Fighting conspiracy theories with reason and evidence on the Internet is often tiresome and irritating. It usually involves extreme details of some scientific, historical or technology topic and it takes a long time to learn both the broad picture and details. During the same time it takes for you to refute their misinformation, the conspiracy theorists have already put forward another twelve faulty claims in an unending cat and mouse game. There is thus a great need to combine these detailed refutations with broader objections that attack the general structure of conspiracy theories.
The six strategies to attack any conspiracy theory that will be discussed in this article cover many different aspects of the situation. The “no leaks” objection wonders how thousands of people can carry out complex and evil plans without there being any leaks. The “evidence gap” objection asks why there is so much evidence for conspiracies that turn out to be true, but hardly any for common conspiracy theories. The “inconsistent capabilities” objection wonders why perpetrators are deemed highly intelligent and efficient, but cannot take down websites and videos or stage “accidents” to get rid of conspiracy theories.
The “prediction horizon” objection discuss how the complexities of reality makes it difficult to make highly accurate predictions for detailed conspiracy plans. The “method-goal mismatch” objection points out that there are many easier ways for perpetrators to reach their goals than the convoluted ways indicated by conspiracy theories. Finally, the “non-falsifiable” objection concludes that conspiracy theories are often consistent with both evidence for and against them, making them fairly impotent as explanations for anything.
#1: The “no leaks” objection
In “Poor Richard’s Almanack” (1735), Benjamin Franklin wrote that “three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.” What Franklin was getting at is that it is very difficult for humans to keep secrets. The more people that know of a secret, the higher risk there is for the secret to get exposed. This is because there are more people who might be tricked, blackmailed, bribed or otherwise persuaded into giving it up. It is enough for a single individual in the system to break in order to undermine it.
There are many examples of leaks that exposed real conspiracies. For instance, Bill Clinton could not keep his affair with Monica Lewinsky a secret even though he was the most powerful man on earth at the time. NSA could not keep their mass surveillance programs hidden from a contractor. There are many more cases.
So why has no information leaked from the evil perpetrators featured in common conspiracy theories? This question becomes even more pertinent when we realize that the vast scale of these conspiracy theories would likely involve at least hundreds or thousands of people. The answer, of course, is that these conspiracy theories are probably entirely mistaken. Asking conspiracy theorists explain the absence of leaks from their proposed cabal that involve so many people and contrast it with the Clinton or NSA situation is a productive approach to probe their position.
#2: The “evidence gap” objection
Real conspiracies that have been uncovered involve investigators literally drowning in evidence. There is often so much evidence that it is difficult for a single individual or even the investigators themselves to get a sufficient detailed knowledge of all aspects.
For instance, Manning leaked 92 000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, 392 000 documents about the war in Iraq and many more documents on different issues and events. In total, it is estimated to be 700 000 documents. For the NSA mass surveillance, the Snowden document leak ranges from several thousands of documents to well over 1 million (although no one really knows how many it really is).
The Watergate scandal had burglars being arrested, a money trail that could be followed and mapped, confessions and several rounds of incriminating audio tapes. The IB affair revealed that Swedish government had a secret military intelligence and counterintelligence agency that the parliament was unaware of that monitored and registered people with communist political beliefs. They even secretly infiltrated their organizations and attempted to provoke them into committing crimes. This conspiracy was exposed by two journalists and a photographer who were able to get their hands on crucial evidence by bumping into a disgruntled employee. They then spent months stalking and photographing IB members and even intercepted post sent between field agents and the headquarters of the organization.
Most conspiracy theories, on the other hand, have little to no actual evidence. They are often based on quoting scientists out of context, misunderstanding basic physics of building constructions, jumping on obvious cases of interview miscommunication or similar. It is really based on alleged “evidence” that is not worth much at all.
Thus, there is an “evidence gap” between real conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Real conspiracies that have been exposed have a ton of evidence available, but conspiracy theories have either nothing or very little in terms of supporting evidence.
Now it might be argued that exposed conspiracies are not representative of all conspiracies. This is undoubtedly true and there are probably conspiracies that have been carried out in complete secrecy and have never been exposed. But this does not fit with conspiracy theories, which are typically based on demonstrably falsehoods. Thus, saying that there have been real conspiracies is not a valid objection to pointing out these errors.
#3: The “inconsistent capabilities” objection
Conspiracy theories posit that the evil people behind it all are almost always highly intelligent and effective. They never make mistakes, the cover all possibilities, expect all contingencies and handle all risks. They hide or destroy all evidence and even assassinate people who might expose them.
Yet, these evil masterminds are not skilled enough to remove YouTube videos or take down websites that expose them. They are not even able to eliminate the most prominent conspiracy theorists and just let them crank out thousands of videos and articles about the intimate details of the alleged conspiracy. A common defense is that if conspiracy theorists were suddenly found assassinated, the conspiracy would be exposed. However, highly resourceful conspirators could easily stage it to look like accidents, a suicide or death due to natural causes. Furthermore, if they are not exposed by thousands of hours of video material and hundreds of thousands of articles, blog comments and forum posts, it is unlikely that they would be because some famous conspiracy theorists died a “natural” death or had an “accident”.
Thus, there is an extremely peculiar inconsistency in the abilities of the conspirators. Are they extremely intelligent and never make mistakes or are they incredibly incompetent?
#4: The “prediction horizon” objection
The world is complicated and in sometimes difficult to predict. Conspiracy theories often involve extremely detailed, complex and convoluted plans that stretch over months, years or even decades. However, there are so many things that could go wrong with it. A key player could pass away from some disease. Some crucial service could break down. People could move, laws could change, buildings could be rebuilt, disease outbreaks or armed conflicts could occur, security protocols could improve, someone might quit their job and so on. There are literally millions of things that could interfere. Thus, the perpetrators have at least a moderate risk of failing and getting caught. In many cases, getting caught would completely eliminate any possibility of accomplishing the perpetrator’s goals.
Thus, many conspiracy theories are not realistic because there are too many ways their plan could have failed. There is probably also a “prediction horizon” where the complexities of the world make detailed and accurate predictions very difficult or even impossible in practice. After all, many experts cannot even accurately predict the economy or relationships between countries over time. In contrast, conspiracy theories involve perpetrators making highly accurate or even infallible predictions without regards to these complications.
#5: The “method-goal mismatch” objection
Conspiracy theorists often look at large and horrific events and attempt to reason backwards into finding an equally large and high-impact explanation. However, this is merely anomaly hunting and the resulting construct is often very weak, especially when considering how the event would accomplished the proposed goals of the perpetrators.
Flat earthers might be able to find sloppy and bizarre rationalizations of the scientific evidence against their position. However, they falter almost immediately when asked how fooling everyone into thinking the earth is approximately round helps them to reach their goals. In fact, why on earth would the ruling elite ever bother to spend so much time, money and resources into hiding the alleged “fact” that the earth is really flat? Regardless of their rationalizations, flat earthers have no plausible (or even coherent) explanation for this.
If the U. S. government were behind 9/11 in order to go to war in the Middle East years and even a decade later, why not just go to war? They have managed to go to war and carry out other questionable international operations without having to fake a terror attack before. It is also a very convoluted conspiracy that involves several plans, terrorists from countries that were never invaded and so on. Why not just blow up a building and be done with it?
If you or the conspiracy theorists themselves can easily invent a better plan to attain the goal of the perpetrators that the plan used in the conspiracy theory, something is terribly wrong with it.
#6: The “unfalsifiable” objection
As was noted above, conspiracy theorists posit that the evil conspirators are so effective as to eliminate nearly all evidence of their actions. Even more deceptively, they insist that the evidence against the conspiracy theory was fabricated by the perpetrators to cover their tracks or that the scientists who gather that evidence is just part of the conspiracy.
Thus, the conspiracy theorists have painted themselves into a corner. Because no evidence can shake their beliefs, they have made their position unfalsifiable. It is a position that is consistent with all outcomes and discoveries. Thus, a world where such a conspiracy exists and a world where it does not exist is identical in all details. This means that the alleged conspiracy is, in fact, irrelevant. Asking why anyone should believe unfalsifiable claims could be a useful way to approach proposed conspiracy theories.
These six objections likely cannot disprove all possible conspiracy theories that humans will ever come up with. However, they are likely robust enough together to give even the most hardened conspiracy theorists a hard time. The benefits with this more general approach is that they can be applied to many different conspiracy theories and the skeptic does not need to have detailed knowledge of, say, engineering or molecular biology or whatever topic the conspiracy theory involves.