Ten things I hate about lists

As alluded to in yesterday's post, last week saw me feel quite rotten and headachey. As such, come Friday I couldn't bring myself to do anything more than catch up on my reading (despite keeping up with the literature, I still have thirty recent articles on these things called 'conspiracy theories' that I haven't got round to reading). So, after an afternoon of reading papers in psychology and political science, I decided to finally look at Skeptic Magazine's 'Conspiracy theories: who, why, and how?' (credited to Skeptic Magazine editor and publisher Michael Shermer and one Pat Linse) My verdict? It's what you'd expect from Skeptic Magazine; it has the gloss of academia on it, but it's fairly lightweight; Academia for people who don't bother reading journals.1 You can read it here.

My problem with the guide to how to deal with conspiracy theories is twofold. Firstly, it elects to use literature which portrays conspiracy theories in a bad light, ignoring articles which dispute such a view. Secondly, it features one of those 'Ten things which tell you a conspiracy theory is bad' things which tend to read as 'Here are ten things we were forced to come up to fill a page of our pamphlet.'

Lists of ten things always irk me, because ten seems like such an arbitrary number. Why is ten so common to these things? Is it because there really are ten things you need to know or was ten a magical number pulled out of a unicorn and used to curse list writers from time immemorial? Frankly, I'm of the opinion that some writers think that you need one point per finger and set of thumbs so you can annoy your opinions by counting them off per digit.

Anyway, aside from wondering whether they deliberately chose ten factors because it's a nice, neat number, or because it happened to be exactly the number of points they came up with is a question we'll leave to one side. Instead, let us look at the ten characteristics in turn, starting with the preface.

Some conspiracy theories are true, some false. How can one tell the difference? The more the conspiracy theory manifests the following characteristics, the less likely it is to be true.

Okay, points for admitting some conspiracy theories are true. That's a whole lot better than the rest of the guide.

  1. 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 false.

My, but that's a complex claim. Sure, if no evidence supports the purported connections outside of a claim of conspiracy (presumably an unevidenced one), then we have no grounds for preferring a conspiracy theory over some other theory. However, the next claim—that the evidence also supports some other theory—does not follow. First of all, the writers concede the evidence at least supports some conspiracy theory in this case. Secondly, why prefer the non-conspiratorial theory? What is the argument for saying that in cases where evidence supports both a conspiracy theory and a non-conspiracy theory we should a) prefer the non-conspiracy theory and b) that the conspiracy theory is likely false? That's a strong claim.

Now, the most obvious response is to say 'But conspiracies are unlikely!' which in turn justifies our preference for non-conspiracy theories all things being equal. But a cursory glance at the literature does not warrant that claim; whilst some academics argue conspiracies are either uncommon or less common than they used to be, there's quite a big literature—particularly in History and Philosophy—which goes to show conspiracies are more common than we think and that an awful lot depends on how we define what counts as a 'conspiracy' in the first place. Often arguments which ride on the claim 'But conspiracies are unlikely!' rest upon definitions of what count as a conspiracy which artificially limit the kinds of examples we could use to show how common (or relatively common) conspiracies are.

Finally, let's go back to that first claim, 'When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy[.]' This claim relies quite heavily on the idea that the conspiracy in question is itself unevidenced. But consider the case where we have good evidence a conspiracy exists, and suspect that some event in the world was caused by this conspiracy (to wit, we have a theory about said conspiracy). In that case, the existence of the conspiracy is evidence of a kind that we can then use to judge the conspiracy theory. If I know there is a conspiracy in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry to play up the environmental credentials of their cars, then I might theorise that a certain set of test results are false. Which is to say, claims about the existence of some conspiracy can be separate from a given conspiracy theory.

  1. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. Most of the time in most circumstances, people are not nearly so powerful as we think they are.

This is something conspiracy theory skeptics claim about conspiracy theorists and their conspiracy theories. That is, skeptics often claim 'Conspirators would need to be superhuman to pull this off.' Yet this is not a claim often made by the conspiracy theorists in question. Indeed, conspiracy theorists often portray conspirators as quite fallible human beings. As such, this factor is more to do with the interpretation of conspiracy theories by self-declared skeptics than it is a feature of conspiracy theories themselves.

  1. The conspiracy is complex and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.

How this contributes to the claim that conspiracy theories are likely false I do not know. Most human actions—whether secretive or not—are complex. This very much feels like it was added to the list to get to the magical number of ten!

  1. The conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets.

A variation of 2 (and possibly what 3 was meant to be getting at). Once again, this is something conspiracy theory skeptics claim about conspiracy theorists and their conspiracy theories. Notably, many conspiracy theorists will quite happily deny this. You, for example, might be skeptical of 9/11 Inside Job conspiracy theories because too many people need to be sworn to silence if controlled explosives really had been retrofitted to WTC1 and 2 over the course of several weeks or months. Most Inside Job theorists will, however, claim not many people had to be in the know about that at all.

Indeed, one notable feature about the way we talk about conspiracy theories is a lack of nuance about the structure of conspiracies. Not everyone need be in on the plot; some people will be lackeys or unwitting goons in a conspiracy, completely unaware of what they are contributing to. See my paper with Marin Orr ('Secrecy and conspiracy.' Episteme 2017) for more details.

So, once again, this factor is more to do with the interpretation of conspiracy theories by self-declared skeptics than it is a feature of conspiracy theories themselves.

  1. The conspiracy encompasses some grandiose ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, it’s probably false.

'If [the conspiracy theory] suggests world domination, it’s probably false.' Why? You do have to provide arguments in support of these points, you know.

  1. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger events that have much lower probabilities of being true.

So, this is basic probabilistic reasoning 101, and is a good point. However, we have to judge conspiracy theories with respect to rival explanations, and unless you are committed to the unlikely claim non-conspiracy theories are always better explanations than conspiracy theories, then this point is only true when the conspiracy theory is the least likely explanatory option.

  1. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous and sinister meanings to what are most likely random and insignificant events.

This presumably is actually the reasoning which is meant to support factor 6. But now they bake in 'what are most likely random and insignificant events.' i.e. they've already assumed the unlikeliness of the conspiracy theory in question.

  1. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.

So, mixing your facts with speculations and presenting them indiscriminately is, of course, bad. So, point well made. Extra points for not making this specifically about conspiracy theories, since this is an issue for all theories.

  1. The theorist is extremely and indiscriminately suspicious of any and all government agencies or private organizations.

This one I find particularly funny just because there is an overlap between readers of Skeptic and libertarianism (both of the little and large L kind), and libertarians tend to be extremely and indiscriminately suspicious of government agencies and—depending on their economic views—many private organisations as well.

Should we be sceptical of theories just because the person who offered the theory is suspicious of any and all government agencies or private organizations? Well, surely that depends on whether they have grounds to be suspicious, surely? African-Americans have grounds to be suspicious of the police, for example, given the past behaviour of the police in general towards people of colour.

I guess the 'Get out' clause here is 'extremely'; Linse and Shermer can claim that by 'extremely' they are referring to unwarranted cases of suspicion. But that response would bake in the idea such theorists are acting irrationally. It does not mean their theory is irrational, however. I can be someone who hates the police with a firey vengeance and still have good grounds to think that the Russian government conspired to kill Alexander Litvinenko. Even if it turns out I'm paranoid, I can, nonetheless, still hold warranted beliefs about conspiracies.

  1. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence for his theory and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence.

Why is this an issue for conspiracy theorists? I mean, surely this is an issue for almost anyone; the idea that conspiracy theories in particular suffer from this kind of irrationality is itself symptomatic of construing belief in conspiracy theories largely in conspiracist terms (a view I take to task in `The Problem of Conspiracism,' Argumenta 2017).

In short, individually very few of these characteristics are specific to conspiracy theories. Now, admittedly, that's not necessarily an issue. Sure, the writers could have written about theories in general rather than fixate on conspiracy theories in particular, but maybe we can forgive them that given this is a guide to such theories. But some of the characteristics rest upon some pretty weird assumptions when spelt out properly.

Also, it's clear the writers had to stretch to hit their ten conditions but that these ten conditions kind of bake in belief in pejoratively-named 'conspiracy theories' is going to turn out to be specious. So, bad job there.

What to make of them jointly, however? Well, it's true that many of them, if found in some theoretical claim, provide good reason for scepticism of some theory, these are a) issues not unique to conspiracy theories and b) still rest on some questionable assumptions. Indeed, the list as a whole fails to encapsulate the following point: given the authors' largely pejorative take on conspiracy theories (at least with respect to the rest of the pamphlet) it seems clear that they are operating with some version of the 'Conspiracy theories are not usually official theories' thesis which pervades much of the literature sceptical of belief in such theories. Now if this is the case, then conspiracy theories will tend to exist in contrast to some other theory and will be judged as likely or unlikely compared to its rivals. So the consequence to the kind of reasoning argued for in this list is that conspiracy theories which have these shared features will be considered as unlikely but similar attention is not directed at the rivals to such theories. After all, a conspiracy might be unlikely in some situation, but a rival set of non-conspiracy theory alternatives might be even more unlikely when all is said and done. So why pick on the conspiracy theory unless you are already working with a conclusion which says we should be ignoring such theories?

  1. It is at this point I should mention I had an piece published in Skeptic Magazine nearly a decade ago and I used to be a subscriber. However, the content of the magazine never really grabbed me and I stopped my sub after about two years when I noticed I wasn't even bothering to open the envelopes the magazine came in. 


Lee Basham says:

I stopped reading it when I was 14. Same pattern, the mags just set there, in the corner, under my cat, on my bedroom floor. But it was fun when I was 11.

That last “1”‘s accusation is particularly misplaced as concerns conspiracy theorists, at least as we typically find them. They–all of us, in fact–are disconfirmation fanatics, in my experience. A good sign of well-placed skepticism. How else could it honestly proceed?

The prior “1”‘s key term appears to be “indiscriminately”–set aside whatever we might make of “excessively”–and typically this also appears to be false of those who explore conspiracy explanation, as much of their information and subsequent argument is drawn from official sources, especially government statements. Anyone familiar with such arguments recognizes this. The same is true of a prosecutor or defense attorney examining a witness. Take what is said, and see where the problems are. While preliminary trust is often misplaced in the case of governments, that judgement and its extent is a matter of many factors, situational and historical, concerning said government. Both North Korea and the US come to mind on the distrust end, and I like to think Wales is doing rather better. Conspiracy theorists are well aware of this.

And so on. I miss my cat. But not the mag.



Lee Basham says:

PS. Oh, that was the Skeptical Inquirer. Much the same, I warrant.

I believe so. Skeptical Inquirer was a magazine I saw on shelves, but my inclination was always to go for the Fortean Times which has a delightful pluralism and no matter the argumentative content per issue, always had a substantial section of pure reportage of weird and wonderful things. My favourite section remains the weird deaths page; it’s amazing just how convoluted humans can make the act of death become!