Conspiracy theories — true and false and how to tell the difference

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by Neil Godfrey


Colin Dickey has an excellent article on GEN, How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.

He stresses the importance of recognizing that conspiracies do in fact exist. Don’t come across like a condescending know-it-all and lazily resort to appeals to authority (the mainstream media sources, for example). Acknowledge that the conspiracy theorist may be motivated by a genuine concern for real injustices, so by laughing in the face of a QAnon believer in a vast pedophile ring led by the Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden, you can come across as not caring about child abuse. Colin Dickey proposes better ways to approach that kind of conspiracy theorist.

Here I would like to focus on his explanation of the differences between real and hoax conspiracies:

How Real Conspiracies Become Known

Conspiracies are real. Think of Watergate, the Iran-Contra episode, (I would add COINTELPRO and the conspiracy to lead the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq), the tobacco lobby, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. The more widespread a conspiracy the more effort is required into keeping more people quiet.

When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. . . . What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?

After all, even highly organized conspiracies with limitless government backing and resources can’t stay hidden forever.

Successful conspiracies take hard work to keep them secret. The bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved. Watergate became known through a bookkeeper for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, Judy Hoback Miller, who “felt frustrated” that the “truth was not coming out”.

People like Miller [are] the “so-called ‘minor people” — the secretaries, security guards, and other low-level employees who worked behind the scenes for the big players who were often the first to talk. Such people are rarely ideologues nor are they being paid enough. The complexities of QAnon likewise would require a massive number of such minor people; people who, it stands to reason, have no ideological commitment to such horrors but are nonetheless employed in carrying them out. Such people ought to be easy to get to talk. When no such whistleblowers emerge, it speaks to the thinness of the story.

Compare the exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in the early days of the war on terror. This was

documented by none other than hobbyist plane spotters, who noted the tail numbers of flights taking off and landing. 

The more wide-reaching a conspiracy — the more victims it has, the more perpetrators involved, the wider geographical distance covered, etc. — the more traces it will leave. A conspiracy theory that is widely hypothesized and yet unproven, in other words, requires a level of human infallibility that we have never heretofore seen.


Hiding 35,000 children

QAnon alleges thousands of victims yet has produced none. Timothy Charles Holmseth, a conspiracist who claims to be part of a (nonexistent) Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, alleged in May that this same task force rescued some 35,000 children from an underground network of prisons beneath New York’s Central Park.. . . . Who are these victims, and where are their families? Where are the obituaries, the memorials, the tearful mothers on the steps of the Capitol holding press conferences, demanding justice? “There’s not one of them out there who said, ‘Yeah, we’re glad our child was rescued from this giant underground war,’” Craig Sawyer, an anti-sex-trafficking activist and critic of Holmseth, told the Daily Beast.


Colin Dickey’s article is worth reading for his insights into the psychology of the conspiracy theorist and for becoming aware of smart ways to approach discussions with those who may be part of something like QAnon. I mentioned above one possible concern: that people really are concerned for some injustice or crime or abuse. Another point he elaborates on is the possibility that for some of us, the idea of a vast and highly successful perfect crime is in one sense reassuring: the world is not so subject to the chaos, the randomness, the lack of controls, – the world is thereby, most ironically, made a more tolerable, safer, place.

Dickey, Colin. “How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.” GEN, October 8, 2020. https://gen.medium.com/how-to-talk-to-a-conspiracy-theorist-20122a39ac8a.


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Conspiracy theories — true and false and how to tell the difference”

  1. Hell, we cant even convince Xians that the Flud never happened, so good luck with the other unhinged. Tho I do think there`s a conspiracy to stop me winning the lottery.

  2. I think that the idea of conspiracy is a very weak and limited concept to describe how some of the upper class (i.e. wealthier, more powerful, gifted and successful members of society) exercise control and maintain their advantage over others.
    Other perhaps even more important and relevant factors are ignorance by others on the upper class, apathy by the middle class and the impotence of the lower class.
    So by studying the concept of conspiracy in the absence of ignorance, apathy and impotence we only really deal with 1/4 of the dynamic.
    Case studies are fascinating when the four factors are all given their due regard and we ask “who benefits” if the alleged conspiracy were to be true. Examples abound : the Bible, the flat earth, 911 and the Roswell alien encounter.
    Personally for example I think 911 is a conspiracy best understood alongside the ignorance, apathy and impotence of those not directly responsible for it. Knowing what the benefits were to the conspirators is very helpful.
    All this aside, let’s agree that we all seek facts and evidence and to objectively recognise our own predispositions, if that is possible, and to respect others’ views allowing for their culture, background conditioning and experiences.

  3. A very neat summary of the fallacious nature of certain conspiracy theories appeared in a November AP News report: https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-donald-trump-pennsylvania-elections-talk-radio-433b6efe72720d8648221f405c2111f9

    “You can say a lot at a driveway (news conference). … When you go to court, you can’t,” said lawyer Mark Aronchick, who represented election officials in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and elsewhere in several of the Pennsylvania suits. “I don’t really pay attention to the chatter until I see a legal brief.”

    . . . .

    Aronchick balked at the campaign’s core premise that local election workers — perhaps working for the Mafia, as Giuliani suggested — had plotted to spoil Trump’s win.

    “You’re going to suggest part of them are in a conspiracy? How does that work?” Aronchick asked. “Who? Where? When? How?”

    Brann, in his ruling, said he expected the campaign to present formidable evidence of rampant corruption as it sought to nullify millions of votes. Instead, he said, the campaign presented “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations.”

  4. Even the best and the brightest are not immune to suspecting conspiracies among their adversaries, from Abraham Lincoln’s accusation that Douglas’s Popular Sovereignty policy was part of an insidious plot to spread slavery throughout all the United States to Hillary Clinton’s ‘vast right wing conspiracy’ against Bill Clinton (or her more recent assertion that Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard is a Russian asset).

    1. Conspiracies are very real and it is only reasonable to suspect a conspiracy when assessing people who are known to collude and who can be proven to lie publicly. So there was nothing unreasonable about the suspicion that Trump was lying when he at first said that he had covid-19 and to suspect that he was concocting some conspiracy about his claim. But reasonable suspicions do not last but are either confirmed or disconfirmed as more information comes to light — or remain to be balanced against other reasonable explanations. What is different about the “conspiracy theorist” is that belief goes beyond reasonable suspicion and shuts its mind to the emerging evidence, declaring that evidence to the contrary is itself in some manner a part of the conspiracy.

      1. What’s needed is different terms to apply to the different kinds of ‘conspiracy theorists’ – those that take on new information and those who don’t. Otherwise reasonable people are chucked into the same pigeon hole with unreasonable people – which is a mistake in my view.

        Likewise ‘coincidence theorists’ can be either reasonable or unreasonable. They don’t get as much press, but I think it is a phenomenon.

        Where exactly those lines can be drawn is going to be dependent on the particulars of a case as human behavior is complex enough that abstract and general rules will tend to suffer from the abundance of exceptions. One complicating factor dealing with partisan controversies is what constitutes the information base upon which judgement is to be founded. We know that people can be clever enough to lay down false clues that tend to confirm (or disconfirm) an explanatory narrative about an event, and also clever enough to obscure evidence that might lead to exposure in efforts to avoid deleterious consequences. When conscious agents are involved true information can be hidden and false information introduced into the equation.

        With regard to the conspiracies cited above I don’t think Lincoln’s idea pans out as a classic conspiracy – it seems to me a confluence of interested parties without actual collusion among them to make all the states into slave states. Clinton’s suspicion of a conspiracy among right wingers to damage her husband’s administration? I find that to be a reasonable one. But the charge against Representative Gabbard as a ‘foreign asset’ seems to me unreasonable.

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