Conspiracy Theories

Please send any reasoned disagreements to me. If your facts and logic are convincing, I'll change my mind !       




Definitions section
Qualities section
Are They True ? section
Falsehoods are Harmful section
Why Do People Believe ? section
The Conspiracy Theory Industry section
Debating Conspiracy Theorists section
Miscellaneous section




Definitions



There are terms "confirmed conspiracy" and "suspected conspiracy" and "conspiracy theory".

I'd say "suspected conspiracy" is where you actually have a few facts (not just doubts or innuendo; real smoking guns) in support of your thinking, and "conspiracy theory" is where you first decide what the conclusion is (govt is evil, usually) and then go from there, maybe never getting to any actual facts. Once you prove it, it becomes "confirmed conspiracy".

"Conspiracy theory" just means "belief in a massive conspiracy, based on a desired conclusion and no evidence".

Yes, there have been real conspiracies. Yes, there is plenty of malice and incompetence by govts or govt agencies. But these conspiracy theories are a different thing: start with desired conclusion, and invent/deny facts to justify it.

Bob Maschi's "Conspiracy behind Conspiracy Theories ?"






Qualities





From Mike Wood's "What does online discussion tell us about the psychology of conspiracy theories?":
... belief in conspiracy theories can be more accurately characterised as a disbelief in official or received explanations – that the content of the conspiracy theory doesn't matter as much as the fact that it opposes whatever the official explanation is. The focus is not on promoting an alternative explanation, but in debunking the official story.



From Mike Rothschild's "A Conspiracy Theory Primer - In Fun Alphabet Form!":
D is for Denialism. No matter what beliefs are held by the mainstream and supported by solid evidence, you can always find someone who thinks we're being lied to about them. Everything from the existence of AIDS to the moon landings to vaccine safety has an accompanying movement that says "everything we know is wrong" about these subjects, usually with nothing to prove it. Most of these movements are tied together, because if you're going to be contrarian, you might as well be really contrarian.



From 3 June 2013 "Point of Inquiry" podcast interview of Stephan Lewandowsky:
Some aspects of conspiracy theories:



From Skeptoid's "The JFK Assassination":
Conspiracy theories follow these three laws:

Law #1: Authority's version of events is untrue, by default.

Law #2: Everything that differs from the authoritative version is more likely true.

Law #3: All evidence that contradicts #1 or #2 is part of the conspiracy.



Various positions you could take on any incident:

On the facts and reasoning:
  1. I believe the official account 100%.
  2. The official account doesn't explain everything.
  3. The official account has some unusual or unlikely things in it.
  4. The official account has some contradictions or incorrect facts in it.
  5. I won't believe the official account or its facts, no matter how convincing or complete it is.
  6. I'm going to make up my own facts and claim they prove the official account wrong.
  7. I don't care about facts or reasoning at all; I just say the official account is wrong, and nothing you can say will change my mind.
On the motivation:
  1. I believe the officials are being honest and did a good job.
  2. I believe the officials are honest but could have done better.
  3. I believe the officials are honest but incompetent.
  4. I believe the officials are dishonest and covering up their mistakes.
  5. I believe the officials are malicious and orchestrated the whole incident (or allowed it to happen).
Often, a conspiracy theorist thinks that everyone must be at one extreme or the other on these scales. They believe the official account was completely wrong and the incident was orchestrated maliciously. If you question their "facts" or reasoning, they allege that you're a "sheeple", you must believe the official account 100%, you must think the government is flawless. Not true.



Creativeconflictwisdom's "The Problem with Conspiracy Theorists: My Top Ten Insights"






Are They True ?



From Skeptoid 364:

No conspiracy theory has ever been proven true. I stand by this statement as fact, given the distinction between a real conspiracy and a conspiracy theory. So let's define that distinction clearly.

Conspiracies, as we refer to them, are crimes or schemes carried out in secret by a group of conspirators. Sometimes they are discovered, like the three I just mentioned; and others have undoubtedly successfully remained undetected. These clearly exist. But they are quite distinct from what we colloquially call a conspiracy theory, which is claimed knowledge of a conspiracy that has not yet been discovered by law enforcement or Congress or the newspapers or the general public. They are, in fact, future predictions. They are the beliefs or conclusions of the theorist that they predict will eventually come true or be discovered. ... Unlike a Julius Caesar conspiracy discovered when or after it took place, a conspiracy theory is of a discovery that has yet to take place.

I maintain my claim that a real conspiracy is very distinct from a hypothesized conspiracy; and I maintain my claim that no hypothesized conspiracy, believed within the conspiracy theory community, has ever subsequently been discovered to be true.



If every time govt does something, you say "I think their facts are wrong", sometimes you'll turn out to be right. Is that a win for conspiracy theorists ? Was that a govt conspiracy ? I don't think so.



Some people think the government or "scientists" are conspiring to hide alien UFO's or to ignore ESP. But:



Debunkatron
Skeptoid's "5 Conspiracy Theories that Turned Out to Be True ... Maybe?"
Will Storr's "The 9/11 conspiracy theorist who changed his mind"






Falsehoods are Harmful



My thoughts:
These conspiracy theories do real harm. We should oppose harmful falsehoods.

If the lesson we learn from 9/11 is "govt is evil" or "the Jews did it", when the real lesson (I think) is "we should stop supporting dictators and invading countries", we risk more 9/11's. And people in the Mideast don't learn the lesson "we should stop the extremists among us".

If the lesson we learn from big events (9/11, Boston Bombing, HIV/AIDS, Ebola) is "don't trust anything the govt or scientists say", that helps lead to "deny climate change, refuse vaccines, deny evolution".

The effects of these conspiracy theories often are even WORSE in other countries. The HIV conspiracy theories have led govts in Africa to promote nonsense cures or deny the reality of AIDS in their countries; this costs many lives every year. Vaccine conspiracy theories have led to outbreaks of disease in many countries, and even murders of medical workers. If an Arab or Muslim country can dismiss 9/11 as "the Jews did it" or "the US govt did it", they have no pressure to do anything about violent extremists in their country, or donations from their country to violent extremists.



From Bob Maschi's "Conspiracy behind Conspiracy Theories ?":
Conspiracy Theories were used by Hitler and the Nazis to enslave and exterminate the Jews. In the 1950's, Senator Joseph McCarthy invented a Conspiracy Theory that disloyal communists had infiltrated the highest levels of government and society and used the ensuing panic to trash many a person's career.

Conspiracy Theories are often used to gain political or financial power. People take advantage of existing prejudices and suspicions to compose intricate plots that appeal to some other people who lack the knowledge and reason to confront them effectively. The result of this is that many people are misled into shifting the blame for real problems from the actual source to imaginary enemies. This leads to a lot of time, energy and intellect being wasted that would be better spent on actually improving our communities and places of work.



I'm all for free speech, but this made me think twice:
From /u/Wegwurf123 on reddit:

[Re: German Holocaust denier sent to jail:]

> Let people live their lives in peace and
> let them believe whatever nonsense they want to believe.

As a German, I find myself groaning whenever I see this discussion come up.

You seem to start with the assumption that these are fringe beliefs that forever stay on the fringe when left unchecked and never, ever have an impact on anyone else. This is simply not so.

The ban on holocaust denial was instituted on a nation literally filled with Nazis. Every village, every city, every school, every government insitution - Nazis everywhere. The suppression of Nazi ideology was absolutely vital to rebuilding the country.

And it's not like there wasn't precedent about just how harmful letting a conspiracy theory run free can be. Are you familiar with the DolchstoBlegende? It was a right-wing conspiracy theory circulating in Germany after WW1 that said that the German army hadn't truly lost the war but were "stabbed in the back" by cowardly revolutionaries (read: The Jews) at the home front - revolutionaries who went on to found the new democratic Weimar Republic. This conspiracy was widely believed by the German people as it fed into their victim complex and was one of the key tools with which the Weimar goverment's legitimacy was undermined - which allowed the Nazis to take power.

Speech has consequences. And sometimes, those consequences are so much more harmful than the consequences of outlawing it. Your rights end where harm to others begins. I see such unbelievable naivety about this matter from the Freeeeee Speeeeeech advocates.

> I'm of the opinion that the best way to expose
> a dumbass is show it off. Dismantle them violently
> and thoroughly.

Conspiracy theorists are not rational. If they could be swayed by facts and reason, they would not believe sh*t that even the most minor bit of fact checking would reveal to be untrue. Allowing them to spew their bullsh*t freely doesn't make them seek out people who'd disabuse them of their notions, it makes them seek out other people who share their beliefs - and who radicalize them further. We see the echo chamber effect right here on reddit.

Whether or not the holocaust happened is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of facts. You're entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Making up your own facts is called lying. And when your lies are so malicious and harmful that they actually pose a threat to other people or the nation itself, then yes, that should absolutely be punishable. It's no different than slander or libel.

What value is there to allowing holocaust denial? Serious question. And I don't mean appealing to the slippery slope of how it leads to other worse prohibitions. There's a lot of arguing for Free Speech for its own sake - that Free Speech is the highest virtue in and of itself that must never, ever be compromised, for any reason, and that this should be self-evident. But I ask, what's the harm in not allowing holocaust denial, specifically? What is the benefit in allowing it?

There is none.

Nothing good will ever come out of someone spewing holocaust denial. Ever. You won't get a thoughtful debate beneficial to both parties. They're wrong, simple as that. The "best" outcome you'll get out of it is that you can convince a denier or someone on the fence that they're wrong. Great. The best outcome involves suppressing it.

There are, however, a hell of a lot potentially bad consequences in that their stupidity can infect others and shift the Overton window their way.

The reason that the vast majority of modern Germans look at the Nazi flag and feel nothing but revulsion whereas a sizable portion of US southerners actually fly the confederate flag and defend it ("Heritage, not hate", "It was about states' rights, not slavery", "Slaves weren't treated so bad") is because Germans were forbidden from telling each other comforting lies about their past.



Adam Wears and Sam Jackson's "5 Reasons Conspiracy Theories Are Destroying the World"
Janet Allon and Kali Holloway's "9 senseless social panics that did lasting damage to America"

Harm to victims:
Ben Collins' "What Do You Say to a Roanoke Truther?"






Why Do People Believe ?



Heard on a podcast:

We modern humans are descended from ancestors who lived in a threatening world. If an ancestor heard a rustle in the savannah grass, there were these scenarios: So we modern humans are descendants of those who tended to react to threats, even false ones. Evolution has acted to bias us to see threats even when they're not there.

But I think today, much of belief in conspiracy theories stems from frustration, anger, boredom, desire to seem "in the know".

"Belief" in conspiracies or ESP or alien UFOs doesn't cost the believer anything. If you asked them to put time or money where their mouth is, donate to "Save the Unicorns" or spend nights out in fields looking for alien UFO's or directly pay their money for an investigation of 9/11, I think you'd find their belief isn't that strong.





[Summarized from Rob Brotherton's "The President is Dead: Why Conspiracy Theories About the Death of JFK Endure":]
We like to think that huge, important incidents are created by big and powerful causes [proportionality bias]. It's unsettling to think that JFK could have been killed by a lone loser with a rifle, that 9/11 could have been done by guys with knives using ordinary airplanes. Much more satisfying to think that JFK was killed by some massive conspiracy, or 9/11 was a huge operation involving explosives, missiles, planes and passengers made to disappear, etc.
Nicola Davis's "Conspiracy theories: why people need to believe that the truth is hidden out there"

From Mother Jones interview of Bill Maher:
MJ: Why do you think Americans cling so loyally to conspiracy theories? Is it the hope that there is planning mastery behind what is actually chaos and madness?

BM: Exactly. Many people can't deal with unanswered questions, which, of course, religion exploits by providing answers, even if they are just made up by someone. This is also why we love TV shows and movies that neatly wrap up everything in exactly an hour or two.

My take on Ben Judah's "Why are so many Americans in the thrall of conspiracy theorists?":
This says it all: "conspiracy theorists such as Trump thrive in societies that are growing poorer, weaker, more unequal, and where their citizens do not understand why that is happening. And that is America today."

People are scared and angry because the economy is bad, USA has competition through globalization, automation has been taking jobs, inequality rising, housing crash, etc. So they lash out at any authority: govt, police, scientists, corps.

Also because white male Christians see their dominance fading. They are frantic to stop women, gays, minorities, other religions, atheists from getting equality. The changes must be the work of some conspiracy, or Jews, or Satan, or something.

How religions and conspiracy theories are alike: Greta Christina's "Conspiracies and Unshakeable Faith: What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong?"



Our brains pre-dispose us to see patterns and agents (to detect predators and prey), or to see everything as tools and tool-users (since tools were so important in our evolution).



My thinking:

Conspiracy theory = lies or guesses about some prominent issue or event, to serve some agenda. Usually to "get back" at some authority figure, or to make life seem more interesting by knowing some secret, or to make money.

I think the motive for creating most conspiracy theories is the same: the desire to lash out at authority. People are scared and angry, because the economy is tough, they feel their life is out of control, their kids or marriage or their life or job or the country didn't turn out the way they wanted, etc.

So, they take every opportunity to lash out at anyone in authority or power: science, government, police, mainstream media, rich people, corporations, etc. They make up lies to try to "get back at" those authority figures.

It also makes their dull lives more interesting. Same reason people claim to have ESP or have been abducted by aliens. It gives them something cool to boast about in a bar: I'm special because I know the REAL truth about X.

...

I think conspiracy theories are a poison in our society, equivalent to another religion, with the same attitudes. "You're either with us or against us, we don't have to listen to any facts or people that disagree with us, we know the one truth, the ends justify the means, etc" Conspiracy theories harm us by preventing us from learning the proper lessons from events. Like religion, CT's contribute to the polarization and gridlock and denial we see in society today.



From Mandy Oaklander's "Here's Why People Believe In Conspiracy Theories":
According to a pair of new studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, conspiracy theorists ... tend to have one thing in common: they feel a lack of control over their lives.



From discussion on reddit:

What about the Illuminati ?

From Wiskeyjac:
Ok, you're going to get a lot of flack over this one, and in part that's justified, but I'm going to go on the assumption that you're a bright young man/woman/cabbage and have just stumbled onto the concept of the Illuminati and Worldwide Conspiracy™.

Now, these are exciting things for a few reasons.
  1. First of all, it's a nice, complete, explanation of Why Things Are The Way They Are. It presents an exciting narrative (Ancient Secret Societies), presents a clear villain (The Illuminati Who Control Everything), and weaves in just enough real-world facts that it has a hint of truth to it. It tells a tale of how we got here, and presents a clear picture in an otherwise muddy world.

  2. On the subject of a clear picture, the Illuminati conspiracy story has another factor in its favor: It's a black and white picture. There are Bad Guys™ controlling everything. There are Good Guys™ desperately trying to get the word out to the unwitting populace, risking everything for the sake of The Truth™. The story explains a very complicated world in a very simple way. People cling to conspiracy stories for much the same reason they may cling to religion, or any other myth: it makes the world a less scary place because, as bad as things may be, at least there's order to the world.

  3. Finally, one of the most satisfying things about conspiracy stories is that they reassure the believer that the bad things are not their fault. "It's not your fault we treat black people/the poor/homosexuals/etc like s**t, the all-powerful Illuminati have made it that way." In these stories you can, and should, fight that organization but it's not your fault if you can't make a positive impact. In fact, your inability to affect the status quo or to make anyone else believe in the story just reinforces how powerful the Illuminati is (in the story).

So, in the end, look on stories like the Illuminati as you would any other myth: There are some truths to be found in there -- about how to act in a hostile world, for example -- but it is not literal truth. Heck, if you want a laugh at the whole thing I'd recommend Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy. It's a bit dated, and stuck in '60s counterculture, but it's a nice teardown of the Illuminati story.

From crunkjuicer:
While your explanation of the power of conspiracy theories is a popular one, it misses the mark in several important ways. Yes, conspiracy theory does divide the world in very simple ethical terms between a Good and an Evil, but that's more a possible end result of conspiracy theory rather than the mechanism that makes it so appealing.

Rather, conspiracy theory is appealing precisely because of the way the theorist weaves together a dizzying convolution of seemingly disparate facts on the way to creating a total narrative that is never quite arrived at. It is precisely this conspiratorial tendency that Illuminatus! parodies so well.

Of course, what makes conspiracy theory such an enduring phenomenon (and here is where the more subtle parody of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum comes in) is that anyone can play the game. There are lots of theories out there that "explain why things are the way they are" in abstracted, simplified terms. Certainly, religion does so. So does Marxism. So does sociology. But all these systems of understanding have a kind of entry requirement that requires access to certain sorts of expert training, typically through an institution like the University or the Church. The conspiracy theorist rejects the offerings of such institutional knowledges - and he authorizes his own free-form truthmaking in an inverse proportion to his confidence in authorized understandings of the world.

Thus, in addition to constantly inventing his own truth, he must constantly reject the truth he is given. Nothing could be further from a simple, comforting view of life. First, there is always something of the victim in the conspiracy theorist, precisely because he places himself in opposition to the "powers that be". But this also entails a constant state of agitated overproduction of truth, in which the story must continue to grow bigger simply to continue to exist. The pleasure of conspiracy theorizing is in just this constant state of overcoming those phantoms of a hidden authority through a never-ending process of expanding narrative. Conspiracy theory is not myth in the doctrinal sense you use it here, but rather something more akin to fable or rumor - a practice whereby individuals take pleasure in their ability to re-present reality in ways that contradict accepted interpretations of events.

Of course, there are certain kinds of charismatic political actors that could cause such renegade truth-makers to collectively adhere towards the identification of the villain, hitherto a nebulous and always shadowy concept, with a particular group. This might be the Illuminati or the lizard people. But it has been more historically - and more tragically - a concrete and otherwise human Other: The Jews, The Bourgeois, The Papists, The Commies. Here is where the figure of the intrepid crusader for truth passes over into the inquisitorial mob, and s**t begins to hit the fan.

From Cryptomeria:
Also, conspiracy theorists get to stroke their egos: They know what's going on, while all the sheeple are hopelessly stupid and ignorant. It feels good to believe the conspiracies.




From Maggie Koerth-Baker's "Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories":

... believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

Economic recessions, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are massive, looming threats, but we have little power over when they occur or how or what happens afterward. In these moments of powerlessness and uncertainty, a part of the brain called the amygdala kicks into action. ... the amygdala jump-starts the rest of the brain into analytical overdrive — prompting repeated reassessments of information in an attempt to create a coherent and understandable narrative, to understand what just happened, what threats still exist and what should be done now. This may be a useful way to understand how, writ large, the brain's capacity for generating new narratives after shocking events can contribute to so much paranoia in this country.

"If you know the truth and others don't, that's one way you can reassert feelings of having agency," Swami says. It can be comforting to do your own research even if that research is flawed. It feels good to be the wise old goat in a flock of sheep.



William Saletan's "Conspiracy Theorists Aren't Really Skeptics"
Insufferable Intolerance's "The faith of science deniers: conspiracy theories, shills and elitism"
Katy Waldman's "Creativity, Conspiracy Theories, and Delusions Have One Thing in Common: Apophenia"






The Conspiracy Theory Industry



Conspiracy-theorists NEVER talk about the fact that there is a conspiracy theory "industry", that people are making money or fame from pushing these theories, that some theories aid some corporations or political groups or rich guys in fighting competitors or legislation. Even nations; Russia has a long history of creating propaganda and having it swallowed by the people in the West.

Mark Hill's "The Shady Agendas Behind 5 Popular Conspiracy Theories"
Alex Seitz-Wald's "Alex Jones: Conspiracy Inc."
Sam Vaknin's "The Economics of Conspiracy Theories"
Gable Rhoads' "How to Make Money Creating Conspiracy Theories"
Matthew Sheffield's "A short history of fake news: Conservatives believed all sorts of crap long before Facebook"






Debating Conspiracy Theorists






Many conspiracy-theorists debate exactly the way many religous people do:
"We have no evidence to support our claims, so let's attack the evidence offered by the government/science; if we can show that to have weaknesses, that means our story must be right !"



From confluencer on reddit:

What I hate about conspiracy theorists ...

What has always struck me about such people is that they never seem to have any kind of competence in the underlying details of the system that is under scrutiny. I routinely excoriate them for being total idiots, and I do this simply by asking a series of basic questions of competence that you would expect to be correctly answered before believing anyone's theory about anything in any field.

9/11 truthers; What type of fuel did the flights contain? At what temperature does steel deform? What was the load on each foundation? At what speed did the jet fly into the building? How many steel support columns did the towers have? etc. etc.

Moon landings; How much fuel is used during a Saturn V burn? What is the required amount of energy needed to move the command module to the moon? How heavy is the module? etc. etc.

Fluoride: What is the concentration of fluoride in the public water system? How can you test for this? What are the chemical properties of fluoride? etc. etc.

The biggest thing that annoys me with conspiracy theorists, and by extension other pseudoscientists, is their total lack of competence. If you're going to go full retard with some insane theory, you better know your sh*t better than I do. Instead, all I get is vague paranoia about "they", and "them", and "the controllers" and "the group". I mean seriously, get your sh*t together.

...



My response to "politicians, media, everyone lies; why are conspiracy-theorists labeled as nuts ?":

Sure, everyone makes mistakes, politicians lie, etc.

But in my experience, Conspiracy Theorists are in a class by themselves, in these ways:



Someone once accused me of being like an "atheist" about conspiracy theories. My response:
Conspiracy-theory atheist: Exactly ! I am the guy who says "you have no good evidence, you're making claims without evidence, you're trying to shift the burden of proof onto other people to prove that something DIDN'T happen the way you claim it did". Exactly the position of an atheist. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Good evidence will make me change my mind; repeating claims again and again without evidence will do nothing.



Debunkatron
Mike Rothschild's "A Conspiracy Theory Primer - In Fun Alphabet Form!"
Donna Ferentes's "10 characteristics of conspiracy theorists"
Insufferable Intolerance's "The faith of science deniers: conspiracy theories, shills and elitism"






Miscellaneous



See Conspiracy section of my Anti-Science page





"Stonecutter's Song" from "The Simpsons":
Who controls the British Crown ?
Who keeps the metric system down ?
We do, we do.

Who keeps Atlantis off the maps ?
Who keeps the Martians under wraps ?
We do, we do.

Who holds back the electric car ?
Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star ?
We do, we do.

Who robs cave fish of their sight ?
Who rigs every Oscar night ?
We do, we DO !



The Onion's "Slow-Witted Conspiracy Theorist Convinced Government Behind NASA"
The Onion's "Half Of Americans Believe In Medical Conspiracy Theories"





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