Understanding Science
6. Conspiracy Theories
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
Introduction
• What is a conspiracy theory?
– Restricted knowledge
– Powerful forces
– Cover-up / secrecy
– Significant implications
– Most people are completely unaware
• History
– Largely a modern invention
– Fuelled by the Internet
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
Psychological Components
• Paranoia
– False perception of persecution
– Anxiety
– Delusions
• Confirmation bias
– Seeing evidence everywhere
• Agency detection
• Fear of lack of control
– Random events are frightening
• Desire for self worth
– Meaning and purpose
– Sense of superiority / heroism
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
Immanuel Velikovsky
• 10th June 1895 – 17th November 1979
• First grand-scale conspiracy theorist
• His theories:
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Explaining Biblical stories
Invoking real-world catastrophes
Earth was once a satellite of Saturn
Venus was ejected from Jupiter
Close contacts with Mars
• Vigorously attacked by scientific community
– This aroused suspicion and increased his support
• Carl Sagan was a staunch opponent
– But urged restraint from scientists
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
The Moon Hoax Theory
• The prototype conspiracy theory
• Claim:
– The 1969 Moon Landing was a hoax
– It was filmed in a studio
– Putting a man on the moon is impossible
• Up to 20% of Americans believe this!
• Fox TV Documentary “Did We Land on the
Moon?”
• The claim is utterly absurd:
– Thousands of people involved
– Science is entirely feasible
– Soviets were close too (and accepted NASA won)
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
More Conspiracies
• Historical Conspiracies
– Holocaust denial
• New World Order
– 9/11 Conspiracy
– Shadowy Elite / Freemasons / Zionists
– Symbology
• Aliens
– Cover-up of finds
– Infiltrating government
• Assassinations
– Princess Diana
– The Kennedy Family
• Medicine
– AIDS and other diseases
– Fluoridation
– Vaccination
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
Col’s Law of Conspiracy Theories
All Conspiracy Theories are Wrong!
• Conspiracies are not plausible
– Individual scientific implausibility
– Large-scale cover-up
• Conspiracy theories and unfalsifiable
– Evidence against = evidence for!
– Self-confirming and impossible to refute
• No conspiracy theory has ever been
proven true
• Psychological causes are strong
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
Conspiracy Evidence
• Conspiracy theories are complex
– All the obvious flaws have “explanations”
• Using a subset of available evidence
– …and a fair bit of falsehood
• Stories are more seductive than data
• Anomaly hunting
– Often false anomalies
– Lack of perspective
• Emotional rejection of contrary evidence
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net
Summary
• Conspiracy theories are seductive
– Subset of the information
– Confident lies and misinformation
– Extremely detailed
– Inherently immune to disproof
• Think about both sides
– What else would the conspiracy imply?
– Get both sides of the debate
– All conspiracy theories are wrong
© Colin Frayn, 2012
www.frayn.net