difficult to satisfy. Namely – initiation, access to secret, hidden, inaccessible knowledge, submerged in the everyday ambiguity of the majority. And this special, unique, irreducible sense of meaning suddenly penetrating and illuminating the chaos and darkness of individual existence – anonymous and unimportant, fused with billions of other individual lives born and dying on a planet moving in infinite, empty space together with myriads of other such planets, dead, silent, alone.
The image of the world that emerges from modern science – although there are those for whom it is a source of joy and excitement – is a reality stripped of all the qualities with which it was equipped by mythological and religious stories. A reality composed exclusively of matter, whose shape turns out to be the effect of blind, random processes whose direction is not determined by any telos, any providence.
Similarly, man and his mind – without exception, is also the final product of countless trials and errors, genetic reshufflings and mutations, following a very simple scenario: to adapt to the conditions, survive long enough to produce offspring and ensure the survival of the species. Of course, I will now hear from science lovers – and scientists themselves – as has often been the case, that, on the contrary, science has revealed to us areas of existence that were previously shrouded in mythological fog, and only now can we genuinely wonder at the world, only now can we truly see how extraordinary and beautiful life is.
I would reply that it is a matter of taste. And that for many of us, the truth about life as a purely biological phenomenon is simply unbearable. Especially since we have to deal with it in an era of a massive breakdown of bonds, multifaceted and multilevel crises, an epidemic of loneliness and depression, and, at the same time, increasingly brutal economic realities: deepening inequalities, radical gaps between a narrow caste of the richest and the rest.
When churches and traditional religions gradually lose their authority and their “offer” seems more and more incompatible with the needs of modern man, when the world falls out of its framework and everyday life becomes a source of permanent uncertainty, when science, due to the complexity of the subject it studies, begins to resemble a highly hermetic and complicated language, understandable only to very few and only after many years of arduous study, when economic realities are completely at odds with the cultural narrative of individual responsibility for one’s own success and increasingly resemble Hobbes’s “state of nature”.
So when all this happens, conspiracy theories and the close-knit communities around them simply become a genuine salvation.
They welcome with open arms those who already understand. Among those who do not let themselves be deceived by visible harmony, because they know how to see and recognize invisible harmony, which is, after all, many times stronger than the visible one. Among those who do not passively accept the communicated version of the truth, the courageous and idealistic rebels against the “rulers of this world”.
But above all, among those for whom chaos has become the cosmos, who have thrown aside the veils of their eyes and have seen things as they are, who have not seen but have believed. Among those who will not be submerged by any hurricane, who will not be deprived of their dignity by any crisis or bankruptcy, who will not be driven into complexes and feelings of guilt by poverty, who will not be deceived by any politician or banker, who will not be deceived by any “licensed elite”.
Therefore, among those who, although they do not have power, do have real knowledge, they do not have power, but they have a special control over everything that happens.
Perhaps the human mind, evolutionarily shaped in small, compact tribal societies, unconsciously applying various heuristic strategies – brilliantly described among others by Daniel Kahneman in his famous “Thinking Traps” – shaped not to know the world but to survive in it, is simply not prepared to confront reality as it is. He is also not adapted to living in such drastic conditions as those offered by late modernity. So when faced with a choice – loneliness and meaninglessness versus community and sense, he increasingly often chooses the latter.
 Ernest Gellner „Uwodzicielski urok psychoanalizy”, przeł. Teresa Hołówka, Książka i Wiedza, Warszawa 1997
 David Icke is former BBC journalist, known as a Holocaust denier and the king of conspiracy theorists. In 2020 YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have permanently suspended his accounts for violating rules regarding coronavirus misinformation [editor’s comment].
 K.R. Popper „Droga do wiedzy. Domysły i refutacje” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge), translated by Stefan Amsterdamski, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warsaw 1999, p. 68
 Richard Hofstadter „The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, Harper’s Magazine, November 1964 (https://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/)
 Peter Knight „Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to The X Files”, Routlege, London 2001
 Mark Fenster Dziś wszyscy jesteśmy zwolennikami teorii spiskowych (Today, we all are followers of conspiracy theories), in: Franciszek Czech (ed.) “Struktura teorii spiskowych. Antologia” (Structure of Conspiracy Theories. Anthology), Nomos, Cracow 2014, p. 154
 Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6kgvhG3AkI [editor’s comment].
 Zob. np. C.G. Jung „Wspomnienia, sny myśli”, przeł. Robert Reszke i Leszek Kolankiewicz, WROTA, Warszawa 1997, s. 310
The text was originally published in “Beyond Flat Earth. Conspiracy Theories vs. European Liberals” (edited by Miłosz Hodun for European Liberal Forum).