Conspiracies, of course, do occur. But, of course, not every theory is true. If yours isn’t built upon the following fallacies, perhaps it’s legit. Warp writes:
Most conspiracy theories don’t make sense nor withstand any scrutiny. They usually involve operations so immense that it’s basically impossible for them to be kept secret, and all the proof given by conspiracy theorists usually have a very simple explanation (usually much simpler than the explanation given by the theorists).
Yet conspiracy theories are very popular and appealing. Even when they don’t make sense and there’s just no proof, many people still believe them. Why?
One big reason for this is that some conspiracy theorists are clever. They use psychology to make their theories sound more plausible. They appeal to certain psychological phenomena which make people to tend to believe them. However, these psychological tricks are nothing more than logical fallacies. They are simply so well disguised that many people can’t see them for what they are.
Here are some typical logical fallacies used by conspiracy theorists:
Appeal to the “bandwagon effect”
The so-called “bandwagon effect” is a psychological phenomenon where people are eager to believe things if most of the people around them believe that too. Sometimes that thing is true and there’s no harm, but sometimes it’s a misconception, urban legend or, in this case, an unfounded conspiracy theory, in which case the “bandwagon effect” bypasses logical thinking for the worse.
The most typical form of appealing to the bandwagon effect is to say something along the lines of “30% of Americans doubt that…” or “30% of Americans don’t believe the official story”. This is also called an argumentum ad populum, which is a logical fallacy.
Of course that kind of sentence in the beginning of a conspiracy theory doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t prove anything relevant. It’s not like the theory becomes more true if more people believe in it.
Also the percentage itself is always very dubious. It may be completely fabricated or exaggerated by interpreting the poll results conveniently (eg. one easy way for bumping up the percentage is to interpret all people who didn’t answer or who didn’t know what to say as “doubting the official story”). Even if it was a completely genuine number, it would still not be proof of anything else than that there’s a certain amount of gullible people in the world.
That kind of sentence is not proof of anything, yet it’s one of the most used sentences in conspiracy theories. It tries to appeal to the bandwagon effect. It’s effectively saying: “Already this many people doubt the official story, and the numbers are increasing. Are you going to be left alone believing the official story?”
Appeal to rebellion
Conspiracy theories in general, and the “n% of people doubt the story” claims in particular, also appeal to a sense of rebellion in people.
As Wikipedia puts it, “a rebellion is, in the most general sense, a refusal to accept authority.”
People don’t want to be sheep who are patronized by authority and told what they have to do and how they have to think. People usually distrust authorities and many believe that authorities are selfish and abuse people for their own benefit. This is an extremely fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
This is so ingrained in people that a sentence like “the official story” has basically become a synonym for “a coverup/lie”. Whenever “the official story” is mentioned, it immediately makes people think that it’s some kind of coverup, something not true.
Conspiracy theorists are masters at abusing this psyhcological phenomenon for their advantage. They basically insinuate that “if you believe the official story then you are gullible because you are being lied to”. They want to make it feel that doubting the original story is a sign of intelligence and logical thinking. However, believing a conspiracy theory usually shows, quite ironically, a great lack of logical thinking.
This is an actual quote from a JFK assassination conspiracy theory website. It’s almost as hilarious as it is contradictory:
In the end, you have to decide for yourself what to believe. But don’t just believe what the U.S. Government tells you!
(In other words, believe anything you want except the official story!)
“Shotgun argumentation” is a metaphor from real life: It’s much easier to hunt a rabbit with a shotgun than with a rifle. This is because a rifle only fires one bullet and there’s a high probability of a miss. A shotgun, however, fires tens or even hundreds of small pellets, and the probability of at least one of them hitting the rabbit is quite high.
Shotgun argumentation has the same basic idea: The more small arguments or “evidence” you present in favor of some claim, the higher the probability that someone will believe you regarldess of how ridiculous those arguments are. There are two reasons for this:
Firstly, just the sheer amount of arguments or “evidence” may be enough to convince someone that something strange is going on. The idea is basically: “There is this much evidence against the official story, there must be something wrong with it.” One or two pieces of “evidence” may not be enough to convince anyone, but collect a set of a couple of hundreds of pieces of “evidence” and it immediately starts being more believable.
Of course the fallacy here is that the amount of “evidence” is in no way proof of anything. The vast majority, and usually all of this “evidence” is easily explainable and just patently false. There may be a few points which may be more difficult to explain, but they alone wouldn’t be so convincing.
Secondly, and more closely related to the shotgun methapor: The more arguments or individual pieces of “evidence” you have, the higher the probability that at least some of them will convince someone. Someone might not get convinced by most of the arguments, but among them there may be one or a few which sounds so plausible to him that he is then convinced. Thus one or a few of the “pellets” hit the “rabbit” and killed it: Mission accomplished.
I have a concrete example of this: I had a friend who is academically educated, a MSc, and doing research work (relating to computer science) at a university. He is rational, intelligent and well-educated.
Yet still this person, at least some years ago, completely believed the Moon hoax theory. Why? He said to me quite explicitly that there was one thing that convinced him: The flag moving after it had been planted on the ground.
One of the pellets had hit the rabbit and killed it. The shotgun argumentation had been successful.
If even highly-educated academic people can fall for such “evidence” (which is easily explained), how more easily are more “regular” people going to believe the sheer amount of them? Sadly, quite a lot more easily.
Most conspiracy theorists continue to present the same old tired arguments which are very easy to prove wrong. They need all those arguments, no matter how ridiculous, for their shotgun argumentation tactics to work.
Straw man argumentation
A “straw man argument” is the process of taking an argument of the opponent, distorting it or taking it out of context so that it basically changes meaning, and then ridiculing it in order to make the opponent look bad.
For example, a conspiracy theorist may say something like: “Sceptics argue that stars are too faint to see in space (which is why there are no stars in photographs), yet astronauts said that they could see stars.”
This is a perfect example of a straw man argument. That’s taking an argument completely out of context and changing its meaning.
It’s actually a bit unfortunate that many debunking sites use the sentence “the stars are too faint to be seen” when explaining the lack of stars in photographs. That sentence, while in its context not false, is confusing and misleading. It’s trying to put in simple words a more technical explanation (which usually follows). Unfortunately, it’s too simplistic and good material for straw man arguments. I wish debunkers stopped using simplistic sentences like that one.
(The real explanation for the lacking stars is, of course, related to the exposure time and shutter aperture of the cameras, which were set to photograph the Moon surface illuminated by direct sunlight. The stars are not bright enough for such short exposure times. If the cameras had been set up to photograph the stars, the lunar surface would have been completely overexposed. This is basic photography.)
Wait a minute… I believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. And couldn’t “shotgun argumentation” also sometimes be called “a lot of evidence?” Hmm… Read more here, and just don’t blame everything on one group you feel good about hating.