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August 21, 2017

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When conspiracy theories reign

KARACHI -- Conspiracy theories: We've heard them at the dinner table, we've forwarded them on WhatsApp, and we've debated them online and on talk shows. Proponents of conspiracy theories can be found in every country and every age group and social strata. It doesn't matter if you're educated or illiterate, rich or poor, white or black — there's a conspiracy theory for you.

Take America as an example: A study by the University of Chicago indicated that at least 50 percent of Americans believe in one conspiracy theory or another, although what they believe in depends on who they are. The "birthers," who claim that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen (with a subset convinced he is a "secret Muslim"), tend to be white and with right-wing political leanings. Those who believe crack cocaine is a CIA conspiracy to destroy black Americans tend to be black Americans. In the Muslim world you will find that a worldwide Western-Zionist conspiracy is to blame for most, if not all, of our ills. And then there are the Illuminati, beloved by just about all conspiracy theorists everywhere.

The world is crazy enough to lend some of these beliefs credence. After all, the CIA did indeed experiment with mind-altering drugs and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control did indeed infect black men with syphilis without their knowledge or consent. Governments have indeed made secret deals in backrooms that affected the lives of millions, creating wars and crises and toppling governments. Also, humans have an innate need to impose order on chaos and to question and analyze events around them — that's a trait that has taken us from being hunter-gatherers to beings capable of space travel.

But the dedicated theorist finds conspiracies everywhere, from climate change to regime change to street protests by local political parties, tying them all together in a neat package that leaves absolutely no loose ends.

Some researchers point to a link between anxiety and conspiracy theories, others claim people suffering from low self-esteem are more prone to believing such. Still others posit that those with narcissistic tendencies are given to believing and disseminating such theories. This may all be true, but the main reason we believe is because conspiracies are comforting.

It's a relief to think that the world moves according to a plan, no matter how nefarious it may be. It is a comfort to know that there's someone out there pulling the strings.

It's comforting because chaos is a scary thing indeed; it's frightening to consider that we live in a world governed by chance, where the only real constant is inconstancy. It is difficult to accept that our lives are largely governed (and can be abruptly cut short) by random events that we have little or no control over.

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