What is it about conspiracy theories that’s so problematic?
I mean, it’s not as if conspiracies don’t happen. The Mafia is a conspiracy. The Manson murders were a conspiracy. The Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway was a conspiracy. Two people getting together to buy an ounce of weed is a conspiracy. It’s not like it never happens that two or more people get together to break the law. Obviously it does. It’s probably happening right now, in hundreds or thousands of places around the country.
So it’s not as if it’s completely wacky to think that conspiracies might happen.
And big conspiracies among powerful people happen as well. Watergate was a conspiracy. Iran/ Contra was a conspiracy. The history of Chicago politics is loaded with conspiracies. The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy. I could go on and on.
So it’s not as if it’s completely wacky to think that conspiracies might happen among powerful people in government or business. The history of the world is littered with well- documented instances of conspiracies, both large and small, by the puny and the powerful.
So what is it about conspiracy theories that’s so aggravating?
Why are they typically as stubbornly irrational, as resistant to evidence and argument, as the most extreme varieties of religious faith?
I’ve been thinking about this. And I realized something.
Your typical conspiracy theory shares a very irritating quality with your typical religious belief: There is literally no possible piece of evidence that could convince the believer that they’re mistaken.
As I’ve written before — or rather, as I’ve stolen outright from Ebonmuse before — a defining feature of religious belief seems to be that, when asked the question, “What would convince you that you were wrong?”, the answer is almost always, “Nothing. Nothing would make me lose faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.” It’s one of the things that makes debating with believers aggravating: many believers will begin a debate thinking that their belief is based on sound reasoning and evidence, but by the end of the debate, they typically wind up saying some version of, “I feel it in my heart,” or, “Well, that’s just what I believe.”
And I see much the same thing with conspiracy theories.
Any argument that you make against a particular conspiracy theory — any piece of evidence that counters it, any line of reasoning about whether it makes sense, any questions about whether it’s even plausible — will almost inevitably be met with an assortment of maddeningly unfalsifiable retorts. “That evidence was manufactured.” “The conspirators are exceptionally good at secrecy and at hiding evidence of the truth.” “The media’s in on the conspiracy.” (As is anybody at all who objects to the conspiracy or provides evidence against it, from NASA to the American Cancer Society.) And, of course, the ever-popular, “Or have they gotten to you, too?”
But, of course — as I and countless other atheist writers have pointed out when talking about religion — if a theory or a belief can’t possibly be falsified, if there is no possible evidence imaginable that could prove it wrong, then it’s not a useful theory. It has no power to explain the past, or to predict the future.
And when you start looking at it this way, you realize that conspiracy theories have a lot in common with the more irrational aspects of religious belief.
There’s the fact that conspiracy theories tend to be based, not on direct positive evidence, but on what seem to be suspicious patterns. The problem with that, of course, being that our brains are hard-wired by evolution to see patterns even where none exist… and we can find conspiratorial patterns pretty much anywhere we look. (“How likely is it that every single store in our neighborhood would be out of nutmeg? That can’t possibly be a coincidence!”)
There’s the fact that conspiracy theories tend to be based on the assumption that there must be intention behind every phenomenon. Another logical fallacy hard- wired into our brains for very good evolutionary reasons… and another logical fallacy shared by religion.
And there’s the fact that conspiracy theories are often bolstered by the “You can’t prove it didn’t happen” argument. Currently my least favorite piece of rhetorical stupid floating around the Interweb. As if every single proposition that can’t be disproven with 100% certainty, from Zeus the Thunder God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, deserves to be taken seriously.
I have other problems with conspiracy theories, too. I’m particularly entertained/ exasperated by just how huge many of these supposed conspiracies are, and just how many people would have to be in on the secret… completely ignoring how lousy most people are at keeping secrets. (The conspiracy delineated in the movie “JFK” is my favorite example; the one which, if it were true, would have required both the involvement and the silence of approximately one fifth of the American population.)
But my biggest problem really is this: If nothing at all could convince you that your theory is wrong… then what you have on your hands there is a truly lousy theory. In fact, it’s not really a theory at all. It’s an article of faith: unshakeable, irrational, unconnected with reality.
So with people who believe that 9-11 was a conspiracy on the part of the U.S. government (as opposed to a conspiracy on the part of, oh, say, Al-Qaeda); that vaccines are a conspiracy to keep the drug companies rich; that the medical profession knows about a cure for (cancer, AIDS, achy breaky heart) but is in a conspiracy to keep it a secret… I want to ask the same question I want to ask religious believers:
“What would convince you that you were wrong?”
Not just “What evidence do you have that you’re right?” (although I want to ask that too) — but “What would you accept as evidence that this conspiracy really didn’t happen?”
And if the answer is, “Nothing — any evidence against this conspiracy would simply bolster my belief in it”… then I say once again: That is one lousy theory. It doesn’t even deserve the honorable name of “theory.” And you shouldn’t expect anyone else to take it seriously.
Also in this series:
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith