Jul 18 2013

Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists

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18 responses so far

18 Responses to “Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists”

  1. Ori Vandewalleon 18 Jul 2013 at 11:42 am

    I think the unfortunate truth is that skeptics are (or should be) burdened by logical argument. Because such arguments don’t naturally work on humans, the best way to convince a person to agree with you while only using logical arguments is to first teach them to think logically. But teaching your opponent to think better is often seen as, well, massively patronizing. You can only really teach children without looking like a prick.

  2. Bruce Woodwardon 18 Jul 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Stephen, this is a great article and resonates with me today. Keeping calm and not just writing “Bullshit” on idiotic Facebook claims becomes harder and harder each day. The most annoying thing is that most people post crap and then don’t even read the response I or the rare other rational responder puts up, and so sometimes the Bullshit response feels a lot more cathartic (which I did do today on someone linking a credulous Wakefield-quoting article).

    I do find that the people who believe in the crap tend to post a lot more than those who are rational.

    I am glad you said it takes years of practice, because being relatively new to commenting on blogs and coming out of my skeptical closet to my friends I have found it challenging to keep rational and not want to shout any number of obscenities in response to the next wave of stupidity thrown my way.

  3. Bruce Woodwardon 18 Jul 2013 at 12:07 pm



  4. ChrisHon 18 Jul 2013 at 12:11 pm

    This week at our local Skeptic Meetup the discussion was on conspiracy theorists. It was pointed out that PressTV is from Iran:

    You can draw you own conclusions of why they would be posting Truther stuff as news.

  5. ChrisHon 18 Jul 2013 at 12:27 pm

    By the way, the presentation we had was from Jeffrey Weston who told us about the interesting research he did for his online comic: http://www.apenotmonkey.com/ . He attended a Conspiracy-Con!

    It was both hilarious and scary, from the 9/11 Truthers arguing to what was the correct “theory” to Sandy Hook.

    And, of course, just a couple of weeks ago someone who was spouting conspiracy theories was arrested two blocks from my house because he had a stolen truck which contained several Molotov cocktails. He also had stolen weapons and body army (but apparently no ammo).

  6. MWSlettenon 18 Jul 2013 at 12:44 pm

    …but it is possible (and very likely) that pro-conspiracy people simply comment more, perhaps due to greater passion for their beliefs.

    It seems more likely to me the reason pro-conspiracy comments outnumber anti-conspiracy comments is because the conspiracy minded are more likely to actually read such articles. Most of use read the headline, stifle a laugh and continue on about our daily business…

  7. saburaion 18 Jul 2013 at 4:13 pm

    A bit of a diversion:

    I agree with the general sentiment and conclusions of this article, but something about it still strikes me as “off”.

    I think my misgiving comes from the definition of “conspiracy theory.” Or rather, from the difficulty of defining it.

    It has generally struck me that the definition of “conspiracy theory” lends itself to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. That is to say, we skeptics tend to define conspiracy theories as:

    1. Theories
    2. About conspiracies
    3. That aren’t true

    If an improbable “conspiracy” turns out to be true after all (i.e. the FBI trying to convince Martin Luther King to commit suicide, or the NSA collecting all American phone records), critics of conspiracy theories need not admit they were wrong; they can simply say “well, those weren’t conspiracy theories, those were actual conspiracies.”

    The problem is that the definition requires us to preemptively conclude, as part of defining the conspiracy, that it is not true. Since defining something as a conspiracy theory is typically (though not always) performed in lieu of directly refuting it — “I don’t have time to argue with you about your 9/11 conspiracy theories” — defining a theory as a “conspiracy theory” can be a form of begging the question. This works fine when, as is usually the case, a conspiracy theory is wrong or deeply flawed on its face. But that doesn’t mean that it is a valid logical process.

    To be absolutely clear, I am not suggesting there is merit to the “9/11 Truther” movement. Nor is there merit to the theory that our governmental leaders are secretly reptilian aliens. And I do agree with the point of this post; it’s appropriate to criticize Dr. Barrett’s flawed paper.

    But I would like to see a formal definition of “conspiracy theory” that does not require prior claims about whether the theory is true or not. If Steve has previously defined such a thing, perhaps someone can link me to it.

    Incidentally, this is something Brian Dunning has written about, but I am not satisfied by his approach either. He defines conspiracy theories like this:

    “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. Here are three examples. For decades, some conspiracy theorists have claimed prescient knowledge that the North American nations will merge into a single police state using a currency called the Amero; that has never come true. Many conspiracy theorists claim that 9/11 was conducted by the American government; that has never been discovered. They’ve claimed a huge number of alternate hypotheses of who killed John F. Kennedy, and none of those have ever been discovered. The list goes on, and on, and on. 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.”

    I find this definition baffling. It acknowledges that real conspiracies exist, as revealed by law enforcement. But it says that no postulated but unproven conspiracy has EVER been proven true. But didn’t every one of those police investigations begin with an individual police officer, or a whistle blower or what have you, creating a conspiracy theory in his or her own mind? That’s what prompted the investigation. And the fact that there have been people convicted of various conspiracies means that those theories WERE later proven true.

    Yet Dunning claims “none of these has ever been discovered”.

    He tries to escape from this contradiction by saying that a “conspiracy theory” must also be produced by “the conspiracy theory community.” It seems that would rule out the theory about a conspiracy developed by a police detective and later proven true (like Enron, for example).

    But what is the “conspiracy theory community”? Dunning doesn’t say, so I can only presume it is “the group of people who believe in conspiracy theories”, so we have only a circular definition. You could go through the trouble of trying to define a “conspiracy theorist” but I think it’s easier just to come up with a clean definition for a conspiracy theory and be done with it.

    I might propose something like this. A conspiracy theory is:

    1. A theory
    2. About a conspiracy
    3. Which is highly improbable based on the historical record
    4. And which either
    a) Relies on premises or assumptions which have already been factually refuted or
    b) Cannot be falsified by experiment

    Criterion 3 is necessary to create a category of erroneous theories that are wrong or unscientific, but are not “conspiracy theories”. For example, “I hear Johnny broke into a bunch of houses as a kid” may have been factually proven wrong, but the person saying this is not a conspiracy theorist because the theory is not highly improbable. Just refuted.

    Criterion 4b is necessary because, for example, a reptilian overlord believer can always say “the doctors can’t tell Obama is a reptile because of his advanced cloaking device,” i.e. inventing special pleading or elaborate theories that frustrate falsification.

    Of course, by introducing value judgments like “highly improbable”, the definition would not end debate. And of course, good luck trying to get a conspiracy theorist to accept that his theory has already been factually refuted, or agree to an experiment that will falsify it. But at least then the skeptic’s logic is strong and the anti-conspiracy position is well defined and defensible.

    /End Diversion

  8. Steven Novellaon 18 Jul 2013 at 6:19 pm

    saburai – thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    You are correct to focus on definition, but I would take a slightly different approach.

    What we mean by a conspiracy theory is a theory about a grand conspiracy, which can be distinguished from a small or mundane conspiracy. Grand conspiracies are inherently improbable because they require massive deception, infrastructure, and almost supernatural powers on the part of the perpetrators. They have a specific structure.

    Second, we are referring to conspiracy thinking. In the end, it is more about the process than the specific theory. I discuss that here: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/conspiracy-thinking/

    So, when is a conspiracy not a conspiracy theory? It’s not just when it is real, it is when the structure of a grand conspiracy is not present, and the typical logical traps and fallacies of conspiracy theorists are not present.

  9. robbrothertonon 19 Jul 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Mike Wood, one of the original study’s authors, has written about the distortion of his work on our blog about the psychology of conspiracy theories here: http://conspiracypsych.com/2013/07/13/setting-the-record-straight-on-wood-douglas-2013/

  10. locutusbrgon 19 Jul 2013 at 8:14 pm

    To use your def Steve
    Grand conspiracy theorists: “Down is Up, Up is Down, we are through the looking glass here people”. Line from Oliver Stone’s JFK. I alwys think of that line when I hear 9/11 truthers, aspartame, moon landing deniers et Al…
    Steve’s is as good as any for a definition. Just because you can’t properly differentiate in one line doesn’t diminish the meaning. I like to say conspiracy theories are tautological. It can exist only if the conspiracy were in fact powerful enough to hide the “truth”. If that were the case there is no way the theory would see the light of day. That kind of power would mean they wouldn’t have to make you look like a kook. You would just disappear. If the US government can slowly and methodically disassemble and prepare the two towers with explosives, kill a plane full of people. Detonate a bomb in the pentagon. Yet you can’t shut up Joe Rogan. Plus you can’t make some guy with an internet page meet with a “accident”. Yea OK maybe not so powerful.

  11. tmac57on 20 Jul 2013 at 10:24 am

    locutusbrg-You make a lot of good points,so I can only conclude that you too are in on the conspiracy.


  12. Nitpickingon 20 Jul 2013 at 11:15 am

    Minutes before reading this I happened across this video:

    Title, “Lord Christopher Monckton ends the Global Warming Debate and proves its a Hoax.”

    Monckton is of course the famous English politician who has made a second career of Climate Change Denialism, including among other things cherry-picking data, lying about the contents of actual scientific papers, and apparently making up parts of his own biography to increase his gravitas. (He claims to have been Margaret Thatcher’s science advisor, something there is no record of aside from his own statement.)

    What makes this meaningful to Steve’s point: it was posted by “Muslims and the World”, Other videos posted by that account include, “The Hidden Secrets of Freemasonry Exposed” and “An honest Israeli Jew tell the Real Truth about Israel”. As Steve comments, there seems to be a mindset that once one accepts conspiracism, all conspiracy theories seem plausible.

    (Steve, what I’d like to see an explanation of is why conspiracy theorists seem to use Odd Capitalization so often. Pareidolia on my part? Generally lower education level?)

  13. BillyJoe7on 20 Jul 2013 at 10:06 pm


    “Monckton is of course the famous English politician who has made a second career of Climate Change Denialism, including among other things cherry-picking data, lying about the contents of actual scientific papers”

    Your “of course” may be a little misplaced.
    Because, believe it or not, even otherwise intelligent people are taken in by this fraud.
    In fact, you may be in for a little debate with a certain poster here who has quoted Monckton favourably in exchanges regarding climate change.

  14. Steven Novellaon 21 Jul 2013 at 11:09 am

    grand conspiracy theorists simultaneous believe that the conspirators have almost unlimited power and cunning, while at the same time are powerless and profoundly stupid. Every time you poke a hole in their theory, they widen or deepen the conspiracy, granting the conspirators more power. But as locutus says, at the same time they have to reveal their hand to the theorists, who they are also powerless to stop.

    The third group in the conspiracy theorist world view are the dupes, the sheeple. This is everyone else, who are also too stupid to see the conspiracy or too emotionally fragile to accept it.

    It’s a massively self-serving world view. Of course, everyone has a self-serving world view, this is of a much greater magnitude, however.

  15. Davdoodleson 22 Jul 2013 at 2:12 am


    “I find [Dunning's] definition baffling. It acknowledges that real conspiracies exist, as revealed by law enforcement. But it says that no postulated but unproven conspiracy has EVER been proven true. But didn’t every one of those police investigations begin with an individual police officer, or a whistle blower or what have you, creating a conspiracy theory in his or her own mind? That’s what prompted the investigation. And the fact that there have been people convicted of various conspiracies means that those theories WERE later proven true.
    Yet Dunning claims “none of these has ever been discovered”.”

    I don’t take Dunning to be defining “conspiracy theory” as being simply a theory that a conspiracy may exist.

    I’m confident I’m not the only one who uses the term “conspiracy theory” as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand for “Illogical, unsupported and invariably doubt-free assertions of fact about the coordinated activities of legions of other, usually faceless, people who are hell-bent on using ridiculously over-complicated Wylie S. Coyote-esqe means to mislead the American people that some fairly straightforward, if unpleasant, occurrence did not occur in the manner it so-obviously did, or at the hands of whoever so-obviously did it, or both”.

    Which is somewhat more time-consuming to say.

    At least in theory(!), a police investigation begins with plausible hypotheses, follows the evidence, and abandons dead ends. Like science.

    “Conspiracy theories”, in contrast, start from a proposition that there was, and is, a conspiracy, and sets about ignoring, or explaining away, the science. A very different thing, and the reason why Dunning can confidently say that no conspiracy theory has been discovered to be correct.

    The police considered the possibility of another shooter on the grassy knoll or elsewhere, but abandoned the idea when the evidence didn’t suport the proposition. In absolute contrast, the conspiracy theorists saw this as further evidence of the extent of the conspiracy. As always.

  16. sonicon 22 Jul 2013 at 11:21 am

    You bring up interesting points.
    From the article (Wood and Douglas)

    “Conspiracy theories, defined as allegations that powerful people or organizations are plotting together in secret to achieve sinister ends through deception of the public…”

    That’s how the people writing the paper and doing the research define the term.

    It seems that the events of 9/11 are the result of a conspiracy according to that definition– Al Quida (a powerful group) plotted in secrect to achieve sinister ends — including the deception of the public…
    But that’s the ‘official account’ and isn’t called a ‘conspiracy theory’ even though it is one. A theory about a conspiracy, that is.

    I think it is propaganda to alter the meanings of words so as to discredit people out of hand.

    I support your attempt to better the definiton of the term ‘conspiracy theory’. However, ‘highly improbable based on the historical record’ is too subjective and depends too much on specialized knowledge.

    Other than that, your attempt is good so far.

  17. sonicon 22 Jul 2013 at 12:00 pm

    I saw your comment after my last and have decided it might be relevant to this conversation–

    What I said was that Monckton agrees with the ‘scientific consensus’ that ‘humans cause warming’.

    And here is Nuccitelli saying that is what his work results in–

    “Nuccitelli said,” … And we were careful to point out that the consensus was that ‘humans are causing global warming.’”

    So we have Nuccitelli giving us the actual consensus “Humans cause warming” and we have the fact that Monckton agrees (at least he said as much when I saw him talk.)

    So it seems if there is a ‘conspiracy’ it is to misrepresent both Monckton and the ‘consensus’ (as you did in your statement of it).

  18. BillyJoe7on 22 Jul 2013 at 6:01 pm


    You seem to think that the only consensus by climate scientists about AGW is that it is happening.
    You seem to think that Monckton agreeing that AGW is happening is relevant to anything we have been discussing.

    Monckton’s only relevance is that he is part of the problem. He has not written any papers on climate change and he is not a climate scientist. Therefore his opinions are irrelevant from the point of view of the paper written by Nutticelli. Conversely, he is part of the reason the paper by Nutticelli was written. He is part of the reason why the general public perceives that the opinions of climate scientists are evenly split on the question of human caused global warming. This is the perception that paper set out to correct.

    Moving beyond that paper by Nutticelli, the consensus by climate scientists about global warming is more than just that human caused global warming is happening. Monckton has been in disagreement with this broarder consensus at virtually every turn. And he does this by wilful or ignorant misunderstanding about climate change, mischaracterisation and misinterpretation of the views of climate scientists, and outright lies. Does he agree that human caused global warming is happening? He says he does. Yet his every other utterance on this question is one of denial (there has been no warming since 1998!).

    So you can listen to all the talks by Monckton that you like, but please don’t kid yourself that you are being informed.

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