This article offers tools for debunking conspiracy theories. It views such ideas as a dangerous blockage preventing a clearer path to solving the very real political, social and economic problems we face.
When the Internet made its appearance there was a lot of talk about the information super highway in which people would be able to click on a few buttons and get whatever information they were looking for.
Cue forward to 2019 and the information super highway is looking a lot more like the information rubbish tip. While its undeniable there is some good solid stuff out there, it’s also true that not only is some of the information irrelevant to what we’re looking for (as anyone who has used Google Search can attest to) but it is also unreliable. One of the reasons is the number of charlatans such as conspiracy theorists who have made the Internet their home.
Despite what you might think, lots of different kinds of people can be sucked in by conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, it is becoming all too common for people who should know better, to fall victim to this nonsense. This matters because we can only fight back against the very real material and political problems of the world as it is, by understanding reality. Once we know what is really going on, we will have a sound basis for organising resistance to it. So how can we detect if what we are reading is nonsense or a conspiracy theory? The ten step guide below is what I use to sift fact from fiction or half-truths. When that fails I turn to sites like www.skeptoid.com and www.snopes.com which are both non-partisan debunkers of bullshit, no matter what side of the political spectrum it comes from.
I. Use of Vague Statistics.
Any claim that uses a statistic like “One in three people are…” should always be treated with great scepticism because they’re meaningless. Without knowing anything like the number of people who were studied or surveyed, the terms of reference for the study or research undertaken or the people or organisation who conducted the research, we cannot determine if the statistic is real or made up. More often than not studies which use such vague references are made up or conducted by highly partisan groups trying to convince people that “research” backs what they say.
II. Awe with Percentages.
How many times have you read a poll that claims that “40% of Americans support Trump” or something similar? Most polls conducted by a polling company tend to interview between 1000 and 1500 people over a given time period and are chosen from electoral or other voting rolls. It’s not hard to realise that it is impossible to determine what millions of people think about anything on the basis of what 1000 or so people say. You also have to consider that such a sample excludes people who aren’t on electoral rolls for various reasons. Despite the claims that such polls are scientific no one has been able to explain just what part of the polling process actually involves science. Percentages without context are another problem. Informing us that the average house price has increased by 35% in a particular area doesn’t tell us anything. Telling us that the average house price in that area was $250,000 back in 2012 then telling us that house prices in that area have increased by 35% gives us information that is useful.
III. Emotive Manipulation.
In some news networks there is a lot of pressure to try and get as many people to support a certain viewpoint or to galvanise support for a particular cause. One way this is done is to get a hysterical parent wailing about how her child is a victim of a certain social or other evil in order to rally support for that cause. The problem with such news stories is little, or no, attempt is made to find out if anything the said parent has claimed is true, false or an combination of both. Also, no attempt is made to put things in context.
The problem with anecdotal, human interest and other stories of this nature is they exaggerate the extent of a social evil in the minds of the public.
An example of this is when a child is snatched off the streets and murdered. Parents stop letting their children walk to school out of fear the same thing will happen to their own children. This is despite the fact that crime statistics from the United States and other countries repeatedly show that the chances of anyone, let alone a child, being snatched from the streets and killed by strangers is very rare. For example, according to the New York Times (August 17th, 2016), the FBI reported that only 1,381 of the 11,961 homicides reported within the United States in 2014 involved people who were unknown to the victims.
Emotionally manipulative news items can also have serious consequences. U.S President Donald Trump’s crack down on undocumented immigrants and his so-called “Muslim ban” was largely the result of emotive hysteria whipped up by Fox News about crimes committed by undocumented migrants and terrorist acts by Islamic State in Europe.
IV. The Defying of Reality.
Let’s be blunt. Most conspiracy theories and incorrect news stories are exposed as such because they fail to pass the most basic test of “Is it practical or realistic that such a thing could happen?” The 9/11 Truthers often come unstuck on this one. They would have us believe that multiple American government agencies conspired to murder thousands of their fellow Americans so that George W Bush could justify invading Afghanistan for its oil and gas reserves.
There’s at least four major problems with that:
1. A plot to kill thousands of people would’ve required a degree of co-operation between various government agencies that did not exist at the time – and still doesn’t. U.S government agencies are notorious for jealously guarding their jurisdictions and tend to avoid co-operating unless circumstances or the law requires them to do so. It was the lack of co-operation between government and intelligence agencies that enabled the 9/11 hijackers to enter the United States despite the terrorists involved in the hijackings being on known or suspected terrorist watch lists. It was to ensure better information gathering and sharing between these agencies that the Department of Homeland Security was created. Yet, despite this, co-operation between various government agencies is the exception rather than the rule.
2. American civil servants are required to take an oath to uphold the U.S Constitution. As the U.S Constitution forbids extra-judicial killings (of which plotting to kill thousands of Americans would be an obvious breach of said Constitution) public servants would’ve had the legal requirement to come out and denounce such behaviour.
3. Afghanistan was not invaded for either gas or oil because Afghanistan has neither. It was invaded because George W Bush believed that the Taliban were harbouring the man they believed was responsible for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks.
4. Genuine whistle-blowers go to credible news organisations like CNN, ABC or NBC or newspapers like the L.A Times, Washington Post or New York Times. They don’t go to websites like InfoWars or tabloids like National Inquirer.
V. Ignorance of basic facts.
Conspiracy theorists often lack a basic understanding of the relevant fields they are lecturing about. None of the 9/11 Truthers or so-called “Scholars for 9/11 Truth” have relevant qualifications or expertise in the fields that would be most relevant in any investigation into the 9/11 terrorist attacks such as building demolition, structural engineering, air crash investigation, architecture, disaster management, building and construction or even chemistry. Instead, the 9/11 Truthers are made up of people like celebrities, religious scholars, former intelligence officers, ex-military officers and sports stars. In other words, people who simply don’t have the expertise or knowledge to answer if a building can collapse pancake-style from causes other than an explosion or if molten steel would contain thermite independent of any explosives. That’s why air crash investigators, arson investigators and police detectives don’t just look for one or two things when they suspect damage might’ve been caused by a bomb. They look for many things because sometimes explosive residue can be found at the site of a disaster that has been caused by something else.
For example, explosive residue was found on Partnair Flight 394 which crashed off the coast of Denmark on September 8th, 1989. Many people, particularly in Norway, initially believed it was a bomb because of reports of a loud explosion and because the Prime Minister of Norway had recently flown on the same aircraft. The reason why explosive residue was found on the wreckage was the result of contamination resulting from military ordinance littering the sea floor from various naval battles fought in the area. The cause of the crash was the failure of counterfeit aircraft parts used during aircraft maintenance.
VI. Confusing Authority with Expertise.
Yes, there is a difference between authority and expertise. Authority is gained from one’s position or title within a group or organisation. Expertise is gained from learning, working in and mastering a particular skill, trade or area of knowledge.
Among conspiracy theorists there is a tendency to ignore the experts in their chosen fields in favour of authority figures. The more common authority figures they listen to are celebrities, ex-wrestlers like the former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, former military officers and former police officers.
Few conspiracy theorists see the absurdity of debunking authority figures who have the expertise to back up what they are saying by claiming they’re all in cahoots with the evil, omnipresent government or Big Something-or-other but not the authority figures who go along with their conspiracies.
VII. Playing on prejudices.
They play on people’s prejudices to advance their nonsense. Despite what the moral relativists may claim it’s not necessary to be a white heterosexual male to indulge in stereotyping. Stereotyping is attributing to all persons within a certain group attributes – both negative and positive – that may or may not be held by many people within that group. Some of the more obvious stereotypes are the hard working and well educated Asians who are all work and no fun, the Muslim terrorists who want to impose Sharia law upon us, the lazy drug addicted welfare queen… I’m sure there’s many other stereotypes that one can think of. Stereotyping often comes about as the direct result of selective reporting about certain groups within both traditional and social media that is picked up and used to vilify anyone who belong to those groups. All arguments presented by anyone from those groups will be greeted with comments like “Oh you would say that because you are one of them!” and people who defend those being stereotyped will be attacked with comments like “That’s what we expect from an apologist for these people.”
VIII. Treating the masses with contempt.
For people who claim to speak for the ordinary person in the street or who desire to “educate” them the conspiracy theorists regularly abuse and vilify the masses by labelling them “sheeple”, “muppets”, “ignorant” or “liars”. Rarely, if ever, do they assume the masses might have enough intelligence to work out the facts for themselves. A search on YouTube for anything to do with debunking anti-vaccination campaigns, 9/11 Truthers or Pizzagate will provide ample examples of this contempt in the Comments section.
IX. The Obsession with the word “Big”.
An obsession is prefixing any sector of society they dislike with the word “Big” as in “Big Pharma”, “Big Agriculture”, “Big Business” and “Big Government”. Everything they say and write ends up being about how something prefixed with the word “Big” is behind everything they dislike. Accusing people of belonging to Big Something-or-other is a sure-fire way to try and discredit anyone who challenges the claims made by a conspiracy theorist.
That leads us to the single biggest indicator that something is wrong or a conspiracy theory.
X. Using supposedly “Anti-Establishment” sources because they provide “alternative sources of news”.
A British conservative may be happier reading The Times while a liberal counterpart may be more contented with reading The Guardian but both newspapers contain the same basic content. What separates the two newspapers is their bias. The former is biased towards its conservative readership and the latter is biased towards its liberal readership. Bias doesn’t make a news story fake or the news organisation a fake news peddler or a bunch of conspiracy theorists.
While both The Guardian and The Times are Establishment publications they employ editors, sub-editors, fact checkers, reporters and journalists who actually go out and find out if what is being told to them is true. They usually come back with different interpretations of what has happened but they don’t differ when it comes to the basic facts. They also distinguish between opinion pieces where a writer peddles their viewpoint and the news. Most supposedly “Anti-Establishment” or alternative news sources have none of these things. They don’t distinguish between facts and opinions. They don’t bother to find out if what is being written or broadcast is true or false. They only care that what they produce fits in with their world view. That usually means they cite from sources of like-minded groups and individuals.
‘All’ that most multi-billion dollar media companies want us to do (which is bad enough in itself!) is read stories while they harass us with endless advertising and marketing campaigns that keep the money rolling in for these companies. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is the multi-billion media empire it is because it encompasses newspapers, magazines and websites that have at least some diversity of opinions. That correspondingly brings in at least some diversity of readers and viewers whom Murdoch’s advertisers can harrange with advertising. They have a vested interest to tell us the truth most of the time, even if it’s usually biased in favour of Capitalists and Capitalism.
Don’t be fooled by the news charlatans and conspiracy theorists. They aren’t providing you with ‘alternative facts’ from alternative news sources. They make up what they say and they’re playing you for suckers as they laugh all the way to the bank with the money they got from hacking your personal data when you clicked on their site. You might find it temporarily comforting to believe you’ve been handed the mysteries of the universe via a website run by somebody living in his Mum’s garage. Spending hours listening to podcasts about chem-trails, our alien lizard overlords, the flat earth or the moon-landing ‘hoax’ etc. will perhaps provide psychological distraction from wondering how you’re going to pay this week’s rent. What it won’t do is give you the tools necessary to overcome and struggle effectively against the hard, cold and sometimes ‘boring’ realities of the world we really live in.