Anyway, after a heated conversation about 9/11 today after class, I was left thinking. Why is it that conspiracy theories are so popular? I had a conversation with my incredibly intelligent sister about this and I came to two conclusions: people believe in conspiracy theories because ignorance allows any truth to be possible; people believe in conspiracy theories because they have a vested interest in believing whatever the conspiracy is.
Firstly, ignorance allows any truth to be possible. One of my students today maintained that everyone knows that there were explosions (like charges or something) that caused the World Trade Center towers to fall like they did. This student is not an engineer. I am also not an engineer. I can safely say that I do not know the physics behind what caused the towers to fall the way they did. Now it occurred to me while I was listening to this student that because neither of us really understand how these things work, anything could be possible and true. If we expand this idea to any other conspiracy theory, say, the "faked" moon landings, we discover that there's a lot of variables that prevent you from having an easy idea of how these things happen. I understand why people think that we faked the moon landings...I mean...no one has been there but 14 astronauts. They're really the only ones who have really experienced the conditions on the moon. So how the flag waves in a vacuum or how the lighting on the moon looks really is something that we have to do some crazy mythbusters type investigations to test. Usually people who believe in conspiracy theories are simply thinking based on public information...or youtube videos that have been proven wrong (yes I'm looking at you "loose change"). So ultimately, for my students and for myself, trying to argue about things like this are kind of pointless. I mean, yes, we need to get these things out in the open and discuss them, but if the student or the teacher cannot really intimately describe the mechanics and physics involved in something as complicated as a building collapse...then perhaps it's not a credible point to make in an argument.
Secondly was the point that my sister brought up. People want (or need, in some cases) to believe in said conspiracy. If my students believe, honestly believe, that 9/11 was an American government/Illuminati/Masonic plot then it lets Islam off the hook. They become the religion that is getting beaten up on; the victim. I know, and I like to think that most Americans know, that it was a group of very disturbed individuals that committed the atrocities of 9/11 in the name of Islam. Just like all Christians do not condone the bombing of abortion clinics or violent action against homosexuals, most Muslims abhor the attacks of 9/11. I had a conversation today with one of my colleagues about the perceptions that westerners and Arabs have of one another. It's built on Fox News and terrorism for most Americans, and American TV and the invasion of Iraq and US support of Israel for most Arabs. What this leads to is a desire to shut out the west and keep them at a distance, while Americans are both afraid of and intrigued by Arabs. Getting back to my point, sometimes people believe in a conspiracy because they want it to be true, and not investigating further is their way of allowing ignorance so that it can be (see how I tied it back to the other idea? You're welcome.)
I'm sure I'm gonna get some comments on this, but it's something that I have really been thinking about and talking about a lot with my students. Our understanding of each other is very limited, and even when we seem to get close, we realize how different we are.