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A Guide to Recognizing Conspiracy Theories

April 27, 2012

I recently joined in a couple discussions here on Athens Online/AthensTalks. These topics were in the "hot button" category politically: one was an article on the recent local demonstration for gay rights (http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2012-04-21/protestors-march-athens-ga...).
The other had to do with an appeal to Athens citizenry to submit ideas about how to balance the struggling local school district budget (http://onlineathens.com/opinion/2012-04-21/blackmon-searching-solutions-...).
Both discussions had their rocky moments, I suspect owing at least partially to the fact that the issues tend to ignite divisions along party lines.
However, I was baffled by comments that appeared to go beyond party rhetoric into what appeared to be paranoid rants.
For example, the 'gay rights' thread segued into a bizarre accusation that Planned Parenthood intentionally sets up shop in minority neighborhoods in order to target specific babies for abortion.
Similarly, the school budget discussion was derailed into a rant about how Liberal ideology is unfairly prevalent in school textbooks. Another point that was raised is that schools don't need smaller teacher to student ratios owing to "how much non-educational effective time is wasted doing bureacratic administration today and class time spend on sex ed, social justice, earth day, etc."
Reading this stuff reminded me of an article I read in "Scientific American" which discusses conspiracy theories, and the human propensity to attach to them.
Here is a list from the article of criteria that should help in identifying whether the argument you are listening to/adhering to is based on a collection of verifiable information or an argument "from the heart" but with no real basis in reality. This is not to say conspiracies don't exist, but that there is a point where suspension of disbelief becomes rather strained. This list makes it easier to pay attention to one's "Spidey sense" when hearing an argument that seeks to connect a vast group of people and ideas to a hidden agenda:
Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.
Article link:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-conspiracy-theory-d...

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