Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On conspiracy theories

The problem with being late to the blogosphere is that almost everywhere I tread someone has been before and no matter what I post it is likely that someone posted something similar already, hopefully once I get into a groove I'll be able to tread some new ground - so bear with me if any of this is familiar and apologies to those whose material or ideas I may have read and inadvertently included. Feel free to add an "I made this" in the comments! For instance, Tom Foss has already covered some of this ground.

Anyway - I've long been interested in conspiracy theories, first (unfortunately) as a believer - JFK and UFOs at least - and now as a skeptic and critical thinker. I've spent more time than I care to debunking conspiracies from the fairly well argued to the piss poor nonsensical (Debra at The Bronze Blog being a good example of the latter). I've run into more people than I would have thought likely who believe this stuff - many intelligent and well read, not just fringe nutters as we would often expect - just the other day I heard a colleague at work talking about how the government was behind 9/11 and the swine flu outbreak (something about every sample having the exact same DNA and no mutations proving it was from one source distributed with purpose)!

So I've been thinking about conspiracy theories for the last few days and wanted to put some thoughts into writing on the subject so that you know what to expect and what to look for (not that most of you reading this won't already know).

1. The shadowy organisation behind the conspiracy (The Organisation)

No good conspiracy theory is without its mysterious, secret, monolithic, all powerful, rich governing body whose machinations involve whatever event the conspiracy is centred on. Sometimes it is the government alone (usually only first world governments, more often than not just the government of the USA). Sometimes governments are actually subordinate to some other shadowy or even more monolithic or less easily defined structure, sometimes they find themselves sharing equal ranking with them - the CIA, the UN, the Bilderberg group, the Jews, the Bolsheviks, the Communists, atheists, the New World Order, Interpol, the corporate media, the alternative media and the Illuminati - amongst many others.

Usually the group/s named by your paranoid conspiracy theorist (PCT) will be groups that said PCT personally dislikes, distrusts or is prejudiced towards anyway, or that they know nothing about other than what other PCTs have told them. It's part of the reason they accept the conspiracy in the first place after all - 'I hate/ dislike/ distrust them so they must be part of this.'

The group/s behind the conspiracy are simply accepted by the PCT as having unlimited funds, resources and manpower.

Technology that is at the disposal of The Organisation is often accepted as being far in advance of anything that is available to those outside The Organisation.

The Organisation is believed by the PCT to be completely and utterly focused on one objective - there are no internal divisions or disputes no matter that groups of wildly differing ideologies and purposes may be involved.

2. The loyal opposition (Paranoid Conspiracy Theorist)

These are, of course, our heroes - the PCTs. Sometimes just the PCT themselves, more often than not a small group of people who know 'the Truth'.

They will call themselves mavericks, rebels, heroes, patriots, True Skeptics.

They will almost certainly see themselves as a martyr in some way, they may explain why.

They will claim they too used to be skeptical of the conspiracy theory.

They will often believe they are being personally followed/ oppressed/ persecuted by agents of The Organisation (this goes to the aforementioned unlimited resources and manpower) no matter how insignificant they are in the global scheme of things.

They will almost certainly claim that they have researched the conspiracy for months, if not years, but they will demonstrate a woeful misunderstanding of most of the key points they argue. Their historical knowledge will almost certainly be laughable or horribly mangled. Their scientific or medical knowledge may be nonexistent or chronically misunderstood.

They will be wholly unaware of minor details that blow massive holes in their pet conspiracy, despite all the research they claim to have done.

They will probably at some point cite as evidence something which is a well known and documented hoax or fraud.

They will expect you to take at face value everything they say, and will become unreasonably angry if you don't. Prepare for an imminent meltdown should you have the temerity to ask for more evidence than a YouTube video or crap documentary narrated by Hunter S Thompson. And for the sake of the children don't call into question their scientific or medical credentials.

They will refer to anyone who doesn't believe in the conspiracy as sheeple, tools of The Organisation, stooges, idiots, unskeptical, poorly educated, naïve, pseudo-scientific, blind or enablers of the conspiracy. Then they will complain that you insulted them.

The conspiracy enables them to paint themselves as heroes and trailblazers - that's why they are so emotionally invested in it - they are now, in their eyes, globally important. I've seen Bronze Dog make this point a few times and it is still worth re-iterating since it goes a long way to explaining why PCTs still accept the conspiracy in the face of overwhelming counter evidence.

The PCT will at some point claim that they will or already have looked at your counter evidence. They won't or they haven't. On the rare occasion that they do or have, various forms of cognitive bias allow them to discount it or discard it. Mostly they will dismiss it as having come from The Organisation.

Edited to add: I forgot this first time around. The PCT will constantly fall back on Hollywood stereotypes - they will have been followed by cars with tinted windows and occupants wearing suits and dark glasses. The Organisation apparently operates in exactly the same way as agents and espionage agencies do in the movies that the PCT has seen. Men in Black is, apparently, The Organisations field agent training manual.

3. The evidence (questions with answers the PCT doesn't have)

Evidence in your average conspiracy theory is often very limited - usually when a PCT refers to evidence that they have they mean one of several things:

  1. A bunch of books, amateur videos or low budget documentaries that pick small details or inconsistencies and ask leading questions about them in such a way that it implies there are no answers and that this lack of answers implies proof of the conspiracy.
  2. A bunch of books, amateur videos or documentaries that pick and choose evidence to support the conclusion they want you to make and ignore all other evidence. Lies by omission.
  3. Something that has already been demonstrated to be either wrong, a hoax or a fraud.
  4. Something they don't know the answer to and so they assume it to prove the conspiracy because 'that's odd/ interesting/ convenient.'
  5. A misreading, misquote or misrepresentation of actual sources.
  6. A misunderstanding and therefore misrepresentation of history, science, law, foreign affairs, intelligence operations, military operations or the operation of civilian governments or emergency services.
  7. Lies.

The key thing to notice is that more often than not your average PCT does not present you with evidence - they present you with 'things that happened that I can ask an open ended and leading question about'. Most of a PCT's arguments will revolve around some variation of 'Well how do you explain this ... ?' The casual reader takes that as evidence and becomes a PCT, the critical thinker takes that as a question that needs to be answered before drawing a conclusion.

In response to questioning of their evidence the PCT will almost certainly assert that their sources are completely reliable but yours are not. Yours will almost certainly be described as untrustworthy, unreliable or propaganda, simply because they appear to be more official than the sources of the PCT. The PCT may assert that alternative sources are better even though the groups that may have provided alternative sources have also been listed as being part of The Organisation, and they won't miss a beat if this is pointed out to them.

A special exception to the unreliability of official or establishment sources will be where these sources can be used by the PCT to support their claims. In which case, of course, the source is completely reliable and 100% trustworthy.

4. The conspiracy (faith based paranoia)

Yes that's right - faith based. Your average PCT has no actual experience or first hand evidence of the conspiracy (there are, of course, exceptions) nor can they actively prove, disprove or research much of what they claim. Most don't even bother to actively research what they claim - they simply take another PCT's word for it. That makes their belief in the conspiracy a faith based one. Nearly all conspiracies can't be proven anyway - that's why they linger as conspiracy theories. There is, in the end, not much separating the believer in a conspiracy theory and the believer in gods.

The conspiracy is normally centred around one or more of the following (but this list isn't exhaustive):

  • A martyr figure (JFK, Princess Diana) who is often a figure of worship or portrayed as a saint with no real thought to their failings.
  • An incredible event (Apollo landings, 9/11).
  • World domination.
  • A racial or ethnic group and an irrational fear of their actions (Nazi fear of a Jewish conspiracy).
  • Medical and health conspiracies are becoming increasingly common (vaccines causing autism and this being covered up, swine flu outbreak, AIDs denialism).

The conspiracy may be some bastardized and abused form of Occam's Razor in the mind of the PCT. 'It was simpler for our government to pull 9/11 off than some Islamic nutters in a cave in Afghanistan, therefore it must be the government.'

What to look for

And there you have it, what I think are the four key components of any paranoid conspiracy theory. If you have more feel free to add them in the comments, especially if I've missed something important.

Now we know these, we know the easiest ways to spot if what someone is telling us is a paranoid conspiracy theory. Look for a combination of some or all of the following:

  • Prejudice towards The Organisation or its members.
  • Unlikely or competing membership of The Organisation.
  • Racial, religious or ethnic prejudice.
  • Ignorance of the evidence and counter-evidence for their belief.
  • Questions presented as evidence.
  • Claims made contrary to accepted scientific evidence.
  • Contradictory evidence.
  • Lack of sound evidence.
  • Lack of any evidence.
  • Belief that a known hoax helps prove the conspiracy.
  • Unwarranted worship of the martyr.
  • Unwarranted disbelief directed towards the incredible event.
  • Anything that involves global domination by individuals or groups.
  • Big Pharma.
  • Misapplication of Occam's Razor.
  • The proponent will claim to be the only one or one of a few who know 'the Truth'.
  • The proponent may claim that agents of The Organisation are following them or interfering with their life.
  • Emotional investment in the truth of the conspiracy.

If you can pick up on these in a conversation, chances are you are listening to someone who believes in conspiracy theories even if they haven't mentioned one. If you think there isn't a problem with any of the above - you probably are a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Now, arguments with a PCT will usually always follow a pattern similar to the following. The order might change, but the elements will usually appear at some point.

Arguing with a PCT

  1. The PCT will state what the conspiracy is and who is involved.
  2. They will react with astonishment that you don't believe them or the conspiracy. How could you not?
  3. When pressed, they may elaborate on who and what. Other PCTs may simply keep it vague because they don't know as much as they claim.
  4. They will start to make claim after claim 'supported' by their 'evidence'. It's a similar tactic to that used by creationists - make lots of claims that the critical thinker has to respond to and hope that they miss some or that the claims stick anyway.
  5. They will question the veracity/integrity/accuracy of your sources but maintain that theirs are completely reliable and accurate no matter what.
  6. When their claims start to be slowly, patiently and comprehensively rebutted by skeptics they will switch to the leading questions, "What about X, how do you explain that then?"
  7. When these questions are answered by skeptics the PCT will switch to "You're just naïve/one of them/a sheeple."
  8. If any one of the leading questions can't be answered for some reason (lack of evidence either way, technology, knowledge of the critical thinker) or isn't answered immediately, the PCT will respond with some version of "There, see." And claim victory.
  9. They'll complain that you are being mean or calling them names - even though right from the beginning they've acted like a tosser and you've been more than patient and reasonable. They'll pretend that when they called all atheists evil or all critical thinkers mindless drones that they didn't mean you.
  10. They'll use a hoax (that they just heard about whilst frantically searching the Internet to find something to counter your arguments with) as actual evidence.
  11. When the hoax is pointed out, they'll ignore it or apologise but insist that the point is still valid or there is still something to it. "Makes you think doesn't it?"
  12. They will throw in some personal experiences that they think prove the conspiracy, or show they are a martyr for the cause and that this proves the conspiracy.
  13. When the argument has repeated itself a couple of times they will announce that they can't convince you of what is right and they are leaving.
  14. Then they'll come back a few times, complain about the behaviour of one or two individuals and only then finally disappear.

Good hunting

Now you know what to expect and what to look for you can watch for patterns or catch the PCT off guard - anticipate their next move so you can demonstrate their predictability and repetition, refute the claim before they make it, play the game on your rules and on your home ground rather than theirs.

Most importantly - make sure the skeptical answer to conspiracy theories is out there. That's why we do this, right?


  1. I love this post Jimmy.
    Very well thought out and, as I know from personal experience of living in the South, largely true.

    Where I would promote caution to the whole skeptical community, however, is in putting too much emphasis on well known critical thinkers (Richard Dawkins being the first that springs to mind) who often evoke some of the same style of rhetoric and propaganda that, in particular, the religious right in the USA uses (although obviously from a much different point of view).

    You have quite skilfully avoided that trap, but I think it is one into which Mr Dawkins falls all to often. Christopher Hitchens is another culprit.

    While it is great for the skeptical thinker to have such champions, they are all too easy for the opposition to lampoon and, in taking on this role, the lampooned becomes something of a caricature of the skeptical thinker. A caricature that, while admirable, we should not necessarily aspire to for fear of becoming a PCT ourselves.

  2. The problem with being late to the blogosphere is that almost everywhere I tread someone has been before and no matter what I post it is likely that someone posted something similar already...

    I wouldn't worry about this. Why are you blogging? I do it to just have that little bit more out there, but I mostly do it just for me. It gives me a place to place ym thoughts so that when I do get in a conversation, I can refer back to some things I have already gotten down.

    Every once in a while I get it right. I measure "getting it right" by hits and how far up I am on a google search. My athiest charities post, my fMRI post and a couple of others appear at the top or near it. So I feel good about that, but for the most part my posts just go into the ether, rarely read.

    I don't mind that, nor should you. You are creative and a clear thinker. I think you will like the results.

  3. This took me back to the time I was a 9/11 truther. And then I wasn't. And then I was. And then I wasn't. Finally, I realized that switching sides every time someone posted wasn't helping anybody else. That was embarrassing.

    Anyway, I just had a thought... Mark mentioned big skeptics as like the equivalent of religious right figures, in a sense. This reminded me of the question of whether there should be a 'Limbaugh on the left'. I mean, Keith Olbermann kind of did that, and, well, vaccines happened (technically, he/his writers put sensationalism at the expense of Rupert Murdoch ahead of integrity. Unless he apologized, and I didn't hear about it?). I'm not defending this idea, just throwing it out for discussion, but I wonder if this could be the same kind of thing, where adopting a model that works for one group doesn't work for another.

    I suppose it's kind of a question of putting all of our eggs in one basket, which is what Mark was saying, I think. I'm not sure what I'd advance as an alternative... Perhaps some kind of skeptical journal? Or, if one exists, it needs better advertising, IME. While my mind wandered horribly in thinking about this (it could be worse...), I think my point is that, while blogging is great for essays (or very short fiction), I'm worried that it could create too much focus on the blogger.

    I don't know if that made any sense. Sorry for how much I rambled. (Part of it was not wanting to just say "everybody is doing it wrong" without offering alternatives or constructive criticism. I did my best, there.) (Of course, there are problems with my minimal presentation of an idea. I have no clue how what I was talking about would be regulated, and that's pretty important.)

  4. 'Which is what Mark was saying...I think'

    Love it.
    Yes that was kind of what I was saying.

  5. I don't think we do this that much. As least I dont read it very often. Usually, we may use the argument that dawkins or PZ has said, but not in a way like "PZ says...". We try very hard to avoid arguments from authority (or any logical fallacy, but everyone is prone to use them), but if someone famous has a good argument, I will certainly use it.

    I use the courtiers reply fairly often without linking to PZ.

    BTW there are very good skeptics journals.