The fallacy of conspiracy theory

Informal fallacies get thrown about a lot, but it’s not always clear how they are corruptions of reasoning. But conspiracy theories do seem to be a real corruptions of reasoning.

Conspiracy theory requires something more than a secret plan to do something unlawful or deceptive. Any group of drug dealers or petty criminals does this, and there are certainly more glamorous spy-movie style historical conspiracies, like the burning of the Reichstag. But the recognition that there are such things does not usually get called a conspiracy, and believing in such things is not the sort of thing that makes for conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory only seems to kick in when there is a substantial body of patent evidence against the conspiracy: The Warren Commission report, the consensus among specialists for Stratfordianism or climate change, the NTSB incident report of TWA flight 800, the 9-11 commission report, a pile of evidence for Obama’s native birth, extensive studies showing no link between vaccines and autism, O.J.’s blood at the crime scene with a single glove seen by 14 cops and an eyewitness who saw him fleeing the area, etc.*

The fallacy of conspiracy thinking can be seen from the fact that it is a way of reasoning that has never borne fruit. None of its gun show, “shocking truth of the real story” narratives has ever set out a case that came to be seen as true.   I stress that it is a false belief in logic, i.e. about the way to the truth and about the nature of truth itself. It is a sad thing to watch those who suffer from it.

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*I leave aside the various economic conspiracy theories since they all seem to be based on a much simpler mistake of assuming that the economy is the sort of thing that can be controlled in any sort of precise, function-machine like way.

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4 Comments

  1. Michael Bolin said,

    April 12, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    But this is exactly what we would expect someone involved in the 9/11 cover-up to say.

    My point being, from my own experience with such people, that the phenomenon usually goes hand in hand with an absolute inability to concede that there could be even the least bit of evidence against the conspiracy theory. So if an eyewitness claims to have actually witnessed a plane hit the Pentagon, this doesn’t count as evidence against the conspiracy; it simply shows that the person is himself in on the conspiracy. This is perhaps not unique to conspiracy theorists (it is on display, for example, in much creationist literature), but it does seem related to your observation that conspiracy theories seem to arise when there is substantial evidence against the conspiracy.

    • April 12, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      Yes! I’m a part of the cover up! They’re on to me!

      One possible response to this paranoid style of thought – which, to be frank, I’ve never tried since challenging conspiracy enthusiasts is just not my thing – is to raise the question of a time when it actually worked. Certainly there must be at least one case in which a concerted group of underdogs strove against a vast consensus or and mountain of (apparent) evidence and was eventually vindicated by history. There have certainly been cover-ups and various secret shenanigans that have been discovered by journalists and independent sources, but this is a far cry from what, say, 9-11 truther-ism, O.J.’s innocence, vaccines causing autism, Oswald working with the CIA, Jack the Ripper being the prince, etc. would amount to if they were actually so. I’ve spent some time digging around looking for a bona fide conspiracy theory that actually turned out to be right, and so far have come up with nothing. Certainly something like Watergate or the bombing of Cambodia doesn’t count, though the case of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is a possible candidate, since it did involve a good deal of bogus evidence. That said, the evidence of military intelligence has always been understood as far less rigorous and open to interpretation than the sort of evidence that is usually leveled against conspiracy theory.

      • January 10, 2016 at 10:38 am

        When you spent time on that, were you looking for a case where a later consensus developed that the conspiracy theory was accurate? Or just a case where you can find evidence that would convince you that the conspiracy existed, even though the consensus does not accept it?

        If the first, I think the Moscow trials are a good example (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow_Trials). It’s less likely that something like that could happen in the USA, exactly because the Soviet government was more corrupt. But I think the case is extreme enough that it would be comparable to at least some of the cases you mention (although not to all of them.)

        Note that the reason why a consensus can develop in this case is because the people developing the consensus do not feel obliged to defend the Soviet government. If there were such a conspiracy in the USA, the corresponding consensus would never develop in the States, precisely because of how destructive it would be for trust in the government.

        So while I agree with you that the vast majority of conspiracy theories are false, people who are more sensitive to the possibility of such things will be more sensitive to true ones as well as to false ones. So I would not be surprised to find that there are true ones from time to time. Two that are convincing to me are the argument that the Church did not reveal the whole secret of Fatima, and that Vincent Foster was murdered. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, I don’t expect the Church to admit that any time soon, and I don’t expect American institutions to ever admit Foster’s murder.

  2. April 12, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    I think you’re quite right that the corruption of reasoning involved has a great deal to do with evidence — that’s why there’s a sort of ‘gerrymandered’ feel to conspiracy-theory explantions, it is rigging what does and doesn’t count as evidence.

    I think the modern age is particularly susceptible to this kind of problem because we easily see the attractions, due to scientific advances, of a hypothesize-and-test, inference-to-the-best-explanation approach. But some such inferences are very cautious and restrained, and others wild and irresponsible, and which is which can depend on details in the circumstances. So unless you vigilantly hold the reasoning to a well-defined goal (e.g., approaching proper demonstration appropriate to a context) or a well-defined constraint (e.g., falsifiability defined rigorously), there’s nothing to keep you from sliding from one to the other. And what I think most conspiracy theorists would say is that their reasoning does work — they’re being scientific!

    I’ve sometimes thought it would be interesting to look more in depth at the history of one of the oldest examples of conspiracy-theory explanation — the explanation of religion in general in terms of priestcraft or cabals of religious leaders trying to establish and maintain political power (as opposed to just occasionally finding religious cabals in local cases).


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