Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Six impossible things before breakfast

Yesterday's post, about the ridiculous aspects of conspiracy theories, prompted a regular reader of Skeptophilia to send me a link that indicated how deep the pools of craziness go.

The link was to a paper (you can download the entire thing here) by Michael Wood, Karen Douglas, and Robbie Sutton that appeared in the January 2012 issue of Social, Psychological, and Personality Science.  Called "Dead and Alive: Belief in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories," this paper describes an experiment supporting a fantastic conclusion -- that people who believe in conspiracy theories are likely to believe simultaneously in different versions of them, even if those versions are mutually exclusive.

The set-up, which is positively brilliant, is that the three researchers asked 137 participants to take a survey ranking a variety of scenarios from "extremely unlikely" to "extremely likely."  The scenarios included various tropes from conspiracy theories, including:
  • 9/11 was an inside job by the US government
  • The moon landing was faked
  • The CIA was behind the JFK assassination
  • Global warming is a hoax
Sprinkled amongst the questions were a variety of scenarios that involved the death of Princess Diana:
  • Diana was killed by a rogue cell of the British Intelligence
  • Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed were killed by Al-Fayed's relatives, who disapproved of their relationship
  • Diana was killed by agents of the royal family to prevent her marrying an Arab
  • Diana faked her own (and Al-Fayed's) deaths in order to escape from the notoriety
Now, you would think that even the most conspiratorial of conspiracy theorists would see that whatever you believe, no two of these could possibly be true simultaneously.  But, amazingly, that isn't what the results showed.  The study supported two eye-opening conclusions, to wit:
  • If you believe in any conspiracy theories at all (e.g. 9/11 was an inside job), you are likely to believe in all of them; and
  • The higher you rank a particular version of a conspiracy theory, the higher you rank others -- even if those alternate explanations are self-contradictory.
Yes, you read that right -- people who said that it was "highly likely" that Diana was killed by members of her own family also said it was "highly likely" that she had faked her own death and was still alive.

Thinking this couldn't possibly be a valid conclusion, the researchers tried the experiment again, with a different set of test subjects, and this time using Osama bin Laden as their example.  Again, the subjects had to rank such statements as "Osama's death was falsely reported by the Obama administration; he is still alive" and "Osama was already dead by the time of the raid" -- and the researchers found a strong correlation between belief in both statements.

Well.  I hardly know what to say that the study doesn't make abundantly clear on its own.  Mostly, I find myself wondering if belief in conspiracy theories should be considered a mental illness, given that it so obviously derails rational thought.  Here is the conclusion of Wood, Douglas, and Sutton's paper:
In any case, the evidence we have gathered in the present study supports the idea that conspiracism constitutes a monological belief system, drawing its coherence from central beliefs such as the conviction that authorities and officials engage in massive deception of the public to achieve their malevolent goals.  Connectivity with this central idea lends support to any individual conspiracy theory, even to the point that mutually contradictory theories fail to show a negative correlation in belief.  Believing that Osama bin Laden is still alive is apparently no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years.


  1. I'm trying to envision the scenario where all of the Princess Diana conspiracy theories are true. To wit:

    Diana was killed by a rogue cell of the British Intelligence - okay, let's start there.
    ... were killed by Al-Fayed's relatives - so the relatives were secretly controlling the rogue cell. So far so good.
    ...killed by agents of the royal family - so okay, Al-Fayed's folks and the royal family were collaborating on this.
    ... Diana faked her own (and Al-Fayed's) deaths.
    Hah! A sympathetic member of the rogue Intelligence cell tipped Diana off about the murder plot. Diana and Al-Fayed ruthlessly substituted their doubles (all public figures of any significance employ doubles) for themselves in the car that day, and their MI5 helper broke into their dentists' offices to switch dental records. So the conspiracy -thought- they killed the princess, but actually they are now living in Tahiti.
    See, it's not so hard. It's just difficult to get the point across when all you have is multiple choice answers.

  2. Could there be a correlation between believing conspiracy theories and being really, really stupid? 'Cause I think that could explain it.

  3. We may all be missing the point here. (Warning:- there's not a lot of logic involved here!) I think what the conspiracy theorists are saying is; IF Theory A is possible, THEN Theories B, C & D are also SEPARATELY possible, NOT that all theories are possible at the same time. It's a form of Willing Suspension of Disbelief - if A is possible, then B, C, and D are also possible (separate but equal - where have we heard that before?)

    PS - Tyler's conclusions are brilliant! :-)

  4. A large passenger plane flew at roughly 500 feet off the ground, for over a mile (aeronautically impossible), on a flight trajectory that a plane of it's size should not have been capable of, piloted by a person who, at that point, had only flown prop planes... through 3 separate radar zones, replete with their own separate but equal responses to such an invasion, struck a "renovated" and mostly empty portion of the world's most securely defended building, and only left one modest hole in the side of the building, even though the most indestructible portion of the plane were it's engines (Two holes measured at appropriate distance? Nope.) Very little debris (inconsistent with every airliner crash... ever) and Rumsfeld just happens to be available for a photo-shoot carrying a body into a helicopter, even though he should have been across the campus in the war room, coordinating the response to our country under attack.

    I can't reconcile a single portion of this event.

    If Ockham's Razor is in mind, would it not be proper use to say that a military entity that has proven time and again to employ clandestine activities, would continue to do so? ...and that events could be considered conspiracy until proven otherwise? The simplest answer being that our shadowy military is... behaving shadowy once again?

    haha - "Ockham's Razor, I'd like you to meet the Devil's Advocate."

  5. Powerful men conspire. Of that, I think, we can agree.
    When attempting to ascertain which grandiose tale to take as fact, or even investigate, the devil is in the details.

    Challenging an idea, so full of holes it looks like Swiss cheese, where the science fails dismally to support the popular conclusion, is by my estimation, the application of skepticism, not the lack thereof.

    Conspiracy, by it's strict definition, is people deciding to do... something (secrecy is implied, but not required).

    Lee Harvey Oswald conspired to kill JFK.
    The Japanese conspired to strike Pearl Harbor.
    These are conspiracies. A "conspiracy theory" isn't automatically an "improbable sequence of events."

    While "conspiracy theorist" is shorthand for the litany of crackpots that make this blog as awesome as it is, some "conspiracy theorists" (take all the JFK assassination detectives for instance) made it their life's work to find out the truth... and have helped humanity come to the best conclusion possible over events that confound us.

    I've been long-winded, stating many things I'm sure your rather objective mind would say, "ummm, duh"

    But I have to ask, what makes your spidey-sense tingle?

    Is the U.S. 16th in the world in education by accident, or by design? You talk about "no child left behind" and "race to the top" and all of these rather moronic initiatives and touchie-feelie meetings you have to attend where your brain feels like it's oozing our of your ear. Does no part of you think that the "illuminati" (haha) wants to keep the populous stupid?

    Correlation doesn't imply causation... sure, but you don't need a body to convict someone of murder.

  6. I have to agree with one of the previous comments. The study appears to only support a conclusion of the subjects believing in more than one possibility, not the simultaneous belief in the facts of contradictory scenarios; perhaps in a way similar to multiple working hypotheses. Articles in science journals and the conclusions they claim, no matter how well stated, are not infallible. Perhaps a little more skepticism regarding the research article is in order?

  7. I think that the scientists conducting this test might be interested in this anecdote:

    Congress has a 9% approval rating because these individuals conspire to such a grievous extent that the public no longer trusts them.

    People are willing to accept any answer as truth, because twisting of the truth abounds.

    Will the Keystone XL Pipeline actually create 20,000 permanent jobs and lower our price at the pump? Or are the job numbers inflated and the oil destined for a port in Texas to be sold internationally?

    Where does the conspiracy end and the truth begin?

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  9. I have to agree with GeeDave and some others who support his idea that they are not sure which is true, so all are possible exclusively. I think the bottom line is people who believe in conspiracies don't really care which one is true, just that there is a conspiracy and Big Brother somehow plays a part.

    And Tyler is onto something. I think if it were possible that a combination were true, they'd be giddy. Maybe Princess Diana faked her own death because Al-Fayed's relatives, British Intelligence and the Royal Family were ALL trying to kill her.

    Still insane, but logical on some level you will appreciate after a few beers.