First, let us dispense with the idea that ‘no conspiracies exist’.
Of course they exist. This is part of the darker nature of humans.
We have a tendency to organize ourselves into groups that give us some sort of advantage. Further, if secrecy also contributes to the advantage, that’s all that’s needed… A genuine conspiracy is born.
Fortunately for us, humans are also a species that interprets the word ‘secret’ to mean ‘wait until it makes you look good to others to disclose this information, then blab it to everyone, wait ’til they have kids, then tell them too’.
The probability of any conspiracy remaining secret is inversely proportional to the number of people aware of it. Wasn’t that one of the lines in the theme song to the TV show ‘Dexter’? “Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead”
Now, let’s get into what makes an invented (fictional) conspiracy so attractive.
The primary attractive force of a conspiracy theory is the feeling of superiority it grants the believer. No one can deny that being aware of ‘secret knowledge’ makes one special.
Once an idea has taken hold, confirmation bias (a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions) often leads to an almost religious attachment.
From this point, it’s only a small step to believing that you and a small group are actually the underdog, fighting for the freedoms of humanity.
HOW CAN WE TELL IF THERE’S A CONSPIRACY?
The surest way to get a good idea of whether or not a conspiracy is afoot is to ask yourself ‘Who would benefit from such a conspiracy, and how would they benefit?’
If no answer can be found for either or both of these questions, it might be time to put on your skeptic hat.
ABOUT THE ‘THEORY’ PART
But how can we tell if it’s a ‘theory’, in the scientific sense, or an ‘I’ve got a theory’ (translation: something I just pulled out of my… um… hat) type of theory?
TWO JIGSAW PUZZLES
Analogy time… Let’s look at both a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory as if they were two completed jigsaw puzzles. Standing back and looking at them each, you see that each shows a completed picture. Further, you notice that all the holes are filled; there are no missing puzzle pieces. From these two facts, one might assume that either scenario is as valid as the other.
It’s not until one looks at the individual pieces and the connections between them that the differences become apparent.
In a scientific theory ‘jigsaw puzzle’, each piece, in addition to being true, MUST fit exactly with all other pieces.
In a conspiracy theory ‘jigsaw puzzle’, there is no such rule, and most untrue conspiracy theories suffer from this flaw.
Each puzzle piece does, in fact, hold a small section of the complete picture, and answers a specific objection as to the accuracy of the overall theory, but you’ll notice that most of the pieces have been forced together even when they are not compatible.
EXAMPLE FROM FLATLAND:
What follows is an example from flat earth ‘theory’, since that was a recent topic of interest. The same could be demonstrated using any conspiracy theory.
Puzzle Piece #1
Q: What makes day and night?
A: The sun moves in a circular path over our heads like a spotlight.
Puzzle Piece #2
Q: Why don’t we see the sun at night, then? Since the earth is flat, there would be nothing in the way.
A: Perspective. Things get smaller as they are farther away.
Puzzle Piece #3
Q: Why does the sun look bigger at sunset?
A: Due to the magnification effect of the atmosphere.
From just these three examples, one can see that ‘the puzzle pieces don’t fit together. Answer #2 and Answer #3 are contradictory. Further, Answer #3 makes Answer #1 impossible.
See how the puzzle pieces don’t fit together?
These are the types of discrepancies to look for when deciding if any newly-proposed theory is valid or even possible.
ABOUT THE SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS:
One of the most telling aspects of the supporting arguments for the average conspiracy theory is the following: The arguments focus mainly on dismissing individual holes in the theory.
A scientific theory is the highest order of information produced by the scientific method. It unifies a collection of natural laws, rigorously tested hypotheses and records of experimental results that could have falsified the theory had they shown results other than those predicted by the theory. It must have both explanatory and predictive powers.
A non-scientific conspiracy theory, however, starts with an assertion. This assertion will be triggered by some apparent discontinuity between ‘what we’ve been told’ and ‘what is observed’.
From this point, as a general rule, there are no testable hypotheses. Evidence that would falsify the theory is dismissed as ‘what they want you to think’. There will generally be no body of evidence and experimental results that is both unified and points to the theory as the one explanation above all others.
For the most part, ‘supporting evidence’ will be comprised of refutations of apparent holes in the theory that do not connect to all other refutations. These are referred to as point solutions, because they only address one specific point without regard to other points, objections or observations.
Many of the point solutions are only good for one step from the original objection.
Objection- On a flat earth, there could be no day and night, or, at least you’d still be able to see the sun, even if only dimly and far away.
FE Point Solution- The sun functions as a spotlight pointing directly down at the earth. It moves in a circle above the flat earth.
OK, this makes sense, as far as it goes.
But what about the next step? Objects hate moving in circles. (See ‘angular momentum‘) If the flat-earther would simply tie a bowling ball to a length of rope and swing it in a circle, this would clearly demonstrate the principle, that is, if the flat-earther was able to remain standing at all.
Then, a new point solution will be created. Perhaps it will be something like ‘There’s an invisible force that holds it to the north pole while it moves.’
The argument in support of the ‘theory’ (note that I did not use the word ‘evidence’) will be a continuous stream of assertions that are either not evidently true or evidently not true.
Science doesn’t work that way.
These are just some of the things to look for if you want to discern if a theory is valid, or if it even qualifies as a theory.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Untrue conspiracy theories can be dangerous. They can cause one to withdraw from the social practices that keep nations together like voting (aaaah, it’s all rigged!) and public discussion of issues (aaaah, they’re all government shills, why bother?)
Worse, some of the more anti-science theories can limit the advancement of the human condition or even push us backward.
Need an example? Read what the Anti-Vaxxers say, then immediately go to Google Image Search and type in the single search term ‘smallpox’. Go ahead.
As always, thanks for reading.