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Conspiracy Theorists: Although They Might Be Right, Why It's Reasonable To Assume They're Wrong

image loading... by Bo Bennett, PhD, Social Scientist, Business Consultant
posted Monday Oct 09, 2017 09:04 AM

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Bo Bennett, PhD

Social Scientist, Business Consultant

About Bo Bennett, PhD

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The conspiracy theory is a classic, contentious fallacy. Conspiracies are all too common, and they are a fact of life. So what makes having a theory about a conspiracy fallacious or what makes most conspiracy theorists unreasonable? To answer this, let's first look at what it means to have a scientific theory.

As we know, when used in science, a "theory" is a collection of facts that provide strong evidence for a conclusion, commonly proposed by an expert on the subject matter. But more than that, scientific theories are (are supposed to be) established after the facts have been gathered and before the conclusion has been reached. Through the scientific method, bias is minimized, facts are checked by experts in related fields, and conclusions are disputed—all with the common goal of reaching the most probable conclusion. Far more often than not, once a hypothesis moved to scientific theory, it is improved upon and refined based on new evidence yet remains unfalsified, although it is falsifiable. After time, a scientific theory can often be synonymous with fact (as in that germs cause disease, gravity, and evolution). To recap, some of the characteristics that give scientific theories credibility include

collection of facts
the facts provide strong evidence for a conclusion
proposed by an expert in the subject matter
facts dictate theory (not the other way around)
the scientific method is used (minimizes bias, facts checked by experts with the goal of falsifying them, etc.)
has a very good track record for remaining unfalsified
is falsifiable
Now let's turn to a conspiracy theory. In order to avoid readers experiencing the backfire effect, I am not going to name any specific conspiracy theory. But feel free to think about your own conspiracy theory(ies) and see how the credibility stacks up.
What are the facts? Are they actually verified facts or assertions?
Is the person who proposed their theory an expert in the subject matter?
Did the facts lead to the theory, or was it the hatred/mistrust of govt/authority that sparked the search for facts to support the conspiracy?
How were your biases kept in check?
Were the facts checked by other experts?
What fact(s) could falsify the theory?
As history shows, the number of demonstrated conspiracies pales in comparison to the number of conspiracy theories people hold. Dismissing conspiracy theories, especially ones proposed by questionable sources, is not unreasonable; but a reasonable heuristic. This is because the intellectual cost of accepting false conspiracies as true is far greater than rejecting true conspiracies as false. Why? Because far more often than not, people's acceptance of conspiracy theories is unwarranted, based on faulty reasoning and the acceptance of assertions as facts. Conspiracy theories have a greater burden of proof due partly to the fact that the assertion that it is a conspiracy is the defacto wildcard excuse for not meeting the usual standards for evidence. For example
What are the facts? Are they actually verified facts or assertions? Those in power are lying about the facts and withholding the information that can be used as proof. This is part of the conspiracy.
Is the person who proposed their theory an expert in the subject matter? Yes, but those in power deny/reject their authority/expertise. This is part of the conspiracy.
Were the facts checked by other experts? Again, the experts don't acknowledge the facts, because they are part of the conspiracy.
Conspiratorial Methodology.
When scientists propose a scientific theory, there is a very rigid methodology used. This is a set of rules and/or procedures consistently used in delineating fact from fiction. Academic historians use a similar methodology, as do many others in various academic and non-academic fields. Very often with conspiracy theorists, the methodology is fatally flawed in that using the same methodology, virtually everything can be seen as a conspiracy. For example, it is common for conspiracy theorists to suspect a conspiracy whenever some powerful entity has something to gain by the proposed conspiracy. Not only would this methodology make "conspiracy" virtually synonymous with "event," but strong personal biases result in conspiracy theorists overlooking the fact that most proposed conspiracies involve multiple powerful entities all with competing interests. For example, renewable energy vs. oil companies, organic farmers vs. conventional farmers, democrats vs. republicans, the United States government vs. all other governments who would love to catch the USA in a lie, etc. A respectable conspiracy theory needs a respectable methodology.

Suspecting vs. Accepting.

There is a difference between suspecting a conspiracy and accepting something as a conspiracy. Some people are less trusting than others. This can be partly due to personality and/or partly due to experience. The greater the lack of trust in a group or organization, the more likely one is to suspect a conspiracy involving that group or organization. This mistrust could be based on reason, or not. Initial feelings of suspicion are what cognitive psychologists refer to as type I processes meaning that they occur quickly and without conscious thought. Reasoning comes into play with type II processes when one reflects on these feelings of suspicion and applies some methodology to the situation to determine if the feelings of suspicion are justified by the facts. As we have seen, the methodology used determines how reasonable it is to accept or reject the conspiracy. Like all beliefs, acceptance should only occur after sufficient evidence warrants the belief, never while the data is being gathered—this is how the confirmation bias distorts one's reality.

What Would it Take to Pull Off the Conspiracy?

Thanks to the confirmation bias, we have a strong emotional investment in outcomes that result in our inability or unwillingness to honestly attempt to falsify (prove wrong) our theory. We come up with a plausible narrative of the conspiracy, but what we fail to do, is reason all that would be involved in the conspiracy, then determine how plausible our narrative really is in light of what the conspiracy would involve. For example, Google "flat earth society FAQ" and see what lengths they need to go to build an internally consistent theory. Imagine how every country with a space program would have to be in on the conspiracy. While possible, how plausible is that compared to the fact that the earth really just is an oblate spheroid? It is not easy to attempt to prove what we believe to be true, false but this is vital aspect of critical thought.

If you are someone who generally lacks trust in government, authority, or those with power and is frequently called a "conspiracy theorist," don't expect reasonable people to accept your theories or even entertain them. Although you may be right, you are part of a group of people that has a strong, negative stereotype. I feel your pain. As an atheist, I am part of one of the most despised groups in America due to its own set of negative stereotypes, some justified and some not. I can't just tell a Christian that I am a moral person; I need to explain in great detail why I am moral. In other words, due to these cultural stereotypes, I have a greater burden of proof when it comes to demonstrating my morality whether I like it or not. Likewise, you need to go above and beyond if you want to convince others that your conspiracy is true (think Woodward and Bernstein). Of course, before you attempt to convince others, think about how you arrived at your conclusions. Perhaps you will find that the given explanation is really the best one to explain the facts and there really is no conspiracy.

Podcast Episode: Conspiracy

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