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.

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