Conspiracy Theories and Pseudoskepticism

Conspiracy Theories and Pseudoskepticism June 19, 2018

Conspiracy theories aren’t about credulity, they’re about skepticism gone haywire.

The subject of conspiracy theories came up recently on another blog here at Patheos Nonreligious, and I have to wonder whether we characterize belief in these wacky ideas according to the way we define our own beliefs. Bert Bigelow asserts that “belief in conspiracy theories is not unlike religious belief,” but my experience with conspiracists leads me to a different conclusion.

A Veteran of the Tin Hat Trenches

I assume the loyal detractors who call me an insufferable postmodern relativist jerkoff will be surprised to hear I was once a debunker. Believe it or not, old truth-is-perspectival Shem wasted copious amounts of his personal and professional time engaging in com-box slapfights with people who believe species don’t evolve, that 9/11 was an inside job, that vaccines cause autism, that global warming is a hoax, and various other brands of fruitcakery that make the rounds of the Internet. (I owe Bert a thank you for introducing me to a conspiracy theory I had never heard before, the HAARP Antenna Array. Who says there’s nothing new under the sun?) What this provided me, however, was a window onto ways of thinking that aren’t necessarily that far removed from ours.

The conspiracists I ran across on the battlefields of numbnuttery were anything but religious. They never criticized their online foes for not having sufficient credulity. The common factor with all of them was their insistence that their beliefs derive from skepticism. According to the conspiracist, the rest of the “sheeple” believe whatever the government, the corporate media, and the military-industrial-scientific complex tell them. It’s only the fearless skeptic who can cut through the lies and separate the facts from the imposing fictions disseminated by our soulless overlords to fleece the masses.

And I never ran across a conspiracist in my debunking phase, not one, who didn’t claim that science backs up his or her wacky beliefs. Sure, they cherry-pick their “experts” and handwave away whatever information doesn’t appear to validate their beliefs. But conspiracists feel they alone truly understand science, and how it leads inexorably to the conclusions they’ve drawn about evolution, global warming, vaccination, or the collapse of Building 7.

The Conspiracist Shell Game

This isn’t skepticism, obviously. It’s denial.

Engaging with tin hats made me realize that evidence is just a term we use for anything that supports what we believe. Demanding “evidence” that species evolve or that fire can cause the collapse of steel-framed skyscrapers, and then handwaving away the evidence one’s online foe presents, is the oldest trick in the conspiracist’s book. That’s what makes me cringe whenever the burden of proof comes up in online debates: conspiracists just rig the rhetorical rules so that they never have to assume the burden of justifying their beliefs. The conspiracist makes it so that his online foes’ inability to satisfy his standard of justification means the conspiracy theory wins by default.

Anyone gullible enough to play this futile game, I finally realized, has no business criticizing other people for their credulity.

Just Because I’m Paranoid

Conspiracy theories aren’t motivated by religious belief or legitimate skepticism. What motivates them are powerlessness, suspicion, resentment, and paranoia. They aren’t engaged in a legitimate program of inquiry, they just enjoy making people they don’t respect jump through hoops for them.

There’s a pathologically hateful view of human nature at the root of most conspiracy theories. Look at the JFK assassination conspiracy: how many people had to be involved in the planning and execution of this precision psy-ops masterwork, carried out in broad daylight in front of thousands of spectators; the labor-intensive cover-up afterwards, which involved rubbing out witnesses and destroying evidence; and the official whitewash, in which an entire government commission knowingly falsified evidence and presented a preposterous cover story that flies in the face of reason? In the world of the conspiracy theorist, there’s a literally endless supply of anonymous, obedient, hypercapable henchmen ready and willing to kill, destroy, and lie for their diabolical bosses.

Two Cheers for Skepticism

My time in the Truther Wars taught me there’s a difference between reasonable doubt and denial, and that made me a better skeptic. I learned that we should all be able to justify our beliefs, rather than just bashing the beliefs of people who disagree with us. It gave me a clearer understanding of the ways we only make it seem like our beliefs are based in facts and evidence, when we’re really just turning a blind eye to information that doesn’t suit us.

Skepticism doesn’t provide protection against this kind of thinking. It’s believing that one is the ultimate skeptic that makes him or her susceptible to such folly in the first place.

 

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  • suchandsuch

    Shem, is there an approach to changing the views of conspiracy theorists that you endorse? Maybe something to address their motivations, “powerlessness, suspicion, resentment, and paranoia?”

    Or do you think the hope of changing the views of others is inherently foolish/wrongheaded?

  • is there an approach to changing the views of conspiracy theorists that you endorse? Maybe something to address their motivations, “powerlessness, suspicion, resentment, and paranoia?”

    That’s a valid question, and you’ve basically answered it yourself. I don’t think we have any hope of getting through to conspiracists unless we’re dealing with those motivations. Following every one of their factoids down the rabbit hole and back isn’t going to work. Presenting information at their behest isn’t going to work. That’s because it isn’t a legitimate program of inquiry. It’s just an online shell game.

    I’ve never seen anyone change his or her mind because of an online debate. I think the only reason we engage in these futile slapfights is to bash people with whom we disagree, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re totally open to correction. We’ve all got our minds made up.

  • suchandsuch

    Do you have any thoughts on how to deal with those motivations (powerlessness, suspicion, resentment, and paranoia)? Could individuals engage with conspiracy theorists in a way that addresses those things, or would it require broad social changes for any progress to be made on that front?

  • Halbe

    Skepticism doesn’t provide protection against this kind of thinking.

    You are using an uncommon definition of “skepticism” here. Yes, if you are a radical skeptic you will be skeptic against everything, including the scientific consensus and the opinion of experts on things you lack knowledge of, i.e. you just have your own opinion, no matter what. But that’s not what we usually mean with “skepticism”. I think Bert Bigelow was right that that is more like religion than like skepticism.

  • I think Bert Bigelow was right that that is more like religion than like skepticism.

    Well, I’m defining religion in this sense as believing something without evidence, and skepticism as withholding belief on the grounds that there’s not sufficient evidence. The conspiracist frames every debate as his opponent failing to present evidence supporting the belief that the Earth is spherical, that species evolve, or that terrorists hijacked planes and flew them into big buildings on 9/11.

    Like I said, I’ve never run across a conspiracist who laid out his thesis with facts and evidence and criticized people for not subscribing to it. Much more commonly, the tin hat just demands that his online foes present evidence for the “official story” (that is, the myths that you and I believe) and then goes on to reject anything they present as if it doesn’t constitute evidence at all.

  • What we have to do is stop defining these narratives as literal claims about the world and try to understand what it is in them that appeals to so many people. When so many people lack trust in our institutions that they subscribe to these weird urban legends, then the stories aren’t going to go away until the institutions get better. And when the legends are designed to pander to people’s racism and xenophobia, like the Obama Birth Certificate hoax, then they’re appealing to something that facts and evidence just aren’t going to dispel.

    The problem is that here in the atheist blogosphere, the literal meaning of these myths –whether they’re true or not– is the only level people care to approach them. And thus, they mistake the finger for what it’s pointing to.

  • Nos482

    there’s a literally endless supply of anonymous, obedient, hypercapable
    henchmen ready and willing to kill, destroy, and lie for their
    diabolical bosses.

    Where can I get some of those? So far every henchman I hired eventually screwed up and had to be vaporized for his own good. And to keep my blood pressure down. Well, mostly because of my blood pressure if I’m honest. =P

  • Tell me about it! Every real conspiracy has failed because the people involved get careless, have moral qualms about what they’re doing, or jump ship when the DA turns up the heat. Where’s a few loyal, remorseless, super-capable operatives when you need ’em?

  • Halbe

    Which is exactly what a YEC does, or an anti-gay Christian, or a religious forced-birther. I still see more parallels with religion than with skepticism.

  • Um, okay, but in that case you’re defining religious thinking as any way of thinking practiced by a debate participant who’s also religious.

    The YEC claiming that there’s “not enough evidence” for an Earth that’s been around billions of years is just raising the standard of evidence so high that he thinks he can handwave away the evidence for an old Earth and still maintain that his position derives from skepticism.

    Not for nothing, but that’s the village-atheist’s first, middle, and last resort: Where’s your evidence? That’s not evidence! If that rhetorical tactic is religious, I guess there are plenty of atheists around here that qualify as religious.

  • a profound amen to that, neighbor. =)

  • Religion, bro.

    Or just good old fashioned brainwashing like the military does with its toys.

  • you need bait. meet their wants.

    conspiracy theories sell the idea of belonging to a class of “we-know-something-you-don’t” special-ists

    you can feed their want by changing their habitat:
    to wit, you might be able to persuade them to become ghost hunters

    or you can channel their want into something else:
    “hey, well *those* conspiracy theorists drank the kool-aid – the *real truth(TM)* is right over here. let me show you what *they* don’t want you to see,”

    or you can sell them religion, which basically tweaks the same things.

  • what if it’s harder to change other people than it is to change yourself?

    and what if that’s also damn hard?

    but what if you can recognize their existing appetites – their needs and wants?

    and feed them in ways that neutralize the harms you fear?

    as you feed yourself to neutralize your own?

  • suchandsuch

    Here’s a point you’ve made that I may be misinterpreting : “What we have to do is stop defining these narratives as literal claims about the world…” The reason that trips me up is that it seems as if you’re claiming the conspiracy theorists don’t mean their claims literally, or that don’t believe what they say they believe.

    That’s not your position, though, is it? You’re saying that regardless of what conspiracy theorists believe, addressing the literal claims is akin to “treating to symptoms, not the disease,” right?

  • That’s not your position, though, is it? You’re saying that regardless of what conspiracy theorists believe, addressing the literal claims is akin to “treating to symptoms, not the disease,” right?

    You are correct.

    I’m never sure whether people really believe these kooky things or whether they’re just trying to wind up their com-box foes. Some of them seem more sincere than others. Just look at the Obama birth-certificate thing: do you really think that was about a piece of paperwork? Did fact-checking the birther hoax keep Trump from getting into the Oval Office, or were there other factors at play?

  • suchandsuch

    Just look at the Obama birth-certificate thing: do you really think that was about a piece of paperwork? Did fact-checking the birther hoax keep Trump from getting into the Oval Office, or were there other factors at play?

    I don’t know anyone who thinks that the birther controversy was merely about paperwork, but I have no doubt that many people genuinely believe that Barack Obama [was born outside of the United States] , [is a secret Muslim], etc. But, yes, I agree, they’re mostly immune to fact-checking on these subjects.

  • During the Obama administration, one of my online foes who loved to refer to the President as “the jug-eared Kenyan” admitted that he only did so to piss off the liberals. I’m not saying that every Tea Party bigot was only paying lip service to the myth of Obama’s African provenance by any means, but treating it like a literal claim ignores a lot of context. The birther thing was about venting one’s outrage about multiculturalism and delegitimizing the authority of a biracial POTUS rather than the literal set of coordinates of Obama’s birthplace.

  • suchandsuch

    No doubt, outrage at multiculturalism and discomfort over a biracial president were motivations for people to believe that Obama’s birthplace disqualified him to be president. Still, that doesn’t mean that people didn’t genuinely believe that Obama’s actual birthplace was Kenya — only that they reached that conclusion through motivated reasoning.

  • Since you made me clarify my position, let me ask you to clarify yours. You don’t think that, if people had simply affirmed that Obama was born in Hawaii, racism and white resentment would just have magically disappeared, right?

    Because even after you’ve acknowledged that people’s racism was what motivated support for the birther conspiracy theory, you’re still making it seem like the facts about Obama’s birthplace are what’s relevant here.

  • conspiracy theories sell the idea of belonging to a class of “we-know-something-you-don’t” special-ists

    Exactly. There’s a boatload of presumption in assuming that the experts all have it wrong, that everyone else in society has been gulled by propaganda, and only the maverick conspiracist has been able to ascertain The Truth.

    It even sounds like —dare I say it?— a delusion.

  • although we must be extremely careful here.

    it’s impossible to tell the 99 nutbars from the 1 that *is* actually on to something until it’s nearly too late.

    Einstein almost got kicked to the curb, and Tesla pretty much did.

    And that’s just the people dabbling in various physics.

    Max Planck conceded that science advances one funeral at a time.

    So now how do you tell the 99 fakers from the 1 who is about to deliver something amazing to you?

    you know this of course, i’m more writing for the class. One of the reasons i respect you is you see the wizard behind the curtain of science, while still respecting it for what it is – and isn’t.

    conspiracy theorists want to be einstein, or tesla, or even jesus, but they’re not, and unfortunately it makes it harder to believe the folks that are challenging existing sacred cows (even in science) for good reason.

    you can’t fake revolutionary thought. there are a whole lot of fakers out there.

  • suchandsuch

    You don’t think that, if people had simply affirmed that Obama was born in Hawaii, racism and white resentment would just have magically disappeared, right?

    Of course not. They’d have simply moved onto the next conspiracy theory that bolstered their position.

    I think the position you clarified is perfectly reasonable. What isn’t reasonable is to examine another person’s belief that we find incredible and declare, “No, you don’t really believe that.” This happens all the time in atheist/believer conversations. Believers often insist that atheists actually do believe in God, they’re just rebelling, angry at God, had a bad experience in church, etc. Sometimes atheists insist that believers really don’t believe in God, they’re just afraid of death, out to control others, etc. That tactic allows either party to basically take over both roles in the conversation, and it effectively shuts down communication.

  • I think the position you clarified is perfectly reasonable. What isn’t reasonable is to examine another person’s belief that we find incredible and declare, “No, you don’t really believe that.” This happens all the time in atheist/believer conversations.

    Which is why I’ve said, in what I consider plain enough English, that I don’t think it’s relevant whether or not they really believe the conspiracy theories constitute the literal truth. It’s only been hours since I asserted, in response to one of your posts here, that we have to “try to understand what it is in them that appeals to so many people.” It gets tiresome to keep having to repeat myself about this. And you know it, don’t you?

  • suchandsuch

    I should have made it clear that I’m not accusing you of insisting that people don’t really hold the beliefs they claim. I was clarifying my position — not attacking yours.

    Sorry to have ruffled your feathers.

  • i keep telling people ideas are secondary
    behavior and the feelings that drive them are primary
    ideas serve to explain and rationalize the primaries.

    i hear this in what you’re saying above – the facts about Obama’s birthplace are not the relevant thing.

    people need to focus more on that dark web of human behavior and relationships, and it has little to do with actual ideas. the ideas are just cover.

  • suchandsuch

    Right. Jonathan Haidt’s “elephant and rider” metaphor:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9KP8uiGZTs

  • i heard that once before recently.

    but i didn’t learn it from that. i learned it from torah.

  • suchandsuch

    That’s surprising. Where in the Torah?

  • that’s why i said torah and not the torah.

    it’s a conclusion i came to after reflecting on the torah, the talmud, and several rabbinical lectures on behavior.

    i’d actually have to work to go back and dig up references in *the torah*

    funny enough – Paul the Apostle addresses it almost directly when he talks about works versus faith.

    but he betrays his jewish upbringing in how he conceptualizes throughout the letters to the corinthians and the romans.

  • sorry – let me be clear

    Torah = divine revelation from the God of Abraham, and/or the metaphilosophy that roots abrahamic beliefsets

    The Torah = an attempt by moses to write down torah – but it’s a reflection – through a glass darkly. because God is Other, you can only get to it through allegory.

    make sense?

    torah = the philosophical structure behind the texts
    the torah = torah written into texts
    the talmud(s) = rabinnical commentary on torah.

  • suchandsuch

    Ah. I expect that does make sense to someone who has a much better understanding of the texts than I do. Thank you.

  • MindWarrior

    Seems like the author of this piece did some formidable bashing themselves…

  • Jim Baerg

    “I’ve never seen anyone change his or her mind because of an online debate.”
    Several times in this series of podcasts:
    http://secularjihadists.libsyn.com/
    I have heard one of the ex-muslims state that he/she had often the experience of arguing online with a devout muslim, & a few *years* later hearing from the devout muslim that had since become ex-muslim.
    I suspect you are not allowing enough time to see the result.

    If I was firmly convinced of some proposition & was presented with good arguments against it, I would take some time, a minimum of days if not months, looking for flaws in the arguments & not finding flaws, before I really changed my mind.

  • “Believers often insist that atheists actually do believe in God, they’re just rebelling, angry at God, had a bad experience in church, etc. Sometimes atheists insist that believers really don’t believe in God, they’re just afraid of death, out to control others, etc. ”

    There is no inidication that the majority of those believers who are most fervent in their use of scripture to “justify” their assholery, follow the tenets of their faith that are inconvenient for them to observe and obey.

    So, VERY big difference in the two groups.

  • I suspect that these cases are the exceptions that prove the rule. I heard from a guy a while ago who said debating with me on a Facebook atheist group made him rethink his dogmatic scientism. I honestly didn’t remember debating him (let’s just say I have a lot of online foes), but he didn’t seem to be joking so I thanked him and wished him well.

  • I usually give people the benefit of the doubt about what they believe, but that’s about it. If they don’t seem like critical thinkers, I couldn’t care less whether they say they’re religious or nonreligious.

    In my experience, atheists can be every bit as bigoted, self-serving and ignorant as the faithful.

  • you’re very delicate, petal.

  • suchandsuch

    I’m not insisting that there aren’t differences between the groups. I’m objecting to a specific tactic. One can legitimately point to all of the ways that another person is being hypocritical or failing to live up to their professed beliefs without pretending to be a mind reader.

  • MindWarrior

    Sensitive as all hell there petunia…

  • I hear testosterone gel can help with that.

    maybe you should talk to your doctor.

  • -MARK-

    credulity

    I think that remains an important part of the conspiracy theory minded.

    “Isn’t it amazing that your conspiracies theories line up nicely with your belief system”

    Is someone is anti something that anti something will always be part of the grand conspiracy

    I have some success with that approach. Yes you may be skeptical of the ‘official story’. But are you self skeptical of your conspiracie theory?

    Instead of Israel causing 9/11, why not the Russians. It’s equally plausible.

    Thinking about plausibility. Sometimes conspiracies can be true. It’s possible to guess a conspiracy. That is another tactic.

    How plausible is your conspiracy. On other words, how many people would need to be involved in the conspiracy. The more people involved the less likely. How long has the conspiracy remained secret. The longer it goes on, the less likely it’s to be true.

    So that along with motivated reasoning is one way to fight the against the ‘conspiracy theorist’. You can actually debate ones speculation with plausiblity

  • Of course the conspiracist is starting at his conclusion and then assembling whatever information appears to support the conclusion. But he’s making it seem as if any data that disconfirms the theory isn’t really evidence (because it comes from a biased source, for instance), and that his beliefs are based on connecting so many dots that even if the debunker refutes any one factoid, there are plenty more that supposedly bolster the conspiracy theory.

    I’m not saying this is a reasonable, responsible approach to testing the validity of claims. It’s pseudoskepticism, using the mere trappings of critical thinking to push an agenda.

  • -MARK-

    Which what I was arguing for and how to debate someone.

  • “In my experience, atheists can be every bit as bigoted, self-serving and ignorant as the faithful.”

    That is my experience, as well. But, they don’t use the “Cuz JEEZUZ” card to justify those character defects as proving their faith.

  • Do what you like.

    People that specifically point to their Wholly Babblical justifications for hateful behaviuor that they engage in, usually against persons that are too weak to hit back are fucking scum.

    When they are also hypocrites–well, let’s just say, patience is not a virtue in that situation.

    As I said, do what you like. I’ll do what seems right to me, at the moment when I have an encounter with someone spouting that sort of nonsense.

  • adriancrutch

    …I engaged Vince Bugliosi, when he dismissed the Double-Cross book by MoMo Giancana’s brother…he said it simply couldn’t be “trusted”…that said…scores of mob figures have been put in prison by the same people(fellow mobsters)…as a prosecutor of Manson…I would have thought the esteemed prosecutor would have seen the “light”…but in his 3” thick book…he ignored everything and went with the “commission”…and to boot you’d think some people would have picked up on the trail after Bobby Kennedy was dispatched…so we are a country of homicidal loons…frankly it worked out well for all involved…however indirectly…

  • …rolleyes…

  • Annerdr
  • Coincidence…or conspiracy??

  • Annerdr

    Conspiracy, obviously. Prove me wrong!

  • The Warren Commission’s investigation into the assassination of JFK was a white wash job with Kennedy’s long time enemy and director of the CIA Allan Dullus presiding over the whole mess.

    He should have excused himself on ethical grounds or failing which he should have been dismissed.

    It’s incredible that Americans went along with the whole charade because they were afraid of being called conspiracy theorists.

    Interestingly the first time the words conspiracy theorists were used was post JFK’s assassination.

    A very poor reflection on the nation at that crucial period in history.

  • Just because someone doesn’t understand how some things work doesn’t mean it couldn’t/ didn’t happen so your attempt at rationalization is meaningless.

    Your ignorance of how the world works is your own problem not anyone else’s.

    But this sentence says it all; there’s a pathologically hateful view of human nature……. your absurd utopian view prevents you even considering conspiracy the as the problem according to you is that there’s no problem.

    Wasn’t JFK’s assassination a pathological, hateful event indicative of human nature so how do you even rationalize ………………………….?

  • Uh, yeah, right. The Kennedy assassination was just some sort of open secret in Washington, kept under wraps due to the awesome political might of Allan Dulles? Didn’t Dulles have any enemies who could exploit this info for political gain? Or is Washington a greed-sodden shark pit occasionally characterized by selfless cooperation?

    I still wondering why people inside the US government were so desperate to have JFK rubbed out that they would have risked exposure by engaging in such an elaborate, labor intensive conspiracy to get him out of the picture. Any thoughts?

  • That’s a useful insightful! – excess skepticism, not religious-like belief, as the kernel of conspiracy theories. I’ll have to keep that in mind next time I run across these theories

  • Grimlock

    I’ve never seen anyone change his or her mind because of an online debate. I think the only reason we engage in these futile slapfights is to bash people with whom we disagree, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re totally open to correction. We’ve all got our minds made up.

    I realize it’s been a couple of months since this discussion ran it’s course, but I was browsing the posts here and think I might have something interesting to contribute.

    What has happened to me on several occasions is that a online debate has changed my mind on some topic. But not during the debate itself. I have several times noticed that I’ve changed my mind on some topic, without being aware of it happening, but a probable cause is some debate or other.

    Of course, I didn’t admit to changing my mind or being wrong in the debate. At the time I probably didn’t even think that I was wrong. Admitting that one is wrong is hard, so I probably just changed my mind subconsciously or something. I believe I’ve read about these processes somewhere, but can’t remember where.

    I’d like to think that this happens quite frequently. That an online debate, at least if conducted in a civil manner, will change minds later on.

    And if we are unconvinced by this, but still wants to avoid thinking ourselves only debating to bash our opponents? Well, we could always claim to be doing it for the lurkers.

  • I’m glad you happened over. Feel free to contribute however you like.

    I may have been exaggerating, but I just don’t want my discussion channel to turn into the sort of slapfight arena where tinhats peddle their conspiraloonacy and debunkers dump factoids on them in response. That’s not what I consider a sincere attempt at dialogue, and there’s only about a million other places where folks can engage in that brand of oh-so-important social discourse.

    I try to give people who come here something new to think about, or a novel way to look at disputes about science, knowledge, and reality. I’m not out to change minds, but I think it’s good to get people to think about things differently.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Mine’s the “Plateaus are giant petrified tree stumps” one.