Truth is in the ear of the beholder

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone’s not after you. Over the last few months, a lot of writers have dusted off Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay on the paranoid style in American politics just so they can explain away the loony rumors and conspiracy theories coming from the far right. But no amount of intellectual condescension is going to make those powerful untruths go away.

The real truth is that, as weird as they are, rumors and conspiracy theories can only thrive in the minds of people who are predisposed to believe them. Successful propagators of fringe theories don’t just send random balloons into the atmosphere. Rather, they tap into the preexisting beliefs and biases of their target audiences.

Plenty of studies have shown that people don’t process information in a neutral way -- “biased assimilation” they call it. In other words, rather than our opinions being forged by whatever information we have available, they tend to be constructed by our wants and needs. With all their might, our minds try to reduce cognitive dissonance -- that queasy feeling you get when you are confronted by contradictory ideas simultaneously. Therefore, we tend to reject theories and rumors -- and facts and truths -- that challenge our worldview and embrace those that affirm it.

It’s easy to assume that lack of education is the culprit when it comes to people believing rumors against logic and evidence -- for instance, that Barack Obama, whose mother was an American citizen and whose state of birth has repeatedly said his birth records are in good order, isn’t a legitimate American citizen. But one 1994 survey on conspiracy theories found that educational level or occupational category were not factors in whether you believed in them or not.


What was significant? Insecurity about employment. That finding ties into psychologist Robert H. Knapp’s 1944 thesis that rumors “express and gratify the emotional needs” of communities during periods of social duress. They arise, in his view, to “express in simple and rationalized terms the uncertainties and hostilities which so many feel.”

If, on the one hand, you think you should blame rumor-mongers and rumor believers for not doing their homework, you can, on the other hand, give them credit for striving pretty hard to explain phenomena they find threatening. Rumors and conspiracy theories often supply simplified, easily digestible explanations (and enemies) to sum up complex situations. However crass, they’re both fueled by a desire to make sense of the world.

Can false rumors and off-the-wall theories be corrected by broadcasting the truth? Sometimes, but not always. Access to information, evidently, is not a silver bullet. In his just-published book, “On Rumors,” legal scholar (and new head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) Cass R. Sunstein argues that efforts at correcting rumors can sometimes even hurt the cause of truth.

He cites a 2004 experiment in which liberals and conservatives were asked to examine their views on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After reading a statement that declared that Iraq had WMD, the subjects were asked to reveal their views on a five-point scale, from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”


Then they were handed a mock news article in which President George W. Bush defended the war, in part by suggesting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After reading that article, participants were also asked to read about the CIA’s Duelfer report, which showed that the Bush administration was wrong to think Iraq had such weapons. Finally, they were again asked their opinion of the original statement on the same five-point scale.

What the researchers found is that the outcome depended on the participants’ political point of view. The liberals shifted in the direction of greater disagreement, while the conservatives showed a significant shift in agreeing with the original statement. As the researchers put it, “The correction backfired -- conservatives who received the correction telling them that Iraq did not have WMD were more likely to believe that Iraq had WMD.”

Are you scared yet? I am.

Sunstein’s book goes on to explore ways that society can hold rumor-mongers accountable without eliciting a chilling effect on the freedom of speech. He’s concerned that crazy rumors in the Internet Age can gum up the machinery of democracy itself.


I applaud the effort, but I’d prefer to do away with the insecurity and uncertainty that feed wacko theories and rumors in the first place. A modicum of stability, a fair and functioning economy and polity -- those have to be what we strive for.

But in the meantime, don’t forget psychologist Knapp. “To decry the ravages of rumor-mongering is one thing,” he wrote, “to control it is yet another.” Pass it on.