Jul 18 2013

Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists

Skeptics have their work cut out for them. We are up against irrational forces that are becoming very savvy at turning the language and superficial tactics of science and skepticism against science and reason. We are not just debating details of evidence and logic, but wrangling with fully-formed alternate views of reality.

An excellent example of this was recently brought to my attention – an article using published psychological studies to argue that conspiracy theorists represent the mainstream rational view while “anti-conspiracy people” are actually the “paranoid cranks.” The article, by Dr. Kevin Barrett (Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist) in my opinion nicely reflects how an ideological world-view can color every piece of information you see.

He starts out reviewing an article by Wood and Douglas which examined the comments to news articles about topics that are the subject of conspiracy theories. Barrett summarizes the study this way:

In short, the new study by Wood and Douglas suggests that the negative stereotype of the conspiracy theorist – a hostile fanatic wedded to the truth of his own fringe theory – accurately describes the people who defend the official account of 9/11, not those who dispute it.

The article actually suggests nothing of the sort. Barrett cherry picks what he wants to see from this article and draws conclusions that are not supported by the evidence. The authors of the study found that comments to conspiracy news items were approximately 2/3 pro-conspiracy and 1/3 anti-conspiracy. Barrett concludes from this:

That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.

This is simply not justified from this data. Barrett assumes that the number of comments reflects the relative percentage of believers in the population, but it is possible (and very likely) that pro-conspiracy people simply comment more, perhaps due to greater passion for their beliefs.

Barrett makes no mention of polls or surveys that more directly get at the question of what percentage of the population believe to some degree in a conspiracy. For 9/11 there have been a number of different surveys conducted in various ways with a range of outcomes, but in all of them, believers in a 9/11 conspiracy are in the minority.

Barrett also ignores the many other conclusions of the paper. They write:

In accordance with our hypotheses, we found that conspiracist commenters were more likely to argue against the opposing interpretation and less likely to argue in favor of their own interpretation, while the opposite was true of conventionalist commenters. However, conspiracist comments were more likely to explicitly put forward an account than conventionalist comments were. In addition, conspiracists were more likely to express mistrust and made more positive and fewer negative references to other conspiracy theories. The data also indicate that conspiracists were largely unwilling to apply the “conspiracy theory” label to their own beliefs and objected when others did so, lending support to the long-held suggestion that conspiracy belief carries a social stigma. Finally, conventionalist arguments tended to have a more hostile tone. These tendencies in persuasive communication can be understood as a reflection of an underlying conspiracist worldview in which the details of individual conspiracy theories are less important than a generalized rejection of official explanations.

The main findings of the study, therefore, are that conspiracy theorists base their opinions largely on an “underlying conspiracist worldview” rather than the specific details of any case. They are not able to put forward and defend a specific alternate theory, but rather are primarily interested in contradicting the official story, whatever that happens to be. This is in line with conventional criticism of conspiracy theorists.

The one new finding here is that those defending the conventional view tended to be more hostile than the conspiracy theorists in online comments. The subculture of comments to news articles is still a new phenomenon, and so it is difficult to draw confident conclusions from such observations. However, this does fit with the general skeptical experience. Conspiracy theorists and true believers generally can be infuriating and frustrating in their illogic and style of argument, leading the novice to become agitated and hostile. This, of course, is then used to discredit those defending the conventional view, as Barrett is doing here.

I have discussed this before as a core dilemma for the practicing skeptic. Passion in the defense of science and reason is a good thing, as is uncompromising firmness in the opposition to pseudoscience and irrationality. But that passion can easily be perceived or misrepresented as fanaticism, and used to discredit the scientific view. It is for that reason, in my opinion, that skeptics are best served by making a conscious effort to remain dispassionate in their public discourse, or at least to keep that passion positive – being pro-science rather than anti-pseudoscience.

In another bit of reality-bending, Barrett writes:

Additionally, the study found that so-called conspiracists discuss historical context (such as viewing the JFK assassination as a precedent for 9/11) more than anti-conspiracists.

I’m convinced that anything can be twisted in a positive or negative way (just read political news stories). Conspiracy theorists believe they are putting events into “historical context” while conspiracy critics might say they are making leaps of logic in order to create the illusion of connections where none exist. In fact, conspiracy thinking is largely about seeing patterns where they do not truly exist – patterns in events that may be unconnected or only loosely connected in a generic cultural/historical fashion.

Barrett goes on to cite 9/11 truthers as if they are objective scholars. For example, he writes about Lauri Manwell’s work:

Psychologist Laurie Manwell of the University of Guelph agrees that the CIA-designed “conspiracy theory” label impedes cognitive function. She points out, in an article published in American Behavioral Scientist (2010), that anti-conspiracy people are unable to think clearly about such apparent state crimes against democracy as 9/11 due to their inability to process information that conflicts with pre-existing belief.

Her work has been widely cited by 9/11 conspiracy theorists. What she is actually doing in her papers is simply discussing generic psychological studies discussing phenomena such as cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and then applying them to those who resist 9/11 conspiracy theories. Manwell, however, makes it sound as if these psychological features are specific to those who are skeptical of conspiracy theories, and Barrett repeats this folly. It’s nonsense.

In one paper Manwell writes, for example:

You begin to wonder, why are some people less willing to examine all the events of 9/11 than others? Is it really because they are obstinate or in denial? Is it because they are apathetic or judiciously lazy? Or perhaps it is because they are uninformed or purposefully misinformed. Are there other explanations?

Manwell appears to be coming from an assumption that those who doubt a conspiracy surrounding the events of 9/11 are simply wrong or not aware of all the facts. She seems to assume, in fact, that the evidence points to a conspiracy, and therefore those who doubt it must be laboring under some psychological baggage or misinformation.

The alternate possibility – that some people who are skeptical of a 9/11 conspiracy have thoroughly examined the evidence and arguments and found them to be wanting – does not even seem to occur to Manwell.

Partly she, and by extensive Barrett, are arguing against the average person who is reflexively dismissive of a 9/11 conspiracy (with good reason, for it is absurd on its face), rather than addressing those who have carefully examined the evidence and arguments of the conspiracy theorists and systematically dismantled them. They are addressing the weakest form of opposition to their position rather than the strongest. They do this by referring to general cognitive biases as if they are specific to those who disagree with them, or are somehow an explanation for resistance to their crackpot theories.


The article by Barrett, like conspiracy theories in general, seems to occupy a bizarro world in which the rules of logic and evidence have all been turned on their head. In Barrett’s world conspiracy theorists are rationally evidence-based, while skeptics are falling prey to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

Hidden in his tortured logic, however, are some lessons for skeptics. It is important to keep focused on facts and logic, rather than using psychological arguments to discredit believers. Psychological arguments can cut both ways, and too easily fall prey to confirmation bias themselves.

Understanding cognitive biases are important to understanding our own thoughts and beliefs, but are unwieldy as weapons against others. Even when true, they do not make for compelling arguments.

Rather, a dispassionate analysis of evidence and logic is the most objective approach. The dilemma for skeptics, however, is this – is it the most effective in persuading others? Emotional appeals seem to be more effective than facts and  logic, but when we stoop to passionate or emotional arguments we sacrifice the appearance of objectivity.

We therefore have to strike a delicate balance. This takes years of practice, in my experience, and is not something I would expect from random commenters to online news.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “Revenge of the Conspiracy Theorists”

  1. 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 Woodward says:

    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 Woodward says:



  4. ChrisH says:

    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. ChrisH says:

    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. MWSletten says:

    …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. saburai says:

    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. 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. robbrotherton says:

    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. locutusbrg says:

    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. tmac57 says:

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


  12. Nitpicking says:

    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. BillyJoe7 says:


    “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. 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. Davdoodles says:


    “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. sonic says:

    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. sonic says:

    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. BillyJoe7 says:


    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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