Since its raise, Social Media has given everybody the possibility to write as an authority on any given topic. One of the side-effects has been the emerging of varieties of conspiracy ideas. Some of the following beliefs might sound familiar to you:
The world is ruled by a secret group, with the help of an alien species of “reptiloids” covered in human skin. The coronavirus is a hoax and part the plan of the illuminati to rule the world. Bill Gates is developing vaccines in order to secretly implant chips under our skin that can be used to control our minds. And global elites torture children to harvest the chemical adrenochrome from their blood, to stay healthy and young.
Not that anyone else witnessed those claims. Nor is there any clear evidence that it is actually happening. But people are sure it is real. It makes too much sense, they all agree. “Everything falls into place”.
The idea behind conspiracy theories can be summarized as follows: Nothing is what it seems, and there is a master plan behind all major events in world history.
Pseudoscience versus Science
At first glance, conspiracy thinking bears a striking resemblance to scientific thinking. Science cultivates a skeptical stance and finds general principles underlying apparent heterogenous phenomena (like the law of gravitation or the structure of the DNA). This is precisely what a conspiracy theorist does, or so it seems.
At second glance, however, the differences between the conspiracy mentality and scientific thinking are striking. In fact, there is a demarcation between science on the one hand and pseudoscience, a superficial imitation of real science, on the other.
Conspiracy theories often incorporate elements from pseudoscience, for instance by employing scientific terms or referring to “dna manipulation”, ”data”, ”research”, ”sources” and statements from ”experts”. Yet they typically shy away from employing the scientific method and fact checks. Though there is no final demarcation between science and pseudoscience, there are some clear criteria: Scientific claims are based on systematic observation and experimentation, they should be consistent with other findings, and ideally expressed in scientific terms. Through critical self-examination and peer review, scientific theories can be improved and enhanced.
By contrast, pseudoscience rarely emerges from systematic observations and it is rarely expressed in precise terms, let alone based on qualitative or quantitative studies. Pseudoscience shows no regard for consistency, lacks experimentation and shows no scientific progress. Conspiracy theorists, too rarely have formal training in science, or more broadly, in logical thinking, and their beliefs seem to be determined by fallacies in reasoning on the one hand, emotional dinamics and personality traits on the other.
Cognitive fallacies of conspiracies
Consider the conspiracy theory about reptiloids, mighty alien lizards controlling the world. This story is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, in which the entire upper class consists of extraterrestrials who disguise themselves as human beings, forcing the world population to work for them. The film is an allegory about capitalism, hidden power and critical outsiders who ultimately blow the rulers’ cover. A conspiracy theory often starts from a point of healthy skepticism towards authorities, but then overshoots the mark, turning into an absurd truth.
Conspiracy theorists are often guided by gut feelings, with little to no knowledge about how science and logic work. They have typically a lower level of education than the average, feed their information from social media were everybody can claim to be an expert on any topic without real knowledge, and they also fall prey to fake news more easily than the average, according to research on 2.3 million Facebook users.
While conspiracy theorists are often self-proclaimed skepticists and critical thinkers, they typically confuse science as a combination of facts and scientific knowledge with their beliefs alone, finding always “experts” on social media convalidating their views.
When it comes to pseudoscientific beliefs, the conspiracy theorist’s fallacious theory of causation is particularly striking.
Assumptions about cause and effect are essential for the everyday thought and action. We cannot try to understand the world without assuming that causes are followed by their effects. Many causes are complex, invisible, and have indirect and thus often distant effects, such as an Azores anticyclone is causing cloud formations over Rome.
Many people have a hard time dealing with complex and invisible causes, and when they are unable to bring order to the world around them, they will seek order and structure elsewhere. This is probably the reason why the ancient Greeks regarded Zeus as the one who threw lightning bolts and why members of many ethnic religions still blame demons and witches for inexplicable happenings.
Conspiracy theories employ similar reasoning by making a small group of agents responsible for the suffering of the world. Instead of accepting that human suffering often results from complex and elusive political, social and economic circumstances, they rather opt for causes they can understand, namely the idea that a small elite of powerful Svengalis, secretly guides the destiny of mankind.
First cognitive fallacy:
Correlation is not causation.
There is a second fallacy comes into play, the “cui bono” principle, which says: “To whom is it a benefit?”. From a human perspective, the principle makes sense. When it comes to actions, it is quite plausible to first ask about the motive, because this is the only way to explain the deeds of others. As we know from television shows, the police has a hard time solving murders, if there is no motive. From the point of logic, however, the principle is fallacious.
Second cognitive fallacy:
An act being useful for someone does not imply that they committed it.
At any event, the majority of conspiracy theorists are concerned with power and authorities. Since they entertain an authoritarian thinking style, they tend to dominate others. Hence, they are particularly bothered if authority lies in the wrong hands. This stance indicates a general suspicion towards out-of-their-group authority.
Conspiracy theorists typically suffer from a feeling of powerlessness and inferiority in their personal life. Often, they also feel socially excluded and alienated. As a coping strategy, this feeling of superiority gives conspiracy theorists the impression of power as a substitute for their lack of power. When I have no power, others typically have it.
Third cognitive fallacy:
“Others have power”, does not imply “others use their power against me”.
Conspiracy theorists often think that they have a secret knowledge that is kept from others and enjoy the feeling of being special. While other people are “sheeps following main-stream media” and need to wake up from their dogmatic slumber, conspiracy theorists view themselves as skeptics who don’t fall for deception.
As opposed to the blind majority, they toke the “red pill” in the Matrix, seeing through the veil of deception. On the other hand, the narrative of mighty secret powers serves as a rationalization of their own shortcomings and frustrations, delegating the cause to an outer evil.
Fourth cognitive fallacy:
Auto-perception of being smarter than the majority, doesn’t make it actually true.
We are prone to prejudices and mental shortcuts, because evolution has equipped us with intuitive thinking and instinct that allows us to survive in situations of peril. However, evolution has also given us reason, that is the ability to distance us from ourselves, and to think critically, so that we can shield ourselves against mental shortcuts and recognize our own prejudices.
Personally I don’t like to venture in the smoky fields of demagogy and theories, nor I am inclined to take science as an absolute, history proves us that science is an ongoing process of new discoveries disproving the previous scientific hypothesis, and what will be considered science in a hundred years might well be considered magic today.
Instead the rabbit hole of personal beliefs and political ideologies, where all parties are adamant in their opinions is a misleading issue. While there is a a great deal of attention in the impossible mission of proving others’ ideologies wrong, people lose focus on the elementary questions that really matter in our society.
Actions tell much more than a thousand words about the moral values of those who act. And events like the one in the video belove – even if reported in the news – do not receive enough coverage in my opinion, considering the complete lack of empathy and humanity shown in some segments of our society.
Children separated from their parents at the US border