10 rules for knowing if a conspiracy theory is true or false
Excerpted and adapted from Conspiracy: why rational people believe in the irrational. Johns Hopkins University Press. ©Michael Shermer, 2022. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
In 1997 I appeared on the late G. Gordon Liddy’s radio talk show while on a media tour for my first book, Why People Believe Strange Things. Liddy asked me if I thought conspiracy theories are strange beliefs and whether we should be skeptical of them. It was a trick question answered by himself after I opposed the man behind the Watergate conspiracy.
Most conspiracy theories are wrong, he told me, for two reasons: (1) the skill problem and (2) the leak problem. Most conspirators, Liddy continued, are clumsy, clumsy morons who can’t keep quiet – three people can keep a secret, he added, echoing Benjamin Franklin, if two of them are dead .
Since, as I demonstrate in my book, some conspiracy theories are true, we can’t just dismiss them all out of hand. So how do you tell the difference between a real and a fake conspiracy theory? What metric, algorithm, or rule of thumb can we apply to a conspiracy theory to determine if it is probably true, probably false, or undecidable? Think of it as a signal detection problem in a 2×2 matrix shown in the figure below.
Signal detection theory aims to assess whether a signal, or piece of information, represents a true or false signal, and our decision as to whether the signal is true or false allows us to schematize a 2×2 choice matrix. The top left cell represents conspiracy theories that are true and that you correctly identify as such. This is called a hit. The top right cell represents conspiracy theories that are true but you misidentify as false. This is called a fail, false negative, or type II error. The bottom left cell represents conspiracy theories that are false and you correctly identify them as such, and this is called a correct rejection, another type of hit. The bottom right cell represents conspiracy theories that are false but you mistakenly identify as true; that is, you think the theory represents a real conspiracy, but it’s not. This is called a false positive or a Type I error.
Keep in mind that because conspiracy theories are so varied, there is no single set of criteria by which to accurately assess the plausibility of every conspiracy theory. So think of this 2×2 matrix as a heuristic, a rule of thumb, a way to approach the problem of evaluating the truth about a claim that isn’t infallible, but it’s also not a guess random, starting with the fact that the conspiracy theories fall on a spectrum of plausibility.
The following is a 10-point checklist for a “Plot Detection Kit”. The more a conspiracy theory exhibits the following characteristics, the less likely it is to be a real conspiracy.
1. Patternicity. Conspiracy evidence supposedly emerges from a “dot-connecting” pattern between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these links except for the conspiracy allegation, or when the evidence fits other patterns just as well – or randomly – the conspiracy theory is likely false.
2. Agency. The agents behind the conspiracy model would need almost superhuman power to pull this off. Most of the time, in most circumstances, people, agencies, and corporations are not as powerful as we think. If the conspiracy theory involves superpowered agents, it’s probably wrong.
3. Complexity. The conspiracy theory is complex and its success requires a large number of elements brought together at the right time and in the right order. The more elements involved and the trickier the timing of the sequence in which they must come together, the less likely the conspiracy theory is to be true.
4 people. The more people involved in the conspiracy theory, the less likely it is to be true. Conspiracies involving a big number of people who would all need to keep their secrets quiet usually fail. People are incompetent and emotional. They screw up, chicken out, change their minds, have moral scruples. Conspiracy theories treat people as automatons or Manchurian candidates functioning as programmed robots carrying out their orders. It’s unrealistic.
5. Grandiosity. If the conspiracy theory encompasses a grandiose ambition for control over a nation, economy, or political system, and especially if it aims for world domination, it is almost certainly false. The larger the plot, the more likely it is to fail for the reasons of complexity and people above.
6. Scale. When the conspiracy theory moves from small events that could be true to much larger events that have much lower probabilities of being true, it is most likely false. Most real conspiracies involve very specific events and targets, such as insider trading on Wall Street, price fixing in an industry, tax evasion by a corporation or individual, government aid to a political ally in a country and, yes, the assassination of a political leader, but always with the narrow aim of seizing power or ending tyranny.
7. Significance. If the conspiracy theory assigns disturbing and sinister meanings and interpretations to possibly innocuous or insignificant events, it is most likely wrong. Again, most conspiracies are narrowly targeted and only matter to those who will benefit or be harmed by them. Most real conspiracies don’t change the world, although there are exceptions, as we’ll see in the chapter on the conspiracy that started World War I.
8. Accuracy. If the conspiracy theory mixes facts and speculation without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or factuality to the elements of its claim, it is likely to be false. The conspirators are notorious for sprinkling a handful of verifiable facts among a vast array of conjectures and suppositions, which blur reality and confuse listeners into believing there is more to the theory than there is. Actually.
9. Paranoia. The conspiracy theorist is extremely and blindly suspicious of any government agencies or private corporations, suggesting a lack of nuance in understanding how the world works. Yes, sometimes “they” are really there to get you, but usually not. When you combine the above elements into a conspiracy theory, almost always what looks like an ominous conspiracy is, in fact, either random or has a much more prosaic explanation.
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10. Falsifiability. Conspiracy theorists generally refuse to consider alternative explanations, dismissing all evidence that does not confirm the theory and blatantly seeking only evidence that confirms what has been said. a priori been determined as the truth. Going back to Karl Popper and the line drawn to the falsifiability of a claim, if a conspiracy theory cannot be falsified, it is probably false.
To these factors we must add one more: the type of country or society in which the plot is supposed to take place. Open, transparent, and free liberal democracies make it more difficult to achieve a conspiracy because of the apparatus in place to prevent the formation of illegal or immoral cabals to cheat the system (think of all the checks and balances devised by the founders of the United States – it was various forms of political conspiracies that concerned them), whereas closed, autocratic societies protect and even permit conspiratorial shenanigans, and in some cases the government itself is the most dangerous conspiracy facing the citizens. And researchers have found that conspiracy theories about government are particularly prevalent in autocratic societies, although they are not voiced for fear of reprisal.
As the 2024 election approaches, keep this in mind, as Holocaust deniers continue to claim that conspiracies are afoot unless their party wins. We could see another January 6, 2021 insurrection event if too many of us accept a false conspiracy theory as true.