Short Q&A in Christian Science Monitor with Jesse Walker, author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory and contributor to the libertarian magazine Reason:
Q: What do we need to have in place for a conspiracy theory to develop?
A: Conspiracy theories emerge where three things collide. The first is our natural tendency to find patterns and creative narratives, to try to turn all these stray signals we receive into some sort of coherent order. Second is a situation that we’re suspicious of and makes us fearful. And third is the fact that there are actual cases of people conspiring. There’s a reason why there’s a legal offense called conspiracy. It’s not like being afraid of some supernatural monster that people talk about but never shows up. [...]
Q: When conspiracies get mentioned, some people accuse the believers of being mentally ill. Is that a real issue among conspiracy believers?
A: When a story catches on with enough people, we’re not talking about mental illness. If believing in conspiracy theories is a sign of mental illness, it means 90 percent of Americans have been crazy since the beginning. We’re talking about folklore. Even if it says nothing that’s true, it says something true about the anxieties and experiences of those who believe and repeat the theory.