Sunday, December 12, 2010

Conspiracy Theory Meme

The Conspiracy Meme: Why Conspiracy Theories Appeal and Persist by Ted Goertzel appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 35. No. 1 Jan/Feb 2011 issue has pertinence to our recent spat on the subject. I will attempt to summarize the article here. If you are interested in the full article you can check it out yourself. Ted goertzel is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden New Jersey. He has authored several books such as: Turncoats and the True Believers: They Dynamics of Political Belief and Disillusionment, Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Medicine and other works that you can access at, The following is a mix of paraphrasing and quotes from the article. he says that conspiracy theorizing "is a rhetorical meme that transforms scientific controversies into human dramas with villains who can be exposed. It uses controversial facts and speculations to undermine scientific evidence." The theories are easy to propagate and difficult to refute. "The central logic of such memes is to question, typically on speculative grounds everything the establishment says or does and to demand immediate comprehensive and convincing answers to all questions and unconvincing answers are taken as proof of conspiratorial deception." An example is the film "Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup by Avery in 2009. The video went viral on the web. When an alleged fact is debunked the conspiracy theorist often replaces it with another fact. The Producer of Loose Change Korey Rowe stated: "We don't ever come out and say that everything we say is 100 percent (correct). We know there are errors in the documentary, and we've actually left them in there so that people (will) discredit and do the research for themselves." (Slensky 2006) When conspiracy theories are reinforced on a regular diet of "alternative" videos and one sided literature it can become an habitual way of thinking. In fact those that believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to believe in others. (Goertzel 1994, Kramer 1998) There are 92 conspiracy theories described in a book by McConnachie and Tudge 2008 and cover topics from Tutankhamen curse, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, satanic ritual abuse, Trilateral Commission and the British Royale Family. Many are clearly absurd, but some are plausible and other s actually contain elements of truth. How does one tell the difference? First what is a "conspiracy"? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it very loosely as "an agreement between two or more persons to do something criminal, illegal or reprehensible." It usually implies something that is secret. Pigden (2006) defines it as "a secret plan on the part of a group to influence events in part by covert plan." Conspiracies do exist. The meme flourishes best in politics, religion and journalism. It is not necessary for the practitioner to actually believe the theory, they just may find it plausible and useful to raise doubts and discredit their competitors. One valuable guideline to look for is called "cascade logic" (Susstein and Vermeule 2008). This when the conspiracy theorists find it necessary to implicate more and more people whose failure to discover or reveal the conspiracy can only be explained by their complicity in the conspiracy. Another is to look for exaggerated claims about the power of the conspirators, i.e. These claims are needed to explain how they were able to intimidate so many people and cover their tracks. The more vast and powerful the alleged conspiracy the less likely that it could have remained discovered. The fair debate meme is often invoked by dissenters from mainstream science, history etc. that there are two sides to every question and each is entitled to equal time and presentation, such as creationism v evolution and the holocaust deniers. If they succeed in getting an opportunity to present their case they will focus on gaps or contradiction in the evidence, using rhetoric to question their opponents motivations while avoiding any hint of weakness or bias in their own case. It doesn't work well in science because there are objectively right and wrong answers to most scientific questions and they cannot be resolved by voting. The resistance to orthodoxy meme is another well tried and established method of rhetorically challenging mainstream. It take the form of the courageous independent scientist etc. resisting orthodoxy and use the example of the Galileo defense. Being a dissenter isn't so difficult, the hard part is actually having a better theory than the conventional one. Dissenting theories should be published if they are backed by plausible evidence, but this does not mean giving critics "equal time" to dissent from every finding of the mainstream. They often point to Karl Poppers argument that "true good theories are falsifiable theories, and a single falsification will bring a good theory crashing down." They often stop there, but Popper went on to say that science normally progresses by correcting and adding to ongoing theories and laws, not by abandoning them every time a hypotheses fails. Conspiracy theorists often seem to be believe that they can prove a scientific theory wrong by finding even very minor flaws or gaps. Then they claim conspiracy when scientists endeavor to fix the flaw or fill the gap. In fact, the times that an entire scientific theory is thrown out by negative findings are few and far between. So hopefully with the above in mind one is better able to spot a conspiracy theory. True Believers can almost never be won over because the conspiracy like religion becomes a part of who they are and the way they view the world, delusional or not.

Skeptical DoDo

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