Conspiracy Über Alles

by on February 7, 2012 at 6:52 am in Education, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

From Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton:

Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

Here is the gated link, here is an ungated version, and hat tip goes to Kevin Lewis.

1 Andreas Moser February 7, 2012 at 7:01 am

I noticed that conspiracy theorists cannot be persuaded by facts at all.
I recently tried to point out why another conspiracy (the claim of 12,000 US troops being stationed on Malta, ready to move to Malta) must be wrong. And I live in Malta. But if you read the comments on my blog post, you will see how conspiracy theorists will take any argument to turn it around and somehow fit it into their idea: – They also don’t mind changing their conspiracy theory quite a bit along the way.

2 Andreas Moser February 7, 2012 at 7:02 am
3 Ignacio February 7, 2012 at 7:24 am

I read the comments on your blog. Unbelievable!

4 Beefcake the Mighty February 7, 2012 at 8:56 am

The most unbelievable ones are the responses by Andreas Moser. True, many conspiracy theories are absurd, but no less absurd is unquestioningly swallowing the US govt’s line, which invariably seems to be the position of those who ridicule conspiracy theories. Believing that the Libya adventure wasn’t the native rebellion that the US media portrayed it as, and that NATO was simply gallantly helping those in need, doesn’t make you some kind of lunatic.

5 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 9:47 am

Obviously, if there were 12,000 troops on Malta it would capsize.

6 Jim D February 7, 2012 at 10:11 am

The absurdity of one point of view does not validate or balance out the absurdity of another. When I find myself thinking, “Well, I guess that’s no more absurd than the other side’s story” my next step in stringent reasoning on the issue is to attempt an alternative, hopefully less absurd interpretation. The pitfall of not doing so is to fall into the fallacy of the false dilemma:

7 JWatts March 5, 2012 at 6:27 pm

“Obviously, if there were 12,000 troops on Malta it would capsize.”


And the obligatory link to US Representative Hank Johnson (D):

Warning: This video has been none to cause viewers to fall out of their chair in fits of laughter.

8 Jim D February 7, 2012 at 9:17 am

Yes, this is similar to criticisms of antisemitic propaganda in Germany. When someone would say, “But many/most/no Jews are actually like that!” the response would be, “But don’t you see, that just shows how deep and pernicious their deception is! They have everyone fooled!” For conspiracy theorists, positive evidence against their claims is used as fuel for positive evidence to support their claims.

9 Beefcake the Mighty February 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

Really? That would be the ONLY possible response? Interesting. Someone needs to do a psychological study of people who reflexively reject conspiracy theories.

10 Jim D February 7, 2012 at 10:04 am

Perhaps I was using a term in more circumscribed way than is common, so I’ll be a little clearer: Note that I did not say, “Anyone who believes one or more conspiracy theories”. I said “conspiracy theorists”, by which I meant individuals who attempt to explain most or all of the world around them through a series of conspiracy theories and other unverifiable, unfalsifiable claims.

11 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm

This is how much I believe the government line: every year we get a letter from the health department saying that my kid ‘may’ not be certified for vaccines. May. This is because one time THEY gave him the wrong vaccine.

12 Neal February 7, 2012 at 7:11 am

That’s strange. That’s really, really strange.

13 Andreas Moser February 7, 2012 at 7:17 am

I also love to make up completely new conspiracy theories, e.g. this one about Mitt Romney being a foreign spy: and then waiting to see how long it takes for it to make the rounds.

14 Ephraiyim February 26, 2012 at 3:47 am

See-I don’t even have to read that one to believe it. I just have to watch him on television. Although puppet would be a more apt term.

15 Bill February 7, 2012 at 8:05 am

This study is a coverup.

It is designed to hide the conspiracy right before your eyes.

Alex and Tyler.

16 dearieme February 7, 2012 at 8:14 am

I suppose that the “birther” business is a conspiracy theory. It seemed to start with a Democrat, presumably a Clinton supporter, but was later taken up by others. (Are they all Republicans?) There seemed to be two answers to their demands to see O’s long form birth certificate. The dimmer sort of O supporter said that no such document existed – only the short form. The less dim admitted that a long form certificate existed but, they added, the State of Hawaii was legally forbidden to release it. Both sorts were made fools of when O finally published what he claimed was his long form certificate. So now, if there is any doubt, it centres solely on whether that certificate is a fake. I’d say that this history suggests that the “birthers” are not, or at least were not, nut cases: they said that something important had been concealed and they have been proved entirely right on that point.

All this is a separate business from the argument that O is not a natural born citizen because his father was a foreign national – as far as I know, that argument is simply contrary to legal precedent i.e. it is wrong.

17 CBBB February 7, 2012 at 8:59 am

I’m far from an Obama supporter but what’s with calling him “O”? It’s annoying. No the Birthers WERE nut cases – I mean anyone who somehow believes that some foreign national could become President and it never would have been figured out given how competitive the two parties are with each other when it comes to elections has to be willfully stupid. if there were really a chance you would think Hillary and/or McCain would have pounced on it.
I don’t want to get a bunch of replies labeling me as some kind of Obama supporter so let me make myself clear: Fuck Obama.

18 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 9:51 am

Dearieme is right, but it’s interesting who thinks who got the upper hand. I almost think they did that asinine disposal of OBL’s body to try a similar rope-a-dope.

19 Steve Sailer February 8, 2012 at 6:07 am

It was always ludicrous to believe that Obama’s heavily pregnant mother had climbed into a 707 and expensively flown from Honolulu to some foreign country to give birth. Where would she have gone?

What _is_ interesting about Obama’s birth is that his parents’ much-celebrated marriage was bigamous. Barack Sr. had a wife and a couple of kids back home in Kenya. (That, and his limited academic promise, were why Harvard worked with the immigration service to throw him out of the country.) For some reason, that comes up a lot more about Romney’s great-grandparents than about Obama’s parents.

When I was small, George Romney was the frontrunner for President for the GOP nomination in 1968. I only recently learned that he was born in Mexico. His grandfather had moved to Mexico to escape American anti-polygamy laws. His father, a monogamist, was more loyal to the U.S. than his father, although he still lived in the polygamists’ colony in Mexico. Would that have made George Romney ineligible? Well, it just never came up in 1967.

McCain was born on a U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone. The Senate passed a resolution deeming that American-born for the purpose of being President.

20 Anonymoos March 6, 2012 at 9:40 am

I suppose the only possibility was if he had been born in Vancouver, Canada.

21 IVV February 7, 2012 at 9:09 am

I always felt that since there was no question that Barack Obama’s mother was an American citizen at the time of his birth, there would be no question that Obama was also an American citizen at birth.

22 Jim Nazium February 7, 2012 at 9:20 am

Too bad that’s not the law in the United States.

23 Ignacio February 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

Actually, it may be the law. The U.S. constitution requires that a person must be a “natural born citizen” to be president and there is little explanation for what this meansin such document. However, there has been repeated interpretations that extends such temr to include the children of U.S. citizens who are born abroad since they are citizens from birth. See the following article:

24 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

Don’t pick up dollars on the sidewalk because there can’t be any unpicked up dollars?

25 IVV February 7, 2012 at 10:28 am

It is the law in the United States. Children of American citizens are American citizens, and therefore they are natural born. The land does not confer the nature.

26 dearieme February 7, 2012 at 4:32 pm

Apparently the law at the time of O’s birth left a tricky problem open: his mother, by a combination of age and places of residence, didn’t (it is claimed) provide him with American citizenship, hence the importance of his being born in the USA (or Mars, as the case may be). So I have read, but I claim no authority in this business.

27 efp February 7, 2012 at 3:32 pm

See “conspiracy theorists cannot be persuaded by facts” above…

28 Willitts February 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Our Constitution requires that our president be: a natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, at least 14 years a resident of the United States. Given the minimal qualifications, I expect our government to actually enforce them and every candidate to provide satisfactory proof for public inspection by all. This should be a pre-requisite, not an afterthought or product of a FOIA request, subpoena, or result of political goading.

This is not the belief of a conspiracy theorist. It’s the belief of a citizen of a free society. I don’t need to explain to anyone why I demand that elected officials prove their eligibility. I had to prove my eligibility for my job, excuse me for demanding proof from our presidential candidates.

29 Anon. February 7, 2012 at 9:01 am

The first thing that came to mind when reading the post was Quine’s web theory of knowledge. Any point on the web can be made valid by modifying other, supporting points. I guess that it’s easier for these people to have fluctuating belief in whether Diana was murdered or killed herself (something they have very little data on) than the belief in the idea that government systematically lies to them (which I suppose they think they have a lot of evidence for).

30 The Other Jim February 7, 2012 at 9:06 am

The more people believe that killing a raper-torturer-murderer of 57 people would be unforgivable, the more they believe that killing a viable third-trimester unborn baby is just peachy.

Humans. What are you gonna do?

31 CBBB February 7, 2012 at 9:07 am


32 Beefcake the Mighty February 7, 2012 at 9:37 am

You’re a shit-for-brains.

33 The Original D February 7, 2012 at 10:56 am

Both of them are grounds for denial of the sacrament.

34 CIP February 7, 2012 at 9:17 am

Maybe people who believe in conspiracy theories are just dumb?

35 Anon. February 7, 2012 at 9:30 am

Undeniably. But they are dumb in systematic and interesting ways.

36 Laserlight February 7, 2012 at 9:41 am

Not dumb. I expect a lot of them are quite intelligent, in the sense of being able to retain and process information well; they just lack wisdom and common sense. (Exactly like the Political Party I Disagree With, come to think of it).

37 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 9:54 am

They prioritize poorly. Take The Fed…please.

38 Bender Bending Rodriguez February 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I read somewhere that conspiracy theories are attractive because they give you the appearance of control. Take, for example, the 2004 elections. If you’re of a particular political persuasion, it’s far better to believe that nefarious hackers within the Diebold corporation stole Ohio’s electoral votes than to believe that said political persuasion isn’t really as attractive as you might think.

Same thing with 9/11. One would much rather think that the far reaching changes that followed from that event are all part of a deep and disturbing plot rather than sh!t that just happened because the right 20 guys managed to pull off such a high impact event. Besides, everyone knows fire can’t melt steel 😀

39 josh February 7, 2012 at 10:08 am

There are many people who otherwise are very intelligent that believe in conspiracy theories. My current hypothesis is that it works like some form of religious belief, largely based on faith and evoking an emotional reaction to any criticism.

40 derek February 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm

No, they just want to explain the incomprehensible. Just like economists.

41 Ephraiyim February 26, 2012 at 4:29 am

Look, some of the folks who ascribe to these sort of things are borderline kookish, others not so much. Here is a link worth the read of 33 conspiracies the turned out to be true. You may think some of the other stuff this guy is into lies in the kookish range but at least after reading the evidence you will have to admit that some “conspiracies” do in fact end up being true.

42 Wade February 7, 2012 at 9:56 am

Conspiracy theorists have a worldview, and facts are adjusted to reinforce it. A very good paper on this can be found by Googling “The Authoritarians”.

43 Anon March 6, 2012 at 6:42 am

Do you not have a worldview, which you believe is substantiated by the facts?

44 Alan February 7, 2012 at 9:58 am

Crank magnets abound. People who think that fluoride in water causes cancer tend to think vaccines cause autism. People who think that the sun’s core is made of iron tend to think volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than human activities. People who think cold fusion is possible tend to think multinational corporations suppressed the water-powered car.

45 Beefcake the Mighty February 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

How about people who embrace Darwinian evolution when it can be used against conservative Christians, but reject it when the topic of racial differences comes up? There’s a name for such people: liberals.

46 Jack Fraser February 7, 2012 at 10:55 am

Guess we can add a poor understanding of biological sciences to “conspiracies.”

47 CBBB February 7, 2012 at 11:28 am


48 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm


Can you tell me what causes autism?

49 msgkings February 7, 2012 at 2:55 pm

No he can’t, nor can you tell him.

50 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Actually, someone can tell us. They just don’t KNOW they know.

51 Peter A March 6, 2012 at 2:31 am

Jack, somehow I don’t think you have a very deep understanding of biology or science.

52 Attorney at Flaw February 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I want to believe that libertarians are not racist cranks, and then you come along.

53 Phillip Helbig March 7, 2012 at 7:24 am

You seem to be implying that human races (which definitely exist; some people think one should avoid this topic because of racism, but that is as absurd as claiming there is only one sex because one could otherwise be accused of sexism) are somehow different in an evolutionary sense. All existing humans are members of the same species (this doesn’t have to be the case, and probably wasn’t back in the pre-Homo sapiens days) and most differences are quite literally skin-deep and are mainly adaptations to climate. There are extremely few differences between races which can be attributed to genetics, and none which can be attributed to what you seem to be implying.

54 Rahul February 7, 2012 at 10:47 am

Maybe it just reflects a low IQ or reasoning ability or something. The hidden variable might be stupidity, ignorance etc.

They should have had some math or geography or logic questions on the survey.

55 derek February 7, 2012 at 12:34 pm

What is the difference between conspiracy theorists who are trying to impose a structure on something confusing and troubling, and the various schools of economics? Keynesians, neo Keynesians, Austrians, the Chicago school. There is very very little empirical evidence supporting any of the various schools. Any event is squeezed, twisted and made to fit to confirm what you already think.

Maybe the difference is that one is acceptable, the other not. There have been some pretty weird ideas that have been accepted and implemented into public policy with no empirical basis.

I would suggest that someone who does not put the world into tidy little boxes in large measure is abnormal. Our brains are pattern seeking and matching devices, and in most endeavours it works pretty well. What we have trouble with is complexity, so we have people who specialize in wearing the right clothes, looking and talking the right way and putting incomprehensible markings on paper to impose a pattern on the complex.

We like all other people in history think that our experts got it right and are above all that nonsense. Sure. We are watching the collapse of a world built on the assumptions of very smart people.

Britain and at one time Canada had a tradition of very odd political parties and very odd individuals running for parliament. Totally off the wall, a good laugh. If you look back 50 years and compare what they said to what the serious politicians said and did, one wonders who was off the wall.

56 Attorney at Flaw February 7, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Maybe because neither Keyesian nor Austrian economists go on about how the Zionists and the Bush family and the secret world government located at Yale manufacture tsunamis.

57 Ben February 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

It seems like the study is simply saying that conspiracy theorists are good bayesians.

58 Samuel February 7, 2012 at 11:01 am

This reminds me of adherents of Naturopathic Medicine. Some will affirm accupuncture viz Qi meridians while simultaneously affirming chiropractic care viz subluxation. Either all malady is caused by Qi flows or all malady is the caused by spinal misalignments. Which is it; and how do homeopathic doses of vitamin D help with either?

It’s like trying to have an ontology and eat it too.

59 BenSix February 7, 2012 at 11:11 am

In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.

The authors write…

Either she was killed by a rogue cell of the British secret service (#1) or by agents of the Fayeds (#4), or she faked her own death (#3). These theories are mutually incompatible…

Untrue! She could have faked her death and then been killed elsewhere by the spooks or the Fayeds. A bizarre theory, of course, but not inconsistent.

60 msgkings February 7, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Nice work. I happen to know that’s exactly what happened to her. It’s obvious if you know how to read the signs.

61 Bender Bending Rodriguez February 7, 2012 at 4:26 pm


62 Willitts February 7, 2012 at 11:28 pm

The fallacy is that you all think the respondents are holding contradictory beliefs simultaneously. That’s NOT what the study is showing. The results mean that they assign similar levels of plausibility to beliefs which are NOT the official story.

The mistake is treating each alternative explanation as having some subjective probability. The respondent might not be making ANY probability judgement or ranking. If they were forced to provide subjective probabilities, they might add to more than one.

Suppose I do not believe Princess Diana died in an accident. I might consider it equally plausible that she was murdered by MI-5, murdered by Mohammed Al-Fayed, murdered by Mossad, or her death faked to escape scrutiny. Given the money, motives, and power of the parties concerned, any of these are plausible. Although I think they are equally plausible, it doesn’t mean I assign equal subjective probabilities to each event.

Diana’s family might have done an autopsy with DNA test and they KNOW she’s dead, but we don’t have that information. In the absence of perfect information, people speculate and mistrust. You may not care about the truth – I certainly don’t. But some people do care, and when you call them cranks or idiots, you are doing so from no less a position of ignorance. NONE of you KNOW Diana is dead or how she died. You either have gullible beliefs, unquestioning faith in authority, or are (like me) indifferent and apathetic to knowing the truth value of this particular story.

Just curious: what do you believe about the death of Alexander Litvinenko?

63 BenSix February 8, 2012 at 8:17 am

The fallacy is that you all think the respondents are holding contradictory beliefs simultaneously.

Is this directed at me? Because that’s not what I was trying to say at all.

64 David Ellis February 7, 2012 at 11:49 am

Economists believe in all sorts of nutty explanations too. Many are just as contradictory.

65 Mike Huben February 7, 2012 at 12:13 pm

A prime example is the many conflicting explanations of libertarianism.

66 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 1:13 pm

What questions do you have Mike? I can try to help.

67 Dredd February 7, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Conspiracy theories in general have two sides: the good side, and the bad side.

The discipline of Epistemology describes this as a war of beliefs, because what we “know” is really the essence of believing that someone who said they know something really does actually know it.

We, as individuals, just don’t have enough time or ability to prove most things for ourselves, so as Epistemology points out, “everybody has to believe somebody.”

68 Jeff Kaufman February 7, 2012 at 2:18 pm

A normal person hears the official explanation, and thinks “reasonable”. So perhaps they would put it at 95% likely that Diana died as portrayed in the media, 3% that she was murdered, 1% that she faked her own death, and 1% something else.

A conspiracy theorist hears the same explanation and thinks “fishy, can’t trust those authorities”. Perhaps they’re pretty skeptical of the official story, but they don’t know what’s right. So they take the same ratios everyone else has for dividing up the “she didn’t die as officially claimed” possibilities and spread them over a larger area: the official explanation would be 50% likely, murder 30%, death faking 10%, and other 10%.

Belief in murder and death faking would be correlated, but not because anyone actually thinks she did both at once.

69 Andrew' February 7, 2012 at 2:29 pm

Probably explains why people who don’t believe conspiracy theories also don’t believe a lot of real stuff. I have feelers for a lot of weak signals. I’ve been pushing vitamin D on my family for almost 10 years while my family doctor said in response to questions about vitamins “I’ve never had anyone present with a vitamin deficiency.” After he starts testing people for Vit D and prescribing supplments I wonder what he is thinking. It certainly won’t be “I wish I’d listened to that Andrew’ nut.”

70 Dredd February 7, 2012 at 3:42 pm


A normal person hears the official explanation, and thinks ‘reasonable’” …

In which country? One country’s reasonable is another country’s conspiracy theory.

In the U.S. we have a government-is-parent mentality.

No “normal person” likes to dis their parents by doubting them when they say “that is a conspiracy theory”.

71 Tom Davies February 7, 2012 at 6:41 pm
72 Steve Sailer February 8, 2012 at 6:27 am

There are quite a number of actual conspiracies in history. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which started WWI, was a large scale conspiracy rather like Col. Prouty’s JFK theory. The head of Serbian military intelligence also headed a covert paramilitary group that dispatched nine assassins to Sarajevo for a month.

The assassination of Lincoln was a sizable conspiracy. Robert Redford’s 2011 movie The Conspirator missed the point that we still don’t know whether the conspiracy went all the way to Jefferson Davis or not. The Union government under Edwin Stanton didn’t really want to know, and hanged lower level conspirators fast to get it over and done with to lessen Northern hatred of the South.

Then there are events that turn out not to have been conspiracies, like the Reichstag Fire, but make more sense as conspiracies. But are you really going to disparage the people who thought Hitler did it?

The JFK assassination seems to fall into this category. Oswald was the son-in-law of a KGB colonel — that’s pretty weird, you know. Ruby had mob ties. Insiders assumed it was a conspiracy — they just disagreed on who the conspirators likely were. LBJ immediately assumed Castro did it as payback for JFK trying to assassinate him. RFK immediately dispatched his best Justice Dept. investigators to look into 3 conspiracy theories he came up with on 11/22/63. RFK’s favorite theory was the Mafia did it for RFK persecuting them after all the nice things they had done for the Kennedys.

73 BenSix February 8, 2012 at 8:27 am

Exactly right. Organised crime has maintained itself for centuries through the means of engineering large-scale conspiracies – think how many years it took for people to even agree that the Sicilian Mafia was a real thing, not a state of mind – and nobody disputes their prowess at subverting institutions; silencing witnesses; evading justice and so on. Yet, for some reason, the idea that richer and more powerful governments could make use of the same tactics is inconceivable.

74 Steve Sailer February 8, 2012 at 6:29 am

Lots and lots of people around the world assume that the last decade’s various “color-coded revolutions” were subsidized by the U.S. government. For some reason you don’t read that theory much in the U.S. press.

75 psikeyhackr February 10, 2012 at 3:24 am

People who can’t explain the grade school physics of how airliners could destroy buildings 2000 times their own mass in less than two hours have to come up with psychological excuses. But after ten years what else can they do. The physics profession should have been talking about how the steel has to be distributed in skyscrapers in 2002.

Physicists can’t figure out there had to be a lot more steel toward the bottom of skyscrapers than toward the top? They can’t even compute the Potential Energy of the towers without that info.

76 gwern March 5, 2012 at 1:42 pm

IQ strongly predicts holding of conspiracy theories in the cases examined in

(Big file; conspiracy theories towards the end.)

77 Geoff March 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm

As mentioned by others, and as referenced in the link provided by Ephraiyim:

Gulf of Tonkin
Operation Northwoods
(There are many, many more examples, both in the private sector and the public sector.)

In the first comment, Andreas Moser said, “I noticed that conspiracy theorists cannot be persuaded by facts at all.”

What should I take from those facts other than that political and bureaucratic leaders nefariously deceive and manipulate on a grand scale in an attempt to further their agendas?

78 Steve March 5, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Osama bin Laden is still very much ALIVE! Why is it so difficult to believe?!

This is all the proof that you need :

79 Adrian E. Tschoegl March 5, 2012 at 10:41 pm

My sense is that conspiracy theorists are naively hopeful. If things just happen randomly, then there is no hope. However, if the reason bad things happen is that bad people are pulling the strings, then there is hope. One day the good people will be in power and will pull the strings and then we will have utopia. Conspiracy theories are also like religious faith. The deeply religious believe that everything, good or bad, that happens is part of God’s plan and when we die and go to heaven we will understand. The conspiracy theorist does not recognize God or the devil, and instead attributes bad things to extraordinarily capable bad people instead, and again, it is in that their hope resides.

Daniel Pipes, “Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From “, makes some good points. His assessment is that conspiracy theorists are what i would call extreme maximum likelihoodists. 1) “What happened was intended”. 2) “Who benefited was who intended the outcome.”

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