Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Conspiracy theories

September 20th, 2008 Posted in Conspiracy Theories, Creationism, General

I’ve been thinking about exactly how a conspiracy theory starts up and I think I can explain it by continuing the story from a few days ago about the murder trial.  Let’s extend that analogy a little bit.

The judge hears the defence lawyer’s plea but refuses to throw the case out, so the defence lawyer starts examining the evidence.  “The first witness had just drunk a small glass of wine in a pub, and it is well known that alcohol can cause people to completely hallucinate fictional events.” He begins cross analysing the other witnesses. “Two other witnesses were romantically involved and it’s a known fact that people in love often pay very little attention to their surroundings.  The fourth knew the victim so he’s clearly lying.” He continues in a similar vein with the other witnesses, then changes direction. “Let’s move on to the so-called forensic evidence.  Several people have been convicted based on fingerprint evidence and were later proved innocent. DNA evidence can be polluted quite easily. The CCTV images were not zoomed in on the face of the man running from the house so it’s not obvious that it was my client. And clearly when he said he was going to kill the man in question, it was just a figure of speech.”

Well, you’d have to hand it to the defence lawyer – he certainly had a good attempt. But anomaly hunting across all the evidence that’s been presented could continue for ever, but at some point one needs to accept that the overwhelming consensus of the evidence all points in one direction. You have to ask yourself why several strong pieces of evidence from totally different disciplines all converge on the same answer.

But the defence lawyer could continue, perfectly reasonably when examined at a microscopic level, examining each piece of evidence, but completely missing the point that all the evidence points to the same undeniable fact. You have to weigh up the enormous set of improbable coincidences that would have had to occur to explain all this away, and you would probably also have to add in a massive conspiracy between the witnesses, the forensics teams and the security services in order for this to have any plausibility whatsoever. And that’s where the conspiracy theory comes in.  Gradually, piece by piece, the anomalies are explained. Yes, one witness had a glass of wine, but we can prove that this has no negative effect on his vision.  The fingerprint evidence is re-checked and it definitely fits the defendant.

But here’s when the conspiracy theory proper begins.  The defence is now so totally convinced that the defendant is innocent that this ‘truth’ takes priority over the evidence. A conspiracy theory is actually the understandable end-point of a chain of logical steps each of which sort-of makes sense in isolation.  But the problem is that the steps are continued way past plausibility and at no point did the conspiracy theorist sit back and ask himself (or herself) the big-picture question: “actually, have I taken this too far? Is there not a far simpler and more likely explanation that matches all the evidence at least as well but requires far fewer guesses and unproven assumptions?”

So the steps of a conspiracy theory are something like the following:

  1. The theory starts out plausible.  Often it’s a competing theory to explain a certain physical phenomenon such as the origin of life, or the age of the Universe.
  2. Evidence begins to go against the theory, but the defendants tenaciously and justifiably cling on to it and try to undermine the opposition. This is a valuable part of science, of course, and should be encouraged as it is necessary that every scientific theory is challenged rigorously before it is accepted.
  3. Evidence mounts up against the theory so greatly that it should be discarded.  However, the adherents have defended it for so long that they are now emotionally attached to it and don’t want to let it go.
  4. Defendants start looking for information that defends or supports their theory and start ignoring information that doesn’t support it or disproves it, in order to placate their emotions.
  5. As the evidence for their theory piles up higher and higher, they start resorting to claiming that greater forces are at work to hide the ‘truth’.  This is the ultimate solution to the problem because now it becomes impossible to disprove anything.  All evidence against the theory can be attacked using unrealistically demanding standards of proof, and the absence of evidence for the theory can be explained as being part of the conspiracy. In fact, the lack of evidence for a theory becomes evidence for the same theory. Genius.
I think this is a reasonable explanation, but I’m open to suggestions.
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  1. 2 Responses to “Conspiracy theories”

  2. By Michael on Sep 20, 2008

    The phenomenon you have just described is called the “confirmation bias.”

    Some researchers who examine conspiracy theories accuse the conspiracists of such a bias. Imre Lakatos also described something called the “degenerating research programme,” which approximates what you outlined.

    The basic problem with psychologizing conspiracy theories, as this theory tends to do, is that it produces a priori explanations that sometimes function exclusive of evidence (i.e. people believe x because they are psychologically committed to x).

  3. By Colin on Sep 20, 2008

    Hi Michael,

    Yes, I am aware of confirmation bias, which is definitely an important component of conspiracy theories (points 3 and 4 in this post), but I think there’s much more to them than that. For example, confirmation bias doesn’t explain why the person wants the theory to be right in the first place (why the bias?) and also doesn’t explain why such strong delusions can happen. I think confirmation bias isn’t really capable of producing the fanatical devotion that you see in conspiracy theorists. For a start, it really only works if there are actually data to support your theory (which you look for in preference to data that disprove it, in the cases where the conclusion is doubtful to some degree).

    I certainly agree with the concept of degenerating research programmes – I was an astrophysics student through the days when the Hubble constant was *definitely* 70 and also *definitely* 30 and the latter camp continued fighting way after the higher number was proven beyond all doubt. I remember a physics lecture in which a leading proponent of the ’30-ish’ theory explained exactly why he would be vindicated in the end. I guess it’s demoralising when your last ten years of work are proven to be wrong.

    Thanks for the comments – much appreciated.

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