I think conspiracy theories – as opposed the identification of actual conspiracies, which is an altogether different thing – and the belief in them cause a number of problems.
First, as the individual level I think the belief in conspiracy theories allows the individual to be apathetic. If there are secret powers directing everything, we are powerless so why bother? The belief lets us abdicate our responsibilities as citizens:
- If elections are rigged, why vote?
- If the President gets shot by the real powers, why even bother electing the guy?
- and it lets us avoid dealing with controversial issues which actually need sorting out – again, if secret powers are directing things, why bother?
The belief lets us blame all manner of world problems on unidentifiable powers which means we can’t solve them. As a result, we are not responsible.
But in truth, we are all complicit all the time. Just by getting up in the morning and obeying the law I am tacitly endorsing the system I live in. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though many people would claim it is.)
But there are all sorts of things in this system that need to be fixed and they will never ever be fixed if we blame our problems on shadow governments and spy agencies and whomever the bad guy is this week.
However, I believe conspiracy theories are also dangerous at the level of the species. Many members of humanity have worked very hard over millennia to get to the level of knowledge we have today about our world and our planet. This knowledge is founded upon certain academic and scientific standards. Every conspiracy theory that I have ever encountered ignores or openly flouts these standards. Many conspiracy theorists claim that these tools, such as a rigorous attitude towards evidence, somehow get in the way of the truth. They think that actual academics who follow established ways of furthering knowledge are somehow naive or tools of the establishment. By promoting anti-intellectualism and by promoting irrationality in research conspiracy theorists are damaging humanity’s collective knowledge base. We already live in a time when anybody can pretty flagrantly lie in advertising (see the US elections), but this is well thought out, book-length lying and all it does is confuse people, till nobody knows what’s true any more.