Conspiracy theories: how to spot them

March 14, 2024

Photo by gabyt.ph at Pexels edited by Finn Souter

It’s more important than ever to get our facts right: Aidan Monks explains

Covid-19 is a fraud. Vaccinations are tracking devices. 9/11 was an inside job. Leading Democrats ran a child sex ring out of a pizza shop. The moon landing was staged to win the space race. The CIA assassinated former president John F. Kennedy.

During this period of heightened political turmoil, the need to discern fact from conspiracy has become increasingly paramount.

We are living in the golden age of conspiracy theories. A recent poll revealed that 25% of people in the UK believe Covid was a hoax!

It has been over three years since the January 6 United States Capitol attack. A CNN poll reports that 69% of American Republican voters still support the Stop the Steal movement. This campaign alleges that left-wing Democrats rigged the 2020 presidential election against Donald Trump.

It’s crucial to point out that the terms ‘conspiracy’ and ‘conspiracy theory’ mean different things, although both are commonly misconstrued in everyday speech.

You’ve probably heard someone say, “Conspiracists invent fake news” or “you shouldn’t believe conspiracies.” The truth is conspiracies do happen, and many theories about conspiracies have ended up being proved true. The most famous example is the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of US President, Richard Nixon in 1974.

Big-C conspiracy theorists present arguments filled with logical fallacies

In many ways, these conspiracy theories provide ample evidence to justify criticism and scepticism of powerful entities and their cover-up initiatives. In one of the most influential studies of conspiracy theories, Quassim Cassam, uses capitalisation to differentiate between standard conspiracy theories (with a small c) and Big-C conspiracy theorists who present arguments filled with logical fallacies.

For example, a Flat Earther might argue that the planet is flat because the sun shines directly down on it. This statement is problematic for many reasons but we could equally reframe it; we know the sun shines directly down on us because we know the planet is shaped like a flat disc. The issue here is logical circularity.

Other common fallacies in big-C conspiracy theories include the non-sequitur, which means the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. An example of this can be seen in Apollo 11 conspiracy theories:

• First premise: film footage exists of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

• Second premise: in the footage, the shadows are not parallel, which they should be since the Sun is the only source of light in space.

• Conclusion: Stanley Kubrick, director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, manufactured the footage in a NASA studio to win the space race for the USA.

Hopefully, we can spot the non-sequitur between the second premise and the conclusion. The addition of Stanley Kubrick is totally unjustified from the argument before the conclusion, but it does flesh out and establish the previous premise.

You may notice another flaw in the Apollo 11 argument. The second premise contains a factual error. It claims the shadows in the moon landing footage aren’t parallel, but this has been easily debunked. Conspiracy theorists overlook professional photos taken on Earth showing the same effects, often intentionally for creative reasons. Essentially, they either ignore counter-evidence or fail to pursue it.

Exposing conspiracy theories is crucial in 2024, the most significant election year in recent political history

The Conspiracy theorists seem like experts due to their wide focus, yet this broadness doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The information lacks selectivity and critical thinking. The same can be said of multiple mainstream ‘intellectuals’ who employ similar tactics, often seen in programmes on the Daily Wire, extending their content across hundreds of books and lectures.

Many critics would argue that a rational argument is a self-critical one, one that is open to discussion. Conspiracy theorists, however, are the opposite because adopting a conspiracy belief means the end of critique. A conspiracy belief involves believing in both the conspiracy and the cover-up, leading to the belief that mainstream information sources, like the BBC, are untrustworthy by default.

This produces a psychological disposition in conspiracy theorists, as explained by Karen Douglas, a professor of Social Psychology. Conspiracy theorists feel empowered by ‘knowledge’ and being in the ‘right’ while dismissing others as ‘wrong’. Their distrust of opposing information prevents them from being proven wrong. Psychiatrists link Big-C conspiracy thinking to diagnosable disorders like narcissism, making Conspiracy theorists challenging and a ‘pain in the ass’ to argue with.

If you spot logical fallacies like non-sequitur ‘leaps’ or circular reasoning, or if the information lacks self-criticism, sourcing and scepticism, you likely have a ‘Conspiracy Theory’ on your hands.

In a world where this brand of thinking has such cataclysmic effects on politics, public safety and the economy, it’s important to grasp the distinction between valid critique of power structures, including conspiracies. It’s highly dangerous counterpart leads to indoctrination, polarisation and terror.

2024 will be the biggest election year in political memory, with over half the world going to the polls, including the UK and USA. Exposing and debunking conspiracy theories has never been more necessary.

 

Aidan currently studies at the University of St Andrews studying English and Philosophy. He is an avid reader, writer, and film-watcher. His favourite film is Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman, best book is Nadja by André Breton, and, as well as anything by Daft Punk, he loves Lou Reed’s album Street Hassle.

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