Friday, December 11, 2009

Flimflam inoculation 6: Conspiracy theories

9-11 truthers. UFO afficionados. Holocaust deniers. Anti-vaccinationists. And the poor, poor repressed intelligent design proponents. What do they all have in common?

Belief in a conspiracy.

Why are conspiracy theories so popular? For the answer, let's think about evidence. If you want to convince someone that your claim is true, you offer evidence. Evidence can take the form of experimental results, casual observations, logical deductions from agreed-upon facts, or any combination thereof. For example,

Claim: Air has mass.

Evidence: Blow on paper, and the paper moves because of the transfer of momentum. Air is attracted to earth by gravity. Air is made up of various molecules that, themselves, have mass.

Seems simple enough. What could possibly take that scientific process off the rails? Well, a problem arises when someone makes claims that are impossible to prove false, called "unfalsifiable" claims. For example, consider the claim that "the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed as a result of a secret government anti-terrorism propaganda campaign". With regard to evidence, there are 3 possibilities.

Case 1: Evidence in support of claim
(ie. fire from planes was not hot enough to melt beams)
This is the kind of evidence that could actually be useful, and warrant further investigation. However, a handful of strong evidence is better than an ocean of weak evidence. In the context of conspiracy theories, this often takes the form of "anomaly hunting", looking for anything that seems at all inconsistent with the mundane explanation.

Case 2: Evidence contradicting the claim
(ie. beams are weakened by high temperatures, even if they don't melt)
This is the kind of evidence that SHOULD put the claim to rest. But this is where conspiracy theories go off the deep end... by stating that the evidence was made up by those involved in the conspiracy. This approach is unfalsifiable because it allows the conspiracy theorist to dismiss any evidence that contradicts their theory. The only way around this is to generate evidence yourself. However, that will only work for YOU; telling others will result in you being denounced as a co-conspirator.

Case 3: No evidence in support of the claim
This is where conspiracy theories really REALLY go off the deep end... by claiming that the absence of evidence is due to a big cover-up. Think of how many times you've heard "Government cover-up", "classified", and "they don't want you to know". This explanation for lack of evidence is also unfalsifiable, since the absence of evidence is, by definition, evidence for it.

That's not to say that conspiracies can't happen. They can. The problem is that people get carried away with them because (1) they are unfalsifiable, and (2) they can be used to promote any agenda. And who doesn't like a juicy story now and again?

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