Conspiracies and Unshakeable Faith: What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? Part 2

What is it about conspiracy theories that’s so problematic?

Manson familyI mean, it’s not as if conspiracies don’t happen. The Mafia is a conspiracy. The Manson murders were a conspiracy. The Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway was a conspiracy. Two people getting together to buy an ounce of weed is a conspiracy. It’s not like it never happens that two or more people get together to break the law. Obviously it does. It’s probably happening right now, in hundreds or thousands of places around the country.

So it’s not as if it’s completely wacky to think that conspiracies might happen.

All_the_President's_MenAnd big conspiracies among powerful people happen as well. Watergate was a conspiracy. Iran/ Contra was a conspiracy. The history of Chicago politics is loaded with conspiracies. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy. I could go on and on.

So it’s not as if it’s completely wacky to think that conspiracies might happen among powerful people in government or business. The history of the world is littered with well- documented instances of conspiracies, both large and small, by the puny and the powerful.

So what is it about conspiracy theories that’s so aggravating?

Why are they typically as stubbornly irrational, as resistant to evidence and argument, as the most extreme varieties of religious faith?

I’ve been thinking about this. And I realized something.

Your typical conspiracy theory shares a very irritating quality with your typical religious belief: There is literally no possible piece of evidence that could convince the believer that they’re mistaken.

FaithAs I’ve written before — or rather, as I’ve stolen outright from Ebonmuse before — a defining feature of religious belief seems to be that, when asked the question, “What would convince you that you were wrong?”, the answer is almost always, “Nothing. Nothing would make me lose faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.” It’s one of the things that makes debating with believers aggravating: many believers will begin a debate thinking that their belief is based on sound reasoning and evidence, but by the end of the debate, they typically wind up saying some version of, “I feel it in my heart,” or, “Well, that’s just what I believe.”

And I see much the same thing with conspiracy theories.

AmericanCancerSocietyAny argument that you make against a particular conspiracy theory — any piece of evidence that counters it, any line of reasoning about whether it makes sense, any questions about whether it’s even plausible — will almost inevitably be met with an assortment of maddeningly unfalsifiable retorts. “That evidence was manufactured.” “The conspirators are exceptionally good at secrecy and at hiding evidence of the truth.” “The media’s in on the conspiracy.” (As is anybody at all who objects to the conspiracy or provides evidence against it, from NASA to the American Cancer Society.) And, of course, the ever-popular, “Or have they gotten to you, too?”

But, of course — as I and countless other atheist writers have pointed out when talking about religion — if a theory or a belief can’t possibly be falsified, if there is no possible evidence imaginable that could prove it wrong, then it’s not a useful theory. It has no power to explain the past, or to predict the future.

And when you start looking at it this way, you realize that conspiracy theories have a lot in common with the more irrational aspects of religious belief.

NutmegThere’s the fact that conspiracy theories tend to be based, not on direct positive evidence, but on what seem to be suspicious patterns. The problem with that, of course, being that our brains are hard-wired by evolution to see patterns even where none exist… and we can find conspiratorial patterns pretty much anywhere we look. (“How likely is it that every single store in our neighborhood would be out of nutmeg? That can’t possibly be a coincidence!”)

There’s the fact that conspiracy theories tend to be based on the assumption that there must be intention behind every phenomenon. Another logical fallacy hard- wired into our brains for very good evolutionary reasons… and another logical fallacy shared by religion.

Flying_Spaghetti_MonsterAnd there’s the fact that conspiracy theories are often bolstered by the “You can’t prove it didn’t happen” argument. Currently my least favorite piece of rhetorical stupid floating around the Interweb. As if every single proposition that can’t be disproven with 100% certainty, from Zeus the Thunder God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, deserves to be taken seriously.

JFKI have other problems with conspiracy theories, too. I’m particularly entertained/ exasperated by just how huge many of these supposed conspiracies are, and just how many people would have to be in on the secret… completely ignoring how lousy most people are at keeping secrets. (The conspiracy delineated in the movie “JFK” is my favorite example; the one which, if it were true, would have required both the involvement and the silence of approximately one fifth of the American population.)

But my biggest problem really is this: If nothing at all could convince you that your theory is wrong… then what you have on your hands there is a truly lousy theory. In fact, it’s not really a theory at all. It’s an article of faith: unshakeable, irrational, unconnected with reality.

So with people who believe that 9-11 was a conspiracy on the part of the U.S. government (as opposed to a conspiracy on the part of, oh, say, Al-Qaeda); that vaccines are a conspiracy to keep the drug companies rich; that the medical profession knows about a cure for (cancer, AIDS, achy breaky heart) but is in a conspiracy to keep it a secret… I want to ask the same question I want to ask religious believers:

“What would convince you that you were wrong?”

Not just “What evidence do you have that you’re right?” (although I want to ask that too) — but “What would you accept as evidence that this conspiracy really didn’t happen?”

And if the answer is, “Nothing — any evidence against this conspiracy would simply bolster my belief in it”… then I say once again: That is one lousy theory. It doesn’t even deserve the honorable name of “theory.” And you shouldn’t expect anyone else to take it seriously.

Also in this series:
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith

Comments

  1. says

    Remember, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said of a theory advanced by a student:
    “That’s not right. It’s not even wrong.”
    The key part of something being a valid theory (specifically in this case a scientific one but I believe it applies to all cases where the word “theory” gets used) is that it must be falsifiable. I.e. it must be possible to say “if X and Y hold to be true, this theory is then proved wrong.” If it isn’t possible to say how something could be proved wrong, it can’t be held to be true.
    The majority of conspiracy / UFO / insert-whack-ass-idea-here theories are not even wrong.

  2. Rae says

    Awesome posting!
    (BTW: what about the psychics? are there results? Did I win? It was a nice thing which kept me reading various IT realted news even though I often become so angry that I want to just throw the RSS feeds away.)

  3. says

    Nice post. I’ll have to keep that question in mind next time I make the mistake of talking with some of the 9/11 Truth Squad folks who hang out on my campus.

  4. says

    “Nothing. Nothing would make me lose faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.”

    My current answer to this is, “So you could be completely wrong and never realize it.”

  5. David Harmon says

    The thing is, sometimes there are non-obvious reasons for things, but those are rarely as interesting as the conspiracy theories….
    Here’s one similar to your nutmeg example: I used to make my own incense, and one day I found that most of my usual sources for sandlewood had suddenly run out, or multiplied the price. As it turned out, the harvesting practices for the stuff were not merely unsustainable, but had killed off most of the planted stock in India. Guess what most of my incense books had suggested as a base material?
    And on the flip side, really strong conspiracies are rare enough that even when they do happen, they often get amazingly far, just because nobody can believe what’s going on. Remember Hillary’s classic complaint about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband and herself, and how she got pilloried for it? Funny thing about that…. And more recently, there’s Madoff — not such a big conspiracy, but even so, the people who tried to warn about him were simply ignored.
    On the gripping hand, even large-scale malfeasance doesn’t necessarily need actual conspiracy, as with the last couple of financial crises here in America. The malefactors didn’t even need to coordinate with each other — they each acted according to their own interests and priorities, and the collective result was catastrophe.

  6. says

    A few of my good friends, otherwise sensible people, are strangely susceptible to conspiracy theories, most recently involving 9/11. I can tell you it is the single most annoying thing in the world to try to deal with, to the point where I have to leave the conversation if it comes up. Any attempt to question the conspiracy du jour is simply an indication that you’re closed-minded, ignorant or just blind. Any source which can possibly disprove said theory is obviously planted propaganda or somehow irrelevant.
    Seriously, at times I reckon I’d be happier if they were Young-Earth Creationists…

  7. says

    A lot of what you’re talking about hinges not precisely on faith, but on a very common fellow traveler with faith – rationalization. I mean here something very specific: Rationalization, as opposed to reasoning, is the construction of something that looks kinda-sorta like a reasoned argument (if you squint) for a “conclusion” that is already pre-determined in advance. I put the scare quotes around the word “conclusion” because, of course, if it’s completely fixed and determined in advance of weighing the evidence and reasoning in its favor, it is not a conclusion at all – it is a presupposition. Rationalization proceeds sort of like an argument, what with the gathering and presentation of evidence – except that a very low standard is put in place for accepting evidence and drawing logical connections *for* the presupposition, and all evidence *against* the presupposition has to meet a ridiculously high standard of evidence, or is simply ignored, or is explained away on an ad hoc basis.
    Rationalization is extremely natural for humans; we are actually much more naturally inclined to it than reasoning, and we do it every day without even noticing. In fact, I’m pretty certain that rationalization is a human universal, whereas faith (in the sense we’re using it here) is clearly not. That is, I’ll (grudgingly) admit to rationalizing from time to time, but I know for damned certain that there isn’t a single iota of faith in me. Genuine critical reasoning requires a sustained effort and eternal vigilance in the face of our natural tendency to rationalize, but faith does not come naturally to all of us; for my part, I’ve always found faith extremely unnatural, and used to have difficulty believing that people really did believe the sorts of nonsense they claimed to believe.
    That’s why I think it’s important to remember that faith and rationalization are separate phenomena. For example, some people adhere rigidly to faith beliefs with hardly even the most token rationalization: Believers of the “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” school don’t bother to advance arguments, not even the flimsiest pseudo-argument/rationalization. On the other end of the spectrum, some very non-dogmatic, liberally-inclined religious believers readily acknowledge that their vague notion that some “higher power” exists in the universe is something they believe with no real evidence: They admit that their faith is based on no more than a choice or a feeling, and they don’t even *try* to rationalize it. Both types of believers exhibit faith without rationalization.
    Similarly, although faith is an extraordinarily common source for the sort of “conclusions” pre-determined in advance which distinguish rationalizing from reasoning, it isn’t a necessary prerequisite. Our everyday rationalizations are not grounded on beliefs we hold as a matter of faith, but on ordinary assumptions about the world that we don’t even think to question – or that we’d rather not question. Everyday rationalization is often tangled up in psychological phenomena ranging from straightforward self-interest to the subtle traps of privilege-blindness.
    That said, I do agree with you that hard-core conspiracy crankery really does seem rooted in very dogmatic, religion-like faith. Sure, the conspiracy advocates *claim* to be persuaded by the evidence and reasoning (or rather, “evidence” and “reasoning”) presented by their conspiracy-mongering fellow travelers. But in reality – like religious believers who find the various ridiculous, fallacy-ridden, ought-to-be-embarrassing “arguments” for the existence of God to be convincing – conspiracy cranks are only convinced by various conspiracy theory “arguments” because they are already utterly convinced of and emotionally invested in the truth of the “conclusion” (which is really their starting point).
    What puzzles me is this: I think I understand some of the psychological motivations behind religious faith, such as fear of death and group identity and all that jazz. But what on earth motivates a 9/11 Truther? I’ve just never seen a plausible explanation of what conspiracy nuts really get out of it.

  8. Bachalon says

    When someone says to me, “You can’t disprove it!” (in a tone that implies they’ve won), I always fire back, “A lack of conclusive disproof doesn’t make belief and non-belief equally reasonable.”
    I’ve never gotten a good response to that.

  9. Inde says

    “But what on earth motivates a 9/11 Truther?”
    The sharing of what they believe, is the truth. Which seems to be very similiar to religious believers.
    And maybe a little hope. Hope that being able to have insight, delve into or share information may help others to question many things [propoganda].
    Is there a bit more of a difference to conspiracy believers and folks of faith? Yes.
    Usually at some point a conspiracy believer finds some facts to help back up the case. No little thing.
    There are also the people with first hand information (compared to someone who just saw the virgin mary?).
    I see them more as people who try to tear apart all the bullshit surrounding something very important to all of us.
    However, there’ll never be a lack of the extremist conspiracy believers.

  10. says

    An interesting post. Nothing wrong and plenty right with shooting down conspiracy theories. Don’t see, though, what this has to do specifically with liberalism, re its making the CotL cut. But, that’s not the first time I’ve asked that question rhetorically within myself.

  11. P Smith says

    Excuse my comment long after the fact. But since it’s three weeks before the Decayed Decade Of Wallowing In Self Pity, it’s relevant.
    The worst thing about “conspiracy theories” is that sometimes those who ask valid questions can get lumped in with the cranks. It makes it difficult to ask such questions and get answers because the questions don’t fit the “official version of events”.
    For example, the idiots behind “loose change” have loose screws, and I have no patience for them. Yet it I or other sane people ask why fighter aircraft didn’t intercept the hijacked airplanes on 9/11, people assume that the questioner is a nutcase.
    For those who think this isn’t important, remember the death of Payne Stewart in October 1999, nearly two years before 9/11? His airplane lost contact with the ground and fighter aircraft were despatched to intercept it. The plane lost cabin pressure mid-flight, killing everyone on board, and it eventually crashed when it ran out of fuel.
    There was a precedent for intercepting planes two years before 9/11, so why weren’t they launched when the aircraft were known to be hijacked? I’ve never heard a good explanation for it.
    .

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