By McKhelyn Jones | Arts & Culture Editor

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that a conspiracy theory “explains an event or set of circumstances as a result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.” However, I believe conspiracies are a way for people to make meaning out of horrible events, such as Sandy Hook or 9/11.

However, people often use them to make meaning out of things like the language contained in John Podesta’s — former chairman to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign — hacked emails. This sparked “Pizzagate,” an event where employees of Comet Ping Pong pizza in Washington D.C. were threatened by a man who entered the establishment and shot an AR-15 rifle into the air to “self-investigate” allegations of a child sex ring operation sponsored by Podesta and Clinton. Luckily, the man surrendered when he found no evidence of child abuse, and no one was physically injured.

By now you might be thinking that conspiracy theorists are crazy or have an undiagnosed mental illness. However, that’s not true. I, a seemingly rational college student, used to believe in conspiracy theories. So, who does believe in them?

The New York Times reported on a poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University that found 63 percent of registered voters in the U.S. believe in at least one political conspiracy theory. That’s an estimated 126 million voters. Obviously, they aren’t all crazy.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, a reporter with The New York Times, reported in 2013 that researchers from The Psychologist found conspiracy believers are generally cynical about the world and politics, have low self-worth and use conspiracies as a reaction to life’s unpredictability.

Another often cited psychological phenomenon is the “Dunning-Kruger” effect. This is a cognitive bias where low-ability people overestimate their abilities. Conspiracy theorists are often empowered by thinking they know more than regular people, which may alleviate some of the symptoms of low self-esteem, or at least ease it a bit.

Furthermore, conspiracies often spawn out of real-life events like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments or Operation Large Area Coverage.

The syphilis experiment was an unethical study conducted from 1932-1972 by the U.S. Department of Health on 399 black men. Impoverished black males infected with syphilis were supposedly treated by researchers. However, these men were never given treatment even when penicillin became a viable option and were instead used to study the progress of the disease. By 1972, only 74 of the subjects were alive, while 40 of their wives were infected and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis. It is easy to see why people believe HIV and AIDS were created as bioweapons against black folks and gay men.

Operation LAC was conducted by the U.S. army during the 1950s. The army sprayed an aerosol of zinc cadmium sulfide over areas like the San Francisco Bay, the coast of South Carolina and St. Louis to study how chemical warfare might be waged. While it is true that the army did this, the effects of the aerosol are still hotly debated even though the U.S. National Research Council found no evidence of it causing harm to people. Conspiracies about “chemtrails” are easier to believe when you know the government has sprayed people without their knowledge before.

There is no clear-cut answer for why folks believe in conspiracies because there are a range of possibilities. However, events like “Pizzagate” show that fringe conspiracies are now part of the mainstream, and might have disastrous effects on our democracy.

“It seems to me that these conspiracy theories have the effect of distorting or poisoning the democratic process in the sense that if millions of Americans … believe that there is a secret entity called the North American Union, which the global elites of Canada, Mexico, and the United States are planning in order to merge the three countries, then dealing with immigration in terms of reform becomes that much harder,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, during an interview on Radio Times in 2016. “If we believe, as millions of Americans were told, that Obama’s healthcare plan will involve death panels that will decide whether my grandmother or your grandmother lives or dies, it makes it that much harder to deal with health care for the country.”

Conspiracies are entertaining when they exist on the fringes of society. Now, they are becoming increasingly toxic as they invade the mainstream. Policies are being made using half-truths, conspiracies or outright lies. It’s all fun and games until public policies are made and pizza parlors are shot up as a result.

I believe it is time for Americans to re-evaluate their beliefs in them and return to the facts. Let us all take a stand for truth, logic and reason. Our nation was founded upon these tenets and I say it’s time to return to them if we truly want to “Make America Great Again.”