Apr 04 2014

Answering Conspiracy Theorists

We like to categorize and apply labels. This can be helpful in wrapping your mind around complex reality, as long as you avoid the pitfall of allowing labels to become mental straitjackets.

I often discuss various  categories of people who are failing, in one or more important ways, to apply critical thinking. These categories are not meant to be dismissive, but rather to help understand various styles of thinking that lead people astray. For example there are deniers, true-believers, ideologues, and cranks.

Perhaps the most interesting category is the conspiracy theorist. I also find them to be the most consistent in their style of reasoning and argument. I do wonder, however, how much of this consistency is due to and underlying reasoning style and how much is culture. When I get the same fallacious argument over and over again, is that because they are all reading the same source material?

I recently came across a conspiracy website offering advice on how to answer “anti-conspiracy theorists” (their word for skeptics). Anyone who has had a conversation with a conspiracy theorist will recognize the style and tone, and now here it is codified in a primer for budding conspiracy theorists.

The article, however, also reveals the logical errors that underlie the conspiracy belief system. Let’s go through each point.

“You sound like a conspiracy theorist.”
RESPONSE: “Conspiracy Theorist? Now tell me the truth, where did you hear that term…on TV? (Laugh.) …So let me get this straight. Are you saying that men in high positions of power are not capable of criminal activity and telling lies to the general public? Are you really that naive?” (Laugh as you say this.)

As you can see this is a literal script. Right up front we see what I have found to be the typical attitude of the conspiracy theorists – anyone who does not buy their fantastical theories is “naive,” – said with dismissive laughter. This response is also a straw man.

Of course people in power are capable of lying and criminal activity. There are even genuine conspiracies. The recent lane-closing scandal in New Jersey was a conspiracy of at least several civil servants who lied and conspired to abuse their power to punish their political enemies (heedless of collateral damage).

When we talk about conspiracy theorists we are talking about grand conspiracies. These are conspiracies that involved large numbers of people, a vast expanse of power and control, unbelievable secrecy, and often sustained for years or decades. Of course there is no sharp demarcation between a small and plausible conspiracy and a grand conspiracy, but the larger the conspiracy would need to be, the more implausible it becomes. The largest grand conspiracies simply collapse under their own weight.

Ah, but the author has heard this response before and has an answer:

“You’re absolutely right. I agree with you 100%. It is impossible to totally cover up a conspiracy so massive. That’s why I know about it! What you must understand is that they don’t have to cover it up totally. Even a bucket that has a few leaks can still do the job of carrying water from here to there! They only need to fool 80% of the public, which isn’t hard to do when you control the major networks and newspapers.”

Of course the conspiracy theorists have to have learned about the conspiracy, but this entirely misses the point. Conspiracy theorists don’t have actual evidence. They don’t have leaked information, documents, photographs, or any hard or direct evidence of their specific conspiracy theory. As you will see from later responses – they simply believe they have perceived a pattern in events.

This cuts to the heart of the logical fallacies at the core of conspiracy thinking. The conspirators in grand conspiracies have as much power, control, and reach as they need to pull off the conspiracy. Any missing evidence was covered up by the conspiracy. Any evidence against the conspiracy or for a more prosaic explanation was planted. Any events that would seem to undermine the conspiracy theory were clearly false flag operations.

Conspiracy theories are therefore immune to evidence. They are closed, self-contained belief systems that resist their own critical analysis. That is why they are a mental trap.

Often conspiracy theorists are generally smart people (even if they lack certain critical thinking skills). Smart people, however, are good at rationalizing and erecting elaborate belief structures. This anti-conspiracy theorist essay is just another example of that – a string of rationalizations dismissing the very serious and legitimate criticisms of the grand conspiracy position.

Also note how casually the author assumes that the conspirators control the major networks and newspapers. This, of course, explains why journalists are not exposing the conspiracy – they are all part of it. The rabbit hole goes down all the way.

In response to ridicule, the author recommends:

“Can I ask you an honest question?” (Wait for “yes”) Do you consider yourself an open minded, critical thinking person – yes or no? (Wait for “yes”) Then how can you possibly ridicule an opinion when you haven’t even done 10 minutes of research into the matter? That’s kind of ignorant don’t you think?” (Wait for response.)

I would like to point out here that these responses generally are designed to be rhetorical tricks, rather than genuinely engaging with a critic. The failure to genuinely engage seems to be a universal feature of every category of non-skeptic. To be fair, you can see this in every sub-culture, but at least skeptics profess to understand the need to engage and strive to do so.

The response here assumes that the skeptic has not done any research. This is a common ploy. Of course, I do advise that skeptics refrain from commenting definitively on topics with which they are not adequately familiar. But the response here is often a straw man.

This strategy here is often combined with moving the goalpost – no matter how much research you have done, it’s not enough. Of course, no generalist skeptic can dedicate as much time and effort to one area as a believer. This often evolves into the “12 foot stack” gambit. Unless you have read my 12 foot stack of evidence, you can’t comment on my bizarre theory.

This approach can be effective in deflecting criticism but is not legitimate. First, it is possible to be familiar with a body of evidence, and to have examined the best cases and authoritative summaries from proponents – more than sufficient to have an informed opinion, without dedicating one’s life to studying every detail.

Second, the burden of proof is on the proponent, and challenging someone with any kind of theory to make their case and put their best evidence forward is perfectly legitimate.

Finally, any claim can be analysed for logical validity and plausibility. It is possible to find flaws in someone’s reasoning, separate from the specific details of evidence. If someone tells me the world is run by lizard people and gives me a string of logical fallacies to make their case, I can determine that it is simply not worth reading through their 12 foot stack of evidence they believe supports their position. Typically I will read a representative sample to gauge the quality of evidence, or challenge proponents to give me their best evidence.

With regard to plausibility, one common criticism of grand conspiracies is that government are simply not sufficiently competent to pull them off. To this point the author responds:

“Don’t confuse your incompetant [sic], dim witted Congressman or Senator with the shadow government. The dark covert elements who stage these events are very skilled at carrying out, and concealing, their plots. Take for example the Manhattan Project.”

The Manhattan Project was a military secret kept in a time of world war, and only for a finite amount of time. Again, skeptics acknowledge that secrets can be kept, as long as they are contained. This is not relevant, however, to the immense scope of claiming a world-ruling shadow government.

Also, this response misses the point about competence. I don’t think that human beings are competent enough to pull off conspiracies as large as the ones that theorists often claim, such as the New World Order the author favors. He seems to think that people in the superficial government are all buffoons, bu the shadow government is run by a separate breed of people who have incredible competence.

The (somewhat scary) truth is that the world is run by ordinary people, although many of them are smart and dedicated. They all, however, have full range of human frailty and failings to some extent.

Grand conspiracies would require incredible dedication, foresight, masterful planning, impeccable execution, all to an extent that I have never witnessed in any person or organization. The conspirators are a cartoon – they don’t exist in our reality.

(The Unresolved Detail Trick) “If this is a conspiracy then explain to me how they managed to do x, y, and z?”
RESPONSE: “I don’t have every missing piece of this puzzle. But I have enough pieces to KNOW that the government-media version is false!

There is a kernel of legitimacy here. Complex theories cannot always explain every detail. The real world is complex, and we can’t always trace every complex chain of cause and effect.

Of course, this complexity cuts both ways. It is this complexity that makes grand conspiracies implausible.

But further, this point can be overplayed and become a cop-out. If someone points out a fatal flaw in one’s theory, it is not legitimate to wiggle out of this criticism by simply saying that they cannot explain every detail.

This particular response also reveals a major flaw in conspiracy thinking. The conspiracy theorist believes that all they need do is poke holes in the standard version of events. Ironically they often do this by challenging people to explain every little detail of what happened, which often cannot be done. What they do not do, however, is provide a plausible alternative explanation for which there is direct evidence.

Their major false assumption is that, if they can find holes or anomalies in a standard explanation of events, there must be a conspiracy. They then make the argument from ignorance and fill in the holes with their preferred conspiracy, for which there is no evidence because the conspirators hid all the evidence.

However, you can find apparent anomalies in any complex historical event. There are simply too many moving parts to be able to reverse engineer everything that happened. There are also numerous opportunities for apparently weird coincidences, which are almost guaranteed by the law of large numbers.

On the point of coincidence, he writes:

“If it were just one or two coincidences, I would agree with you. But when you have a series of 10,15, 20 different anomolies¬†[sic], the law of statistics PROVES that they can’t all be just “coincidence”.

Actually, statistics demonstrate that apparent coincidence should happen all the time. The conspiracy theorists are simply wrong here. They are following their naive gut reactions to apparent coincidence, when statisticians can rigorously demonstrate that such events are common place.

They also ignore the power of confirmation bias. When you are looking for anomalies, you will find them. People are good at pattern recognition. Further, “anomaly” is a very open criterion. Just about anything can be considered an anomaly.

Conspiracy theorists can therefore comb through a vast data set of event details looking for apparent anomalies which they can define any way they wish. With this method you can find large numbers of apparent anomalies in any event. This, however, is their evidence for a conspiracy.

(The Isolated Piece of Evidence Trick) “Other than citing some historical events, you still haven’t shown me one piece of evidence that this was a conspiracy. Tell me just one thing that most proves a conspiracy.”
RESPONSE: “That’s a trick question! If I tell you “just one thing”, you’ll just climb on your high horse and dismiss it as a “coincidence”. What I want to show you is TWENTY THINGS! But you’re too closed minded to consider the case in its totality! You won’t even watch a You Tube video let alone read the case! I sure hope you never get selected to serve on a jury! You want everything boiled down to a simplistic media sound byte. Unless you will commit to a few hours of study, I’m wasting my time with you. Why are you so afraid to study this? (Wait for a response.)

Again, there is a kernel of truth here, but the author misses several important points. It is often not legitimate to challenge someone to defend their theory with one piece of evidence. Evolution, for example, is a conclusion based upon multiple independent lines of evidence each with many pieces.

However, there are individual pieces of evidence that are compelling in and of themselves. A single fossil of a human ancestor may not prove evolution, but it is certainly a compelling piece of evidence.

What skeptics are often really asking is not to prove the conspiracy with one piece of evidence, but to show any piece of evidence that is compelling. Show us your best evidence. But also – go ahead, make your case with a suite of evidence (just don’t let that turn into the 12-foot-stack gambit).

With evolution, you will notice, each piece of evidence has to stand on its own as a legitimate piece of evidence. Conspiracy theorists don’t have any such evidence – just a string of apparent coincidences and anomalies. They are essentially building a case out of circumstantial evidence.

Of course, if you are working backwards to a desired conclusion, and have loose criteria for what counts as evidence, and allow tangential and circumstantial evidence – you can build a case for literally any theory, no matter how wacky or implausible.

What conspiracy theorists are not doing is hypothesis testing. Predict what evidence there should be, and show us that this evidence distinguishes between the presence or absence of a conspiracy. Or show us smoking gun evidence. That is usually what skeptics mean when they ask for one piece of evidence – not one piece to prove the entire conspiracy theory, but one piece of direct (not circumstantial) evidence; enough to take the theory seriously.

“If this were true, the media would be all over it! It would be on the front page of every newspaper in America.”
RESPONSE: “The media, the government, the International bankers, Hollywood, and academia are all part of the same incestuous complex. The media is part of the conspiracy, so why would you expect them to tell you the truth?” (Wait for response.)

Whenever you uncover a problem with the conspiracy, just deepen the conspiracy. That will solve all problems. It also renders the conspiracy theory unfalsifiable.

How do they know the media is part of the conspiracy? Because they aren’t revealing the conspiracy? This is circular reasoning.

When challenged about how many people a world-wide media conspiracy would involve, he responds:

“The corruption doesn’t come from the outside-in. It comes from the top-down. If the ownership of a major media organization decides that a certain story is to be spiked, or if another story is to be hyped, then the rest of the organization follows. If a low level reporter decides to defy his bosses, he will lose his job and be blacklisted.”

Two words – freelance journalist. In fact, this is increasingly the model in the internet age. Huge centralized organizations with top-down control are going away. Now, freelancers submit article to the AP or Reuters and papers will pick them up. Where’s the top down control?

Also, has the author actually spoken to anyone in the media? Do they have any idea how much freedom vs control they have? Are stories squashed without clear justification?

I always get the feeling that conspiracy theorists (and many others, to be fair) treat large organizations as black boxes. They are run by drones, not people, and operate by their own inscrutable rules and motivations. It is a cartoon version of reality, uninformed by the actual people involved.

Conclusion

What the author’s responses really reveal are the logical fallacies and errors in thinking that drive and sustain grand conspiracy theories. They are ultimately cut off from reality because they are insulated from the kinds of evidence and critical thinking that could actually determine if the conspiracy theory were real or even plausible.

As you can see, however, conspiracy theorists have erected an elaborate justification for their logical fallacies.

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