A conspiracy theory is a weaponized form of pseudoscience that posits a global cabal of evil people that control the events of history and politics with extreme power and effectiveness. The evidence for conspiracy theories is weak or non-existent and believers are extremely resistant to facts. This article goes into the detail about the defining features of a conspiracy theory and how they can be investigated and debunked.
What is a conspiracy theory?
An article called Towards a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ by Robert Brotherton in The Quarterly (publication of PsyPAG) developed a robust definition of the term “conspiracy theory”:
‘Conspiracy theory’ is the name commonly given to a particular category of claims: a sub-set of theorised conspiracies which reliably demonstrate certain characteristics. In terms of the context in which conspiracy theories exist, a conspiracy theory is an unverified and sensationalistic claim of conspiracy which contradicts a more plausible account. In terms of content, the claim assumes extraordinary malevolence and competence on the part of the conspirators. In terms of epistemic rationale, the claim is based on evidence regarded as poor quality by legitimate epistemic authorities, and is resistant to questioning or correction.
Let us unpack this definition.
Conspiracy theories are unverified in the sense that they are not supported by evidence and not accepted by the appropriate experts in an area. They are not just any regular set of claims, but involve a great degree of sensationalism. This means that they often rise to the level of nations or even enter the global arena. They do not focus on smaller crimes, but often large events such as assassinations, election of politicians, tsunamis and terror attacks. Another crucial aspect of a conspiracy theory is that it is almost always far from the most realistic model of the events. This means that the conspiracy theory is inherently implausible. This is a very major problem for conspiracy theories, so their supporters must invent an explanation for why people do not accept it. This typically results in the conspiracy theory swelling and including even more people, which in turn make it even more implausible.
The perpetrators behind an alleged conspiracy are often extremely evil and stop at nothing from carrying out their plan and reaching their goal. They are also incredible effective in their methods and never get caught while at the same time being unable to take down a YouTube video posted by the conspiracy theorist. From a knowledge perspective, the evidence for the conspiracy theory is very weak compared with real conspiracies.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of conspiracy theories is the epistemic self-insulation. Evidence against the conspiracy theory is often dismissed as merely being the “official narrative” even though it is often researched by thousands of scientists, engineers and journalists and in no way declared as true by governments. Thus, there is a large pressure on the conspiracy theorist to come up with ways to explain away the evidence. This is done by accusing the very same people of being part of the conspiracy. All evidence against the conspiracy theory is creatively (and wrongly) interpreted as evidence of just how deep the conspiracy theory go.
Example (Flat Earth belief):
Even though scientists and philosophers have known that the earth is not flat since the Ancient Greeks (the shadow of the earth on the moon, ships on the horizon and actually measuring the circumference of the earth), there are still people who genuinely believe that the earth is flat. In fact, they are so sincere in their belief that they have held their own conferences to spread the incorrect belief that the earth is flat.
The belief that the earth is flat is an excellent example of a conspiracy theory. It is a trivially false belief and something that can be tested by any individual on their own without expensive tools. It is an incredibly sensationalist claim since they think it involves over 200 countries conspiring against the population. It is certainly a very implausible belief since so much of our accumulated scientific knowledge must be wrong if the earth was somehow flat. The people behind the conspiracy must be incredible skillful in order to keep this from literally billions of people and corrupt everything from research in Antarctica and everyone who has been in a spacecraft. The size of the supposed conspiracy must involved hundreds of thousands of people, making it extremely unlikely. The alleged evidence for the earth being flat is incredibly weak and many flat earth communities are highly fact-resistant.
But have there not been real conspiracies?
Yes, there have been real conspiracies, but that does not in any way support the content of conspiracy theories.
Think about why and how you know that real conspiracies have happened. It is because of the massive amount of evidence available that conclusively show that the conspiracy existed, how it worked, who were behind it and how it was uncovered. It has often involved many competent journalists and scientists who worked a long time to uncover it. It is not because some ignorant person on YouTube made a voice-over video with some grainy photos.
Just think about the amount of evidence available for the U.S. construction of the atom bomb, the mass surveillance done by NSA and so on. It involves literally tens or even hundreds of thousands of documents, interrogations, explanations and physical artifacts. Now think about the alleged evidence that is presented for the earth somehow being flat, that climate change is supposedly a hoax or that vaccines are evil. The so-called “evidence” for these conspiracy theories are virtually non-existent. They are based on incorrect understanding of science and medicine, taking sentences from experts out of context so that they seem to say things they do not really say and so on. The difference in the amount and quality of evidence available for real conspiracies and conspiracy theories is a wide canyon.
So this means that the existence of real conspiracies does not make conspiracy theories more plausible. In fact, it makes them less plausible since we know what kind of evidence is sufficient to persuade us of the existence of real conspiracies. In contrast, the amount and quality of scientific evidence that is typically presented for conspiracy theories is woefully inadequate. Finally, robust investigations of real conspiracies are typically not epistemologically self-insulated and they are eminently falsifiable.
In other words, it is important to distinguish between political conspiracies and conspiracy theories. They are not the same and should not be confused.
Example (Climate denial):
Climate denial is the belief that climate science is inherently corrupt, that there is no warming or that the observed warming is not substantially impacted by human activity. If we take a closer look at the features of a conspiracy theory, it is easy to note that this fits with the features of climate denial. We have global temperature data from all continents as well as the ocean and the air that show warming. We also know that humans are an important contributor because of the signals of human activity. Human release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have increased their concentration in the atmosphere. The evidence against human impact on the climate is weak and relies on simple misunderstandings of the science.
The science behind climate change has been put together by thousands and thousands of climate scientists, atmospheric chemists, physical oceanographers and so on. The idea that all of these are part of a vast conspiracy theory is implausible since something would have leaked. The claim is also sensationalist and grand, since it involves the climate of the entire earth and negative climate impact on humanity. Climate scientists have attempted to persuade climate deniers for decades, but the latter refuses to accept the mountain of evidence available from thousands of scientific publications and systematic reviews by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
What is the harm of conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories can cause a long list of harms to people, relationships and communities.
First, conspiracy theories involve inaccurate beliefs about reality. Knowledge for its own sake is a beautiful thing and valuable in its own right. Having accurate beliefs about reality is beneficial in virtually all aspects of existence. It is the foundation for navigating the physical and social world.
Second, conspiracy theories with their implausible narratives and ignorant claims cheapen the experience of reality. Reality itself as revealed by science is much more awe-inspiring and fantastic than any myth or conspiracy theory. If you want to know the “real truth” behind reality, try science.
Third, belief in conspiracy theories can erode friendships and romantic relationships. When someone gets sucked into conspiracy theories, they often spend a lot of time on social media like Facebook or YouTube. Because the conspiracy theorist feels that they “have the real truth” while others are just “passive sheep”, they often have a dim view of other people in their surroundings. Thus, there is a certain kind of bigotry inherent in conspiracy theories against those who do not accept it. Indeed, the conspiracy theory narrative must have some kind of explanation or excuse for why other reasonable people reject it. In other words, conspiracy theories can drive a wedge between friends and lovers.
Fourth, it robs a lot of time from people that could be spent on more productive activities. The conspiracy swamp often involves watching very long YouTube videos (not seldom spanning several hours) or engaging in back-and-forth discussions on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. This takes up a lot of time. This time could be spent towards relaxation, working, education or exercise. Over time, belief in conspiracy theories can rob people of thousands and thousands of hours.
Fifth, it can harm the personal finances of people engaged in conspiracy theories.
Sixth, a lot of conspiracy theories harm the health and live of people. For instance, alternative medicine conspiracy theories about modern medicine persuades people to stop using real treatments and start using fake treatments that cost a lot of money. This can lead to the person staying sick or even dying due to their disease. Other conspiracy theories can persuade followers to engage in harmful behavior such as going into pizza places with weapons to uncover non-existent sex crime rings. Finally, those who push conspiracy theories can con people for a lot of money, which can itself harm the health of someone because it is money that could have been spent on health care or health-promoting behavior.
Example (Anti-vaccine activism):
Vaccines are among the most important public health achievements in human history. They have eliminated smallpox and rinderpest as well as decimated deadly diseases such as measles and polio. They are among the most well-tested medical products in existence and have thousands of published papers supporting their safety and effectiveness. Anti-vaccine activists hate vaccines and think they harm and kill children.
They posit a grand conspiracy among governments, pharmaceutical companies and tens of thousands of doctors. Virtually all claims made by anti-vaccine activists can easily be disproved. Studies have investigated specific anti-vaccine claims over and over on millions of participants. As with the other conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine activists claim sensationalist and implausible things about medical doctors and refuse to engage with evidence disproving their claim. In contrast, real deception made by governments and pharmaceutical companies have been exposed, but this has not happened for well-established vaccines.
How to approach conspiracy theories?
There are two major approaches to debunking a conspiracy theory and they both have different sets of strengths and weaknesses.
The first major approach involves engagement with the particular claims of a conspiracy theory and refute them with references to the scientific literature. This allows people who come across the exchange to understand why the specific argument that got delivered was incorrect. Sticking to the subject also prevents believers in the conspiracy theory to claim that critics are ignoring the actual “arguments” and only engage in character assassination. Finally, it might be possible to undermine the credibility people have in conspiracy theory if sufficient number of claims about facts are disproved. Sometimes, it may be enough to disprove a central claim in order to make people doubt a particular conspiracy theory.
However, there are clear downsides to this approach. It is easy to get bogged down into smaller details and refuting them often lead to the conspiracy theorists merely insisting that they are right or putting up another false claim about reality without acknowledging error. This first approach also does not necessary address more fundamental scientific or logical flaws in the conspiracy theory or cognitive flaws within the conspiracy narrative.
By being focused on one or a few claims, the broader issues with the conspiracy theory go unchallenged. In essence, it allows the conspiracy theorist to get off the hook for pushing a conspiracy narrative itself and any bigoted beliefs that is included in such a conspiracy narrative. This is because most conspiracy theories feature a group of evil people who are alleged to be the perpetrators behind the conspiracy. This is often claimed to be vulnerable minority groups, political opponents or medical professionals.
The second major approach does not refute any particular claim about the world. Rather, it involves highlighting and explaining why the proposed conspiracy theory is, in fact, a conspiracy theory. This is done by pointing out how the narrative contains many of the crucial defining features of a conspiracy theory, how it is epistemologically self-insulating, how it is bigoted, how conspiracy theorists refuse to accept evidence and other problematic behaviors. This prevents the discussion from being bogged down in specific details of a certain conspiracy theory and instead reorients the conversation to the broader conspiracy narrative and its flaws.
If it could be demonstrated that the narrative being proposed is merely a conspiracy theory deeply drenched in a problematic ideology, it is easy to persuade people on the fence to not accept it compared with wading through a seemingly unstoppable torrent of faulty claims about the world. This approach simply denies the conspiracy theorist access to your time and effort and prevents them from taking control of the conversation. It rejects their demand to have a seat at the table.
However, this approach also has limitations. It essentially ignores the particular claims that are being put forward. This means that such claims are not refuted and it might appear as if the critic is refusing to address them. It may also appear as if the discussion is being reoriented towards various personal attacks instead of a discussion about the issues.
It is clear that both approaches are fundamentally flawed on their own in isolation. This means that the most robust way to debunk conspiracy theories is a combination approach. This entails both refuting central claims within the conspiracy theory and attacking the broader conspiracy narrative by highlighting how it has defining features of a conspiracy theory and expose any bigotry inherent in it.
Example (9/11 conspiracy theories):
Perhaps the best example of a conspiracy theory are the conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Hijackers subscribing to militant and jihadist salafist extremism took over airplanes and crashed them into important buildings in the United States and killed thousands of people. We know this because of the careful research done by thousands of journalists, scientists and engineers. The funding for the attack, the travelling paths of the terrorists and many other aspects have been uncovered in great detail.
In contrast, conspiracy theorists make up increasingly more absurd notions about what happened, from antisemitic bigotry to nonsense about space reptiles or holograms. Virtually all claims that can be tested have been disproved and shown to rest on faulty understandings of structural mechanics. For instance, jet fuel does not need to melt steel in order to fatally compromise the structural integrity of buildings. As with the other examples, those who believe the conspiracy theory have attacked scientists, engineers and journalists as if they were part of the conspiracy. Despite it being almost 20 years since 9/11, they still keep posting large lists of YouTube links that supposedly prove their point, even though the arguments have been dissected thousands of times.
How to debunk any conspiracy theory?
First, make yourself familiar with the content of the conspiracy theory and the real facts behind it. This is not optional and having a command of the scientific content of the area is a must. Otherwise it is difficult to see through specific claims about facts. Second, read up on the features of conspiracy theories in general and how to recognize them. Third and finally, learn how to debunk any conspiracy theory by making objections that can be leveraged against just about any conspiracy narrative no matter the specific area.
The article Six Ways to Debunk Any Conspiracy Theory outlines half a dozen general objections. They focus on unrealistic or contradictory features of the people behind the conspiracy, the difference between a proposed conspiracy theory and real conspiracies and issues from the philosophy of science.
Most conspiracy theories grow so large as to include hundreds if not thousands of perpetrators or at least people who must be aware of the existence of the conspiracy. That all of these people could keep quiet even though the incentives to leak it to the media or sell the information is astounding. There is typically a lot of evidence behind real conspiracies that can be examined, checked and verified, but there is hardly any evidence at all for conspiracy theories. The alleged “evidence” that is presented is often convoluted, trivially incorrect or otherwise unlikely to be accurate. It is also telling that the people behind the conspiracy theory are often given massive capabilities, such as being enormously rich and influential, yet being unable to silence the people who believe in conspiracy theories or take down their YouTube videos or tweets.
Most conspiracy theories also underestimate the complex nature of reality and attribute an incredibly precise capability to predict the future for the perpetrators that is highly unrealistic. The motives that supposedly drive the conspiracy is typically implausible and inconsistent with the method that is used to keep it a secret. Finally, most conspiracy theories are also unfalsifiable. Not merely that it is consistent with any observation, but that the conspiracy narrative itself is very self-insulating on an epistemic level. After all, many conspiracy theorists claim, any evidence against a conspiracy theory somehow “proves” how deep the conspiracy really goes.
In order to effectively combat conspiracy theories, it is important to understand their defining features and how they differ from political conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are not supported by evidence, considered faulty by experts, involve sensationalist claims about an evil group of people with extreme powers and those who believe in the conspiracy theory are incredibly fact-resistant and insulated. They differ from real conspiracies because the latter has providential support after careful work by trained professionals.
Conspiracy theories are harmful, because they undermine critical thinking and can easily harm the health and life of the people who believe in it.
There are two major approaches to conspiracy theories that involve either disproving specific claims or exposing the belief as a conspiracy theory. In reality, the best approach is a combination of methods. Ways to disprove a conspiracy theory involves highlighting the lack of evidence, how there is a mismatch between the methods and goals of the conspiracy, the absence of leaks, the unrealistic degree of predictability required and how ideologically self-insulating the conspiracy theory is.