Mental Health: Conspiracy Theories

Mental Health: Conspiracy Theories

By Natalie Taylor

Conspiracy comes from Latin: to breathe together; and it suggests people coming together to get something for personal gain. More than that, a conspiracy theory is about power, gaining control over an unseen enemy, an “us against them.”

When everything familiar seems to be falling apart and there is no clear response to a global crisis, some find comfort in easy answers. It assuages their anxieties, makes sense of the complexity around them, and focuses the blame on someone else. The Covid-19 pandemic is fecund ground for conspiracy theories: a strange illness on a global scale, no clear answers, no clear end point.

Various conspiracies are presently streaming through the internet—that the virus is transmitted through 5G antennas; that a cure for Covid-19 exists but is withheld for political or economic gain; that it’s all a hoax to harm a political opponent. Conspiracy theories revolve around secret plots, they connect unrelated events, and they lack evidence.

Current conspiracies tend to fall into two general categories:

  • The virus was created by some unknown, malevolent entity. Then it was unleashed on the world to benefit that malevolent entity. One such conspiracy, promoted by a discredited physician, claims the virus was “created” in a laboratory then released to cause global havoc. No proof, just claims.
  • There is no pandemic. The “coronavirus deniers” claim that the idea of the viral threat was created to benefit some sinister institution. They take photographs and videos of empty hospital waiting rooms and parking lots to prove this. But the simple explanation is that many hospitals have banned visitors and many elective procedures have been postponed or canceled.

Conspiracy theories have a long history, particularly during pandemics. In the 14th century, as the Black Death ravaged Europe, Jews and lepers became scapegoats, blamed for contaminating public fountains in order to kill Christians. During the 1630 plague in Milan, two citizens were falsely accused and executed for spreading the pestilence. The 1918 flu pandemic in America, German submarines were blamed for spreading the virus.

So what is the harm of having alternative beliefs about reality? Many like to say that “everyone is entitled to an opinion,” However, Senator Moynihan wisely added: “but not to their own facts.” The problem with misinformation is that it always has the potential to cause harm. With something as momentous as the Covid-19 pandemic, blaming the origin of the virus on the wrong source, or dismissing its seriousness, or offering unsubstantiated remedies, can have massive life-threatening consequences.

How to inoculate yourself against conspiracy theories

Be skeptical. What are the credentials of the person making the claim? A quick Google search can often give an answer. Become Sherlock Holmes and do some judicious detective work before you accept a claim. Do further fact-checking through reliable sources. If it’s a medical claim, see what Mayo Clinic, or Johns Hopkins has to say about it or check the PNAS—a journal of the US National Academy of Sciences.

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