This week we’re talking about conspiracy theories! I have two points to make, from opposite sides of this argument.
The first of these is a handy little rule that I feel should be applied whenever you feel like there might be something sinister afoot. Hanlon’s razor states:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
It’s been attributed to various people, but I like the “cock up before conspiracy” version attributed to Sir Bernard Ingham;
Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.
To be sure, conspiracies are something that occur. The one that sprang immediately to mind for me is the Gunpowder Plot that resulted in failure and, ultimately, an excuse to throw a party and have gigantic bonfires. However, that might just be because there are rhymes associated. I can quote the one from V for Vendetta from memory. But real conspiracies occur in small, tightly knit groups with small, focused aims. Larger conspiracies – “climate change is a hoax!” – just aren’t feasible because all it takes is one honest (or, if you’re cynical, careless) person to expose it.
The other, contrasting point has to do with hyperskepticism – the position of needing absolute proof of every claim before being willing to entertain it. I myself am fond of the maxim that “anecdote is not data”, but we need to remember that in the murky Real World data is not always easy to gather. Hyperskepticism is an often used tool to dismiss challenges of comfortable world views, and it’s something every skeptically minded person needs to guard against doing.
In some cases, the question being asked has been examined over, and over, and over again, and we have good data, and we can feel pretty good about dismissing truth claims. For example, I actually had a great-aunt who was part of the original Flat Earth Society. Despite having flown from Canada to England to visit her the conversation about the shape of the earth was like running over and over into a large brick wall – but the part I remember best is her characterizing the dismissal of her views as “close-minded”. She was a sweet, gentle person, so I still feel a bit bad about how much grief she got over it, but in some cases, well, it’s not a bad thing to be close-minded, if only because it allows you to direct your attention elsewhere. But a lot of the time, especially when claims have to do with messy, squishy, human societies, it’s best to keep an open mind. And anecdote, while not enough, can sometimes be a warning flag telling you: pay attention, here, this could be important.
And sometimes they’re just because squishy humans glitch a lot.