One of the various, and easily mocked, sorts of conspiracy thinking floating around these days is the idea of "chemtrails". For those of you who don't have a hobby of following conspiracy nonsense, a brief explanation follows.
For the believers in chemtrails the idea that jet airplanes leave contrails due to their high speed through a humid atmosphere condensing that humidity into clouds is laughably naive. Their belief is that the so-called contrails are in fact clouds of Evil Chemicals that the dark forces controlling things from behind the scenes are spreading over an unsuspecting America.
What specifically the Evil Chemicals do is something very few chemtrail believers can agree on. Some will tell you that the Evil Chemicals are mind control drugs, others that they just make people unhealthy. But they all agree that the Evil Chemicals are bad, and that the forces spreading the Evil Chemicals are bad.
Oddly, and unlike many conspiracy theories which tend to be politically polarized, chemtrails seem to have believers on both the left and the right. Some hucksters make money selling anti-chemtrail equipment, mostly to the newage crystal idiocy leftist variety of believer.
Lately the more right wing chemtrail believers have been posting videos claiming to show that spraying vinegar around your back yard from a squirt bottle can dissipate chemtrails. Many of those videos include pleas to vote for Ron Paul on the grounds that he will stop the chemtrails, which in their version of the mythology are being spread by the federal government for various but nefarious purposes.
It's easy to mock the chemtrail believers, as it is easy to mock any of the conspiracy mongers. And on the one hand I don't have any objection to such mockery.
But on the other hand, I think that they and many others like them represent a political and social need being filled by the wrong thing.
The world has problems. That's obvious to anyone who looks. We can argue about whether things are getting better or worse (I'll argue better), we can argue about how best to solve the problems, and we might even disagree on what exactly the problems are, but there is going to be near universal agreement on the idea that the world has problems.
Worse, the problems we face are usually huge, with no clear cause, and no clear way to fix them. Often the political process seems engineered to prevent fixing, or even discussing the problems.
Which is where the conspiracies come in. Like the anti-vaccine crowd, the chemtrail crowd has seen problems and seeing that no one seems to seriously discuss the problems they've turned to conspiracy theories. One of the appealing thing about conspiracy theories is that they boil the complex and often downright opaque problems down to a straightforward and easy to grasp good vs. evil narrative.
The actual causes of autism, to pick on the anti-vaccine crowd for a while, are still something of a mystery. It is doubtful that any effective treatment to help autistic people will be developed soon. There's some reason to believe that such treatments won't exist until we really understand the human brain and can affect it at a cellular level; which is to say that if it ever happens it won't be for a very long time. For that matter even classifying and diagnosing autism is not a cut and dried matter.
With that sort of uncertainty it shouldn't be surprising that some people look for easy answers, and for someone or something to blame. We've got the pathetic fallacy built into our very genes, we see a kid with autism so we instinctively assume that someone was responsible for that. Most of us recognize that fallacy and are able to accept that sometimes things just happen and no one is responsible. Others of us can't, or won't, and so they look for someone to blame.
What we see with the anti-vaccine crowd, the chemtrail crowd, and the others is often (though certainly not always) a denial of helplessness and confusion. Like most of us, the conspiracy believer are powerless to really change much, and they don't even really have a firm grasp on what is wrong. Unlike most of us they've decided to latch on to any convenient explanation. That, in turn, allows them to focus their impotent rage at something, even if it's a laughably wrong target, and that having something to focus on feels better than being confused.
We see this same dynamic, though to a lesser extent, with the Tea Party. Unlike the anti-vaccine people or the chemtrail people, the Tea Party is sufficiently grounded in reality to realize the actual cause of many problems. They correctly identify one of the core problems as our political process, but "our political process" is a big thing and they still misdirect their ire to many wrong areas (such as Obama's mythic Islam, or his mythic Communism, etc). Rather than looking for real problems and real solutions the Tea Party, like their more conspiracy minded cousins, seeks easy answers and someone to blame.
I'm harsher on the anti-vaccine crowd than I am with the chemtrail crowd for one simple reason: the anti-vaccine crowd is actually causing harm both to their own children (by putting them at risk of very nasty diseases) and to society at large (by reducing herd immunity). All the chemtrail people do is buy vinegar or crystals.
I'm also sympathetic to the urge to understand and act that motivates a great many of the conspiracy theorists. They've horribly misunderstood things, and their actions are pointless at best, and harmful at worst, but the motivation to fix problems and improve the world is laudable.
What worries me is that the helplessness and increasing hopelessness we all have is going to fuel a misguided populist movement that may do horrible things. Fascism had its origins in the very understandable and luadable desire of many Italians to fix the problems that faced their nation; the result of that was so bad that "Fascist" has become a semi-generic insult.
A people will only tolerate abuse for so long, eventually they will rise up and do something. And history shows that more often than not the ultimate result of rising up and doing something is terrible. Revolutions generally produce results as bad as, or even wors than, the original porblem. And populist revolutions have a particularly bad track record.
I therefore see conspiracy thinking as something of an early warning system for a potental catastrophic failure in democracy. Conspiracy thinking grows when the feeling of impotent rage at increasingly intolerable situations grows. The fact that Ron Paul, an unwavering pro-conspiracy voice, is rising in political popularity is, to me, a very disturbing sign.