Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

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In the days following the bombings at the Boston Marathon, speculation online regarding the identity and motive of the unknown perpetrator or perpetrators was rampant. And once the Tsarnaev brothers were identified and the manhunt came to a close, the speculation didn’t cease. It took a new form. A sampling: Maybe the brothers Tsarnaev were just patsies, fall guys set up to take the heat for a mysterious Saudi with high-level connections; or maybe they were innocent, but instead of the Saudis, the actual bomber had acted on behalf of a rogue branch of our own government; or what if the Tsarnaevs were behind the attacks, but were secretly working for a larger organization?


Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact. But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another. And it’s very likely that this isn’t the only news story that makes you feel as if shadowy forces are behind major world events.

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracy theories, especially those involving meddlesome foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation. Americans have always had the sneaking suspicion that somebody was out to get us — be it Freemasons, Catholics or communists. But in recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning, as the Web fills with stories about “false flag” attacks and “crisis actors” — not mere theorizing but arguments for the existence of a completely alternate version of reality.

Written By: Maggie Koerth-Baker
continue to source article at nytimes.com

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  1. I think it’s an outgrowth of the tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objects and random events. As Richard explains in several of his books, this tendency once had survival value (is that shadow a tree stump or a tiger…safer to assume it’s a tiger), but it’s given rise to all sorts of delusional beliefs. Humans seem to need to feel that they (or someone or something) have some sort of control. The realization that events in this universe can happen with complete randomness, that coincidence is just coincidence, that death and destruction and violence can erupt at any moment without recourse or reason, is too terrifying for many to accept.

    • In reply to Maggie-Koerth Baker:

      “Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact.”

      I disagree. The only difference between these people and those in institutions being treated for paranoid schizophrenia is their access to so many like-minded individuals via the web. Now they have a new void to fill, due to the recent retirement of Ron Paul, who they were all convinced was the messiah.

      Anyone who even takes a mere cursory glance of Alex Jones’ YouTube appearances and doesn’t immediately recognize that they are listening to the incoherent ramblings of your average Jerry Springer show guest, has got serious problems.

      • In reply to #2 by IDLERACER:

        In reply to Maggie-Koerth Baker:

        “Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact.”

        I disagree. The only difference between these people and those in institutions being treated for paranoid schizophrenia is their access to so many like-minded individuals…

        Depends on the so-called “theory,” don’t you think? It really is not irrational to understand that when a small number of people have most of the power they would be willing to do anything to keep it. And some people branded with the “conspiracy theorist” title really aren’t talking about conspiracies. They’re just criticizing the establishment and being ridiculed for doing so. I maintain that isn’t fair to make that assumption about all “conspiracy theorists.”

    • In reply to #1 by Sue Blue:

      I think it’s an outgrowth of the tendency to ascribe agency to inanimate objects and random events. As Richard explains in several of his books, this tendency once had survival value (is that shadow a tree stump or a tiger…safer to assume it’s a tiger), but it’s given rise to all sorts of delusi…

      I agree! It’s natural animal curiosity to assign purpose to everything that exists. If the purpose is not obvious, we tend to assign our own purpose to the object or event. Many tend to find purpose beyond reality depending on intuition and comprehension.

  2. The facts don’t seem to change conspiracy theorists’ beliefs, so does anyone have any ideas about how to do it? The more rationalists huff and puff, the more CT’s beliefs are confirmed. A bit like if you are accused of doing something dastardly, and you get cross. That only confirms your accusers.

    • In reply to #3 by Kevin Murrell:

      The facts don’t seem to change conspiracy theorists’ beliefs,

      A comment on the NYT article seems appropriate here: I quote:

      All institutions, in direct proportion to their size and power, will lie and obfuscate to protect themselves and promote their agenda. We’ve seen this holds true for the military, the church, governments, media, universities–in short it is axiomatic across the board.

      No surprise then that conspiracy theories are rampant regardless of the merits of psychological analysis of their nature and origin.

      Essentially, no smoke without fire. A safe assumption, even with a few false positives.

    • In reply to #3 by Kevin Murrell:

      The facts don’t seem to change conspiracy theorists’ beliefs, so does anyone have any ideas about how to do it? The more rationalists huff and puff, the more CT’s beliefs are confirmed. A bit like if you are accused of doing something dastardly, and you get cross. That only confirms your accusers…

      Facts help me to rethink my opinions. And I always learn something from people who disagree with me, the same as I learn from any experience.

  3. I wonder to what exactly counts as a conspiracy theory here, and to what extent it is a proxy for rejecting mainstream beliefs. Would distrust in the coherence of the supposed entity ‘Al Qaida’ count as rejecting, or accepting conspiracy theories, for example? What about believing that various government agencies are acting in cahoots to exhort tithes from the entire earning population?

    Then there are cases such as Lauryn Hill’s @ http://bit.ly/14xZif1 and Rita Hutchens’s @ http://bit.ly/14xZif1 ; although conspiracy theory can be dangerous when held by anyone in authority, we should beware empowering authority to define ‘conspiracy theory’.

    That said, this discovery is interesting in its own right.

  4. Michael Shermer did a lengthy discussion on this in Why Do People Believe Weird Things, and I love how he also gives a brief answer:

    Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

    As to how and why people arrive at those conspiracy theories anyway, I think it’s pretty much the same with how religious beliefs came to be – that humans tend to look for patterns in nature, have no time or means to verify all sorts of claims and so use shortcuts, and are subject to biases, etc.

  5. I’m not trying to defend crazy conspiracy theories here, but the general feeling that American mainstream media are more than a bit selective with the truth, is not completely unwarranted. Their subservience to the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 (anyone remember the “WMDs in Iraq” that all major stations basically reported as fact?), the fact that other media companies have been adopting Fox News’s “don’t research, just create outrage” approach, the mingling of news reporting and commercial interests, all have done serious damage to the media’s credibility in the United States.

    When was the last time American mass media reported a story that hurt both Democrats and Republicans equally, and thus would have left them without any kind of political backing on either side? Or the last time a reporter called a surprising correlation between a politician’s agenda and the sources of his or her campaign contributions by its name? Of course, that doesn’t justify believing in wild conspiracy theories (without evidence), but wondering whether we’re being presented with an accurate picture of reality is not a symptom of paranoid delusions, given the decline in news quality over the past two decades.

    • In reply to #6 by double-m:

      I’m not trying to defend crazy conspiracy theories here, but the general feeling that American mainstream media are more than a bit selective with the truth, is not completely unwarranted. Their subservience to the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 (anyone remember the “WMDs in Iraq” that all…

      I agree. And I noticed from a recent article that all of the American mainstream media sources are owned by one of six corporations. Again, way too much power for a few individuals. There is nothing irrational about criticizing this, or the fact that corporate profits are way up while the wages of the average worker have gone down. Not to mention so-called “corporate free speech.” These are not conspiracies; they are all out in the open for everyone to see, although we do not all perceive or interpret them in the same way. Yet, I am often called a CT simply because I criticize these things.

    • In reply to #6 by double-m:

      I’m not trying to defend crazy conspiracy theories here, but the general feeling that American mainstream media are more than a bit selective with the truth, is not completely unwarranted. Their subservience to the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 (anyone remember the “WMDs in Iraq” that all…

      I have to agree with Double-M here. One must distinguish very carefully between the lunatic theory that the moon landing was a hoax on one end and a healthy distrust of what our government tells us on the other. The best possible example is the WMD lie and the ” Iraq is responsible for Sept. 11″ story put out by Bush and Cheney, et al. That WAS a conspiracy. Sometimes it is not only rational, but advisable to be skeptical of our (or any) government’s interpretation of events.

  6. “Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large.”

    It is interesting that the US, uniquely amongst first world countries is prone not only to conspiracy generation and adoption but also to religiosity at the very highest levels.

    The quote may be some sort of explanation for both. More nurturing and comprehensively empowering cultures like those of northern Europe may deplete the drive to both.

    (The empowering statement may look odd but “If Americans want to live the American dream they should move to Denmark.” from 8 mins on.)

  7. I wonder to what exactly counts as a conspiracy theory here

    You can do that simply by using a dictionary. And BTW, a ‘theory’ in that case is not the scientific term, but the colloquial term more akin to ‘hypothesis’, ‘conjecture’, or ‘bullshit’. I’ve yet to see any arguments presenting a good case against an alleged grand-conspiracy.

    The advantage with the ‘government-run’ conspiracies, aka ‘The Man’ pulling the string, is that they are powerful, therefore devilishly good at covering their tracks, corrupt up to their neck, above the law, owns half the country, ect… It’s an easy sell, where actual evidence is then of course, impossible to find and hidden away. Small conspiracies (terrorist plots, corporate and public frauds, crime syndicates), much easier, but less sexy.

    To be fair, the US government isn’t shy of bringing the means to achieve an end without really considering public opinion, but rather just telling them about it, and hey, I’m the captain of the ship and here we all go. There are plenty of proven misdeeds and shady deals, which leads to general mistrust and malaise of the population towards its own government. The way American politics (and most Western democracies) are conducted don’t really help (the power of lobbies over congress, business in bed with politics, divisive party lines, ineffectual government, public money squandered, big business, the federal bank, the US war machine, …). Basically, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, personal ambition over duty, nepotism, public appeal over merit and qualifications, all the typical trappings of democratic politics.

    For me, all this conspiracy theory madness is more a symptom of a government that isn’t in touch any more with the people it is suppose to represent and protect, and that’s dangerous. But at the end of the day, a conspiracy remains a theory until proven otherwise.

    • In reply to #9 by papa lazaru:

      I wonder to what exactly counts as a conspiracy theory here

      You can do that simply by using a dictionary. And BTW, a ‘theory’ in that case is not the scientific term, but the colloquial term more akin to ‘hypothesis’, ‘conjecture’, or ‘bullshit’. I’ve yet to see any arguments presenting a good case…

      I’d have to see the crackpot theories you’re talking about. I am sure there are many of them out there, obviously. But there are things happening in the world today that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, and it is obvious–no secret about it–that it’s all in the name of “profit.” Indeed, it is neither irrational nor theoretical to assert that modern corporations (specifically, the people who own them) are bullies, exerting their power and influence over the rest of us whether we like it or not.

      I agree it is irrational to jump to a conclusion like, “Those guys that bombed that building are really working for the US government” when there is no evidence to support it. Sometimes, however, there really is a kernel of truth to every myth.

  8. Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

    Rational people don’t.

    Crazy as these theories are, those propagating them are not — they’re quite normal, in fact.

    Irrationality is the norm.

    Surprisingly, Swami’s work has also turned up a correlation between conspiracy theorizing and strong support of democratic principles.

    This is not at all surprising.

    They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular.

    They sound more like naive idealists to me.

  9. I apologize for what I am about to type, but feel strongly about such a topic.
    I am a rational person and that is why I am going to promote “9/11: Explosive Evidence–experts speak out” I am tired of having scientific evidence brought to light on this “conspiracy theory” and still having it rejected by fellow thinkers like myself. So please take just an hour or so to find this video on youtube and view it. It purports nothing but facts and makes no wild accusations. It does have the potential to act as a “tip of the iceberg” (excuse the cliche). It’s 12 years out, but it does matter. Thank you.

    • In reply to #11 by Naked_Sin:

      In case anyone is wondering, here is the reason I flagged this comment:

      In 2006, the political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified a phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” They showed that efforts to debunk inaccurate political information can leave people more convinced that false information is true than they would have been otherwise. Nyhan isn’t sure why this happens, but it appears to be more prevalent when the bad information helps bolster a favored worldview or ideology.

  10. Having worked with the US Army’s information manipulation units and other joint task forces, I have to say that believing what comes out of the mainstream media is just as irrational as believing religion. Believing TV news completely is JUST AS irrational as believing that the book of Mormon is a history book.
    I have no strong opinion either way about the Tsarnaev case, but there is so much corruption in high business and high government that doubting official statements seems perfectly rational to me.

    • So…there really wasn’t a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma???In reply to #13 by pysops:

      Having worked with the US Army’s information manipulation units and other joint task forces, I have to say that believing what comes out of the mainstream media is just as irrational as believing religion. Believing TV news completely is JUST AS irrational as believing that the book of Mormon is a h…

      • In reply to #28 by wdbailey:

        So…there really wasn’t a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma???In reply to #13 by pysops:

        On second thoughts, that’s a very good question. Was there, really? How would I know? I only “know” from what I’ve seen and read in news media, and my inclination to believe that on the large scale, where many different outlets report different aspects of the same thing, with video that looks realistic to me, that it’s simpler to accept that it actually happened than that it’s some great piece of global media theatre. It didn’t trip my BS detector, but then, how do I know it’s correctly calibrated?

        But I’m nowhere near Oklahoma, and have little interest in going there anytime soon, so, I don’t suppose I actually “know”, or will ever actually “find out for myself”.

        By the way, how do you know?

      • In reply to #28 by wdbailey:

        So…there really wasn’t a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma???In reply to #13 by pysops:

        Having worked with the US Army’s information manipulation units and other joint task forces, I have to say that believing what comes out of the mainstream media is just as irrational as believing religion. Believing…

        Reports on the weather and reports on political activity and the like are not the same.

    • In reply to #13 by pysops:

      Having worked with the US Army’s information manipulation units and other joint task forces, I have to say that believing what comes out of the mainstream media is just as irrational as believing religion. Believing TV news completely is JUST AS irrational as believing that the book of Mormon is a h…

      Yes. Exactly.

  11. I don’t believe in magic bullets.

    Tuskegee Experiment: 40 years of placebo, ended with a press leak

    Karl Rove alleges a “vast left-wing conspiracy” produced exit-poll disparities. The belief in US federal elections is predicated on belief in conspiracy.

    Trusting a government’s version of reality is irrational and ignorant, but doubting the government does not make an idea rational. Conspiracy theorists often comfort themselves in the gross stupidity of others, even if they have to strawman (‘if you doubt Cheney did 911, it’s because you believe the government version’).

    • In reply to #14 by This Is Not A Meme:

      I don’t believe in magic bullets.

      Tuskegee Experiment: 40 years of placebo, ended with a press leak

      Karl Rove alleges a “vast left-wing conspiracy” produced exit-poll disparities. The belief in US federal elections is predicated on belief in conspiracy.

      Trusting a government’s version of reality…

      This is a theory I think is plausible (although I would not specify Cheney), even though I do not have evidence to back it up. However, because I do not have the evidence, I’m not running around telling everyone, “Hey, Bush and his cronies knew all about the attack and they let it happen anyway so they could consolidate their power.” Sorry…I am inclined to say I think it is probably true, but I will not commit to it without evidence.

      Yet, what I actually did just now was admit this is a supposition and not a fact. I have discerned the difference, which means I am not schizophrenic. I wouldn’t throw a straw-man at you for it, either, although telling you that I have good reason to distrust mainstream media might be construed as such.

      • In reply to #48 by —
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        Sorry…I am inclined to say I think it is probably true, but I will not commit to it without evidence.

        How can you possibly gauge the probability of a claim without any evidence?

  12. There are plenty of conspiracies. One of the main preoccupations of the FBI is looking for them. One of their favorite method of catching people to prosecute is entrapment into a conspiracy where they offer enabling assistance as would a typical co-conspirator or handler. The enormous push for online surveillance, e-mail snooping, has the premise that there will be some sort of conspiratorial activity. If you recall Hitchens’ The Trials of Henry Kissinger, there are several conspiracies there. 9/11, Oklahoma city, Watergate, the murdered Freedom riders, Enron, Corporate price-fixing and insider-trading crimes, mafias and the Communist menace in the ’50s-’60s are conspiracies.

    Conspiracies are harder to investigate. There can be loose ends that never get reeled in. The primary objective is to get someone, anyone, to blame, try, convict and punish. Then the public forgets about it and the cops and law enforcement can pat themselves on the back and close the case.

    So when there is a need for a conspiracy, like in the McCarthy era, we’ve got more conspiracies going on than we can deal with. Other times there are no conspiracies ever, it’s always a lone gunman. Reality is somewhere in the middle.

    Maybe a more capable mind is able to hold the complexity of a conspiratorial activity in mind and identify multiple actors who would benefit in various ways, not all simple. Are counterterrorism, intelligence, organized crime and corporate crime units staffed by the dullards?

  13. A few thoughts on conspiracy theories:

    Every major crime is necessarily a conspiracy. It is simply too much work for one person.

    Just because you can find some crazy people who subscribe to a conspiracy theory “e.g. bin Laden had some inside help”, does not proof the hypothesis is wrong. That is just a garden variety ad hominem logical fallacy.

    It is just as irresponsible to dismiss a hypothesis without any sort of investigation of the evidence, as it is to swallow it whole. In particular I have contempt for people who blindly believe President Bush’s version of 9/11 on general principles. Their decision is based primarily on a desire not to look crazy, not on any evaluation of the evidence. This is “Christian sheep” logic.

    There is a claim that a secret conspiracy is impossible because people will always talk. A counter example is the Manhattan project. I think it highly probable we still have not figured out the Kennedy assassinations. There are so many strange bits of stray data.

  14. By far the most important conspiracy theory is that global warming is a hoax. This strikes me as one of the most preposterous I have ever heard. Anybody can look out the window and see it is a false. How did it get traction?

    1. Big Oil and professional ad men managed it. They were smart enough not to sell it directly, but as a controversy. They used experienced shills like Fred Singer who earlier managed to sell the health benefits of tobacco.

    2. The Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, supports it. He has fired most of the climate scientists and insisted that any government scientist get approval from his office for the text before speaking in public. He makes no bones he is and always has been in the pocket of big oil.

    3. People want it to be so. There is nothing to do, no sacrifice of any kind, no disaster awaiting us. Christians don’t like scientists. The conspiracy theory casts scientists as the villains. Christians don’t like the idea of man destroying himself with climate change and Jehovah calmly watching. They prefer other myths, involving them being yanked into the air while everyone else writhes in flames.

    4. The media see the world as a dichotomous debate. They can see no way to cover climate change without some opposing point of view. They pretend both sides are equally valid. They also take advertising from big oil.

    How do you know the hoax theory is nonsense?

    1. The effect of CO2 on atmospheric temperature was discovered back in the 1800s by Fourier and Arrhenius. This is very old established science. Arrhenius was the guy who discovered ions.

    2. How did all the scientists communicate to plot this hoax? What did they do to shut up those who would not go along? Why are there no records whatsoever, even alleged, of these communications? Scientists are stereotyped as irascible. How could they possibly agree to do this.

    3. This implies that all the data published in all the science magazines is a carefully constructed self-consistent hoax. Where does all this data come from. How do they make sure it is consistent?

    4. If scientists go through elaborate charades collecting data all over the earth and space, what happens to the real readings?

    5. The motive for the hoax is supposedly that scientists will get more money by lying and giving false answers. If that is true, you would think every other branch of science would have already pulled the same trick. Surely you have met scientists drive by the notion of winning a Nobel prize. They have have no chance of winning one by faking data. Even if they did, they would eventually be caught, (science works that way) and the prize would be taken away and they would disgraced for all history. The proponents of the hoax theory have no idea of how difficult it would be to pull off such a hoax, and do it so well that nobody outside the conspiracy notices even one slipup.

    This is just too preposterous to even consider to anyone who has any connection with science. It is a Christian-creationist view of science. They imagine scientists are just as dishonest and unscrupulous as they are. It may see odd to almost equate climate change denier with Christian, but you will find the #1 denier justification is “God would not allow it”. This is all tied up in an overwrought end-times stew. This is part of the reason I put so much priority on debunking Christianity.

    What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian
    church… a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would
    accept them.

    ~ Martin Luther 1483-11-10 1546-02-18

    • In reply to #17 by Roedy:

      By far the most important conspiracy theory is that global warming is a hoax. This strikes me as one of the most preposterous I have ever heard. Anybody can look out the window and see it is a false. How did it get traction?

      Big Oil and professional ad men managed it. They were smart enough not…

      I agree with this. Global warming is definitely real. There is also a counterargument: it is real but human activity has nothing to do with it. That’s ridiculous too, because there is plenty of evidence for it.

      However, I would like to point out that your number reason describes one result of a conspiracy headed by big business. “Big oil and professional ad men managed it.” Some people have also implicated that cigarette companies have engaged in conspiracies. Oil companies were acting to maintain their global power and influence. It was a conspiracy at one time; now it’s out in the open. The only difference between this and Watergate is that some people were actually prosecuted for their complicity in the Watergate scandal, and Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment. What the oil companies and cigarette companies did are considered perfectly legal. I’m sorry, but I really do have to question and criticize this activity.

      I see no one here is saying criticizing the establishment constitutes CT. That’s good. But people often do dismiss my arguments as CT, so I was hoping to clarify my perspective here. I’m glad I was given the chance.

      And your effort to debunk Christianity sounds like you are trying to expose a conspiracy! I say you are. Churches hide things too.

  15. Let me create a conspiracy theory.

    Over the last 5 months or so, there has been an ongoing public debate in BC and Alberta about the tar sands, pipelines, tanker traffic and bitumen.

    Oddly climate change and global warming are never mentioned. Proponents of the various fossil fuel projects including politicians, talked as though the projects would producing revenue for a century. They never even considered the possibility we would have to stop because of high greenhouse gas levels, or because alternative fuels were now cheap enough to switch over.

    Similarly there was lots of talk about advanced technology to scoop up floating crude from the ocean surface. Somehow the fact that bitumen rather than crude was going to be shipped and that it sank, and there was no bitumen scooping technology, just never came up. Under ideal conditions, what percentage of the oil can you recover after a spill. This too never came up.

    I wrote the ombudsman and radio personalities dozens of times about these issues. Yet not once were they ever mentioned. Not one question on them was ever asked a proponent. Whenever they did have someone on who was not gung ho, they seemed to get side tracked in irrelevant trivia.

    Why would the supposedly leftist CBC do this? Prime Minister Stephen Harper, fundamentalist Christian and climate change denier has been reducing their budget over and over. I asked various CBC employees why they were avoiding these questions. No answers.

    “How do feel about X” replaces “What do you know about X”. Endless meaningless blather to avoid the important issues.

    • In reply to #19 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      I would be fascinated to know; has anyone heard of a connection between belief in conspiracies and a non-science (i.e. arts and humanities) education?

      Whatever education they have had, it has failed them abysmally.

    • In reply to #19 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

      I would be fascinated to know; has anyone heard of a connection between belief in conspiracies and a non-science (i.e. arts and humanities) education?

      Peace.

      I’m really curious, what is it with the (more or less subtle, on occasion) disparagement of humanities and arts I keep seeing on this board? What, the world needs only engineers, biologists, physicists or code monkeys? Studies in literature, languages, law, history and arts are somehow…”inferior” and their students are…mediocre minds? A really uninformed opinion, from my perspective. But carry on…

      • In reply to #34 by JoxerTheMighty:

        Hi Joxer,

        What is it with the (more or less subtle, on occasion) disparagement of humanities and arts I keep seeing on this board?

        You’re quite right to pull me up on that one. It was a bit below the belt.

        It would be good to get some real data on the books bought by graduates in their 30s, 40s & 50s – classified by subject. Plus quantitative data on subject studied and degrees of spiritual beliefs.

        My prejudice, for such I freely admit it is, is based on life observations. Of course if you study literature you will have more fiction on your shelves – but does this lead to a life-long ‘barrier’ (for want of a better word) preventing people from developing intuition for objective truths over subjective truths?

        What, the world needs only engineers, biologists, physicists or code monkeys?

        No. But it needs them in a way that making a concrete case for their recruitment and training – and way of thinking – is far simpler than making the case for the resources to make a Post-Modernist Literary Critic. Yes I chose an extreme example. No I do not deny that there are aspects of human existence that are not measured in improved food, shelter, hygiene, transport, clothing, clean water, gadgets, games, medicine, etc.. Man shall not live by bread alone – but without the basics, he will not live at all.

        Studies in literature [etc.] are somehow…”inferior” … a really uninformed opinion …

        Well, as I say, it would be nice to get some data.

        But carry on…

        Wilco!

        Peace.

        • In reply to #36 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

          I think the fault lies more with the education system than with the subject matter. Art and humanity are actually very interesting, but most of the courses suck.

          • In reply to #38 by Peter Grant:

            I think the fault lies more with the education system than with the subject matter. Art and humanity are actually very interesting, but most of the courses suck.

            Agreed.

            I have lost contact with a Deputy Head Teacher who was a good friend a few years ago. His biggest bug-bear was people saying that ‘such-and-such a problem is down to poor education’.

            Education is a political football between untrained politicians pretending that their competing dogmas have all the fixes – and the Teachers themselves don’t help by organising themselves into trades unions with little or no focus on empirical research into education and no apparent interest at all in professional ethics and resisting political interference.

            Until that changes all subjects will remain poorly taught.

            Peace.

        • In reply to #36 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

          In reply to #34 by JoxerTheMighty:

          Hi Joxer,

          What is it with the (more or less subtle, on occasion) disparagement of humanities and arts I keep seeing on this board?

          You’re quite right to pull me up on that one. It was a bit below the belt.

          It would be good to get some real data on the books bo…

          I study English. But I like science too. I haven’t studied mathematics to a large extent, but I read science books (written by Hawking, Kaku, and others) as often as I read science fiction. Yes, the world needs engineers, astronomers, geologists, etc. Very much. But not everyone can be a scientist, just as not everyone can be soldier or a fighter. Although many of the people I know think we should all be fighters!

          And the world needs farmers and teachers and many other things as much as it needs scientists and doctors.

          Language and communication are very important. You might be able to invent a few crude tools and the wheel without it, but not much else. Very often, books and other works of literature provide the foundation for any kind of primary education, including science and math. I’m sure there is plenty of data on that.

  16. I’m so not a conspiracy theorist that if I had been told that social-democrat French president François Mitterrand had ordered to blow up and sink Greenpeace’s ship “Rainbow Warrior” with people on board, I would not have believed it.

    I am even so rational that I sincerely believed Iraq had WMD.

    I fully accepted, on evidence-based explanations from authorized sources, that DSK was not set up, that Building 7 collapsed only because Allah is great (or not) and that the Chernobyl cloud stopped at my borders and didn’t sweep over my country as it did the neighbouring ones.

    Even when I was told my soul was immortal thanks to a man in the sky, I took it for face value. See ?

    Why would my betters lie to me ? We should always trust our governments, spiritual leaders and ever unbiased journalists. They know what’s good for us.

    I don’t understand why conspiracy theories seem so popular nowadays. People are so misinformed, uneducated, irrational, paranoid, schizophrenic and evolved from bacteria.

    No… wait a minute. Maybe, if governments, cults and media stopped serving us so much bullshit every day and getting caught, your average Joe would be more trustful of authority and only a handful of lunatics would contemplate those often ridiculous conspiracy theories.

    • In reply to #20 by Ornicar:

      Maybe, if governments, cults and media stopped serving us so much bullshit every day and getting caught, your average Joe would be more trustful of authority and only a handful of lunatics would contemplate those often ridiculous conspiracy theories.

      It is precisely because of my lack of faith in authority that I don’t buy into these conspiracy theories. Authority is mostly incompetent.

      • In reply to #23 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #20 by Ornicar:

        Maybe, if governments, cults and media stopped serving us so much bullshit every day and getting caught, your average Joe would be more trustful of authority and only a handful of lunatics would contemplate those often ridiculous conspiracy theories.

        It is precisely bec…

        What does that mean? Are you saying you believe they’re always duplicitous so you are skeptical of everything? How is that really any different from saying it’s a massive global super-conspiracy, if that really is what you mean? I could easily be misinterpreting. The fact is, I’m not sure or I would not ask.

        • In reply to #53 by —
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          In reply to #23 by Peter Grant:
          What does that mean? Are you saying you believe they’re always duplicitous so you are skeptical of everything? How is that really any different from saying it’s a massive global super-conspiracy, if that really is what you mean? I could easily be misinterpreting. The fact is, I’m not sure or I would not ask.

          It means that it’s not nearly organised enough to be called an conspiracy, just lots of selfish, greedy, short-sighted individuals.

          • In reply to #57 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #53 by —
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            In reply to #23 by Peter Grant:
            What does that mean? Are you saying you believe they’re always duplicitous so you are skeptical of everything? How is that really any different…

            Looks like two of my comments went through some technical difficulties (my username continues to have them, too :D ). Anyway. thanks for clarifying.

    • In reply to #20 by Ornicar:

      I’m so not a conspiracy theorist that if I had been told that social-democrat French president François Mitterrand had ordered to blow up and sink Greenpeace’s ship “Rainbow Warrior” with people on board, I would not have believed it.

      Exactly. As I’ve said before just labeling something a “conspiracy theory” is not a counter argument. A lot of things that are labelled that way are nonsense but arguments need to be evaluated by their merits not by a label or the fact that most people dismiss them.

      I am even so rational that I sincerely believed Iraq had WMD.

      No offense but that wasn’t being rational that was just being uninformed. I knew at the time that there were no WMDs because one thing you need to do if you think critically is evaluate the agenda of someone making a claim. Anyone who followed politics knew that Cheney and company wanted a war in Iraq. We also knew that Cheney and Rumsfeld had a history of out and out lying. When they were in the Reagan administration they created a group called Team B. By cherry picking rumors about wiz bang Soviet technology they scared Congress into huge deficits to pay for “defense” against an enemy that was actually going broke at the time. After the fall of the Soviet Union literally every claim that Team B made turned out to be false but by then the money had been spent.

      When you listened to people who didn’t have an agenda and who actually knew the region it was obvious that the WMDs Iraq did have (most of which they bought from the US) had been destroyed after the first Gulf war. There were people from the US government like Scott Ritter who had supervised the process of dismantling the weapons and said that there was no way Sadam — who was barely able to maintain power over potential enemies in his own country — had the capability to remake or repurchase them. BTW, the claims about Al Queda and Sadam connections were also obviously false to anyone with a knowledge of the region. Al Queda hated secular governments. Sadam and Al Queda hated each other at least as much as they each hated the US.

      • In reply to #35 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #20 by Ornicar:

        I’m so not a conspiracy theorist that if I had been told that social-democrat French president François Mitterrand had ordered to blow up and sink Greenpeace’s ship “Rainbow Warrior” with people on board, I would not have believed it.

        Exactly. As I’ve said before just l…

        Excellent points. And yet we still have all these naysayers here. Go figure. “No, Cheney did not lie, Watergate did not happen, wages are not going down, and corporate free speech does not hurt anyone or undermine democracy in any way.”

      • In reply to #35 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #20 by Ornicar:

        I’m so not a conspiracy theorist that if I had been told that social-democrat French president François Mitterrand had ordered to blow up and sink Greenpeace’s ship “Rainbow Warrior” with people on board, I would not have believed it.

        Exactly. As I’ve said before just l…

        Although…I think he was being sarcastic? Something like, “I believed everything they told me!”

  17. Because our species is capable of forward thinking and the vision to assess possible outcomes anything has the possibility to seem like a conspiracy. This is used by all sorts of organizations to manipulate outcomes. Religions particularly use the ‘everyone is against us’ idea as a ‘selling point’. Common sense seems to be lacking in so many people when it comes to conspiracies.

    • Another helping of the conspiracy thing. We had a long go at this on the recent news item headed with that photo of Buzz on the Moon. The comments on this article on the NYT site are interesting too, I see a lot of well spoken folks aren’t buying it.

      So, why is this topic getting so much airplay now? Has Someone decided that we all need a bit of reinforcement: Conspiracy Theorist = Nutter. Don’t want to be seen as a Nutter, do you? Well, relax, ignore that silly conspiracy talk, and congratulate yourselves on how rational and sensible you are. And keep on believing what the Official Channels tell you.

      Jedi business. Nothing to see here. Move along.

  18. In reply to #24 by Ornicar:

    Yes, but you are so lucky to live in a jungle.

    More like thorny bushveld than jungle, but I get your drift. Skepticism has helped me survive in this beautiful, hostile environment :D

    I live in a country.

    Might I ask which one? Most have barely functioning political systems, though admittedly not many are quite as dysfunctional as my own.

  19. Around here, we have doubts about the existence of Oklahoma, to begin with.

    More seriously, I am afraid that the more articles we see about how ridiculously stupid conspiracy theories are, the more likely it is that governments and media are about to release major bullshit.

    I would not like to live in a world where conspiracy theories were systematically muffled and their theorists systematically discredited as paranoid or schizophrenic. We need conspiracy theories. Even if they were never right. They are, in sometimes weird ways, a clumsy expression of scepticism and critical thinking.

  20. Skeptics are sometimes accused of cynicism, perhaps unjustifiably.

    But I have to admit that when you compare us with conspiracy theorists they do look like nothing but a bunch of fucking posers.

  21. “But recent scientific research tells us this much: if you think one of the theories above is plausible, you probably feel the same way about the others, even though they contradict one another.”

    Study or not, I really don’t think it’s fair to assume this is always true. I think I’m rational enough to discern the difference between rumor/speculation and facts. I might make suppositions based on certain facts, but they are not the facts themselves. People tell me they think I’m a “conspiracy theorist” simply because I am critical of corporatism and the influence it has on the world today. But I actually do not talk about conspiracies at all; I just criticize things I know are happening and point out the facts to help people become more aware.

    They often think the things I discuss are benign, no threat at all, or at least not as bad as I make them sound, so I hear things like, “It’s all conspiracies with you, isn’t it?” How can something that is out in the open be a conspiracy?

    You are still right. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to jump to all sorts of conclusions without evidence. Of course, since I am not an atheist but I do accept the naturalist theory of evolution, you might say I jump to irrational conclusions anyway. I accept naturalist theory, the apparent indifference of the universe, and what appears to be our ultimate demise according to astronomy no matter how long humans manage to survive, but I believe certain things in spite of that. So yes, that would count as jumping to conclusions without evidence. I do not apply the same thought process to human activity that I do for my spiritual leaps of faith, however.

    Edit: Hmm. I have tried to fix that garbled mess in the name box several times, but I can’t figure it out. Sorry about that.

  22. Partial quote form Sky Blue: “is that shadow a tree stump or a tiger…safer to assume it’s a tiger”

    No it isn’t – it’s actually quite stupid to assume every tree stump is a tiger. Most will just be a tree stump. Safer, maybe, but it turns you into a nervous wreck.

    That’s the basic essence of Conspiracy Theory – the same as ‘career skepticism’ such as one sees from the likes of James Randi, etc. – it reacts with hysteria to events without proper balanced appraisal. I find it laughable.

    • In reply to #45 by TanyaK:

      No it isn’t – it’s actually quite stupid to assume every tree stump is a tiger. Most will just be a tree stump. Safer, maybe, but it turns you into a nervous wreck.

      Natural selection doesn’t really care about your emotional state so long as you survive long enough to reproduce. The same goes for intellect, it has produced copious amounts of stupid.

      That’s the basic essence of Conspiracy Theory – the same as ‘career skepticism’ such as one sees from the likes of James Randi, etc. – it reacts with hysteria to events without proper balanced appraisal. I find it laughable.

      Skepticism is the complete antithesis of conspiracy theorising and James Randi is one of the least “hysterical” people you could meet.

      • In reply to #49 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #45 by TanyaK:

        No it isn’t – it’s actually quite stupid to assume every tree stump is a tiger. Most will just be a tree stump. Safer, maybe, but it turns you into a nervous wreck.

        Natural selection doesn’t really care about your emotional state so long as you survive long enough to rep…

        Quote by Peter Grant: “Skepticism is the complete antithesis of conspiracy theorising and James Randi is one of the least hysterical people you could meet.”

        I am referring to the brand of self-styled ‘skepticism’ displayed by such as Randi, et al. Genuine skepticism is, of course, quite different. Such individuals as ‘Career Skeptics’ will make a primary presumption, and then will apply that to whatever they encounter in context with that presumption – ie, they will always assume the relevant statements are false before they even set about checking them. That is as much the behaviour of such ‘career skeptics’ as it is the behaviour of Conspiracy Theorists. It is a paranoid and rather hysterical response.

        As for your former point – nothing will survive long if it drives its blood pressure sky high by panicking over every log it encounters. I have never actually seen a lot of evidence for your way of seeing it, and I’ve worked with animals a fair amount.

        • In reply to #51 by TanyaK:

          In reply to #49 by Peter Grant:

          In reply to #45 by TanyaK:
          I am referring to the brand of self-styled ‘skepticism’ displayed by such as Randi, et al. Genuine skepticism is, of course, quite different. Such individuals as ‘Career Skeptics’ will make a primary presumption, and then will apply that to whatever they encounter in context with that presumption – ie, they will always assume the relevant statements are false before they even set about checking them. That is as much the behaviour of such ‘career skeptics’ as it is the behaviour of Conspiracy Theorists. It is a paranoid and rather hysterical response.

          I know and you are completely off track. Career skeptics like James Randi behave nothing like conspiracy theorists. They operate under no a priori assumptions and spend most of their time engaged in extensive fact checking, if they don’t other skeptics will call them out on it. Skeptics have the never ending and thankless, but crucial, task of trying to educate idiots, so I would appreciate it if you would stop dissing them.

          As for your former point – nothing will survive long if it drives its blood pressure sky high by panicking over every log it encounters. I have never actually seen a lot of evidence for your way of seeing it, and I’ve worked with animals a fair amount.

          Wild animals?

          • In reply to #54 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #51 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #49 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #45 by TanyaK:
            I am referring to the brand of self-styled ‘skepticism’ displayed by such as Randi, et al. Genuine skepticism is, of course, quite different. Such individuals as ‘Career Skeptics’ will make a primary presumption,…

            Partial quote by Peter Grant: ” Career skeptics like James Randi behave nothing like conspiracy theorists. They operate under no a priori assumptions and spend most of their time engaged in extensive fact checking, “

            Need I quote James Randi himself, and others, who state openly that they assume it is all ‘woo’, to use his own rather infantile term.

            Instead, I shall refer you to the relevant chapter in the recent book ‘Heretics – Adventures With The Enemies Of Science” by Will Storr, and the subsequent developments arising from it. That book puts the whole thing in quite a clear perspective.

            I am not ‘dissing’ genuine skeptics – but I am questioning the motives of those who hijack that label to justify a prejudged biased stance.

          • In reply to #55 by TanyaK:

            Need I quote James Randi himself, and others, who state openly that they assume it is all ‘woo’, to use his own rather infantile term.

            Please do, I’ve never known Randi to assume anything. As for the term “woo”, I quite like it, an infantile term for describing that which is infantile.

            I am not ‘dissing’ genuine skeptics – but I am questioning the motives of those who hijack that label to justify a prejudged biased stance.

            Then use a better example, like global warming “skeptics”.

          • In reply to #58 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #55 by TanyaK:

            Need I quote James Randi himself, and others, who state openly that they assume it is all ‘woo’, to use his own rather infantile term.

            Please do, I’ve never known Randi to assume anything. As for the term, I quite like it, an infantile term for describing that which is i…

            The persistent use of such a term lowers the entire potential discussion to the level of squabbling 5 year olds in a school playground….”You’re talking woo!” – “No I’m not, shut up!” – Yes you are – it’s woo!” etc…

            Is a stage magician seriously the right person to be judging others’ research? I think not, actually.

          • In reply to #60 by TanyaK:

            Is a stage magician seriously the right person to be judging others’ research?

            Yes, especially when their research subjects are professional con artists.

          • In reply to #61 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #60 by TanyaK:

            Is a stage magician seriously the right person to be judging others’ research? I think not, actually.

            Yes, especially when their research subjects are professional con artists.

            Allow me to give my opinion – if I were to submit research in an area which the current consensus considered controversial, and Randi or someone like that appeared on the team to assess it, I would ask this question – “So, you are a conjuror? Then, I assume you will not be interfering in my results by slight-of-hand?” I would introduce controls to prevent it. A stage magician has no place in a lab. Anyone’s lab.

          • In reply to #62 by TanyaK:

            Thank goodness for peer review then, because the carnies will take you for a ride.

          • In reply to #63 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #62 by TanyaK:

            Thank goodness for peer review then, because the carnies will take you for a ride.

            I’m a Londoner darling, no-one will ever take me for a ride. I would only accept peer review by those qualified to carry it out.

          • In reply to #64 by TanyaK:

            I’m a Londoner, darling – no-one will ever take me for a ride.

            It’s that sort of arrogance which will be your undoing, we are all subject to cognitive biases which are readily exploitable.

          • In reply to #65 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #64 by TanyaK:

            I’m a Londoner, darling – no-one will ever take me for a ride.

            It’s that sort of arrogance which will be your undoing, we are all subject to cognitive biases which are readily exploitable.

            The arrogance is not mine, I think.

          • In reply to #66 by TanyaK:

            The arrogance is not mine, I think.

            I said, “that sort of arrogance”. Sometimes arrogance is justified.

          • In reply to #54 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #51 by TanyaK:

            In reply to #49 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #45 by TanyaK:
            I am referring to the brand of self-styled ‘skepticism’ displayed by such as Randi, et al. Genuine skepticism is, of course, quite different. Such individuals as ‘Career Skeptics’ will make a primary presumption,…

            But that implies that everyone else is an idiot.

          • In reply to #71 by —
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            But that implies that everyone else is an idiot.

            Nearly everyone, yes. Or, at least, everyone will be made to look like idiots if they fail to practise skepticism.

          • In reply to #74 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #71 by —
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            But that implies that everyone else is an idiot.

            Nearly everyone, yes. Or, at least, everyone will be made to look like idiots if they fail to practise skepticism.

            Okay. Well, I must be an idiot from your perspective then, since I practice what sounds like a contradiction: open-minded skepticism. And I question my own beliefs all the time. It’s part of what helps me to understand them.

          • In reply to #78 by —
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            Okay. Well, I must be an idiot from your perspective then, since I practice what sounds like a contradiction: open-minded skepticism.

            There is no contradiction here, the only tricky part with keeping an open mind is ensuring that your brain does not fall out.

            And I question my own beliefs all the time. It’s part of what helps me to understand them.

            Are you trying to imply that I do not? None of my beliefs are absolute, they are all rational and evidence based. Show me new evidence and I will change my mind.

          • In reply to #79 by Peter Grant:

            In reply to #78 by —
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            Okay. Well, I must be an idiot from your perspective then, since I practice what sounds like a contradiction: open-minded skepticism.

            There is no contradiction here, the only…

            No, sir. I did not not mean to imply anything of the sort. I was just clarifying my own position. So now I guess that means I’m not an idiot. Most of the time anyway. ;)

          • In reply to #54 by Peter Grant:

            Quote by Peter Grant: “I know and you are completely off track. Career skeptics like James Randi behave nothing like conspiracy theorists. They operate under no a priori assumptions and spend most of their time engaged in extensive fact checking, if they don’t other skeptics will call them out on it. Skeptics have the never ending and thankless, but crucial, task of trying to educate idiots, so I would appreciate it if you would stop dissing them.”

            As I stated, I am not referring to the basic, moderate form of scientific skepticism, which is just an attitude of necessary caution. I am referring to the behaviour of the somewhat strident group of self-styled and over-promoted ‘Superskeptics’ , several of whom seem to be from the background of stage magic performance. Someone such as this chooses an easy target – a TV psychic, a spoon bender, an homeopathic pedler of cures for sore toes, etc etc (always something where doubt can be sown in the minds of the audience, because once there is no doubt an academic has no debate and hence no importance) – then uses whatever means they feel are justified to ‘debunk’ this person, and this level of trivial debunking is then used as an excuse to attack research at a more formal level by association: ie ‘if this is wrong, so is anything like this’.

            Like Conspiracy Theorists, such Superskeptics seek to elevate their importance and attention by attempting to justify criticising levels of research to which they have no legitimate access in many cases. That is the parallel I am drawing.

            I ask ‘would you allow a Conspiracy Theorist to dictate or influence your national governmental policy?’ Of course you wouldn’t – no-one would, anymore than an attention-seeking debunker of stage psychics should be allowed to interfere with educational policy . If they wish to do so, they should be subject to some degree of proper accountability.

          • In reply to #76 by TanyaK:

            Please provide examples, because I find it hard to imagine James Randi, or most other prominent skeptics, doing anything like you describe.

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