Monday, March 21, 2011


Scientific American has published an article by Michael Shermer that purports to educate the reader in a 10 point method to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories - in effect, a Conspiracy Theory Lie Detector. Considering the venue - SciAm usually being mired to the nostrils in a paralyzed, reflexive logical positivist posture - this is actually a pretty nifty little reference work.

I do disagree with some of Shermer's tips for sussing out a bogus CT - for instance, I wouldn't be so quick to denigrate the value of "connecting the dots".  Theories of all kinds - not just conspiracy theories - have to start somewhere. Often, an intuitive moment of pattern recognition can start the ball rolling and lead to very fruitful and intriguing results. Of course, connecting the dots is only the beginning. The real work comes afterwards.

In any case, here are Shermer's criteria. Do YOU see any other potential problems with his methodology?

  • Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections—or to randomness—the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
  • The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
  • The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
  • Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
  • The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
  • The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
  • The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
  • The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
  • The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
  • The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.


  1. the problem with this checklist is that so many of the criteria is subjective. for example, when they say that "conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events," who's to say what is "insignificant"? who determines "likelihood"? who's to say what is "sinister"?

    i mean, i know what they are suggesting, but the wording is so contingent upon subjective assessment that it almost becomes guilty of the thing it is warning against.

  2. You're absolutely correct, TRUE. Nice to see you here, by the way!