May 24, 2011 Leave a comment
In debating weather an event was a conspiracy, the term conspiracy theorist is often used in a derogatory sense. This word is often taken offensively because there is a misconception of what it really means. While there may be many crazy conspiracy theorists out there, most conspiracy theorists are actually quite intelligent. The difference in opinions of what really happened is not a matter of who is smarter, but in the difference of critical thinking and logic applied to the argument. There is a mainstream logic which is usually applied to analyzing any big event, and those that do not follow that mainstream logic are the ones who are often referred to as conspiracy theorists. Their logic is at the center of every major conspiracy theory from the Assassination of JFK, to the Moon landing, to 9/11 was an inside job. The following are 7 characteristics of a conspiracy theorist and why their theories are usually disregarded by the mainstream:
1) Their belief is not based on a theory being true, but rather another theory being false.
One of the most classic characteristics of any conspiracy theory is that there is no specific theory on what actually did happen. It is based on picking apart the accepted version of events and thus claiming it to be false. This is classic because it introduces a form of debate that can never be lost. By focusing the debate on the accepted version of the events and how it can not be completely true, the conspiracy theorists are never on the defense and thus can never be proven wrong. It is like me and my friends challenging the New York Yankees to a game of baseball, but not allowing them to bat. My team would never loose, but that does not mean we are better.
2) Their belief is based on the amount of evidence as opposed to the strength of that evidence
This is often referred to as the shotgun fallacy. The more strange things you can point out the greater the chance one of them is true or meaningful. While this can be true it is rarely the case. It is has generally been accepted for generations that the strength of evidence is far more important then the amount of evidence in determining any verdict. The amount of evidence is certainly important, but if none of it can hold up then there will be very little accomplished no matter how much evidence there is. In conspiracy theories the large amount of evidence is often just a by product of another fallacy called Pareidolia, the human tendency to see patterns in random data. This happens because when we are looking for an idea, our brains pick it up very easily and thus we become inundated with it. For example when I started driving I decided I wanted a BMW, all of a sudden I was seeing BMW’s everywhere. But yet we can all accept that this does not mean that all these BMW’s were intentionally placed by the dealer in front of me just to entice me to buy one. This is simply the result of my brain focusing on something it was not focused on before. When you have hundreds or even thousands of people focusing on finding something suspicious in any given story, it is not surprising at all that there are a lot of strange things discovered. In fact, it is unavoidable.
3) They use the absence of evidence as evidence.
Picture the following scenario: You are at work and you are told the boss wants to speak to you in his office. What are you thinking? Probably something really bad. We all have a tendency to fill in the gaps with the worst thing we can imagine. When this is applied to a conspiracy it becomes very enticing. If there is no explanation for something we will assume the worst reason why, and it will begin to take on a life of it’s own. For example: If evidence is withheld we assume that whoever is withholding it is hiding something, if there is no evidence found then we assume that there should have been and therefore whatever that evidence was supposed to imply did not happen. As the imperfect beings that we are, we do sometimes miss evidence. There are also many examples in history of situations when evidence could not be released for whatever unrelated reason. Secrecy breeds conspiracies. It is a playground of possibilities for any theorist, and they will inevitably take advantage of it. Especially by applying the next point…
4) They reverse the burden of proof
Conspiracy theorists tend to believe that the accused conspirators have a responsibility to refute their claims, and by not doing so it implies their guilt. This is simply not the way science and investigation works in our society. If you have a claim you must present evidence to support that claim before it will be taken seriously. And in today’s world of the internet, the amount of claims of any conspiracy are countless. It is simply impossible to refute them all so there is no valid reason for anyone to try. Anybody can make a claim. Anybody can point the finger at someone and say they are guilty. But these claims are rarely based on evidence of guilt, instead they are based on evidence that someone is wrong about something. People do from time to time get something wrong, this in itself is no reason to investigate them. Proving that someone is wrong does not prove that they were lying, and certainly does not prove that they are guilty of committing a crime. This requires a strength of evidence that is never found in conspiracy theories. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim.
5) Argument from (personal) incredulity
This argument is always something like “I don’t understand how that could possibly be true so it must not be”. There are a lot of things that happen around us that we do not understand. Not understanding something is no reason to believe it did not happen or that it is false. There is a reason why we have experts. There is a reason why we call a plumber to fix our sink, or a mechanic to fix our car. No matter how badly we might like to think we know about something, we often learn the hard way that nothing is as simple as it appears.
6) They apply the bandwagon effect
This is a logical fallacy in which you believe that you are correct because others believe the same thing. Many people will often cite polls that show how many people believe the same thing as proof that their argument is strong. This in fact has no effect on the argument itself, only that others are just as gullible. This also goes hand in hand with Argument from authority, which is believing your argument is correct because someone in authority believes it. This one especially gains traction in the conspiracy world because anyone with authority who supports a conspiracy theory is instantly recognized by others who believe the same thing. Therefore the conspiracy believer will always have a longer and more impressive list to show of who is “on their side”. In reality there are usually many, many more people who do not believe the theory but they simply do not get that same recognition from the non conspiracy believers because there is no reason to be proud or keep track of someone accepting a mainstream view.
7) And finally the big one: Their belief is Non falsifiable
This is why most people consider arguing with a conspiracy theorist to be a waste of time. For a conspiracy theorist to admit this is like an alcoholic to admit they have a drinking problem. And just like an alcoholic, there are many psychological defenses to prevent this from being realized. These defenses will always protect themselves behind a web of rational arguments which prove to be logical fallacies. I will go through them one at a time.
First, everyone falls into one of three categories: They are either part of the conspiracy, kept quiet by the conspiracy, or duped by the conspiracy. The first two are simply conclusions of the general conspiracy belief so I will focus on the third. Conspiracy theorists believe that those who believe the accepted version are simply believing what they are told. The problem here is that everything a person can possibly cite to explain why they believe the accepted version, in some way or another will always go back to what they were told by the conspirators. This is partially because believing the accepted version usually means incorporating mainstream views that although we learn on our own through life experiences, these views are normally taught to us also. This allows the conspiracy thinker to always accuse others of not thinking for themselves. And since it is impossible to prove to someone else that you are thinking on your own, the conspiracy theorist will always believe otherwise.
Second, any evidence brought forward that supports the accepted version is automatically part of the conspiracy. Since the belief is that conspirators carefully planned their actions, they would have also planned how they would get away with it. There is no evidence that will satisfy a conspiracy theorist because any evidence can be explained away using this logic. It also allows the conspiracy theorist to mock anyone who believes the evidence of being duped. A conspiracy theorist must ask themselves “what will it take to get me to believe I am wrong?”. The answer will always be either something that is impossible to provide, something that is so unlikely that it makes it safe to acknowledge, or something that has already been presented but the conspiracy theorist has found something wrong with it in order to not accept it.
Third, there is no evidence of the conspirators innocence. This is simply a false expectation because it is impossible to prove that something general did not happen. To prove a theory wrong it must be specific. Conspiracy theorists will always be able to find another possibility of the conspirators guilt because they will never allow themselves to become vested in a specific theory.
And last, backwards reasoning: There is something we refer to as cause and effect. This is the force behind all natural events and is simple to explain; A leads to B which leads to C. A is the cause, B is the effect. Afterward B now becomes the cause, and C becomes the effect, and so on. All events in our history follow this pattern. It is impossible for any event to not unfold this way. But you can turn this into something else by simply reversing it; C was the actual desired effect so it caused the conspirators to implement B. In order to achieve B they had to implement A.
The problem with this is that it is impossible to refute because all events are interconnected naturally. For example; I make fun of someone, he spits in my face, I punch him. This is a perfectly normal flow of events. But one could easily say I wanted to punch him, so I provoked him to spit in my face, by making fun of him. This can never be proven wrong to a conspiracy believer because it does flow naturally, although the first flow of events is a much simpler explanation and therefore much more likely to be true. After all why would I want to punch someone who did nothing wrong to me? How would I have known that he would spit in my face? What reason would I have had to accept getting myself into trouble for punching someone? These questions require a bigger and more complex story which is what conspiracy theories are famous for.
Backwards reasoning is at the core of every conspiracy. I have often heard the phrase “when something happens you have to ask yourself, who benefits?” This is an absurd question to ask because someone always benefits from every event. As Newton put it “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. As an example; if I loose my job, that will create a job opening for someone else. But that does not mean that it was all a plot for that person to get me fired so that they could have my job. If this question is the first question you ask yourself when something happens then you are laying the groundwork for the conspiracy theory way before having any reason to believe it. And if this point is one that you buy into when believing a conspiracy theory then you must realize something: it is not a coincidence that someone benefits, it is a law of physics.
I hope this post has helped you to gain a deeper understanding of these arguments. If you are a conspiracy believer still, then at the very least, I hope that I was able to show you why people do not believe in them. It is not because we are “pulling the wool over our eyes”, but because of simple critical thinking we feel is the right approach.
Thank you for reading.