The conspiracy theory is a classic, contentious fallacy. Conspiracies are all too common, and they are a fact of life. So what makes having a theory about a conspiracy fallacious or what makes most conspiracy theorists unreasonable? To answer this, let's first look at what it means to have a scientific theory.
As we know, when used in science, a "theory" is a collection of facts that provide strong evidence for a conclusion, commonly proposed by an expert on the subject matter. But more than that, scientific theories are (are supposed to be) established after the facts have been gathered and before the conclusion has been reached. Through the scientific method, bias is minimized, facts are checked by experts in related fields, and conclusions are disputed—all with the common goal of reaching the most probable conclusion. Far more often than not, once a hypothesis moved to scientific theory, it is improved upon and refined based on new evidence yet remains unfalsified, although it is falsifiable. After time, a scientific theory can often be synonymous with fact (as in that germs cause disease, gravity, and evolution). To recap, some of the characteristics that give scientific theories credibility include
Suspecting vs. Accepting.
There is a difference between suspecting a conspiracy and accepting something as a conspiracy. Some people are less trusting than others. This can be partly due to personality and/or partly due to experience. The greater the lack of trust in a group or organization, the more likely one is to suspect a conspiracy involving that group or organization. This mistrust could be based on reason, or not. Initial feelings of suspicion are what cognitive psychologists refer to as type I processes meaning that they occur quickly and without conscious thought. Reasoning comes into play with type II processes when one reflects on these feelings of suspicion and applies some methodology to the situation to determine if the feelings of suspicion are justified by the facts. As we have seen, the methodology used determines how reasonable it is to accept or reject the conspiracy. Like all beliefs, acceptance should only occur after sufficient evidence warrants the belief, never while the data is being gathered—this is how the confirmation bias distorts one's reality.
What Would it Take to Pull Off the Conspiracy?
Thanks to the confirmation bias, we have a strong emotional investment in outcomes that result in our inability or unwillingness to honestly attempt to falsify (prove wrong) our theory. We come up with a plausible narrative of the conspiracy, but what we fail to do, is reason all that would be involved in the conspiracy, then determine how plausible our narrative really is in light of what the conspiracy would involve. For example, Google "flat earth society FAQ" and see what lengths they need to go to build an internally consistent theory. Imagine how every country with a space program would have to be in on the conspiracy. While possible, how plausible is that compared to the fact that the earth really just is an oblate spheroid? It is not easy to attempt to prove what we believe to be true, false but this is vital aspect of critical thought.
If you are someone who generally lacks trust in government, authority, or those with power and is frequently called a "conspiracy theorist," don't expect reasonable people to accept your theories or even entertain them. Although you may be right, you are part of a group of people that has a strong, negative stereotype. I feel your pain. As an atheist, I am part of one of the most despised groups in America due to its own set of negative stereotypes, some justified and some not. I can't just tell a Christian that I am a moral person; I need to explain in great detail why I am moral. In other words, due to these cultural stereotypes, I have a greater burden of proof when it comes to demonstrating my morality whether I like it or not. Likewise, you need to go above and beyond if you want to convince others that your conspiracy is true (think Woodward and Bernstein). Of course, before you attempt to convince others, think about how you arrived at your conclusions. Perhaps you will find that the given explanation is really the best one to explain the facts and there really is no conspiracy.
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