Now, this isn’t an attempt to claim every conspiracy is simply illusion. Individuals conspire all the time in private, economic, and political settings to maximize personal profit, and both big tobacco and big oil have conspired to discredit science and skew public perception about environmental issues.
That said, there are major differences between well supported and logical conspiracies of people skewing reality for their personal gain, and theories that oppose all available evidence. For example, there is evidence that vaccine companies neglect to speak about the rare but existing dangers with vaccines, that pharmaceutical companies have been known to skew studies or even falsify data, and that companies pushing for “free trade” are really lobbying to extend corporate rights over national borders.
There is, on the other hand, less than no evidence (as in, it is disproven) that vaccines are connected to autism or that Ebola or HIV are the result of bioweapons research. There are 1000 studies proving the existence of global warming and mass extinction to every one study that even unearths a little reasonable skepticism of these risks. Believing that complex problems, or the emergence of disease, are the result of a conspiracy is an extremely easy way to avoid understanding the problem and its potential solutions.
This isn’t just an opinion: people who believe simple one-sided conspiracy theories are much more likely to believe flat-out bullshit. A recent study into social media behavior on Facebook sought to analyse how the researchers’ approximately 5000 pseudoscientific comments were perceived and reacted to by the online community. 78% of those who liked these patently false comments were fans of conspiracy sites.
It also turned out that followers of conspiracy sites posted almost exclusively on those type of threads and on those kinds of sites, ignoring contrary opinions. Followers of scientific news sources were approximately 10 times more likely to comment on the opposing “alternative” sources than “conspiracy theorists” were likely to post on scientific sources. In this arrangement, those following science appear to be actually more open minded.
To put this in other words: fans of sites posting predominantly unfounded conspiracy theories are much more likely to believe fabricated bullshit that was literally posted to see how people react to unfounded bullshit. To be a “conspiracy theorist” living outside of the world of established evidence is to embrace easy answers. As to be expected, easy answers require less cognitive energy. Despite that the mean IQ continually increases, an increasing lack of critical thinking skills makes these gains close to useless for many.
There is a difference between acknowledging the existence of conspiracies, and avidly advocating for the “truth” of a theory that either lacks, or completely contradicts, any evidence. There is even ironically evidence of “reverse conspiracy” in some contexts, for instance one could even argue that a lot of the well-funded anti-GMO rhetoric is a form conspiracy to promote organic and conventional sales, by painting them as safer or more sustainable than genetically modified alternatives.
Skepticism isn’t about being closed-minded, it is about believing in evidence. The entire basis of the scientific method rests on evidence, and on attempting to disprove anything before accepting it. If you keep your mind too open, you shouldn’t be surprised when parts of you reasoning start to fall out. Being open to new evidence is a form of real open-mindedness, which is very different from avoiding all contrary evidence and painting any critics as “shills” or “sheep”. Conspiracies are real, but they are ironically not the same conspiracies that self-described “conspiracy theorists” tend to talk about.