How to spot a conspiracy theory: Contrails

10 Ways to Spot a Conspiracy Theory [With Examples]

Conspiracy theories have been a pervasive part of public discourse, increasingly so in the age of the internet. While they often masquerade as critical thinking or alternative viewpoints, conspiracy theories can be dangerous, fostering mistrust, division, and in extreme cases, inspiring real-world violence. Thus, it’s vital to develop the tools to distinguish between legitimate concerns and unfounded conspiracy theories. Recognizing the difference involves more than just applying common sense or maintaining a blanket agnosticism. Instead, it requires a more nuanced understanding of the underlying characteristics that typify these theories.

After scrutinizing the nature of conspiracy theories and how they stand in stark contrast to real conspiracies, we can distill a set of criteria that can serve as a guideline. These criteria help us to unmask the illusion that conspiracy theories often present, revealing them for what they truly are-distortions of reality. Below, we delve into ten ways to spot a conspiracy theory. These indicators will not only help you differentiate between reasoned skepticism and unfounded speculation but also provide a framework for evaluating the myriad claims you might encounter in today’s information-saturated world.

10 Ways to Spot a Conspiracy Theory When You See One

1. They Have an Overarching Explanation

One of the most telling signs of a conspiracy theory is its tendency to provide an overarching explanation for a vast array of events, often sweeping across different time periods, cultures, and even continents. While it’s tempting to think that a single root cause can account for complex social, economic, and political phenomena, this is rarely, if ever, the case in the real world.

Actual conspiracies usually involve specific actors, within a particular context, aimed at achieving a certain outcome. These are constrained by time, location, resources, and the conflicting interests of the people involved. In contrast, conspiracy theories often promote a narrative where everything is connected in a grand, unified scheme. This is a red flag: real-world events are messy, multifaceted, and often the result of various intersecting causes and effects. When you encounter a theory claiming to have a one-size-fits-all explanation for numerous unrelated events, be skeptical. It’s a hallmark of conspiracy thinking rather than rational analysis.

Example:

Consider the classic conspiracy theory about the “New World Order,” which alleges that a secretive, powerful elite is manipulating events to establish a global totalitarian government. This theory often tries to link various occurrences (political decisions, economic shifts, social unrest, and even natural disasters and pandemics) across different countries and time periods as being orchestrated steps toward this end goal. It suggests that everything from the formation of the United Nations to economic recessions to public health measures are all interconnected dots in the grand design of a shadowy, omnipotent cabal.

In contrast, a real conspiracy is usually far more limited in scope. Take the Watergate scandal in the United States, for instance. This was a specific plot involving certain members of the Nixon administration who tried to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. It had a limited timeframe, specific people involved, and a particular illegal act to cover up. The conspiracy was also uncovered and resulted in legal consequences for the perpetrators, something that rarely happens with the grand schemes proposed by conspiracy theories.

The difference is striking: one is an all-encompassing theory trying to explain multiple facets of life globally, and the other is a contained, verifiable event with real-world consequences.

Conspiracy theory: the New World Order
Conspiracy theorists often claim that “they” are so powerful that “they” control world governments, manipulate global economies, and even influence the weather or the course of natural disasters. Yet, oddly enough, they seem incapable of silencing the very YouTube videos, social media shares, or blog posts that “expose” their grand plans.

One of the glaring inconsistencies in theories about powerful elites, like the “New World Order,” is the purported paradox of their omnipotence. These theories often claim that these secret cabals are so powerful that they control world governments, manipulate global economies, and even influence the weather or the course of natural disasters. Yet, oddly enough, they seem incapable of silencing the very YouTube videos, social media shares, or blog posts that “expose” their grand plans.

This inconsistency is a major red flag. If a group is powerful enough to orchestrate global events and manipulate entire populations, it would logically follow that they would also have the capability to remove or discredit any public information that threatens to expose them. The very existence of widely accessible “exposés” that claim to reveal their schemes undermines the theory of their all-encompassing power. It’s an inherent contradiction that further discredits the notion of a monolithic, all-powerful group controlling every aspect of our lives.

2. Conspiracy Theories are Unfalsiable

The concept of unfalsifiability is another major indicator that you’re dealing with a conspiracy theory rather than a reasonable argument. In the scientific method, a theory or hypothesis needs to be falsifiable, meaning there should be a way to prove it wrong through evidence or experimentation. Conspiracy theories often evade this criterion.

Any evidence that appears to discredit the theory is not seen as refuting it; instead, it’s reinterpreted as further proof of the conspiracy’s depth and the cunning of its architects. This kind of circular reasoning creates a situation where the theory becomes irrefutable, not because it’s been proven correct, but because its proponents have set it up in such a way that it can’t be proven wrong. This is a major red flag: theories that can’t be disproved are not theories grounded in rational or empirical thought.

Example:

Consider theories surrounding the 1969 Moon landing. Some conspiracy theorists claim that the landing was staged by the U.S. government. When presented with extensive evidence, such as moon rocks, telemetry data, testimonials from people involved in the mission, or even China’s lunar laser ranging experiments (these experiments use the signals of laser pulses reflected by the lunar retro-reflector planted by the U.S. crewed lunar mission Apollo 14), they often argue that this evidence was also fabricated as part of the conspiracy.

Some even go so far as to say that the existence of such “strong” evidence against their theory proves just how deeply the conspiracy runs, suggesting that only a very powerful entity could produce such convincing “fake” evidence. This logic makes the theory unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence can ever disprove it because all evidence is reinterpreted as part of the conspiracy itself.

Apollo 14 laser ranging retro reflector (LR3)
A close-up view, taken on February 5, 1971, of the laser ranging retroreflector (LR3), which the Apollo 14 astronauts deployed on the moon during their lunar surface extravehicular activity. Chinese lunar ranging experiments use this reflector. Image source: NASA

3. They Use Selective Sourcing

Selective sourcing is another hallmark of conspiracy theories. Proponents often rely on anecdotal evidence, cherry-picked data, or information taken out of context to substantiate their claims. Instead of engaging with a full range of information, they selectively choose sources that support their preconceived narrative and ignore or dismiss any evidence that contradicts it. This practice undermines the intellectual rigor of their argument, as any valid theory should be able to withstand scrutiny from multiple angles and incorporate a broad spectrum of evidence.

Moreover, when they do cite sources, these are often other conspiracy theories or unverified accounts, creating an echo chamber that further entrenches their beliefs. By not adhering to the principles of balanced research and critical evaluation, conspiracy theories demonstrate a lack of scholarly integrity and objectivity, which is a red flag for anyone interested in discerning the truth.

Example:

For example, consider the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism. Proponents of this theory often cite a discredited study from 1998 that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. Even though this study has been thoroughly debunked and numerous comprehensive studies have shown no connection between vaccines and autism, proponents ignore this overwhelming body of evidence. Instead, they focus on anecdotal accounts or isolated reports that align with their viewpoint, dismissing vast amounts of scientific research to the contrary. This selective sourcing perpetuates misinformation and undermines public health.

Conspiracy theory: vaccination
Vaccines do not cause autism. This is one of the most harmful conspiracy theories ever. Image source: SELF MagazineYoung girl about to receive a vaccine in her upper arm, CC BY 2.0, Link

4. Vagueness and Ambiguity

Vagueness and ambiguity serve as powerful tools in the construction of conspiracy theories. When claims are intentionally nebulous, it becomes nearly impossible to challenge them effectively. This malleability allows conspiracy theories to be adapted or reinterpreted to fit almost any narrative or set of “facts,” no matter how conflicting they may appear.

Rather than providing specific, testable claims that can be scrutinized and verified, conspiracy theories often present their arguments in such a way that they can accommodate almost any new information that comes along. This not only insulates the theory from criticism but also allows it to evolve and persist over time. The lack of specificity creates a situation where any critique can be hand-waved away as misunderstanding or ignorance, thereby maintaining the illusion of validity.

Example:

Consider the conspiracy theory surrounding “chemtrails,” the belief that the contrails left by high-flying aircraft are actually chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed for sinister purposes. The claims around what these supposed chemtrails do are often incredibly vague and wide-ranging. Some proponents argue that they’re meant for weather control, others say they’re for mind control, and still others claim they’re part of a depopulation agenda. The very ambiguity around the purported purpose of chemtrails makes it difficult to definitively prove or disprove the theory.

How to spot a conspiracy theory: Contrails
Engine exhaust contrails forming behind a Swissair Airbus A340. Some conspiracy theorists believe contrails are chemicals being sprayed for nefarious purposes. By Stiopa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Moreover, because the claims are vague, proponents can easily shift their narrative to fit new information or to incorporate other, unrelated conspiracy theories. If someone points out that contrails are simply water vapor, a typical response might be that this is exactly what “they” want you to believe, and the true, nefarious purpose is still being hidden. The vagueness allows the theory to be a sort of chameleon, adapting to different contexts and criticisms while remaining essentially unchanged.

5. Persecution Complex

Persecution Complex is a recurrent theme in the realm of conspiracy theories. People who adhere to these theories frequently view themselves as the embattled few who “know the truth.” This leads to a sense that they are persecuted or deliberately marginalized by mainstream society, the media, or some secretive organization.

This feeling of organized victimization serves two key functions:

  1. First, it helps to solidify group cohesion among believers, as they feel united against a common enemy.
  2. Second, it provides a convenient mechanism to dismiss any critics or skeptical voices; if you’re not with them, you’re against them, and therefore part of the conspiracy itself.

This built-in defense mechanism makes the theory more resistant to criticism and fact-checking, as any attempt to question its validity is seen as evidence that the conspiracy is indeed real and that its critics are part of the cover-up.

Example:

Those who believe in the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an “inside job” often claim that anyone who disagrees with them is either naive or part of the conspiracy to suppress the “real truth.” In this way, mainstream journalists, scientists, or even regular citizens who refute the theory are not seen as independent thinkers but as agents who are actively trying to obscure the truth. This persecution complex reinforces the theory’s resilience against scrutiny and perpetuates a cycle of misinformation.

6. Appeal to the Authority

This is also a tactic frequently employed in the world of conspiracy theories, where dubious or even discredited “experts” are quoted to lend an air of credibility to otherwise unsupported claims. Often, these so-called experts hold fringe views that are not supported by the larger scientific community or are taken out of their areas of actual expertise.

Additionally, quotes from genuinely authoritative figures might be decontextualized or distorted to fit the narrative of the conspiracy theory. This tactic serves to bolster the theory’s credibility in the eyes of those who are not familiar with the subject matter or who are already inclined to believe the conspiracy. By anchoring the theory in what appears to be credible testimony or expertise, the theory gains a veneer of legitimacy that can make it more compelling to the uninformed or the skeptical.

Example:

You might encounter snippets of interviews with reputable scientists that might be used out of context to make it appear as though they support the conspiracy. In the worst cases, the titles and credentials of the “experts” are entirely fabricated to deceive the public. In any of these scenarios, the appeal to authority serves to mislead rather than clarify, and it’s a red flag that the conspiracy theory may not hold water.

7. They Ignore Occam’s Razor

Ignoring Occam’s Razor is a hallmark of many conspiracy theories. Occam’s Razor is a principle in philosophy and science that suggests that all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. However, conspiracy theories often defy this principle by weaving intricate, complex narratives that involve multiple parties, elaborate schemes, and hidden agendas.

These theories frequently rely on a multitude of assumptions, each of which would require its own evidence to be considered plausible. Yet, the complexity is seen as a feature, not a bug, making the theory more intriguing and drawing people deeper into its web of speculation. In contrast, simpler explanations, often supported by evidence and fitting known facts, are rejected as being too straightforward or as part of the conspiracy to deceive the public.

Example:

According to a conspiracy theory, 5G technology is responsible for a range of maladies, from cancer to COVID-19. This theory presupposes a complex, hidden agenda involving telecommunications companies, world governments, and health organizations all colluding to either spread disease or control populations via electromagnetic waves. The logistical and technological requirements to pull off such a grand conspiracy would be immense, involving tight-lipped coordination among an incredibly broad set of stakeholders.

The simpler explanation, backed by scientific research, is that 5G technology is a continuation of earlier mobile network technologies and has been rigorously tested for safety. There’s currently no credible evidence to suggest that 5G technology could cause the range of ailments attributed to it by conspiracy theorists.

Here, Occam’s Razor would guide us to dismiss the elaborate conspiracy theory in favor of the simpler, evidence-based explanation regarding 5G’s safety. Ignoring this principle in favor of a convoluted and unsupported theory is a telltale sign of a conspiracy theory in play.

8. The Lack of Peer Review

Lack of Peer Review is a significant indicator that a claim might belong in the realm of conspiracy theories rather than credible discourse. Most conspiracy theories are presented as irrefutable truths without undergoing the rigorous peer-review process that is standard in academic and scientific communities. This lack of peer review means that the evidence hasn’t been evaluated for its merit, reliability, or validity by experts in the relevant field.

In most cases, the so-called “evidence” consists of personal anecdotes, cherry-picked data, or misinterpretations of scientific studies, all intended to support a preconceived narrative. Unlike real research, which is built on a foundation of reproducible and falsifiable evidence, conspiracy theories often rely on information that is impossible to verify or debunk.

Example:

One notable example related to COVID-19 is the theory that the virus was intentionally created as a bioweapon. Proponents of this theory often cite studies or articles that have not undergone peer review as their “evidence.”

These non-peer-reviewed sources lack the scientific rigor and scrutiny that come with a formal review process by experts in the field of virology or epidemiology. As a result, they can be both misleading and factually incorrect. Claims of COVID-19 being artificially created are largely circulated through social media platforms or websites that lack credibility, further highlighting the absence of peer-reviewed substantiation.

In contrast, the prevailing scientific consensus, which is based on peer-reviewed studies, supports the idea that the virus likely has a zoonotic origin, jumping from animals to humans. This consensus has been scrutinized and tested by experts in relevant fields, adding a layer of credibility that is missing from its conspiracy theory counterpart.

9. Conspiracy Theorists Ignore Counterarguments

The tactic of ignoring counterarguments is often employed to fortify a conspiracy theory against factual scrutiny. Proponents of such theories dismiss any evidence that contradicts their claims without thorough examination.

They may label these counterarguments as “disinformation,” “fake news,” or assert that the people presenting these counterarguments are “shills” or “agents” of the conspiracy they are fighting against. This creates a self-sealing bubble of belief, where any external challenge is automatically deflected, preserving the integrity of the conspiracy theory. It also saves the believer from having to engage in critical thinking or reassessment of their views, as all opposing viewpoints are preemptively discredited.

Example:

A classic example of ignoring counterarguments can be found in the flat Earth conspiracy theory. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and a long history of knowledge proving that the Earth is a sphere, proponents of flat Earth theory dismiss any data or arguments that contradict their views.

For instance, they might ignore the fact that as far back as ancient Greece, Eratosthenes not only stated that the Earth was a sphere but also calculated its circumference with remarkable accuracy. He used basic geometry and measurements taken from two different locations to estimate the Earth’s size, a result that has been confirmed multiple times since.

When presented with such historical facts and modern evidence, like satellite imagery or physics-based explanations, flat Earthers often claim these as fabrications, arguing that there is a grand conspiracy to hide the “truth.” By refusing to engage with counterarguments or consider opposing viewpoints, they maintain their belief system without subjecting it to logical or empirical scrutiny.

The Blue Marble [Apolo 17 photo of Earth]
NASA astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans, the crewmembers of the Apollo 17 spacecraft took an iconic photo of Earth from space, at a distance of about 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles). This image is now known as the “Blue Marble”.

10. Emotional Manipulation

Emotional manipulation is a cornerstone of many conspiracy theories, often substituting logical argumentation and empirical evidence with appeals to fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The goal is to evoke strong emotional reactions that cloud rational judgment and make the theory more compelling. These tactics can be seen in the various theories surrounding things like vaccinations, 5G technology, or political events, where proponents portray an apocalyptic or dire scenario to push their agenda.

Example:

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this theory posited that the rollout of 5G technology was either causing or exacerbating the virus’s spread. Proponents of this theory often use highly emotive language, warning that 5G is a “weapon” used against the populace and that anyone could be a victim. They evoke a sense of fear and urgency by suggesting that the 5G rollout is a “silent killer” that must be stopped before it’s too late.

The use of fear and panic around public health serves to hook people emotionally, overshadowing the lack of scientific evidence linking 5G technology to COVID-19. This fear-driven narrative often drowns out rational, evidence-based arguments. Numerous scientific studies and reviews have debunked the notion that 5G technology could cause or exacerbate COVID-19. Nevertheless, the emotional manipulation inherent in the conspiracy theory continues to make it attractive to certain audiences.

Another example: anti-vaccine conspiracies frequently utilize emotional manipulation by showing misleading images or sharing heart-wrenching anecdotes that purport to show the ‘dangers’ of vaccines. They stir up fear and uncertainty about medical practices that are supported by extensive scientific research and have been shown to save lives. By manipulating emotions, they sidestep the need to provide concrete evidence or logical coherence in their claims, making it difficult for the average person to separate fact from fiction.

Real Conspiracies vs. Conspiracy Theories

Real conspiracies and conspiracy theories differ fundamentally in several ways:

  • Scope: Real conspiracies usually involve a limited set of actors and a specific, often short-term, goal. They are not overarching plots that span countries and generations.
  • Testable Hypotheses: In investigations into real conspiracies, the existence of a plot is something that can be tested, verified, or falsified based on evidence.
  • Inherent Flaws: Unlike the perfectly orchestrated world of conspiracy theories, real-world conspiracies often go awry due to human error, unpredictability, and competing interests among the participants.
  • Transparency and Accountability: Real conspiracies often come to light due to the work of investigative journalists, whistleblowers, or official investigations. They are susceptible to exposure, which is why they often fail.
  • Evidence-Based: Authentic conspiracies rely on empirical evidence. If there’s a lack of evidence, this is seen as a reason to doubt the conspiracy’s existence rather than proof of its diabolical effectiveness.
  • Diverse Causes: Real-world issues usually have multiple, complex causes. They cannot be explained away by pointing to a single group or cause, as conspiracy theories often attempt to do.

While real conspiracies are limited, flawed, and subject to exposure and failure, conspiracy theories are often grand, unfalsifiable narratives that simplify complex issues into good vs evil dichotomies.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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