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Snake Oil

On Conspiratorial Thinking

I recently had a e-mail exchange with someone who wanted me to read one of the many books out there that claims that some particular food additive is poisoning everyone. I’m not linking to the stuff, so I’ll call the book’s author Dr. Cassandra, for short. We argued about data and mechanisms a bit, but my correspondent also brought up what he felt were many other conspiracies around food and health, and I couldn’t agree with him on any of those, either. That led to me writing this to him:
Let me get philosophical: one of the big problems with this sort of thinking is deciding what to trust. If you decide that Most Of What You Think You Know Is Wrong, then you have some work ahead of you. If these various authorities and well-documented sources of primary material are faked, then what *isnt’* faked? How do you know that the stuff you’ve decided to believe is on the level? My usual answer to someone who tries to convince me of the 9/11 stuff, etc., is to lower my voice and say “Well, yeah, but that’s just what they want you to think”. It’s a universal answer. You can’t falsify it.
Too often, what happens is that someone chooses to believe the things that fit their worldview, and dismisses the stuff that doesn’t. That’s human nature, but scientific inquiry is alien to human nature. If you start in with the conspiratorial stuff, then you end up skipping through the fields of data and sources, picking a daisy here and a cherry there, until you’ve made a wonderful centerpiece out of little bits from all over the place. And you can end up telling yourself, “See, this must be real. Look at this wonderful thing I’ve assembled, all the parts fit together so well – how can it be anything other than true?” But beautiful sculptures can be made from all kinds of found objects. If you start by assuming your conclusion – they’re covering something up! – then you can get there any of a million ways.
So try this thought experiment: how do you know that (Dr. Cassandra) isn’t just a plant? A false flag? Someone who’s been put out there to make his beliefs look silly and under-researched (because believe me, he does)? Could someone in the pay of the Mighty Conspiracy do a better job of bringing its opposition into disrepute? That’s the problem with conspiratorial thinking: the rabbit hole has no bottom to it. I refuse to dive in.

So my correspondent and I agreed to disagree. He thinks that eventually I’ll see the truth of some of his beliefs, which I very much doubt. And I have little to no hope that he’ll ever accept any of mine. The points made above have naturally been made by many others who’ve examined conspiratorial thinking, and I don’t see much of a way around them. When you get to the Vast Overarching Conspiracy level of some of these schemes, you really do wonder how the believers manage to function. It’s only a short step to the sorts of worldviews depicted in Diane Kossy’s compendium Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, which is worth a look if you’ve never encountered 100-proof paranoia before.

39 comments on “On Conspiratorial Thinking”

  1. John Wayne says:

    I think this is excellent example of what I refer to as ‘group not think’ that appears to be dominating politics, health and other scientifically-related issues facing our society. It is hard to have a lively discussion with people who disagree with you about various issues such as health care, politics, gun control, global weather change and how to raise kids. A increasing number of people (in my opinion and observation) mentally throw a lot of issues into an ‘us vs them’ category that doesn’t respect conflicting opinions.
    I have a new rule that appears to be working: if somebody is unwilling to believe that other reasonable people could possibly disagree with them, change the subject. Unfortunately, this comes up more often than not.

  2. patentgeek says:

    Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic The True Believer is a great dissection of the psychology of fanaticism. While more about mass movements than conspiracy kooks, most of his points are applicable, including the insight that fanatical belief systems are interchangeable, people not infrequently flipping from one to another.

  3. Dick Turpin says:

    These are fine points. However, you would do us all a service if you developed your line of reasoning out to its epistemological limit (since you mention getting “philosophical”).
    If you do that, you will find yourself a solipsist. Now, as a scientist, you may or may not find that satisfactory, I don’t know, but, on some level, the only difference between “mainstream (non-fanatical, scientific) common sense” and “fanatical conspiratorial crackpot theories” is the number of people who believe in each of those. The difference has nothing to do with truth.
    And you will note that my attempt to communicate that fact to you is further undermining itself. Nonetheless, this is more than simply an exercise in sophistry. Trust me…
    Dick Turpin

  4. Anonymous says:

    There is science, and there is faith. Faith is belief in an idea, while science is belief in a process to test the idea.

  5. Twelve says:

    Were you trying to cover your bets when you gave this guy the monicker ‘Cassandra’? Cassandra, of course, was the figure in mythology whose dreary predictions were always right but never believed…

  6. CET says:

    Only in the absence of experimental evidence. To get un-philosophical about it, scientific arguments can be resolved with data.
    To a first approximation, if the majority of investigators trying to answer a question get data that supports model A, and only a handful get data that supports model B, then we can say with some confidence that model A is more representative of reality. This is true regardless of the number of people who ‘believe’ A vs. B (see: Evolution vs. Creationism, etc). There are some obvious caveats in there about the details and the need reconcile accurate data regardless of whether it fits the current model, but in general, something like a scientific consensus can usually be reached for major issues.
    When you start talking about the general public, you still get stuck on Derek’s point about deciding who to trust. But the more accurate answer isn’t determined by a simple majority opinion, it’s determined by the data.
    Now I suppose one could go all post-modern and throw out the notion of an objective truth, but that way lies madness . . .

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Now I suppose one could go all post-modern and throw out the notion of an objective truth, but that way lies madness . . .”
    I tried that, took the red pill and changed my name to Neo. It didn’t end well.

  8. Helical Investor says:

    Off topic on the food subject, but a good book that takes a look at alternative medicine is Simon Singh’s ‘Trick or Treatment’. Worth reading just for how it is written, as the author brings the history of medical development, clinical testing, etc. into the stories related to different medicinal efforts.
    Despite being ‘in the field’, I found the book not due to an interest in medicine / alternative medicine but because I enjoyed another of the author’s works ‘Big Bang’, which is a look at the history of astronomy that reads like a fiction thriller. ‘Trick or Treatment’ is good, ‘Big Bang’ is very very good (IMO).

  9. One of the best books I can recommend in this context is Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain” as well as his previous “Why People Believe Weird Things”.
    There’s also a nice book about the history of conspiracy theories in this country which just came out: “The United States of Paranoia” by Jesse Walker.

  10. old man says:

    100 proof is only 50% if you are comparing to alcohol strength. 200 proof is the good stuff!

  11. exGlaxoid II says:

    Ran into a simular situation this weekend. The latest theory running around the public Lyme disease community is that the CDC upped its estimates of the number of undiagnosed cases in order to increase sales of the next Lyme vaccine. Of course it has nothing to do with the new studies show how widespread ticks that are carriers or how most physicians outside of certain areas of the NE are oblivious to the disease…

  12. Big Fish says:

    Saw a documentary on TV (properly titled: Tapped) this weekend about bottled water industry. And how all kinds of additives in the plastic bottles are leaching-out and poisoning us, particularly children because parents believe bottled water is better than tap water.

  13. Anonymous says:

    The worst food additive is sodium chloride.

  14. Anonymous says:

    All drinks should be labeled with a clear health warning:
    Contains up to 10^6 ppm hydrogen hydroxide.

  15. Rich Rostrom says:

    “100-proof paranoia”
    Would that be fear of persecution that is only half delusion? (And therefore half reality?)

  16. srp says:

    I generally concur with Derek’s view but you have to be careful what you label a “conspiracy theory.” Groups of connected people can act in parallel to advance particular agendas in science and public policy without forming a conspiracy per se.
    Go back and read Edith Efron’s magisterial 1984 book The Apocalyptics on how a small group of scientists and policy entrepreneurs embedded the “zero-threshold, one molecule is too many, most cancer is caused by industrial carcinogens” philosophy into our regulatory institutions. Science had little to do with it, but to this day most people assume that these policies are solidly grounded in well-established findings. Some say (I’ve only read reviews) that Gary Taubes is pretty devastating on the promotion, despite a lack of strong science, of the government’s long-running anti-fat, pro-carb dietary advice.
    That’s just two examples in the health area; there are others I could cite. I don’t think that either of these cases qualifies as a “conspiracy,” but they do reflect the ability of small groups of “establishment” activists to supersede reasonable doubts or even the main findings of research.
    Arguably, the way the tobacco companies dealt with the risks of smoking constituted an actual conspiracy. The distinction is that these were individuals a) secretly working together to b) advance propositions that they themselves believed not to be true while c) pretending to other motives.
    In the first two examples I listed above, a) is tenuous, b) does not apply, and c) is possible but questionable so I don’t think they should be classified as “conspiracies” of the sort Derek and his interlocutor meant. But not all corruption is conspiratorial.

  17. N says:

    This usually comes up for me in the form of: big pharma doesn’t want to cure cancer, it’s more profitable to have a lifelong treatment. I have stopped conversing when this particular argument comes up because it’s not a debate, it’s a soap box speech that will just end up convincing people of a lot of stupid things.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Most conspiracy theories could never work for the simple fact that people are mostly acting as individuals for their own self interests, so in most cases it’s in the interests of at least one insider to blow the whistle.

  19. David Kroll says:

    Despite being a pharmacologist blogger and getting the typical (and intellectually lazy) pharma shill label, nothing compares to the amount of mistrust and paranoia I’ve encountered in writing about foods derived from bioengineered crops. I’m finding the GMO “discussion” a particularly complex science communication challenge.

  20. Derek Lowe says:

    #19, David – I take it the difficulty is that you refuse to accept that Monsanto is the evil, multitentacled beast behind everything that goes bad in the world? And that every bit of so-called evidence that might possibly say otherwise is the work of their sinister agents?

  21. Anonymous says:

    The funny thing is, I wonder how the conspiracy theorists would react if a company claimed it is trying to takemover the world by brainwashing everyone with evil poisons. They would probably claim this is just a facade to do good things for the world.

  22. MTK says:

    Blue pill or red pill?
    I guess the conspiracy buffs believe they’ve taken the red one while the rest of us the blue one.

  23. Anonymous says:

    @22: The problem is that everyone believes they’ve taken the red pill.

  24. cthulhu says:

    Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” seems on point here.

  25. wayland says:

    yes maybe I’ll read the pendulum again, I enjoyed it a lot last time. “I have time on my hands after all.” (what happened to all the guys on here talking about how unemployed they are (as I)? too depressing to read the blog any more, or back in the game, or what?) I had a dream, I’ve seen the light, I took my pills, now I’m all right, I just hope I can still enjoy the Eco.

  26. Yancey Ward says:

    Well, Derek, Cassandra is usually depicted in Greek mythology as being a true prophet, but not believed by anyone- both the gift and curse from Apollo.

  27. Yancey Ward says:

    Damn, I should have read the comments first. I see Twelve has already noted the improper naming. Of course, maybe Derek was trying to hedge his beliefs.

  28. Derek Lowe says:

    #5 and #27: that’s exactly what I was doing! I think that the chances of “Dr. Cassandra” being wrong are pretty darn near 100%, but hey, you never know. If he’s right, though, I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be by accident.

  29. metaphysician says:

    Or possibly by technicality. Consider nitrites in pork, for example. Whether that counts as a “additive killing people” or an “additive saving lives” depends entirely on how you frame the question.

  30. J. L. Mandelson says:

    > If he’s right, though, I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be by accident.
    Yeah, on rare occasion the crazy and ridiculous conspiracy theory really does end up being the truth after all. We’re seeing this right here & now with the NSA domestic spying revelations. “Hah! I told you the government was recording everybody’s phone calls and intercepting their email! Who’s out of touch with reality now?”

  31. tt says:

    I think Derek hit the nail on the head with the conspiratorial mindset. I used to argue with these people about how illogical if us to believe in massive cover ups. They often forget that governments and corporations are filled with people just like them who have parents and kids too. For their theories to be true, then they have to assume that all of these people that make up these organizations are inherently selfish and evil. That’s a view of human nature that I cannot fathom. It’s impossible to keep a secret for long even with the tightest controls and penalties in place (the NSA is a perfect example of how the truth comes out eventually). Unfortunately, the Internet and celebrity culture give these kooks a platform to organize and be heard. It’s just plain sad when parents take medical advice from a minimally educated playmate (can Jenny McCarthy be held liable for kids dying of measles?). Anyways, it’s an uphill battle, but I guess it’s something all of us who utilize the scientific method must combat.

  32. Hibob says:

    @17 N: Actually I like engaging the “big pharma doesn’t want to cure X, it’s more profitable to have a lifelong treatment.” types. The trick is to explain that greedy Pharmas would make even more money selling cures than they do treatments, at which point their objections evaporate. I explain the competitive advantage a cure would have over treatments, the lower financial risks a cure would present, and the time value of money: would you rather get paid in dribs and drabs spread over 20 years or get paid in full the same day you hand them the pill?

  33. hibob says:

    @19 David Kroll: That one is a challenge; the argument is really about personal aesthetics but it’s masked as a public health issue. The only time I’ve come close to a success is when they say GMO containing foods should be labelled because they don’t trust the safety of the foreign genes. I ask them if GMO peanuts that have had the main allergen (Ara h2 glycoprotein) removed also need to be labeled as GMO. After all, no new genes = no new ingredients.

  34. sepisp says:

    Rather than just lambast the conspiracy theorists as crackpots and so on, it would be better to consider them as an part of a continuum of “concerned citizens”. Although there are organizations and governments to take care of some policy analyses, it would be downright dangerous to claim that 100% to them. In the West, we’re easily complacent about this, forgetting that the policymakers are people, just as anyone. If the government is absent, then people have to fend for themselves. Before the FDA, for instance, anyone could add virtually anything into food and medications, and it was up to the individual and local communities to monitor and enforce food safety. Yet thinking that now that there is the FDA, everything is automatically right is hazardous. There needs some “organic” vigilance.
    True, people also have an impressive facility to overdevelop their conspiracy theories. These are extreme cases only, however.

  35. Anonymous says:

    @34: I agree: Trust, but verify. And *then* stop listening.

  36. Anonymous says:

    With conspiracy theories, I find myself following a simple algorithm:
    1. Listen until I get the basic idea
    2. Do I really care? If No, go to 9
    3. Could I do anything about it? If No, go to 9
    4. Will someone else deal with it? If Yes, go to 9
    5. Can I check the facts? If No, go to 9
    6. Can I be bothered? If No, go to 9
    6. Think and check the facts
    7. Do the facts prove the theory? If No, go to 9
    8. Stop listening

  37. Anonymous says:

    Oops, I mis-numbered 6-9 above.

  38. Kent G. Budge says:

    #36-#37: It actually kind of worked the first way.

  39. John says:

    @31 There is one conspiracy theory, Chemtrails — — which perfectly illustrates your point.
    In order for it to work, there must be literally hundreds of people saying to themselves, “What I am doing is very likely injurious to everyone, including those whom I love, and even including myself. However, I am too loyal to the conspiracy to blow the whistle on it.” Is that even plausible?
    At least some versions of the 9/11 conspiracy theories require the participants to be really smart and really stupid simultaneously.

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