Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Conspiracy Theories Fail the Criterion of Simplicity

Car destroyed as the Twin Towers fell - picture in NYC at the site.

NBA basketball star Steph Curry recently denied that the US landed on the moon. It was all a conspiracy! That loony claim got him lots of push-back. Then, he denied that he meant anything about it - it was a joke.

Yes, there are true conspiracies. But, in general, pay no attention to conspiracy theorists. Here's why.

Several years ago, after the tragedy of 9-1-1, a handful of Monroe-area skeptics stood on a street corner holding signs that said "Impeach Bush." Why? Because, they "reasoned," what happened on 9-1-1 was a conspiracy. 

Quoting our local newspaper:  “It was probably a cruise missile that went off (launched by the U.S.!), and they didn’t want anyone to see that. They did it so they could justify attacking Iraq. Probably, that happened?” 

You have got to be kidding me!

Here’s the “thinking”:
1.Probably a cruise missile sent by the U.S. hit the Pentagon.
2.The U.S. government didn’t want people to see that.
3.So, they suppressed the videos, which actually showed a cruise missile hitting the Pentagon. (That’s why we have not seen any more videos of the incident.)
4.The motive: The U.S. did this deliberately to justify attacking Iraq!

Right. 

What's wrong with conspiracy theories like this? Let's look to logic (actual reasoning) for an answer.

In my Intro to Logic class I used Lewis Vaughn's The Power of Critical Thinking. Vaughn's main advantages over Hurley's Logic (which I used for years) include: 1) bringing in philosophical-worldview issues; 2) presentation (more colorful, up-to-date re. illustrations); and especially, for me; 3) the chapter on inference to the best explanation. Even though Vaughn's anti-religious spin is present, I still very much like his book.

Vaughn's ch. 9 - "Inference to the Best Explanation" - is about theories, and how to evaluate them. In theory-evaluation there are "criteria of adequacy." 

Vaughn writes:

"Applying the criteria of adequacy to a set of theories constitutes the ultimate test of a theory's value, for the best theory is the eligible theory that meets the criteria of adequacy better than any of its competitors." (356-357)  

For Vaughn these are:


  1. Testability - there is some way to determine whether the theories are true or false.
  2. Fruitfulness - the yielding of new insights that can open up whole new areas of research and discovery.
  3. Scope - it explains more diverse phenomena.
  4. Simplicity - a theory that makes fewer assumptions is less likely to be false because there are fewer ways for it to be wrong.
  5. Conservatism - other things being equal, the best theory is the one that fits best with established beliefs.
Vaughn shows how conspiracy theories usually fail the criterion of simplicity because they...

..."try to explain events by positing the secret participation of numerous conspirators.... Some conspiracy theories, of course, have been found to be true. But most of them are implausible... They would have us raise numerous assumptions that raise more questions than they answer: How do the conspirators manage to keep their activities secret? How do they control all the players? Where is the evidence that all the parts of the conspiracy have come together just so?" (365)

Vaughn calls the United States "Conspiracy Central." Here are some of the things we are told are the center of a massive conspiracy:
  • Elvis's death
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, assassination
  • The Oklahoma City bombing
  • Princess Diana's death
  • The earth is really flat
  • Vaccines are unsafe (among other things, they cause autism - debunking happens here. But isn't the CDC behind the conspiracy? Right...)
  • The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
Re. the latter: 

1) How did Pres. Bush and his numerous supposed cohorts keep their activities secret?; 

2) How did Bush and his partners control all the players involved?; and 

3) Where is the evidence that this massive, complicated plan came together just so? 

The answer: probably it didn't happen that way.