AS A SKEPTIC, I OFTEN HAVE AN experience that many people will find familiar. I'm talking to someone. They tell me something I know is wrong, and I explain why it is wrong. They refuse to believe me. I continue to try, sometimes over days or weeks. They still won't get it, and sometimes their false belief becomes even stronger. What is wrong with them?
The inability of the true believer to see reason is a frustrating puzzle. One of the most common questions I get in interviews is "why do people fall for conspiracy theories?" I explain that it's often just a chain of chance, circumstances, and being in an unsettled time in their life with too much spare time. But that's not the "why" the interviewer is looking for. They want to know what is wrong with the conspiracy theorist. Specifically what is mentally wrong with them.
There seems to be a natural desire to pathologize unconventional beliefs. Many of these conspiracy theories seem so wrong that for a lot of people a belief in them can only make sense if there's some kind of mental illness involved. So they ask "what is wrong with them."
Sometimes, of course, there is something wrong with them. Mental illness, specifically paranoia or delusional disorder, can lead to belief in conspiracy theories. In addition, mental quirks such as narcissism or a tendency toward attribution errors (assuming things have deliberate or at least non-random causes) have a statistical correlation with conspiracism.
But many, probably the majority, of conspiracists are essentially ordinary people who just hold some mistaken beliefs. They have been persuaded by deceptive media (usually videos) that a particular event is best explained as being the result of a conspiracy by a small group of powerful people acting for nefarious purposes. Once they accept this explanation, it can be difficult for them to un-realize it because they have become epistemologically unmoored and have difficulty trusting any source.
This reluctance to accept any contradictory evidence can seem very puzzling to people unfamiliar with the conspiracy world. So it is easy to jump to the conclusion that there's some mental illness there. We pathologize their misunderstanding.
But something I have learned, often by painful experience, is that with conspiracy theorists, there is a symmetry of perception. You think they have been misled by YouTube videos, while they think the mainstream media or government...