Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking

To what extent is the world filled with conniving villains and dastardly plots… and how much of it erupts from our fertile imaginations? It may not surprise you much that I take both sides on this matter.

On the one hand, history is rife with schemers and secretive meddlers. You don’t need cryptic societies and Illuminati, just your run-of-the-mill feudal aristocracy that ruled almost every society that ever lifted itself to the level of agriculture. The mythology of inherited lordship – assisted and promoted by priests and bards – was the great scam that got pulled off on every continent, in every age.

On the other hand, we often see conspiracies where they are not. The psychological drivers are many and powerful. A need to explain one’s own poverty and failure. The allure of enticing pattern recognition, even when the patterns aren’t really there. And, above all, the warm feeling we get from being in the know. From being part of the elect group that can see what’s going on! While our foolish neighbors go about their business, bleating like ignorant sheep.

There are no richer, more voluptuous mental drug-highs than self-righteous indignation, resentment, and contempt for fools.


In the latest issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, has an excellent article, “The Conspiracy Theory Detector“, in which he categorizes the characteristics of conspiracy theories. I’ll summarize a few of his points:

1. — The conspiracy only emerges by “connecting the dots,” linking events that are unrelated except through the allegation of conspiracists.

2.–The agents behind such a conspiracy would “need nearly superhuman power to pull it off.”

3.–The conspiracy presumes that a large number of people have maintained total secrecy, often for a substantial period of time.

4. –The conspiracy involves a grand struggle for control of a nation or economy, or even world domination (the larger the issue, the more likely it’s a conspiracy).

5.–The conspiracy “ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.”

6. –The theory assigns evil, sinister motives to events.

7. –The theorist mixes facts and speculations, probable and improbable events, is consistently suspicious of all government agencies, and refuses to consider alternative explanations, typically rejecting any evidence that fails to confirm such theories.

I must add that just because a notion has all these warning signs, that doesn’t mean the conspiracy theory is wrong! In fact, would not the conspiring geniuses fake some of these very traits, in order to discredit the idea and divert smart people away from it?

Still, Shermer’s article offers some tools, for you to use as a free mind.


Richard Feynman said that. And I’m the one who said that self-delusion is the greatest of all human talents.

Indeed, recent science shows how good we all are at psychologically ignoring all evidence against our tightly clutched beliefs. Even when those beliefs are simply wrong. ”New research suggests that misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts — and often become even more attached to their beliefs. The finding raises questions about a key principle of a strong democracy: that a well-informed electorate is best.”

While we’re on the subject, here is a systematic taxonomy of logical fallacies. No one should graduate high school without knowing these. Seriously, you are ignorant if you aren’t at least glancingly familiar with them.

(Hang on a month or so, and I will supply you with an even more important tool: the paraphrase challenge! Impatient scholars can dive into it here.

Dang, how has the species even survived to get this far? Obstinate, delusional… and desperately clinging to our delusions.

If this sort of thing is common among intelligent species, across the galaxy, then ah, the Fermi Paradox is no paradox.


Controversies and public battles over science are nothing new, particularly when politics enters the fray. An article in New Scientist, “Einstein’s skeptics: Who were the relativity deniers?” begins, “When people don’t like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and plausible pseudoscience.” Einstein’s battles to defend relativity were reminiscent of today’s climate deniers and creationists.

See my article carefully making this distinction.

In 1920, five years after he published his general theory of relativity, Albert Einstein wrote, “This world is a strange madhouse, Every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political affiliation.”

Einstein’s publication provoked opponents across Europe and the U.S. who set out to prove that relativity was wrong. Objections were raised not just in scholarly journals, but in letters, newspapers, pamphlets and public lectures. Some groups promoted anti-semitic conspiracy theories; others raised theological arguments. Their tactics had much in common with those used by creationists and climate-change deniers today. The Academy of Nations, an international network of Einstein’s opponents, published polemics against relativity, which they believed symbolized the incomprehensibility of modern science, and its break from classical physics. The New York Times declared in 1919, that relativity was a theory that could be understood by “only twelve wise men.”

Arguments continue to this day. The website Conservapedia lists 32 reasons why the relativity theory is wrong, and allows users to document counterexamples to relativity theory.

1 Comment

Filed under psychology, Uncategorized

One response to “Conspiracies and Wishful Thinking

  1. I wonder if human beings naturally gravitate toward the kind of conspiracies such as the feudal system. That form of social organization occurs so often that our modern democracies are extraordinary aberrations, however desirable they may be.

    The rule regarding conspiracy theories ought to be Ockham’s Razor. There was a conspiracy that created the events of 9/11, namely the Al Qaeda plot. Just as with any hypothesis, the evidence has to match the sweep of the claim. The evidence at hand can be explained completely by what Osama bin Laden set in motion. Anyone claiming that 9/11 was done by a much larger conspiracy needs to provide undeniable evidence that cannot be explained by the smaller theory.

    The “Einstein skeptics” were reasonable in the early days following the publication of Einstein’s paper in 1915. The special theory of relativity wasn’t that much of an advance, given that Ernst Mach and others were developing similar ideas, but general relativity took a huge step away from what was then accepted physics. General relativity was confirmed by a series of observations and experiments over the years that make continued skepticism merely obtuse.

    As with evolution and any other scientific theory, rational doubt and oppositional fantasy look the same to the uninformed, and it’s the job of scientists and writers to explain the difference.

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