There are already persuasive allegations that Hillary Clinton assassinated a loved US president (see online the convincing story Fox: New Evidence Hillary Killed [Abraham] Lincoln). Now there is added the strong suspicion that the Clintons are behind the otherwise inexplicable "suicide" of Jeffrey Epstein.
But wait, thinking readers! I am of course only having a lend of you so as to be able to lure you into a reading a column that this week thinks about conspiracy theories. Yes, there really is online that story about Hillary Clinton assassinating Lincoln. But, below its starkly stimulating heading one discovers it is by New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz playing with the American people's proneness to conspiracy theorising and with the American right's eagerness to implicate the despicable Clintons in all and any wickedness.
This week, of course, conspiracy theories and their credulous adherents are back in the news again with a flurry of speculations (and some of them involving the Clintons, and/or Prince Andrew) in the wake of the death of Jeffrey Epstein.
A conspiracy theory is helpfully defined as "the conviction that a group of actors meets in secret agreement with the purpose of attaining some malevolent goal".
But, from whence cometh this readiness of so many members of our species to imagine elaborate conspiracies behind happenings? After all for lots of us, simple, matter-of-fact, unelaborate explanations (including the common human foible of the "stuff up") are explanations enough. We think it more likely that terrorists alone carried out the 9/11 attacks than that the US government was complicit (in 2004, 49 per cent of surveyed New Yorkers thought their government involved). We, the conspiracy-idea averse, think it more likely PM Harold Holt just drowned in the surf than that he swam out to rendezvous with a Chinese navy submarine.
There is lots of scholarly research and thinking about why our species seems so keen on conspiratorial imaginings. Examining some of it for column-writing homework (for this columnist is what Rick of The Young Ones used to deride as "a girly swot") I've room here for mention of just two of the several big ideas that poke up out of the research.
One of these big ideas is that we may have evolved to look for conspiratorial scheming among others as part of our suite of cautious "threat management" strategies.
"How dangerous were actual conspiracies in ancestral times?" Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Mark van Vugt wonder in their voluminous 2018 paper Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms. They think that "coalitional [conspiratorially arranged] aggression and violence may have been a common cause of death" prompting the worried to evolve "counteradaptations" (such as worrying about conspiracies, anticipating them, looking out for them) that are still with us today in our primitively agitated minds.
Another (and related) big idea is that we go to conspiracy theory explanations for "sense-making" in scary times.
"Particularly in the face of collective threats - natural disasters, economic crises, and the like -conspiracy theories will flourish, as these theories help citizens to make sense of such events by blaming them on the deliberate actions of enemy groups," van Prooijen and van Vugt deduce.
We find it terrifying to believe that terrible happenings can be acts of God that happen out of the blue and at random. It is somehow less terrifying to believe ghastly horrors have been painstakingly plotted.
"Empirical research," our two scholars continue, "reveals that a high-impact, threatening societal event, such as the assassination of a president, results in stronger conspiracy beliefs than a similar but less influential event (e.g., the president survives an assassination attempt). These effects are attributable to people's sense-making motivation. Feelings of powerlessness or feelings of uncertainty have been found to stimulate the mental sense-making processes that are associated with conspiracy theories."
Quite why some peoples and cultures are more conspiracy inclined in their "sensemaking" responses than others is not clear. So for example the Americans do seem vastly more conspiracy-seeking than we, Australians, are when it comes to sensemaking. Every big US wildfire triggers lots of conspiratorial imagining about how and why fiends (often government fiends) caused it to happen but did any of us ever hear a single hint of a whiff of a whisper of such thinking about the Canberra fires of 2003?
Americans' famous religiosity and accompanying credulity (80 per cent of Americans believe in God, seven in 10 Americans believe in angels and 60 per cent fancy there is a Devil busily at work 24/7) may point to a feverish US national propensity to make highly-imaginative "sense" of happenings others find are sufficiently explained by dull old facts and the usual lacklustre likelihoods.