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I wanted to see what folks think about "conspiracy theories." Is it rational to have an opinion about conspiracy theories or related subjects, as such, or only each in their turn, according to the specific evidence one has for/against any given claim. Is it rational to have a bias when investigating some supposed conspiracy theory? Is that even a rational concept?

I'm putting this under "epistemology," in part due to an experience I had a few years ago when a friend of mine accused me of (essentially) epistemological malfeasance by being (what he considered to be unduly) skeptical about stories/anecdotes involving Bigfoot. I was inspired to start this thread because earlier today I came across YouTube claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. My initial reaction was to be grossed out and dismissive... but then I started thinking about how I don't really know any of the particulars of that claim, and I wondered whether my reaction was proper.

It occurs to me that I've historically been more amenable to certain other theories, like those involving the JFK assassination... which I've also been interested to note has seemingly traveled over the course of my lifetime from "acceptable-to-hold," or even "commonly acknowledged," further out to the fringe, so that now I believe it's fairly disreputable to hold. I attribute this in part to some of the scholarship/advocacy of folks like Gerald Posner and Vincent Bugliosi, but also to the growing cultural awareness of the "conspiracy theory" as a concept/trope, and negative associated connotations.

I don't know. While on the one hand, I imagine that a case could be made that it's proper to be prejudicially dismissive of certain kinds of claims (or more easily dismissive), I also wonder whether this attitude potentially makes a person more susceptible to those times when there really is a "conspiracy" afoot, if we grant that sometimes this happens. It brings to my mind "Operation Northwoods," which was rejected by the Kennedy administration. Never implemented, unlike some of the CIA programs like MK-Ultra or the Bay of Pigs.

But if it had been implemented, then I could easily imagine the resultant activities being the subject of the very same sorts of "conspiracy theorist" discussions that today are met with seemingly near-universal derision, where the very act of entertaining a question is considered the mark of a bad character, and which also apparently inspire scorn in me when I hear of them. It seems as though I might be making a mistake here, somewhere, but what do you think?

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I suppose it matters as to how broadly one wishes to define conspiracy. There is sufficient evidence of secret societies of both the illegal and government sponsored. No need to list the usual suspects. Whether foreign or domestic, national governments have the advantage of operating in secret, by virtue of the fact that they have a police force to use as an obstruction of any investigation. I've known of a person involved in a criminal case that allowed him to sit on dead row, while the FBI sat on evidence that would have freed him, because there were "bigger fish to fry."  For this discussion, I will assume the conspiracies in question are of the high-profile sort. When it comes to Roswell Aliens, political assassinations, 911, or Vietnam theories, I will wait for the proof positive before granting them credibility. (I never worried about whether or not President Obama had a US birth certificate.) For a fact, most people have biases, whether they choose to acknowledge them or not, and that does affect their epistemology. One of the phenomenon of our times is the overwhelming amount of information we are offered. Couple this with the tendency of many people to seek out some explanation where none exists. People have long since dismissed the notions that supernatural forces can explain mysterious and/or tragic events. That is, most people have. And yet, everyone loves a mystery. As people begin to lose faith in their institutions of justice, they tend to accepts imaginative explanations. I find that, in countries where corruption in rampant and the media controlled by the state, people tend to rely more on unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracy theories, and superstition. Long ago I grew tired of hearing so many of the boys who cry wolf that I don't even worry if there is a substantial body of truth. (I grew up in the 60s; it seemed that every year there was a new conspiracy to belabor.) And to that, when people hear of Objectivism, as we have seen on this forum, some people hold to idea that Ayn Rand was a cult leader and that her works perpetuate a conspiracy.

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You are right about "conspiracy theory' falling under "epistemology".

A "conspiracy theory" can be a substitute for doing one's own homework (due diligence). It requires an adeptness at recognizing evidence in addition to the ability of correlating it properly. Contradictions can be encountered which either invalidate the stated hypothesis under question, or merely disregard a single minor point or two for impropriety.

I had an aunt who insisted that the insurance companies were pulling all the strings from behind the scenes. The Council on Foreign Relations has been posited as both a conspiracy for one-world-government, or akin to the Actor's Guild an aspiring star would join to network with similar minded individuals (stressing the networking, not the similar mindedness here.)

After flight TWA-800 had its mishap, I recollect seeing video footage shown 'once' in the immediate aftermath that I have not been able to find since. Supposedly it had been absconded from the television stations and nobody had set their vcr to record it to watch at a later time (and/or be able to upload it since.) Conspiracy material? Sure enough. Evidence? Lacking the footage, not hardly.

Around the same time frame I had read The Secrets of the Federal Reserve, Money the Greatest Hoax and The God of the Machine. The abstractness of money juxtaposed against the concreteness of the day to day handling of coin of the realm seems to illuminate the oft quoted adage of Walter Scott: "Oh what tangled webs we weave. When first we practice to deceive."

 

You ask: Is it rational to have a bias when investigating some "supposed" conspiracy theory?

I add the quotes around "supposed" for the simple fact that facts are facts. Conspiracy involves two or more individuals planning/plotting an activity that is immoral, illegal, harmful. The "supposedly" has to be the search for the evidence—without contradiction. If such an approach is considered to be a bias, . . .  is it rational?

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 6/23/2016 at 10:00 PM, DonAthos said:

I wanted to see what folks think about "conspiracy theories." Is it rational to have an opinion about conspiracy theories or related subjects, as such, or only each in their turn, according to the specific evidence one has for/against any given claim. Is it rational to have a bias when investigating some supposed conspiracy theory? Is that even a rational concept?

Conspiracy theories, that is things like "Bush did 9/11", seem to be called a conspiracy because of how the claim is made, not because of evidence. It's like this: "Bush did 9/11, of course he did, he's a Statist goon trying to make an oil war. Therefore, you will see ALL facts as evidence for this claim, since no fact can undermine what we all know Bush did." It's fine to investigate a weird remnant of a plane regardless of the official story, but if your hypothesis is taken as fact to start with, i.e. "proving what we all know is true", it becomes a crackpot theory. Hypotheses cannot be axioms.

 

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44 minutes ago, Eiuol said:

Conspiracy theories, that is things like "Bush did 9/11", seem to be called a conspiracy because of how the claim is made, not because of evidence. It's like this: "Bush did 9/11, of course he did, he's a Statist goon trying to make an oil war. Therefore, you will see ALL facts as evidence for this claim, since no fact can undermine what we all know Bush did."

Right, I agree that if an argument is made in that fashion (either explicitly or implicitly), it's right to dismiss it.

But I'm talking about something else. When I came across these claims that Sandy Hook was a hoax, I didn't have access to any information other than that: no line of argumentation, no presentation of "evidence," just the knowledge that there is a claim that Sandy Hook was a hoax, and that the claimant (or claimants) also purport to have some measure of evidence which supports that claim.

And yet I must report that I was aware of already evaluating both the claim and the claimant, to wit: aw, that sounds like a garbage conspiracy theory; the person making it is probably a nut.

I don't think I'm alone in this kind of reaction. In fact, I think that it's fairly typical, and represents a good measure of what people mean or connote when they refer to "conspiracy theories."

Regarding things like "Bush did 9/11," I don't usually see discussions pro or con any of the supposed "evidence" for such a notion. Rather, I see people refusing to entertain or investigate or discuss such a notion at all, as a matter of morality, lest they give any kind of support/validation/sanction to asking such nutty and offensive questions in the first place. And that's truthfully how I typically feel about such things, too -- but do you think that's proper?

In any event I wouldn't feel like I needed to investigate Sandy Hook more closely, but do you think I'm wrong to make any sort of moral judgement about the people making such claims (or those who believe them) without first investigating the subject, and their arguments, for myself?

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I mean, if you hear "Sandy Hook was a hoax", absent any context or reasons, just a bare claim, there is no epistemic obligation to investigate. It may as well be a set of grunts that you don't know how to evaluate. What obligates you to investigate is some fact or observation you never heard of needs to be taken into account. You might not be able to fit in the time, so you set it aside. Wild claims are fine, the problem is skipping "I don't know" - so it will often end up that so-called conspiracy theories are major errors of reasoning just to avoid saying "I don't know".

I am willing to allow errors, and will listen, but withhold moral judgment until they explain their thinking. Doesn't require you to then investigate. Even if you ignore a claim like "vaccines cause autism" and look at what anti-vaxxers cite as evidence alone, there are gross failures of reasoning. All facts are evidence, so as long as there are errors of reasoning, the evidence will to you look normal, and to them utter proof of conspiracy.

EDIT: It may help to think about the term "doxastic attitude", as a way to distinguish facts from beliefs about those facts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doxastic_attitudes

Edited by Eiuol
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31 minutes ago, dream_weaver said:

This pdf document weighs in at 426 pages, including blanks and reference sources.

Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control
Jim Fetzer and Mike Palece

Does the fact that this document exists provide epistemic obligation to investigate it?

Who are you asking?

Regardless, my answer: absolutely not. But my question to you is, I hear about the existence of such a document and I immediately dismiss it. My attitude is that this claim is ridiculous. However, I take that attitude prior to having investigated the claim. Do you think that's at all proper of me?

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Don, conspiracy theories are subject to the same justification process as any other truth claim. Many folks behave as though a conspiracy is species of logical fallacy. Whats funny is that I find within short order these types actually assert a conspiracy to dismiss one. 

"This video is a fake contrivance to prove the claim X".

Dont get me wrong, I generally don't waste time investigating C theories but I don't then claim they are false without having checked the claimants evidence.  

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Don, my response was to provide a claim that had more substance than "It was a hoax."

I don't have an issue with your outright dismissal in this case. Of course that is flavored from re-familiarizing myself with some of the coverage of the event, and looking at enough of the document presented to satisfy myself that it presents a position that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax.

 

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Dismissal prior to investigation? Well, it depends on what "investigation" is. You generally know enough about how the world works that grand hoaxes aren't often necessary to "fool a population", although it has happened in the world. It's epistemically responsible to respond to demonstrated evidence, then you figure what specifically it shows. If you have no demonstrated evidence, you'd be dismissing empty claims, there's nothing to "investigate". You need something to go with, I only bother to look at times because it gives fodder to fiction plot-lines.

It also matters who says it. If you are a spy, you would need to look at wild claims a lot from informants. Hearing bare claims might make sense there, and you'd need to look into them because it's a situation of epistemic peril. People would lie, put you on a wild goose chase, or maybe try to tell you the truth without getting in trouble.

Edited by Eiuol
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On July 3, 2016 at 9:41 PM, Eiuol said:

Dismissal prior to investigation? Well, it depends on what "investigation" is. You generally know enough about how the world works...

And if you've had any previous experience with conspiracy theorists and their supporters, you've probably developed something of a subconscious smell-test, in which you pick up on the kooky vibe that the theorists are giving off.

And beyond that, if you've had first-hand experience in your personal area of expertise in which you've reviewed and very effectively criticized the kooks' "evidence," and then watched them squirm, dodge and evade the criticism, and cling to false positions in spite of the evidence, you've probably acquired an even more sensitive nose for sniffing out kookiness.

I really do think that there are traits/characteristics that we pick up on when confronted with nuts and charlatans. The con is always the same, and the "logic" always has a similar flavor of taint to it. You might not always be able to put your finger on it explicitly, but I think that with enough life experience, sensing that something is off is a pretty reliable method of avoiding wasting your time.

J

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  • 1 month later...

In an effort to further investigate these ideas, I've recently been reading (but not yet finished) Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch.

I'm not satisfied with his approach (though he conveys some good information, and the presentation is decent). He seems to think it ought be obvious when an idea is false or ridiculous, and that "conspiracy theories" are just so, positing highly unlikely explanations for world events. Why then do some people believe in these (obviously false/ridiculous conspiracy theories)? Because they satisfy some individuals' desires for how the world ought to be, or to make up for some other psychological failing.

I disagree with him on both counts. I don't think it's necessarily obvious when an idea is false or ridiculous, and some established truths seem to me to be quite preposterous on their face... until it is understood that they are real, and the mechanisms underlying them explored. For instance, as an example of a "conspiracy theory," Aaronovitch discuses the official theories which underlay the Soviet show trials of the late 1930s -- that, among other things, prominent allies of Stalin had betrayed him and the USSR to take up the cause of the exiled Trotsky. Aaronovitch finds it ridiculous that these men would cast aside their earlier allegiance and take up with a reviled traitor, or carry out the program of "wrecking" they were accused of doing. No right thinking person should ever have believed it (as apparently some did, both inside and outside of the Soviet Union).

Fine. Agreed. Ridiculous on its face. But is it any less of a "conspiracy theory" (especially in terms of seeming unbelievable, at first) to suggest that all of the Soviet machinery (hundreds of educated, highly placed professionals) was geared towards creating falsehoods, burying the truth, and crushing these (relatively) innocent individuals... and for what? To appease Stalin's paranoia? If anything it is more ridiculous, a conspiracy theory with far greater scope and depth. And yet it is the truth. It's a truth that, if we did not have the evidence to back it up, we should likely dismiss as being the same kind of delusional thinking we find animating the more preposterous of tinfoil-hat-wearing modern conspiracy theorists.

I don't think that the test of truth versus falsehood can be "does this seem likely?" Many unlikely things have happened in the history of the world. I don't think it wise to reject a notion because it (initially) seems unlikely.

The further idea that belief in some errant notion necessarily reflects a psychological issue seems wrong to me, too. I would not necessarily blame someone living in the Soviet Union at the time for accepting the version of events reported in the newspapers or over the radio. I would not necessarily blame them for accepting the testimonies given at the trials. What seems right or wrong to a person, what seems likely or unlikely, believable or not, what qualifies as proper "evidence" and what does not -- though there's much more work for me to do with regard to epistemology, to understand it all -- I yet regard it as a subtle process, and not easily reduced to "honesty" versus "evasion." I suspect that individual context may play a great role (as it does elsewhere).

On 7/3/2016 at 6:40 PM, Plasmatic said:

Don, conspiracy theories are subject to the same justification process as any other truth claim.

I believe that I agree, which is why I'm disappointed to find in myself a readiness to dismiss certain claims (meaning: to consider them false, and further to pass judgment upon the person advocating them) without giving them a full hearing. Yet I don't know how else to react to the suggestion that, say, Sandy Hook was faked, or etc.

I feel like there's something I'm missing here, because I don't take such a suggestion as the equivalent to any other type of truth claim. It seems... insulting, somehow -- repulsive -- and I don't know why I receive it that way. I don't think that my beliefs on this subject are fully reconciled, but I'm also at an impasse in understanding and resolving my internal contradiction.

Quote

Dont get me wrong, I generally don't waste time investigating C theories but I don't then claim they are false without having checked the claimants evidence.  

Whatever I may be getting at, it is not that anyone ought spend their time investigating whatever theories.

On 7/3/2016 at 7:06 PM, dream_weaver said:

I don't have an issue with your outright dismissal in this case.

Well, that's the crux. Shouldn't you? If, as Plasmatic says, "conspiracy theories are subject to the same justification process as any other truth claim," and if we ought not "claim they are false without having checked the claimants' evidence," then isn't it inappropriate for me to dismiss a claim outright without having checked that evidence?

Because I have not. I have not investigated the supposed evidence of those who claim that Sandy Hook is some kind of a hoax (and I do not plan on it). Am I justified in dismissing their claims, then? And if so, what is the explanation of that justification?

Edited to add: To clarify, when I say that I "dismiss" their claims, I do not simply mean that I decide not to follow up, decide not to read their manifesto, or watch their YouTube clip, or whatever else. What I mean is that I evaluate their claim as being false. I think that Sandy Hook was not a hoax. I think that the people who claim that it is a hoax are selling snake oil, knowingly or otherwise.

On 7/5/2016 at 1:59 PM, Jonathan13 said:

And if you've had any previous experience with conspiracy theorists and their supporters, you've probably developed something of a subconscious smell-test, in which you pick up on the kooky vibe that the theorists are giving off.

Yes, that's true... but aren't there respected and respectable people who sometimes believe in, or advocate for, a conspiracy theory of some kind? (And as for "kooky vibes," I've occasionally found them among groups that I think are otherwise sound... )

Quote

I really do think that there are traits/characteristics that we pick up on when confronted with nuts and charlatans. The con is always the same, and the "logic" always has a similar flavor of taint to it. You might not always be able to put your finger on it explicitly, but I think that with enough life experience, sensing that something is off is a pretty reliable method of avoiding wasting your time.

But sometimes it is the mere suggestion -- for instance, a claim of Sandy Hook being a hoax -- and I feel that I don't need to know any more about it, or the person making it. I'm not directly confronted by a nut or a charlatan, I don't get to observe the "tells" in his manner or even in his writing, nor observe his flawed logic, his tortured "evidence," or his inability to respond to my questioning.

I'm sure that you're right that this is a developed response to a lifetime of being exposed to various claims of "hoax" or "conspiracy" (the moon landing, Princess Di, etc., etc., etc.), but is it possible that it is an overreaction... sort of like an allergy? For what if one of these apparently wild claims were one day correct? Would I be in a position to be able to discern the truth? Would I be able to interpret the evidence as evidence, if initially I was set not only against what it was meant to establish, but even against giving it a hearing? Or would I have already sabotaged myself?

Edited by DonAthos
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Research!

1 hour ago, DonAthos said:

He seems to think it ought be obvious when an idea is false or ridiculous, and that "conspiracy theories" are just so, positing highly unlikely explanations for world events. Why then do some people believe in these (obviously false/ridiculous conspiracy theories)? Because they satisfy some individuals' desires for how the world ought to be, or to make up for some other psychological failing.

Reading beyond what I quoted here, you argue in favor that not all ideas are "obvious" when they are true, nor when they are false.

If a person thinks they "ought to be obvious", how susceptible are they to the fallacy of rewriting reality?

1 hour ago, DonAthos said:

I don't think that the test of truth versus falsehood can be "does this seem likely?" Many unlikely things have happened in the history of the world. I don't think it wise to reject a notion because it (initially) seems unlikely.

I can't word it more eloquently than she did in ITOE:

Truth is the product of the recognition (i.e., identification) of the facts of reality. Man identifies and integrates the facts of reality by means of concepts. He retains concepts in his mind by means of definitions. He organizes concepts into propositions—and the truth or falsehood of his propositions rests, not only on their relation to the facts he asserts, but also on the truth or falsehood of the definitions of the concepts he uses to assert them, which rests on the truth or falsehood of his designations of essential characteristics.

The underlying theme which is essentially running throughout what you are writing, isolating, identifying, are the rules of evidence. From the ontological basis of logic, the foundation of A is A, where the evidence is ostensive, to the more complex logical chains of reasoning which consist of unraveling the uniquely human ability of abstracting abstractions from abstractions, first level or otherwise.

Jumping to the section you respond to this:

On 7/3/2016 at 10:06 PM, dream_weaver said:

I don't have an issue with your outright dismissal in this case.

I give the reason why I don't have an issue. I did some research on the Sandy Hook story.

In mathematics, I know 2+2=4. If a nominalist comes along and claims that it is only so because of a conspiracy of society based on a convenient convention of how we choose to use the terms, I have to dismiss the claim. (Note to self: Do "convenient" and "convention" share an etymological root? Consider the shared term: "convene".) (Side note: I couldn't help but notice the "a private or secret agreement," found in convention that sort of aligns with the notion of "conspiracy", only "conspiracy" moves off in the direction of "democracy" via "agreement, union, unanimity," )

How quickly that avenue can digress. Note also that these are not reductions to their first level referents, but indications of directions toward them.

The bottom line, to me, is based on the confidence, or better yet, the conviction of the truth of one rendition over the "evidence" that is garnered in support of a supposed conspiracy that relies on subtle spins which cloak themselves in favor of the "conclusion" that "obviously" must be drawn.

In the face of such a claim, what is the proper response? This is where an evaluation need be made. Is the person open to reason and need only be guided through an epistemological labyrinth, or are they helplessly trapped in the web of their own epistemological weaving/spinning/making?

 

 

 

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DA

Not sure if this has been addressed in depth, but it might be useful to distinguish between facts and statements (heresay), when analyzing what "evidence" you have to judge the "theory".

A. There are things you have seen and know directly from perception.

B.  There are things you have heard from or been told by other people.

 

In the case of A you need to be careful about whether you were drunk, tired, or it was dark outside, etc. and also be careful about integrating or deducing any knowledge or conclusions from the raw perceptual data... your thinking about it must be sound.

What constitutes a valid conclusion for you to make that there might be an actual conspiracy versus we only have a "conspiracy theory" will in almost ALL cases hinge on B.  The question is: What is the nature of B (its entire history and genesis) prior to your receiving it?

B is orders of magnitudes more complicated and problematic than A.  Who told you the information?  How trustworthy/honest are they?  What evidence or information did they have ?  Where did THAT information come from?  How intelligent are they really?  How careful and logical are they in reaching conclusions from that information and judging the source of that information?  Is any emotional or irrational bias playing into the way they analyze information?

This gets amplified and further tainted when this happens multiple times through various people in a chain or group.  If a group of people are biased enough to make the mistake of misjudging the reliability of the source of information BECAUSE they would like to believe that the information is true (evasion), once you have a large enough population of these people exchanging "information", and arriving at conclusions... a conspiracy theory is born and "misinformation" masquerades as information....  the misinformation cycles multiple times, amplifies and reinforces itself, even if the bias or irrationality of each person is small.

 

Actual conspiracies are not easy to conduct without eventually there being direct evidence of the conspiracy, the wider the conspiracy the more probable it will be discovered, and the more probable someone will choose (volition) to leave it and reveal it.  The more fantastic the improbability of a conspiracy being SO wide and being kept secret for so long (by so many people who have free will... something "conspiracy theorists" evade) are indications of it being a "theory" borne of bias, evasion, and irrationality, stemming from and leading to more misinformation.

In sum, yes, "Conspiracy theories" are characterized by about "what" is being said, but even more so by WHO is saying it, WHAT kind of people they are (level of logic, level of bias, gullible or cynical etc.) and the information it is based on in a complex chain of indirect information and misinformation.

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  • 4 months later...

The burden of proof is on those that make a claim.

Conspiracy theorists are psychologically the same as the religious. They both arbitrarily state "facts" based on no evidence and follow them blindly. At first, they may appear to come from the 'stupid' but this is not true. Many smart and intelligent religious and conspiracy theorists have existed and showing them the errors in their statements proves little-effect.

I myself have in the past become trapped by a conspiracy theorist. They tend to use brainwashing techniques and artfully disguise it as 'explaining' which I was not wise to at the time. Although searching the web to prove their claims eventually debunked them.

I have noticed that in history whenever a real conspiracy happens somebody always whistle-blows. I know technically this is impossible to prove but they happen extremely often. Take 9/11. Someone would have said something by now!    

 

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My policy is to give the conspiracy people three years to come up with proof. This was enough for the Watergate crimes and for the Clintons' crooked real estate deals. Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination and 9-11 (which was simply a replay of the Pearl Harbor stories) failed the test.

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