4 ways to tell if popular conspiracy theories are false

Conspiracies do happen. So, how do you know which theories might be worth investigating?

  • Although there's no shortage of crackpot conspiracy theories on the internet, the fact is sometimes people do commit conspiracies.
  • The 'basic argument' against conspiracy theories can help to sort out which theories can be easily dismissed, and which might be worth looking into.
  • It's also important to realize many so-called conspiracy theories actually aren't describing conspiracies, but rather the predictable and non-secret behavior of a group of people with a similar ideology.

In the 1950s, the C.I.A. began a secret project called MKUltra that aimed to find a 'truth drug' to use during interrogations with suspected Soviet spies. Now, thanks largely to a 1974 New York Times report that prompted a federal investigation, we know that MKUltra involved ethically dubious mind-control experiments, giving LSD to unwitting test subjects, and, ultimately, the deaths of multiple Americans.

This is now public knowledge. But before it was, how would you have reacted to a person who told you such claims about what the U.S. government was doing behind the curtains? Would you have complimented their tin-foil hat?

Conspiracies sometimes happen. So, where's the line between a reasonable hypothesis and a "conspiracy theory" — a term that seems increasingly loaded in a YouTube era when millions are mesmerized by ideas like "crisis actors", Sandy Hook denial and other popular conspiracy theories?

That's one of the main questions asked in a recent blog post from Slate Star Codex, a blog run by psychiatrist Scott Alexander that focuses on science, medicine, philosophy, politics and futurism. It's a question that can be broken down into two separate questions:

  1. How do you tell when a "conspiracy theory" is plausible?
  2. When is a conspiracy theory really just describing the rational and semi-coordinated behavior of a large group?

​The 'basic argument' against conspiracy theories shows which are plausible

There's a basic argument against conspiracy theories that can help identify those which are more easily dismissable. In Alexander's words, the argument goes something like: "You can't run a big organization in secret without any outsiders noticing or any insiders blowing the whistle."

For example, take a conspiracy that says the C.I.A. is plotting to fix the 2020 U.S. presidential election. In order for that to be true, you'd have to first explain how it's possible that every single person in the agency is on board with the plan, and is simultaneously willing and able to keep quiet; or you'd have to show that there's a small conspiracy within the agency itself that's pulling the strings to get a particular candidate elected, all while hiding their shady activity from fellow agents.

The basic argument helps to explain why other conspiracy theories — say, 9/11 was an inside job or Jews were behind Brexit — are almost surely false because they'd be too hard to coordinate without high-profile whistleblowers or other forms of credible evidence leaking out. (To be sure, some have noted that the basic argument isn't necessarily true in all scenarios, such as Britain's WWII-era 'Ultra' project (not to be confused with MKUltra).)

​When a 'conspiracy theory' doesn't really describe a conspiracy

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "conspiracy" as a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.

It's clear that some "conspiracy theories" aren't really describing conspiracies, but rather the rational, predictable and semi-coordinated behavior of a group of people within a particular institution or ideology. This behavior isn't always evil or secret, and it doesn't necessarily require leaders to direct the group, but rather it emerges (in a somewhat bottom-up fashion) from the group's shared motivations.

One example Alexander provides is a conspiracy theory that says something like: Trump didn't collude with the Russians, but Democrats are working together in bad faith to convince the country he's a traitor.

"People are tempted to genuinely believe whatever puts them on top; that means Democrats probably genuinely believe Trump is guilty," Alexander writes. "Once they all genuinely believe it, they can talk openly — "How do we help coordinate to reveal the truth to everyone and bring this traitor to justice?" — rather than violating the Basic Argument by meeting secretly to figure out how to best delude the American people."

Another concept that can help sort of what is and what isn't a proper conspiracy comes from a 2002 blog post from author and software developer Eric S. Raymond. In the piece, Raymond describes a phenomenon he calls the "prospiracy," a "subtler but much more pervasive" phenomenon than the conspiracy.

"What distinguishes prospiracies from conspiracies is that the members don't necessarily know they are members, nor are they fully conscious of what binds them together. Prospiracies are not created through oaths sworn by guttering torchlight, but by shared ideology or institutional culture. In many cases, members accept the prospiracy's goals and values without thinking through their consequences as fully as they might if the process of joining were formal and initiatory.

What makes a prospiracy like a conspiracy and distinguishes it from a mere subcultural group? The presence of a 'secret doctrine' or shared goals which its core members admit among themselves but not to perceived outsiders; commonly, a goal which is stronger than the publicly declared purpose of the group, or irrelevant to that declared purpose but associated with it in some contingent (usually historical) way.

On the other hand, a prospiracy is unlike a conspiracy in that it lacks well-defined lines of authority. Its leaders wield influence over the other members, but seldom actual power. It also lacks a clear-cut distinction between 'ins' and 'outs.'"

​When is a conspiracy theory worth investigating?

Clearly, there's no one rule that can help you sort out which conspiracy theories are plausible. But taking the above points into mind, a conspiracy theory might be worth investigating when:

  • The conspiracy theory actually describes a conspiracy — not the public and predictable behavior of a group, and not a prospiracy.
  • The alleged perpetrators belong to a small group, which means the conspiracy theory would pass the 'basic argument' test.
  • The alleged perpetrators have a rational motive for the conspiracy. (Take the flat Earth theory. Besides the fact that it fails the 'basic argument' test, I've yet to hear a sensible explanation for why NASA and other agencies would be interested in duping the public about the shape of the planet.)
  • The conspiracy theory is falsifiable. (You might believe trans-dimensional aliens have possessed our world leaders and are pulling all the strings, but you'll have a hard time testing and proving that theory.)

Skepticism is a weapon against radicals, conspiracy theorists, and Holocaust deniers

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