I confess that I might find it comforting to believe that a small group of shadowy insiders — the “deep state,” an international cabal, George Soros — is manipulating everything behind the scenes. Sometimes I’d prefer to think that someone, anyone, knew what the hell was going on and could do something about it. On the other hand, even those paragons of cunning manipulation, our social media savants, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, appear to be in a state of continual slack-jawed confusion about the unintended consequences of their clever inventions. In my sober moments, I have to acknowledge the forlorn truth: it looks like it’s just us here, humans who can barely make accurate predictions about what will make them happy next week, never mind manipulating millions of strangers. 

What’s wrong with conspiracy theories is obvious enough: they’re lousy explanations. They presume both knowledge and an ability to keep secrets that strain credulity. And, if they get popular enough, they can be dangerous. Yuval Noah Harari’s recent op-ed in the New York Times gives a great summary of the typical fallacies in global cabal conspiracies, and provides a salutary reminder that Nazism was, after all, one of these theories. (The Soros theory, rampant now, echoes Nazi antisemitism, an association not lost on Viktor Orban of Hungary, one of the theory’s promoters.) 

Conspiracy Theories = Q2, Not Q3

Global conspiracy theories reveal much more about their adherents — how they feel and what they fear — than they do about events in the world. But they also reveal something about the logic of explanation, and about the need for us as Social Studies teachers to do a better job teaching it to our students.

At our 4QM overview workshop, we typically use the example of the Salem witch trials to describe the Four Questions and show how to answer them. We picked that case specifically because it helps people to see the difference between our explanation question (Q3: Why then and there?) and the other questions, especially our interpretation question (Q2: What were they thinking?). The people of Salem thought that Satan was recruiting witches into a secret cabal (!) that was hellbent, literally, on undermining the righteous people of Salem. It’s important for us to know that. It’s also important for our students to understand that this is an answer to Q2, an interpretation of ideas about the world of a particular and somewhat peculiar group of people, the Puritans of Salem, in the late 17th century.

What it’s not is an explanation of the outbreak of a witchcraft hysteria at that time and place. Q3 asks us to step back from our narrative (Q1) and interpretation (Q2) and to do something else: try to figure out why this set of beliefs and the attendant actions — witchcraft accusations, trials, and executions — happened when and where they did. Why 1692, but not earlier or later? Why in Salem, but not other towns and regions? More generally, under what conditions, exactly, can we expect panics like this one to break out? In order to resolve puzzles like these, we teach our students two handy phrases designed to ward off fallacies and remind them of what a genuine explanation requires: “explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” And: “factors, not actors.” 

Scholars have applied this explanatory logic directly to the Salem case. At our workshop, we share some of their results. Boyer and Nissenbaum, in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974), notice the growing economic tension between the agrarian west and mercantile eastern part of Salem. Karlson, in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987), notices the relatively high number of independent property-owning women in Salem, likewise a source of tension in a largely patriarchal society. Both observations support classic Q3 claims about why the Salem panic broke out when and where it did. Changes in the economic geography or gender demography of Salem, or both, led to increased social tensions, which activated some prior beliefs and led to an outbreak of witch hysteria.  

The fact is, we’ll probably never really know what concatenation of factors turned a latent possibility in Salem into a painful reality. The more general Q3 aspiration, to say something sensible about the conditions under which panics like this break out — including our own current rash of conspiratorial enthusiasm — is even more elusive. Explaining patterns and anomalies in human behavior is an uncertain business. For better or worse, we’ll never be able to run controlled experiments on small New England towns, let alone countries of 330 million people, to see what factors induce an outbreak of panic about satanic conspiracy. The best we can do is what Boyer and Nissenbaum and Karlsen did: try to identify factors that interacted dynamically with the outcomes we’re interested in and then posit a mechanism to account for that interaction. 

Why Bother With Question Three?

If our results are so likely to be partial and tentative, why bother grappling with Q3 at all? I can think of two good reasons. First, it’s unavoidable. The fact is, we do this all the time. Are some of your students happier in the morning than the afternoon? Are they more attentive at the beginning of the week than at the end? Do students respond differently to you based on your race, ethnicity, or gender and theirs? Can you mitigate that effect by building relationships? Altering curriculum? If you’re a teacher and you’re paying attention, you’re working on Q3 puzzles like these all the time. We humans all do this as we make our way in the world, taking context and conditions into account as we calibrate our responses to other people and theirs to us. We’re just typically not reflective and systematic when we do so. Q3 practice makes us moreso.

More important, though more tenuous: maybe, just maybe, knowing how the logic of explanation really works will help our students to avoid the lure and trap of the fake kind. While explaining things is difficult and uncertain, the logic of explanation is not. The Q3 operation is very clear: ask a specific version of the why-then-and-there question, and then try to identify differences (between places) and/or changes (between times) that may plausibly be associated with the differences you’re asking about. If you get good at this mental operation, you’ll think more deeply, in a very specific way. You’ll acknowledge, as global conspiracy theories do, that what people think they’re doing is rarely the entire story. 

Our explicit knowledge, our conscious awareness, is too limited and partial to actually explain the patterns and anomalies in our own lives. That’s what Salem shows clearly, but it’s always true. Our actions, our lives, take place in a sea of shifting economic, demographic, social, and cultural conditions that shape what we do, what happens to us, even how we think. We can’t know with certainty exactly how those forces operate. But learning a technique for sorting and parsing them will give us the satisfaction of insight, if not power. 

Powerlessness, after all, is the likeliest driver of the temptation to organized paranoia represented by global conspiratorial thinking. Knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, unmasking the diabolical manipulators, is a kind of power-insight. Reality is, alas, stingier with its allocation of both power and insight. Maybe what Q3 practice does best is to remind us that this is always our condition: seeing through a glass darkly, trying to keep our ships afloat in a murky sea that expands beyond the horizon.