Conspiracy theories, intuitions and critical thinking: Part 1

160321 spooky hood(by Theo Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Did you know that the Charlie Hebdou attack was not, as the media tell us, an attack by terrorists offended by the satiric magazines’ portrayal of Muhammed, the Prophet? Did you know, rather, that it was orchestrated by the U.S. in order to punish France for its foreign policy decisions? Did you know that pop star Kate Perry is, in fact, a member of the Illuminati, bent on world domination? Both of these are carefully hidden facts, of course. And if you need any proof of the effectiveness of the cover-up of either and, therefore, the terrible power wielded by those running the world, what better proof than the fact that you cannot find a single shred of evidence for either claim? These are but two of literally hundreds of “conspiracy theories” reported in many media, but most widely on the internet.

A series of recent TOK blog posts examined, through the scrutinizing eyes of TOK, the nature of public “cons”– deliberate schemes to dupe the public, mostly but not always for profit and power. Here, with conspiracy theories, we look at a different kind of public deception, usually driven by entirely different forces. In fact, the irony is that most conspiracy theorists have exactly the opposite motives of con artists–not to deceive the public, but, rather, to inform them of the truth, hidden, in most cases, they assert, by powerful forces–of governments, of corporations, or of secret societies. Thus, when we consider the nature of shared knowledge conspiracy theories provide a provocative example of issues involved in the nature of publically shared “knowledge”.

Generally, conspiracy theories are dismissed as laughable, absurd, or just exasperating. However, the urgency underlying the need for clear-sighted weighing of evidence surrounding conspiracy theories is evident in many contemporary crises. Conspiracy theories can be truly damaging.

160321 mosquitoTake, for example, the case of the zika virus. According to an article in The New Yorkerthe internet is alive with conspiracy theorists claiming that “genetically modified mosquitoes cause the spread of Zika. This is a particularly dangerous misapprehension, because, for now, controlling mosquitoes may be the only way we can hope to control Zika.” (The absurdity of this conspiracy theory is exposed both in this article, and more fully at: “Why the Zika conspiracy theories don’t hold up”)

How to respond to conspiracy theories

Even without any other tools than those provided by TOK, we can aim to expose the shaky (or non-existent) foundations of many conspiracy theories. It wouldn’t take a class long to invoke such fundamental TOK analysis as the “truth checks”(c.f. Course Book, chapter 3to expose the dubious viability of many a claim about conspiracies afoot in our midst.

Unfortunately, many claims could equally expose some of the limitations of the truth checks. After all, if stories of conspiracies do fit readily with what one believes already, then what good is the coherence test as a quick response to raise doubt and provoke further questions?  Without abandoning the truth checks and application of them using reason, we do have to go beyond them into understanding how we form our beliefs — often intuitively.

A recent book provides an excellent framework for complementing rational analysis with the findings of research in cognition. In Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, Rob Brotherton, takes the opposite approach of many who expose conspiracy theories. Rather than emphasizing the marginal–even paranoid or deranged–minds of most conspiracists, Brotheron argues that it is the fundamental nature of the human mind that makes everyone susceptible to believing that “big pharma” is hiding a cure for cancer, for example, or that climate science is concocted by academics who want to line their own bankbooks. Or that Kate Perry is a not just a member of the illuminati but a robot. Seriously.

Understanding this susceptibility to conspiracy theories thus becomes, through Brotherton’s analysis, a way of understanding many fundamental facts of the way all humans process experience in order to develop belief.:“…we’re looking at the way of all of our brains work not just the brains of conspiracy theorists”.

Intuition as a way of knowing: cognitive biases, heuristics

cognitive biases.jpgSo what, then, do we learn from Brotherton about cognitive biases and heuristics, which we treat in TOK most obviously in connection with intuition as a way of knowing? (See chapter 12, TOK Course Book)  Crucial to all of these automatic leaps of mind is not just that they help explain why conspiracy theories can seem reasonable, even compelling to those who accept them, but also that they explain why we all are tempted to believe many things without easily filtering out the absurd with truth checks and rational analysis.

1.need for control

 When we feel our sense of control is stripped away for whatever reason “then we look around for other sources of control, what’s called compensatory control….” The result? We are more likely than we would normally be to believe that large forces are at work, controlling our lives.

2.pattern finding

 As Brotherton observes, “…finding patterns is an ability that we rely on every moment of the day….it’s one of the brain’s most remarkable abilities and it underlies all kinds of human endeavours.” What then is the problem? Well, as has been pointed out in other posts (e.g. “Pareidolia in Your Pocket”), the almost reflexive detection of patterns can be a distortion of reality. What seems to be a pattern of evidence of cause and effect, of links, and so on, can be little more than ingenious “cherry picking” — selecting the cherries (or bits of evidence) that suit the purpose.

3.intentionality bias

Particularly strong in children, apparently, the deep-seated sense that someone or some force is at work rarely leaves us completely, says Brotherton: “our brain is…whispering in the back of our head that everything about this [that is, event or phenomenon] was intended. Somebody meant this to happen.”   If this bias is in play we can easily see how tempting it is to search around with our conscious minds to find “evidence” that a hidden or secret force is at work.

4.proportionality bias

 If we observe a comparatively inconsequential event, we may well not even think about causes. Not so, however, if a president is assassinated or disease suddenly strikes a whole population. In the words of Lynn Malcolm in her interview with Brotherton, ” We find it difficult to accept that a relatively small event can have disproportionately huge ramifications.” If we can’t see a proportionally large cause of a large event, how tempting it is to assume that such a cause must be…hidden.

5.perceived risk 

Why are conspiracy theories rather than scientific evidence still commonly accepted in such cases as climate change or vaccination safety in relation to autism–even where the science is overhwelming? Brotherton explains, “Psychologically we evaluate risks depending on whether it’s something we’re actively doing or whether it’s something we’re not doing.” That is, our minds make us feel, irrationally, that doing nothing is inherently safer than acting to prevent danger.

6.confirmation bias

Much of the impelling force behind teaching TOK is the hope that clear thinking about both WOKs and AOKs will help us assess degree of certainty, rather than (necessarily) fully accepting or fully rejecting claims. The studies that Rob Brotherton reports, however, suggest that most people don’t come naturally to such level-minded assessment, particularly when conspiracy theories are involved: “we surround ourselves with people and information that pretty much aligns with what we already believe.”

What about the role of real, attested evidence in challenging conspiracy theories, though?   The news is not reassuring. Brotherton reports a study involving two groups of people, those who accepted a conspiracy theory and those who rejected it. Both were given a packet of information. Half of the information supported the theory and half undermined the theory. The result? We would expect both groups to soften their position, at least a little, in the light of the new information. Instead, however, both groups strengthened their original position!

(One possibility that Brotherton doesn’t discuss, but which we examined in a previous blog post, is that people tend to assert increased conviction, even act upon their beliefs when they are made to feel shaky about the truth of those beliefs.)

“Why is it so difficult for us to change our minds?” asks Lynn Malcolm.

Rob Brotherton’s answer points to the evolutionary rationale of this rigidity of mind: “it seems to be hard-wired…this is how we’ve evolved to think. makes sense to be skeptical of claims that go against what we already believe.” Needless to say, though, Brotherton goes on to say, “…this can result in a self-insulating feedback loop…it’s very rare that people actually change their minds.”

Hope for critical thinking

In an article on conspiracy theories in The Guardian, journalist David Shariatmadari reports the work of Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology: “Swami found that people who had been encouraged to think analytically during a verbal task were less likely to accept conspiracy theories afterwards. For him, this hints at an important potential role for education. ‘The best way is, at a societal level, to promote analytical thinking, to teach critical thinking skills.'”

Thus, while changing entrenched beliefs may be difficult, it seems that the kind of critical thinking that underlies TOK can prevent such ill-founded beliefs forming in the first place.

Preventing conspiracy theories

But do we want to discourage belief in all conspiracies? Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history or contemporary events will be quick to point out that there actually have been some powerful and dangerous conspiracies. Bizarre as it sounds, for example, the CIA really did (as they admitted) perform mind-control experiments on civilians using drugs, electronics, and hypnosis. Less sensationally, we’re all familiar with many corporation, pharmaceutical company or government cover-ups.

As Rob Brotherton emphasizes in his article in the LA Times, “Dismissing all conspiracy theories (and theorists) as crazy is just as intellectually lazy as credulously accepting every wild allegation. The tricky part is figuring out what’s reasonable and what’s ridiculous, and we can do that only by honestly scrutinizing why we believe what we believe.”

And doesn’t this assertion come close to summing up one of the major principles underlying TOK? Is his point worth repeating–this time in bold? Yes!

The tricky part is figuring out what’s reasonable and what’s ridiculous, and we can do that only by honestly scrutinizing why we believe what we believe.

In next week’s post, we will suggest some class activities, with examples, on recognizing conspiracy theories and the cognitive biases involved.


Luke Brinker, “Ron Paul defends insane Charlie Hebdo conspiracy theory: I’m just trying ‘to get the truth out’!”, Salon, January 6, 2015.

Rob Brotherton, “The logic behind conspiracy theories”, Lost Angeles Times, Jan 19, 2016.

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013. (Intuition (chapter 12).

Theo Dombrowski, “Pareidolia in your pocket”, Activating TOK, October 23, 2014.

“It’s a conspiracy”, All In the Mind podcast, Rob Brotherton with host Lynne Malcolm, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016’s-a-conspiracy/7148806

Angela Mulholland, “Fact Check: Why the Zika conspiracy theories don’t hold up”, CTV news, February 22, 2016.

“Katy Perry conspiracy theories: from Illuminati to JonBenet Ramsey”, The Week, March 3, 2016.

David Shariatmadari, “The truth is rushing out there: why conspiracy theories spread faster than ever”, The Guardian, December 26, 2015.

Michael Specter, “The dangerous conspiracy theories about the zika virus,” The New Yorker, February 25, 2016.

“Why are conspiracy theories so attractive?” host Nicola Davis with Rob Brotherton and Chris French. Science Weekly podcast, The Guardian. November 13, 2015.

image of spooky hood

2 responses to “Conspiracy theories, intuitions and critical thinking: Part 1

  1. Re: the closing reflection that it is intellectually lazy to dismiss conspiracy theories.
    Yes I agree.
    I could add that there is also a danger of a fear of asking questions lest we fall into the trap of committing a logical fallacy or are seen to be expressing bias that could lead shutting down debate.

    It may be more helpful if conspiracy theories were renamed as ‘conspiracy hypotheses’ – that is, they are points from which to ask discreet questions and seek evidence. I say “discreet”, because no-one wants to be be linked to a conspiracy theory, and there is a real risk of causing harm – as in the case of the Zika virus you mention and the slandering an innocent. Students should be warned about the dangers of making unsubstantiated claims.

    I think also that aside from intellectual laziness it is also a matter of fear of cognitive dissonance. I remember when my students – a class of first year engineering and maths students studying English for academic purposes at a leading French school- asked me to do a lesson on 9/11 and notably the collapse of Building 7. I refused – I told them that I saw no merit in the claims and that they were seeking to make sense of a chaotic and tragic event (i.e. “a need for control” & “pattern finding”). I quoted Chomsky on the subject who said that if 9/11 was orchestrated from within someone would have leaked the details. For Chomsky it was simply “unlikely”. But the case of Building 7 remains a compelling one and I have always regretted the missed opportunity to have allowed those students to investigate it as a class project. In reality, I had not looked closely at the claims (intellectual laziness and hubris) – and my students knew much more about it than I did. I think also at the time it was more of a case of not wanting to go there – i.e. not wanting to take the red pill re: the film ‘The Matrix’ – in other words, what if the conspiracy theory is true – and what then?

    Of importance, is that conspiracy theories may come just as much from members of the public as from governments themselves, re: Russia is responsible for the defeat of Hillary Clinton and that Saddam Hussein had WMD. Maybe the incursion into Iraq and the loss of over a million lives could have been avoided by the asking of questions to expose bias on the part of the Bush administration.

    I think the response of TOK teachers in dealing with conspiracy theories is rather than to discredit them as expressions of fallacy and bias, it should be to approach them respectfully as expressions of curiosity and of a fundamental right to question those in power. the next step is to ask for the evidence – that is to ask “how do you know this?” From there issues of bias and fallacy can may be drawn out.


  2. Thanks for this comment, Ray. Your comments on teacher response are extremely valuable. We don’t want to shut down our students as they try to think things through — especially not by discrediting them and showing that they’re wrong, wrong, wrong!!!! Instead, we want to help them take the next stage in thinking themselves, so that they can come to see the next questions they might ask in all such circumstances. I particularly like your comment on treating students respectfully. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed — no, I’ve ALMOST always enjoyed — the teen capacity to engage freshly and try out different stances and positions. — Eileen


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