I recently had the good fortune to find this great article on what we do wrong in studying “conspiracy theories”. There is a long history of laziness, even complicity, of social scientists wrapping up all sorts of legitimate critical thinking under the label of conspiracy theory.
One example that has always bothered me is the various psychological scales of conspiratorial thinking, a fairly typical example of which is the so called “Generic conspiracist scale”, a scale which, as per the name, claims to measure tendencies towards conspiratorial thinking. I have several issues with with the generic conspiracist scale and the paper it is introduced in: “Measuring Belief in Conspiracy Theories: The Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale” (2013), most notably that it claims to examine tendencies towards conspiratorial thinking where conspiratorial thinking is considered as:
“A conspiracist belief can be described as “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable”” (here the authors are citing Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History).
But despite this, a pretty straightforward case can be made that over half the statements in it are, in fact, true. Details follow.
I have scored items as 1 point if I regard them as clearly true, 1/2 a point, if I regard them as most likely true, but with enough room that reasonable individuals could squabble over them, and 0 points if I regard them as unproven and most likely false.
In general I take it that if we can prove the government was doing it in the second half of the 20th century, it is a reasonable extrapolation that it is still doing it now, it just hasn’t come out yet. Even if this is not true, it is an entirely rational supposition, and not at all paranoid in any derogatory sense. The nature of disclosure in these areas is that it comes out piecemeal over time.
Let’s get to the items:
1. The government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret
Although now, known, the disposition matrix was indeed secret. It does indeed target US citizens. Some of these citizens may be innocent on the facts, and most are innocent from a procedural point of view, as they have not been tried by a court for the alleged crimes for which they are being executed.
2. The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics
This one is false in my estimation , although there certainly are small, secretive groups with a great deal of power. A friend of mine argues that this should be a half point, depending on niceties of interpretation, and I can certainly see a case for that. Out of scrupulosity we will stick to 0 points.
3. Secret organizations communicate with extraterrestrials, but keep this fact from the public
False, or at the very least, totally unproven.
4. The spread of certain viruses and/or diseases is the result of the deliberate, concealed efforts of some organization
On a smaller scale, but crueller:
5. Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public
Groups of scientists in the pay of big tobacco used to do this all the time, and this is just one of the more obvious examples.
Obviously plenty of examples of this in the pharmaceutical space: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3190547/
6. The government permits or perpetrates acts of terrorism on its own soil, disguising its involvement
At the very least this has been proposed and considered at the highest levels:
In my opinion, the weight of evidence supports the contention that Fred Hampton was assassinated, a form of terrorism:
Then there have been various aerial bombings of striking workers and people of colour, although admittedly these occurred early in the 20th century:
And this is just from my limited knowledge.
I will grade this as 1/2 a point, although I think really a whole point would probably be justified.
7. A small, secret group of people is responsible for making all major world decisions, such as going to war
Almost certainly false. No one’s in control. I guess you could maybe make case for it if you read “small”, “secret” and “in control” in very broad and generous terms, but not really.
8. Evidence of alien contact is being concealed from the public
9. Technology with mind-control capacities is used on people without their knowledge
10. New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed
Plenty of corporations have done this through patent trolling, blocking competitors in areas they are not actively pursuing themselves. Perhaps the authors would claim these don’t count as “advanced”? I dunno, but at any rate I don’t find that excuse persuasive.
11. The government uses people as patsies to hide its involvement in criminal activity
Although disputed, there is pretty strong evidence that this has happened, at least on occasion, in relation to the drug trade. It is certainly not an unreasonable thing to believe.
1/2 a point.
12. Certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events
This is just too vague to say yes or no to. Presumably, for example Al Qaeda count as such a group, in relation to the 9/11 hijackings- was that not a significant event resulting from the activity of a small group? The problem is the word “manipulate”. It’s not clear what counts as a “manipulation” in this context. Still, I would say that, on the most literal reading, Al Qaeda manipulated events.
13. Some UFO sightings and rumors are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact
Real Alien contact? No. So this one is false, because our best evidence suggests no aliens have ever contacted earth. I have heard relatively credible people say that that the US government has, on occasion, encouraged UFO mania for a variety of reasons, so one might half heartedly argue that there is a tiny sliver of truth here. Still, this one must be conceded.
14. Experiments involving new drugs or technologies are routinely carried out on the public without their knowledge or consent
I suppose you could squabble over the word “routine”, but it was quite a large program, so yes, I would call it routine.
15. A lot of important information is deliberately concealed from the public out of self-interest
If you don’t agree with this statement, I have a bridge to sell you.
Overall then we come to 9/15 points
An eminently reasonable and well informed person then is likely to score highly on this test which allegedly measures: “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable”. That’s not very good is it?
To mount the bully pulpit for a moment here, the problem is that these psychologists have inadvertently (I hope) stumbled into the role of apologists for power. There has always been a tension within the social sciences about the degree to which social science shall be a critical force versus a stabilising force. Academic psychology, with its relative blindness to social conflicts, and its unavoidable link to concepts of mental hygiene has a tendency to fall on the stabilising side of that fence. To be clear this not to say that psychology is right-wing – merely that whether right-wing or left-wing, psychological research is rarely dangerous to entrenched interests. Most psychological research with an identifiable bent is probably more leftish than not, but it is leftish in a way that would fit in perfectly at a HR conference, or a corporate diversity training session.
I like science, including social sciences. I believe in the scientific method, not just for the physical sciences, but for the social sciences as well. However the scientific method should not be confused with scientism. In this case it would seem that something like scientism has blinded the investigators to the importance of listening to their subjects, and engaging with their ideas and their reasons. Instead the conspiracist subjects are pre-ordained to be irrational, and the investigator’s only goal is to catalogue them. If instead the investigators had engaged with the ideas of conspiracists, they might have seen things differently. Unfortunately one of the functions of academic psychology in these sorts of cases is so often to gatekeep who deserves to be engaged in dialogue with, and who deserves merely to be studied, analysed and classified.
Are many of the subjects that this test was normed on a little bit odd? Sure, probably they were, but people who are odd often have insights others lack. In the case of the paranoid conspiracy theorist, we might think of them as like an overly sensitive test- generating many true positives that others miss, while regrettably generating many false positives as well. So, for example, many of the subjects probably unfortunately believed that that vaccines were a plot against their children. However these same subjects grasp, correctly and in a way that many people miss, that elites are often secretive and predatory.
EPILOGUE NOW THAT THIS HAS BLOWN UP A BIT TO MY GREAT SUPRISE
First of all, welcome new readers.
Secondly, I originally posted this to the Slate Star Codex subreddit. It received a lot of feedback, some of which I agreed with, some of which I didn’t. I was hoping to integrate that feedback into the post- and maybe I will have time eventually- but in the meantime I wanted to noted what I thought were particularly astute critical comments. Since I am writing this quickly during a break at work, I’ll focus on just two.
One Redditor suggested that while it might be reasonable to infer from the fact that practice practice happened in the sixties to similar practices still happening now (e.g. MKultra), saying that this means that it is “literally true” might be a bit much- it is after all only an extrapolation, however warranted. I agree, and if I wrote the essay again I would have titled it differently.
Another Redditor suggested that I might be unfairly putting too much weight on a single passage in the original research paper- the one where they quote Aaronovitch to define a conspiracy theory as inherently irrational. Since they don’t reiterate that elsewhere in the paper, it may well have been a throwaway. I agree to a point- while they do only say it once, nonetheless they do say it, and not in an especially ambiguous way. Perhaps I am unfairly taking out a tendency endemic to psychological studies of conspiracy on this one study and its authors.
Thirdly, please forgive any errors in this brief errata because I only had ten minutes to write it before getting back to my shift.