Why do intelligent people fall for absurd conspiracy theories?

That question has been on my mind for a week or two as I’ve followed the Republican attempt to discredit U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice over her Benghazi statements. But it has only grown more pronounced as I read some of the recent criticism of Yale-NUS.

[media-credit id=14887 align=”alignleft” width=”224″][/media-credit]According to yesterday’s News, such outlandish conspiracy theories not only received a hearing, but applause from an auditorium of Yale students. Friday’s talk on Yale-NUS took place in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall and featured members of Singapore’s opposition and an associate professor from SUNY Albany. The panelists didn’t simply express their principled disagreement with Yale’s decision to partner with the mildly repressive Singaporean regime. They questioned the intentions and integrity of Yale administrators.

The panelists accused the Yale administration of attempting to “simply line [its] own pockets.” Singapore’s Reform Party Secretary-General Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s attack bordered on the libelous, declaring that “For [President Levin], this is purely a business transaction” and that “what happens to the citizens of my country is not his or Yale’s concern.” This, of course, sounds a lot like some critics’ bizarre attempt to construct a nefarious web linking Yale trustees’ financial interests with the creation of Yale-NUS.

Let me be clear: it is perfectly reasonable to oppose Yale policies and administrative decisions. It is perfectly reasonable to think the faculty should have more of a role in university governance, or that Yale should never partner with states that are not American-style liberal democracies, or even that that Yale should dial back its increasingly international focus.

However, insinuating that the University President and Vice President are money-grubbing characters who operate for selfish financial gain is as disrespectful as it is ridiculous. Richard Levin and Linda Lorimer have devoted decades to supporting and improving the modern university and global scholarship. They have articulated a vision that sees Yale-NUS as a ground-breaking opportunity for bringing a liberal arts education to a part of the world dominated by pre-professionalism. These life-long public servants deserve better.

I suppose that in our current political climate, this sort of nonsense is par for the course. In the aftermath of the brutal murder of American diplomatic staff in Benghazi, Libya, Susan Rice went on national television with talking points provided by the intelligence community, points now understood to be inaccurate.

Rather than concluding that the American intelligence community is fallible, the administration’s staunchest critics have descended into conspiracy theories. Senator John McCain suggested that Rice would be “unfit” for the role of Secretary of State, and he and other Republican senators started calling for Watergate-style investigative committees. The administration, many have suggested, was deliberately lying to the public about the nature of the attack in order to bolster President Obama’s reelection chances. How the logic of this is supposed to work, no one seems to know. Nevertheless, blinded by an almost fanatical hatred and mistrust of the president, a surprising number of people have bought into the nuttiness.

In their blinding self-righteousness, elements of the Yale-NUS opposition are no better than the radical Republican partisans. Both groups have a near-total inability to imagine that their political opponents might actually be motivated by good will. It is not enough for Senators McCain and Graham to oppose the president, or even consider him misguided — they must publicly theorize that he is deceitful. Similarly, some Yale-NUS opponents can’t fathom that President Levin may have a different set of priorities and values; for them, he must be greedy and feckless.

I understand the attraction of these conspiracy theories. The world is simpler when there are clear dichotomies of black and white, good and evil.  It is certainly easier to fight and argue when you hate your competition and vilify your intellectual opponents. But buying into outlandish stories coarsens our discourse, hardens our factions and distorts truth. Perhaps the U.S. Senate cannot help itself, but I expect better from Yale students.

Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.