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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Conspiracy theories for the beginning skeptic.

Hey kiddos, how has everyone been.  Not too bad here, just trying to avoid getting run over by the truck called life.  A lot of interesting things have been happening in the world of science and skepticism.  Comet Ison, the death of Sylvia Browne, the  Burzynski Clinic back in the news, and the "Dueling Dinos" fossil going up for sale. I'm not going to talk about any of these. Lately, a lot of people have been asking my opinion on a particular topic about an event that happened before most of them were born. And no, I wasn't born yet either, and I wouldn't be for another 13 years. Due to the fact it's the 50th anniversary of the assassination of J.F.K.(Kinda weird what some people celebrate, isn't it?) I've decided to dive into the topic.  Not the with J.F.K in particular, but the larger field of conspiracy theories in general.

What is a Conspiracy Theory?
 Before I get any farther, let me state now that I will never say conspiracies don't exist or happen.  They do.  People work together to get other people fired or arrested, They may form a conspiracy to throw someone a surprise birthday party.(the only benign form of a conspiracy I could think of off the top of my head.)  But one thing to remember about conspiracies is this: humans are involved, and humans suck at keeping secrets.  No matter how much you pay people, or what oaths you make a group take, at some point someone is going to tell,  due to their conscience, accidentally talking about it while inebriated, or wanting a bit of fame that goes along with being part of whatever the act was.  And the more people that are involved, the higher the odds that someone is going to talk.  Now I can come down from my soap box and get back to the topic at hand.
First off, a conspiracy is defined by The Free Online Dictionary as:
1. An agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act.
2. A group of conspirators.
3. Law An agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime or accomplish a legal purpose through illegal action.
4. A joining or acting together, as if by sinister design
Basically it means people working in secret to perform an act, normally an immoral or illegal one.
A theory, also from The Free Online Dictionary is:
1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.
2. The branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis, as opposed to practice: a fine musician who had never studied theory.
3. A set of theorems that constitute a systematic view of a branch of mathematics.
4. Abstract reasoning; speculation: a decision based on experience rather than theory.
5. A belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgment: staked out the house on the theory that criminals usually return to the scene of the crime.
6. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture
The last definition is the one that is related when most people use the term "theory".  In common language, it means a guess, while when using it in the scientific sense, it is an idea or concept that has been tested and proven to be accurate.  So when you break down the term "conspiracy theory" it means "I think people are secretly working against the common good of an individual or group."  When the conspiracy theorists use the term theory and try to make it sound like they have used the scientific process to come to their conclusions, they are still using the the common language form of the term.  They are making a guess, and then finding the information that seems to fit their personal ideas.  The reason that understanding conspiracy theories is important to the burgeoning skeptic is that they tie into almost all other areas of WOO, from alt med (the government and Big Pharma are working to keep this cure a secret), to climate change (the scientists are creating global warming so we have to depend on them for an answer), to the obvious example of government and politics (I really don't have to put an example here, do I?  Okay, fine for you in the back, but next time, be here on time.  How about... The government created A.I.D.S. to hurt the gay/african american/other affected minority groups.)  Often WOO aficionados will use a conspiracy theory to rationalize what they do, and to make what they are doing seem even more legitimate.  Even ghost hunters and those that believe near death experiences will use the scientific community as an evil organization hellbent on keeping information secret.

Common Conspiracies
The reason I started with the assassination of JFK is that pretty much from the day it happened, people have been coming up with various hypothesis' as to why it happened and who did it, And they continue to be debated to this day.  Every time there is a tragic event, some people automatically start coming up with alternative theories.  Think back to the Twin Towers in New York, the Sandy Hook school shooting,  or even Hurricane Sandy.  In each event, some people decided that the official story couldn't be the truth, so they came up with an alternative hypothesis that they felt was closer to the truth, at least as they see it.  With JFK, the ideas are that there were multiple shooters, Oswald was just a scapegoat, the CIA did it, the KGB, or even Vice-President Johnson was responsible.  With the towers, yes there was a conspiracy, but it is unlikely that G.W. Bush was in on it.  The conspiracy was between Al-Qaeda operatives that wanted to cause physical, emotional, and moral damage to the U.S.  With Sandy Hook, the idea is that the Obama administration set up a false shooting event to promote gun control legislation.  With Hurricane Sandy, some people actually believe that Obama caused it using the H.A.A.R.P. facility.  Some other theories that you may have heard of are :

  • The moon landing
  • The Oklahoma city Bombing
  • Pearl Harbor
  • The Boston Marathon
  • The Holocaust never happening
  • Perpetual motion or free energy machines
  • Several over the cause or purpose of H.I.V.and A.I.D.S.
  • Suppression of the cures for cancer or A.I.D.S.
  • Suppression of various advanced technologies
  • Weapon testing
  • Fluoride in the water
  • Suppression of natural, traditional, or alternative medicine
  • RFID chips
  • Aliens
  • pretty much any war or assassinations
  • The Templars, Illuminati, or various other shadow groups
  • Cloud seeding
  • Climate Change
  • Subliminal Advertising
  • Genetically Organized Organisms
  • Princess Diana was killed by the monarchy
  • Princess Di, Elvis, and JFK are alive and in hiding
  • False flag operations
 How conspiracy theories are created and countering them

It seems to be fairly easy to come up with a conspiracy theory about any given event.  All that you have to do is look at an event, do some research on it, find a detail that you think doesn't sound right, and then do what's called "cherry picking" through the information to find details that fit your personal views.  Cherry picking is when you look at data and pick out the few facts that fit what you want to prove.  What many conspiracy theorists do is they find anything anomalous and build their sandcastle from there.  One example is the infamous Tower 7 during the 9/11 crisis.  This building was used to store federal investigation records. The conspiracy nutters claim that fire alone couldn't have destroyed the steel building, and it was never hit by a plane. While the building wasn't hit by a plane, it was hit by part of the twin towers as they fell.  Also, fire doesn't have to "destroy" a building in order for it to fall, it just has to cause enough structural damage to the building for it to no longer be able to support its own weight. (and as a happy note, this is the first time when I've researched a topic, and the skeptical side of the argument has been the majority of web hits that I got on Google.)  I'm not going to go into detail on each and every point of all the conspiracies that are floating around.  Some people have spent their entire career working on just one conspiracy theory, trying to show how and why the official story is the most likely truth.  The thing to keep in mind is that when all the "anomalies" analyzed and put into the bigger picture instead of taken separately, they are no longer an anomaly, but a critical part of the narrative.  You can debate with the conspiracy theorists, but  normally, they do have a lot of in-depth knowledge on the topic that only an expert would have. When talking to them on their topic of choice, they may use the "Gish-Gallop" technique.  This is when a lot of points are thrown out in a rapid-fire manner that doesn't give you a chance to rebuke any of them, let alone all of them.  They may also use the "Galileo" fallacy.  This is when they compare themselves to the famous astronomer and his persecution by the church.   Ad Hoc, Strawman, and Ad Hominem attacks are also very commonly used.  They also tend to use terms in a derogatory manner, such as "official", "truth", and "they" to denote that the official truth of the matter is simply a story that they want the sheeple to follow.  The fans of various conspiracies will also insist that "they know the truth and everything from main stream media is a lie." They can be so devoted to their "cause" that even if you are able to successfully debate every one of their points, they will simply claim that you are being blinded by the government lies, you're on the payroll of whatever shadow group, you need to be skeptical about what you're being told, or only they know what's going on.  Not to say that having a dialogue with these folks is a complete waste of time.  On the rare occasion, you can actually get them to accept reality and let go of their delusions.  The real value of debating these folks, especially in a public forum, is that some people that are on the fence may be pushed into looking into more information, and not just looking at infowars or listening to Coast to Coast AM.  

Why they persist
I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist, so I do not have a professional opinion as to why these won't go away.  In my lay-person opinion however, I feel that the main reason people continue to create and believe in conspiracy theories is that they are trying to find a way to make sense of everything going on around them.  In their minds, there has to be a reason why things happen.  Hurricane Sandy couldn't have done the damage it did without someone guiding it.  Kennedy couldn't have been shot by a single disturbed individual on his own, there had to be a larger power backing him.  To a lot of these people, there just has to be someone in charge, otherwise the world is a chaotic, dangerous place where stuff happens for no reason.  Another reason that these conspiracy theories are going to continue to exist is that humans are pattern seeking creatures.  We see faces in power outlets, rabbits in clouds, and gunmen behind picket fences.  This is probably an evolutionary trait developed to keep us from becoming a larger predators brunch.  We may not be able to completely get rid of conspiratorial thinking, partly due to the way our brains work, and partly due to the fact that there are real conspiracies, but hopefully, we can work to lessen there influence and the problems they cause.  The key to defeating or at least countering conspiracy theories is to use, and urge others, reliable sources.  The hard core theorists will simply say that these are dis-information tools used by whatever flavor of secret cabal is out there, but in all honesty, they are the best we have.

Why are they dangerous?

Conspiracy theories are dangerous for several reasons.  Some people become so obsessed with their pet theory that they tend to lose touch with a little thing called reality.  One day they are talking about how Monsanto is trying to use GMO's to control the sheeple(a lovely term a lot of conspiracy theorists use)and a couple of weeks later, the squirrels are attempting genocide against humans by jumping out in front of their cars to make them crash.(and yes, I have heard that from a fellow that actually believed it, he even had documentation.)  They also dilute and distort the real facts behind an event, which causes distrust in any official sources.  Granted, on occasion, there have been real conspiracies that have cropped up.  Can you say Iran-Contra and Oliver North?  How about the NSA (which just got me entered into their database of subversives by golly) and Snowden?   Who out there remembers the WMD's in Iraq?  Yes events like these do happen, but if you compare the number of actual conspiracies to the number that are reported all the time, just a minuscule fraction of a percentage are true.  This brings up another point.  If you'll notice, all of these events became major news after being reported and researched.  The other conspiracies are still met with derision due to the fact that they can't be corroborated and proven.  The lines of evidence have been reviewed and found to be lacking.  Some of the theorists insist that there is a shadow government run by lizards, aliens, the Templar Knights, Colonel Sanders, etc., that is capable of hiding anything or anyone they want to.  Keep in mind they are including the same government that was unable to hide the fact that a president received oral sex in the oval office.  And I don't mean Grover Cleveland.  Besides, do you realize how much power any single organization would have to wield to keep something off of the internet?  If they really had that much power, and the ability to make people disappear, then why are there still conspiracy theorists out there, and not just new ones, but the same ones that have been doing this shit for years?

What can be done, and should we do anything?
There are a few things that we, as skeptics, can do.  First is to TAKE BACK THE WORD SKEPTIC!!!!  The last few years, I have noticed an increasing trend of these folks on the fringes to claim that they are "skeptics" and "skeptical"  about the "official" story.  They claim that they look at more evidence than the official sources, and therefore, they have a special insight into the reality of events.  What they really tend to do is follow a single line of evidence that will lead them straight back to their conclusion.  They don't listen to the actual experts, they listen to people who, at best, may have a personal anecdote to share.  As members of the skeptical community, whether you call yourself a skeptic, free thinker, rational thinker, critical thinker, or realist, we need to take this term back from the lunatic fringe!  They have made it to where the phrase "I'm a skeptic" means that no information will change your mind.  A true skeptic will change their mind with the evidence.  (Sorry about the rant folks, but my news feeds under "skeptic" nowadays have people decrying evolution, climate change, vaccines, and the like.)  Another thing that can be done is to point people towards non-partisan, non-biased sources of information.  These would be websites such as, which is pretty good for quickly taking apart some of the Facebook urban legends that pop up all the time, and  I know people complain about Wikipedia and the fact that anyone can write on almost any article, but they really do have some good controls, and the fact that anyone can write means that bad information will be called out and fixed quickly, provided they can cite and document their sources.  Most of the time newspapers such as the New York Times and newsgroups such as CNN, MSN, and Google News are fairly reliable, but you still have to check the sources, so point them towards any relevant topics at these places as well.  Finally, be reasonable about when and how to approach someone.  If they think that the cat next door is working with the Rottweiler across the street to make their life a living hell, it might be best to point out cats and dogs normally don't work together well and leave it at that.  If someone thinks that the manager at Walmart is secretly putting Illuminati secret pictographs in the bar codes and they need to be taken out before the New World Order can take over, then it might be time to really step in and show them why it is likely not a real scenario, and that they might need psychiatric help.  If they continually post things from InfoWars, Mercola, and the like on FaceBook, find the corresponding article on Snopes and post it as a reply.  Most of all, as long as they aren't posing a danger to themselves or others, deal with them in a calm thoughtful manner.  Find out why they think the way they do, and try and use that reasoning to show them the "other side" of the evidence and let them make a decision from there.  You would be surprised how often people come to a , and because I really don't want to use the word proper, more accurate interpretation of reality

I hope that you found this article at least somewhat entertaining and informative.  I also hope that my American readers have a happy and safe Thanksgiving. If anyone gives you the line about tryptophan putting people to sleep, to keep the peace, just say "yes Uncle Mikey, of course."  As a disclaimer, I actually enjoy listening to conspiracy theories and the people that promote them, such as Jesse Ventura and the Conspiracy Uncovered show that used to be on TV here in Oklahoma.   Alex Jones, I can do without.  That man is such a right wing conservative nutjob, I can only listen to 25 seconds of him talking before I want to facepalm my self, with both hands, balled up into fists, holding boughs of poison oak, while they're on fire.  As usual, you can leave any questions, comments or limericks in the comment section.  Until next time, remember to be reasonable, be kind and rewind.

The Skeptical Okie