Featured image: Buzz Aldrin climbs from the Apollo Lunar Module onto the Moon—or was it a film studio? (Allstar Picture Library)
I‘ve had the idea to write about conspiracy theories for some time. This is not because of an interest in conspiracy theories themselves but in the people who believe them. Have UFOs visited Earth? Was 9/11 an inside job? Did somebody murder Jeffrey Epstein? Sure, I’d like to know the answers. But there is something less mystical and more disclosed in human nature which is both fascinating and readily available for detailed analysis . . .
My interest in conspiracy theories was further stirred by abuse I received for supporting vaccination, as a general principle, on Twitter. Many of the abusers I would label 'anti-vaxxers'; but abuse came from other corners, too. Greater global threats than COVID-19, they said, are posed by the likes of Bill Gates, whose forceful will is to profit from the development of a rushed-through vaccine that probably won't work (like many other vaccines, apparently). Meanwhile, various public bodies and private enterprises, riddled with corruption, are seeking to benefit from recessions and losses in freedom (by selling us new things). We are being duped! This is a coup from the people! The mainstream media ('MSM') are peddling lies! And sheep, like me, are sustaining it! (I'm thick-skinned about the abuse, don't worry. In fact, I relish the opportunity to engage these people vis-à-vis.)
A conspiracy, by definition, is a secret, morally corrupt plan or activity. Conspiracy theorists maintain that there are conspiracies in action, contrary to popular opinion—often with firm conviction. In some cases they may even be correct.
However, as I said, I’m more interested in the motivational structures with which people frame their beliefs—specifically in what kinds of people are more disposed to believing that others (conspirators) are conspiring against them.
Conspiracy theorists usually predicate their conspiracies on power imbalances. Large, expert, or wealthy groups (e.g. ‘the establishment’) are implicated in exploiting the average citizen for private gain, say, by promoting a false awareness of climate change or by enforcing vaccination.
Such groups achieve this on a systematic scale and have the resources to cunningly conceal their practices and, therefore, mislead the public about their real motives. Fortunately, conspiracy theorists, as truth-seekers, are fighting back against these affronts!
A tendency to doubt what one is told by groups of people who are bigger in stature than themselves, I suspect, is characteristic of most conspiracy theorists. They are also allured to being contrarians. It is on these points where I think we gain the greatest insights into their stories—their experiences and dispositions—rather than into the theories themselves.
Is it possible that there is something ‘wrong’ with them? I don’t mean to say conspiracy theorists are ill, clinically speaking. Paranoia is characteristic of some disorders (e.g. schizophrenia, delusion disorder, insanity, trauma). Moreover, people who suffer from anxiety and distress are more prone to believing conspiracy theories, while associations with narcissism and paranoid ideation are also demonstrable. But I will not bluntly diagnose the majority of probably healthy people who question the assumed truth of matters with mental health conditions. That would be remarkably naïve.
Alex Jones (pictured/GIF'd), a political extremist from the USA. Jacked up with a desire for self-importance in extreme cases, some people feel that it's right that they step into the role of prophet. Belief in conspiracy theories is predicted by high individual narcissism but low self-esteem and correlated with low levels of analytic thinking and education, although, of course, this can't be said to be true for everyone.
Rather, I allude to something more existential: something suggestive of frustration, collapse, or failure—particularly in an increasingly incoherent social context. From here a preponderance of belief in conspiracy theories arises.
Frequently, I think, belief expresses a willing withdrawal from the reality an individual finds themselves living in. Feeling alienated, fearful, uncertain, or confused, they have motives to mentally detach from their bleak and complex world. Pessimism will restore order: it will force things to make sense again, grounding the conspiracy theorist in something once more, having lost touch with the world already.
‘Things happen for a reason,’ people tell themselves. They cannot accept that big things happen in their lives to contradict this, often without justice. So they rebel. Through teleological explanations—the ascription of purpose to things—they secure comfort, in lies, by choosing to see ‘good’ and ‘evil’ amidst the chaos. (Friedrich Nietzsche considered this approach to life ‘weak-willed’, favouring a fall to the purposelessness of nihilism.)
Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood; pictured) in Westworld S3E1: 'I think that people believe the things that help them. 'Course, it could just be this [she points to her head]. Nucleus accumbens: it's a small part of your brain, about an inch and a half long. It's the part of you that evolved to believe in God . . . You may not believe in a higher power, but your mind was built to.' Is Dolores right: did we evolve to possess a religious instinct? Similarly, are conspiracy theorists driven to believing unlikely states of affairs—depleted of love, meaning, order, or reason, yearning for new purpose? Or is this patronising to think? (HBO)
Conspiracy theorists are in the midst of rebellions against invisible power structures and taking defiant ideological stands against privileged groups of people who uphold lies for private gain of ‘the few’ (or so they say). They claim they are some of the only people who are awake to ongoing corruption. They are critical-minded and have done their own research.
Being privy to ‘hidden truths’ revitalises them. It usurps disillusion by conferring a set of individualised objectives. With a cause to fight for they are able to rid themselves of the resentment accrued from negative, possibly unrelated, experiences and right the perceived wrongs.
But while there are certainly injustices in the world that must be challenged, conspiracy theorists seem to be more interested in assuming they exist first before proving them (without being very proactive at fact-checking). The will to confirm belief is stronger than the will to seek truth.
A philosopher I’m connected with online neatly expressed the appeal of conspiracies as follows (his account, @unemployedphilosophersince2018, recently vanished from Instagram, as far as I can tell, so I can’t properly credit him):
Big narratives instil people with a sense of importance: an impetus to do something about their current situations. I relate to these feelings, for I am prone to following big causes in my projects (meaning, purpose, permanence, community, impact). But I remind myself to search for facticity in my objectives: to ground my narratives in the real world because there will be real-world effects. History informs us of this.
My thoughts are immediately drawn to the Inca children who were led up to volcanic peaks in the Andes, South America, to be sacrificed in attempts to join their deities; of Charlie Manson’s murderous doomsday cult, predicated on an imminent race war stirred up by the Black population of America; of parents refusing to vaccinate their children because of various baseless fears. In more-pity-evoking scenes, I think of the sadness and vulnerability of flat Earthers vying so hard to prove the unprovable and those who self-detrimentally pursue fad diets.
But conspiracy theorists’ claims frequently can neither be proven nor disproven (apparently); no amount of evidence can derail them. Even if they are able to recognise the collapse of their first-held theory, they will find smaller gaps for it to ‘exist’ in as it mutates. The whole narrative might even recede completely; but, you sense, it’ll be replaced by a new one.
The truth is also not always easy to take. In the first instance we need time to process and energy to accept it. But, at least from my own experience, truth usually catches us in the end, however long you evade it for. So it’s better to take personal responsibility of our situations forthwith by paying closer attention to the world around us now.
Yet there is something else to be said of conspiracy theories which is less psychological and more philosophical in enquiry. Most people do not to take the unfounded beliefs of conspiracy theorists too seriously; however, as we should have learned from ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, consensus doesn’t make truth. But what does?
Prising truth from validity
There are two philosophical concepts I want to consider for the rest this article. Each is key to the construction of a conspiracy theory. The first is logic.
Logic consists in language (the structuring of letters, words, sounds, punctuation, etc.), semantics (the meanings of combinations of those), and proof systems (designed to prove logical statements). Logicians study the rules that govern arguments with the aim of formalising natural language. A perfect logical system determines the logical properties of the arguments people make to test their validity.
Conspiracy theorists, like all of us, often make propositions (sentences that can be true or false). Whether their claims are logical or not brings us to an important distinction: one can make valid claims about the world which are actually false. Validity only tells us that an argument has been expressed correctly.
For those who do not believe conspiracy theories, too, it is a viable possibility that they have assumed things incorrectly or have been told lies. So maybe NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon were hoaxes. Maybe Earth is flat. Maybe the deaths of certain celebrities were covered up. Maybe they aren’t even dead. Maybe there is a New World Order—the Illuminati? Maybe various planes were shot down for political reasons. Maybe we are controlled by chemtrails and 5G signals. Maybe the real reason why governments keep marijuana illegal is because ‘Big Pharma’ (i) want us to be ill and (ii) benefit from lobbying for more-lucrative alternatives. These are all potentially valid claims.
Even if none of these claims are true, possibility reveals the shaky epistemic foundations we all build truth on. I am just one person with a set of beliefs. So are you. Where is the authority?
Who are you to say anyone else, such as a conspiracy theorist, is wrong? This isn't about preferences: e.g. we'll never agree on the best film of all time (it's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)). This is about uncoverable (at least in theory) facts. Does MMR vaccination lead to autism? Is human-induced climate change occurring? Are radio waves causally associated with cancer incidence? With access to the same information, intelligent, agreeable people disagree on what the facts of the matters are. Maybe the concept of 'epistemic peers' will help. They are people who have access to the same arguments and evidence and who possess similar experience and intellect. Their introduction makes the debate particularly interesting since even epistemic peers disagree with each other! Perhaps epistemic peers should distribute degrees of confidence to their arguments being true and find middle ground: e.g. P1 assigns 0.2 to 'Aliens built the Egyptian pyramids'; P2 assigns 0.8; therefore, assign 0.5. But why should one's confidence have to be adjusted?! Yet if we stand our ground, we'll be disagreeing forever. Maybe agnosticism is the answer. Then what can we claim? Perhaps only arguments and evidence themselves matter; and if people disagree in meta-disputes about what evidence and arguments imply, such disagreements only form part of total evaluations. (Thoughts inspired by philosophers Thomas Kelly and Jennifer Lackey.) (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
If we follow the rules of any logical system (there are more than one), however, we may be able to spot invalidities in their claims. For example, the following is a valid argument, composed of separate propositions (premises, P, and a conclusion, C), which follows a rule of logic known as ‘modus ponens’, from which a conclusion is inferred from a conditional (‘if’) statement (I’ve expressed examples in ‘sentential logic’ not just to flex but also to show how arguments can be constructed for logical analysis in easy symbolic form):
P2: A cloud looks like a UFO, p.
C: It's probably a UFO, q.
(p → q, p ∴ q)
Here is a more-expansive argument for a different set of events, albeit with quite an open-ended conclusion:
P2: I don't smell bad. (¬t)
C: JFK's gunshot wounds suggest multiple gunmen, p, the CIA is secretive, q, JFK fired a CIA director, r, and the CIA wanted to maintain tension with the Soviet Union and Cuba and to prevent the USA's withdrawal from Vietnam, s.
((p ∧ q ∧ r ∧ s) ∨ t, ¬t ∴ p ∧ q ∧ r ∧ s)
I could even construct a silly but, nonetheless, valid argument relating the two examples above:
P2: A UFO killed JFK, p.
C: A UFO flew over the USA in 1963, q.
(p → q, q ∴ p)
All these arguments are logically valid: when all of their premises are true their conclusions are also true. But are all their premises true? If they are, the conclusions’ truths necessarily follow. If any are false, the arguments they sit within crumble.
Conspiracy theorists, we think, have a way of forming or believing false propositions; but they will use validity to claim we cannot rule out or disprove their beliefs. They are stubborn in this. And while probability isn’t on their side, possibility is.
'The truth' here may be a joke but a valid argument has been constructed: 5G masts, weaponised bats, mind-control, surveillance—they're all logically possible! (Unknown source)
However, we might be able to spot invalidities in their claims, thus derailing their beliefs (should we think that has purpose). Take the following example:
C: Bill Gates intends to implant microchips under people's skin, q.
(p ∴ q)
For this argument to be declared logically valid the conclusion must be true when the premise is true (it is). Here the conclusion is conceivably false and we cannot causally connect the premise to it to justify its truth—that is, unless a proponent of this view can elaborate the relation between p and q in argumentative form. Until then we have logical grounds to dismiss their theory: its invalidity causes an implosion within itself.
There is a lot of misinformation about Bill Gates (pictured) stored on the World Wide Web. Various conspiracy theories are predicated on his wealth, his influence through his charitable foundations, and his (accurate) public-health predictions. He apparently knew about the COVID-19 pandemic in advance and is rampantly seeking even more money from investments into vaccines. It has been said that he serves as an 'abstract boogeyman' for conspiracy theorists. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)
Anyway, while possibility is normally our saviour, for it provides opportunity and individuality, through logic we are always met with a great number of valid propositions, making every claim uncertain. And if the conspiracy theorists are right, p, we’re going to look a bit silly for scoffing at their claims, q; we should, therefore, offer more-compelling, more-truth-apt explanations back, r. (p → q ∴ r)
Explanation is connecting the dots
My second (and last) key concept to explain is . . . explanation.
Language is our vehicle of communication; explanation is our linguistic tool for identifying what’s going on in the world around us.
Explaining events (e.g. my increased likelihood of cancer) ordinarily equates to identifying causes for them (e.g. consuming processed foods). There are tonnes of philosophical questions I’d like to explore in explanation. But I’ve resisted (partly because I’m saving them for my PhD research). For now I will just assume that we can explain things in the real world effectively—but not without the concession that words may never paint the full picture.
Despite our deep and complex relationship with language, we are able to mediate a great number of logically valid arguments based on limited evidence, which includes and extends beyond conspiracy theories.
It’s often tempting to say that a conspiracy theory (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic being a hoax) is patently false and that’s because X (e.g. the World Health Organization) say so. But conspiracy theorists may well return our accusations and say: ‘X is wrong!’ So, we should ask ourselves: ‘Are our explanations sufficiently established in evidence?’
Our explanations ought to be as exquisite as possible; else we cannot beat conspiracy theorists in argument and will be logically forced to concede to scepticism. And however much evidence we gather to support a hypothesis about an event’s underlying cause, we will never acquire enough for absolute certainty. Explanation, therefore, is forever restricted to being a game of linguistically connecting ‘the dots’ we can see.
Far-right conspiracy group QAnon are criticised in this image. Humans are clever enough to compose selective arguments by 'cherry-picking' the data they require to validate their worldviews. (Unknown source)
To make our own explanations more appealing we not only have to make our arguments valid but refute alternative explanations. But how can we? Conveniently, many are practically impossible to disprove.
However, what if we introduce the concept of likelihood into explanation?
Consider a pack of cards. There are 52 possibilities of what the first turned-over card will be. The appearance of a specific card only seems remotely possible at this point; but when one is inevitably turned over you should not be surprised to see it. Sometimes explanations can feel like this, where a candidate-explanation is one card of infinite possibilities—and we can’t technically rule any out, unless they’re invalid.
A jury faces this problem as they select the best candidate-explanation in court, ultimately favouring one of two versions of events (the prosecution’s or the defence’s). In lieu of being able to truly know what happened, they guess. Expressions such as ‘reasonable doubt’ fill the void of unknowingness with imperfect human intuition. Take the death of Kathleen Peterson, whose legal case is documented in Netflix show The Staircase. Maybe a barn owl did kill her. The circumstantial evidence is ‘persuasive and credible’, according to lawyer David S. Rudolf. It is, in every sense, possible, he says, whereas explanations of accidental death by falling and of murder by her husband are beset by big flaws, despite describing more-usual modes of death.
Still, versions of events can only be made more dependable by being associated with greater likelihoods. We choose to envelope the concept of likelihood into our explanations prior to our knowing of what actually happened by inferring the strongest explanation from multiple candidate-explanations (e.g. ‘I am tired because I slept for only four hours last night’; ‘I am tired because I consumed too many bad vibes today’ . . . ), implementing probability into our beliefs.
Steven Avery (pictured; number 6) was falsely convicted of rape after he was putatively identified by the victim as the perpetrator from this police lineup. This and other injustices are documented in Netflix's Making A Murderer. But what did happen to Teresa Halbach? Every explanation of her murder and mutilation contains flaws in its premises.
But even if we did have a strong grasp of probabilities, an explanation’s high likelihood does not determine its truth. Consider the following, inspired by Bertrand Russell’s ‘stopped-clock case’.
A friend of yours is wearing a watch which they do not know to be broken. The hands of the clock together indicate that it’s 2 o’clock. By chance, a stranger walks past and asks for the time at 2 pm. Your friend, with no reason to doubt their watch, expresses a belief that it is, indeed, 2 pm; it would be foolish to think that their functioning watch was displaying an incorrect time—unlikely. In fact, they verify what the time was shortly after on their phone. Yet, while your friend’s belief was correct, their belief that it was 2 pm at 2 pm doesn’t really amount to knowledge, as certain as it seemed at time, because they arrived at their conclusion incorrectly: the watch was broken and, thus, their claim was built on false premises.
A faulty sense of probability, therefore, can skew a belief in a certain explanation before the truth of the matter is known. This undermines the strength of arguments drawn from likelihood. We require rigour of argument to properly evaluate the truth. (Nostradamus, for example, made some accurate predictions; but did he provide adequate explanations for why his prophecies will come to pass in the distant future? No.)
Nevertheless, inference will render our accounts more credible and should deliver blows to grounded conspiracy theorists, granted probability can’t settle debates alone. Then again, maybe nothing will.
The truth or falsity of certain conspiracy theories is interesting in itself. But people’s fascination with them, to me, suggests a more-interesting fact about ourselves: our disposition for ‘Other’: a readiness to withdraw from our current realities and embrace a new world with individualised purpose. The arguments they bring forth are often logically explained; however, they are usually speculative and unlikely. The Internet has allowed conspiracy theorists to spread their fires further. These fires have passed through echo-chamber walls, fuelled by confirmation bias, and expanded into new unmediated networks. Information is decreasingly self-contained in bubbles and increasingly exchanged across vast webs undetectably.
All we can do is humbly construct something better of our own: something which follows the same rules of logic but is grounded in validity and a willing desire to locate the truth. This latter point distinguishes the conspiracy theorist from the critical theorist.
A critical theorist must be resolute. For truth will inevitably rupture the fabric of any flawed belief. It will engender frustration. It will encourage falls into disarray and lead one to abandon assumptions of fairness. But, in doing so, the truth of matters will unimprison them from torrid searches for injustices; and it will allow them to challenge the ones that are really there.