How to create a great conspiracy theory!

2011/01/17 § 1 Comment


Doubting so called established wisdom can be a great thing. Skepticism probably has been the major driving force in toppling over wrong notions about the world and how it works. When skepticism extends in certain extreme ways we end up with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories always existed, however, originally a conspiracy theory was just that, the assumption that a group of individuals had conspired to carry out an act, generally harmful to other individuals. This did however not imply that the conspiracy was close to impossible to figure out.

Skepticism applied

Skepticism is a good thing, applied wisely

Today however, the term “conspiracy theory” often denominates ideas that are borderline paranoid, in that they assume that a group of individuals has conspired that is so powerful- often almost omnipotently powerful- in order to keep the conspiracy itself hidden from public view completely. Conspiracy theorists are not just skeptical, they doubt strongly, especially things that no one else would question. No ever so logical, comprehensible and coherent explanation is save from conspiracy theorist

How does a conspiracy theory work? How can you recognize a conspiracy and separate useful skepticism from paranoia?

Ignorance is key, paranoia helps

The reason for conspiracy theories are plenty and there are several sociological attempts for an explanation. Without going into these details, important reasons may be: distrust for authorities and political entities, ideological convictions, general distrust sometimes bordering on paranoia, and of course low intelligence. These are all optional, and in all fairness, one must not necessarily be stupid in order to believe in conspiracies, however one prerequisite beats all others: ignorance.

Ignorance or negligence to become informed, often based on laziness to check facts, feeds conspiracy theories. Admittedly, it sure is easier to consume a piece of youtube-conspiracy-movie than to check the facts and use one’s brain.

What often makes it hard to argue against this ignorance is, that it is so ingrained in a believe to be the “knowing”, and the others instead being ignorant and “blind”. A good source to find examples for this thinking are blogs with lists of conspiracy theories. A common defense of the conspiracy theorists visiting there may read: “They [the mentioned conspiracy theories] are conclusions that educated people come to in these matters over and over again.” [Emphasize and comment added by me]

There even is a term for this condition, called the Dunning-Kruger effect. “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is […].” (Fox News is a great source to see the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in action.)

As I believe, often times this is not because people are stupid, but because they lack a standard of comparison. Amongst the blind the one-eyed is king.

In this blog I have repeatedly pointed out the scaring lack of natural scientific knowledge I have observed [Check: 1, 2, 3, 4]. I do believe that this is the breeding ground for conspiracy theories, such as the “moon hoax conspiracy”, the “9-11 conspiracy”, the “Roswell cover-up conspiracy”, the “homeopathy/ vaccination conspiracy“, the “HIV hoax conspiracy“, the “global warming hoax conspiracy” and too many others.

Other conspiracies are based on a lack of political and social understanding. For instance the “Prison planet conspiracy” by Alex Jones, the “Health-care hoax/ socialistic health-care (Obamacare) conspiracy”, the “Kennedy assassination conspiracy”, the “reptillian humanoid theories” of David Icke, and others.

The ingredients for conspiracy

Questions: A hallmark of conspiracy theories is the asking of many questions. In fact, questions are more important than answers. These questions often sound something like: “Isn’t it strange that…?”, “Is it not hard to believe that…?”. The asking of the questions happens under the premise that the author is concerned because he or she has found something that the experts missed. Often this is combined with the claim that authorities reject to answer the questions, usually no evidence for these claims is provided though. But this is key, because it implies that something is intentionally hidden from the view of the public- naturally the most important factor for a conspiracy.

Negligence of evidence that contradicts the theory: A principle of a functioning conspiracy theory is not to mention what factual evidence contradicts the theory, or to show interviews with people that contradict the theorie’s line of argument. Due to this negligence the theories often sound incredibly logical.

Make matters more complicated: Conspiracism does not follow the rule of Occam’s razor, which is a principle of logic that suggests that the less complicated functioning explanation is to be preferred over more complicated explanations. By leaving out connecting dots things become confusing. Confusion is the friend of a conspiracy theory.

In general, it has often occurred to me how conspiracy theorists paint a picture of an incredibly complicated world where it is almost impossible to understand anything, because nothing is as it seems, and we are surrounded by manipulative powers.

Powerful forces: Many times, if not always, conspiracies involve elite powers. That means that they are involved with individuals or groups that have financial, political, military, criminal or other types of power. These powers are usually exaggerated and elevated to an almost devine superiority. Someone not familiar with how these powers work and how they are controlled by other powers is drawn into the feeling of powerlessness that helps to convince someone of a conspiracy. Especially if these forces have the powers of mind control or to brainwash people, for instance by using fluoride in drinking water.

Circular logic: It is of paramount importance for a conspiracy theory to work that there is some type of circular logic in it. A strategy often utilized is to predict that “if you tell this publicly it will cause strong opposition or ridicule”. If the audience buys into this prediction, every opposition will work in favor of the conspiracy theory. Every person to oppose the conspiracy theorist or ridicule the theory may be one of “them” or simply be brainwashed by “them”.

Discredit experts and audience alike: A conspiracy theory will always attempt to discredit the “official version” by discrediting the experts. One usually does so by either claiming ulterior motives, like financial, political, or similar reasons for the expert to be biased or lie. Claiming that anyone is of inferior intelligence who does not see the conspiracy theory as true helps to “mainstream” the audience.

Get experts to support you: Now this may be counter intuitive, since one step in a successful conspiracy is to discredit experts, but in order to make a conspiracy more credible one needs support of “experts”. The experts do not necessarily be experts by most standards. Often some journalist or fellow conspiracist will do. As long as it is claimed that he or she is an expert, many will buy into it. Who checks anyway?

Be flexible: One cannot emphasize the importance of flexibility of a conspiracy theory. Facts and debunking should not get into the way of the theory. As anyone knows who followed the 9-11 conspiracy theories, whenever an argument has been disproven too strongly they just never mention it again but come up with a handful of new questions. A rule for a successful theory of conspiracy is: Let facts not stand in your way.

Paint yourself as victim: It is seemingly helpful to paint oneself as a victim. At least, many conspiracists resort to this tool. They claim that they have been targeted by secret services, powerful political forces, the media, etc. This may not be a necessary tool, but it earns trust by sympathy.

Lies: If nothing else helps, lies can be useful. This certainly has been the credo of some conspiracists. However, it would be unfair and wrong to claim that this is a general hallmark of conspiracy theories. In fact, the sad truth seems to be that many of the theorists out there sincerely believe in their own theories.

Emotional pressure and threats: The process described up to here assures that people are hooked, i.e. they have rendered insecure by questions, confused by incoherent arguments, sent into logical infinity by circular arguments, and convinced by fabricated expert support. At this point many conspiracy theories round it up by using emotional arguments. Often by threatening with terrible consequences in case no one does anything against the conspiracy. “You do not want to become guilty by believing the official version?”

Previous experience with orthodox ideology: Apparently it helps if people have been previously exposed to orthodox thinking. Especially religiously active individuals seem to find that it is a piece of cake to fall for a conspiracy theory. But certainly, any strong orthodox theory helps. Especially those combining similar lines of arguments, such as of superior powers that can hardly be observed. Not coincidentally the above could be a guideline from the book “how to start a cult”.

Disproving a conspiracy theory

The first step in disproving a conspiracy theory must be to recognize it as such. The “ingredients” above should help with that.

The questions mentioned above are designed to play with the ignorance of the audience. Few individuals are experts on molecular biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, astronomy, history, and so forth. Hence, an audience that is ignorant or at least not entirely familiar with the background of a topic is taken by surprise. Do not fall for it by buying into arguments just because they seem emotionally appealing and you cannot rebut them (yet).

To give an example for a question posed: “Is it not strange that humans went to the moon in the 60s but never since? How come we cannot do it today anymore?”.

Considering that no one actually had a reason to go there again in person, and no one actually tried, it isn’t. But If one is ignorant of the incredible costs involved, the projects that NASA actually followed meanwhile, and the political motivations underlying the decision not to go to the moon anymore, one could become convinced that there is something fishy going on. The question also implies that we could not go to the moon any longer. This is based on ignorance too, because we could. Not tomorrow obviously. But when it was decided to go to the moon in 1960 it took billions of Dollars, and millions of people involved almost 10 years to do so. So, the short answer is: We could, if we wanted to, but we had better things to do until now, and other things to spend the money on.

I won’t go into more details here, but it is interesting how widely this specific “moon landing hoax” conspiracy theory is still believed, even though all claims of the conspiracy theorists have been debunked (but one would need to read them of course. Apparently many choose not to).

Getting good information is naturally of course a key step in order to debunk a conspiracy. This can usually not come in the shape of a blog. Scientific papers, textbooks, and similar are often necessary to really be able to become certain about a topic. Debunking a conspiracy theory may be hard work.

However, I found that most of the time the questions could actually be answered rather easily. The remaining questions are not even based on the factual situation, i.e. they suggest or insinuate that something may have taken place which may not be supported by neither evidence nor witnesses. In other cases yet, witnesses are asked that contradict the evidence. Studies have shown, however, that individual, separate witness testimony is often flawed, and parts of it can be meaningless.

Neglected evidence can usually be found by diving into the subject a bit deeper than Wikipedia. But it may be a good start to give Wiki a quick hurl. Often the links provided help to dig deeper. And deeper we must dig in order to debunk. I must admit that it occasionally has taken me days or even weeks to really debunk a conspiracy theory. Sometimes it just takes time and energy to get by good information.

However, identifying circular logic, avoiding overly complicated explanations, and identifying who really are experts in a field- which admittedly may take time once more- will get you very far.

The world is complicated alright, but in a different way than conspiracy theories may want you to believe. In fact, this works for us, not against us. We are able to understand and make sense of the world (unless you are a constructivist of course 😉 ). And there is no universal power that reigns over us, because the world has too many individuals with too many different interests. In essence, even though we are surrounded by powers that govern much of what we do, do not forget that these powers work in opposing directions.

While the truth may well be out there, the key to it is knowledge. In fact, knowledge probably is the real universal power.

And finally the most precious advice I have to offer: Be skeptical! Especially when it comes to conspiracy theories.

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