Familiar as I am with the circularity of discussing conspiracy theories, I nonetheless recently fell into what ended at 4am as a 5 hour exchange with a friend, X, who happens to hold to some of these ideas. The theories propounded ranged from ancient chinese moon-landings to 9/11 conspiracy plots and young earth creationism. Unlike in previous conversations on similar matters, I began to notice some common threads running through the various theories, and have since been able to mount a logical objection that would act to counter a number of the claims made. It has been suggested in the past that the rate at which new or modified conspiracy theories are churned out makes refuting their factual claims a full-time job. In light of this, it seems that a defence which cuts to the core of a swathe of these theories, without contesting specific claims, may be the ideal approach in equipping people -especially the young- for their inevitable encounters with them.

Perhaps the most significant common thread I noticed running through the stories was the presence of some level of governmental underhandedness. Although any occasional reader of the news will be familiar with examples of this, like MP expenses claims and unkept campaign-trail promises, the scale of underhandedness required for the continued existence of these theories as internally consistent historical revisions is spectacularly larger. As an example, when discussing young earth creationism with X I was presented with claims that fossils/skeletons (the terms appeared to be used interchangeably) of ‘nephilim’, the offspring of angels and humans, had been unwittingly uncovered during archaeological digs. Naturally, I asked for the name of the research journal in which these groundbreaking discoveries were published. To my surprise*,  X informed me that within days of discovery, secret teams were dispatched by the government of whichever country (probably the USA) to remove the findings from the site of the dig and to remove any written reference to the find from the apartment of the archaeologist.

It should be clear that claims of this nature, i.e. claims that incorporate an effectively god-like agency as a crucial cog in their narrative structure, violate the most important logical criterion for a truth claim to be taken seriously: falsifiability. That is to say, a proponent of a truth claim must be able to outline the kind of discovery that would invalidate their claim. Developmental biologist PZ Myers recently accused psychologist Steven Pinker of turning evolutionary psychology into “an amorphous and meaningless grab-bag which can swallow up every thought in the world”¹; PZ Myers is here highlighting another example of unfalsifiability. In practice, unfalsifiable claims are dismissed outright. You likely would reject the claim that you are being trailed by a stalker so surpassingly skilled at his art that you could never find him despite your most determined diligence. For the same reason, any claim asserting that a maximally knowledgeable and powerful agency actively identifies and destroys all evidence contradicting its preferred narrative, such that all counter-evidence has been relegated to the shadiest suburbs of the internet, should be rejected as failing to meet the logical standards of a truth claim. In this way, the unavoidable result of the unfalsifiability of omniscient agency stories is that accepting them requires us to base a belief in the unreliability of our most credible scientific sources on the unverifiable claims of our least credible sources.

I mentioned that in the days following the discussion I mounted a logical objection to counter several of the theories expounded. I chose this approach, as opposed to countering the theories on factual grounds, purely due to the nature of conspiracy theories as memes (in the genetic sense). Genetic memes are ideas that spread from brain to brain, mutating in content and subsequently increasing their chances of surviving intact until they can replicate again. The evolution of conspiracy theories displays both Lamarckian Darwinian traits. Lamarckian in that they can mutate without replication in response to a challenge (imagine an individual giraffe growing a longer neck in order to reach higher leaves), and Darwinian in the tendency for successful mutants to multiply more than unsuccessful mutants**. David Aaronovitch describes this phenomenon particularly clearly in ‘Voodoo Histories’, his book on the subject of conspiracy theories: “the ideas have a determined flexibility whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be accommodated within the theory itself.”² It is increasingly clear in light of the information revolution that the internet has become the primary feeding tube for conspiracy theorists. And yet paradoxically, this revolution has given us, conspiracists included, an unprecedented ease of access to the facts. The optimists who predicted that the rise of the internet would herald the fall of conspiracism, like those false prophets of modernity who saw the demise of quackery in the rise of medical science, must be disappointed today. But despite these past failures of prediction, I am optimistic that the tools of reason and critical thinking, with a little help from the internet, can protect our minds from these explanatory sinkholes.

* I was surprised by the decision of X to resort to an omniscient agency conspiracy theory because many creationists, both young and old earth, maintain that a plausible case for creationism can be built from the evidence available to us. Michael Behe and Ken Ham stand out as examples.

** For further discussion of memes, see ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins

¹ – http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2013/08/08/repudiating-scientism-rather-than-surrendering-to-it/

² – David Aaronovitch (2010) Voodoo Histories: How conspiracy theory has shaped modern history. Page 10.