Editorial: Why do we believe conspiracy theories?

  • A visitor passes an oversized cover of the Abbey Road album cover during the opening of the Beatles Museum in Hamburg, Germany in 2009.

    A visitor passes an oversized cover of the Abbey Road album cover during the opening of the Beatles Museum in Hamburg, Germany in 2009. Associated Press/File

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 11/25/2020 9:42 AM

Those of us old enough to have been around for the heyday of the Beatles remember how richly the rumor had been embraced that Paul McCartney was dead and how widely it had been believed or at least entertained.

We needed scant more evidence than the image of Paul walking barefoot across Abbey Road. What else could that have possibly meant?


We rushed off to play our White Albums backward. "Turn me on, dead man."

We look back now at the Paul-Is-Dead phenomenon with a sense of nostalgic bemusement. Relatively harmless, after all. It's not like any of us changed our lives because of it. Mainly, we were fascinated by all the undeniable clues.

But the lesson we should have taken is more crucial. Instead of being bemused, we should be troubled.

It showed, after all, that we'll believe anything. And that was even before social media.

There wasn't much cost in believing that Paul was dead.

But there is great cost in believing that our elections cannot be trusted.

In a way, our president has as much told us that the sky is not blue and if he was to repeat that claim often enough, many of us would end up believing that we are seeing a different color.

Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump for president, clearly affirmed by virtually the same processes for tabulation as in 2016 when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.

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In repeatedly claiming otherwise, the president and his associates have offered no evidence for their conspiracy theory other than their own self-interests -- just as the president set the stage for casting doubt on the results by repeatedly questioning, without evidence, the security of mail-in ballots, which had been a common-sense public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

None of this will change the outcome. Biden will still become president.

But it is terribly damaging to our democracy. Polls suggest a substantial portion of people believe these claims, or at least think they're likely.

A democracy cannot function without a common belief in its institutions and especially in its elections. It relies on an underpinning of central truths.

That should make all of us ask some disturbing questions: What it is about our nature as humans -- humans of all political stripes -- that makes us susceptible to misinformation?


What makes us deny facts? What makes us follow crowds? What makes us lionize rock stars?

And what must we do to stop it?

What does it take for us to accept that a famous Beatle isn't dead, that sometimes he just doesn't feel like wearing shoes?

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