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Remember, the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said of a theory advanced by a student:

"That's not right. It's not even wrong."

The key part of something being a valid theory (specifically in this case a scientific one but I believe it applies to all cases where the word "theory" gets used) is that it must be falsifiable. I.e. it must be possible to say "if X and Y hold to be true, this theory is then proved wrong." If it isn't possible to say how something could be proved wrong, it can't be held to be true.

The majority of conspiracy / UFO / insert-whack-ass-idea-here theories are not even wrong.


Awesome posting! (BTW: what about the psychics? are there results? Did I win? It was a nice thing which kept me reading various IT realted news even though I often become so angry that I want to just throw the RSS feeds away.)


Nice post. I'll have to keep that question in mind next time I make the mistake of talking with some of the 9/11 Truth Squad folks who hang out on my campus.

"Nothing. Nothing would make me lose faith in my god. That's what it means to have faith."

My current answer to this is, "So you could be completely wrong and never realize it."

David Harmon

The thing is, sometimes there are non-obvious reasons for things, but those are rarely as interesting as the conspiracy theories....

Here's one similar to your nutmeg example: I used to make my own incense, and one day I found that most of my usual sources for sandlewood had suddenly run out, or multiplied the price. As it turned out, the harvesting practices for the stuff were not merely unsustainable, but had killed off most of the planted stock in India. Guess what most of my incense books had suggested as a base material?

And on the flip side, really strong conspiracies are rare enough that even when they do happen, they often get amazingly far, just because nobody can believe what's going on. Remember Hillary's classic complaint about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband and herself, and how she got pilloried for it? Funny thing about that.... And more recently, there's Madoff -- not such a big conspiracy, but even so, the people who tried to warn about him were simply ignored.

On the gripping hand, even large-scale malfeasance doesn't necessarily need actual conspiracy, as with the last couple of financial crises here in America. The malefactors didn't even need to coordinate with each other -- they each acted according to their own interests and priorities, and the collective result was catastrophe.

Cannonball Jones

A few of my good friends, otherwise sensible people, are strangely susceptible to conspiracy theories, most recently involving 9/11. I can tell you it is the single most annoying thing in the world to try to deal with, to the point where I have to leave the conversation if it comes up. Any attempt to question the conspiracy du jour is simply an indication that you're closed-minded, ignorant or just blind. Any source which can possibly disprove said theory is obviously planted propaganda or somehow irrelevant.

Seriously, at times I reckon I'd be happier if they were Young-Earth Creationists...

G Felis

A lot of what you're talking about hinges not precisely on faith, but on a very common fellow traveler with faith - rationalization. I mean here something very specific: Rationalization, as opposed to reasoning, is the construction of something that looks kinda-sorta like a reasoned argument (if you squint) for a "conclusion" that is already pre-determined in advance. I put the scare quotes around the word "conclusion" because, of course, if it's completely fixed and determined in advance of weighing the evidence and reasoning in its favor, it is not a conclusion at all - it is a presupposition. Rationalization proceeds sort of like an argument, what with the gathering and presentation of evidence - except that a very low standard is put in place for accepting evidence and drawing logical connections *for* the presupposition, and all evidence *against* the presupposition has to meet a ridiculously high standard of evidence, or is simply ignored, or is explained away on an ad hoc basis.

Rationalization is extremely natural for humans; we are actually much more naturally inclined to it than reasoning, and we do it every day without even noticing. In fact, I'm pretty certain that rationalization is a human universal, whereas faith (in the sense we're using it here) is clearly not. That is, I'll (grudgingly) admit to rationalizing from time to time, but I know for damned certain that there isn't a single iota of faith in me. Genuine critical reasoning requires a sustained effort and eternal vigilance in the face of our natural tendency to rationalize, but faith does not come naturally to all of us; for my part, I've always found faith extremely unnatural, and used to have difficulty believing that people really did believe the sorts of nonsense they claimed to believe.

That's why I think it's important to remember that faith and rationalization are separate phenomena. For example, some people adhere rigidly to faith beliefs with hardly even the most token rationalization: Believers of the "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!" school don't bother to advance arguments, not even the flimsiest pseudo-argument/rationalization. On the other end of the spectrum, some very non-dogmatic, liberally-inclined religious believers readily acknowledge that their vague notion that some "higher power" exists in the universe is something they believe with no real evidence: They admit that their faith is based on no more than a choice or a feeling, and they don't even *try* to rationalize it. Both types of believers exhibit faith without rationalization.

Similarly, although faith is an extraordinarily common source for the sort of "conclusions" pre-determined in advance which distinguish rationalizing from reasoning, it isn't a necessary prerequisite. Our everyday rationalizations are not grounded on beliefs we hold as a matter of faith, but on ordinary assumptions about the world that we don't even think to question - or that we'd rather not question. Everyday rationalization is often tangled up in psychological phenomena ranging from straightforward self-interest to the subtle traps of privilege-blindness.

That said, I do agree with you that hard-core conspiracy crankery really does seem rooted in very dogmatic, religion-like faith. Sure, the conspiracy advocates *claim* to be persuaded by the evidence and reasoning (or rather, "evidence" and "reasoning") presented by their conspiracy-mongering fellow travelers. But in reality - like religious believers who find the various ridiculous, fallacy-ridden, ought-to-be-embarrassing "arguments" for the existence of God to be convincing - conspiracy cranks are only convinced by various conspiracy theory "arguments" because they are already utterly convinced of and emotionally invested in the truth of the "conclusion" (which is really their starting point).

What puzzles me is this: I think I understand some of the psychological motivations behind religious faith, such as fear of death and group identity and all that jazz. But what on earth motivates a 9/11 Truther? I've just never seen a plausible explanation of what conspiracy nuts really get out of it.


When someone says to me, "You can't disprove it!" (in a tone that implies they've won), I always fire back, "A lack of conclusive disproof doesn't make belief and non-belief equally reasonable."

I've never gotten a good response to that.


"But what on earth motivates a 9/11 Truther?"

The sharing of what they believe, is the truth. Which seems to be very similiar to religious believers.
And maybe a little hope. Hope that being able to have insight, delve into or share information may help others to question many things [propoganda].
Is there a bit more of a difference to conspiracy believers and folks of faith? Yes.
Usually at some point a conspiracy believer finds some facts to help back up the case. No little thing.
There are also the people with first hand information (compared to someone who just saw the virgin mary?).

I see them more as people who try to tear apart all the bullshit surrounding something very important to all of us.
However, there'll never be a lack of the extremist conspiracy believers.

Jim Baerg

See the 5th panel


An interesting post. Nothing wrong and plenty right with shooting down conspiracy theories. Don't see, though, what this has to do specifically with liberalism, re its making the CotL cut. But, that's not the first time I've asked that question rhetorically within myself.

P Smith

Excuse my comment long after the fact. But since it's three weeks before the Decayed Decade Of Wallowing In Self Pity, it's relevant.

The worst thing about "conspiracy theories" is that sometimes those who ask valid questions can get lumped in with the cranks. It makes it difficult to ask such questions and get answers because the questions don't fit the "official version of events".

For example, the idiots behind "loose change" have loose screws, and I have no patience for them. Yet it I or other sane people ask why fighter aircraft didn't intercept the hijacked airplanes on 9/11, people assume that the questioner is a nutcase.

For those who think this isn't important, remember the death of Payne Stewart in October 1999, nearly two years before 9/11? His airplane lost contact with the ground and fighter aircraft were despatched to intercept it. The plane lost cabin pressure mid-flight, killing everyone on board, and it eventually crashed when it ran out of fuel.

There was a precedent for intercepting planes two years before 9/11, so why weren't they launched when the aircraft were known to be hijacked? I've never heard a good explanation for it.


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