The New Age of Conspiracies

Last week, the most famous monster in the world has finally been discovered: Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, has been found. It is nine meters long, with a long and truly monstrous neck. The abomination currently resides some 200 meters below the surface of the water, where it is waiting for no one in particular. Because, you see, it’s a film prop.

The prop was built for a Sherlock Holmes movie back in 1969, and unfortunately sunk below the surface and never came back up. It has now been discovered by an underwater drone equipped with sonar imaging, operated by Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

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Nessie, underwater. Source: Kongsberg Maritime

This is an amusing story, of course, but it holds tantalizing hints to the future of conspiracies in a world that is rapidly becoming transparent. In a not-so-distant future, we are going to have drones and satellites mapping out every piece of land on Earth, whether it be at the North Pole, in the deepest Amazonian jungles, or on the bottom of the ocean. We are going to be better acquainted with the Earth than ever before.

Robotic drones will not be the only ones to watch over the Earth. We will take part in that venture, too.

In the past, if you would’ve observed a UFO in the sky, or an Abominable Snowman with big feet, or a vampire draining its victim’s blood, you would’ve needed to run away swiftly to get your bulky camera and obtain a proof for the thing you saw. Today, everyone has a smartphone with a high-quality camera in their pockets. Citizens document police brutality, gang wars, and random acts of kindness using these devices. And yet, despite the fact that suddenly everyone can record anything they see, no reliable evidence for the existence of UFOs, yetis or (living) Loch Ness monsters has come up.

The lack of evidence, in an age when everything becomes known, does not seem to bother the general public. A 2012 survey revealed that 36 percent of the American population believe that UFOs are real, which is approximately the same number as uncovered in a Canadian 2008 survey. This is hardly surprising: we’ve only had smartphones for nine years now, and society has not yet reshaped its myths around the idea that anything that happens in the corporeal world is bound to be recorded and analyzed.

In the long term, however, cryptozoology – the search for mythical creatures – will become obsolete and subject to ridicule, even more than it is today.

But conspiracy theories will live on. In fact, they may even become more powerful than they currently are.

 

The Future of Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories have no formal definition accepted by all, but for the purpose of this post we can accept Sunstein and Vermeule’s definition that they are –

“…an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.”

Conspiracies are often used by human beings to explain why bad things happen. We are, after all, rational animals, and we look for reasons for everything that happens around us. We search for patterns and for stories that fit those patterns. For example, we have a tendency towards proportionality bias – our automatic belief that big events, like the JFK assassination, must be related to big causes and can’t be the result of a work of a single madman.

Conspiracy theorists also rely on cherry picking – taking a large volume of information and picking out of it the pieces which support a certain pattern while ignoring the rest.

In the future, we will have an abundance of data. However, data does not lead automatically to insights, knowledge and understanding. These rely on careful analysis of the data, usually performed by experts who understand how to suggest and falsify hypotheses and how to differentiate between authentic readings and noise. The plethora in data, therefore, will lead to plenty of ‘evidence’ which conspiracy theorists will use to support their ideas.

 

Why Should You Be Concerned?

Why should this development concern you? Because conspiracy theories can proliferate rapidly in the online world and on social networks. If you’re a business or a government agency that releases data to the public, you should be aware that some conspiracy theorists will mine that data someday. When they do – they will find some correlations there that they could use to support their ideas. And when they find those and post them online, you can expect twitstorm, a Facebook massively shared post, or a viral Youtube clip – all of which will severely damage the reputation of your organization.

To counter that threat, businesses and government agencies should start developing a new role: an anti-conspiracy officer. It is not enough to rely on the new-media experts to calm a twitstorm – they know how to use the medium, but they don’t have the necessary understanding of the content. Anti-conspiracy officers will need to work together with the new-media experts to counter new conspiracy theories by providing correct analyses of the existing data, and presenting them in a way that everyone can understand.

Today, we have public intellectuals – calling themselves Skeptics – as such anti-conspiracy officers acting on behalf of the public. These include Steven Novella, Neil deGrasse Tyson, PZ Myers, and many others. As far as I’m aware, they do not receive compensation for companies or from governments for their time and effort handling conspiracy theories on social networks in real-time.

Maybe it’s time to start funding these skeptical exercises in a more organized way.

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The Skeptic Trumps. Source: The Reason Stick

Conclusions

We gain better and more powerful tools to record and document everything that’s going on in the world, but most of humanity still does not have the necessary thinking tools and methods to derive valuable and truthful insights out of the collected data. Conspiracies will likely thrive in this environment, but we can hinder their proliferation and growth on the internet by educating the public.

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Conspiracy Theories – Past, Present and Future

A few years ago I gave a short lecture about conspiracy theories, in which I described the HAARP: High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. I explained about some of the purposes and goals of the project, most of which dealt with influencing the ionosphere to aid radio wave transmission. The lecture was recorded and uploaded to Youtube (in Hebrew, so I’m not going to link to it here), and apparently was picked up by some conspiracy theorists – particularly chemtrails activists – as proof that I support and endorse their ideas.

The said conspiracy theories are long and convoluted, but most activists seem to agree on one point: a shadow organization is controlling all governments, and is using climate and weather engineering technologies to spread toxic materials throughout the environment. These toxic materials infect people with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and occasionally also assert some form of mind control to calm the distraught and dying population. Why are shadowy government / the Illuminati / the Free Masons doing all that? The most detailed version of the tale I’ve found was that they want to eliminate most of the human population on Earth, in order to return us to the olden days of sustainability. And that, in an incredibly minimalized nutshell, is the conspiracy theory behind chemtrails.

 

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Chemtrails: are ‘they’ poisoning us all?

 

Needless to say, these ideas are very far away from my own. And yet, my own reading about conspiracies in the past and present has led me to raise some uncomfortable questions of my own. How can we know, for one, when a conspiracy theory has a grain of truth in it, or when it’s completely false?

Real Conspiracies – Past and Present

The truth is that there is some basis to believing in conspiracy theories. Governments can act maliciously against the common citizen, or against a group of citizens – and even hide evidence of their wrongdoings. Some conspiracy theories from the past that turned right include –

  • The government is spying on us: the belief that the U.S. government is on after us all was confirmed when Snowden released highly classified documents that proved once and for all that several large software and hardware companies secretly provided the government with access to their data. Using this data, the government could essentially read every e-mail sent by targeted individuals, and follow their every move online. As it turns out, this spying program is still taking place today.
  • The government infects us with diseases: during the 1940s, Guatemalan physicians had deliberately infected healthy Guatemalan citizens with syphilis, under the guidance and funded assistance of the United States. The documentation of the experiments was only discovered in 2005, but there is no doubt today that this “dark chapter in the history of medicine”, as the NIH director called them, actually occurred. In fact, the U.S. has submitted a formal apology for these incidents.
  • The government is controlling our minds: this one is trickier than the rest, since one has to define ‘mind control’ before trying to figure out how the government is actually doing that. It’s pretty obvious that even democratic governments certainly influence our paradigms and belief systems, and are constantly trying to shape us into becoming more productive and respectful of each other, since that serves the greater good of both the government and the citizens themselves. That is why governments are funding public schools, after all, and I see very few people complaining about that form of mind control.

A more delicate form of ‘mind control’, more accurately described as “subtle persuasion”, is beginning to be utilized mainly by political candidates. By making use of big data collected about citizens, Obama’s team of data scientists have pinpointed the “highly persuadable” voters during the 2012 elections campaign, and targeted them specifically during the campaign. As Sasha Issenberg describes in her article in MIT Technology Review, the data scientists have even figured out how best to approach individuals and persuade them according to dozens of different parameters. This is a form of persuasion that should be viewed with much suspicion, since the data scientists are in effect finding the best ‘keys’ to use for every person’s locked cognition – and who among us does not have such keys? So yes – in a way, politicians do try to control our minds, but in very delicate and subtle ways.

Obviously, this is a very short list of past and present conspiracy theories that turned out real after all, or have never been denied, in the case of the third one. There are many others, and I would encourage you to read Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies, if you want to know more about them. For now, it is enough for us to understand that yes – occasionally, conspiracy theories can turn out very real indeed.

That said, there are differences between the popular conspiracy theories, and the ones that have turned out real. We can identify those differences in order to figure out which conspiracy theories should be considered carefully, and which we can ignore.

Real vs. Spurious Conspiracy Theories

There are four claims or assumptions that are exceedingly common in conspiracy theories, and should raise alarm bells in our minds when we hear them. The presence of any one of the following in a conspiracy theory should make us doubt its authenticity. These are –

  • Claims unsubstantiated by science: we’re talking here about the more spurious claims – witchcraft and ion-waves controlling people’s minds, for example, or claims about the government engineering the global climate, when environmental scientists are still scratching their heads and trying to understand just how we can negate global warming.

 

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Science: not a liberal conspiracy. Taken from Pinterest. Originally attribted to Carl Sagan.
  • Claims requiring extremely unlikely collaborations: is there truly a ‘shadow government’ striving for a single goal? It would have to include sets of sworn enemies like Iran and Israel, North Korea and South Korea, India and Pakistan. Do you believe that none of the politicians from more than a hundred nations, their assistants, and all of those involved in international relations, have never exposed this kind of an overarching government to the media? I almost wish for the existence of such a shadow government, since it’ll show that nations can get along after all for a single purpose.
  • Claims that require the people in charge to put themselves and their families in danger: one of the top claims of the chemtrails conspiracy theories is that the government is trying to poison us all from above. Such an approach would obviously also injure the people in charge and their families, who are breathing the same air as we are. It really takes suspense of disbelief to the maximum to believe that people would deliberately cause harm to themselves and their families.
  • Extreme and inexplicable clumsiness in execution: why does the ‘shadow government’ want to spread Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and infections all around? Why is the government “dropping pathogens and other, more threatening materials, aimed at making us sick” in Edward Group’s words? One of the more popular explanations is that ‘they’ want to minimize world’s population. But if that’s the case, why use Alzheimer’s disease, which mainly disables the elderly? Why cancer – a disease correlated with old age? And why use diseases that make people ill for a very long time until they die, while forcing their relatives to take care of them – thus damaging the world’s economy? It’s difficult to believe any organization sophisticated and efficient enough to keep the original plot secret would flounder so badly when it comes to execution in such inefficient ways.

You can see that in all three real conspiracies I detailed above, none of these three assumptions takes place. In all three cases there is a valid scientific basis behind the conspiracy theory, the collaborations between the ‘plotters’ and the executioners are plausible, and when somebody gets harmed (as in the case of the syphilis experiment), it’s never the perpetrators of the conspiracy. Last but not least, the methods for execution of the conspiracy largely make sense and are as efficient as can be considering the scientific and technological limitations.

 

The Chemtrails Test

How does the chemtrails theory stand when tested for these three warning signs? Not well at all. The idea that governments mind-control or infect the population with diseases using volatile compounds spread from above does not stand up to scientific scrutiny (1st warning sign). Even if the government could do that, it seems like an extremely clumsy execution (4th warning sign): why should the government repeatedly spread toxic materials in the air, in the most noticeable way possible, instead of doing it just a few times at low altitude where such materials would have more effect? Why not spread the materials in drinking water, or in foodstuff?

These claims seem even more bizarre when one realizes that transmission of pathogens and/or mind altering drugs through the air will definitely cause injury to the families of decision makers, as they breathe the same air everybody does (3rd warning sign). And last but not least: execution of such a plan would require collaboration between a large number of entities (2nd warning sign): scientists, airplane pilots, and even diplomats, politicians and heads of states from all over the globe. It seems extremely unlikely that such a collaboration could occur, or be kept under shrouds for long.

 

Conclusion

It’s important to understand that conspiracy theories occasionally do turn out real, at least partially. The ‘weirdness factor’ of the theory does not necessarily exclude it from rigorous deliberation, since the future always seems weird to us from our viewpoint in the present (see Failure of the Paradigm for more on that). However, we can differentiate between certain, more plausible, conspiracy theories, and others that are much less plausible – and therefore require more evidence before we can consider them seriously.

In this post I highlighted four warning signs that could help us steer clear of certain conspiracy theories, unless their advocates provide us with much more significant evidence than they currently have. These warning signs apply to conspiracy theories about aliens and alien abductions, to anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, and yes – to the chemtrails theories as well.

Twenty or thirty years from today, we will likely look back at some of the conspiracy theories of the past, and recognize in hindsight that a small number of them had some merit. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be the theory about chemtrails.