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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Back to the drawing board

A while back, I was interviewed by Robert Chazz Chute on his online show The Cool People Podcasts, and I was asked an interesting question.

A number of interesting questions, actually, but one specific one stands out.  Chute asked me if my dedication to skepticism and evidence-based argument had ever shown me to be wrong about something I previously believed to be true.

I said, "Sure," but when pressed, the only examples I could think of were fairly low-key, such as when I found out that low-level laser light can stimulate wound healing, something that initially sounded like woo to me.

But that's not really the same as having a prior belief overturned.  So I came up empty-handed, which was a little awkward, although I did maintain that if even my deepest-held beliefs were shown to be false by hard evidence, I would have no choice but to revise my worldview.

I had a more interesting opportunity to walk the talk yesterday, when I came across a new scholarly study of conspiracy theorists,  a topic near and dear to my heart.  I have claimed more than once that I thought that the heart of conspiracy theories was a desire to find meaning in chaos -- that any pattern, even a horrible one, was better than there being no pattern at all.

Which conclusion was completely unsupported by Sebastian Dieguez, Pascal Wagner-Egger, and Nicole Gauvrit of the Department of Psychology at the University of Fribourg.  Their paper, entitled "Nothing Happens by Accident, or Does It?  A Low Prior for Randomness Does Not Explain Belief in Conspiracy Theories," found no correlation between belief in conspiracies and a belief that things can't happen at random.

Here's how Dieguez et al. explain their findings:
Belief in conspiracy theories has often been associated with a biased perception of randomness, akin to a nothing-happens-by-accident heuristic.  Indeed, a low prior for randomness (i.e., believing that randomness is a priori unlikely) could plausibly explain the tendency to believe that a planned deception lies behind many events, as well as the tendency to perceive meaningful information in scattered and irrelevant details; both of these tendencies are traits diagnostic of conspiracist ideation. In three studies, we investigated this hypothesis and failed to find the predicted association between low prior for randomness and conspiracist ideation, even when randomness was explicitly opposed to malevolent human intervention.  Conspiracy believers’ and nonbelievers’ perceptions of randomness were not only indistinguishable from each other but also accurate compared with the normative view arising from the algorithmic information framework.  Thus, the motto “nothing happens by accident,” taken at face value, does not explain belief in conspiracy theories.
I was pretty surprised by this, largely because I was so certain that I was on to the root cause of conspiracy theories.  But apparently, the Truth-Is-Out-There Cadre are no more likely to see meaning in noise than the rest of us.

So what, then, does unite the True Believers?  Because they have some pretty wacko ideas, and those have to come from somewhere, you know?  Just in the last few days, we have had:
This last one generated the greatest number of wackos coming out of the woodwork, and resulted in comments like the following:
What people fail to take into account is the molecular destabilization and rapid metamorphosis that occurred when the the pyramids power source failed.  This likely occurred in the time of the flood of Noah.  So the Noah’s pickup truck hypothesis is not that far fetched as it would seam [sic].

Look this up: Limestone, Concrete and Granite are the same material only in different metamorphic states.  I think when the pyramids went haywire things got very molecularly unstable for a period of time.  This theory explains all the crazy imprints in what should have been solid rock found all around the world. Particularly in granite.

In fact perhaps that is what actually weakened the crust enough to open “the fountains of the deep” (reference: hydroplate theory). 
For anyone who has been slacking the pyramids where [sic] something like a Tesla coil energy system and at one time likely housed a power source known as the Tetragrammaton.
So yeah.  What would make someone believe that, if not a desire to make sense of a world that is mostly composed of chaos?  I mean, that's honestly why science appeals to me; it puts at least some sense of order to the randomness, gives us deep explanations of the perplexing, provides a heuristic for winnowing out fact from fiction.

And science has a pretty good track record for being right.  Unlike crazy talk about Tesla coils powering pyramids to cause "molecular destabilization."

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But if Dieguez et al.'s research bears up under scrutiny, the appeal of conspiracy theories must lie elsewhere.  Are they generated from fear, from the same primitive drive that makes us imagine monsters when we hear noises at night?  Is it a misfire of our application of the scientific method, where we try to apply the rules, but make mistakes in judging evidence or constructing arguments, and come to the wrong conclusions?

Or is it something else entirely?

That's another thing about science; you can't engage in scientific thought without being willing to say the dreadful words, "I don't know."  Once your hypothesis is shown to be unsupported, it's back to the drawing board you go.  But there's nothing so very bad about that, honestly.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "Scientists are always at the drawing board.  If you're not at the drawing board, you're not doing science.  You're doing something else."


  1. Absent external pressure, people don't keep doing things that don't serve them somehow. What do these folks get out of it?

    First, they're part of a community of fellow conspiracy believers. This is especially attractive for people who are otherwise isolated.

    Second, they get to feel superior for "knowing" things others don't. They also get to throw around technical-sounding language that makes them sound intelligent.

    Third, their world is full of wonders and juicy secrets.

    And, woo thinking works on the principle that if you can concoct a reasonable-sounding explanation involving vibrations, principles you haven't tested, references to actual scientific theories that you don't understand in detail, the occasional fact for seasoning, and anecdotes, that's good enough. So benefit number four: there's no math involved, no testing of hypotheses. You get all those other benefits without the hard, boring work of actually doing science (or, in the case of conspiracies, research).

    (Side benefit for conspiracists is you get to have righteous indignation for the way the cabals are bamboozling people and getting away with murder. Gets the blood flowing!)

    It's a lazy person's way to experience a world of endless wonder, have friends, and feel superior to the clueless masses.

    That, at least, is my current hypothesis.

  2. If the TSA has been proven to be useless at stopping terrorism, why do they exist? Is a willful delusion / facade a conspiracy? They know it doesn't work but they foist it up anyhow.
    What word would help define the systematic denial of anthropogenic climate change by Republicans?
    Rhetorical: A CONSPIRACY

    Those who deny climate change think that YOU are the nutty Conspiracy Theorist. (Yes, it's a weak analogy)

    I guarantee that there is situation you have heard of, that you believe is straightforward, that is actually a conspiracy. The odds almost demand it. Which scenario do you think it might be, and how adamant may have been to the contrary?

    Conspiracies are so rampant in our government, they are literally crippling it. Good luck pinning down the "real" ones.

    If they can gouge you for more money, convince you to vote against your own best interests, get you to believe that they can channel your dead grandpa, that eating Cheerios everyday will fix your heart, or that Nigerian Princes want to give you millions.... Everyone is trying to dupe everyone else with conspiracies of all manner of complexity.

    Lieing is one of the first complex mental exercises we learn.

    Everyone is always conspiring.
    I can paint with a broad brush too.

  3. Conspiracy theories are a sort of conspiracy in their own right. A group of people decide on an outcome and start looking for proof of what they already accept as fact.