Conspiracy theories have become ubiquitous. There seems to be no topic of political or social controversy immune from allegations that one or more viewpoints represent conspiracy theories. Any viewpoint assigned that dreaded label can be dismissed summarily as the diametric opposite of the truth.
That’s a terrible problem on a number of grounds. It’s become such a pressing problem, however, that it’s worth a series of essays trying to understand it.
Let’s start with the obvious: First, the overbroad dismissal of legitimate concerns at odds with conventional wisdom is a time-honored mechanism for entrenching authority and imposing thought crimes. Second, the mere fact that conspiracy theorists believe something doesn’t make it false.
Making sense of these observations requires understanding that “conspiracy-theoretic thinking” refers to a flawed mode of building from evidence to conclusions. Conventional wisdom may incorporate such illogical reasoning—leading to the most dangerous of all conspiracy theories, namely those that guide public policy. At the same time, the existence of an illogical path from evidence to conclusions does not preclude the existence of a logically sound path to a very similar conclusion.
In today’s discourse, “conspiracy theorist” has become but one more pejorative that far too many people hurl indiscriminately at their ideological opponents. Lost in all that noise and name calling are some very basic and very important questions: What are conspiracy theories? What makes them so dangerous? Why have they proliferated in the 21st century?
Let’s start with definitions. A conspiracy theory, name notwithstanding, is not a theory about a conspiracy. A “conspiracy,” in both its technical legal sense and its broader colloquial sense, is little more than an agreement among two or more people to commit a criminal (or even a merely inappropriate) act. Three underage stoners shoplifting a six pack are conspirators. So is a presentation team defrauding investors. So are the members of a fifth-grade class pranking their teacher.
Such conspiracies are real, common, and quite dull. Any attempt to disentangle the contributions of the participants, or even to assign collective liability, represents a theory about a conspiracy. That’s absolutely not what the “conspiracy theory” pejorative means.
No, what makes conspiracy-theoretic reasoning so dangerous has nothing to do with the underlying conspiracy. In fact, no conspiracy is even necessary for the danger to be present.
What makes the thought processes so pernicious is a different property: unfalsifiability.
Conspiracy theoretic thinking is not a casual pursuit. Conspiracy theorists tend to be extraordinarily well informed about picayune details relevant to their theories. The problem lies entirely in how they process their immersive data experience. Any competent conspiracy theorist can divide all relevant evidence into two buckets: Evidence that appears facially consistent with the story they’d like to tell elevates their confidence in the story’s truth (as it should). Evidence blatantly inconsistent with their story is taken as proof of a coverup—and therefore also heightens confidence in the story (as it most certainly should not).
Now coverups, like conspiracies, are both quite real and quite common. They happen all the time. But they must not be overblown. Videos of a meeting in which the members of an organization commit to lying about some past activity provide evidence of both a conspiracy and a coverup. Members of an organization uniformly insisting that some charge against them is untrue is emphatically not evidence of a coverup. That’s not to say that it’s not a coverup—it might be—but the most likely explanation is that the allegations are false, and everyone in a position to know about them knows that they’re false.
The true danger behind a conspiracy theory is that it’s impervious to actual data. It thus takes on a religious dimension, existing far more as a matter of faith than as a credible explanation of a scientific, sociological, political, or economic phenomenon. Real conspiracy theories are dangerous because they combine high stakes issues, illogical reasoning, and faith-driven beliefs.
The principles of logical reasoning are well understood—perhaps best explained in the statistical field of Bayesian probability:
Suppose you’re trying to understand some contested phenomenon: Is apocalyptic climate change imminent? Did Donald Trump win the 2020 election? Did Covid-19 originate in a Communist Chinese lab? Is America overrun with systemic racism?
Any fair, objective analysis of any such question should begin with the observation that genuine objectivity is effectively impossible. We all arrive at every question bearing a lifetime of accumulated beliefs, biases, casual studies, and overheard rumors. All fair-minded people arrive at all such controversial questions assessing their probability of truth as greater than zero (though not necessarily much greater than zero) and less than one (though not necessarily much greater than one). In Bayesian terms, these probabilities assigned prior to any specific analysis are called “prior probabilities.”
Prior probabilities aren’t terribly interesting by themselves. They tend to tell you far more about the person assigning them than about the underlying question. Excitement arises only with the arrival of new evidence. Each new, relevant datum provides useful information about the probabilities under consideration as it arrives. Without getting into the math necessary to calculate the actual probabilities, the directional effect of evidence is clear. All supportive evidence pushed the probability upward towards one; all negative evidence pushes it down towards zero.
Consider, for example, an attempt to analyze a climate model predicting a prolonged drought for a particular global region occurring within a span of five years. If those five years produced a prolonged drought precisely where predicted, any fair assessment would increase the probability that the model is accurate—and thus enhance the credibility of the model’s other predictions. If those five years in the studied region produced heavy rains and low temperatures, on the other hand, the probabilities assigned to both the model and its other predictions should decline.
It’s important to note that these directional changes apply to all fair assessments. A skeptic who had assigned the model a probability close to zero need not concede that the occurrence of a predicted drought supports a model validity close to one—but the “posterior probability” of validity should have risen. Similarly, an advocate for the model’s accuracy need not discard confidence in the model because of its predictive failure—but the posterior probability should be lower than the prior.
In contrast to rational, scientific thought, conspiracy theoretic thinking violates this basic premise. A rational scientist committed to apocalyptic climate change will adjust his probability assessments downward after a failed prediction—then turn immediately to other experiments and predictions with the potential to bring it back up. A conspiracy theorist committed to apocalyptic climate change will deny the relevance of the failed prediction—and may even increase his posterior probability thanks to the misplaced importance that “enemies of the climate” have placed on this “obviously flawed” study.
This same pattern holds true with each of the topics that contemporary conspiracy theorists have embraced. The problem—and the danger—has far less to do with the theory itself than it does with the conspiracy theoretic imperviousness to logic, reasoning, and evidence. The true danger behind today’s conspiracy theories is that they define extraordinarily narrow religions clinging tightly to a single article of faith.
To the conspiracy theorist, any question capable of “embarrassing” the theory represents a personal attack on core identity. Rather than processing a poll suggesting that Donald Trump was less popular than believed among a particular swing-state demographic to reduce (not eliminate) the probability of a stolen election, the conspiracy theorist will take is as an assault. Worse, a true conspiracy theorist will often interpret statements that are largely-but-not-fully supportive as attacks. An assertion that Biden won the Presidency because the rules were changed unfairly and in his favor is heretical; any suggestion that Biden won anything, even a rigged game, runs counter to the faith. “The election was rigged to guarantee Biden’s victory” is a very different claim from “Trump won the election.” There is significant clear evidence supporting the former proposition. Evidence for the second remains far more limited and controversial.
The problem of dangerous, irrational conspiracy theoretic reasoning is thus hardly restricted to one set of issues or one part of the political spectrum. Its prevalence on certain sides of certain issues, however, makes rational analysis almost impossible. That’s when conspiracy theoretic thinking becomes most dangerous. The danger thus arises from neither the theory itself nor the intensity of committed believers; the danger is proportional to the popularity of the theory. Any conventionally held belief impervious to evidence is far more dangerous than any fringe conspiracy theory because the more popular a viewpoint, the more likely it is to shape policy. Policies impervious to evidence and learning tend to generate massive human suffering.
The two most dangerous sources of conspiracy-theoretic poison in contemporary America thus involve apocalyptic climate change and systemic racism—though various belief systems about Covid have yielded untold misery in record time.
Though far from everyone endorsing these theories is a conspiracy theorist, an easy test presents itself: Any advocate capable of devising an experiment and specifying what types of results would be accepted as negating evidence has escaped the trap of conspiracy-theoretic thinking. Any advocate incapable of describing such an experiment has likely fallen prey to the diseased thinking of the conspiracy theorist.
To appreciate the genuinely dangerous conspiracy-theoretic thinking at the heart of these issues, ask yourself the following:
When was the last time the world’s leading climate scientists presented an experiment whose results could go either way? When have they said, in effect, “Finding X will confirm our beliefs about the climate. Finding Y will suggest that we’ve made some fundamental errors and need to rethink our understanding of the phenomenon.”
When was the last time one of the advocates for systemic racism described the sorts of behavior (from any group), policies, or outcomes that—if visible—would suggest that systemic racism is far less of a problem than they currently believe?
Such announcements and experiments are central to the march of science. They should be just as central to the pursuit of social science. They’ve fallen into disfavor among today’s academic, professional, and educated classes—for reasons and in ways I discuss in detail in The New Civil War. In areas like climate change and systemic racism, such questions are now treated as dangerous blasphemies—and the scientists who ask them as blasphemers. That’s a tell-tale sign that what is emanating from these esteemed communities is illogical, dangerous, conspiracy theories leading to debilitating policies and badly misallocated resources—not science.
It’s also a good way to assess various bits of advice vis-à-vis Covid policy. But that’s a lengthy essay in and of itself, and this one has gone on quite long already. We’ve thus reached a good place to end this first essay in the occasional series. Watch this space for more on these topics.
For more information about Bruce D. Abramson & American Restorationism, visit: www.BruceDAbramson.com
To learn more about how America’s elites destroyed the republic, see: The New Civil War: Exposing Elites, Fighting Utopian Leftism, and Restoring America (RealClear Publishing, 2021).
To learn more about the ideology driving today’s anti-American leftism, see: American Restoration: Winning America’s Second Civil War (Kindle, 2019).