HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
© copyright by Rob Ager Dec 2010
HOW DO I FIND OUT IF A SPECIFIC CONSPIRACY THEORY IS OR ISN'T TRUE?
Today conspiracy theories are a staple aspect of academia, entertainment and politics, though the term conspiracy theory isn’t always applied. There are thousands of conspiracy theory claims made across all forms of media distribution. The vast ocean of information on these subjects is far too great for any individual or even any government to fully absorb.
On that basis, it is crucial that any person or group wishing to explore such matters should begin with a set of reliable information filters and organising principles. You will already have filters and organising principles of your own, but it’s likely that many of those perceptive habits are unconscious. It’s also likely that you have picked up those habits in non-conspiracy theory contexts.
In normal every day affairs people are used to trusting the opinions, or at least the sincerity, of most people in their lives; namely family, friends and long term colleagues. Strangers and employers are less trusted generally, hence we lock our doors and double check our employment contracts before signing on the dotted line – in those contexts we are entertaining conspiracy theories that our homes may be burgled or that our employers will pay us less wages for more work. If a friendly, but unknown, person knocks on our door unexpectedly, we may be polite in our response, but extremely sceptical of anything they have to say; the question resounding in our minds “What is this person trying to get out of me?”
Basically, when engaging with people we do not have a long term mutual emotional investment with we maintain shields of defensive scepticism. If we notice suspicious behaviour then we begin entertaining small conspiracy theories as to what the person may be covertly trying to achieve. We may even discuss those conspiracy theories with friends and either build on them or discard them.
However, the type of scepticism we naturally hold unconsciously in our daily interactions with strangers tends to veer towards the idea that some people are simple opportunists trying to make a buck here or there or in some other way take short term advantage of us. We tend to be less adept at defending ourselves against society’s more cunning manipulators, especially the more intelligent ones.
The difficulty with defending ourselves against intelligent manipulators is that such people are often familiar with our information filters and organising principles. On that basis a good sales man, con artist or perhaps even a person who wishes to sexually exploit us in some way, can often work around our perceptual defences and achieve their aim. It’s the same process by which a stage magician surpasses our sensory filters to make the impossible appear completely real. All our lives we hear of, read of and witness people being exploited by common intelligent manipulators.
The degree to which we are each personally subjected to manipulation of this type depends on several factors – our social environment, our financial status, what allies we have who will fight in our defence – but the key factor is our own information filtering and organising principles.
The analogy of a detective applies well here. Most of us would not be good at investigating complex crimes in which perpetrators have used intelligent tactics to work around the average person’s perceptual habits. The criminal may have attempted to hide all evidence that a crime has taken place, they may attempt to disguise the crime as some co-incidental and unintended sequence of events, or they may attempt to lay false evidence so that another source becomes the subject of investigation.
In particular, crimes committed by teams of intelligent manipulators who have greater than average financial or manpower resources at their disposal will be even more difficult to investigate … we call this “organised crime” and our governments pay teams of experienced investigators large sums of our tax money to investigate and pursue those teams of manipulators.
The complexity of both organised crimes and their investigation goes beyond the perceptual habits of the average citizen. Without the provision of sophisticated police investigation units society would be largely at the mercy of organised criminals – to an extent we could say that this is already the case, considering the volume of illegal drugs that make their way onto our streets in western countries. Either the units assigned to stop drug traffickers are under resourced compared to the criminals they’re chasing or the tactics used by the traffickers are too sophisticated … then again there are conspiracy theories claiming that intelligent agencies are at the centre of drug trafficking.
But when we get to the topic of high level political corruption and corruption coming from sources that have great influence over government, the investigative system falls apart. For the very power institutions that funnel tax money into combating organised crime are highly unlikely to funnel sufficient money into policing themselves. They may do so on a small level as a cosmetic measure to satisfy the public, but anything beyond that is unlikely.
Corporate, military, political and intelligence agency crimes, as well as being less subject to the checks and balances of well funded and independent investigative authorities, are also likely to be the most complex and sophisticated of all crimes. This is simply down to the fact that such sources have access to great resources and can hire the most intelligent and experienced personnel to plan and execute criminal activities.
Governments and related power institutions are sometimes held to account by other governments and institutions – sometimes as a result of war, but generally it is up to populations to collectively keep a watchful eye on the activities of the powerful and to spread campaigns of awareness among other citizens; bottom up policing if you will. Corporate funded media, intelligence agencies and government funded policing institutions are limited in this role because their interests are often intertwined with such power institutions.
At this technologically sophisticated point in human history the scope for ordinary citizens to monitor power institutions and spread awareness of corruption is greater than it has even been. The average citizen has access to printers, email, DVD players and a multitude of other information distribution outlets. This has become a major problem for power institutions. The big brother surveillance society swings both ways and so now governments are having a major problem with what they consistently call “conspiracy theories”.
A few major difficulties have emerged with this new public monitoring of power institutions.
- Poor research has been widely disseminated on many conspiracy subject due to the limited investigative skills or personal bias of those doing the research.
- Conspiracy theory dissemination has developed a commercial edge; with some films and books being sold for higher prices than would be expected in high st retail stores.
- In some instances individuals may vindictively fabricate conspiracy theories to bring disrepute to some other individual, organisation or government.
- In some instances conspiracy theory dissemination may be part of a cognitive infiltration tactic designed to discredit more convincing versions of the same conspiracy, or to discredit conspiracy theories in general.
- In some instances conspiracy theories may be covertly disseminated by one government or power institution to demonize another.
These complex interactions of conflicting agendas and informational one-up man ship can quickly turn a simple conspiracy theory into a vast puzzle. However, much of the information can quickly be disregarded if we’re applying reliable perceptual filters.
The following is a list of information filtering and organising principles that you can use to assess any given conspiracy theory. I’m not going to make reference to specific conspiracy theory examples because to do so would run the risk of my indirectly swaying you into believing or disbelieving them.
- Reserve judgement at the information gathering stage. If you start out by assuming a conspiracy theory to be true or false while your information is still minimal then your pursuit of informational will be biased. You’ll be likely to disregard facts that don’t match up with the judgement you’ve made. Now matter how absurd or convincing the theory, begin with an attitude that it could turn out to be anywhere from wholly true to completely false.
- Gather as much information as you can. This is essential and, if done thoroughly, will make the process of reaching a conclusion quick and easy. If your conclusion is weak and uncertain then you probably didn’t gather enough information. Generally, information gathering will be the most time consuming stage of your research.
- Double check each detail. The slightest misrepresentation of a matter through choice of words or a slight variation in dates can completely alter the validity of a conspiracy theory.
- Use multiple, preferably unrelated, sources. Sometimes a particular detail may seem conclusive based upon a single source, but exploring other versions of that same detail from different sources will unveil important variations. If you find consistency of detail from unrelated sources then a particular factoid can be deemed near enough conclusive.
- Delete repetitions of the same information. Regurgitations of information aren’t just limited to verbal hearsay, internet chat rooms and blogs. They’re very frequent in the mainstream media too in that reporters often save themselves a lot of leg work by copying and rewording stories already being covered by rival media sources. One of the dangers of second and third hand information is that those repeating the information will often alter its presentation – in other word they distort it (though sometimes they can do this for the better by cross-referencing the information with contexts that the original source neglected). Where possible try to get to the original information source. See my article / video Choose Your News for more on media repetition.
- Pay equal attention to purveyors and debunkers, regardless of their character traits. Wise, intelligent and well-adjusted people sometimes get their facts wrong and at the same time people who appear to be disorganised and impulsive sometimes get their facts straight. If a schizophrenic witnesses a real car crash and tells you about it the fact that he is schizophrenic doesn’t discredit his “a car crash occurred” theory. All claims must be considered and investigated on the possibility that they may be true or false.
- There’s no such thing as a reliable source. The term “reliable source” is generally used to refer to academic researchers / institutions, governmental organisations, and “reputable” media sources. We generally use the “reliable source” filter to avoid double checking claims because it basically saves us time and effort. But when investigating a crime or conspiracy theory this luxury of assuming something is true based upon our personal trust of a source is unwise. There are many historical examples in which reputable researchers and even entire academic and media empires have gotten their facts severely wrong. And in those contexts the “reliable source” filter can prevent mass-knowledge correction for many years.
- Ignore persuasion cascades. Quite simply this means discarding the assumption that the higher the percentage of society who belief in something the more likely it is to be true. Most people will not have done the research into a specific matter that is required to reach a well-formed conclusion of their own. They will have formed their opinions based upon rumour and mass media dissemination of an idea.
- Beware of missing contexts. Often small chunks of information are used to promote or debunk a specific conspiracy theory. This might consist of a few lines of quoted text taken from a long speech or a few seconds of video in which the events leading up to the footage are not communicated. Vague language, circumstancial details or unspecified dates, locations or names can also be misleading.
- Claims are not proof. This may sound obvious, but we actually build a great portion of our perceived reality based upon the claims of others and it can be difficult to switch off the habit. If you partner comes home from work and tells you about their day, chances are you’ll believe every word of it, even forming mental movies to accompany those words. But in reality we don’t really know what happened in our partner’s day, despite their best explanations. When it comes to investigating crimes or conspiracy theories, every single claim should be checked against external, sensory verifiable sources, when possible.
- Never invest 100% belief. Always allow for the possibility that something can be proven or disproved. As soon as you psychologically shut off a particular possibility information to the contrary will become filtered out of your awareness.
- Avoid the guru trap. This is a variation on the “there’s no such thing as a reliable source” filter. In the realm of popular conspiracy theories, some investigative journalists and researchers have reached high levels of fame. They are then put on a pedestal of trust in the same way that some people trust their favourite broadsheet newspaper or news channel. There’s nothing wrong with expressing respect and appreciation for the efforts of a conspiracy researcher who, against great odds, has successfully disseminated quality information. But don’t fall into the trap of letting that person do all your research for you. Double check their claims as you would with any other source.
- Use visual aids to organise complex information. Especially when attempting to understand large organisational hierarchies or detailed event chronologies, mind-mapping, list making and categorizing of information are essential. Don’t just do this once either and don’t rely on a single map. Try different ways of mapping and remapping your information based upon different organising principles.
- Don’t over-simplify in your conclusions. Forget Occam’s Razor; the idea that simple explanations are preferable to complex ones is merely a device of short-term perceptual convenience. Reality is incredibly complex. If you over-simplify your conclusions, for example to claim that a specific conspiracy is wholly true or wholly untrue, then you are basically falling into the polarization trap. Many conspiracy theories, when explored in detail, turn out to be complex sequences of events. Some of the players involved may have immorally engaged in conspiracy from the start, while others were either unaware, made a poor choice out of good intentions, were wilfully ignorant of it or were afraid to challenge it. A conspiracy may have started out small and then grew into a sequence of cover up after cover up that got out of hand. There are a lot of middle ground possibilities.
- Familiarize yourself with the psychology of crime, corruption and social/corporate/legal/political hierarchies. Conspiracy theories are often presented on the premise that groups of people secretly sit down and openly agree among each other to plan and execute a major crime, consciously knowing that what they are doing is fully immoral and being fully aware of how people will suffer in consequence. Premeditation of this nature can certainly occur, carefully planned bank robberies for example, but an essential part of criminal psychology is that many criminals do not see themselves as criminals, but as victims, and they hardly ever think of themselves as evil. A group of bank robbers may consider a major bank to be a criminal organisation that deserves to be robbed and that, on that basis, their own crime is justified. A vigilante murder may have been carried out due to frustration with how the authorities have dealt with a criminal. And a government may consider that character assassinating a particular regime through misinformation is a necessary step to pursue a foreign policy that the public is too uneducated to otherwise approve of. Sometimes criminal behaviour is genuinely driven in positive yet misguided ways, but it is also human nature to lie to ourselves about the nobility of our intentions. This is true of even the most intelligent people and it is especially true of criminal gangs and tyrannical regimes. Members of such groups will reinforce each other’s illusions of morality in complex ways – coining conveniently worded justifications and sticking to them to the point where they actually believe them at the conscious level.
The list I’ve offered above may seem awkward, but each of those perceptual principles, if practiced, can easily be adopted into your natural thought process so that they occur automatically. Complex conspiracy theories and their rebuttals can then be more quickly and easily assessed and understood.
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