Why I Don't Believe in Conspiracy Theories

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.

I recently asked conspiracy believers to relate any personal, first hand evidence they had to justify believing, say, that their own government would fly airliners into buildings. Not what they read or heard, but what they actually saw. It would be really fascinating to discover what, exactly, leads conspiracy believers to draw the conclusions they do. And after asking the same question in many different places, I have not found a single person who can give me first-hand evidence, nor anyone who can actually articulate how they came to believe in conspiracies.

Well, fair's fair. Let me tell you why I don't believe in conspiracy theories.

They Lie

Back when I was in high school, I spent a lot of time browsing the science section of my local library. I discovered there were two kinds of books. There were the ordinary science books about stars, rocks, cells, and so on. Then there were far more exotic books about great catastrophes, close encounters between earth and other planets, and so on. And all the exotic books described heartbreaking tales of how the Scientific Establishment suppressed any unorthodox ideas. It made me really angry.

Then I went to college and started learning some real science, and I discovered that in every single case, those exotic theories were pure rubbish. Generally, the ideas in those books were so trivially easy to refute that no real scientist would waste his time on them. The ideas weren't being suppressed at all. They were just irrelevant to real science. All those persecution accounts were lies. Lies told specifically to get the reader angry and on the side of the author. If I'd been angry before, finding out I'd been lied to and manipulated made me ten times angrier.

It was also about this time I discovered Martin Gardner's classic "Fads and Fallacies," where I first learned just how widespread the intellectual counterculture was. I developed an interest in crank theories as a scientific and social phenomenon, and I quickly noticed a pattern. Crank theories, almost without exception, have a paranoid tone and accuse some evil "Establishment" of conspiring to suppress their revolutionary ideas. This was the late Sixties, and I also noticed that some kinds of crank writings, specifically occult writings, held a lot of appeal for the radical counterculture of the day, which was also pretty paranoid (not entirely without reason). That turns out not to be coincidence.

This was also about the time that plate tectonics was revolutionizing geology, and the more entrenched it became in mainstream geology, the more strident its opponents became and the more likely they were to accuse mainstream scientists of ulterior motives and unfair treatment. One prominent hard-line opponent was editor of a leading journal, and he simply waived quality control when it came to anti-plate tectonic papers. It is safe to say that, under his aegis, that journal published some of the worst junk ever published in an otherwise mainstream scientific journal. And the tone was scarcely distinguishable from crank literature.

I concluded that a belief in conspiracies and a paranoid outlook are the single most reliable indicators of the crank, whether it's astrology, creationism, dowsing, UFO's, Bigfoot, or the Apollo moon landing hoax. In almost every case, the claims are false, intended to agitate the reader, lash out at authority, and justify the crank's ideas in his own eyes. Lashing out at authority is a major element in most conspiracy beliefs.

Real Conspiracies Have Sensible Goals

The world is full of real conspiracies: drug cartels, terrorist organizations, organized crime, financial scams, malware creators. And for the most part, they're rational. What they want is very clear. Mostly it's money. Drug cartels want to control drug traffic and keep out rivals. Organized crime and financial scams want to siphon money out of the economy either by direct extortion or by fraud. Terrorists want to bring down a regime or seize power. Nobody pretends ISIS or the Cosa Nostra are actually fronts for fracking or imposing global socialism or confiscating Americans' guns.

Two of the most massive secret operations in history were the Manhattan Project and the cover operations for D-Day. They managed to maintain secrecy because the people in charge were extremely rational and committed. True, they kept their subordinates highly compartmentalized, so that while everyone, friend and foe alike, knew something was afoot, and even in a general way what it was, very few people knew the big picture. But the fact that the entire group was highly committed meant that, even if information did leak to lower levels, it had a good chance of stopping there. (Military secrecy has one advantage. It doesn't have to deceive everybody, just the guy at the top. There were numerous leaks of Germany's plan to invade Russia in 1941, some very accurate. Stalin refused to believe them. Likewise, even after the Allied landings in Normandy, Hitler refused to believe that was the main attack.)

Real Conspiracies Use Sensible Methods

One of the most infamous real conspiracies was the Tuskeegee Experiments, where black syphilis patients were systematically denied proper medical care to allow doctors to observe the long term effects of syphilis. But the goal is easy to see: gather medical data (using flatly immoral methods). And the means to that end was fairly straightforward. The experimenters went to considerable lengths to track the subjects and intervene to prevent them getting proper care. But the methods were wholly ordinary: telephone calls and letters. Nobody has ever alleged a plot to topple American society by spreading syphilis, or trying to breed a new super-bug, or that the experimenters recruited psychics to track the subjects.

Bogus conspiracies, on the other hand, use Rube Goldberg methods to achieve objectives that any sane person could accomplish far more easily. (For those not old enough to remember Rube Goldberg, think of those insanely complicated domino-toppling or mechanical videos on YouTube.) For example, there are anti-fluoridationists who accuse the aluminum industry of promoting fluoridation as a means of disposing of waste fluoride. The aluminum industry is the single largest consumer of fluorine, so why would it "dispose" of something it uses in vast quantities? Actually, the aluminum industry recycles its fluorine. And the amount of fluorine used in drinking water is trivial compared to the amount used in smelting aluminum. It's like accusing the lumber industry of promoting the sale of hamsters so they can sell wood shavings, or the silver industry of pushing sugar so they could sell silver for dental fillings. It's interesting that none of them accuse the electronics industry, which also uses a lot of fluorine in the refining of silicon.

So, sure, there was a gunman up on the grassy knoll in Dallas. All your top assassins pick vantage points out in the open where people will be milling around and they can't be sure someone won't be behind them or get their picture, or block their getaway route. (Oswald, in contrast, picked a hidden perch with escape routes.) We faked the moon landings by building 400-foot tall rockets that launched in full view of thousands of people. And, despite our rivalry with the Soviet Union, we somehow convinced them not to release telemetry data that would reveal the fakery. And the government brought down WTC 7 several hours after the Twin Towers, even though there were no people inside and no advantage to be gained by wrecking an empty building. The Sandy Hook school massacre was completely imaginary. We just picked two dozen families, created imaginary children for them, plus imaginary friends. It's not like there aren't a lot of people pushing for gun control already. And if the government wanted to spray us with mind control chemicals, you'd think they could come up with something a little more subtle than leaving long white streaks in the sky. Like maybe putting chemicals in the water that make rainbows in the sunlight (Yes, that is a real thing on YouTube).

Real Conspiracies Leak

Watergate broke when a night watchman noticed that latches on the office door of the Democratic National Committee had been taped so the door would not lock. Police arrested five burglars who had cash traceable to a slush fund operated by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Security at every level was laughable, allowing investigators to follow the links right up to the White House. And this was an operation run by well trained people with access to enormous power. And it leaked like a sieve.

Iran-Contra was blown when an Iranian opposed to dealing with the U.S. leaked the story to a Lebanese newspaper.

In contrast, imaginary conspiracies are vast and air-tight. None of the astronauts in the Apollo Program has confirmed the hoax theory of the moon landings, let alone any of the thousands of people who built the rockets and landers. The Trilateral Commission, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, the Stonecutters, all control the global economy in secret. To which one critic of conspiracy theories said, "Great; let's have people in control that can get things done."

But any hobbyist with a computer can ferret out the conspiracy. Supposedly, dozens of witnesses to the JFK assassination have been hunted down and killed, most after they told the FBI everything they knew. If I thought there were really a conspiracy that ruthless, I'd paddle a canoe up the remotest headwaters of the Amazon and hide, not blog about it. A lot of conspiracy belief seems to be a Walter Mitty fantasy of a lone David bringing down a Goliath.

Their Logic is Just Plain Lousy

I can't really do much better than this response to Cracked's article, "5 Reasons Conspiracy Theories Are Destroying the World."

Manhattan Project
Asbestos from the 1930s to the 1960s
Lead poisoning
Tuskegee experiments
Iran Contra
Cigarettes (defended by the AMA at one point)
Mercury Poisoning
All of these were once conspiracy theories, and all of them have been proven true. OF COURSE there are some conspiracy theories that are batshit insane. But have just one iota of appreciation for history, and maybe take the smugness down a notch.

First of all, there is the vast leap of logic. "Tuskegee experiments, therefore 9/11 was an inside job." "MK-Ultra, therefore the Apollo landings were a hoax." "Iran-Contra, therefore Sandy Hook was a false flag attack." The "therefore's" need a little more work.

 Then, observe the attempt to salvage respectability. "OF COURSE there are some conspiracy theories that are batshit insane..." (and since I acknowledge that, therefore my conspiracy beliefs must be legitimate.) To see the fallacy here, just replace "conspiracy" with something else. "OF COURSE there are some racist theories that are batshit insane..." (but mine aren't). "OF COURSE there are some extremists that are batshit insane..." (but not me).

No, the real issue is this. Since so many conspiracy theories are demonstrably, trivially unworkable and wrong, prove that yours is an exception to the pattern.

And then of course, we have the "unanswered questions" fallacy. How do you explain how fires can bring down steel frame skyscrapers? (Well, heat weakens steel and thermal expansion stresses and breaks joints.) How do you explain that shadows on Apollo pictures point in different directions? (It's called perspective.) How do you explain how a mediocre shot like Oswald hit Kennedy? (Because if you visit the site, it's apparent he could practically have hit Kennedy with a brick from where he was.) Most of the time, there are answers - simple ones - but the conspiracy threorist rejects them. But even if they have a real unanswered question, all that proves is that something is unanswered. And note, by the way, they never agree that their unanswered questions prove that they're wrong. Why would anyone deliberately collapse WTC 7 hours after it was empty and the Twin Towers have collapsed? Well, maybe there was stuff there that the conspirators wanted to get rid of. Note that "maybe" isn't an answer.

seiroehT ycaripsnoC

One of the more interesting tactics by some conspiracy theorists is to flip the label around and accuse their critics of believing in conspiracy theories. A few of the replies to the Cracked article are typical.

"The fact that twenty people with box cutters can simultaneously hijack aircraft and hit 80% (sic) of their targets is a conspiracy theory in itself."

Well, yes it is. The difference between the hijacker conspiracy theory and the idea that the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives is there's supporting evidence for the hijacker theory.

"The term "conspiracy theorist" was coined by the CIA in order to influence public opinion and discredit investigation into government misconduct."

"Conspiracy theorist" is an inherently self-explanatory term. That's kind of like saying the term "salt shaker" was invented by the Morton Salt Company to encourage people to use salt.

"The most recent poll showed that the majority of Americans no longer believe the conspiracy theory that a species emitting only 3% of the world's supply of a poor heat-trapping gas are magically cooling the planet... I mean heating the planet... or wait, I mean causing the weather to change now."

Now that one is so wonderfully weird I hardly know where to begin with it. Psst, buddy, wanna burn some hydrocarbons and change the climate? Nobody is conspiring to emit CO2. We have people conspiring to deny that it has an effect. Simply saying CO2 affects climate is no more a conspiracy theory than saying that dogs have fleas. But I think this guy simply thinks that if he can apply the label "conspiracy theory" to something he disagrees with, that magically puts the two belief systems on the same level.

I Just Don't See any Evidence

This goes way beyond any shortcomings I see in the theories themselves. I just plain don't see any evidence that the Government would fly aircraft into buildings or stage a massive counterfeit lunar program. I see lots of stupidity and garden-variety corruption, stupidity of a class that would crash any super-secret conspiracy. What I do see is the roads are decent, airplanes get where they're supposed to go without colliding all the time (we go years on end between fatal aircraft accidents these days), the drinking water is safe, and the mail gets delivered. If you want a real sinister conspiracy, look into the efforts to drive the Postal Service into bankruptcy. When I use a Government printed map, what I find on the ground is what I see on the map. If I served 20 years in uniform, they said I'd get a pension when I turned sixty. The magic day came, and darned if the pension didn't start coming. I flat-out have never had a personal experience that suggests to me there are vast conspiracies afoot.

If you believe in them, you must have had some personal experience or observation that persuades you to believe that way. So what was it? Because I've asked and asked, and as far as I can tell so far, not a single conspiracy believer has any personal experience to justify their beliefs.

 And if you don't have any personal observations or experiences, but it's all what you've read, or heard, or how "it all fits together," there must be something that's convinced you that's how the world works. What was it?

Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 5 December 2014;  Last Update 17 December, 2015

Not an official UW Green Bay site