Understanding Science

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Understanding Science

A Lecture Series by Dr Colin Frayn


Lecture 6 : Conspiracy Theories

Hello and welcome to the 6th lecture in my series entitled “Understanding Science”. Today I’m looking at something a bit different – what happens when the normal process of scientific enquiry and investigation goes wrong? I’m going to be covering the topic of Conspiracy Theories. From shadowy organisations ruling the world to alien abductions, it seems that everyone has their pet theory and they’re ready to defend them extremely passionately. Why is that? What is it about conspiracy theories that’s so seductive? How do they work, and how can we, as scientists, approach them? Let’s have a look…

  1. Introduction

So let’s start with a definition of a conspiracy theory. And I want to introduce five properties which are the case of pretty much all conspiracy theories. It’s possible that some will only fulfil three or four of these, but most conspiracies fulfil all five.

Firstly, conspiracy theories concern restricted knowledge – that is, knowledge that is not publically acknowledged by the organisations who are the subject of the alleged conspiracy. Yet this knowledge has been discovered by a small group of people, sometimes growing into a larger fraction of the population. Though usually conspiracies are driven by a strongly believing core and a less strongly believing periphery mainly composed of people who generally accept the claims of the conspiracy, but aren’t willing to do anything about it.

Secondly, conspiracy theories usually concern powerful forces. Often it’s the government, sometimes mysterious shadowy organisations who keep themselves secret. And then sometimes the theories get towards the wacky side and start involving aliens or lizard people. Which is where it gets really fun.

Thirdly, there is always a cover-up of some kind. The restricted knowledge, whatever it might be, is of such a nature that the people implicated by it will do anything they can to hide the truth that this knowledge apparently reveals.

The fourth component of a conspiracy is that the conspiracy has significant implications for a wide swathe of the population of the Earth. And it is because of these implications that the parties implicated in the conspiracy wish to keep the conspiracy secret.

Fifthly, and finally, it’s important that most people are unaware that there is a conspiracy at all. Most people continue in their lives blissfully unaware of the nefarious goings on that are taking place around them. Conspiracy theorists often perceive of themselves as the few who see the truth – the few in whose hands the future of civilisation depends.

The history of conspiracy theories is a reasonably modern one, though I’m sure they have been going on for many years, centuries even. As soon as there are governments and powerful ruling classes, there would automatically be conspiracy theories popping up around them. But it has to be admitted, I think, that the most substantial change in conspiracy theories has come about with the invention of the Internet. Though that’s not to say that there were no significant conspiracy theories before the early 1990s, or even that the theories before then have since been abandoned – not at all, in fact some of the most well-known conspiracies such as the Moan Hoax conspiracy and Holocaust denial, have been around for decades before the invention of the Internet.

The Internet is undoubtedly the most significant invention of the last 100 years. I strongly believe that it is the most powerful force for peace and prosperity that humanity has ever conceived. Bringing people from different backgrounds and cultures into such easy contact makes it so much more difficult for governments to control the opinions of their populace. In fact, it’s no surprise that the most nefarious governments of the world seem to be the ones who attempt to control the Internet the most – usually to stifle criticism of their own failures.

But the virtues of the Internet are occasionally vices too. What the Internet does most profoundly is that it vastly increases access to, and dissemination of, information of all kinds. And that’s almost always a good thing, but it can also be dangerous as the Internet has no checks and safeguards on the quality, the truth or the representativeness of that information. And these are all extremely important factors to consider when we, as scientists, investigate any claim.

I believe there are two different aspects of conspiracy theories that are really relevant to our general discussion about the scientific process. We should look at how conspiracy theories construct models out of data, and how that process is flawed enough to lead to demonstrable falsehoods being fervently believed by millions. But we should also look at the psychological factors involved in building a conspiracy theory because, as the philosophers of science in the 20th century were all too keen to tell us, science is a great process, but it is ultimately let down by the fact that it relies on human beings to carry it out. I’m not as pessimistic about that particular weakness as some have been, but it’s definitely worth looking at, because the flaws of reasoning that give birth to conspiracy theories are also at the heart of many of the perceived weaknesses of science against which we should do as much as possible to guard ourselves.

  1. Psychological Components

The more we look into the subject of conspiracy theories, the more our investigation turns away from the evidence - which is, in most cases, sparse and circumstantial – and towards the psychological forces lying behind every good conspiracy theory proponent.

Psychologists have identified a few core components of the mindset that leads to the formation of a conspiracy theory. Several studies have demonstrated that people who believe one conspiracy theory are far more likely to believe others, and that those who are most outspoken proponents of any conspiracy are likely to believe a large number of them. It seems that there is a certain psychological make up which predisposes people to falling into this way of thinking. Let’s investigate the psychological properties that might encourage that.

Firstly, conspiracy theories are founded on paranoia. And paranoia is a pathological extension of a number of fairly healthy psychological traits. After all, we’re all slightly suspicious of things we don’t understand, especially when they are deliberately hidden from us. The inner workings of government and big business are completely off-limits of most people, and a constant stream of scandals through the ages demonstrates that there are things going on behind closed doors that we wouldn’t approve of were we to be consulted about them. But paranoia takes that healthy suspicion to extremes.

Paranoia is characterised by a number of qualities, most notably a perception of persecution that is either completely false, or at least highly out of proportion to any actual situation that the person might be feeling. Secondly, paranoid people usually suffer from high levels of anxiety – worrying about things far more than others. And not just large-scale worries like war and death and suffering, but everyday things too, like minor health problems, cashflow issues and attitudes of other people towards them. And the final major characteristic of a paranoid person is that, in severe cases, they might also suffer from delusions – that is, strongly believing in things that are simply untrue – or, at least, for which the evidence is woefully insufficient.

A second psychological component of a conspiracy theorist is often one of my favourite cognitive errors – a logical fallacy that I will certainly talk about a lot more in future, because it is so utterly fundamental to pretty much all bad thinking - and that is confirmation bias. What is confirmation bias? Well it’s the absolutely universal feature that’s inherent in all our brains (yes, even yours and mine), which makes us more likely to notice and recall examples that confirm our existing prejudices, and less likely to recall those that do not confirm our prejudices. Confirmation bias is behind a lot of the ills of our society – like pretty much any vice that ends in –ism. Racism, for example. If you’re already predisposed to suspicion of a certain racial minority then you will automatically pay much more attention to negative news stories mentioning that minority than others that might be equivalent, but concern people of a different race, gender, creed or sexuality.

In conspiracy theories, confirmation bias causes people to notice anything that happens to confirm their theory, and ignore things that don’t. For example, if I believed that a certain company was evil, I might immediately pick out articles that mentioned worries that people had about that company, or shoddy products that they sold, but I might totally ignore any more mundane reports about that company’s annual fundraiser, or products they made that received accolades.

The next psychological property worth mentioning is agency detection. We humans have extraordinary brains that have evolved to be able to understand the way other humans think. In fact, we’re one of the very few creatures who seem able to build up a theory of mind – that is, we are able to imagine how another human being might feel or behave in a certain circumstance and we use that to guide our own actions.

However, this ability often fires a little too frequently, and we ascribe intelligence, deliberate thought and organisation in areas where it really doesn’t exist. For example, we get splashed by a passing car driving through a puddle and we assume that the driver did it on purpose. Or a friend doesn’t return our phone calls and we assume that they are ignoring us deliberately. But we also ascribe conscious planning to completely non-living, non-thinking entities. Like when we suffer a series of random disappointments and assume that someone must have planned them. This is related to our very poor ability to understand true randomness. Things that are random occasionally clump together in seemingly non-random groups, and humans don’t expect that from randomness. Sometimes weird and suspicious things happen just by chance and there is nothing to it other than that.

Fourth, we have a fear of a lack of control in our lives. We don’t like the fact that we can’t control what happens to us, and that some of those things are bad. Randomness is frightening – we would much rather find a way to control the bad things instead, even if it means fighting or struggling against unknown odds. The thought that cancer could strike any of us at any time is frightening. The thought that cancer is a conspiracy and that drugs companies are suppressing the cure, gives us hope that we could, through fighting to expose the truth, spare ourselves this potential fate.

Finally, and this is very important, there is a strong positive driver to most conspiracy theories too. One of the greatest drivers of depression and alienation in society is widely acknowledged to be a lack of purpose and meaning to our lives. Online role-playing games are so popular mainly because they give us just that – they allow us to make a difference, albeit in an imaginary world – but they fulfil that urge that we all have to be heroes. They allow us to climb ladders of influence, to affect events on a global scale and to see our name in lights. That’s a very strong enticement, and conspiracy theories do exactly the same thing. Hollywood films are full of single heroes fighting against conspiracies, winning, and getting the rewards. Conspiracy theorists see themselves in that role, and that’s an incredibly enticing psychological force.

It won’t have escaped your attention that at least the second, third, fourth and fifth of these properties also go a long way towards explaining the origins and drivers of religious beliefs in human society. I’m not planning to do a special presentation on that topic in the near future, but I might do at some point. For now, although some religions – especially the more asocial, underground cults – do resemble conspiracy theories in many ways, I’m not going to cover them specifically in this lecture.

So let’s move on and look at a classic example of a conspiracy theorist from history.

  1. Immanuel Velikovsky

I could hardly talk about the origins of the conspiracy theory without mentioning one of the biggest names in the history of the subject, Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky was a Russian emigrant, who moved to the United States in 1939 to escape the rapidly unfolding certainty of war in Europe. He was trained as a psychiatrist, but had been increasingly turning his mind to more unconventional avenues of study, investigating the chronology of events recorded in ancient sources, primarily the Hebrew Bible.

As a practising Jew, Velikovsky assigned a great deal of importance to the epic Biblical stories, and in the absence of the wide-scale archaeological reforms of the late twentieth century, he generally believed them to be true. In fact, he went even further and even believed in the Genesis flood myth as a literal event to be explained. And his explanations for these stories were far grander than the pseudoscientific nonsense that creationists dream up today – no, Velikovsky had a whole level of crazy above even the Kent Hovinds of this world. In his mind, these extraordinary Biblical stories, such as the flood, the parting of the red sea, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – they all had astronomical explanations which he could explain by means of his own personal model of the solar system.

And it was a particularly crazy model too – Velikovsky claimed that the Earth had once been a satellite of Saturn. During a nova phase of the gas giant – an event that Velikovsky invented whereby Saturn’s atmosphere expanded outwards – the Earth was deluged by water causing the flood. And then the Earth was ejected from orbit with Saturn, and migrated into its current location, not before suffering a few close encounters with Venus and Mars, causing still further catastrophes.

Needless to say, the idea is absurd on every level, and it was denounced as such by the scientific community, who overstepped their mark and threatened boycotts of the publishers who had published the work, and widely criticised and denigrated Velikovsky for his perceived assault on science. In fact, the opposition to his works was so strong that it aroused interest in the general public – in what we know in the Internet era as the Streisand effect, whereby heavy-handed attempts by a person or organisation to cover-up a news story inevitably lead to its being repeated far more than would otherwise have been the case had they just left it to die out naturally.

So Velikovsky became something of a conspiracy theorist, convinced that the scientific establishment’s demonization of his works was due to the fear of the scientific community that he was on to the truth that they were attempting to suppress. And, as a psychiatrist, he had his own elaborate theories for why they might be doing this. Though he never saw fit to apply those same analytical skills on his own mind, sadly.

Velikovsky labelled the scientists as the “guardians of dogma”, accusing of them attempting to oppose him by “exorcism” rather than rational debate. In fact, the noted astronomer Carl Sagan, who has been mentioned many times in this course, put himself forward as a voice of reason in the scientific community, attempting to show rationally why Velikovsky was wrong, and not just shouting him down. In fact, Carl Sagan had some harsh words to say about his colleagues:

“My own strongly held view is that no matter how unorthodox the reasoning process or how unpalatable the conclusions, there is no excuse for any attempt to suppress new ideas, least of all by scientists committed to the free exchange of ideas… In fact, I seem to find that neither the critics nor the proponents of Velikovsky have read him carefully”.

Sagan’s point was that we should criticise what we understand, and based on reason and science not vehement anger. It’s not clear whether or not his strategy worked – after all, Velikovsky’s ideas are dead and buried, but perhaps more by luck than anything else – there was nobody with sufficient charisma to take over the reins of his movement after Velikovsky died in 1979. And the experience that scientists have had with battling creationists throughout the 20th century showed resoundingly that conspiracy theorists and pseudoscientists don’t value rational counterargument very highly, and they have ways of explaining away any counter-argument or evidence that anyone might raise against them – there’s a particular characteristic of the conspiracy theory, as we’ve learned, whereby you are almost impervious to any disproof.

But Sagan’s point is well made, and I think it’s a valid one – we shouldn’t automatically discard any theory until we’ve evaluated it on its merits. And on that score, Velikovsky’s ideas have been entirely and comprehensively refuted.

  1. The Moon Hoax Theory

Pretty much everyone should be aware of the Moon Hoax theory – the idea that human beings have never set foot on the moon, and that the twelve American men who claimed to have done so as part of the Apollo program of the late sixties and early seventies, are part of a huge, elaborate hoax which was perpetrated by the US government in order to win points during the Cold War. The entire event was apparently staged in a film studio, and NASA has been covering this up ever since.

It’s very easy to dismiss this, and indeed most conspiracy theories, as obvious nonsense, but be careful. One of the main characteristics of conspiracy theorists is that they are very well insulated against disproof, and most conspiracy theorists are not idiots – they’ve thought about the obvious counter arguments and, at least the sophisticated ones among them have thought of complex responses to them. So a naïve young scientist would laugh in the face of a moon hoaxer, and then get bombarded with statistics about solar radiation, anomalies in Apollo-era recordings, photographs, light angles and shadows, not to mention fluttering flags. And then it’s very easy to get frustrated, angry and confused all at the same time.

This is an excellent example of a conspiracy theory because it concerns an event that most people take for granted, but yet which, with a few carefully crafted arguments, can be made to look extremely suspicious indeed, at least to the mind of anyone not intimately familiar with the matter. In fact, though many of the claims of moon hoaxers are very easy to dismiss, and some are just downright lies, there are a few claims that they put forward which are difficult to disprove and require some considerable technical knowledge. So much so that fully 20% of Americans believe that the moon landing was a hoax. Yes, you heard that correctly, in a country which is so advanced that in the space of less than a decade it went from the very first manned space flights to taking three men the 400,000 kilometres away from the Earth to the moon, landing two of them on the surface, and then returning them all safely to Earth – and this is in the 1960s before the era of personal computers – a country so advanced to achieve this feat, yet a fifth of the people living in this country over 40 years later still don’t believe It ever happened. One might not be surprised about this, given that something like 44% of Americans believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, but that’s another story.

In fact, see my earlier set of presentations on the subject of creationism to discuss that further. As it happens, creationism is a conspiracy theory not dissimilar to those I’ll be discussing today.

Anyway, it’s very easy to get distracted here by the minutiae, which is exactly what the hoaxers do – they study anomalies in photographs and videos, they come up with scientific theories that they claim prove that the whole mission was impossible. They look for anomalies everywhere – as do all conspiracy theorists – and they totally ignore the bigger picture. And in this case, the big picture is huge.

Of course all the small anomalies that the conspiracy theorists come up with can be explained given enough knowledge, but the bigger picture is much more damning. Besides the astronauts, there were literally tens of thousands of human beings involved in the moon landings, from the companies who made the rockets and capsule, spacesuits and food, right the way to the mission controllers and flight technicians at NASA. Not a single one of these has ever said that this was all a hoax – not even with the massive amount of fame and fortune that this would give them were their story true. And we know that the science was entirely feasible – landing a man on the moon is an incredible achievement, but not an impossible one. The Soviets were close, too, and they had more than anyone else to gain by attempting to show that NASA faked the landing, but yet they never did. Why? Because they knew it was possible and they were not far from accomplishing it themselves, that’s why.

The moon hoax theory is obviously nonsense, but it’s not stupid, and that’s worth remembering. There is a huge difference between the two. Very clever people – people with PhDs, even Nobel prizes – believe in conspiracies, and they are clever enough that they have answers to pretty much all the objections that an average person could put to them – in fact, I imagine that Moon Hoaxers have pretty strong answers to everything I’ve just said. But the psychological factors leading people to espouse these theories are so strong that, in someone with the right psychological makeup, they can outweigh common sense and rationality, and can blind a person to the truth. And, sadly, 20% of Americans have been blinded to the truth of one of the greatest and most uplifting ever achievements of humanity, which is a real tragedy.

  1. More Conspiracies

Now a dedicated Moon Hoaxer would definitely have answers that convince them to the points I raised in the last chapter – as I said, they are often very bright, and it’s not that they haven’t thought about the implications of what they’re claiming, they just have extremely powerful psychological reasons for fabricating elaborate defences to any objections. So let’s look briefly at some other classes of conspiracy theory that have arisen, and let’s discuss their drivers.

The first big family of conspiracies is historical conspiracies – that is, those people who deny that significant historical events occurred at all, or at least that they occurred as the history books claim. And, to be fair, the history books are sometimes wrong about large periods of history so this is sometimes a fair thing to claim. The most famous and pernicious of all these theories is holocaust denial, which claims that the holocaust against the Jews in the 2nd World War wasn’t anywhere near as substantial as historians claim. Official figures given say that the holocaust saw the deaths of around 6 million people in Europe. Deniers generally say that this is at least an order of magnitude too large, sometimes two, and that the deaths were therefore in the hundreds or tens of thousands instead.

Clearly this is highly offensive to those who lost families in this most revolting part of human history, and the obvious claims of anti-Semitism predictably get flung around pretty soon. And this is probably a big driver for this conspiracy theory in many cases, but it’s not a counter argument to a conspiracy theory to say that. Just because someone believes a conspiracy theory because they are an anti-Semite, it doesn’t mean that the theory is wrong, and calling out the source of an idea as being flawed or morally pernicious doesn’t disprove the idea itself. That’s known as the genetic fallacy – the idea that if an idea comes from someone who is untrustworthy, or otherwise ghastly in some way, then the idea is necessarily wrong.

Nasty and otherwise untrustworthy people sometimes get things right. So we must remember in these cases that we should look into the claims and ignore who is saying them. The holocaust denial claims fall down too, but again a naïve person who attempts to argue against an experienced conspiracy theorist will find himself or herself rapidly humiliated by a barrage of facts and analysis that they will not be familiar with at all. To an experienced historian, the disproofs are obvious, but that takes skill and knowledge.

Another class of conspiracy theory is the common theme of the New World Order – that is, that there is a shadowy organisation of extremely powerful people – almost always men – who are plotting behind the scenes to take over the entire world and control it for their own evil purposes. The infamous 9/11 conspiracy theory is sometimes put in this class - with the suggestion that the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 in New York were planned by certain powerful forces in the US itself to usher in a global war of ideologies from which they would emerge the victors. Again, anti-Semitism often rears its ugly head here, with the Jews being regularly cited as behind a number of conspiracies of this type. I’m not entirely sure why they get such a bad deal - it’s probably a historical thing, but I’m a scientist so I won’t comment.

Imaginary interpretation of symbols plays a big part in New World Order Conspiracies. All manner of organisations globally have hidden secret clues in their logos to show that they are part of this conspiracy. Right down to the alleged masonic symbols on the US dollar bill. Look into it, actually there’s an interesting true story behind that.

Aliens – well, they’re behind everything. Literally, in some cases. They not only visit Earth, but according to some conspiracies, they’re actually pulling the strings too. And, of course, governments have allegedly been involved in large-scale cover-ups of alien technology since the Roswell incident in 1947.

Political conspiracies are an intriguing, but ultimately less satisfactory brand of conspiracy. After all, political assassinations have happened a lot in the past, and they still happen now in some parts of the world. So conspirators obviously assumed the same kind of thing was going on in a few high-profile cases, most notably the assassination of US President John F Kennedy in 1963, and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. In fact, JFK isn’t the only member of his family to die in violent or suspicious circumstances, and the entire dynasty is part of one big conspiracy theory where the variously ill-fated Kennedies met their ends at the hands of their secretive political enemies.

And then, finally, the conspiracies get into medicine. Here the psychology gets much more interesting and the debates get significantly more heated, because these conspiracy theories are actually suppressing medical interventions that could save lives. There are claims that AIDS isn’t a real disease, or that its cure is well-known but suppressed. Or even that it’s a government-engineered bioweapon. Then there’s the various claims about water fluoridation and how it’s a big government plot to poison the population. And then, finally, there’s the granddaddy of them all – the claim from the late 1990s and early 2000s that vaccinations were somehow unsafe and caused early onset childhood diseases such as autism. All fully debunked, of course, and conclusively disproved by rigorous scientific testing, but as we will see, conspiracy theories have a complex structure that makes them almost entirely immune to counter evidence. So these particularly evil conspiracy theories live on, and continue to rack up an increasingly devastating body count across the world.

  1. Col’s Law of Conspiracy Theories

So at this point I’d like to introduce my law of conspiracy theories. Strictly speaking, it’s not a law, it’s an observation, but nonetheless, here it is. It’s really quite simple:

All conspiracy theories are wrong.

There you go, not bad huh? And I have not only theoretical underpinnings to that – based on the inherent implausibility of a conspiracy ever forming or remaining secret – plus the obvious psychological discoveries showing how human beings are extremely strongly driven towards conspiratorial thinking as it satisfies so many of our needs. Especially people who are already of a slightly paranoid nature.

So let’s look into my justification a bit deeper.

First of all, and this is probably the biggest one, conspiracy theories are rarely, if ever, plausible. They almost always require a large-scale cover up of a kind that simply could not be orchestrated in this day and age of anonymous electronic communication and extraordinary financial incentives to tell all.

Conspiracies are usually scientifically implausible, requiring impossible levels of technology to monitor, control or deceive the population. Even those that are scientifically plausible often have other enormous red flags, such as the extraordinary level of malice that would be required to carry them out. In fact, this is an important point. It tends to be that malicious people are not only rare, but, in spite of comic book bad guys and James Bond villains, it’s just incredibly unlikely that a sufficiently large number of sufficiently evil people would ever be able to coordinate themselves on such a scale without it all dissolving into chaos.

And pretty much all conspiracy theories require the complicity of a huge number of people, all of whom have to go along with the plot and all of whom have to remain completely silent. It’s simply not plausible.

Secondly, the logic behind conspiracy theories means that they are innately unfalsifiable, which leads to a situation where a theory cannot be disproved in the mind of a devout conspiracy theorist. Why do I think this? Well it’s simply a consequence of the hypothesis behind most conspiracy theories that there is a large, all-powerful body pulling the strings. And if there is ever any evidence released that contradicts the theory then it was clearly planted by these same secretive organisations in order to throw loyal conspiracy hunters off the track.

Health conspiracies are the most unbelievable in this regard. Take vaccination, for example, which saves countless lives across the globe in reality, but in the minds of a conspiracy theorist it is caricatured as a dangerous disease-causing moneymaking scam from Big Pharmaceutical companies. Well of course anyone who publishes a study showing that vaccines are safe and vital for child health is clearly in the pocket of those same villainous pharmaceutical companies. And even if those same researchers are occasionally critical of big pharma then they’re just doing that to throw the conspiracy theorists off the scent. Et cetera.

Self-confirming theories are impossible to refute – in the conspiracy theorist’s mind their whole theory is self-consistent. It doesn’t have to be true to be self consistent, of course. And because any evidence against a conspiracy is counted as evidence in its favour, then there’s nothing anyone can do by direct evidence alone to convince them that they are mistaken. (“Look”, they say, “look how powerful the conspiracy is – it even manages to remove all evidence of its existence”).

Next, there is a simple empirical point that is worth pointing out too. No conspiracy theory has ever been proven true. And many have ben comprehensively proven false. Now at this point, many people will complain and say that there have been many conspiracies over human history that have been adequately documented. And in that regard, I’m not denying what they say. I didn’t say that conspiracies didn’t happen – I just said that conspiracy theories are always wrong. And there’s a difference.

Conspiracies sometimes do happen, but they’re never even close to the scale of most conspiracy theories in nature, and not only that but they also never actually spawn conspiracy theories before they are discovered. For example, there’s no denying that US President Nixon ordered 5 men to break into his opponents’ headquarters in Watergate, but there was never any conspiracy theory about this – the truth came out suddenly after the break in, an investigation rapidly worked out the chain of blame, partly because people on the inside gave evidence, and then Nixon resigned. There wasn’t time for a conspiracy theory to develop – nobody had predicted that this was going on, and people with inside knowledge didn’t keep it secret – exactly as I would have expected. And that was a conspiracy of a few dozen people alone, not the hundreds or thousands (or even millions) that would be required by most conspiracy theories.

Finally, having given so many reasons why conspiracy theories themselves are implausible, it’s worth re-iterating that we do, however, have a very good explanation for why they happen – it’s because of the psychological reasons that I introduced on an earlier slide. Conspiracy theories make their proponents feel like they are making a difference, that they are doing good in the world and making it a better place, that they are the brave warriors at the front of a powerful and world-changing movement that will be remembered for centuries. It’s not surprising that such conspiracies arise.

  1. Conspiracy Evidence

It’s fairly obvious that conspiracy theorists won’t ever admit that the reason why they believe in their conspiracy of choice is because of the psychological incentives that I have covered so far. So how do they justify the theories to themselves?

The first thing to point out here is that conspiracy theorists are no less intelligent than the rest of us – often they are more intelligent than average and they have worked hard to build complex and self-consistent explanations for the way things appear to them. For each conspiracy, the obvious flaws that you or I would think of right at the front would all have complex explanations which make sense to the conspiracy theorist, and which would probably stump the majority of non-experts on hearing them. Conspiracy theories build up a large body of evidence, which all tends to get passed around in mutually-reinforcing circles of other like-minded theorists, and complex stories are built up to piece them together.

Well what kind of evidence do they get? The most important observation here is that conspiracy theories use a subset of the evidence. It’s very easy to prove anything, even without lying, if you only provide some of the evidence. For example, if I wanted to prove that my favourite football team was the greatest team in the world, and I had a willing student who knew nothing about football, I could show them a list of my team’s victories, its most comprehensive wins and the times it snatched victory from the jaws of potential defeat. I would show its major opponents playing terribly badly, and I would show my team’s flashes of brilliance. And the unavoidable conclusion that my student would have to make would be that the team I supported was indeed a level above the rest. And most importantly, I wouldn’t have lied. Everything I said could have been the truth – it’s just that it was a subset of that truth. And that’s very important.

On top of that, of course, conspiracy theories often contain falsehoods that get assimilated with the rest of the data. There’s always the rogue publicity-hunting retired scientist who thinks it would be a fun way to make a bit of cash pretending to have video footage of an alien autopsy. Or there’s the anecdotal rumour of something someone once may have said, that becomes, after a while, a cast-iron solid provable quote, all over the Internet. But then when you try to find out if the alleged source ever said what he or she was supposed to have said, it becomes impossible to find the evidence.

The next point worth making is that stories are way more seductive than data, or scientific papers. Scientific explanations are often dry and unexciting. Usually they are way less interesting than the alleged conspiracy explanation. There’s a reason why so many Hollywood films are made about conspiracies attempting to hunt down and murder those who find out the truth, and there are very few – in fact I can’t think of any at the moment – where the hero is a dreamer who invents a conspiracy and meets like-minded friends, but that the conspiracy comes to nothing and nobody is hunted and nobody gets mysteriously murdered, no secret documents or recordings come to light, and no mysterious underground research complexes are discovered. That would make a poor film, but it’s what tends to be the real story behind conspiracies in the real world.

Conspiracies almost always rely to a greater or lesser degree on anomaly hunting. What do I mean by that? Well an anomaly is a small bit of information that apparently goes against any established theory.

So if I claimed that all swans were white, because all I’d ever seen was white swans, and then I saw a single black swan, that would be an anomaly. So anomalies sometimes genuinely highlight a flaw in our laws of nature. But often they are just statistical flukes or indicative of mistakes in our scientific process. So it would also be an anomaly if I picked a random sample of 100 people from the population, and it turned out I had selected 70 men and 30 women, say. The chances of that happening are much less than 1%, but it could happen by fluke. That would be an anomaly, and some people might look at that and presume that there was something wrong with the way we randomly selected those 100 people – and perhaps there was, but also perhaps it was just one of those rare things that sometimes happens. And when you’re conducting experiments, there are a great many things that could possibly turn out in a statistically unlikely way. So if you do 100 tests, you shouldn’t be surprised just by chance if one of them gives a 1 in 100 result – that’s just expected.

In conspiracy theories, anomaly hunting results in a skewed perspective on the whole situation. If I had never seen a helium balloon, say, and one day I was walking through a park and I spotted a red object floating up in the air with no visible means of propulsion, I could indeed count that as a strike against the law of gravity. But that would indicate an incredibly skewed perspective on the whole situation – gravity is overwhelmingly strongly supported by evidence. A rational approach to that observation would be to assume that there was some physics or trickery that I was ignorant of that explained what I was seeing.

Finally, there’s a really important point that we briefly touched on when talking about the scientific method, and a bit earlier in this lecture, and that’s the idea that human beings are not perfectly rational, no matter how much we might think that we are. Our most cherished beliefs in life are rarely if ever built up primarily by logic – they are usually based on emotion.

That’s not to say that our beliefs are all irrational or illogical – often they are perfectly logical. But we have a strong tendency to build up beliefs without deeply analysing them first – especially when we were children – and then our strong emotional investment in those beliefs leads us to attempt to defend them with logic later in life. Often our beliefs turn out to be perfectly logical, which is great. Sometimes they turn out to be so illogical that we have to discard them.

Though sometimes the irrationality of our beliefs is sufficiently unclear, or the emotional attachment is so strong, that instead of using our logic to tear down the falsehoods and erect new truths in their place, we use our brains to fabricate an elaborate scaffolding around our false beliefs so that we can avoid the pain of having to let them go. Conspiracy theories are, as I’ve shown, extremely emotional things, and they are generally defended more on the basis of the emotional value they give rather than the existence of actual evidence to support them.

  1. Summary

To summarise my position on conspiracy theories, let’s just clarify a few points.

Firstly, I believe that all conspiracy theories are wrong. The situations that would be required to build a real grand conspiracy of the type that most conspiracy theories are concerned with, simply aren’t plausible.

Conspiracy theories always rely on a subset of the information available – via anomaly hunting and denial. They often also rely on confident lies and misinformation – either by directly concealing truths and exaggerating positive evidence, or by actually inserting falsehoods and incorrect hearsay evidence into their body of proof.

Conspiracy theories are almost always extremely detailed, and their proponents have definitely considered the obvious first-line arguments against the most blatant apparent flaws in their ideas. And because of the mentality of a conspiracy theorist, the theories are inherently immune to disproof, which makes scientists incredibly frustrated. Remember – if a theory is not susceptible to disproof then it’s not scientific.

It’s important to think about both sides when you evaluate a conspiracy theory. Anomaly hunting is seductive, and most conspiracy theorists could show you in ten minutes enough “evidence” to sway the average person to believing their conspiracy. But you have to think about what else the theory would imply. How many people would need to be involved, and simultaneously silent. In this age of Wikileaks and anonymous tipoffs, is it really plausible to assume that so many people could keep quiet – even those on their deathbeds with no family to worry about – not a single one of them has recanted?

Make sure you get both sides of the debate. For every conspiracy theory claiming to provide indisputable proof that the world is ruled by a shadowy cabal of nefarious megalomaniacs, there’s a much more down-to-earth explanation for every claim which will be carefully laid out somewhere else. The Internet is simultaneously the cause and the antidote to most conspiracies. Oh, and remember that, no matter how seductive they are, all conspiracy theories are wrong. If you want to make a difference to the world, then the best way to do that is to find out how the world really is – to discover the truth – and then dedicate yourself to improving one bit of that truth. Fighting illusions is a waste of time at best, and in its darker fringes will make people’s lives immeasurably worse.

To conclude, here’s a quote I should probably have added to the last lecture on the Burden of Proof, but it works as well here too. It’s from Carl Sagan, of course talking about Immanuel Velikovsky, whom we learned about before. Sagan said this:

“Many hypotheses proposed by scientists as well as non-scientists turn out to be wrong. But science is a self-correcting enterprise. To be accepted, all new ideas must survive rigorous scientific standards of evidence. The worse aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that his hypotheses were wrong or in contradiction to firmly established facts, but that some who called themselves scientists attempted to suppress Velikovksy's works. Science is generated by and devoted to free enquiry: the idea that any hypothesis, no matter how strange, deserves to be considered on its merits.”

I believe that every conspiracy theory currently proposed is wrong. And I’m pretty confident about that, but not to the exclusion of new evidence that might come along and change my mind. My opposition to conspiracy theories is based on a lot of things – the ease with which such ideas can take hold of the human mind and become addictive; the innate disposition we all have to look for patterns and anomalies and read far too much into them; and, of course, the fact that no conspiracy theory has ever been found true. But most of all, it is because the evidence simply doesn’t add up – and that’s always where we must turn if we wish to be true scientists.

Thanks for listening. I’m planning to make this an eight lecture series, which means we have just two left. The next lecture will be on the subject of intuition and I’ll aim to get it produced before the end of the year if possible. I’ll put the notes for this lecture up on my blog at frayn.net, where you can also follow the other many and varied projects that I’m working on, and you can leave your comments and questions. In particular, if there’s an aspect of science that you don’t understand, then drop me a note and I’ll see if I can produce a presentation on that very subject.

Thanks very much for listening, and I’ll see you next time!

© 2012

Dr Colin Frayn



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