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Are conspiracy theories 'for losers'?

UM Political Science Associate Professor Joseph Uscinski, an expert on conspiracy theories, provides his analysis on what makes some people ardent believers.
Joseph Uscinski on CBSN Red and Blue with Elaine Quijano

Joseph Uscinski interviewed by Elaine Quijano for the CBSN show "Red and Blue" during a live broadcast from the Coral Gables campus. Photo: Barbara Gutierrez/University of Miami

Conspiracy theories in the United States have existed for a very long time. Some people swear by them; others think believers are crazy and delusional.  

A popular one now is that liberal billionaire George Soros is financing the caravan of immigrants coming from Honduras and other Central American countries to the U.S.   

University of Miami Associate Professor Joseph Uscinski has devoted the past 10 years of his academic career to the study of conspiracy theories. He has published two books on the subject: “American Conspiracy Theories,” which he co-wrote with Joseph M. Parent, examines why people believe in conspiracy theories, and “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them,” which was just published this month. 

News@TheU asked Uscinski five questions regarding the topic. 

Are we living in an age of an abundance of conspiracy theories? 

There are plenty of conspiracy theories in the news, and in our political discourse. But, that doesn’t mean that there are more theories than before, or that people believe in these theories more than before. Because we have a president who routinely discusses issues in conspiratorial terms, the media is required to address conspiracy theories. Thus, our news environment constantly has to cover the topic.

Why do you say that conspiracy theories are for losers? 

When I studied conspiracy theories going back over 120 years, I found that the most resonant conspiracy theories at any time were the ones that accused those in power of conspiring. When a Republican was in the White House, most the of conspiracy theories accused Republicans of conspiring; when a Democrat was in the White House, most of the conspiracy theories accused Democrats of conspiring. In this way, conspiracy theories are tools used by the weak to balance against power, salve their wounds, and to focus on a terrifying enemy. That's why conspiracy theories are for losers.

What are some of the most outrageous ones?

Some people believe that interdimensional shape-shifting lizard people rule the planet. Some others think that the lines in the sky that follow jet planes are poisonous chemicals intended to experiment on us. Others think that the planet is flat.

Was there ever a time when a conspiracy theory got out of hand and put people in peril? 

It happens often. The good news is that the vast, vast majority of people who believe in conspiracy theories do not act on them in a deleterious way. But, unfortunately, some do. Timothy McVeigh, for example, believed the government was conspiring against him, so he decided to fight fire with fire and blow up a federal building in Oklahoma.

What can we do to stop conspiracy theories? 

Unfortunately, not much, and it’s not clear that we should stop conspiracy theories. If you have ever had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist, you will find that they are unlikely to change their mind in the face of evidence. Often times, conspiracy theorists will accuse you of either being duped or in on it. 

We are working on the best ways to get people to put their beliefs in line with the evidence, but what we find is that people’s beliefs come first, and the evidence to justify those beliefs comes after. More importantly, conspiracy theories, despite the damage they cause, can do some good. It is important to have some level of suspicion because powerful people do abuse their power, and conspiracy theories can be a tool for holding the powerful accountable.