Category Archives: conspiracy theories

Implausible hypotheses

A day may come when I will stop talking about conspiracy theories again, but it is not this day. There is probably nothing new about conspiracy theories – they have doubtless been with us since our evolutionary ancestors gained sentience – but I fear that they are a particularly troublesome scourge of our modern society. The global connectivity of the internet and social media enable the spread of this misinformation pandemic in unprecedented ways, just as our physical connectivity facilitate the spread of an actual virus. Also like an actual virus, they can be extremely dangerous and destructive.

But fear not, I will try to move this back to being a blog on neuroscience eventually :P. Today’s post is about some tools we can use to determine the plausibility of a hypothesis. I have written about this before. Science is all about formulating hypotheses and putting them to the test. Not all hypotheses are created equal however – some hypotheses are so obviously true they hardly need testing while others are so implausible that testing them is pointless. Using conspiracy theories as an example, here I will list some tools I use to spot what I consider to be highly implausible hypotheses. I think this is a perfect example, because despite the name conspiracy theories are not actually scientific theories at all – they are in fact conspiracy hypotheses and most are pretty damn implausible.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. There may be other things you can think of that help you determine that a claim is implausible, for example Carl Sagan’s chapter on The Fine Art of Baloney Detection. You can also relate much of this back to common logical fallacies. My post merely lists a few basic features that I frequently encounter out there in the wild. Perhaps you’ll find this list useful in your own daily face-palming experiences.

The Bond Villain

Is a central feature to this purported plot a powerful billionaire with infinite funding and unlimited resources and power at their disposal? Do they have a convoluted plan that just smells evil, such as killing off large parts of the world population for the “common good”? You know, like injecting them with vaccines that sterilise them?

The House of Cards

Is the convoluted plan so complicated and carefully crafted numerous steps in advance where each little event has to fall in place just right in order for it to work? You know, like using 5G tech to weaken people’s immune system so it starts a global pandemic with a virus you created in your secret lab so that everyone happily gets injected with your vaccine which will contain nanoscale microchips but not with any other vaccine that others might have developed in the meantime? And obviously you know your vaccine will work against the virus because you could test it thoroughly without anybody else finding out about it?

The Future Tech

Does the plan involve some technology you’ve first heard of on Star Trek or Doctor Who? Is a respiratory illness caused by mobile phone technology? Is someone injecting nanoscale computer chips with a vaccine? Is there brain scanning technology with spatial and temporal resolution that would render all of my research completely obsolete?

The Red Pill

Have you been living a lie all your life? Will embracing the idea mean that you have awoken and/or finally see what’s right in front of you? Are most other people brainwashed sheeple? Did a YouTube video by someone who’ve never heard of finally open your eyes to reality?

The Dull Razorblade

Is the idea built on multiple factors that are not actually necessary to explain the events that unfurled? Was a virus “obviously” created in a lab even though countless viruses occur naturally? Are the odds that what they claim happened more likely than that the same thing happened by chance? Is the most obvious explanation for why the motif of Orion’s Belt appears throughout history and the world because aliens visited from Rigel 7 and not because it’s one of the most recognisable constellations in the night sky?

The World Government

Does it require the deep cooperation of most governments in the world whilst they squabble and vehemently disagree in the public limelight? Is the nefarious scheme perpetrated by the United Nations, which are famous for always agreeing, being efficient, and never having any conflict? (Note that occasionally it may only be the European Union rather than the UN).

The Flawed Explanation

Are the individual hypotheses that form the bigger conspiracy mutually exclusive? Is it based on current geography or environmental conditions even though it happened hundreds, thousands, or millions of years in the past? Does it involve connecting dots on the Mercator world map in straight lines which would actually not be straight on the globe or any other map projection?

The Unlikely Saint

Is the person most criticised, ridiculed, or reviled by the mainstream media in fact the good guy? Imagine, if you will, a world leader who is a former intelligence operative and spy master and who has invaded several sovereign countries. Is he falsely accused of assassinating his enemies and pursuing a cold political plan and actually just a friendly, misunderstood teddy bear? Or perhaps that demagogue, who riles the masses with hateful rhetoric and who has committed acts of corruption in broad daylight, is in fact defending us from evil puppy eating monsters? The CEO of a fossil fuel company in truth protects us from all those environmentalist hippies in centre-right governments who want to poison us with clean air and their utopian idealism of a habitable planet?

The Vast Network

Is everyone in on it? All scientists including all authors, editors and peer reviewers and all the technical support staff and administrators, all influential political leaders and their aides, all medical doctors and nurses and pharmacists, all engineers and all school teachers are involved in this complex scheme to fool the unwashed masses even though there has never been a credible whistleblower? Have they remained silent even though the Moon Landing was hoaxed half a century ago? Do all scientists working on a vaccine for widespread disease actually want to inject you with nanoscale microchips? Is there fortunately a YouTuber whose videos finally lay bare this outrageous, evil scheme?

The Competent Masterminds

Does it assume an immense level of competence and skill on the part of political leaders and organisations to execute their nefarious convoluted plans in the face of clear evidence to the contrary? Are they all just acting like disorganised buffoons to fool us?

The Insincere Questions

Is the framer of the idea “merely asking questions”? Do they simply want you to “think for yourself”? Does thinking for yourself in fact mean agreeing with that person? Do they ask questions about who funded some scientific research without any understanding of how scientific research is actually funded? Are they “not saying it was aliens” but it is obvious that is was in fact aliens?

The Unfalsifiable Claims

Is there no empirical evidence that could prove the claim wrong? Is this argument going in circles or are the goalposts shifted? Is a fact-checking website untrustworthy because it is “obviously part of the conspiracy”, even though you can directly check their source material which is of course also all fabricated? Is the idea based on some claim that has been shown to be a fraud, and the fraudster has been discredited even by his co-authors, but naturally this just part of an even bigger cover-up and a smear campaign? Can only the purveyor of this conspiracy theory be trusted?

The Torrent of Praise

Is the comment section under this YouTube video or Facebook post a long list of people praising and commending the poster for their truth-telling and use of “evidence”? Do most of these commenters have numbers in their name? Do they have profile pictures that look strangely akin to stock photos? Do any of the comments concur with the original post by adding some anecdote that sounds like an episode of the X-Files?

The Puppet Masters

Does it mention the Elders or Zion, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, or some similar sounding, secret organisation? Or perhaps the Deep State?

The Flat Earth

Does it blatantly deny reality?

Dear Co-conspirators

I would like to lodge a complaint. Ever since I was admitted to the cabal over a decade ago I have been waiting for my paycheck – but thus far the immense riches I was promised by the Science Illuminati have yet to materialise. If I had known sooner how much money a CEO in a multinational fossil fuel corporation makes, I’d have pursued that truthtelling career instead of pretending that air pollution is bad for your health and blowing unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere could have any consequences on the global climate.

I am also still waiting for the keys to the Ivory Tower. The Lords of Big Vaccine explicitly told us at the induction that these would be forthcoming within days of pledging allegiance to “conventional medicine”. Nobody ever died of the measles, smallpox, or polio. When do I finally get to use the mind-control chips in vaccines? Also, when do I get the antidote to the vaccines I was given before I was anointed as a scientific acolyte?

Now that the roll-out of 5G is well underway, I also hope that you will soon put this to some good use instead of simply causing pandemics with it. Rather we should use it to erase the memories of all those witless fools out there before the secret gets out. I have overheard people suggest they should “follow the money” when looking at scientific research. We really don’t want them to find out how deeply involved funding agencies are in how scientists decide what research they do, and how they have been falling all over themselves just to give us money.

Most importantly, I don’t know why I continue to publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Why do I keep having these mind-numbing battles with Nitpicker #2? As we all know, this isn’t real “research”. The truths about the universe are best discovered through quick Google searches, our elderly relatives’ Facebook posts, and watching random dudes on YouTube. I understand that we need to keep up the illusion of a body of scientific knowledge and therefore we should publish lots of papers. But surely in that case we should make it easier to do so rather than throwing all those obstacles in our paths, like quibbling about statistics or discussing confounds. Is this why you created all those journals that keep emailing me to publish my eminent work in their inaugural issue?

I’ll be awaiting your reply urgently. If I don’t see all those millions of dollars soon, I might start to think that this conspiracy isn’t working out for me, and I might need to go public with what I know. Don’t think you can silence me by forcing me to wear a face mask!

Hallowed be the Chemtrail,
Sam

Dollarnote_siegel

I was wrong…

It has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog. I apologise for this hiatus. I’m afraid it’ll continue as it will probably be even longer before my next post. I simply don’t have the time for the blog these days. But in a brief lull in activities I decided to write this well-overdue post. No, this is not yet another neuroscientist wheeling out his Dunning-Krugerism to make a simplistic and probably dead-wrong (no pun intended) model of the CoViD-19 pandemic, and I certainly won’t be talking about what the governments are doing right or wrong in handling this dreadful situation. But the post is at least moderately related to the pandemic and to this very issue of expertise, and more broadly to current world events.

Years ago, I was locked in an extended debate with parapsychology researchers about the evidence for so-called “psi” effects (precognition, telepathy, and the like). What made matters worse, I made the crucial mistake of also engaging in discussion with some of the social media followers of these researchers. I have since gotten a little wiser and learned about the futility and sanity-destroying nature of social media (but not before going through the pain of experiencing the horrors of social media in other contexts, not least of all Brexitrump). I now try my best (but sometimes still fail) to stay away from this shit and all the outrage junkies and drama royalty. Perhaps I just got tired…

Anyway, in the course of this discussion about “psi” research, I uttered following phrase (or at least this is it paraphrased – I’m too lazy to look it up):

To be a scientist, is to be a skeptic.

This statement was based on the notions of scientific scrutiny, objectively weighing evidence for or against a proposition, giving the null hypothesis a chance, and never to take anybody’s word for granted. It was driven by an idealistic and quite possibly naive belief in the scientific method and the excitement about scientific thinking in some popular circles. But I was wrong.

Taken on their own, none of these things are wrong of course. It is true that scientists should challenge dogma and widely-held assumptions. We should be skeptical of scientific claims and the same level of scrutiny should be applied to evidence confirming our predictions as to those that seem to refute them. Arguments from authority are logically fallacious and we shouldn’t just take somebody at their word simply because of their expertise. As fallible human beings we scientists can fool ourselves into believing something that actually isn’t true, regardless of expertise, and perhaps at times expertise can even result in deeply entrenched viewpoints, so it pays to keep an open mind.

But there’s too much of a good thing. Too much skepticism will lead you astray. There is a saying, that has been (mis-)attributed to various people in various forms. I don’t know who first said it and I don’t much care either:

It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.

Taken at face value, this may seem out-of-place. Isn’t an open mind the exact opposite of being skeptical? Isn’t the purpose of this quote precisely to tell people not to believe just about any nonsense? Yes and no. If you spend any time reading and listening to conspiracy theories – and I strongly advise you not to – then you’ll find that the admonition to keep an open mind is actually a major hallmark of this misguided and dangerous ideology. I’ve seen memes making the rounds that most people are “sheeple” and only those who have awoken to the truth see the world as it really is, and lots of other such crap. Conspiracy theorists do really keep a very open mind indeed.

A belief in wild-eyed conspiracies goes hand-in-hand with the utmost skepticism of anything that smells even remotely like the status quo or our current knowledge. It involves being open to every explanation out there – except to the one thing that is most likely true. It is the Trust No One philosophy. When I was a teenager, I enjoyed the X-Files. One of the my favourite video games, Deus Ex, was strongly inspired by a whole range of conspiracy theories. It is great entertainment but some people seem to take this message a little too much to heart. If you look into the plot of Deus Ex, you’ll find some haunting parallels to actual world events, from terrorist attacks on New York City to the pandemic we are experiencing now. Ironically, one could even spin conspiracies about the game itself for that reason.

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Conspiracy theories are very much in fashion right now, probably helped by the fact that there is currently a lunatic in the White House who is actively promoting them. It would be all fun and games, if it were only about UFOs, Ancient Aliens, Flat Earth, or the yeti. Or even about the idea that us dogmatic scientists want to suppress the “truth” that precognition is a thing*. But it isn’t just that.

From the origins of the novel coronavirus disease over vaccinations to climate change, we are constantly bombarded by conspiratorial thinking and its consequences. People apparently set fire to 5G radio masts because of this. Trust in authorities and experts has been eroded all over the globe. The internet seems to facilitate the spread of these ideas so they become far more influential than they would have been in past decades –  sometimes to very damaging effects.

Can we even blame people? It does become increasingly harder to trust anything or anybody. I have seen first-hand how many news media are more interested in publishing articles to make a political point than in providing factual accuracy. This may not even be deliberate; journalists work to tight deadlines and they are a struggling industry trying to keep financially afloat. Revelations about the origins of the Iraq War and scandals of collusion and election meddling, some of which may well be true conspiracies while others may be liberal pipe dreams (and many may fall into a grey area in between), don’t help to restore public trust. And of course public trust in science isn’t helped by the Replication Crisis**.

Science isn’t just about being skeptical

Sure, science is about challenging assumptions but it is also about weighing all available evidence. The challenging of assumptions we see in conspiracies is all too often cherry-picking. Science is also about the principle of parsimony and it requires us to determine the plausibility of claims. Crucially, it is also about acknowledging all the things we don’t know. That last point includes recognising that, you know, perhaps an expert in an area actually does occasionally know more about it than you.

No, you shouldn’t just believe anything someone says merely because they have PhD in the topic. And I honestly don’t know if expertise is really all that crucial in replicating social priming effects – this is for me where the issues with plausibility kick in. But knowing something about a topic gives experts insights that will elude an outsider and it would serve us well to listen to them. They should certainly have to justify and validate their claims – you shouldn’t just take their word as gospel. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you’ve uncovered “the Truth” by disbelieving everybody else. If I’ve learned anything from doing research, it is that the greatest delusion is when you think you’ve actually understood anything.

I have observed a worrying trend among some otherwise rather sensible people to brush aside criticism of conspiracy theories as smugness or over-confidence. This manifests in insinuations like these:

  • Of course, vaccines don’t cause autism, but perhaps this just distracts from the fact that they could be dangerous after all?
  • Of course, 5G doesn’t give people coronavirus but have governments used this pandemic as an opportunity to roll out 5G tech?
  • Of course, the CoViD-19 wasn’t manufactured in a Chinese lab, but researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology published studies on such coronaviruses and isn’t it possible that they already had the virus and it escaped the lab due to negligence or was even set loose on purpose?

Conspiracy theories are always dealing in possibilities. Of course, they require ardent believers to promote their tinfoil hat ideas. But they also feed on people like us, people with a somewhat skeptical and inquisitive mind who every so often fall prey to their own cognitive biases. Of course, all of these statements are possible – but that’s not the point. Science is not about what is possible but what is probable. Probabilities change as the evidence accumulates.

How plausible is the claim and even if it is plausible, is it more probable than other explanations or scenarios? Even if there were evidence that companies took advantage of the pandemic to roll out 5G (you know, this thing that has been debated for years and which had been planned ages before anyone even knew what a coronavirus is), wouldn’t it make sense to do this at a time when there is an unprecedented need of a world population in lockdown to have reliable and sophisticated mobile internet? Also, so fucking what? What concrete reason is it why you think 5G is a problem? Or are you just talking about the same itchy feeling people in past ages had about the internet, television, radio, and doubtless at some point also about books?

Let us for a moment ignore the blatant racism and various other factors that make this idea actually quite unlikely and accept the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. Why shouldn’t there be a lab studying animal-to-human transmission of viruses that have the potential for causing pandemics, especially since we already know this happened with numerous illnesses before and researchers have already warned years ago that such a coronavirus pandemic was coming? Doesn’t it make sense to study this at a place where this is likely to occur? What is more likely, that the thing that we know happens happened or that someone left a jar open by accident and let the virus escape the lab? How do you think the virus got in the lab in the first place? What makes it more likely that it escaped a lab than that it originated on a market where wild exotic animals are being consumed?

There is also an odd irony about some of these ideas. Anti-vaxxers seem somewhat quiet these days now that everybody is clamouring for a vaccine for CoViD-19. Perhaps that’s to be expected. But while there is literally no evidence that widely used vaccines are making you sick (at least beyond that weakened form of creating an immune response that makes you unsusceptible to the actually disease anyway) there are very good reasons to ask whether a new drug or treatment is safe. This is why researchers keep reminding us that a vaccine is still at least a year away and why I find recent suggestions one could become available even this September somewhat concerning. It is certainly great that so much work is put into fighting this pandemic and if human usage can begin soon that is obviously good news – but before we have wide global use perhaps we should ensure that this vaccine is actually safe. The plus side is, in contrast to anti-vaxxers, vaccine scientists are actually concerned about people’s health and well-being.

The real conspiracy

Ask yourself who stands to gain if you believe a claim, whether it is a scientific finding, an official government statement, or a conspiracy. Most conspiracy theories further somebody’s agenda. It could help somebody’s reelection or bring them political influence to erode trust in certain organisations or professions, but it could also be much simpler than that: clickbait makes serious money, and some people actually sow disinformation simply for the fun of it. We can be sure of one real conspiracy: the industry behind conspiracy theories.

 

* Still waiting for my paycheck for being in the pocket of Big Second-Law-of-Thermodynamics…

** This is no reason not to improve the replicability and transparency of scientific research – quite the opposite!