Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Oct 24 2016

The Conspiracy Theory Label

As skeptics we apply various labels to certain kinds of intellectual behavior. Perhaps the big three are pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, and denialism. There are many specific subtypes of these three big categories, however. Quackery, for example, is medical pseudoscience. Tooth Fairy science, a term coined by Harriet Hall on SBM, refers to a certain type of crank pseudoscience in which many studies are done but they never challenge the core assumption of a claim.

These terms are useful because they have operational definitions. One of my first major pieces of skeptical writing was a dissection of exactly what makes a pseudoscience, and I have spent the last 20 years refining my understanding of this definition. I have done the same for denialism and conspiracy thinking. These are actual phenomena that need to be understood by any critical thinker. They are, I would argue, legitimate philosophical concepts.

Like all philosophical concepts, they often get abused when translated into the popular culture. What I have found is that these terms are mostly properly understood and used by those trying to be genuinely skeptical. There are varying levels of nuance, and all of these concepts are fuzzy around the edges, but in general people get what a conspiracy theory is, and when someone is denying established science.

Problems arise mainly with those who are the target of these labels – with those who believe in a particular pseudoscience or conspiracy theory or engage in denialism. They bristle at the application of these concepts to their beliefs, and often push back.

Their pushback takes a few forms. They of course can simply deny the specific accusation, and argue that creationism is legitimate science, or that global warming denial is just proper skepticism. Conspiracy theorists are fond of arguing that some conspiracies are demonstrably real, and therefore all conspiracy theories are somehow legitimate or at least plausible. This argument misses the point that it is the necessary size of an alleged conspiracy that makes it implausible.

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Sep 12 2016

Clinton Health Conspiracy Update

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

clinton12I wrote a couple weeks ago about health conspiracies in the current presidential campaign. I concluded that presidential candidates should be transparent about their health, given the job for which they claim to be qualified. At the same time, it seems to be standard procedure now to use health issues as another source of mudslinging.

As with many things, the public will have to sort through the fog of campaigning and biased reporting to try to figure out where reality lies. Perhaps most challenging is to filter out our own ideology and biases.

Both candidates this cycle are on the older side, 68 and 70 for Clinton and Trump respectively, and so health is more of an issue. There hasn’t been any update for Trump, he has still only released a rather dubious letter from his physician, not actual health records. The situation with Clinton has been very active.

Clinton has Pneumonia

The big news is that yesterday, at a 911 ceremony, Clinton did not feel well and had to abruptly leave. The press was kept in the dark for 90 minutes, after which time they were told that Clinton was “overheated” and dehydrated, and is now feeling better. The campaign later released information that two days earlier, on Friday, Clinton was diagnosed with a mild case of pneumonia and that was the cause of her not feeling well on Sunday. The pneumonia was also blamed for her recent persistent cough.

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Aug 15 2016

Peer-Reviewed Chemtrail Smackdown

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

chemtrailsI love it when regular scientists decide to weigh in on a popular controversy. Recently scientists published a peer-reviewed paper in which they survey experts in atmospheric chemistry and atmospheric deposition over the nature of contrails and the claims that they are due to a secret large-scale atmospheric spraying program (SLAP), more commonly known as chemtrails.


This is definitely one of the more extreme conspiracy theories out there. In fact, the authors point to a 2015 survey in which only 2.6% of those surveyed said they believed in SLAP. That’s pretty rarefied conspiracy nonsense.

The idea is that those streaks of clouds behind jets are not just the result of jet engine exhaust causing condensation in the air (regular contrails), but that they are seeded with chemicals by the government for some secret and nefarious purpose. That purpose ranges from poisoning the population as a means of population control to controlling the weather.

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Jul 26 2016

Marketing Conspiracies and Conspiracy Marketing

selling pseudoscience6_nA recent article by Spenser Davis details how Alex Jones uses his conspiracy mongering to sell conspiracy-themed supplements and products. This phenomenon goes way past Alex Jones. This post from Destroyed by Science lists a few of the more popular websites that combine conspiracy theories and dubious supplements and other products.

In my opinion, Jones pales in comparison to Natural News. This online empire closely connects conspiracies about medicine and the government with specific alternative health products and supplements.

The marriage of conspiracy theories and selling snake oil and pseudoscience is an obvious one. My question, however, is in which direction does the arrow of causation go?

Springtime for Charlatans

Pseudoscience, scientific illiteracy in general, and conspiracy thinking are goldmines for the sellers of dubious products. Think about it – what better potential customer is there than someone who is willing to believe fantastical claims does not require claims to even be scientifically plausible, let alone supported by solid science, and is skeptical of the regulatory system designed to protect consumers from fraud?

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21 responses so far

Jul 07 2016

Kubrick and the Moon Landing Hoax Conspiracy

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

One of the silliest grand conspiracy theories is that the US faked the Apollo moon landings. Moon landing hoaxers engage in a combination of anomaly hunting and the argument from personal incredulity or ignorance. They engage in an elaborate exercise in JAQing off (just asking questions), like, “why are there no stars in the background of pictures,” and “why does the flag wave if there is no air?”

They have no positive evidence for a conspiracy, just a wild theory and completely unimpressive anomalies that have all been easily and adequately explained. They also ignore gaping holes in their theory. How could NASA maintain this 50-year cover up when scientists around the world, including in competitor nations, could easily reveal it?

Some moon hoaxers engage in a related theory, that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was the one who filmed the fake moon landing footage for NASA. It is not uncommon for such theories to aggregate around famous people. Otherwise it is not clear why they would chose Kubrick and not a struggling director desperate for cash who could be conveniently eliminated when the task was done.

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Jan 28 2016

Math vs Conspiracies

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

A recent paper in PLOS One explores the mathematical probability of a grand conspiracy being revealed from within. The paper, of course, does not disprove any particular conspiracy theory, but it does make a compelling argument by putting into rigorous form a frequent argument against grand conspiracies, that they are too big not to fail.

As an aside, I love reading dry technical papers that are well-written. There is a certain efficiency and clarifying poetry to a precise technical discussion. It feels like it must be true because it sounds so objective and factual. A well crafted technical paper can slice through confusion and ambiguity like a scalpel.

For example, the author of this paper, David Robert Grimes, writes about conspiracies.

Conspiratorial ideation is the tendency of individuals to believe that events and power relations are secretly manipulated by certain clandestine groups and organisations. Many of these ostensibly explanatory conjectures are non-falsifiable, lacking in evidence or demonstrably false, yet public acceptance remains high. Efforts to convince the general public of the validity of medical and scientific findings can be hampered by such narratives, which can create the impression of doubt or disagreement in areas where the science is well established.

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Dec 18 2015

Professor Fired over Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theory

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

TracyJames Tracy taught Culture of Conspiracy at Florida Atlantic University, and yet, amazingly, is himself a conspiracy theorist. This is sort of like allowing a creationist to teach evolutionary theory.

I think this analogy is apt because in order to properly teach the culture of conspiracy, one must understand how conspiracy thinking works, and especially where it goes horribly wrong. By all accounts, Tracy does not understand this – he is a victim of it.

As a reminder, in December 2012 a disturbed young man decided it would be a good idea to go into an elementary school and slaughter young children. He killed his mother, 20 children, 6 teachers, and then himself. This was a horrific event for the families, for the town, and for our country. This was every parent’s worst nightmare.

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Nov 24 2015

Scientific Consensus and Corporate Influence

A new study published in PNAS explores the messaging of organizations commenting on climate change and their relationship to corporate funding. The sole author, Justin Farrell, finds that those organizations who received corporate funding were likely to network their messaging together, and to engage in a campaign of casting doubt on the scientific consensus. There was no such network among those organizations not receiving corporate funding.

Farrell notes:

“This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”

As further evidence of corporate influence, the Washington Post notes:

The publication of the report comes two weeks after New York prosecutors announced an investigation into whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. The probe was prompted in part by reports in the Los Angeles Times and the online publication Inside Climate News, alleging that Exxon researchers expressed concerned about climate change from fossil fuel emissions decades ago, even as the company publicly raised doubts about whether climate-change was scientifically valid.

This should come as no surprise to those following the climate change debate. Climate change and other issues, in fact, challenge the very notion of scientific consensus and what it means, but also demonstrate why we should listen to a robust consensus.

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Oct 20 2015

Another Nail in the JFK Conspiracy

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

More than 50 years after JFK was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald the majority of Americans believe that the assassination was part of a conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show that 61% believe others were involved in the assassination, while 30% believe Oswald acted alone (in 2000 the numbers were 81% and 13% respectively).

This is despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that Oswald acted alone, and there is no solid evidence of any conspiracy. What this reflects, in my opinion, is two things: the psychological allure of conspiracy theories, and the cottage industry of conspiracy theorists.

Whenever I discuss conspiracy theories I have to add this caveat about what I mean. Obviously there are real conspiracies in the world – whenever two or more people work together to commit a crime or do something nefarious, you have a conspiracy. “Conspiracy theories,” however, is short hand for a grand conspiracy, something that involves many people or powerful organizations working over long periods of time through vast networks of control.

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Oct 06 2015

The Diabetes Treatment Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About

Because it’s bogus.

It’s unfortunate that it’s so easy to convince many people that there is a vast medical conspiracy, and that a few brave mavericks are willing to bring you “the truth.” I was recently asked to look at this website, claiming that doctors who treat diabetes have all been lying to their patients and the world. They promise to reveal the secret of curing diabetes, but the long video, and the endless website, is all just one long commercial hyping their book which you can get for the “bargain basement reduced price of just $77 for the digital copy or $94.39 for the paperback copy with free worldwide shipping.”

The sales pitch is framed as an “Urgent diabetes health bulletin from the doctors at the International Council for Truth in Medicine.” (Quackwatch lists the ICTM as a “questionable organization.”) To backup their authority they claim they are in partnership with “Natural News.” Given that Natural News is, in my opinion, the most notorious crank, conspiracy mongering, health misinformation site on the web, that is all you need to know about the ICTM to make an informed judgement.

Their narrative is depressingly typical, and not even imaginative. The tropes are so common they are worth addressing in detail.

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