Listener Feedback: A Cacophony of Conspiracies

How you can convince your friends that their conspiracy theories are nonsensical.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #340
December 11, 2012
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Today we're going to open the Skeptoid mailbag (it's not really a bag) and answer some emails about conspiracies. Don't laugh off conspiracy theories; they're still one of the most prevalent examples of failed thought processes. Conspiracy theories cut across all demographics. There's no age group, political affiliation, geography, or economic class that is free of conspiratorial thinking. Even I continue to be surprised at how widespread it is. I can be out with a group of friends, and if the subject comes up, it's a virtual certainty that someone I'd never expect will launch into a conspiracy tirade.

So with this in mind, I thought it would be a perfect time to spend an entire feedback episode answering the following email, sent in by Bruce from Sydney, Australia. Bruce writes:

Last week I was out at dinner the with a group of people when my two cousins launched into a conspiracy rant that covered everything from Osama's death being a staged to robots flying the planes that hit the Twin towers. Incredibly, the audience at dinner was lapping up this nonsense. Because these campfire tales make such interesting table conversation, they end up being believed by the group. When I chime in mentioning such boring words as evidence and science I literally get shut down in favour of far more exciting yarns of conspiracy. What is your advice on how to provide a balanced argument so the conspiracy crowd doesn't continue to grow in numbers by the time the dessert cart arrives...

Now previously, in my earlier episode called How to Be a Skeptic and Still Have Friends, my basic advice is to say nothing. In cases when nothing is really at stake, which is most of the time, there's no need to start a fight with your friends. There's rarely an upside to that. But in this case, Bruce's friends are hearing about conspiracy theories for the first time. Most likely, they walked away and probably never gave it another thought; but the message they came away with was "There are some really scary conspiracies out there."

Well, I'd rather they come away with a different message. I'd rather they come away thinking "There are some really goofy conspiracy theories out there."

Here's one way to do that.

The idea is to give the conspiracy theorist enough rope to hang himself. There's rarely a need to challenge him on any specific point. The reason this is almost guaranteed to work is that most conspiracy theories are usually absurdly complicated, self-contradictory, and united only by the concept that some authority or official story is wrong. Bruce's cousins claimed the airliners were piloted by robots. I've also heard that the airliners were holograms, that they were flying missiles disguised as airliners, and that they were real airliners with big mysterious boxes attached to their undersides. All four of these are contradictory; but in the mind of the conspiracy theorist, they're all more likely than "the official story". Each of those alternate suggestions would have required a completely different kind of conspiracy, with radically divergent details of who was involved and how it was accomplished.

There are two questions you can raise, next time you're in Bruce's shoes. Your goal is to show the other listeners present that they're being fed crackpot nonsense, so your basic strategy is to force the lack of coherence to the surface. Start by asking about one of the competing theories:

I've heard that the airliners were missiles and not real airliners. What do you think about that?

I promise you that the conspiracy theorists will be far more receptive to any alternate conspiracy, than they will to the official story. Suggest an alternate conspiracy, and they'll probably say "Sure, that's another possibility," or something along those lines. If it's Osama bin Laden's death, two competing theories are that he's still alive living in some CIA luxury suite, and that he died naturally some years ago.

Your work is now half done. Flesh out the competing theories. If they were fake airliners, then the original ones must still exist. If they were real airline flights, then the pilots must have been replaced with robots at the airport. Get as many details as you can to supplement both theories with as much divergent information as you can. And then, ask your second question:

Given the three possibilities — robot pilots of real airliners, fake airliners, and the official story — what convinced you that robot pilots was the true version?

Now, my final guarantee to you is that you will then get to watch your conspiracy friend flounder; and whatever he says, the other people present are only going to hear that he has no idea what he's talking about. Chances are he'll happily grant that either is possible, and both fit the facts, despite all the ridiculously different real-world requirements that would have been needed to make either one happen. Watching him explain how two mutually exclusive conspiracies both fit the same set of facts is always entertaining.

So let's take the remaining time to answer a couple of other emails, this time from listeners who do assert conspiracies. Alex from Miami wrote in about the episode on the Bohemian Club, a private club for rich old men trying to rediscover their frat house days. A number of conspiracy theorists assert that it's secretly for the planning of global domination:

...Your initial question was false: it's not if these guys actually *plan* nefarious things there, it's if there is any evidence that the Powers That Be actually go there and network...which they do. We can infer what that means: ...the Club members are more likely to team up on projects in the future. These projects just happen to result in the increased power of the government and military industrial complex.

And maybe, through other collaborations forged in the Bohemian Grove, the Ronald McDonald House charity will undertake some new project with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Notice that conspiracy theorists tend to only see malevolence and evil. Powerful people getting together; therefore something evil must be afoot. In the episode about the workings of the conspiratorial mind, we discussed some of the evolutionary psychology theory behind why the brain is always on the lookout for threats. I want to carefully point out the way Alex concluded his note:

You are realllly good on exposing bad products, but reeeally weak on politics.

I've combed carefully through the Bohemian Grove episode and can't find anything that could reasonably be construed as political content. My guess is that Alex, upon finding himself in disagreement with me over whether the Bohemian Grove is a breeding ground for evil, allowed his brain to push him a step further and decide that I'm politically opposed to him as well which is my reading between the lines of his charge that I'm weak on politics.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

The conspiratorial mindset is very much an us-versus-them mentality. Everything is black or white, good or evil. We see this as well with Bruce's cousins and the idea that they'll be receptive to various different conspiracy theories: Only the government's official story is black; while all of those who dispute it in any way are white. This is why it's possible to be equally supportive of the idea that Osama bin Laden is still alive and that he died naturally years ago, even though they're fundamentally at odds. They're both good-guy theories united by their dismissal of the bad-guy official story.

This next email illustrates the way that conspiracy theories often evolve as evidence strengthens against them. This one is from Anthony in Newcastle. This was written prior to the 2012 apocalypse prediction, and as the date got closer and closer, no impending threat appeared; and predictions started blurring out. Anthony wrote:

...with all the recent actions of 2011 i am beginning to consider the possibility of a change in the Worlds Government setup, as major leaders die and recessions hit many a countries. But if it is true, it will certainly not happen in 2012, i'd say between 2016 and 2036. meaning that all this NWO speak will be dubbed as untrue after nothing happens in 2012, meaning that no one will see it coming or will have a way to fight back.

The prediction softened from one of global destruction to vague "changes in world government". Major leaders die and recessions hit countries all the time: always have, always will. No conspiracy or apocalypse is needed to explain such events. Additionally, note the pushing back of the date from 2012 to "between 2016 and 2036". It's a pretty safe bet that something bad will happen in that 20-year time frame, and it's an equally safe bet that some who predicted global apocalypse in 2012 will consequently claim their prediction came true.

All that's necessary to breed these conspiracy theory effects is for some authority figure, such as NASA, to state that nothing extraordinary is expected to happen in December 2012. That becomes the evil black-hat theory; and anything — anything — no matter how divergent, becomes united under the umbrella of good white-hat theories.

This raises an obvious question: Isn't it good to simply doubt all authority? I submit that the answer is no, which will obviously delight my detractors who consider me an Illuminati shill. Rather, I direct your attention back to the 1970s and the popular slogan "Question authority". Keep your mind open to the possibility that everything is subject to correction. But the default position of "Authority is always corrupt and untruthful" is just as fallacious as "Authority is always incorrupt and pure." No random authority, or any other party, is any more or less likely to be right or wrong than are you or I.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Dunbar, D., Regan, B. Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can't Stand Up to the Facts. New York: Hearst Books, 2006.

Goertzel, T. "Belief in Conspiracy Theories." Political Psychology. 1 Dec. 1994, Volume 15, Number 4: 733-744.

Novella, S. "Hyperactive Agency Detection." NeuroLogica Blog. New England Skeptical Society, 22 Mar. 2010. Web. 26 Jun. 2011. <http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/hyperactive-agency-detection/>

Phillips, Peter M. A Relative Advantage: Sociology of the San Francisco Bohemian Club. Davis, CA: UC Davis, 1994.

Sancton, Julian. "A Guide to the Bohemian Grove." Vanity Fair Magazine. Vanity Fair, 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 17 Jan. 2010. <http://www.vanityfair.com/style/features/2009/05/bohemian-grove-guide200905>

Shermer, M. The Believing Brain: How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011. 207-230.

Weiss, Philip. "Inside Bohemian Grove." Spy. 1 Nov. 1989, n/a: 59-76.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: A Cacophony of Conspiracies." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 11 Dec 2012. Web. 19 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4340>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 123 comments

"One man's quiet and polite is another man's surly and uncommunicative. I know I myself often came across that way when I was younger."

I accept that now that you've put it that way.

" I'm keeping an open mind, though, and I'll let you know if it changes!"

I'm not asking you to change your mind, Darren. If you still believe the official version of Fl77, I'm happy with that. After all, the damage is done now, and there's no going back.

I posted from the start that I am skeptical of the official version of Fl77 and gave evidence, (some of which I retracted in the face of better evidence) for my assertion.

You and others provided arguments against mine.
I responded, and as I said, retracted some of my evidence.

When I see better evidence on the other points that I've made, I'll drop my skepticism. Simple as that.

Macky, Auckland
April 18, 2013 2:19pm

Conspiracy Theories!

The Boston Marathon bombings are still in the news and my conspiracy loving friend has already agreed with the "hot off the press" theory that there were Navy Seals there on a mission to blow up the marathon as an exercise. The Russian kids didn't do it - our own government did. What? Is this "V" ? Even the guy who lost a leg is paired with some military lookalike who already lost both legs. And a teacher who died in the Connecticut massacre, evidently didn't because she died in Boston. This coincides with the theory that there wer no deaths in Connecticut and no burials. And, of course, the Colorado shooter is not the one being held for trial. That was someone else. Sell me a bridge, please!!

No sooner had the smoke cleared from the fertilizer plant in Texas than I saw that it really wasn't an internal explosion, it was hit by a missile. Shades of "Remember the Maine."

These guys are working overtime telling true believers that the Illuminati, or Jews,[they are now declared Negroes of all things] or the Roschilds still run the world.

I am still being told the plane that hit the Pentagon, didn't. I would be grateful for a list of those on the plane. I am sure they were there and died that day - it was not missile.

Oh, and there is no such thing as "brain dead."

Oh,and I was told today that because I am skeptical I do not have an open mind. That takes the cake!

Peter Macmonagle, Charlotte
April 21, 2013 6:51pm

I'm sure your mind is as wide open as anyone else's Peter, and I for one have never asserted that a plane didn't hit the Pentagon.

Macky, Auckland
April 21, 2013 7:21pm

I think your view that conspiracy is only valid upon discovery is ineffective. Seems that detection of conspiracy BEFORE fulfillment could be advantageous. Why not simply teach better skills for qualifying conspiracy, as you do in all other areas?

The first task of conspiracy is to persuade others that one does not exist.

I've observed this before: When an ideal becomes so large and ingrained, one begins to see all thru that filter.

Lew Rockwell is a superb scholar about Austrian economics. But since he hates government, he will endorse anything where the govt is the enemy. It has reduced his discernment in some cases. He is especially comfortable with woo claims in food, health, and medicine so he can trash any government interference of it.

Robert Hale, Mesa, AZ, USA
May 30, 2013 3:33pm

@Robert Hale:

He is not saying the a conspiracy does not exist before discovery- he is saying that it can only be proven to exist once there is evidence for its existence. It is illogical to claim something exists without ANY supporting evidence.

If the conspiracy is so effective at hiding its existence, how did you discover its existence?

Such as you filter that all evidence against the existence simply proves a cover up.

Harry, Carlisle PA
June 22, 2013 9:34am

I think the hypothesis of Stephan Lewandowsky may be a good reference for future conspiracist episodes.

He discusses the isolation of the conspiracy in the mind of such thinkers.

Every time he posts the conspiracists answer in droves..

Minty Dateroll, sin city, Oz
August 16, 2013 4:54am

I think one reason for most conspiracy theories is because governments are not completely transparent, they tend not to release all information to the public. People believe that they have something to hide because of this.

United 93 for example. I would like to hear the cockpit recordings, but the government won't release it. Naturally, the conspiracy is that it was shot down instead of crashing when the passengers tried to retake the plane.

The best theories are the ones that seem the most plausible. Any reasonable person would have ordered that plane shot down if you knew it was about to be flown into a building and killing more than just the people on the plane.

It's hard but true. What better way to cover it up than to make the passengers out to be heroes?

Of course, I lean towards the 'official story' but how can you be 100% sure without hearing what's on the little black box.

You can't seriously believe that scandals never happen and are never covered up, can you?

Watergate happened. It was an attempted cover up that was unsuccessful. How many meet success?

Stan, Boston
October 30, 2013 5:11pm

And that's just it, Stan. When your own government will not disclose to independent experts, and/or the public vital information that would either throw new light, or confirm the official story of the flights of 9-11, isn't it reasonable to assume that conspiracy theories and accusations of cover-up will occur ?

Why withhold the "surviving" black boxes and their information of those four flights ? Why withhold the cam records of the flight into the Pentagon ?

If the US government was sincere in clearing up the skepticism about the official story of 9-11, why doesn't it and its agencies go all out to reinforce said official story in the spirit of the truth, and openness.

The plain fact is that the US govt and its agencies have been party to criminal and unethical behaviour in the past against its own citizens, and that has left suspicion and distrust in its wake, which actually is a very good reason to open out all the evidence for 9-11.

But the US govt won't do that, because the solid and circumstantial evidence against the official US govt version of 9-11 brings into question so many doubts, and uproven US govt "facts", that if all flight records and cam footage were released to the public, the official story of 9-11 would be seen to be nothing more than an urban myth, unevidenced and at best, highly unlikely, especially as time goes on with no further similar serious terrorist attacks in the US homeland since.

Macky, Auckland
December 27, 2013 6:47pm

There appears something that is worrying about "speculation" that keeps Brian from going to bed at night. We've been through this already on other topics and posts: I don't think Brian will find the outer limits or the exact center of his "human thought universe." Sort of a quest he is on to find "pure uncontaminated thought" that he feels lay people and ordinary scientists incapable of finding. Conspiracy has always existed, from hiding Easter eggs to bombing Pearl Harbor, in many strong ways and weak ways. He feels all this a waste of time? Then, what do you call this constant nick-picking and harangue over what people should or should not do?

Steve Erdmann, St. Louis, Missouri
November 28, 2014 5:03pm

Skeptoid reveals its mandate as a site for following and promoting the Official Story no matter what, by its opening paragraph in this article.

"Don't laugh off conspiracy theories; they're still one of the most prevalent examples of failed thought processes."

Really ? Anybody who has an alternative theory to the official government/mainstream media line on events such as 911 or Pearl Harbour (for examples) is suffering from "failed thought processes" even if their theory is backed up by solid evidence ?

Is a "sound thought process" demonstrated by swallowing everything we are told by said government, even when that govt has been proven to have abused and misled its own citizens on several occasions, without question ?

"There's no age group, political affiliation, geography, or economic class that is free of conspiratorial thinking."

Certainly some conspiratorial thinking is unsound, but there is much that has been driven by precedent, and after careful analysis (often by sober professionals) found to have raised serious questions about an Official Story that the US govt and its agencies have refused to clarify, which only adds to the suspicion that they are covering something up.

There's always going to be conspiracy theories while the Powers That Be continue to foment war and abuse their own people, behaving in a manner that has been utterly exposed and proven by evidence to be criminal and unethical.

Skeptoid attempts to sweep all that under the carpet.

Macky, Auckland
December 3, 2014 10:48am

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