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.
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.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: A Cacophony of Conspiracies." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Dec 2012. Web.
11 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4340>
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.