You need to know a few things before reading this:
1) The BBC got into trouble last year for having a serial paedophile (celebrity DJ and charity man Jimmy Savile) about whom I wrote this post about cognitive dissonance.
2) I went to a Skeptics in the Pub talk last night given by Rob Brotherton, a PhD psychology postgrad student doing research on cognitive biases and the causal factors involved with believing in conspiracy theories. The talk on conspiracy theories and theorist (CT) from a psychological perspective was really interesting, to say the least. Showing how certain people think, and the expressing of the huge gamut of cognitive biases and heuristics involved in fallible beliefs is always worth listening to.
So, there I was with at this great talk, and at the back, constantly talking, rubbishing points under their breaths, and even (according to my mate standing next to some) threatening to go and get some eggs to throw at the talker, were a group of actual conspiracy theorists. I am not sure whether they accidentally came because they thought it was ABOUT conspiracy theories, or in order to have a ding dong. Either way, listening to their arguments was incredibly eye-opening.
I will now talk you through a conversation myself and a fellow skeptic had with one of these CTs. It was, er, INCREDIBLE.
This involves ME, FELLOW SKEPTIC (FS) and Conspiracy theorist (CT), and is an approximation of the conversation:
ME: So you believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy?
CT: Yes, and even the BBC was in on it, lying about the buildings.
FS: How so?
CT: The BBC reported that Building 7 fell down before it even fell down.
ME: Have you seriously considered alternative hypotheses? Are you sure it could not have been a mistake [Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence]? So the probability that it was a conspiracy is higher than the probability that it was a mistake?
CT: Yes. If you think it was a mistake, why have they never apologised.
FS: They have.
CT: No they haven’t.
[FS turns around, retrieves his iphone and searches online while I continue to talk to the CT lady]
ME: Have you seriously looked at the evidence which supports hypotheses that you disagree with. You are fairly emotional right now, so it seems to me that you are arguing intuitively from desire and, as Rob said in the talk, you are more likely to ascribe value to evidence which supports you theory than contrary evidence [confirmation bias].
CT: [Lots of defence of her position, none of it held tight, etc etc]
FS: Right, check this article out from the BBC [probably something like this].
CT: Oh, a BBC article! You can’t convince me with evidence from a BBC article!
FS: No, you have just accused the BBC of fabricating and being part of the conspiracy, or not apologising for the mistake. This article does so. Therefore, it disproves your comment.
CT: Ok, let me have a look.
[CT reads the article]
CT: Ah! So you love paedophiles, then!
Yes, that was it. Amazing. Being confronted with evidence that acted against her position, she resorted to one of the worst insults possible – that my fellow skeptic “loves paedophiles” due to the fact that he had accessed a BBC article to disprove the CTs accusation of the BBC. Genius.
In the course of the conversation (and it was a lot longer and more involved than reported here), she managed to:
Poison the well, ad hoc rationalise, ad hominem, appear to use confirmation bias and priority bias, shift the burden of proof, red herring and so on.
It was priceless. In fact, having never thought about CTs much before, I really came to realise that conspiracy theories are really predicated upon a lack of critical thinking, on cognitive biases and heuristics, and on fallacies.
This is what I learnt about CTs:
There is a correlation between CTs and tendencies toward psychology of a) paranoia, b) openness (to ideas etc) c) powerlessness. I think there is definitely the feeling of being morally right (that they have access to the moral truth of the matter), as well as being predisposed to support the underdog (as many people often like to do, and as conspiracy theories ooften revolve around the poor down-trodden people at the expense of the capitalists in power). There was interesting research into cognitive biases and how they affect the likelihood to believe.
Although Rob Brotherton said that conspiracy theories do not often correlate with particular society groups (there is very little data, and it is US based, but the only group in the US seemingly predisposed to have more fervent belief in CTs are ethnic minorities, particularly about ethnic CTs like Martin Luther King. There are many good reasons why this might be so.), I found it fascinating that the whole group of CTs in that night were ALL dressed the same (alternatively) etc. They were all radical liberals (hey, I’m a liberal, but…), with a tendency for (men) facial hair / long hair, alternative clothing and lifestyles (semmingly) and so on.
This is important since as soon as you see a correlation between a group of people and their beliefs, it tells you there is causality somewhere at play in influencing those beliefs. If a certain people are more likel;y to believe something, then the evidence, by deduction, takes second place. In other words, the evidence is not objectively analysed and valued, since a certain type of people are likely to believe something, given the same evidence.
The flipside is interesting. One could reply that skeptics are more likely to be male, scientists, etc etc . See my previous post on this. In this way, are skeptics just as likely to have their analysis biased? However, it is not the case, since the bias skeptics have is towards rationality and away from intuitive thinking. This was one of the psychological influences Brotherton was talking about, how people generally think either intuitively or rationally. Rational people are more likely to become skeptics, and intuitive thinkers are more likely to become conspiracy theorists, and possibly radical activists who are then more likely to take on CTs. Which is what seemed to be the case at hand.
All in all, a fascinating night. And While I am on the subject, it would be rude not to mention how awesome it is to have Skeptics in the Pub operational once more in Portsmouth. It was packed, and they were great!