Conspiracy Theories – where do they come from?

By Michael Edmonds 16/01/2013 20

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



20 Responses to “Conspiracy Theories – where do they come from?”

  • Interesting what you say about conspiracies. In modern physics we have Einstein’s relativity which goes against Occam’s razor. Also has been modified several times to account for the holes in his theory.
    True mankind can’t keep a secret that is why the man who invented the 20th century Nikola Tesla is now being talked about and his theories (all based on practical work) explored.
    Fact .. JP Morgan(now one of the most influencial Banks on the planet) and Westinghouse made Millions if not billions off his work.
    Fact … Telsa’s work on electromagnetic waves has been suppressed.
    A quote from the great genuis of last century “All EM radiation is a photonic stream – NOT a wave with transverse fields.”-Dr.Nikola Tesla
    Tesla stated in 1919 – “The Hertz wave theory of wireless transmission may be kept up for some while, but I do not hesitate to say that in a short time it will be recognized as one of the most remarkable and inexplicable aberrations of the scientific mind which has ever been recorded in history.”-Dr.Nikola Tesla

    • Derek,
      I don’t think it is correct to suggest that Einsteins’ relativity goes against Occam’s razor. The theory of relativity was accepted because it better fits the evidence, therefore it fits the concept of Occam’s razor perfectly.

  • Now…why did I know that Derek was going to mention Tesla?

    Also Michael is correct. Occam’s Razor doesn’t say that one should prefer an incorrect and simpler theory over a more accurate but more complex.

    The Ptolemaic system is elegantly simple but suffers the all so fatal flaw of being geocentric. The Copernican is a more complex model of the solar system, but has the merit of actually being correct.

    Occam’s Razor applies when two theories have the same evidential support, but one is more complex than another.

  • hahahahaha! Case study in conspiracy writing.

    Fact – a claim is not a “fact” especially if you can’t even be accurate to an order of magnitude.

    Fact – there has been over 100 years of research and development since Tesla. Certainly, our ability to detect, control and manipulate electromagnetic fields across a very wide range of frequencies (ooooh, Tesla would roll in his grave…) indicates that the underlying concepts are quite well understood, thanks anyway.

    As for Tesla “inventing” the 20th century – you may want to look up hyperbole in a good dictionary.

    Confusion or denial of factual or historical matters, including oversimplification or misunderstanding of facts; made up facts; and lionisation of an individual are actually key indicators of a conspiracy fantasy.

    Thanks for the object lesson Derek.

  • Just remember who gave you the AC induction motor with every single electrical appliance you use(as you turn on the switch for power). Also remember him when you turn on a radio or TV, or use a remote control. Yes look up at the wires to you house and remember he designed that system, he was also designing a system without wires to (for the future now).
    TESLA with his experimental knowledge in physics was
    far ahead of the theoretical physics of his time.
    Ok you wise guys tell me for all his genius (AC power generation, remote control, radio) why no Nobel prize?
    Why no mention about his genius when all we here is Einstein, as for facts Einstein, ( with first a static universe then a contracting one) is only theory ?
    I knew I would get a bite with this one..
    ” 100 years of research and development since Tesla” Tesla died 1943 so where do you get the 100 years from (he worked until he died) ?
    Interesting you bring Ptolemay into it (yes the world was thought to be round before it was thought to be flat).
    Occams Razor doesn’t include dark energy does it ?
    Whereas radiant energy has already been proved.

    • Derek,
      What do you actually want done for Tesla, statues on every corner? Most people/scientists are aware that he made significant contributions to science, even if one of two of his ideas did not eventuate – which is fairly standard for any world renowned scientist, not all ideas pan out.
      I’m not sure you grasp the idea of Occam’s razor. If dark matter proves to be the best explanation for current observations then it should be tentatively accepted as the most likely theory. Science is always tentative and ready to adapt if a current theory is replaced by one which better explains current and previous observations. Of course some theories have some much data and observations to support them that it may be quite unlikely that a better theory will develop.
      With regards to Tesla not getting the Nobel prize, who knows why this didn’t happen. Throughout history many brilliant scientists have missed out of the Nobel prize for various reasons – politics and death for example.

  • My problem is this
    We live in an energy dependant world
    We consume fossil fuels and then complain about doing damage to the environment.
    We ignore any solutions rather than pursue them (eg the cold fusion debate that has a stack of evidence to support it )
    Deny a natural form of electricity (radiant) as a myth, instead of pursuing it (I with simple cheap equipment have found it through experimenting)
    We seem to have no desire or ambition to become oil free.
    Concentrate our economic resources to the tune of billions trying to justify a theory such as the Higgs, instead of working on an energy solution.
    Believe me there are many.
    We talk about how long the supplies will last for as if we will be doomed when it runs out.
    Maybe your right there is no conspiracy perhaps we are just collectively stupid.

    • Derek,
      You are making some rather dubious assumptions.

      First there IS working going on looking at alternative enrgy sources. Many scientists are concerened about this and are working on the problem – from solar, hydro, wind, tidal and fusion energy research some results are being achieved.
      How this connects with Tesla, I have no idea. Your previous comments at sciblogs suggest you think useful research by Tesla has been ignored or concealed. I would suggest that this research that you seem focused on has been examined but found wanting. Tesla was a great and fascinating man but this does not mean all of his ideas were right. Because many of the great minds in science do work at the very edge of what is known sometimes some of their ideas come to nothing – this does not make them a bad scientist, rather it shows they are truly pushing the boundaries.
      Darcy makes an important point – theoretical scientific research and applied scientific research are not mutually exclusive. Both fields feed off each other and push each other to new breakthroughs.
      New theoretical breakthroughs often stimulate new practical applications, while new practical applications can produce results that need a new theoretical explanation. This is how progress in science occurs.
      You mention your experiments with radiant energy. If you have worked out an efficient, non-polluting way to produce usable energy, which can be scientifically verified then brilliant. I’m sure the energy companies will be very interested. But I’m not sure what you mean by radiant energy being a myth, I’m sure I learnt about radiant energy in high school?

  • Derek, you might find toning down the absolute statement helpful in getting people to agree with you:
    “We ignore any solutions rather than pursue them”

    Not true, Michael has already given a list of non-petroeum based technologies that are being developed yet you continue to insist that if it not your pet theories that are being investigated that we aren’t doing anything.

    “We seem to have no desire or ambition to become oil free.”
    Has been pointed out is a political not scientific issue.

    “Concentrate our economic resources to the tune of billions trying to justify a theory such as the Higgs, instead of working on an energy solution.”

    As if basic research and applied research are mutually exclusive. Even though the “theories” you propose would require a but-load of basic research to understand them and how they might fit into our current understanding of the world.

    “Maybe your right there is no conspiracy perhaps we are just collectively stupid.”

    no comment.

  • Hi Derek – just two points – 100 years of research since Tesla because, to be frank, in the period between 1910 and his death he was a crank.

    And secondly, you are not “experimenting” with anything in the scientific sense. You have almost zero understanding of the proven scientific principles that are the foundation you could truly experiment from (I’m still waiting for the basic transformation equation for your cold fusion “experiment” you promised several months ago). As well, you don’t have an open mind as to the outcome of your efforts – you appear convinced that the hypothesis is correct, and failures are the result only of shortcomings in technique. Given both of these issues, anything you are doing at the moment is more truthfully described as playing.

    Any other major points are covered by the other posts above.

    Tesla did some interesting stuff – no doubt. He was a very clever guy, but also demonstrably a nutjob in his later years. Just as an aside – he’s not alone in that. You’ll no doubt be aware that Einstein was less than productive in his later years…

    • Ashton,
      Great point about the latter years of some scientists. Many readers may be aware of what is referred to as the “Nobel disease” ( where Nobel laureates start push the boundaries of science so far they disappear into the void of pseudoscience.
      It is very unhealthy to engage in hero worship of scientists (or anyone else for that matter). Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has areas of bias or irrational thinking, even the great minds through out history.

  • Just to follow on from Ashton’s point it being 100 years of research since Tesla.

    Those proposing pseudoscientific ideas may often claim they are ahead of their time and that no-one understands their work, and will often refer to examples of where scientists have been rediculed for proposing ideas which have turned out to be right. In such cases, the time between them being ridiculed and the idea being accepted is usually little more than a decade, because their are always other scientists who will test strange new ideas. For example within about a decade of being criticised for their suggestion that helicobacter pylori causes peptic ulcers, Dr’s Warren and Marshall had their idea accepted by the medical establishment and within 25 years the had been awarded a Nobel prize for this work.
    Although the first suggestions of continental drift and plate tectonics were rubbished around 1915 but the 1950’s and 60’s these ideas were becoming widely accepted.
    It seems very unlikely to me that viable useful science could be discarded and not revived in one way or another over 100 years. As the scientific knowledge builds and new scientific tools are developed the time between an idea being thought to be folly and it being proven to be true should be shrinking. Furthermore, I think more scientists these days have learnt from the past and are less likely to say this or that idea is “rubbish” unless they have substantial evidence to disprove the idea.

  • Just a couple of clarifications.

    Geocentrism & heliocentrism have nothing to do with the whether the earth is round or flat. Erathosthenes had already calculated the circumference of the (spherical) earth centuries before the Ptolemaic astronomical system. It is whether the sun orbits the earth (geocentric) or the earth orbits the sun (heliocentric).

    Michale also makes some apt points about science. There are often antecedents to new discoveries that never originally took off for lack of evidence. Endosymbiosis took Lynn Marguilis several attempts to get published, but it was anticipated by Russian geneticists decades earlier. Until the code for DNA was cracked, there was no means to really test the hypothesis.

    Plate tectonics is a fuzzier fit IMO. Wegner’s proposal suffered the defect of having a mechanism for continental movement (continents plowing over the crust like ocean-liners) that was demonstrably wrong. Once the mechanism for moving continents was discovered in the 1950s, it quickly one adherents outside the US, and slowly within :)

    • Thanks Claire for pointing out my error calling it Sunny Hook not Sandy Hook. I’ve made the corrections.

  • “in the period between 1910 and his death he was a crank.” . I take it you know the history of Wardencliffe and his Colorado springs research. What is Haarp (apart from the old story of communicating with submarines, when science has proven the damage ULF rays do to water vapour)?? but another of Tesla’s ideas. Directed energy weapons well another form of weaponry that is being researched (plenty of money for research when it comes to killing other humans).
    To get back on to conspiracy I introduce the “Papp” engine and Richard Feynman pulled a chord out the machine didn’t like it spat out some parts and an assistant was killed. He proclaimed it has probably got a battery in it and was therefore sent into pseudoscience. But this has been worked on now for over 40 years and is soon to be released.
    There has been research done into this phenomenon by independent researchers and is found to be valid.. FACT.. Now where is mainstream science is this world changing technology (cowering behind the petrol pumps and lack of research funds available for energy research crying pseudoscience)?
    Wake up people and smell the roses.. No just go back to sleep and believe everything you are told (consume oil ,get fat, buy I Phones) and don’t even bother to research it.
    ” you are not “experimenting” with anything in the scientific sense. You have almost zero understanding of the proven scientific principles that are the foundation you could truly experiment from ” WTF !! That shows your arrogance and ignorance at the same time. I have knowledge in 7th form physics, I also have practical experience in producing cold electricity. I know it behaves differently to ac and dc. I have been experimenting so fuck you and your belief in a fair and true system. Get your head out of the books and out of your a.. and see what is happening in the world.
    Excuse my french Ashton but really..
    Seems to be people like you are quick to try and shoot a man down but have nothing to say on valid points.
    Don’t even start me on Cold Fusion because you will refuse to see the scientific evidence when it is in front of your eyes.


    • Derek,
      “I have been experimenting so fuck you and your belief in a fair and true system.”

      Please avoid swearing on my blog. It adds no value to the conversation and just weakens your arguments.

      “But this has been worked on now for over 40 years and is soon to be released.”

      I look forward to seeing these results when they are released.

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