How not to be a conspiracist

While this post was sparked by some recent discussions (it’s that time of year, or at least, it was a little over a month ago,) what I talk about here is quite common, and I’ve seen it all over and over again. So, I figured it was time to address it again.

“Conspiracist” is defined as someone who believes or promotes a conspiracy theory. Which means that my use of it herein is not going to be perfectly accurate, because I have yet to hear anything that actually qualifies as a theory; a theory, in scientific usage, is an explanation that best fits all of the known facts. Believe me, nobody even comes close, so using the word in application to things such as Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11, fluoride in drinking water, chemtrails, and all similar topics is abusing a language that is already on the ropes. However, since you still know who I mean by the term, it’ll be better than coining my own.

It is interesting to note that, in my experience anyway, very few people want to be considered part of this crowd, even as they actively promote the conspiracy ideas; apparently they are in tune with the greater consensus that such people are “kooks.” I can’t say that I really blame them, but there really isn’t any firm definition, no dividing line between someone who is a serious investigator and a chuzzlewit looking for spies within the bushes. Yet, there are some distinctive traits that can very often be seen in these circles, and by avoiding them, one can greatly reduce their chances of being lumped into any such derogatory bin. To that end, I have compiled a short (and admittedly incomplete) list of things to be aware of when dealing with any topic of this nature.

1. “Conspiracy” is not a crime, or even a firm definition. A conspiracy actually requires specific actions of a covert nature, usually coupled with the attempt to disguise these actions. It does not automatically arise with gaps within, or the mere weakness of, The Official Explanation, nor can you charge anyone with just “conspiracy.” To avoid being considered a kook, one should always have a specific set of actions/crimes, and of course the people who committed them.

2. Never rely on the argument that something “might be possible.” Conspiracists dearly love these, but for every, “might,” there is also a, “might not.” Emphasis should only be on what can be shown as most likely; not the exceptionally low bar of “possible,” but a careful comparison of probabilities.

3. The key is not raising questions, but finding answers. A hallmark of a conspiracist is that they can usually only find problems with The Official Explanation, and lack any ability to explain what happened in its place. Apparently, they feel that mere uncertainty is adequate to allow any other explanation.

4. There is no such thing as “negative evidence.” Even if there is good reason to question The Official Explanation, this does not suggest, promote, or strengthen any alternate explanation; that requires positive evidence in support of it. If I drop my neighbor’s phone in the cesspit but no one saw me do it and has no evidence thereof, this does not in any way suggest the idea that fairies did it, nor does it even prove that I did not – it is nothing more than a lack of confirmation.

5. Avoid double-standards. Conspiracists are inordinately fond of finding nitpicking inconsistencies or curious gaps in The Official Explanation, but seem blissfully unaware of the disproportionately huge gaps in their suggested alternate events – if there is any alternate at all. They are also amazingly accomplished at selecting testimony or evidence that supports their ideas, while openly ignoring, discounting, or outweighing any and all evidence that contradicts or weakens their ideas. If, for instance, five eyewitnesses all have conflicting accounts, how can only one be selected as accurate?

6. Do not conflate “improbable” with “impossible.” Conspiracists seem unable to grasp the concept that events with a low likelihood can still occur, and they will usually consider improbable events as impossible. Of course, once they are impossible, any other event of ridiculously high improbability can be inserted in their place (see ‘double-standards,’ above.)

7. Do not ignore multiple explanations. Very few events or items of evidence could have only one possible explanation, yet conspiracists will often take this stance – curiously, it will be in favor of the one possibility that supports their conspiracy. Anyone else aware of the other possibilities, however, will see this selectivity for what it is.

8. Do not weigh options unrealistically. When recognizing multiple potential explanations, also recognize that they will certainly not all have the same weight, or probability of occurring. Something that has happened numerous times in the past is unarguably more likely to reoccur than a rare event.

9. Do not rely on ‘common knowledge’ or experience gained from cultural depictions. What ‘everyone knows,’ like how being shot can hurl someone backwards, is very frequently inaccurate; what we expect to be the case is not necessarily true. Conspiracists are fond of proclaiming how things must be, but thoughtful people take advantage of those with extensive experience, and studies with dependable results. Moreover, there is no figure of authority so complete that they could not be wrong; what they can demonstrate with facts gives the weight of probability over any pronouncement, yet such probability can never be absolute – there is no ‘proof,’ just highest likelihood. This is true for all of science, and in fact, anyone who is 100% certain is someone to distrust, because nothing in life can be that certain.

10. Use the most accurate sources of information, and take all of it into account. Conspiracists always have a favorite, secondary source of info, be it a website or radio program or a book that promises to blow the lid off, yet the further it is from the original sources, the more inaccurate it is likely to be – to say nothing whatsoever of the ulterior motive of such sources, which are virtually always making a bundle of money by providing this info. People love conspiracies, so any source promising to reveal one is almost guaranteed to garner sales; it shouldn’t need pointing out that anyone motivated by such is not very likely to present all of the facts in a comprehensive and unbiased manner. But even without the money angle, that love of conspiracies is enough to make people ignore all factors that weaken the conspiracy.

11. Do not manufacture connection or relation. Regardless of the nature, conspiracists will often find every curious element to be related in some way, much like the superstitious and the hypochondriac can always find something to blame for their misfortunes. If the argument is that two or more items are related, then one should be prepared to demonstrate how they are related, and not simply unconnected elements.

12. Do not assign meaning without reason. Conspiracists are fond of believing that an eyewitness using one word instead of another is a clue, rather than a simple case of stumbling over one’s words, or that adding up all the numbers of the crashed flight provides a rebus that points to the real answer. Yet, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; if claiming that it’s something more, one should be able to demonstrate how and why.

13. Think parsimoniously. Parsimony is the concept that the simplest explanation is the one most likely to be correct, and thus, the more complicated, the lower the likelihood. While it is a mistake to believe that the simplest explanation is always correct, it is a much bigger mistake to seek complication without support. A better guide is the phrase, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – if one proposes an elaborate, covert scenario, then one should be prepared to show the evidence that leads in that direction. It also helps to keep a firm goal in mind. Conspiracists are usually just motivated by winning an argument, but most others believe that any conspiracy should be tried in court, and that requires something really solid to present.

14. Do not ignore the consequences. Conspiracists are quite fond of throwing out new scenarios, and almost never consider that any new scenario would have effects all its own. Is there a second shooter? Fine; who is it, where were they shooting from, how come no one saw them, what happened to their bullets? Nothing happens in its own pocket of space – everything has some outside impact. Very often, another scenario is proposed to explain why we don’t see any of these effects, and it doesn’t take long before the conspiracy involves dozens to hundreds of participants, all of them faceless and perfectly loyal. This becomes especially ludicrous (and helps fill out the “kook” label) when it is proposed to explain a minor discrepancy in witness accounts or physical expectations.

It is probably quite hard to argue that any of these points are unwarranted, or a show of bias or dismissal. Yet, what may be found when applying all of these is that the conspiracy vanishes. Most telling at this point is that conspiracists will lose their nut over this prospect, and try to find any way to salvage the conspiracy – but why would anyone want to salvage the conspiracy against the application of rational criteria? If, as is so often claimed, the point is to find The Truth™, then is there a better way to determine it? And what if the truth is that there simply is no conspiracy? That’s acceptable too, right?

To the conspiracist, no; it is the conspiracy that’s important, not the truth. And you’ll notice I’m using that separately from The Truth™, for a good reason – the latter is something that they possess the knowledge of, and is always different from what the general public understands, not necessarily anything to do with the facts. It is an emotional gratification, and as such, often pursued with the same type of zeal and rationalization that the addict wields.

But for those interested in knowing, as closely as possible, what really happened, the answer is simply wherever the evidence leads, regardless. And for those, it’s important to recognize that no explanation is ever airtight, no single answer ever to be found – life just isn’t like that. We can only go with what presents the greatest probability, that fits all of the factors the best (and indeed, this may change with new evidence.) If it helps, think of it as a court case, where you do not aim to convict someone on suspicion, or a single point of evidence, but strive for the idea of “beyond a reasonable doubt” – and not every situation will be able to present this to us. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know for sure – but this seems most likely, given the evidence.”

Moreover, we should see ourselves as the jury, and not either the prosecution or the defense – if we have the goal of only trying to prove guilt or innocence, we’re only on one side of the equation. Now, while everyone believes they’re open and unbiased, the favoritism is easy to find within such topics, so it appears a lot of people aren’t as unbiased as they believe. If we take more pleasure in evidence that supports one conclusion over any other, if we are quick to be skeptical over another factor and immediately start looking for ways it can be wrong, well, that’s a pretty good indication that we’re not being neutral. And while anyone can hold whatever opinion pleases them most, if we’re intending to be convincing to others, we should be able to demonstrate that we’re as objective as possible.