Cass Sunstein On Conspiracy Theories

Apr 2, 2014
Originally published on April 2, 2014 2:51 pm

Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein says pick your topic — the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian plane, Ukraine, the NSA, the economic crisis, even the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays — and you can find a conspiracy theory.

Sunstein himself has faced hate mail and threats after his time in the Obama White House, and for his articles on topics such as FDR and the rights of animals. Glenn Beck repeatedly described him as “the most dangerous man in America.”

The experience has led Sunstein to take a deeper look at the topics, including why apparently rational people can believe in crazy conspiracies. He writes in Bloomberg:

Remarkably, people who accept one conspiracy theory tend to accept another conspiracy theory that is logically inconsistent with it. People who believe that Princess Diana faked her own death are more likely to think that she was murdered. People who believe that Osama bin Laden was already dead when U.S. forces invaded his compound are more likely to believe that he is still alive.

Conspiracy theories, says Sunstein, can lead to violence, but they can also be harmless, such as the popular belief of children that a secret group of elves make presents that the mysterious “Santa Claus” distributes on Christmas Eve.

He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss why “rational people end up believing crazy things,” as he writes in his new book “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas” (excerpt below).

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Book Excerpt: ‘Conspiracy Theories’

By Cass R. Sunstein

Book jacket image of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas by Cass Sunstein


Why do intelligent people believe conspiracy theories, even when they are utterly baseless? Why does false information spread and sometimes incite violence? What rights do human beings have? Do we have a right to education or health care? What makes people happy? Do animals have rights? Is there a right to marriage? If so, who gets to marry? Does the United States owe poor nations compensation for climate change? Amidst the most fundamental disagreements— not least on these questions—how can we proceed?

And just who are minimalists and trimmers, anyway?

Of the hundreds of academic articles I have written, the most controversial appear in these pages. Academic articles do not usually get a lot of attention, but many of the chapters here escaped anonymity. Some of them even achieved a modest degree of public notoriety. One reason is that on dozens of occasions, Glenn Beck, the television and radio personality, described me on national television as “the most dangerous man in America”—apparently because of the essays here, especially those involving Franklin Delano Roosevelt, conspiracy theories, and the rights of animals. I don’t know how many people actually read those papers, but I do know that they helped produce a lot of hate mail (and a few death threats).

The unexpected notoriety was a product of the fact that from 2009 to 2012, I was privileged to serve as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The OIRA administrator is often called the nation’s “regulatory czar,” and while the United States has no czars, the administrator does have a good deal of authority. To get that particular job, you have to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. At least in the current period, the writings of Senate-confirmed presidential appointees are subject to intense scrutiny. And if someone with a lot of writing is fortunate enough to be confirmed, the scrutiny is likely to continue, certainly while he serves, and perhaps even after. I didn’t quite anticipate this. I certainly didn’t anticipate the degree of animosity that would be generated by some of the articles in this book.

In many nations, rational people end up believing crazy things, including (false) conspiracy theories. Those crazy thoughts can lead to violence, including terrorism. Many terrorist acts have been fueled by false conspiracy theories, and there is a good argument that some such acts would not have occurred in the absence of such theories. The key point—and, in a way, the most puzzling and disturbing one—is that the crazy thoughts are often held by people who are not crazy at all.

The essay on conspiracy theories was written in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, but the lessons are far more general. It was originally coauthored with Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, but it has been significantly revised and updated for this book. The focus is on threats—especially terrorist threats—that arise when people in other nations believe false conspiracy theories about the United States. Its central goal is to explore how information tends to spread, even to go viral, among like-minded people. And while some people think that the topic of conspiracy theories is narrow and specialized, the discussion bears on the spread of false information of many different kinds, not least in the internet era.

Excerpted from the book CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND OTHER DANGEROUS IDEAS by Cass R. Sunstein. Copyright © 2014 by Cass Sunstein. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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Malaysia's top police official asked for patience today, saying investigators are looking into every little thing in the investigation into the disappearance of Flight 370, including the people who prepared food for the flight, a comment which will probably only add to the conspiracy theories. Among them: the plane was captured by terrorists who are hiding it to use for attacks, the whole thing was a life insurance scam, or a new Bermuda Triangle, that the plane is in North Korea, that aliens are involved, that if it's never found, it means an entirely new and powerful force is at work on the planet.

Admit it. Did at least one of these occur to you? Why are people attracted to conspiracy theories? And what is the difference between a conspiracy theory and one that proves true? Couldn't terrorists have taken the plane? Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein addresses all of this in his new book, "Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas." He also served in the Obama White House and joins us from the studios at Harvard University. Cass, welcome.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.

YOUNG: And what are you thinking as you listen to these theories about the plane?

SUNSTEIN: Well, the first thing is just sadness for the people who've been lost or who've lost loved ones, so it's a tragic event. The second is just notice that conspiracy theories are often a reaction to a tragic event or an event that scares people. The human mind often gravitates to trying to figure out some kind of agent or force that's behind it all.

YOUNG: Yeah. It's a feeling of powerlessness because there's nothing we can do, so the ideas filled that vacuum. And they did in the past. You talk about Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, disappearing in 1937.

SUNSTEIN: Yeah. So the conditions for conspiracy theorizing are, first, uncertainty or at least arguable uncertainty, and second, an acute emotional state. It can get worse if people feel powerless, so people who are drawn to conspiracy theories often feel particularly powerless.

YOUNG: Yeah. But as you point out, some conspiracy theories happened. Republican officials did bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters, leading to Watergate. The U.S. did not cause AIDS. That's another theory. But the government did give African-Americans syphilis in an experiment decades ago. The Gulf of Tonkin, which launched the Vietnam War in full was a so-called false flag. There is a thin line between a conspiracy theory and the truth sometimes.

SUNSTEIN: Yes. I would use the word conspiracy theory, the term, just as a description and not build into it another word, false. So Watergate, as you say, that was a conspiracy theory that turned out to be true. And so we need to have a general category, aware that often false conspiracy theories go viral, and sometimes they can create tragedy or political polarization. But it's good in a free society for people to have their ears pricked and to be alert to the possibility that something that you can't quite see is behind it.

YOUNG: Stay with the tragic consequences of false conspiracy theories. Jewish conspiracy theories helped drive the Holocaust.

SUNSTEIN: No question that sometimes there's an other that's posited to be pulling the strings like a marionette. And a contemporary example that's alarming is the idea that there's a conspiracy to deny the association between autism and vaccines, or even there's a conspiracy to create autism through vaccines. And what makes that one far from innocuous is there are a lot of people in the United States who are hesitating before vaccinating their kids or declining to vaccinate their kids because they think that they'll increase the risk that their kid will get autism and that - there's no evidentiary basis for this conspiracy theorizing and the fact that a bunch of people believe it actually endangers kids.

YOUNG: We maybe also want to distinguish between a conspiracy theory and paranoia. And paranoia often turns out to be, you know, just because you think everyone is listening to you, maybe they are. I mean you are a member of the panel that recommended changes to the National Security Agency after the revelations from Edward Snowden about what the NSA was doing. And this is a case where people might say, see, I wasn't so crazy to think that the government is listening to people.

SUNSTEIN: Yes. So the fact is that the president and many others, including our review group, believe that the NSA's current practices deserve a significant reform. And the idea that the government is holding a ton of data, even if it's so-called metadata, which means not the content of your call but when you called and who you called, we believe and the president believes that that's not good, that the government holds that. It should be held by a nongovernmental actor.

YOUNG: Well, but see, I guess to the other point that it is proof to people that it's worth investing in a conspiracy theory because no matter what you think, whoever could have thought there was that much eavesdropping. And I'm just - in your own personal life, you have faced hate mail and threats after you joined the Obama White House for some of your writing. Glenn Beck described you as the most dangerous man in America. By the way, what are some of the strangest conspiracy theories about yourself you've heard?

SUNSTEIN: Well, the striking thing in Glenn Beck's comment, most dangerous and most evil, and evil is a pretty strong term, so to be called the most evil man in America - there are a bunch of people behind bars - that's a - that was interesting to be subject to that. For me, the one that was most noteworthy, I guess, was - my job in government was to help oversee government regulation, to make sure that it didn't have excessive cost and actually to oversee the Paperwork Reduction Act, reduce the paperwork burdens on the American people, a work in progress to be sure.

There were a lot of rumors out there that I was involved in government propaganda and that the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which I ran, information meant somehow manipulating people through covert tactics. And, of course, the job doesn't involve that at all. I wasn't involved in that at all. And so to see that held by apparent - that view held by apparently reasonable people, that was surprising.

YOUNG: Well, you know what, Cass Sunstein, I'm betting that there is a conspiracy forming right now. Again, you worked in the White House, as did your wife, Samantha Power. I'm sure there are people saying you are writing about conspiracy theories as a way to preemptively offset criticism of the Obama administration and to characterize it as a conspiracy theory. I can bet it's happening right now.

SUNSTEIN: Well, the U.N. ambassador and I did have at least two conspiracies. One was to create our son and the other is to create our daughter. But aside from that, what you see is what you get.

YOUNG: Well, one last thought about people who do really, are compelled towards conspiracy theories. You point out that they will often believe competing theories.

SUNSTEIN: Yes. So the best predictor of whether someone is going to believe a conspiracy theory is whether they believe another conspiracy theory. And sometimes people believe ones that are logically consistent. Like those who believe that Princess Diana is still alive are more likely to believe that she was murdered. That suggests some people have a real predisposition to believe these theories, and they do tend to suffer from a sense of personal powerlessness.

YOUNG: Cass Sunstein. The book is "Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas." Thanks so much.

SUNSTEIN: Thank you.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.