How to recognize a conspiracy theory

matthew's picture

In this age when conspiracy theories abound and you can find entire communities devoted to group-think, finding dragons in the clouds and believing them to be real, I think it's a great idea to revisit Michael Shermer's Conspiracy Theory Detector. Summary below the break.

  1. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections — or to randomness — the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
  2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
  3. The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
  4. Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
  5. The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
  6. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
  7. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
  8. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
  9. The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
  10. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

Examples of conspiracy theories that fail the test: "Birther" theory, "9/11 planned demolition", and "Clinton Body Count". If you hold up the Benghazi ambassador assassination to the same scrutiny, I don't see how anyone can come up with any other explanation than that there WAS a conspiracy of Islamic militants who decided to attack the compound on the same day as anti-American demonstrations took place in many other highly-populated places in the Middle East.

It's also useful to note that most conspiracy theorists share common traits likely to cause them to believe conspiracy theories:

  1. Backing more than one conspiracy theory,
  2. Talking about conspiracy theories with like-minded people,
  3. Endorsing democratic procedures,
  4. An imaginative outlook, (this is not a compliment; it means imagining things and believing they exist in the real world)
  5. Mistrust of authority,
  6. Feeling suspicious of others.