How to debunk a conspiracy theory

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Thanks to the internet, we live in an age of conspiracy theories. Anyone with a computer and copious amounts of free time can flood social media and other sites with their ideas and theories. The problem with that, of course, is that most people are just flat out wrong for a variety of reasons. Now, that isn’t to say that there aren’t conspiracies out there or that there never were. I’m sure they can and do happen. But how do you evaluate a conspiracy theory to determine its validity? Well, here are some easy steps.

1. Where are people getting their information? This is probably the most scientific way to look at a conspiracy: the data. Evidence is important in any claim, and as the saying goes, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” So, when one encounters a conspiracy theory, the thing to look at is the source of the evidence. Did this person get their information from the US census? NASA? Or did they get it from some place like climatechangeisahoax.com? Or GMOiscancer.com? If someone is culling their information from a place like that, then chances are their information is colored by someone else’s bias or lack of understanding. There might be legitimate data out there to support a conspiracy…but it isn’t Glenn Beck and it isn’t some place like curestheydontwantyoutoknowabout.org. And speaking of evidence…

2. Is there a confirmation bias? This is another big red flag. If any conspiracy involves a big, “I KNEW it!” then take notice. A good example of this is the vaccine fear-mongering out there. Every time someone has an adverse reaction to a vaccine, someone is always quick to jump up and say, “See?! I told you so!” Unfortunately, they’re just cherry picking data. The entire body of vaccine-related evidence points overwhelmingly to the fact that they’re safe and effective. But by cherry-picking some specific outliers, some people are able to confirm their own bias. Which leads me to…

3. Who gains and who loses in the conspiracy? Let’s go back to the vaccines again. The way conspiracy theorists would paint it is that big pharma is raking in billions of dollars while knowingly giving us poison. Sounds pretty bad for us and great for the pharmaceutical industry, right? Except for tiny little facts like thanks to vaccination nobody in this country gets polio anymore. Another popular trope out there concerns climate change and green energy. Don’t you all know that climate change is a big hoax perpetuated by green energy companies to drum up profits?! Duh. It’s not like anyone else would have a stake in that argument. I’m mean, nobody at all benefits financially from carbon-based sources of fuel. Psh. Which brings us to…

4. Follow the money. Let’s revisit the climate change conspiracies. If it’s all a plot to increase profits, then look at the profits. And if you did that, you’d see that in 2012 Exxon made $16 BILLION in profits. Now let’s take a look at the other side of the fence. LDK Solar, a Chinese company which is the largest solar company in the world, has posted 8 straight quarters of losses, and is $2.9 billion in debt. In 2010 it finally turned a profit of $101 million dollars, or 0.6% of Exxon’s profits. Yep, sure looks like that conspiracy is working out for renewable energy companies…

5. To what end? This is a question everyone should ask of every conspiracy. For example, a lot of people also believe that scientists around the world are in collusion to perpetuate a massive global hoax regarding climate change. Because I guess they’re all going to share the Nobel prize? Who knows. I have no idea what the scientists are supposed to be getting out of this. Fame? Well, I’d be willing to bet cash money that 99% of Americans couldn’t name a single climate scientist. Money? It always comes back to money. Obviously these scientists are rolling in the lap of luxury thanks to all of the payoffs from the green energy companies. The ones who are posting massive losses and are in debt up their eyeballs. Totally makes sense.

6. Just use logic. If all else fails, think about what the conspiracy is claiming logically. A lot of people, some people I know personally even, believe that mass shootings are perpetuated by the government as an excuse to confiscate all of our weapons. Except that if anyone thought about that for more than five seconds they’d realize that’s a stupid idea. For starters, mass shootings continue to increase–and how many gun control laws are on the table? Oh yeah, that’s right, a big fat zero. But beyond that, this scenario would obviously never happen because it doesn’t need to happen. Guns aren’t a threat to the government. The same government that has drones and missiles and chemical and biological warfare and controls the infrastructure of the country. No, the last thing they’re worried about is how many guns Billy Tim Bob has in his basement. But they DO care about his vote. You bet they do. And anything that even remotely resembles gun control is political suicide.

Greedy, corrupt politicians are concerned with money and power. And so if letting you keep your guns makes you feel powerful, they’ll let you have them. So long as they continue to get your vote. And your money.

So, why do people believe conspiracy theories? Well, this about sums it up right here:

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13 thoughts on “How to debunk a conspiracy theory

  1. Love the post. I know a guy, he sent me to http://www.beforeitsnews.com for some such nonsense. I went there to see what he was talking about… I still have trouble sleeping at night knowing how many fucking morons out there fall for this shit.

    That site is the home for conspiracies large, small, in between, and absolutely ridiculous. I am beginning to believe that conspiracy theories are somehow turning into…conspiracy theories…?

    I am familiar with a phrase, something along the lines of “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” In an odd way the conspiracy meme today sorta kinda seems like a calculated distraction. A means to get people to buy more guns/ammo/ and survival gear… oh, and vote republican.

    Maybe I have been exposed to one too many conspiracy theories. I should go lie down for a bit.

    1. Thanks, man.

      The first name I saw on that website was David Icke and I nearly slammed my head into my desk…I really hope that’s just an oddball fringe site and not at all mainstream. Ugh…

      I like that phrase about brilliance and bullshit. I think it’s pretty accurate, and that accuracy isn’t limited to conspiracies. Politicians spring to mind as well…

      I’m sure people will always believe in some whacky conspiracy theory or another, unfortunately. While most are harmless–who cares if you think NASA and aliens have a joint moon base?–it’s the truly wacko ones that inspire people do harm others that have me worried.

  2. Great post Ryan! As the words in the graphic indicate I think that conspiracy theories are comforting to people in a way. Comforting in that they support their belief-based thinking. Just like a religious zealot will take every piece of evidence and try to conform it to their world view, or if that doesn’t work ignore the evidence all together, the conspiracy theorist is doing the same thing. Conspiracy theorists see patterns where none exist which is the classic error that a religious person makes when let’s say they prayed to get a job after an interview and then got the job. They think their prayer worked, even though they got the job because they met the requirements and made a good impression at the interview.

    1. Good point Swarn. Now I am curious where the correlation point between the religious and the conspiracy theory wackaloons meet up. I’ll put two bits on 65-75%.

      …you are right, in both cases they appear to be rationalizing in any way possible to satisfy and support some innate belief system. It feels good when you can justify your beliefs, even when you have to grasp at straws, twist and distort facts, or just make shit up to do it.

    2. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that religious people are quick to jump on a lot of these conspiracies: the government wants to take away your guns and freedom, global warming is a hoax, etc.

      Of course, if someone is religious, they’ve already demonstrated that they don’t require evidence or proof in order to believe something, so it’s only natural that they’d gravitate toward conspiracy theories.

      1. Oh agreed. In the Venn diagram of conspiracy theorists and religious fanaticism there is a lot of cross over. It just doesn’t have to be. 🙂

  3. You do make some valid points. But what, exactly, is a “conspiracy theory”? I wished you would have defined what one is, because the term can be thrown around loosely, often without understanding what one is, or what role we play in the conspiracy. Based on the context, I’d say that a conspiracy theory is any belief outside conventional wisdom or the mainstream.

    But I think it’s dangerous to be too quick to trust the mainstream or conventional wisdom, rather than be skeptical on certain matters. For example, if we were to trust conventional wisdom, we’d still believe many outdated facts, such as: that wine is good for your heart, too much salt is bad for you, oatmeal is good for you, fruits and vegetables prevent cancer, fatty foods cause cancer, multivitamins are good for you, cell phones cause cancer, and that Pluto is a planet.

    Would any of the tips you offered have saved us from misinformation? As for myself, I don’t believe in global warming or climate change (that the planet’s climate is changing for the worse because of man’s influence and that we must do something about it or else we’re all gonna die). From your context, it sounds like you accept climate change as legitimate science, while those who don’t are conspiracy theorists. However, I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist (of course those who are conspiracy theorists don’t consider themselves as such), at least not as you’re describing them. I don’t think there’s a mass conspiracy involving scientists and politicians who get together in secret and plan on world domination, wealth and power. But we do have evidence of scientists fudging data, and politicians who pander to get the votes they want, regardless if there’s any truth to the matter.

    I think many global warming believers are sincere and aren’t involved in any type of conspiracy. But someone like Al Gore- perhaps he knows there’s nothing to it because he’s fudged the data himself and has done nothing to reduce his carbon footprint.

    The tips you’ve provided don’t address several problems. You assume that certain sources can be trusted to provide accurate, unbiased information. But how do we know that’s the case? Didn’t Obama demand NASA be an outreach to Islam, as if there’s any rational reason to do so? This is pure politics. We also know that NASA has provided evidence contradicting man made global warming.

    Cherry picking outliers seems like a good way to identify conspiracy theories, except that the other side probably cherry picks too. So then what happens?

    Who wins and loses in a conspiracy is another good thing to consider. Of course when it comes to the global warming issue, you didn’t mention how certain politicians stand to capitalize if they implement their policies; they’ll achieve wealth, power and control over our everyday lives. Scientists stand to profit by obtaining grant money to continue their research. That doesn’t mean they’ll become wealthy. But companies like Solyndra will benefit, even when they have no business being in business.

    Another problem is that, whatever side you’re on, it’s the person who disagrees with you who is the conspiracy theorist, while we ourselves don’t fall for conspiracies because we know how to avoid the pitfalls.

    Finally, for those who are global warming alarmists, haven’t they violated every one of these tips? I think so.

    1. There’s a distinct difference between simply not believing climate change is a real thing and believing that it’s a massive hoax perpetrated by the majority of the scientific community. Which is why I didn’t delve too deeply into it. People can disagree on the science and that’s fine with me, because that’s empirical.

      1. Okay, that’s fair. But the way you portrayed it in the article seemed a bit dismissive. I don’t mind calling it a hoax (although not perpetuated by the majority of the scientific community. I think a lot of people believe in “climate change” without understanding it, and they fall for it because the spin sounds good. The reason I call it a hoax is because there’s plenty of evidence available for anyone to examine, but they either don’t examine it, or they won’t examine it. Any evidence to the contrary is dismissed without serious thought.

        And to one of your points, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Global warming and climate change is an extraordinary claim, but it doesn’t seem to require extraordinary evidence. Faulty computer programs are sufficient. A lack of global warming for more than 18 years is scoffed at. So who is it that believes in conspiracies?

      2. I guess I don’t see how simply believing inaccurate data alone is a conspiracy. There’s a difference between believing something wrong for legitimate reasons and believing in something wrong for the wrong reasons. An inaccurate data model is not necessarily a conspiracy–it’s just an error.

        I’m sorry I couldn’t give you my full attention during your first reply, but I was at the gym and it’s somewhat difficult to type on my phone whilst using the cycling machine lol. You’re right, though, I really could have done a better job of laying out what exactly I mean by conspiracy. I guess I was using it in the most popular sense–that someone or some group is purposely distorting things or presenting a false idea in order to misdirect people, subvert something, or cause gain for themselves. Part of that definition would be some sort of maleficence, ill will, nefariousness, etc.

        So in that light, I wouldn’t say that someone who blindly believes something or someone who doesn’t look at all the data warrants the use of the word hoax. Otherwise anyone with any sort of faith in anything would technically be involved in some sort of hoax or conspiracy, which obviously isn’t true.

      3. That’s why I wouldn’t call it a “conspiracy theory.” Where’s the conspiracy? And I guess it’s not truly a hoax, unless Al Gore and others are knowingly perpetuating a falsehood- and I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility based on what we know about politicians. I doubt we’ll receive a confession from them, so it’s not a conspiracy or hoax based on how you’re defining it. However, are you able to name some notable hoaxes that you would qualify as hoaxes? Based on your definition, would Piltdown Man be a hoax? No one admitted to purposely distorting things or presenting a false idea in order to misdirect people. But nonetheless it’s considered a hoax because it was based on fraudulent evidence, such as an orangutan jawbone. Or Nebraska Man, which wasn’t a “deliberate” hoax, but more of a mistake. Can’t global warming alarmists perpetuating this myth be considered part of a hoax if they advance their agenda, knowing that they’re using faulty computer models? It’s really no secret that their models aren’t able to predict the future; that’s pretty much common knowledge, but that hasn’t stopped them, has it?

        I’ve previously posted on the testimony of Patrick Moor, co-founder of Greenpeace, who says that there’s no scientific proof that human emissions of CO2 are the dominant cause of warming over the past 100 years. He admits that alarmists use faulty computer models and scare tactics, and even if the earth is warming, he doesn’t think it’s harmful for humans. He left Greenpeace because it was more interested in politics than the environment. Stuff like this is pretty strong evidence rebutting global warming, while there’s no observable evidence in favor of it.

        An inaccurate data model isn’t “just an error” if you base your entire philosophy on it and demand global changes by every nation on the planet at the expense of people’s livelihoods, and perhaps their very lives in some countries.

        So, while using the word “hoax” may be questionable, I think it has some merit, unless you think those people perpetuating global warming are simply ignorant, harmless and well-meaning.

        I admire you for attempting a reply on your phone. I hate having to do that myself.

      4. Well, I’d be curious to know how many major global decisions throughout history have been made on fraudulent or inaccurate or incomplete data. History is replete with examples, but hindsight is 20/20. Some of them probably were deliberate deceptions, like the USS Maine, while others probably were just bad intel. But if you have bad intel that suggests something dire for you or a group of people, isn’t there some obligation to act? Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to take the most extreme action, but if there’s a possibility that something bad will happen, the “let’s wait and see” method isn’t the best course of action either.

        I think this somewhat extends to science in that the response should be proportional to the threat represented by the data. I know I’ve said this before, but a global threat with the potential to end life as we know it on the planet demands some kind of action. And I’ve argued in the past that in the case of climate change, the steps being proposed aren’t detrimental to life on the planet. In other words, doing something like eliminating the use of fossil fuels won’t make the situation with the climate worse. Because if the impact of things like CO2 emissions really don’t have an affect on climate, then removing them wouldn’t have an affect either; they wouldn’t have existed anyway.

        But, to bring this home. As you and I have discussed, many times in the past, science is a tricky process. We rarely have all the data at one time, there are lurking and confounding variables all over the place which often aren’t realized until after an experiment…in short, it’s hard to ever be absolute with science. That’s why every single major research paper published discusses results in terms of probability and confidence–because there is always going to be room for error, whether that’s experimental error or new information that comes to light with a future discovery that changes previously held ideas.

        And I think that’s why a lot of people don’t read all of the available data on climate change. A scientifically literate person can look at data that supports man-made climate change and realize that there’s room for error. That same person should also be able to look at data against man-made climate change and see room for error there as well, for exactly the same reasons as in the other data set. Science is very, very rarely a simple case of having one piece of evidence completely and permanently overturn every single aspect of a previous idea. Even really bad ideas, totally wrong ideas, still have some tiny kernel within them that isn’t outright wrong. Science is more of a back and forth.

        So, to relate this back to climate change. You used the phrase “scare tactic.” That’s political vernacular. It isn’t scientific language. Whatever rhetoric is bandied about by politicians for their own gain is just that. But, scientifically, the idea of climate change is scary. It has implications that affect all of us. Even if you removed every politician from the argument, if people had never once heard a single piece of political rhetoric about climate change, and you told them what it was, I’m sure most of them would be concerned. And that’s without data. Just nervous about the IDEA of climate change.

        So I think that on a very basic idea, if someone came along and gave you some evidence that climate change was occurring–man made or not–everyone should be at least concerned. And if someone gave you some evidence that it was because of human activity, you evaluate that evidence based on the outcome. Even though it’s possible, likely even, that there is some degree of error in the data, what’s the worst thing that can happen by ignoring the data? And you make your decision based on that.

        Because at the end of the day, science and all of these policy decisions are subject to human fallibility. It’s human nature to pick the path of least resistance. If you have one person who says, “this bad thing is going to happen, but you can fix it by doing x and y” and another guy who’s saying, “That bad thing? Not real. You don’t have to change anything,” I can all but promise you that the majority of people will follow the second guy.

        Now, that second guy may indeed be correct. But that isn’t why everyone followed him. They followed him because fundamentally, it is human nature to resist or even fear change. Given the choice to do something or the choice to do nothing, even if the outcomes could be dire, people will more often than not choose to do nothing. It has nothing to do with the evidence and everything to do with their innate inability to deal with change. We know this. Look at any health data. We know that tanning beds increase the chances of getting cancer, people still tan. Look at all the things we KNOW smoking does to you, and people still choose to start smoking. We KNOW that obesity is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues, yet the obesity rate continues to climb. Doing something as simple as eating more fruits and vegetables everyday is beyond the motivation of about 30% of this country–even though they KNOW doing so may save their lives. I tend to personally think some of that resistance to change checkers the views of people when they look at the evidence for and against climate change.

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