Category Archives: Conspiracy Theories

The tin-foil hat brigade: the wingnuts who see conspiracies and cover-ups everywhere, from local bloggers to international gadflies who dilute the web with their claptrap.

Bad Thinkers and the Unknown Knowns


Critical thinkingI came across an interesting piece on bad thinking online recently. In it, the author argues some of the points I’ve mentioned in the past about people who believe in conspiracy theories, gossip and other online codswallop:

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.

In the piece, the author, Quassim Cassam, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, argues that the fault lies in how these people process information, not the quality or quantity of that information. They are, in other words, bad thinkers. They have intellectual vices or intellectual bad habits:

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness… negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking… Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues…

Cassam uses a fictional character, Oliver, and his obsession with 9/11 conspiracies despite evidence that all of his conspiratorial notions can be proven wrong.

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter. To say that Oliver lacks good evidence is to draw attention to the absence of eye-witness or forensic support for his theory about 9/11, and to the fact that his theory has been refuted by experts. Oliver might not accept any of this but that is, again, a reflection of his intellectual character.

But 9/11 is only one of so many of these conspiracies and bad ideas that are like pond scum on the internet. Their following can’t all stem from bad thinking. Some might be from laziness – after all, assessing a claim properly can be hard work and our brains are our body’ biggest energy user. Some people may not have the energy (couch potatoes, for example) to expend. So it’s easier to accept a claim – no matter how fatuous – than investigate it (something the media are prone to do).

Some are actual cons and deliberate hoaxes that hook the gullible. While others – like angels and ghosts – may be superstition or wishful thinking (aka faith). Other examples may simply be eccentric expressions of our personality.

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Extraordinary Claims


Extraordinary claimsAs the poster for the Centre for Inquiry notes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a popular catchphrase for the skeptical movement, but should be an intellectual policy for everyone.

Regardless of what is being claimed, it requires evidence at the same level of the claim.

Anecdote is not evidence, please note, especially personal anecdote even with the corroboration of other witnesses. People often “see” what they choose to see, and interpret events and objects according to preconceived ideas. Seeing UFOs instead of ordinary aircraft, or chemtrails instead of mundane contrails are examples of this. Evidence is something concrete; a body of facts, not simply interpretation or disingenuous claim.

The Centre lists many claims as the poster indicates – a list that continues to grow – along with a brief introduction to each: claims, evidence and conclusion. Some like leprechauns, the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, dragons and Xenu seem pretty obviously mythological or (like Xenu) totally fabricated. Others will certainly raise an argument among some religious believers  or the superstitious – angels, magic, Heaven, hell, the afterlife and similar religious topics included (it does not yet list Santa Claus, but I expect it will come)..

As RationalWiki puts it,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence was a phrase made popular by Carl Sagan. It is central to scientific method, and a key issue for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere.

The actual phrase was coined by sociologist Marcello Truzzi, but it has been around in other forms for several centuries. In his 1748 work, An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (chap. 10.4.), David Hume wrote:

In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence… No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

Simply because a lot of people believe in something, or accept it as factual doesn’t mean it is true. In a letter to Adam Smith, Hume wrote:

Nothing indeed can be a stronger presumption of falsehood than the approbation of the multitude…

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Bad News For Balderdash


Truth is truthA recent story on New Scientist gives a glimmer of hope for those of us who bemoan the swelling tsunami of claptrap and codswallop that fills the internet:

THE internet is stuffed with garbage. Anti-vaccination websites make the front page of Google, and fact-free “news” stories spread like wildfire. Google has devised a fix – rank websites according to their truthfulness.

What a relief that will be. Of course it may spell doom for the popularity of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, fad diets, racist, anti-vaccination fearmongers, yellow journalism, Fox News, celebrity wingnuts, psychics and some local bloggers – all of whose sites have an astronomically distant relationship with fact and truth, and depend instead on the ignorance and gullibility of their readers.

Page ranking has historically been based on a complex relationship of several, mostly superficial factors: links, keywords, page views, page loading speed, etc.  – about 200 different factors determine relevance and where a page appears in a search – it’s in part a worldwide popularity contest that doesn’t measure content.

Fact ranking  – knowledge-based trust – would certainly make it more difficult for the scam artists who thrive because their sites pop up at the top of a search – which many people assume means credibility. But people would actually have to pay attention to trust rankings for them to have any effect. If you’re determined to have your aura read, or communicate with your dead aunt, or arrange your furniture with feng shui, you’ve already crossed the truth threshold into fantasy with your wallet open. Fact ranking won’t help you.

A Google research team is adapting that model to measure the trustworthiness of a page, rather than its reputation across the web. Instead of counting incoming links, the system – which is not yet live – counts the number of incorrect facts within a page…its Knowledge-Based Trust score. The software works by tapping into the Knowledge Vault, the vast store of facts that Google has pulled off the internet. Facts the web unanimously agrees on are considered a reasonable proxy for truth. Web pages that contain contradictory information are bumped down the rankings.

Garbage online affecting our decisions, our lifestyles, our pinions, our ability to make appropriate judgments, our voting and our critical thinking? Not news. Back in 2004, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a story on the ‘toxic tidal wave’ of lies and deceit affecting the US presidential campaign. One of the points it makes is that we’re awash in digital content, so much so that our ability to sort it out has been hampered by the sheer volume.

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Comets, Aliens and Conspiracy Wingnuts


Image from RosettaThe European Space Agency has accomplished one of the greatest engineering and scientific achievements in human history this past week. Not only did it get a space vehicle into orbit around a comet travelling at more than 55,000 km/hr (34,000 mph), it landed a probe on the very rough surface of that comet. Outstanding, brilliant, superb… the superlatives fail me when trying to describe this event.

The Rosetta spacecraft chased Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for ten years (since March, 2004) travelling almost four billion miles (6.4 b km) to rendezvous with the small chunk of icy rock, currently about 510 million kilometres away from Earth.

The rubber-duck-shaped comet is about 2.5 miles across at its widest: a tiny body compared to even a  mid-sized asteroid, and it’s blacker than coal. Even finding it in the emptiness of space is a remarkable feat, let alone establishing an orbit around it and sending back stunning photographs. But if that isn’t incredible enough, yesterday Rosetta deployed Philae, a tiny lander, to settle on the rapidly rotating comet, to take photos and conduct experiments – a feat so remarkable it defies description.

This is the sort of scientific effort we should be celebrating worldwide, shouting about it from the rooftops. But apparently the wingnut crowd has a different view. They think it’s an alien spacecraft the ESA is secretly monitoring (with the nefarious military and secret government agencies, of course).

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theorists “identified” UFOs, towers and alien monuments, faces, radio towers and even a pyramid in the photos broadcast from the comet. The internet is polluted with this kind of nonsense.

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The Ebola Panic


Jenny McCarthyEbola has gripped the imagination of North American media and been spun into a terrifying spectre looming like a horseman of the apocalypse over us. So widespread has it become that Jenny McCarthy, one of the top wingnuts of quackery and pseudomedicine, and poster girl for the pro-measles-pro-mumps parents, felt compelled to pipe up with her own “cure,” should it spread to the USA:

Lemon juice.

Yep. Wonder how the scientists missed that one. A quick trip to the grocery store and you’re immune. Safe easy and natural!

Well, okay, she didn’t really say that. It was from a story posted on The Daily Currant, a satirical website and shared on social media as if it was a real story. Not even McCarthy is that moronic. I hope (it’s hard to tell…).

The same site also had stories titled, Sarah Palin: ‘Can Obama Stop The Ebola Zombies?’ and “Justin Bieber Hospitalized With Ebola” and Ann Coulter: ‘Give Ebola to Migrant Children’.

That doesn’t mean the wingnut crowd McCarthy belongs to hasn’t been busy spinning its nonsense. There has been the usual pile of steaming codswallop coming from the conspiracists about ebola as with chemtrails, morgellons and the New World Order. It’s been called a hoax on the loony tune sites. And on one a government population control device:

A buzzword around the internet lately, describes that the US government has either bought or created patents of a virus “called” ebola (not necessarily the same as the original from 1976), and is being used for either population control or as a bio-weapon for use on foreign powers that the government is at war with.

I know, I know: who comes up with this irresponsible, paranoid madness? (Apparently the scare/hoax/conspiracies are fueled by a profit motive… at least in part.)

The point is that ebola – a few years ago barely known outside the virus hunters of the CDC – is now a household word and a hot topic on social media. It scares people (and clearly befuddles the wingnuts). So much so that Ann Coulter, harridan for the Tea Party actually did chime in on it (although she lacks any knowledge about medicine or science to justify her comments), albeit to use it as a platform to launch another anti-Obama-pro-white-racist attack:

Conservative pundit Ann Coulter on Wednesday joined the bandwagon of right-wing critics questioning why President Barack Obama hasn’t instituted a travel ban for the African countries battling the Ebola epidemic — perhaps with the goal of preventing those who are infected from getting “free medical treatment” here in the U.S

Calling Coulter a pundit is obviously sarcasm; Salon more fittingly calls her a “professional troll.”
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Those Crazy Creationists


Alien JesusI know, I know, it’s the proverbial fish in a barrel when you critique creationists. They are just so easy to mock. But how can you help yourself when someone like Ken Ham opens his mouth in public? The media just love to pounce all over him. He must take his lessons in PR from Ann Coulter. And like with Ann, the controversy probably helps sell his books.

(And, from what I see, selling books is really what Ken is all about. But that’s not the point of this post.)*

Ken’s latest foray into looniness – a territory he has already explored well and thoroughly – came in reports of his demand for NASA to end the space program searching for signs of alien life because all aliens are going to Hell.

Well, that’s not exactly what he said. But he implied it when he wrote,

“…any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation. One day, the whole universe will be judged by fire, and there will be a new heavens and earth… An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam.”

The theological argument might be a tad complex for an audience decreasingly schooled in complex ideas and critical thinking, and increasingly schooled in wardrobe malfunctions and nipple slips as “newsworthy” content, so the media boiled it down to a rather simplistic idea. I mean, after all, if you’re saved, you go to heaven, right? So logically in the Christian cosmos where do you go if you’re not saved? Right: hell.

No, Ham didn’t use those exact words, but it’s not hard to get the inference from what he did say. (and he’s almost mild compared to some of his fellow religionists – some Christians  won’t even admit other Christians into their heaven if they aren’t of the same denomination! I suppose it’s not terribly crowded up there, and the line-up for an espresso will be short…)

Aliens, therefore, are all doomed, just as much as any Earthy sinners (not to mention those of other religions or denominations), because Jesus couldn’t save them. Why not? Because Jesus was the saviour for this world only, not other worlds. So any ETs are doomed. Q.E.D.

Well, that is if there are aliens. Ham doesn’t actually believe in them – in fact he doesn’t believe in ANY sort of life outside this planet – and roundly criticized NASA for, as he sees it, wasting millions of dollars in a futile search for non-existent alien life. According to the HuffPost:

…Ham, president and CEO of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said we probably are alone. He wrote “earth was specially created,” and the entire hunt for extraterrestrials is “really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!”

Gosh, our desperate attempt to prove a scientific fact. We’re all damned. Just like ET. Well, maybe not Ham and his fellow creationists, I presume.

To be fair, Ken made a video after his original post, this time encouraging NASA to continue its search (i.e. continue to waste money) because it would prove creationists right by not finding extraterrestrial life:

You have to chuckle over the prop. Looking for aliens in the midday sun using a hobbyist telescope. Cute.

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Chemtrails: yet more conspiracy claptrap


Clueless wingnutsA bit of simple math was used to debunk the chemtrail nonsense conspiracy recently. Over at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s website there’s a great piece explaining why there simply aren’t enough pilots, planes or chemicals for the chemtrail silliness to be true:

A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

Unless a plane could make multiple runs per day, a true chemtrail conspiracy would need 2,700 times as many 747s as have ever been constructed.

And the article continues deconstructing the numbers and shredding the conspiracy. As have so many clear-headed writers in the recent past, all of whom are ignored by the True Believers in this, the nuttiest of  notions.

I wonder if the woman holding the sign in the photo above realizes her tautology. Yes, anyone who is “aware of” (i.e. believes in) chemtrails will be sickened the same way medieval people were infected with disease by believing in demons and fairies as their cause. Belief doesn’t define truth nor does believing in an untruth make it a truth, no matter how many wingnuts believe it.

Despite all the science and the math, despite the explanations, despite careful and considered debunking by people who have experience, education, doctorates and degrees, and basic common sense, chemtrail conspiracists continue their madcap race to prove facts, science and logic don’t matter on the internet. On the internet what matters is being able to have your say, no matter how stupid, pointless or wrong. And to say it more stridently than the level-headed, reasonable folks.

It’s a race to the bottom. Who will get there first: New World Order conspiractists, 9/11 conspiracists, reptoid consipracists, Bigfoot conspiracists, anti-vaccine conspiracists… and with them run the believers in the Illuminati, angels, ghosts, creationism, flat Earth, geocentric universe, homeopathy, reptilians, Atlantis, Lemuria, UFOs? The Net is laden with such claptrap. The tin-foil-hat brigade on the march, defending people from reason.

Why do people need to believe in this stuff? Superstition and gullibility can’t account for all the believers. Nor all those folk who get hoodwinked into tagging along with the bandwagons. In part it’s because the technology of social media allows those bandwagons to roll easily along without the annoying hindrance of science, common sense or critical thinking.

Eric Hoffer wrote in his book, Reflections on the Human Condition,(1973):

One wonders whether a generation that demands instant satisfaction of all its needs and instant solution of the world’s problems will produce anything of lasting value. Such a generation, even when equipped with the most modern technology, will be essentially primitive – it will stand in awe of nature, and submit to the tutelage of medicine men.

Saner and better-educated people than I have debunked this nonsense many times in the past, and will continue to do so, but unfortunately they are outnumbered by the very vocal, very loud wingnuts who help spread this mind-eating crap. So buckle in and read the rest.

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