The 5 Steps of Conspiracy Thinking
This article discusses the depths of conspiracy beliefs. This article was written with 9/11 conspiracy theories in mind, but most parts of the text can be applied to JFK, moon landing or other established conspiracy theories as well. This article is not trying to claim, that there never are any conspiracies.
By conspiracy thinking we mean the following: Support of ideas or theories that accuse a selected group of secretly committing illegal or deceptive actions. Ideas or theories which are hypothetical, speculative, unfounded, irrational, outlandish, have no supporting hard evidence and are not generally accepted. Ideas or theories which are easily falsiable and are contradicted by the huge majority of the scientific community, mathematical calculations, existing hard evidence, Occam's Razor and logic among others.
Included are 5 steps towards deeper conspiracy thinking, warning signs to consider, and other related material. We have also included relevant quotes from people writing to JREF conspiracy theory subforum. These comments are anonymous, but it doesn’t affect the message and purpose in any way.
The 5 Steps
We have identified five steps towards more and more conspiratorial thinking. It starts with encountering a single claim, and ends with dedicating your life to promoting your theories. With each step the belief and dedication become deeper and with each step getting out of the cycle gets harder.
Step 1 – Evaluation of a claim, plausible or not plausible
When one encounters a new claim, the first thing to do is to evaluate the plausibility of the claim. One might be exposed to something totally new, which sounds very convincing. If the person presenting this claim is highly educated, this might add credibility in ones mind and develop a thought that he might have something. Whether one finds this new claim plausible or not, one might move on to Step 2.
Things that affect the conclusion:
- Former experience with conspiracy theories (does one recognise what is a conspiracy theory, and know how to critically approach the kind of claims conspiracy theorists make)
- Knowledge of the subject matter (engineer, firefighter)
- Earlier tendency towards conspiracy thinking (already believing in the likes of JFK conspiracy/moon landing fakings)
- Hatred of Bush, his administration or anti-Americanism in general (consciously or unconciously wanting the conspiracy theories to be true, which leads to a less critical approach towards the theories and strengthens the reasons to dislike)
"I had always enjoyed being skeptical pretty much anything, and as an angst ridden teen, (twenty something actually) government conspiracy's fascinated me, by believing them I felt as if I was smarter than people who believed the official story, and telling people made me feel superior (like Dec 2001, saying the government was behind the attack was a pretty wild thing, and did atcaully make you controversial). I used to read Rense all the time (I considered it the REAL news, and all the MSM stuff was just BS). At that time I would have been 20. So it wasn't really facts that made me a truther, just wanting the be superior. Then I just accepted it and didn’t' follow it for years, I just assumed the government was lying. I was totally anti-American, I was of the opinion that the US was the Evil Empire, and everything they did was evil etc. The anti American sentiment coupled with attaching an inflated sense self worth to 'truther' theories (i.e.: I'm so much smarter than these sheeple) is what I think allows the movement so called to continue in the face of monumental evidence to the contrary; albeit in a feeble state."
"I actually tilted towards "truther" for a time, swayed by the LIHOP-lite/incompetence stance of "Fahrenheit 9/11". But I was never really spurred into action by any of it. It was fairly easy at the time for an anti-Bush type such as myself to believe that the warning bells that were there (the 8/6/01 PDB, the tip about Muslims at flight schools, the James Woods tip, et cetera) could go unexplored and 9/11 happened because partisan hacks were just sitting on their duffs. That actually seemed plausible."
"I also hate Bush. It was very very easy for me to believe that Bush would be involved in such a scheme of murder and deceit. But then I realized, that no matter how much I hate Bush, it is not right for me..or anyone else..to blaim him for deaths that the evidence just doesn't convict him of. Yet..I will admit....that a part of me still does hopes and prays, that someday, some evidence does come out making it clear that Bush had some hand in either making it happen, or allowing it to take place."
"It stemmed, I believe, from the ferocious resentment I was harbouring towards Bush and Blair for the pack of lies and manipulation they pushed our way to justify the wars in the Middle East. I'll stress here that this was not "anti-American" feeling. As a Brit and a natural Labour voter I cannot adequately express my hatred for Tony Blair. I'll put GWB in exactly the same class. Then, watching a couple of "Truth" videos that were being discussed on an unrelated forum. This cracked the damn, so to speak. Yes, thought I, those #######'s are well capable of that. I must admit that finally seeing the collapse of WTC7 was shocking."
"I wish I had never heard of trutherism which is only motivated by hatred of America."
Step 2 – Looking for more evidence - Critical point!
Initially this is not yet a conspiracy theorist position. One might be believing that this conspiracy could indeed be possible, or one might think that the conspiracy is not possible but wants additional evidence to support this conclusion. Regardless the initial conclusion of Step 1, in this step one is looking for more evidence.
Things affecting the conclusion:
Availability and approachability of conspiracy debunking material. There has been and still is an overwhelming amount of easily digestible conspiracy material.
The outcome of this additional research will be one of the following:
Finding evicence supporting both a conspiracy and a non-conspiracy viewpoints. Evaluating the evidence critically and coming to a non-conspiracy conclusion. Sometimes the lack of complete data can at first lead to a false conclusion of a conspiracy, which is later revised after more data is presented. In either case, the final outcome is a non-conspiracy conclusion.
Finding more and more evidence supporting the conspiracy conclusion. Not finding, or not interested in other possible explanations. Conspiracy theory getting more and more appealing. Less and less criticism towards various new conspiracy claims. Sometimes in the case of incomplete initial data, if one later finds and critically evaluates more evidence, one might still fairly easily move to Step 2a, even after moving to Step 3 which awaits next.
"Much investigoogling led (naturally) to finding countless "sources" and I was steaming so much that the ol' brain wasn't in a fit state to realize they were merely recycling the same bilge."
"I didn't realize that my statements were contradictory: I admitted that 19 people had hijacked the planes, but I wasn't quite sure about the Pentagon and the Shanksville planes."
"I was on Google video, I had a whole library of Conspiracy movies to watch for free. I literally spent 2 weeks watching what I thought was a worldwide conspiracy being unveiled before my very eyes."
"In the search for truth we can't be expected to get the right answers the first time. For me it was simply a rational conclusion based on an unknown lack of complete data. Once the missing data was provided, the conclusion changed. What DOES scare me are the people, who are given this missing data and continue to withhold a belief that could not possibly be correct."
Step 3 – Believing in a conspiracy
Believing there indeed was a conspiracy. Reinforcing this belief by finding more and more supporting evidence. Less and less openness to opposing viewpoints. After this point Step 4 is getting very close.
Step 4 – Promoting the conspiracy theory
Spreading the word. Telling friends. Wanting to share the information you have just uncovered. Participation in discussion forums, maybe attending events, handing out material. Thinking the opposition is plain wrong. Believing there has to be some kind of a conspiracy, no matter what evidence is put forward. Enthusianism rises. Feeling of importance. Thinking to have discovered something nobody else sees or understands. More and more dedication. Usually not admitting any mistakes.
A person at this stage may appear willing to change his/her mind if certain important points are solved, but in reality changing sides at this point is quite rare (but fortunately still possible).
"I felt like I had discovered something HUGE!! Something that made me part of history. I felt like...a revolutionary. Like someone who could help change the world. And then..I woke up to the boring truth.
But, until the evidence proves it, I am no truther. "
"I began talking to family and friends about what I had seen. I showed my friends some of the videos, none of them are debunkers or physicists, and so they even started to get fired up too. I remember it being a feeling that our government had betrayed its people, killed 3,000 of them, and then covered it up, so I was going to help. In some way I wanted to take part in righting this wrong that was somehow my fault. I felt that by me not caring, that I was somewhat responsible for letting a criminal government get out of hand and kill 3,000 people."
Step 5 – Conspiracy theories affecting daily life
Putting the reputations and careers on the line, maybe losing jobs or relationships. Almost no way of turning back. Everything is invested in the conspiracy. Denial of all opposing viewpoints.
Many of the current leading figures of the truth movement are currently at this stage.
There are many warning signs indicating that your critical thinking may be in danger. Consider the following. If any of these sings are found, one has to seriously reconsider their position.
- The experts on your side seem to be plain wrong on many details, but you still support other parts of their research, because these parts of their work support your views.
- Thinking you are now able to see through the entire plot, wondering why almost nobody else can.
- Being overly enthusiastic about the subject.
- Refusing to critically go through what the other side is presenting.
- Ignoring and forgetting unpleasant evidence.
- Thinking the perpetrators leave clues and you can solve it all in the internet.
- Thinking you have all the facts and need no further research, thinking your mind is set.
- Thinking every participant would be silent, every media controlled.
- After being thoroughly debunked in one detail, moving on to the next detail without re-considering your position.
- Not believing in the original detail that made you belive in a conspiracy, but having found other reasons along the way, that still make you believe in a conspiracy.
- Not being able to understand the details your belief is based on (example: Claiming thermite, but not knowing how it works).
- Having very strong disregard for any opposition.
- Thinking the governments are evil. Not trusting anything that contradicts your belief, because everything is somehow related to or controlled by the government.
- Believing in events that are very unorthodox or unique only to a conspiracy theory. (examples: Weakening the structure with explosives for an hour before a controlled demolition, Thermite being used to bring down buildings)
- Avoiding answering to questions.
- Basing your beliefs on the events following the attacks (examples: They lied about the WMD’s so they must be lying about everything, They did it to justify two wars).
Criticism Without Conspiracies
Being critical of something does not automatically mean you have to believe in a conspiracy. You can be critical of the way things were handled after the events. You can be critical of the wars. You can criticize all the actions of the administration. All that, and it doesn’t require you believing in any conspiracy theory.
A common misbelief is, that all those who oppose conspiracy theorist are “Bush lovers” or “Government apologists”. An unofficial poll revealed, that only 50% of the people who actively participate in opposing the truth movement in the JREF discussion forum (so called debunkers) are from the U.S. The rest are from all around the world. Why would all these people be apologists to government not even their own? Why would they all love Bush? You don’t have to like Bush in order to accept the evidence that doesn’t support any conspiracy theories.
Things to Consider
Here are a couple of points for conspiracy believers to consider.
If the attacks were so incredibly complicated and successful, why did they make the following incredible mistakes:
- They did not frame the citizens of the invaded countries.
- They did not plant WMD's where nobody was watching, but were supposedly able to carry out incredible events with everybody watching.
If you find youself getting around or ignoring these important questions without re-considering your position, that is a warning sign of self-deception.
"Nowadays looking back, the feeling is mostly embarrassment, especially as the whole business flared and died in a matter of a couple of months and I should really have had the wit to notice that I was getting much too excited, too quickly, about the whole 9/11 "truth" business. That's never a healthy sign. But it highlights very strongly (again) for me that the power of self-deception is very strong in the human race."
Another thing to consider, why does it seem that nobody listens? Why is there no greater global opposition towards the explanations of the events? Could it be that you could be wrong, after all?
And very important: Are my actions and beliefs profitable to someone? Am I giving money out? Am I buying many books with essentially the same content that is found on any conspiracy website? Why do I buy this material, if I know everything that is in it by heart?
And finally. Are my beliefs based on evidence or faith? Would I change sides, if certain issues were solved with supporting evidence? Is any proof enough? Are the issues that I want to get solved realistic?
Examples of unrealistic issues:
- Wanting videos of every hijacker boarding in order to believe they existed.
- Wanting to know exactly every single detail of every single event of the day.
- Wanting every single piece of evidence collected to be released.
- Wanting an entirely new investigation.
As long as these don’t take place, one can very easily claim that there are unanswered questions, and continue one’s conspiratorial beliefs. One must recognize which demands really are realistic.
You have to be very careful with material that sounds exiting, but you have no previous experience with. Because once you take the first wrong step, it is very easy to convince yourself with further evidence supporting the wrong conclusion, while all the time twisting all the evidence that doesn't.
And this can happen to anyone regardless of education, age, IQ, or any other demographic. But one can get over it, even if having once fallen for some or even all of it.
"Nowadays, I'm still learning, but I strongly fight trutherism as it has the same ways of arguing like Shoah denialism: pissing on victims' graves, pissing on psychological victims, spreading lies, and wanting to open a "debate" in order to spew their hatred of thoughts shared by a majority of people, just because it was a majority."
"Now I feel embarrassed. I will see people who I haven't seen in years, and they still think I believe that...sadly some of them do now, because of me. So now I try to educate people in Real life, and clown CTists on the Internets for lulz."
"I expressed some opinions in JREF forum and received some slaps in the face (some tactful, some not) with good plain information. But - having a good scientific background - I was able to see that at least some of the tripe I was pushing was just flat wrong. This gave pause for serious thought. Plus, here and elsewhere, I was beginning to find links to the debunking sites. Of course a lot of this could have been avoided simply by putting "9/11" +"debunk" into Google in the first place, but I suppose the desire to believe in something wacky can lead one astray."
"After the nausea passed, I was just pissed! I couldn't believe I had been lied to and at the expense of 3,000 dead victims. I had to walk in a room in front of my friends and admit that I had been duped, and that's a crappy feeling man... real crappy. I'd rather feel crappy than blindly accuse victims or victims' family members of being murderers."
And this applies to other conspiracy theories as well.
"The only conspiracy I ever believed, was the JFK one. But after finding out how the 9/11 conspiracy theories 'work' (ie, how 'proof' is found etc.) I concluded that the JFK conspiracies work the same way, and stopped believing in them after reading up on them on these boards, and also after watching a BBC documentary reconstructing how the magic bullet did in fact not traverse a magical path (had to do with the arrangement of the seats, ie. frontseat sat lower and more to the middle.) "
Let me close by quoting the excellent words of this man, whose thoughts were posted in a related discussion thread. I have translated this part from another language, so the wording may not be exact, but the meaning gets trough. Read it with thought.
"I used to believe in the truth movement. Now that I no longer believe in any of that, it's quite easy to recognize the common trends in their thinking.
In a nutshell, what takes place is an almost complete collapse of critical thinking, accompanied by extremely selective use of evidence. In the background there is a pleasing conclusion (you want it to be true for emotional or ideological reasons) and then you fit the facts to go with the predetermined conclusion.
As a natural scientist and a believer in my ability to think critically, it is still hard for me to accept that I had adopted the abovementioned features. But a cold fact is, it is surprisingly easy to do that. Especially when taking into account the huge machine, that the "truth movement" has evolved into, and how easily and convincingly the events of this kind can be fit into the most peculiar theories. The fact that there are many professors and "authorities" belonging to this group also helps lowering the standards of one's own critical thinking.
Even in scientific experiments that are performed in a laboratory there are things that cannot be explained. And this is in conditions, where all the variables are as controlled as possible. Taking into account the nature of 9/11, it would be a miracle, if there were not “oddities” or partly unexplained things. Thus, there will never be a “theory” that would explain all the minor details. We must accept the one, which can in sufficient detail explain the events by using and respecting the scientific method."
Recommended related link: http://extruther.blogspot.com/
Discussion thread about this subject at JREF forum: http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=130827