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Scientific American

The Conspiracy Theory Detector

published December 2010 | comments (63)
How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories
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This past September 23 a Canadian 9/11 “truther” confronted me after a talk I gave at the University of Lethbridge. He turned out to be a professor there who had one of his students filming the “confrontation.” By early the next morning the video was online, complete with music, graphics, cutaways and edits apparently intended to make me appear deceptive (search YouTube for “Michael Shermer, Anthony J. Hall”). “You, sir, are not skeptical on that subject — you are gullible,” Hall raged. “We can see that the official conspiracy theory is discredited…. It is very clear that the official story is a disgrace, and people who go along with it like you and who mix it in with this whole Martian/alien thing is discrediting and a shame and a disgrace to the economy and to the university” [sic]. Hall teaches globalization studies and believes that 9/11 is just one in a long line of conspiratorial actions by those in power to suppress liberties and control the world.

Conspiracy theories are a dollar a dozen. While in Calgary on that same trip, I met a politician who told me that he believes the fluoridation of water is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public. Others have regaled me for hours with their breathless tales of who really killed JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., Jimmy Hoffa and Princess Diana, along with the nefarious goings on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, Yale University’s secret society Skull and Bones, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers and the Learned Elders of Zion. It would take Madison Square Garden to hold them all for a world-domination meeting.

Nevertheless, we cannot just dismiss all such theories out of hand, because real conspiracies do sometimes happen. Instead we should look for signs that indicate a conspiracy theory is likely to be untrue. The more that it manifests the following characteristics, the less probable that the theory is grounded in reality:

  1. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections — or to randomness — the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
  2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
  3. The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
  4. Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
  5. The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
  6. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
  7. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
  8. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
  9. The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
  10. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

The fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Most of the time stuff just happens, and our brains connect the dots into meaningful patterns.

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63 Comments to “The Conspiracy Theory Detector”

  1. Istvan Says:

    Great article! I’ve appreciated your work ever since reading “Why People Believe Weird Things” back in the day.

    It’s funny that the 9/11 truthers simply adapted the JFK assassination conspiracy for the new millennium. The notion that this evil plot had to take place in public, in full view of crowds and cameras, is a given for nefarious conspirators. In reality, malefactors would probably prefer to do their work with as few people as possible watching.

    Also, the vast, labor-intensive cover-up is the same. In 1963, it involved killing witnesses, icing the fall guy, falsifying an autopsy, and having the high-profile Warren Commission whitewash the truth. In the case of 9/11, the cover-up involved faked cell phone calls, the destruction of evidence and the export of the buildings’ wreckage, and the kangaroo-court investigations by official bodies like FEMA, NIST, and the 9/11 Commission. Would any shady conspirators have gone to this incredible amount of effort, and involved so many operatives in different sectors of society, if they had any interest at all in getting away with their plot?

    Keep up the good work, Michael!

    Istvan

  2. Blair Gadsby Says:

    I’m I afraid I detect a certainly ideology of skepticism coming from Mr. Schermer when addressing the question of 9/11. Because the controlled demolition of the three WTC buildings is beyond refute, it leaves me to question, if not Schermer’s critical judgment, then his investment into this “ideology of skepticism”. I hope he would not let it blind him to the facts. The cost, especially in the case of 9/11 is far too great.

  3. jaimehk Says:

    Corollary to point 2.: conspirators are able to exactly predict the turns of events as a result of the conspiracy. This alleged 100% perfect predictive capability clearly discredits many CT’s. For example, the Roosevelt-knew-about-Pearl-Harbour theory. To accept that theory you may assume that the conspirators (Roosevelt, Marshall and some other top government and military officials)already knew that battleships were worthless in modern naval warfare, that the japanese would go after then instead of Pacific Fleet’s fuel depots and maintenance stations, that Nagumo was going to refrain a third attack aimed precisely at those targets and that Yamamoto would spend so hideously Japan’s naval advantage by his disastrous planning at Midway. You can apply this kind of analysis to some other CT’s.
    Congratulations Ms Shermer, great writing and reasoning!

  4. Dr. Paddy Says:

    One of the most “unscientific” categorization systems I have ever seen. Your argumentation actually follows the same unscientific and generalizing pattern than most conspiracy theories, you are making yourself look like a fool which shows the low level of your essentially populist magazine!
    Good example that social sciences in the US tends simplify complex structures

  5. Dr. Paddy Says:

    ok, giving credit to the fact that your writing is just meant to be an article and no scientific evaluation I have to admit that some points seem to be plausible for me.
    Interesting article anyway, but still populist in a certain way

  6. inflicttruth Says:

    I’d like to see someone explain away building 7…

  7. David Paget Says:

    Attention Michael Shermer

    You sir, are uninformed.

    Read “Tragedy and Hope” by Professor Carroll Quigley, which is considered the most important book of the last century by hundreds of professors. It explains it clearly.

  8. Patrick Says:

    This is absolute horse manure. I do not agree with Dr. Shermer at all. He uses too much conjecture. Number one, is patently false. There is direct evidence, and circumstantial evidences, and all else is conjecture. For instance, flouride IS in our water, and it IS toxic according to the CDC. AND, even toothpaste containers have a warning: DO NOT INGEST. IF YOU DO, IMMEDIATLY CONTACT POISON CONTROL. That is DIRECT evidence. Number two is also conjecture. History shows us that conspiracies do occur, and that they are performed by ordinary, yet intelligent, people. Take for instance the Manhattan Project, or the Gulf of Tonkin. 3 is wrong also. Define “complex”. Building a car is complex, yet people do it all the time. 4, people need to be silent; again, Manhattan Project wasn’t talked about for years. I was in the Air Force and the main force in intelligence is the “Need To Know Basis”. 5, a group of banksters ripped us off to the tune of 27.4 trillion in the bailouts. I could go on and on. I wish people would take critical thinking classes. This last line takes the proverbial cake: “The fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy.” Sometimes lie? hahahaha… what world do you live in sir?? Oh brother.

  9. Patrick Says:

    and really… number 5? “The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true. ” I’m sorry, but every country ever in the history of man has tried to do this.

  10. Danny Says:

    let’s see…. you work for Fox now ABC and your last name is Schermer.

    Your writing and opinion make sense now. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Peter Says:

    ..another “one bullet” theorist hey Michael? I am so tired of people like you Michael, detractors and deceivers trying to present to us the cnn version of history!!!

  12. Arno Klein Says:

    How amazing to have an insightful and lucid article on conspiracy theory detection and then have some many conspiracy fanatics pop out of the woodwork to illustrate the point! What people don’t realize, however, is that Michael Shermer is part of an advanced wave of aliens from another dimension sent here to spread confusion so they can steal all of our pizza and pave the way for Jesus to land his spaceship at the 2013 Super Bowl. Ask Shermer and he will deny it, which proves that it is true!

  13. Anthony J. Hall Says:

    Here is a new cartoon on Shermer the fraud and his misrepresentation of the episode at the University of Lethbridge in 2010.

    http://www.veteranstoday.com/2013/07/29/the-puppet-conspracy-theory-detector-michael-shermer/