I’ve just come across several media reports (here and here) that some people are now claiming that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which claimed the lives of 26 people, never happened (or at least did not happen in the way the media and government portrayed it).

Such claims are disturbing and must be incredibly painful for those who lost loved ones in this horrific event. However, conspiracy theories seem to be something that arise quite regularly, often proposing the most bizarre ideas. For example, the claims that the 9/11 building collapses were engineered by the American govt,  that President Obama was not born in the USA and that the moon landing was faked. (Is is just me or do an awful lot of these conspiracies tend to arise in the USA?).

So why do conspiracy theories arise?

I found quite a good summary at Skeptical medicine, but I’m going to pull out a few key points to discuss here. I would certainly recommend reading the skpetical medicine link.

1) Those promoting the conspiracy often have an intense distrust of the government, so they actively look for minor discrepencies in information as “proof” of conspiracy.

2) Conspiracy theorists overlook the fact that mistakes and anomalies occur in every day life. In the case of Sandy Hook, some “proof” is based on claims that the reports of eye witnesses differ significantly. This is an every day fact of law enforcement -  research is showing that eye witness reports can be very unreliable, particularly in times of intense emotional stress.

3) Theorists also fail to realise that coincidences and unlikely events sometimes occur.

4) They cannot grasp the concept of Occam’s razor (that the simpliest explanation which fits the facts, is likely to be the right one) in favour of convoluted plots.

5) They overestimate the ability of human beings to keep a secret. If the moon landing had been faked it would have required the complicity of thousands of people. Virtually impossible.

6) In building a conspiracy around minor anomalies and genuine mistakes, they ignore large amounts of data that contradict their conspiracy theory.

7) Often the conspiracy supports the underlying beliefs of the theorist, for example, the Sandy Hook conspiracies seem to be coming from those who argue against gun control measures.

Conspiracy theories will probably be with us so long as there are people who prefer to let their imagination and distrust of authority trump rational thinking, particularly where the conspiracy supports a (political) agenda or ideology. I guess it is just up to the rest of us to challenge them when they do arise.

I can’t help but conclude with this Mitchell and Webb clip which points out the ridiculousness of moon hoax conspiracies

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