Conspiracy theories, intuitions and critical thinking: Part 2

cognitive biases(by Theo Dombrowski, from OUP blog) Our intuitions can take us in leaps to some crazy places. And yet, if we’re going to consider how we really build what we claim is knowledge – in real life rather than in some tidied and rational abstraction – we do have to look at some of those crazy places and the pre-rational cognitive biases that take us there.

My last post dealt with conspiracy theories as a significant but frequently entertaining entry point for recognizing some of the flaws of intuition as a way of knowing – that is, if it is not supplemented by awareness and the more rational processes of critical thinking. This week’s post picks up that background and applies it in a series of classroom exercises to get students to engage their minds. After all, we can’t teach critical thinking by telling students about it. They have to do it themselves.

Below are some exercises that you are free to use or adapt to your own classroom context.

Common cognitive biases

First, referring back to Conspiracy theories, intuitions and critical thinking: Part 1 it would be a good idea to review cognitive biases that Rob Brotherton argues to be common to all humans:

  1. The need for control
  2. Pattern finding
  3. Intentionality Bias
  4. Proportionality Bias
  5. Perceived Risk
  6. Confirmation Bias

For the first exercise below, it could provoke thoughtful discussion to look at some social forces and historical movements that could well provoke conspiracy theories–in order to look at the seeds of such distortions of evidence.

cognitive biases

Exercise 1: Invent your own conspiracy

INSTRUCTIONS: Invent conspiracy theories to go with the following and say which cognitive bias, or biases they arise from. (This could be done individually, in pairs, or in a whole group discussion)

  1. Within the last few years, the crime rate has risen in your county, the jobless rate has sky-rocketed, and everywhere there is civil unrest. Can you invent a truly devious, ingenious, and complicated conspiracy that lies behind this and to whom it might appeal? (The need for control)
  2. Consider a scenario where a high proportion of world leaders, particularly from countries where there has been a lot of immigration, like Australia, Canada, U.S., New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina and so on over the last decade have had surnames that sound distinctly Italian. Think of a conspiracy that you could argue to “make sense” of this pheonomenon. (Pattern finding)
  3. Imagine you live in a farming community that, through public protest, has blocked the development of a mine that is likely to cause toxins to enter the water table. Most of the crops in your community have become diseased with a rare fungus. Propose a conspiracy and, if you like, invent some further “evidence”. (Intentionality bias)
  4. A private plane piloted by a local man crashes. You take no notice. The following month your prime minister and her cabinet are flying to a summit meeting in Geneva when the plane crashes, without apparent explanation. What kind of conspiracy can you imagine, and what would add fuel to the fire of your theory? (Proportionality bias)
  5. Every few years, the cattle in your part of the country become infected with a disease that badly damages the herds, but usually the herds recover health within a year or two.  Government scientists propose an effective method of genetically testing the cattle to see which ones are “silent carriers” of the disease. You argue against this, speculating about some of the motives of the scientists, and the dangers of what they propose. What is your underlying fear? (Perceived risk)
  6. You hear rumours that there were strange lights appearing in the night sky south of your town. You decide to research, and do an internet search under the heading “are ufos real?”. You find the following websites and read them before forming your theory: (Confirmation bias)

Part of the value of looking at how conspiracy theories arise from the “natural” inclinations of our brains, however, is to sensitize us to the extent to which those biases can influence our judgments even when we are not thinking about conspiracies. 

cognitive biases

Exercise 2: Identify the cognitive bias.

INSTRUCTIONS: In the following examples, pick out which of the six cognitive biases treated here is demonstrated. Some instances could arguably have more than one bias, depending on the interpretation. As you consider these, note which ones could lead “naturally” to a conspiracy theory.

  1. “When everything else seems crazy in this messed up world, I turn to my president–there’s someone I can believe in, someone I can trust.” (The need for control.)
  2. “If you look at all details, you can’t help but noticing that every time the government promotes a vaccination program against polio, this occurs shortly after the government has also reported a budget deficit. That’s more than coincidence. Obviously someone is trying make money through the pharmaceutical industry.” (Pattern finding)
  3. “Haven’t you wondered why, suddenly, from nowhere, a devastating epidemic like ebola suddenly spreads through certain, select African countries? ” (Proportionality bias)
  4. “My aunt was told she probably had just a year to live and this was ten years ago. Last year she won a large lottery prize and created a children’s charity with the funds. It seems to me this isn’t just blind luck. There has to be another explanation. Everything happens for a reason.” (Intentionality bias)
  5. “I think it’s foolish to try to interfere with the natural course of the disease. Who knows what dangers that might precipitate?” (Perceived risk )
  6. In 1939 in Germany and Austria, in spite of increasing anti-Jewish laws, violence against Jews, and public rhetoric directed against Jews, many Jewish families decided to stay rather than leave the country. Although no doubt the reasons for not leaving were complex, which cognitive bias might have reinforced the inclination to stay? (Perceived risk )
  7. “Every time a woman is elected as CEO of a major corporation, the stock market drops. It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here.” (Pattern finding)
  8. “Think about it. I walked into the library in order to renew my book, the only time I’ve ever done that. Who should I bump into but Dolores, my high school sweetheart, in town visiting her sister for one day only. Well, one thing led to another…and, now we’re just about the perfect couple. It was clearly meant to be.” (Intentionality bias)
  9. “I know it was a terrible accident, the mudslide that wiped out the village. But, who knows what sinful behaviour was going on in that village?.” (Intentionality bias)
  10. “I don’t think we should try to interfere with the gang warfare on the lower east side of the city. Who knows what the consequences could be on the rest of the city? We’re safer just to leave things as they are and let those druggies sort themselves out.” (Perceived risk)
  11. The riot that swept through the city couldn’t have been caused simply by that single incident of police brutality reported in the papers. That was too small an incident to have such a big impact. (Proportionality bias)
  12. “I don’t care what theories and statistics you spout about the beneficial effects of immigration on the economy. All my friends and the leaders of my political party agree: immigrants are a drain on our resources. ” (Confirmation bias)

The third and last exercise focuses more broadly, beyond just cognitive biases, to more general skills of critical thinking. Students have to take into account social and historical influences of which they may be aware. This one could be used an entertaining guessing game – true or false? — or an activity of research. As a final exercise on cognitive biases and critical thinking, it has the merit of providing some real life examples. (Answers at the end.)

Exercise 3: Test your own “conspiracy detectors”. 

Using whatever quick research skills and critical thinking skills you have, see if you can find which ones of the following were largely verified conspiracies and which have no credible evidence.

  1. Military leaders planned terrorist attacks in the US to drum up support for a war against Cuba.
  2. Public water fluoridation is really just a secret way for chemical companies to dump the dangerous byproducts of phosphate mines into the environment
  3. Parts of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which led to US intervention in Vietnam, never happened.
  4. The Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of pressure from drug companies.
  5. A public-relations firm organized congressional testimony about maltreatment of babies, that propelled US involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
  6. Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them.
  7. The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program.


Almost certainly true: 1, 3, 5

Almost certainly untrue: all the others

If you’re interested in using these exercises in class, please feel free to adapt them to whatever you think would work best for your own context.


In recent posts, we’ve given a lot of attention to public knowledge claims that are NOT true – Eileen treating “con artists” and Theo treating conspiracy theories. Why have we focused on conscious swindles and inadvertent false beliefs in this way? Why not simply treat knowledge claims that have the best justifications, the most reliable ones we have achieved so far? After all, TOK is a course that aims to deal with well supported shared knowledge, and the methods we use to achieve it.

But there is a lot to be gained by “teaching backward”.  But enough for now! We’ll come back to this point another day.

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