Archive for the 'Conspiracy Theories' Category

Oct 31 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and Epistemology

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

UFOconspiracyJust last week I discussed a study looking at the correlation between belief in conspiracy theories and hyperactive pattern recognition. The quick version is this – belief in false patterns (such as bizarre conspiracy theories) results from a tendency to detect false patterns and a lack of filtering out those detections. The question for psychologists is, how much of an increased tendency to believe grand conspiracies is due to increased pattern recognition and how much is due to impaired reality testing? My assumption would be that both are involved to varying degrees in different people. The study found that there is a correlation between conspiracy beliefs and pattern recognition – which supports that hypothesis, but does not refute the role of decreased reality testing or other variables, such as culture, ideology, and self-esteem.

This week I am going to discuss another recent study looking at belief in conspiracies and their correlation with beliefs about the nature of knowledge (epistemic beliefs). These researchers are focusing on the other end of the equation – the methods we use to assess knowledge and form beliefs, rather than the more basic function of perceiving patterns. They start with a helpful review of previous literature:

There is also some evidence that individuals’ styles of thinking can influence their willingness to accept claims lacking empirical evidence. Individuals who tend to see intentional agency behind every event are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, as are those who attribute extraordinary events to unseen forces or interpret events through the Manichean narrative of good versus evil. Those who mistrust authority, who are convinced that nothing is as it seems, and who lack control over their environment are also more predisposed to conspiracist ideation.

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127 responses so far

Oct 23 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and Pattern Recognition

conspiracy thinking1Humans are conspiracy theorists. Seeing and believing in conspiracies appears to be a fundamental part of how our minds work. Psychologists are trying to understand rigorously exactly why this is, and what factors predict a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

A recent study adds to those that link conspiracy thinking with pattern recognition. The researchers did a series of experiments in which they showed that the belief in one or more conspiracies correlates with the tendency to see patterns in random data, such as random coin tosses or noisy pictures. Further, when subjects read about one conspiracy theory they were then slightly more likely to endorse other conspiracy theories and to see patterns in random noise.

They conclude:

We conclude that illusory pattern perception is a central cognitive mechanism accounting for conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs.”

This makes sense, which is why psychologists have been studying it in the first place. First, we know that people in general have a tendency to see patterns in randomness. That is part of how our brains make sense of the world. Essentially, we are bombarded with various sensory streams. Our brains parse those streams as best it can, filtering out noise and distraction, and then searching for familiar patterns. When it finds a possible match it then processes the information to make the perceived pattern more apparent. That pattern is then what we perceive.

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33 responses so far

Aug 11 2017

Alex Jones – Snake Oil Salesman

Patent-medicine5If Alex Jones lived 150 years ago he would have traveled around with a horse-drawn wagon selling his patent medicine with a medicine show featuring amazing stories about hacking his way through the jungle to find cures and sitting down with Indian medicine-men to learn their secrets.

Today he has his own TV show where he tells amazing stories of conspiracies in order to sell dubious supplements.

I have to admit, Jones had me fooled for a while. I was only paying slight attention to the nonsense he spewed on InfoWars, enough to know that he was a raving conspiracy theorist. I paid closer attention when he claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag operation. Anyone as popular and flamboyant as Jones is likely supplementing their true belief with showmanship. I now, however, think it’s more likely that Jones is pure showmanship.

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11 responses so far

Jul 11 2017

No, This Isn’t Amelia Earhart

Published by under Conspiracy Theories

amelia-earhart-photo2I love a good unsolved mystery as much as anyone. Mysteries provoke curiosity, and challenge our investigative skills. They may also challenge our skepticism and critical thinking.

The story of Amelia Earhart is an iconic mystery, and the inspiration for both legitimate investigation and a lot of nonsense. The story of Earhart is in the news again. The History Channel is promoting a theory that Earhart, and her navigator (Fred Noonan) were captured by the Japanese and later died in prison. Their new alleged evidence for this is the above photograph.

Some Quick Background

Earhart is famous for being a female aviation pioneer.  She had many firsts, including being the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland, California. This in itself was enough to make her famous, but her disappearance on July 3, 1937 made her legendary. She was attempting to fly around the globe, starting and ending in Miami, Florida. She made it as far as Papua, New Guinea.

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14 responses so far

Jul 07 2017

Conspiracy Thinking and the Need for Certainty

conspiracy1The world is horrifically complicated and humans have developed a number of strategies to deal with that complexity. These strategies are necessary but imperfect. There is also always a trade-off, sacrificing detail and nuance for understandability.

One such strategy I have written about often is the need for simplicity. A saying, attributed to Albert Einstein with good references, goes: “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.” He was talking about the art of making complex scientific knowledge accessible without making it wrong. Unfortunately, the desire for simplicity often leads to oversimplification, with important details and concepts lost or distorted.

There is another related strategy psychologist call the need for cognitive closure. One reference defines this need as:

“As a dispositional construct, the need for cognitive closure is presently treated as a latent variable manifested through several different aspects, namely, desire for predictability, preference for order and structure, discomfort with ambiguity, decisiveness, and close-mindedness.”

It is easy to see the trade-offs here. On the one hand it is good to be intellectually flexible, open-minded, and comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Yet, this disposition can predispose one to indecisiveness, the “paralysis of analysis.” At some point we have to commit, even if tentatively. Structure and order in thought can also be positive things.

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23 responses so far

May 22 2017

The Smart Meter Hubbub

smart-meter-exampleSame story, different day.

While the details of specific topics change, people are the same. They commit the same fallacies and errors in thinking, and so the patterns of arguments tend to be the same.

Many power companies are replacing the old analogue meters with digital smart meters – devices that measure how much electricity you use and therefore need to be billed for. The newer meters are able to gather more information about electricity usage, not just overall usage. They can measure when you are using electricity throughout the day, for example. They can also communicate this information to the power company wirelessly, eliminating the need to have someone come to your home to read the meter.

There is an obvious efficiency to this increased data and communication. Further, one of the most challenging aspects of power production is balancing production and demand. Demand also tends to peak at certain times, which means that power companies need to have a lot of extra capacity that kicks in just for peak usage. Peak power production tends to be the least efficient and most expensive.

One hope is that smart meters will allow for peak shaving – giving customers information they can use to shift their energy usage off peak.

So what’s the controversy? The same litany of mostly made up complaints and conspiracy theories that seem to crop up for any new technology. Just about every complaint about smart meters has an analogy with vaccines and GMOs, for example, and generally the same crowd are complaining.  Continue Reading »

27 responses so far

Apr 18 2017

Is Alex Jones Faking?

alex-jonesAlex Jones is famous for his Infowars program in which he, often red-faced and ranting, promotes all kinds of absurd conspiracy theories. He claims the Sandy Hook massacre was a “false flag” operation (and pretty much every similar event – all staged by the government. He claimed that Obama and Hillary Clinton were literally demons.

The enduring question (at least for me) has been – to what extent does Jones actually believe the stuff that he says? I phrase it that way because belief is not necessarily binary (I don’t want to commit a false dichotomy logical fallacy). He may believe some of the stuff he says to some extent, but then exaggerates and gets into speculation, or simply not care about the veracity of his claims.

Clearly he has a shtick and it’s paying off well for him.

I have not taken on Jones directly (I have addressed many of the claims he supports) because I haven’t found it to be worthwhile so far. His character is clearly a nutjob, to put it bluntly, and I suspected not entirely sincere, and overall I thought it best to ignore him.

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132 responses so far

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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32 responses so far

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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34 responses so far

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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22 responses so far

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