Conspiracies – Where’s the Critical Thinking?

The assassination of Osama Bin Laden really has brought out the conspiracy theorists. I’m sure a lot of the people expressing their doubts on social media platforms are joking, but some aren’t and I find a lot of this just a little disturbing.

My concerns relate to the way people seem to think they’re being independent free thinkers by refusing to accept the word of the White House. Free thought, however, doesn’t mean jumping on any crazy idea proposed by some outsider, nor simply taking the official line and believing the opposite. Free thought should, in my estimation, require people to actually think. To sift through the evidence just a little and consider the likelihood of varying claims.

Many people are manifestly failing to do that in relation to Bin Laden, and in doing so are applying the same sort of “free thought” that allows them to believe vaccines cause autism or carbon dioxide doesn’t warm the planet.

I attended Confest over the summer, which is not always the most science-friendly environment. Someone gave a workshop claiming that global warming was a hoax (relying on the usual bunch of fraudulent websites). I’d had a very bad night beforehand, and rather than arguing effectively I stormed out accusing him of lying.

After calming down I gave some thought to how I could make something good come out of the event, and settled on running my own workshop. Rather than tackling the deniers directly I decided to call it “Science versus Conspiracy” and talk about the problems with a lot of conspiracy theories in general, using global warming deniers as just one example.

I’m certainly not trying to argue that all conspiracy theories are false. Watergate was a conspiracy theory once. There’s no reason to be surprised that people in power will sometimes abuse their positions, and try to hide the fact that they’ve done so. However, many conspiracy theories, particularly those about science, rely on people acting in ways that involve ridiculous amounts of effort or risk for little reward.

In the workshop I started with the idea that NASA faked the Moon landings. Now most people probably don’t believe this simply because it sounds too ridiculous. However, I’ve met quite a few people (yes mostly at Confest) who do believe it, or get a bit of thrill from at least entertaining the idea. I like this example, because when you think for a moment about the difficulties of pulling off such a fake it quickly becomes clear it would have been a whole lot easier just to go ahead and land some men on the moon and bring them back.

One of the first questions worth asking about conspiracies is how many people would need to be in on the act to make them work. The Moon landings is a great example. One of the profiles in the book is of David Cooke, who helped collect the transmissions from the Moon landing and broadcast them to the world. Cooke was based at Parkes, but there were actually about 25 highly skilled scientists and engineers working on picking up the signal, far from the 3 hapless Aussies and a stressed out Yank presented in the film. So how did this work? Were they all in on the conspiracy, or all so incompetent that not only did they not notice the signal was being broadcast from a Hollywood backlot, but NASA didn’t even need to worry about them noticing? Parkes was just one of about a dozen sites at which the transmission either was collected, or might have been if timing had been different.

Then there are the geologists who have examined the moon rocks*, the engineers who built the rockets and (in some cases) examined the re-entry vehicle or were in other ways vitally involved. It’s not just that any conspiracy theory relies on none of these people ever having an attack of conscience, or deciding they could make a lot of money from spilling the beans, or even just getting drunk one night and telling all. It’s that for NASA to go ahead would require them to have had a pretty high degree of confidence that this would happen. People don’t work that way.

Ok so that’s an easy one. I mean it’s not like hundreds of millions of people believe it or… ok well let’s move on anyway.

So back to Osama. There seem to be three theories here. 1) He’s been dead for years. 2) The Americans captured him rather than killing him and 3) He’s not dead at all.

As far as I can see Exhibit A for claim 1) is a video from Benazir Bhutto saying he was dead some time before she herself was killed. I have no idea why Bhutto may have been lying or misled, but it’s hardly compelling. After all not only do we have several audio tapes from Bin Laden, or an imitator, indicating he may well have been alive up until early this year, but we have to ask whose interests it served to pretend he hadn’t died if he did. It’s particularly hard to imagine why Bush, knowing his enemy was dead, would want to pretend he was alive just so Obama could claim the credit down the track.

#2 is probably the most credible, but it’s a pretty low bar. Taking someone like Bin Laden alive has to be a lot harder than killing him, even if that was your aim (which seems unclear). So the idea depends on the Americans succeeding in capturing him against the odds, deciding the consequences of him talking on the stand were worse than the extra points they would win from trying him publicly, and also being able to keep everyone involved from shooting their mouth off. Ever. None of those are impossible, but three unlikely things piled on top of each other strains credibility.

Finally we have the theory it’s all a big hoax. They killed someone else and decided to pretend it was him. Sure, because having Bin Laden turn up in a few months time right as rain and sending videos to the world won’t do Obama’s re-election chances any harm at all.

In a direct sense the Moon Landings conspiracy doesn’t matter much. The people who actually need to be studying Moon rocks and planning future missions know it’s rubbish. Perhaps if enough people believe Bin Laden is down at the 7-11 with Elvis it might hurt Obama’s reelection chances, but I’m not too worried about that one either.

My problem is, if you don’t bother applying some thought to these before you update your facebook status, how carefully are you thinking about the conspiracies that matter? On the one hand you could believe that tens of thousands of scientists are deliberately faking their data to trick the world into imposing carbon taxes, or on the other hand you could decide a few superannuated shock jocks and corporate shills might be lying to you. Hey, if you’re not bothered about really thinking about which might be more likely, it’s all a matter of preference.

* I’ve interviewed at least one geologist who has studied moon rocks. He says it’s actually not that hard to get access, provided your research won’t use much of the supply and has a reasonable case for scientific usefulness.

Update: Perhaps I didn’t make clear that I can well accept smaller scale conspiracies regarding Bin Laden’s death. It would not surprise me at all if the original claims that he was armed and using is wife as a human shield were a deliberate lie cooked up by the White House and Pentagon, rather than the fog of war in action. However, the fact that these myths fell apart so fast demonstrates just how hard it would be to keep a much more significant lie, that Bin Laden hadn’t been killed at all, quiet.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Enemies of science, Global Warming. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Conspiracies – Where’s the Critical Thinking?

  1. Linden Salter-Duke says:

    A very rational case, Stephen, but the problem is that lots of people don’t much care whether their arguments are rational or not. They believe what they want to believe.

    Take a look at the reactions of the Birthers to Obama’s release of what has become known as the long-form birth certificate. A rational response would be, “Good, he’s done what we’ve been asking of him.” A few birthers have taken this line, and proclaimed a victory (Donald Trump, for example). But the majority have instead come up with even more complicated and far-fetched conspiracies, because they simply do not want to believe that Obama is the legitimate president.

    Birtherism has little appeal to most people outside the American far right. But with climate change there’s an obvious motivation to deny the evidence: as Upton Sinclair is quoted as saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

    However, most conspiracy theories — and other examples of beliefs that deny evidence, such as astrology — don’t provide this sort of obvious motive. There’s a more general motive to believe this sort of tosh, and your second paragraph points to it.

    We want to be independent free thinkers. One way to do this is actually to become an independent free thinker. But that can be difficult; it requires hard work, challenging one’s own preconceptions, changing one’s mind from time to time, and reading a lot.

    Conspiracy theories, astrology and such-like woo provide a readily-available short cut. Believe in Roswell aliens, and you too can say you’re an independent free thinker!

  2. Felix Nothus says:

    Dear Stephen, I am a conspiracy nut who researches conspiracies because they fascinate me, and I know exactly what you mean- I have so many friends who, while good intended, and smart and right thinking for the most part, never seem to question conspiracies or anything that points as the government as being a bad guy.

    I have a saying- “There is *no* conspiracy. The government *is* out to get us.”.
    What it means is, the truth is right in front of our eyes- we don’t need to come up with wild theories to prove that we’ve being screwed over and lied to by the governments-
    The appeal for so many people in regards to conspiracies is that it makes them feel special, that they know something the rest of the world doesn’t.
    It makes them feel vindicated in their mistrust of the government-
    This is really beginning to annoy me.

    It’s a welcome relief to see people such as yourself pointing out what *real* critical thinking is. Unfortunetly, my friends all think that critical thinking involves believing every conspiracy out there because the government doesn’t want them to believe it and they hate the government- 9/11 “truthers”, moon landing deniers, contrails, orgone energy, reptillians- all ridiculous theories that sooo many otherwise good and intelligent people thinking are real.

    It’s such a shame.
    I want to start an organisation which specialises in debunking conpiracy theories that will break down every conspiracy that the nuts love.

    If this sounds like something you can get behind, please do email me and get in contact, I need more straight thinking people who know how to think critically (REAL critical thinking, not the bullshit kind that so many “free thinkers” think they are doing) to help me with this- Together, hopefully, we can help educate the tin foil hat masses.

    -The Good Reverend Felix Nothus.

  3. Thanks for the comments (it’s still exciting to get them). It’s certainly true that most people believe what they want to believe. Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to appeal to the rationality of some believers and trim the numbers a bit. This creates a sort of herd resistance in the wider population.

    Felix, have you looked at the Skeptics Association. That’s pretty much what they claim to do. They went a bit off track for a few years when they got taken over by climate change deniers (yes the irony burns) but my impression is that they’re over that now. I sometimes think their tone can be a bit arrogant and they can be too dismissive of cases where the evidence is unclear, rather than solidly against something, but they’re relatively well resourced and might be able to provide support for the sort of thing you’re looking at.

  4. Felix Nothus says:

    Also heres a little rant I wrote in response to my friends thinking that these wild conspiracies are true, so far, they haven’t been able to say word rebutting it, I think you’ll appreciate this-

    I’ve said this a million times before and I’ll say it a million times again- THERE IS NO CONSPIRACY, THE GOVERNMENT *IS* OUT TO GET US.

    You don’t need wild eyed theories to discern the truth.

    Come on guys, I mistrust the government more than anyone, but if you’re going to start believing in bullshit just because it seems ambigious as to what the truth maybe, then why not start believing in reptilians? Why not believe there are mole men living under the earth? Why not believe that if you close your eyes and wish hard enough while jumping off a building, you can fly?

    YES, it’s good to question the government.
    But its one thing to question, and another thing to take up a stance of biased belief that’s based on a mistrust of the government and therefore EVERYTHING that the government says must be a lie.

    You heard of Occams Razor right? Ever hear of Asimovs elephant?

    Asimovs elephant is a demonstration of how many people think but don’t realise it-
    Suppose you were to come across a tree that had been split down the middle, and where the split is, the charred remains on the inside.

    Now, a conspiracy theorist would have you believe that an elephant is what caused the tree to split- which begs the question, howed the elephant get up in the tree?
    Well, the answers obvious, this was a FLYING elephant, that happened to land and rest on this tree causing it to split.

    What, elephants don’t fly, you say? How do you know that there aren’t elephants out there that can fly? You haven’t seen the world.

    Whats that, there are humans all over the world and in all known history and everything that science knows says there isn’t flying elephants?

    Well, what if they’re invisible? And live in the sky most of the time and are really, really, really good at avoiding airplanes?

    And the charred remains of the tree?
    Well, obviously, these elephants are constantly on fire and are immune to dying from it.

    This is how the conspiracy theorist thinks.

    Those of us who’s heads are slightly more grounded, would assume the tree was struck by lightning, but that’s such a convenient excuse, THE GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO HIDE THE FLYING ON FIRE ELEPHANTS FROM US, I KNOW THE TRUTH.

  5. Felix Nothus says:

    Also, yes, I’ve checked out the skeptics association- And I’m quite skeptical of them.

    Seriously, get in touch, I have a lot I’d love to talk about with you.

  6. Felix Nothus says:

    I understand though you’re probably a busy person and don’t have much time to contribute to such things I’m talking about, so that’s cool.

    Just some input in regards to things I’m going to do anyway, would be appreciated.

  7. I’ve never met a climate change denier.
    I’ve run into thousands of people who think it is very unlikely that the human contribution to atmospheric levels of the trace gas CO2–currently at around 390 parts per million–will effect the climate, but none of them deny that climate changes.

    Nevertheless, Stephen, you strategically deploy imprecise and misleading terminology, designed it would seem to conflate skeptics with “holocaust deniers,” as as an ad hominem attack to demean your opponents rather than engage with the facts, such as (i) the Medieval Warm Period that modern climatologists have been desperately trying to revise out of existence, (ii) repeated episodes of warming and cooling prior to the existence of humans (i.e., climate change), (iii) the accelerate growth rate of plants when subjected to optimal levels of CO2 (1000-1500ppm) as a consequence of genetic pre-adaptation to former optimal conditions, (iv) the fact that warmer episodes of earthly climate are referred to as climate “optimums” for good reasons, the content of the “climategate” emails, and a list of failed doomsday prophesies–e.g. permanent drought in Australia (Tim Flannery)–to rival those listed in the bible:

    The “fake moon landing” you invoke is a popular strawman for pseudo-skeptics to beat up in order to (i) distract from evidence of real conspiracies by governments and corporations, and to (ii) ridicule those who refuse to accept extraordinary claims in the absence of extraordinary evidence.

    Your claim that the Bhutto interview is the primary reason for widespread skepticism of the latest Spin Laded story is nonsense. Fox New reported in rather definitive language, on December 26th of 2001 that Bin Laden was dead:,2933,41576,00.html

    Winston Smith hasn’t retrospectively fixed that story yet.

    In January of 2006, Australia’s most prominent “terrorism expert,” Clive Williams, reported that documents suggested that Bin Laden died of organ failure in 2005:

    As for Bhutto, had you employed not only some critical thinking but some research into the matter, you would have found that she probably meant to say “killed Daniel Pearl” instead of “Ossama Bin Laden,” for it is the only reading that makes sense in the context of her other words.

    One 9/11 story that was corrected by Winston Smith was once titled, “Engineers are Baffled over the Collapse of 7 WTC: Steel members have been partly evaporated.”
    That story was published on November 26 of 2001 in the New York Times. In 2003 the Ministry of Truth retrospectively unbaffled the engineers so that they had “a culprit: diesel.” In 2004 the 2001 report was modified again: “Engineers Suspect Diesel.” Reference to the evaporated steel in both cases was deleted and no mention or explanation for the post-hoc revision was furnished.

    “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the future controls the present” – George Orwell, “1984”

    ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
    – Dick Cheney, 2004

    “To sift through the evidence just a little and consider the likelihood of varying claims.”
    Good advice Stephen. Perhaps you should follow it.

  8. Wow, it’s a bit exciting that my little piece of cyberspace has been found by someone so far from my circles. Pity your arguements also appear to be so far from the reality based universe.

    Quoting Fox News and Dick Cheney as reliable evidence and sage wisdom? Impressive. Particularly a nine year old report on Fox that has been contradicted by, well, everything. Perhaps I was doing those who said Bin Laden was already dead too much credit when saying they were relying on Bhutto – she certainly had more credibility than that report. (And yes she probably did mean to say Pearl not Bin Laden, but it was the people I’m criticizing using it as evidence he died years ago – not me, although I guess I should have added that little nail to the credibility of the theory). The link in regard to Williams is an own goal of a different sort. Do you understand the difference between someone saying Bin Laden “might be dead” and saying that he is? It’s subtle I know.

    Getting to the more important topic. Your claim that you don’t know anyone who denies climate change, only the anthropogenic part, is the most credible part of your whole comment. However, even there I doubt you’re right. All over the net you can find people trying to claim the climate is not currently changing significantly, which I think would make them a climate change denier. However, it would have been more correct for me to call them anthropogenic climate change deniers. Happy now?

    As to the part about the word denier being a terrible slur – the use of the word “denier” to refer to someone who disputes something for which the evidence is overwhelming dates to teh 17th Century at least. Were people in the sixteen hundreds who used this term trying to conflate their opponents with holocaust deniers? Or should a word with such a significant history now be put on ice because it has, been used in one particular context?

    The Medieval Warm Period was a real and substantial event around the North Atlantic. No one is trying to revise it out of existence, still less doing so desperately. However, it was a much weaker event across the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, and probably did not occur south of the equator – just like many other local temperature fluctuations.
    (That link’s a little old, but the recent evidence has strengthened, not weakened the case). Most plants do not grow signifcantly better in high carbon dioxide environments unless they have abundant water, nitrogen and phosphorus, conditions which seldom exist in nature. Some actually do worse. For example eucalypts in high CO2 environments are more susceptible to frost damage.

  9. Felix, I think it’s a good idea, but a very big project. I’d be happy to help out in a small way, but wary of getting overloaded so I’d want any contribution to be kept fairly well defined.

  10. Felix Nothus says:

    Watch out for those flying elephants, AlreadyPublished, I hear they’re the reason most plane crashes happen but the governments just trying to hide it from us.

  11. Lela Briggs says:

    G’Day! Stephen,
    In addition to your post I was wondering, Are resolved rather quickly when Intelligent and accurate criticisms of the existence of Israel are being debated, i’m no conspiracy theorists but,makes you wonder doesn’t it ?

  12. Lela, I think part of your comment may have been cut out, I’m not quite sure what you are saying, so I can’t answer your question.

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