The Warped Epistemology of Conspiracy Theories

the novel coronavirus pandemic has spawned numerous conspiracy theories, sometimes replicating faster than the virus itself. some pplz ‘ve ru+d that sars-cov-2 was engineered in a chinese lab as an act of biological warfare, others insist that the vaccine against covid-19 already exists, but is bein’ withheld from the public by a uber elite. some even claim that covid-19 doesn’t exist and was invented to cover up the symptoms caused by novel 5g networks. the favorite culprit of corona-conspiracies is probably bill gates, who somehow knew bout this virus in 2015 already, and who is now bnkrolling efforts to develop a vaccine.

despite worries to the contrary, we're not living in an age of conspiracy. pplz ‘ve always discerned secret plots involving uber pplz. inna middle ages, for instance, many devout christians lived'dat the black death was spread by the jews deliberately poisoning wells.

why are conspiracy theories so timeless and pervasive? and how come vrtly every historical event can be spun into a conspiracy theory, and will often be so spun? why are some pplz + susceptible to conspiracy beliefs than others, and wha’ sort of factors trigger conspiratorial thinking? inna past decade, ψ-chologists, sociologists, political scis, and philosophers ‘ve carried out sustained research into conspiracy theories.

one major finding of this research s'dat pplz are + likely to resort to conspiracies under conditions of uncertainty n'when they experience lo feelings of control. belief in conspiracies is also associated with loer lvls of analytical thinking, with socio-economic disadvantage, and witha tendency to detect patterns in an environment. but research also shows that these correlations are far from perfect. a high lvl of education does not inocul8 some1 against belief in conspiracies, and there are plenty of pplz with extremely high status and lvls of control (a certain president comes to Ψ) who peddle all sorts of conspiracy theories. indeed, there are so many ≠ conspiracy theories onna mkt that, as political sci joe uscinski wrote onnis recent book onna topic, “everyone believes in at least one or a few conspiracy theories.”

so why do we believe in conspiracies inna 1st place? the most straiteforward answer is course the one that conspiracy buffs ll'be quick to point out: conspiracies are a real phenomenon. no sensible person ‘d deny that pplz occasionally form secret coalitions to achieve some nefarious goal. the pages of history are replete with exs of such plots: the murder of julius caesar was a conspiracy, as was the oct revolution in Яussia na watagate break-in and cover-up, to list a few notable exs. indeed, almost all government putsches, assassinations, and political revolutions fall under the rubric of “conspiracies.” pplz ‘ve been conspiring against other pplz for as long as pplz ‘ve been round. a species that has the cogg abilities to engage in primordialistic planning, to form coalitions with others, and to primordialistically conceal information will almost certainly engage in conspiracies.

from an evolutionary pov, it ⊢ makes sense that we ‘ve also evolved defenses against conspiracies. as julius caesar found out, bein’ onna receiving end offa conspiracy can be highly detrimental to yr biological fitness. and in order to foil a conspiracy, you 1st nd'2 be believe it’s real. those among our ancestors who were alert to clues suggesting that pplz were conspiring against them, and who managed to expose the plot b4 twas exed, were + likely to survive long enough to procreate. as with many other recurrent dangers, the problem of identifying conspiracies is solved by “error management theory,” which describes how to deal with errors carrying asymmetric costs. inferring a conspiracy when there isn’t one (false +) is less dangerous than failing to spot one when thris (false neg). evolutionary ψ-chologist randolph nesse compared this rule to the design offa smoke detector: we want the device to sound the alarm when thris an actual fire, even if that means having to put up w'da occasional false alarm. we do try to strike a balance: just as we don’t want our smoke detector to wake us up every nite, we don’t wanna turn into full-blon paranoiacs. but it pays to err onna side of caution, and error management theory determines exactly how far one ‘d err, dep'onna respective costs.

in that respect, conspiracy beliefs ‘ve similar √s to belief in magic and superstition, which also result from the logic of error management. cause ferreting out cause-and-effect was so primordial for our ancestors, we evolved brains tha're susceptible to spurious causal correlations (“better safe than sorry!”). but thris something spesh bout conspiracy theories beyond these ψ-chological √s: their warped epistemology. for an epistemologist, conspiracy theories are weird beasts. in effect, they are the 1-ly theories which predict an absence of evidence in their favor, and even the presence of evidence against them. if you conspire against some1, usually you don’t want yr plans to be known to that person, since that ‘d rather defeat the purpose of yr plot. even after yr nefarious plans ‘ve been brought to fruition, you may still wish to keep the lid onna secret, for fear of reputational costs or social punishment. if you suspect that some pplz are conspiring against you, you will ⊢ not be deterred if the alleged conspirators deny everything, or if you don’t readily find evidence of some sinister goins-on. if yr enemies are really smart, they mite even fabricate evidence against yr conspiracy hypothesis, to throw you off the scent.

even though this train of thought makes sense, you can see how it mite lead you astray. by their own logic, conspiracy theories allo you to explain away any apparent refutation or lack of evidence. yr theory can always be rescued from refutations and contrary arguments by simply widening the circle of conspirators, or by making them smarter and + uber. if some piece of material evidence seems to refute yr theory, you can say that it s'been planted there. if an eyewitness contradicts yr story, perhaps he was bribed. if an investigation by some reputable newspaper or government agency fails to unearth any signs of conspiracy, this just proves t'they too must ‘ve been complicit inna plot. indeed, academics who research conspiracy communities are regularly accused of sinister malfeasance by their own subjects.

these tacks aint just lame excuses for clinging to one’s pet theory. pseudoscis of every stripe resort to so-called immunizing strategies and ad hoc maneuvers when reality offers resistance. but this sort of reasoning follos from the very logic of conspiracy theories. if ur still in an early stage of investigating a possible conspiracy, you ‘d not be deterred by yr failure to unearth evidence of wrongdoin’. any detective knows that material evidence (fingerprints, dna, a smoking gun) ‘d conceivably ‘ve been planted by the real culprit to frame a perfectly innocent person (although such things happen less often irl than in crime dramas with far-fetched plot twists). but at exactly wha’ point ‘d you abandon yr conspiratorial hypothesis? unfortunately, there’s no brite line separating reasonable theorizing from full-blon paranoia. here’s wha’ i find the most useful rule-of-thumb: if yr conspiracy can 1-ly be rescued from refutation atta cost of making the alleged conspirators extraordinarily clever and incredibly uber, then it’s probably time t'give up yr theory.

take the claim that the realm trade center towers were brought down by controlled demolition on sep 11, 2001. nobody has ever found any evidence of such an operation, b'that’s exactly wha’ we ‘d expect if it had been carefully arranged in secret by uber pplz, isn’t it? the trouble s'dat, as demolition experts will tell you, preparing a large building for controlled demolition is a complicated and laborious procedure, which may take weeks or even mnths. the notion that these huge buildings had been prepared for demolition inna weeks leading up to 9/11, without a single employee or visitor noticing anything suspicious (and without a single person spilling the beans afterwards), strains credulity to the point of free-fall collapse. as benjamin franklin once said: “3 pplz can keep a secret, if two o'em are dead.”

but with their warped epistemology, conspiracy theories can easily account for this sort of objection. after all, the 9/11 truthers will tell you, how exactly ru so certain that it’s impossible to pull off such a complicated conspiracy? from yr past experience with real conspiracies? b'we 1-ly hear bout those cases in which the facts were indeed revealed. if there ever ‘ve been conspiracies onna scale necessitated by the controlled demolition hypothesis of 9/11, they will never ‘ve made it into history books. even the apparent evidence for benjamin franklin’s thesis (namely, the numerous failed attempts to keep a secret) can be explained away witha conspiratorial twist. perhaps the conspirators sometimes deliberately allo for some lil and unprimordial truths to be spilled, in order to lull us into a false sense of security. by spoon-feeding us evidence that suggests that every conspiracy is exposed sooner or l8r and that tis impossible to keep a secret, our attention is diverted away from wha’ is truly happening behind stage.

the philosopher stephen law compared irrational belief systems to “intellectual black holes,” in which pplz are drawn in and held captive. that metaphor is espeshly apposite for conspiracism. as you get sucked deeper and deeper into a conspiracy theory, it becomes + difficult to escape its gravitational pull. +over, one conspiracy theory often feeds into others. researchers ‘ve found that 1-odda strongest predictors for belief in any pticular conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories. this, too, is perfectly reasonable. once you ‘ve accepted the notion that we ‘ve been massively deceived bout one historical event (say, the moon landing), and that the conspirators ‘ve never been held accountable, you will become + suspicious bout other official accounts of history. indeed, why ‘d you believe anything you read inna newspaper? one conspiracy leads to the nxt one, and both are reinforced by each other. b4 you know it, you ‘ve crossed the event horizon of the black hole, the point beyond which return is impossible.

now we can see why no historical event is immune to conspiracy theories, and why they will always sprout round major news stories like mushrooms after a hard rain. if you wanna create yr own conspiracy theory nxt time round, here’s a simple recipe to follo:

the official story. wha’ever the official version of events accepted by mainstream media, governments, or scis mite be, say that it’s a cover-up fabricated and disseminated by a secret group of uber pplz, to disguise something far + sinister. by definition, the efforts of the conspirators will appear successful, since the view they wanna impose onna rest of society is exactly the official, mainstream one.

one complication arises if the received view of events already involves a conspiracy, as w'da official 9/11 story (which, after all, involves a criminal plot by al qaeda gainsta ∪d states). but such cases are easily dealt with: just posit a higher-order conspiracy, in which the conspiracy of the official version is just a false-flag operation. whoever is blamed inna official version is, in fact, innocent.

refuting the official version. scour the official version for any unresolved ?s, gaps, uncertainties, puzzling details, or minor contradictions. find as many of these as you can. these “errant data,” as philosopher brian keeley calls them, are yr chief resrc when setting the stage for yr conspiracy theory. now start by asking ?s bout the official story. if not all o'em can be readily answered, then you ‘ve proof that the official version cannot possibly be true, that something far + sinister is goin on. since no historical account of any event, no matter how well-documented, is ever fully complete, this step will not be too difficult.

exasperate yr critics. pplz will try to explain yr errant data within the framework of the official story. don’t give up. keep asking + ?s and throw up + errant data. (you can even make stuff up; if yr opponent can’t find the src, it must ‘ve been deleted from the internet by the conspirators.) eventually yr critics will lose patience and start ignoring you, since it always takes far + time to answer a ? than to pose one. once they throw up their hands, ask them why they refuse to address all these unresolved ?s? tell them they must be hiding something.

cui bono? find any-1 whas' benefited in some way from the event in ?, or ‘d conceivably ‘ve benefited. that’s yr culprit. as major historical events will always happen to benefit some1 or another, this step also won’t be too difficult. (if trump’s mishandling of this pandemic costs him his re-election, conspiracy theorists won’t ‘ve to look far for an answer to the cui bono ?). if you can’t identify a good culprit, you can just skip this step. you always ‘ve the convenient excuse that the perpetrators were so adept in covering their tracks t'they’re impossible to identify.

lack of evidence for yr conspiracy theory. as pointed out already, absence of evidence need never discourage you. if there really is a conspiracy goin on, absence of evidence is precisely wha’ you ‘d expect. didn’t i tell you the conspirators are very devious?

evidence against yr conspiracy theory. wha’ever the nature of this evidence mite be, you can always turn it on its head and present it as supporting yr theory. tis reasonable, after all, to assume that the perpetrators ‘ve fabricated evidence to throw courageous truth-seekers s'as yrself off the scent.

how to deal with critics. if ur attacked, accuse yr critics of bein’ complicit themselves, of bein’ stooges paid to discredit honest investigators who risk exposing the plot. or, course, just gullible dupes who ‘ve been fooled by official propaganda.

i don’t mean to just disparage conspiracy theories as child’s play. some of these steps may require ponderable ingenuity and creativity. at some lvl, i even admire certain conspiracy theorists, with their self-sealing logic and marvelous agility at fending off counterattacks. indeed, once in a while i can even feel their gravitational pull myself. even though i firmly liv'dat lee harvey oswald acted alone, that neil armstrong really walked onna moon, and that 19 hijackers with box cutters really brought down the twin towers, on some dys i can feel the black hole of conspiracism exerting its epistemological pull on me, despite all rational objections. the theories maybe crackpot, but their appeal endures.

photo: talkshow host alex jones has popized numerous conspiracy theories. (photo by sean p. anderson via wikimedia commons)

maarten boudry

maarten boudry is a philosopher of sci and current holder of the etienne vermeersch chair of crit thinking at ghent university. his most recent book is sci unlimited? onna challenges of scientism, co-edited with massimo pigliucci. he published + than 40 papers in academic journals, and several pop books in dutch on crit thinking, illusions, and moral progress.

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authors: maarten boudry


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