The effect of conspiracy theories

“Conspiracy,” a photo by Fleeting Pix. Colorized and digitally altered by Tucker Lieberman.
Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0 license.

How do conspiracy theories arise? Why, despite how implausible they sound to most people, are they so “sticky” for others?

Telling stories that aren’t true

If Only by Neal Roese.

Neal Roese, in If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005), discusses the role of counterfactual expressions—that is, things that just aren’t so. At their best, they help us analyze a situation and seek a better path. One type of counterfactual is “it could have been worse” which is supposed to serve as consolation.

Here’s one of Roese’s examples. An employee of Cantor Fitzgerald—a company that suddenly lost hundreds of employees in New York City when the World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001—survived because he happened to be inquiring about a gym membership and was not in the office when the plane hit the building. The counterfactual narrative that he easily might have died does not meaningfully explain why he lived. The simple observation of his near-brush with death, applied to this situation of survivor’s guilt and when taken up as an existential perspective, “is a counterfactual that shoots blanks,” Roese says. Such an approach “can get in the way of successful coping by conjuring phantom explanations and phony sense making or simply by failing to provide resolution and understanding.”

The man’s survival is random, yet that answer leaves most of us itching. Some will contort themselves to come up with a different explanation.

What existential function might a conspiracy theory serve?

A conspiracy theory—pick one, any one—is, in my view, a more elaborate kind of counterfactual. It asserts itself to be true, or at least plausible and meriting more inquiry, but it is not true. Like other counterfactuals, it serves the need to point out unresolved questions and find some way to make sense of the world.

Power Corrupts: “Conspiracy Theories.” Launches May 2, 2019.

This is explored in the “Conspiracy Theories” episode of the Power Corrupts podcast that launches today (May 2, 2019) on iTunes, Spotify, RadioPublic, and Stitcher. Brian Klaas, the podcast writer and narrator, says that the tendency to adopt conspiracy theories

“seems to be part of a coping mechanism: a human instinct to deal with large, unexpected, and often tragic events. Sometimes things just happen randomly; not for any reason, not because of sinister forces. And in human psychology, randomness is much more threatening than discernible causes, even if those causes are shadowy or sinister.”

Paranoid by David J. LaPorte.

We tend to want to believe that Someone (or Something) is calling the shots and that what happens to us (or to our known world) matters within some grand plan.

Conspiracy theories are often products of paranoia. A paranoid person believes that “you can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations,” David J. LaPorte wrote in Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional (2015). Such people report experiencing a “sudden clarification,” which feels as if they “immediately recognize [an event] for ‘what it really is.’” Their sudden clarification feels true even if it is not.

A believer in a conspiracy theory, Klaas says, is “choosing to discount evidence and rational thought in favor of snippets of ‘What if?’ speculation.” In this case, unfortunately, “the normal way of convincing someone of an idea by presenting rational thought and evidence just isn’t very effective.” It is hard to persuade someone to abandon these theories. They are constructed in such a way that they cannot be falsified, and criticism only triggers a paranoid person’s suspicion of outsiders.

I have never knowingly been a conspiracy theorist on any matter. Generally, such stories are repugnant to my occasionally obsessive fact-checking habits, to my worldview in which ethics does not reduce to a battle between good and evil, to my personality that tends to be more trusting and less paranoid, and to the social bonds I form with people whose attitudes are similar to my own.

I do, however, see how conspiracy theories might appeal to someone else. Counterfactuals more generally—the past that wasn’t, the future that isn’t yet—are “entertaining,” according to Roese, because they are imaginative variations on a known theme, and they are “cognigenic, meaning that they spur further creative thought.” I suggest that conspiracy theories, too, fit this description. They are intricate fictions and mostly self-contained worlds. If I were to allow myself to spend time with one and if I were to engage it on its own terms, I could see myself growing fond of it.

One of Klaas’ interviewees for Power Corrupts says that believing in a conspiracy theory predisposes one to begin believing in yet another, even if the two theories are unrelated or contradictory. Klaas describes conspiracy theories as having “a weird way of metastasizing: they morph as they spread; they grow more outlandish; the conspiracy gets weirder and weirder as people build on the unhinged beliefs of others.” For this reason, to me, such stories feel a bit dangerous, like ideological gateway drugs, and I have always avoided them when I recognize them.

What we become

At the end of the road of a multitude of conspiracy theories, a person may be well trained in the consistent rejection of logic.

Denialism by Michael Specter.

According to Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives (2009), the rejection of science is a coping strategy for living in an increasingly technological society that every day becomes a little harder to understand. When people are fearful and “decide that science can’t solve their problems,” they may abandon scientific process and findings, gravitating instead toward some other answer on the merits of its perceived popularity. This is a problem: “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality,” Specter warns, “or you don’t. There is nothing in between but the abyss.”

In politics, similarly, embracing a multitude of conspiracy theories may lead a person to distrust and reject democratic principles. Ultimately, experts are not believed; leaders are not trusted; process is not given credibility; norms are not understood; facts cannot be verified; no one can be held accountable. This is a terrible outcome, but it is hard to stop conspiracy theories from starting and spreading. Perhaps being aware of their psychological function can prompt us to think of other ways to confront the human fear of random, small, and impersonal causes.

Wisdom from the Hebrew Bible

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jewish Sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once upon a time when I was teaching a course using the books of the Bible as the main reading assignment, a student asked me why I always used the phrase “Hebrew Bible” instead of “Old Testament” when talking about the earliest books.

“Simple.  Because “Old” has a certain connotation, as in”superseded”. But for many it’s not old at all.”

Here’s an old (as in been around a while now) response to Dr. Laura.

English: Radio counselor Dr. Laura Schlessinger

English: Radio counselor Dr. Laura Schlessinger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On her radio show, Dr. Laura said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Schlesinger, written by a US man, and posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as quite informative:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I’m confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your adoring fan,

James M. Kauffman,

Ed.D. Professor Emeritus,

Dept. Of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education University of Virginia

P.S. (It would be a damn shame if we couldn’t own a Canadian.)

And watch a dramatization here:



I remember, as a kid in Lutheran catechism class, the following conversation:

Bob: “The Lord thy God is a jealous God” – but Reverend, what would God have to be jealous of? How could an all-powerful, all-knowing being be jealous of anything?

Reverend: “You need to memorize the material! So, please stop asking questions and just memorize the answers in the catechism.

I think now that was the moment I began to doubt that the church had anything to offer me. Later on I would learn about the fallacies used to win arguments and to shut off learning. [Check out the fallacies in the side bar.]

This morning I read two newspaper articles that reminded me of that long ago attempt by a figure of authority to shut me up. Both are from the USA. One from Texas. One from Florida. Both attacks on education and freedom.

From Florida:

Any resident in Florida can now challenge what kids learn in public schools, thanks to a new law that science education advocates worry will make it harder to teach evolution and climate change.

From Texas:

But here in Texas, the bigger battle over tree ordinances is whether they represent a form of local government overreach. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), citing grave worries about “socialistic” behavior in the state’s liberal cities, has called on Texas lawmakers to gather this month for a special session that will consider a host of bills aimed at curtailing local power on issues ranging from taxation to collecting union dues.

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. 

On BS Detectors


You will probably recall that I have often jokingly referred to my work in the philosophy classroom as that of implanting a BS detector in the head of each student. Today’s post is written by a recent graduate of the VIU philosophy department. I never met her since I was retired by the time of the “Silver Age” of the department. Her VIU philosophy prof describes her: “Jess was part of the first group of majors to go through the VIU philosophy program. She was a regular at our extracurricular events, and took several courses with me. She’s a great person and a wonderful artist, as well as a very skilled teacher.”

She says this about herself:


I was very lucky to have had my bullshit detector honed at VIU under the tutelage of Justin Kalef, whose commitment was so appreciated by the small cohort that was actually the very first group of philosophy majors. Since my unceremonious graduation, which aligned with the great strike of 2011, I’ve spent each year doing a different thing in a different place until something sticks. Given the apparent nature of my being, I truly feel philosophy has saved me from the madness of meaninglessness and fear of the unknown. So hooray for that. Since free will is an illusion, I have no “plans” – just desires. The only constant in my life is publishing an annual magazine called “The Free Wheel”.


Philosophers at Work

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Jess Charmaine

I’m five years past a major in philosophy and to my mother’s non-surprise, I’m having trouble securing a job. This is not for lack of trying, or lack of jobs, or even lack of getting a job. I’ve gotten every job I’ve interviewed for post-grad. I’ve also quit all of these jobs, because if there’s one thing philosophy has taught me, it’s not to stand for bullshit. And there is a lot of bullshit in the workplace.

(Bullshit, or Biased Unverifiable Lax Logical Substantiation of Hegemonic Ideological Truths (Wikipedia), is defined in the workplace as personal battles infringing on productivity, stemming from or resulting in unclear/indirect/no communication (ie: passive aggression), insecurity (ie: power struggles), inconsistency/hypocrisy from malicious or incompetent management (ie: abuse of power)

Back to my mom. She is a BSC, one-track career kind of woman and expresses concern over me and my life choices on a regular basis. And by “life” she means work, because in her world they are one and the same. Theoretically, my philosophy background should come in handy for keeping cool in times like these, but this has proven practically impossible; the state of our relationship over this conflict of values is probably my biggest failing as a so-called philosopher.

According to her, some degree of bullshit will always exist no matter where you work, and the mature thing to do is put up with it for the sake of job security. According to me, workplace bullshit does not have to exist. At all. Or, at the very least, you don’t have to put up with it. To the degree that workplaces can be dysfunctional, they have the potential to be functional, even joyful, no matter what the work is. It takes one person in a toxic workplace where no one feels safe to speak up to confront what’s wrong to blow the whole thing open. Chaos before order.

To put up with bullshit for a paycheque is little different than selling your soul. To quote my favourite bullshit-intolerator, Nietzsche, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” Even though finding stable work in a functional workplace has been my life’s greatest struggle so far (hand-in-hand with gaining the respect of my mother) and my account balance reflects this, I’m proud of my choices. I really believe toxic workplaces are the root of more evil than we can easily trace, and bad leaders need to be shot down as immediately and kindly as possible, and if not, good people should not be doing their bidding.

So many people still don’t get this, but Philosophy is not a useless navel-gazing pursuit concerned with existential questions non-applicable to real life. That’s only part of it. Philosophy is a method of living the good life and is about acquiring the thinking skills necessary to identify, clarify, and navigate through the bullshit to do so. It’s about leaving logical and emotional biases at the door to do the right thing for yourself and the environment in which you live, and that includes work.

Organizations often preach their “philosophy” without knowing the meaning of the word; what they mean is “doctrine”. Without a culture that is actively engaged in testing assumptions, questioning authority, and, in which all employees are able to communicate clearly without fear, it may as well be a cult. That’s why there needs to be more philosophers in the workplace, or at least more philosophizing. If managers of a workplace had a background or correct understanding/appreciation of philosophy I can’t really imagine workplace toxicity even existing, as it’s part of the practice of philosophy to nip such nonsense in the bud.

Studying philosophy is the unconventional life choice I least regret, especially as applied to the workforce. It’s surprisingly employable, transferable, and it’s given me the sense to know when a job is not working for me as well as the confidence and skills to be able to quit with dignity. Not falling into the work-to-live trap is something we have to make sure to avoid before it’s too late to even know it’s a trap, and philosophy will give the necessary skills that, if practiced, will last a lifetime.

Just like my mommy issues.


And now, Jess and I invite you all to contribute to the discussion!


1943 On the farm

1943 On the farm


When I was a little boy we moved to a farm from the city. It was all new to me. Cows, pigs, horses, chickens were all new acquaintances. I began to notice sounds, smells, and many new experiences. We had a “swimming pool” on our farm – though my step-father called it a cow tank.

I noticed over a period of time, that every morning the rooster would crow and then the sun would rise. Every day the same events: crowing rooster followed by sunrise. I came to believe that the rooster’s crowing caused the sun to rise. After all I had lots of facts to draw on to establish “evidence”.

But then one night for supper Mom served chicken. It was good but kinda tough.

The next morning there was no crowing rooster!

But the sun came up. Causal relation destroyed. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.

And if you get inspired then consider:

Call for participants: Expertise, evidence and argumentation in the context of public policy-making
3-4 March, 2016
ArgLab, New University of Lisbon, Portugal
Evidence-based policy-making rests on three pillars that correspond to interlocking phases of the policy-making process. The first pillar is the gathering of facts and evidence, which by themselves would be useless without the second pillar, i.e., the search for causal relations between inputs and outputs. It cannot suffice to know the facts, we also need to understand them in terms of useful relational laws or regularities, which can be employed to influence other facts, so that a policy may successfully intervene on a causal structure. But these two pillars are insufficient to support a policy if the arguments used in the first two phases aren’t both objectively strong and subjectively persuasive. The argumentative perspective thus constitutes a fundamental dimension to policy-making. Addressing the relation between evidence, explanation/prediction, and argumentation, the workshop sheds light on how evidence is selected, assessed and presented to support a policy, thus combining communicative, scientific, and political considerations.


SS: Thought experiments


Thought Experiments

William James’ squirrel:

SOME YEARS AGO, being with a camping party in the mountains, I returned from a solitary ramble to find every one engaged in a ferocious metaphysical dispute. The corpus of the dispute was a squirrel – a live squirrel supposed to be clinging to one side of a tree-trunk; while over against the tree’s opposite side a human being was imagined to stand. This human witness tries to get sight of the squirrel by moving rapidly round the tree, but no matter how fast he goes, the squirrel moves as fast in the opposite direction, and always keeps the tree between himself and the man, so that never a glimpse of him is caught. The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go round the squirrel or not? He goes round the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel? [Stop for discussion] In the unlimited leisure of the wilderness, discussion had been worn threadbare. Every one had taken sides, and was obstinate; and the numbers on both sides were even. Each side, when I appeared therefore appealed to me to make it a majority. Mindful of the scholastic adage that whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction, I immediately sought and found one, as follows: “Which party is right,” I said, “depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel. If you mean passing from the north of him to the east, then to the south, then to the west, and then to the north of him again, obviously the man does go round him, for he occupies these successive positions. But if on the contrary you mean being first in front of him, then on the right of him, then behind him, then on his left, and finally in front again, it is quite as obvious that the man fails to go round him, for by the compensating movements the squirrel makes, he keeps his belly turned towards the man all the time, and his back turned away. Make the distinction, and there is no occasion for any farther dispute. You are both right and both wrong according as you conceive the verb ‘to go round’ in one practical fashion or the other.”
[“What is pragmatism?” 1904 lecture]

Descartes’ Evil Genius:

I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies in deceiving me; I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colors, figures, sound, and all other external things are nothing but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity; I shall consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, nor any senses, yet falsely believing myself to possess all these things; I shall remain obstinately attached to this idea, and if by this means it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, I may at least do what is in my power [i.e. suspend my judgment], and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any false thing, or being imposed upon by this arch deceiver, however powerful and deceptive he may be. But this task is a laborious one, and insensibly a certain lassitude leads me into the course of my ordinary life. And just as a captive who in sleep enjoys an imaginary liberty, when he begins to suspect that his liberty is but a dream fears to awaken, and conspires with these agreeable illusions that the deception may be prolonged, so insensibly of my own accord I fall back into my former opinions, and I dread awakening from this slumber, lest the laborious wakefulness which would follow the tranquility of this repose should have to be spent not in daylight, but in the excessive darkness of the difficulties which have just been discussed.

I suppose, then, that all the things that I see are false; I persuade myself that nothing has ever existed of all that my fallacious memory represents to me. I consider that I possess no senses; I imagine that body, figure, extension, movement and place are but the fictions of my mind. What, then, can be esteemed as true? Perhaps nothing at all, unless that there is nothing in the world that is certain.

Bertrand Russell:

There is a village in which all the adult males are clean shaven. In the village is a barber. The barber shaves all and only those adult males who do not shave themselves. So, if Bob shaves himself then the barber does not shave Bob. And, if Bob does not shave himself then the barber does shave Bob.
Question: Does the barber shave himself?

Hypothesis: The world and everything in it was created five minutes ago.

Russell wants to show that the memories of something are logically independent of that something, but the hypothesis has been used to support skepticism.

English: Russell's Teapot Español: Tetera de R...

English: Russell’s Teapot Español: Tetera de Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russell’s teapot, sometimes called the Celestial Teapot, was an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies somehow upon the sceptic to disprove the unfalsifiable claims of religion. In an article entitled Is There a God?, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell said the following:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
In his book A Devil’s Chaplain, Richard Dawkins developed the teapot theme a little further:
The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t kneecap those who put the tea in first.
Similar concepts to Russell’s teapot are the Invisible Pink Unicorn, and Flying Spaghetti Monster.


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