Conspiracy Theories

17 April 2014


What’s your first association with the title of this week’s show? Do you think of conspiracy theories as the kind of theories that paranoid nutjobs relentlessly like to spout? 

Considering some of the wild theories out there—like a secret group of elites (which may or may not be Jews, Freemasons, and/or shape-shifting lizard aliens) control and manipulate the global economy—you’d be forgiven for that association. But before you judge all conspiracy theories in a single stroke, you should consider that there are conspiracy theories that you probably believe. And with good reason.

Take Watergate, for example. While it might once have sounded far-fetched to propose that the President of the United States was involved in such clandestine and illegal activities as breaking in to and bugging the opposition’s headquarters, it turned out to be true, and Nixon ended up resigning when the conspiracy came to light.

More recently, of course, we’ve learned what many had long since suspected—the government has secretly been spying on its own citizens for years. Thanks to Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald, that secret was also revealed.

If you accept these two examples as uncontroversial, then the fact is you believe in at least some conspiracy theories. So, the question we’re considering in this week’s show is whether there is some principled difference between the kind of conspiracy theories that are plausible, and quite possibly true, and the kind of theories that have zero basis in reality. Do bad conspiracy theories have some hallmarks that allow us to dismiss them right away? Or must we investigate each theory individually before dismissing—or endorsing—it? 

One place to start is to consider the relationship between the theory and the purported evidence for the theory. When I come across some of the more outlandish theories, I’m often struck by what counts as “evidence” in the minds of the proponents of these theories. They take a set of observable facts, construct some wild story that makes these facts all fit together, and then infer that this theory must therefore be true. However, just because the facts might fit the theory, it doesn’t mean they support the theory. 

The problem is that any number of stories could be constructed to fit the facts. While it’s certainly a requirement for any good theory that the explanation fit the facts, fitting-the-facts is not, by itself, sufficient to prove a theory. This is one of the biggest and most common mistakes I see amongst conspiracy theorists—they apparently don’t understand that for facts to count as evidence, they must do more than simply fit with whatever story they’re telling.

So, what more is needed for evidence? That's a hard and tricky question, one that we tackle in this week’s show. Part of the difficulty is that if the conspiracy theory is actually true, then we should expect the evidence to be hidden or destroyed. That’s what good conspirators are supposed to do, right?

But despite their best efforts, conspiracies are often found out. People get cocky or overly confident, they can be sloppy, unexpected events happen, consciences nag, allegiances change, and sometimes it becomes profitable to reveal what it was once profitable to conceal. So, unless the conspiracy is made up of a small, very secretive, tight-knit, and highly-effective group of people, there’s a good chance someone will talk or mess up and someone else will find out. And that’s exactly what happened in the two examples I gave earlier, Watergate and NSA. Which gives us a clue for evaluating different conspiracy theories—if the purported conspiracy is wide-reaching and involves many people over many years, and if no good evidence has ever come to light about it, chances are it’s probably not true.  

But again, we come to the question of what counts as good evidence. Let’s take some of the most popular conspiracy theories out there, like the vaccine conspiracy, the 9/11 conspiracy, and JFK’s assassination. In each of these cases, each side believes it has evidence to support its own theory—whether it be an "official story" or a competing conspiracy theory—and they each have their own experts that they cite. How do we sort through and assess these claims? Who should we believe? And who really has the time to figure it all out anyway?

I’m no engineer but the videos showing the collapse of Building 7, which, if you recall, was not hit by a plane on 9/11, do look, to my inexpert eye, like a controlled demolition. But what do I know? Sure, you can find "experts" who will say it must have been a controlled demolition, and you’ll find "experts" who will say the opposite too. To assess the validity of the testimony we hear, we need to know how reliable or how well-qualified each "expert" is and if they are truly in a position to testify on the matters at hand. So, for the inexpert skeptic, it’s hard to know how to sort through all the “evidence” that is corralled by either side.

But even supposing it’s an incontrovertible fact that Building 7 could not have collapsed in the way it did according to the official story, what exactly does that prove? Certainly, it’s a huge leap from this to the claim that a massive US government conspiracy was behind 9/11. Yes, the collapse fits with that story, but by itself, it is not evidence for it.

Now, I know that by expressing any doubt whatsoever about the truth of this particular conspiracy theory, I’m opening myself up to ad hominem attacks from the fanatics who will jump on anyone who dares to question their reasoning, like this guy on Youtube who called John and Ken “media whore propagandists” and, even more hilariously, “employees of the Koch brothers” who will do “whatever it takes to collect a pay check.” Right. Because Philosophy Talk is such a major money-making scheme dreamed up by John and Ken to fool the masses into accepting everything they are told by the corporate media, brilliantly disguised as the show “that questions everything… except your intelligence.” Never mind the facts! Just make them up to suit your world view and then accuse anyone who points out that they’re wrong of being a “sycophant” for the corporate media.

It’s nutjobs like this that give all conspiracy theorists a bad name. They are unmoved by easily confirmable facts and they think that doggedly holding onto their theories, despite the fact that they are full of holes and massive leaps in logic, is a sign of being a “critical thinker.” What a joke!

Yet, as Brian Keeley, our guest on this week’s show points out, we should not confuse conspiracy theories with conspiracy theorists. Sure, there are plenty of folks out there (we all know them) who automatically go for a conspiracy explanation over a more straightforwardly plausible explanation for every newsworthy event that happens. Many of them seem to have difficulty accepting that there are coincidences and unplanned occurrences, and would prefer to imagine powerful forces working behind the scenes to shape every little detail. They seem remarkably out of touch with the contingencies of life. But this is not sufficient reason to simply dismiss every conspiracy theory you encounter. We should consider each one on its own merits.

Now, I’m not saying you ought to investigate whether your local politician is really a shape-shifting lizard alien overlord, but you might want to take seriously suggestions that he conspired to, oh say, illegally close down a major bridge for political gain. That particular conspiracy theory, like several others before it, might actually turn out to be true.



Comments (13)

Devon's picture


Thursday, April 17, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Just because you're paranoid

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you...

Fay's picture


Saturday, April 19, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Documentarian Errol Morris

Documentarian Errol Morris did this short piece called 'The Umbrella Man', about the mysterious man with an open umbrella standing right where JFK was assassinated. That day it was very warm and sunny in Dallas, with folks wearing short sleeve shirts. Near the motorcade, a man is standing under an open black umbrella. Many conspiracy theories held the umbrella man was the assassin or helped the true assassin - it was just too weird to not be significant! Ultimately, the man explained the umbrella was a protest - not against JFK - but against JFK's father, referencing Neville Chamberlain's umbrella and appeasement of the Nazis. Errol Morris said, "If you have any fact which is sinister, you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister perfectly valid reasons..."

mirugai's picture


Saturday, April 19, 2014 -- 5:00 PM


I loved hearing that the guest philosopher was a refugee from his study of ?the philosophy of neuroscience.? There is no such thing as the philosophy of neuroscience, philosophy and neuroscience are not contiguous, there is no commonality between the two. Nothing learned in one field can be used in the other.
But the philosophy of conspiracy is a very worthy subject for the guest to explore. The question is: why are we attracted to conspiracy theories (whoever ?we? might be, but that is another issue best avoided here)? 
One of the great moments in Philosophy Talk history was when the brilliant Jenann Ismael (a philosopher of science) asked John or Ken: ?Why do you think everything needs an explanation?? That was a seminal moment in my education because it was clear that the search for explanations was the province of science, and subject to the good and bad rules of scientific ?proof,? mostly turning on how dramatic the presentation or illustration of that ?proof? could be made.  But doing philosophy is not about doing such explanations: it is about doing rational thinking about thoughts, rationally thinking and speculating about consciousness, with no hope of (or desire for) explanation. The goal is to explore, to talk about, to think about, but never really reach a final conclusion.  This is what Ken and John do on every show: they do philosophy by speculating (endlessly). A critic of the show once said pejoratively, ?Without science, philosophy is just endless speculation.? She was absolutely right (maybe with the word ?just? stricken).
But our culture?s overpowering and misguided blind obedience to, and worship of, science places ?explanation? on a pedestal; a pedestal so lofty that we prefer absurd explanations to simple ones for events that seem not easily explained.  And ?the quest for confirmation of what one believes is good and right,? which I say is a human instinct, impels one to find in conspiracy theories, the explanation that most confirms one?s beliefs (that for instance the CIA or God or Republicans or SpacePeople are behind every bush, pulling the strings of the human puppets).
Conspiracy theories are seductive because 1. They make one think that the matter is explained (when it really probably isn?t), 2. They confirm what the theory?s advocate believes about causation (very much apart from rationality), and 3. They provide a seductively dramatic (usually faulty) proof.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, April 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Fay, thank you for that

Fay, thank you for that little gem! I had never heard of The Umbrella Man before, but it's a wonderful illustration of what we've been talking about.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Sunday, April 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Mirugai, not sure how to

Mirugai, not sure how to interpret your bizarre claim that there "is no such thing as the philosophy of neuroscience," which is the field that Brian Keeley works in. You can learn more about this exciting area of philosophy on The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Dabrain88's picture


Sunday, April 20, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think its relevant to makes

I think its relevant to makes theories about conspiracies and i do believe some of them can be true. The only main problem i see is that people have nothing better to do with their daily lives , so they spend long periods of time over thinking about what is a conspiracy and what's really not a conspiracy. They over do it. Like the yin and yang theory preaches : Everything in moderation.
I have a post that i liked on facebook called "Conspiracy Watch" where a person makes all these assumptions about certain conspiracies. I think the truth is almost half of the material are not conspiracies, but ideas or normal things that go on in humanity. If this person would find a hobby to bring them outside for a few hours so they could really experience the world and learn some life lessons rather then be stuck on the computer all day ( then again i might be assuming too much). If you spend all the time thinking up these theories , not only will you miss out in life , but you'll also become really paranoid.

mirugai's picture


Monday, April 21, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Grue and Laura: Jorge has put

Grue and Laura: Jorge has put it so succinctly, and I thank him for it: "Science can only establish facts or give support to theories about facts.  It has nothing to say about values or motivation." Perfect. "Values and motivation" are what philosophy is all about, and science has nothing to say about it. Neuroscience is the darling of TED talks because it is full of colors and flashing synapses and all kind of nonsensical, fruitless attempts to connect biology and chemistry and physics, to philosophical stuff like happiness, desire, perception, morality, etc. The confusion arises because neuroscience is about the brain (and brain-associated structures), and it is commonly believed that what we call "thought" is somehow resident in the brain. But philosophy has no concern or interest in where thought might be "located," it is only concerned with the content of thought...philosophy is rational thinking about thought. Brain science and philosophy are not connected, they are in mutually exclusive, non-intersecting spheres of Matter (the realm of science) and Consciousness (the realm of philosophy (rationality), poetry (metaphor) and comedy (irony): everything is in one or the other sphere. 

RichardCurtisPhD's picture


Saturday, April 26, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think what became clear

I think what became clear from the show is that "Conspiracy Theory" is a term that some people use as an excuse to quit thinking.  John dismisses the theory that there was some sort of conspiracy to kill JFK, as if that is wild and unsupported, but that is the official view of the US government.  It is sort of odd that John calls that irrational, when he wants to use formal investigations as a source.  The House Select Committee on Assassinations found there was a conspiracy and that was the last formal investigation by the government so it represents its last word.  A conspiracy was involved according to the US government, so why does John think they are wrong?  Is he just paranoid?  No, he just quit thinking and so comes to absurd conclusions.  Like with 9/11, Ken told him it was some sort of conspiracy regardless and somehow that just doesn't matter, once that word was used thinking stopped.  John did this most dramatically with WTC-7.  It was a 47 story building that just collapsed for no good reason on 9/11.  It is often missed as it was smaller and later in the day, but it was a 47 story building.  To just ignore that is ridiculous.  You can't just ignore huge skyscrapers falling down for no good reason.  Again, thinking just stopped.  That is the real issue here: Why does thinking stop when people start to use that word?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, April 26, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

This show seemed to dance

This show seemed to dance around testimony and childhood.  I don't find it hard to fathom conspiracy when I'm still kind of shocked about this whole St. Nick thing.  What a crock.  My apologies to the true believers.  Seriously though, aren't we conditioned to conspiracy by our upbringing?  Isn't most... and I do mean a vast majority of our knowledge based on testimony?  Do you really understand the workings of the crapper before taking your liberties?  People take their lives on faith.  Conspiracy is somewhat a product of this testimonial foundation rooted in childhood.  The modern dilemma of sustainability is our disconnect from nature and a reliance on the scientific and technical testimony that we are actually making progress while destroying our earth.  That sounds kinda-sorta conspiratorial.  Oh, but Mama, that's where the fun is? as a caller pointed out.
I would say that I found Ken's dismissal of conspiracy disheartening - from a mind that I admire for the most part.  When a caller mentions John Lennon's murder and he says something like "... I don't have an opinion of any of this sort of thing..." I think RichardCurtisPhD has a point in saying conspiracy is being used to avoid thought.  It's ok to refuse the activation energy to engage a conspiracy theory, but if your show is on conspiracy theory then I think the caller needs a prod before dismissal.
I take exception to Mirugai's assertion that neuroscience is inherently separate from philosophy.  I have a hard time separating philosophy from most things as it spans the gap of perception and thought.  Certainly values, motivations and normativity are a part of philosophy.  These parts don't define philosophy exclusively if even mostly.  Historically philosophy was science... way before science was cool.  Now, I think philosophy shades science more than Mirugai thinks...but...that?s just my opinion man?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, May 1, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

There are all sorts of

There are all sorts of conspiracy theories. And, all sorts of conspiracies. And that is just the point surrounding conspiracy. When I returned to these United States, years ago, after a seven-year absence, it was known within higher government circles, that I was back. It did not truly matter, but, I was harassed---because, given my circumstances, government fools and lackeys COULD harass me, without fear of retribution. Eventually, the security police tired of their surveillance of my life and activities. I was able to get a job; marry, have something of a life and retire---much as if I have never been a pariah in the first place. Many of my former countryfolk, including the last progenitor of our family line, never returned to these United States. I am happy to be anywhere, right now. Anything is better than nothing. Pretty much. As they say sometimes: there it is...

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Monday, May 12, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

...but people's being out to

...but people's being out to get you doesn't mean you're not paranoid. 

Gerald Fnord's picture

Gerald Fnord

Monday, May 12, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

My major beef is with people

My major beef is with people who are intensely sceptical of what (they at least call) the official line but tremendously credulous of any alternate hypothesis.   This is the same phenomenon seen in people who go from one sort of religious/political fanaticism to another...they never met a middle they didn't exclude---the old saws 'straining at gnats and swallowing camels' and the one about eyes, motes, and logs (or beams) come to mind.