Why I Abandoned Conspiracy Theorizing: A Review of Michael Shermer’s Conspiracy

“Lies require a receptive audience to carry them forward, as well as a culture to nourish them.” -Michael Shermer

Conspiracy theories proliferate in environments where there exist profound anxieties, institutional mistrust, and sensitivity.

Those who knew me about a decade ago know how steeped in them I was. Reptilians, aliens, bankers, weather control technology, 9/11 as an inside job – you name it, and I bought it. I was often asked how I could believe in such nonsense, but it wasn’t to me; if anything, my interlocutors were the nonsensical ones. I couldn’t believe that they believed stupidity was the common cause of the most egregious geopolitical decisions. How were they that dumb?

Michael Shermer, in his latest book Conspiracy, outlines several foundations of conspiratorial thinking, along with the elements comprising the reinforcing factors. Tribal conspiracism (the need to have our beliefs be in-line with those of our group-mates), proxy conspiracism (the beliefs representing more the fundamental beliefs that we identify with, such as religious ones), and constructive conspiracism (part of the better to be safe than sorry mindset), he argues, explain how we develop conspiratorial beliefs. From my personal experience and those of whom I once befriended, there’s also a basic yearning to feel special.

And that was my main driver. I struggled with self-esteem for the majority of my life, having had my mental health issues misdiagnosed as general intellectual ineptitude when I was a child. So, like many other difficult and defiant kids, I wanted to show my superiors that I was smarter than them, that I possessed a more intricate understanding of the world, that I could run circles around them, intellectually. Additionally, I was introduced to conspiracy theories at a formative and vulnerable period, when I was desperate for mentorship and attention.

It was then that I discovered how connected everything was and how only a select group could conceive of that unity. In an instant, I felt special, now wielding the ability to challenge and submerge any contrary idea or individual espousing it. In one instant, I was bestowed with uniqueness, superiority, universal meaning, and clarity; everything, my place in the cosmos included, finally made sense!

And, according to Shermer, that’s a major appeal of this form of divergent thinking. Because most of us will never be experts in multiple fields, let alone statistical analysis, we search for simplicity masquerading as complexity. Those beliefs provided me with a deceptively complicated worldview, which was ultimately reducible to a theory about a small, yet powerful, cabal. I sincerely believed that I had insider knowledge and, in turn, only provided it to the other worthy ones. How do you decide who’s worthy? It’s just anyone who’s receptive to it, not the sheeple, obviously.

Shermer posited that various cognitive biases reinforce those beliefs, such as confirmation bias and myside bias. And I employed them all! On some deeper level, I knew that I was intellectually dishonest, but on the surface, I could convince myself of my truth and just somehow avoid considering alternative data. I still can’t believe a mind can do that. Ad hominems, deflections, cherry-picked data – these were just the tricks of my trade. My goal was winning, disguised as truth-seeking. It didn’t matter whom I convinced and how; a win was a win and another notch, or blemish, on my belt, depending on who’s looking.

Finally, in college, I met my mentor, who was my philosophy professor at the time, Dr. Tim Stroup. To me, he was the ultimate boss in the most difficult game; if I could defeat him, I would establish myself as the absolute best. But, Tim didn’t want to fight; he sincerely wanted to help me. He utilized Shermer’s tactics, outlined toward the end of his book. Tim gave me well-sourced material that presented alternative arguments, had the class present cases for positions they disagreed with, and made me feel like my identity was disconnected from my beliefs; I knew he’d think well of me regardless of my assertions. And that was how I grew to love him. Tim told me that the reason he admired me wasn’t because I was smart; it was because he had never met someone so open-minded and willing to go wherever reason took him. To him, my identity was one of a bonafide truth seeker. Me? The most intellectually dishonest person I knew. Apparently… I significantly changed because of him, and I hope he knew that.

Tim embodied all of the qualities listed in Shermer’s last chapter; he was a beacon of reason. And we need more people like him – people who care more about people than about being and proving themselves right. Although Tim likely already knew everything presented in the book, I wish he were here for us to discuss it; I think he would’ve loved it, too. And I highly recommend it to any aspiring truth seeker. I hope it helps you the way Tim helped me; his wisdom lies therein.

Check out our podcast episode with Michael below:


  1. I was about 15 years old, rebelling hard and without ever having guidance or mentorship when I fell into conspiracies as well as spiritualism (the two together make a great cocktail). It gave me some orientation and self-esteem in a world that felt non-sensical and frightening. While human civilisation still seems quite non-sensical and frightening, it is (perhaps as Freud might remark) with maturity that I have become able to tolerate the uncertainty and ambiguity of it all. To be comfortable in oceans of feeling and uncertainty, rather than to have to pin things down, to have fixed points from which to lever the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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