Author Information: Pascal Wagner-Egger, University of Fribourg, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gérald Bronner, Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire des Énergies de Demain
Sylvain Delouvée, University of Rennes
Sebastien Dieguez, University of Fribourg
Nicolas Gauvrit, École Pratique des Hautes Études
Wagner-Egger, Pascal; Gérald Bronner, Sylvain Delouvée, Sebastian Dieguez, Nicolas Gauvrit. “Why ‘Healthy Conspiracy Theories’ Are (Oxy)morons: Statistical, Epistemological, and Psychological Reasons in Favor of the (Ir)Rational View.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 50-67.
The Psychological Arguments: The Conspiracy Mentality
Next, a psychological characteristic of conspiracy theorists worsens the epistemological judgement of their “theories”: Many surveys on conspiracy theories found that the beliefs in various conspiracies are correlated. It means that the adherence to one theory is associated with the adherence to another (even invented) one, and conversely that a refusal of one conspiracy theory is associated with the refusal of another conspiracy theory.
This has been called “monological belief system ” or “conspiracy mentality ”. This is not only a phenomenon based on statistical results on wide samples of students and general population: you will find many “qualitative” examples on the internet (see also ). As an academic working at University on conspiracy theories, one is very likely to be approached by members of Reopen 9/11 or similar associations, as some of us have been in the past years.
After some lengthy discussions about the 9/11 case, the leader of the French Swiss association told the first author that global warming was denied by some scientists (which is true, but what is also true is that 95-98% of the climate scientists do not ).
Another Facebook friend of friends with whom one of us discussed at length the 9/11 case was posting conspiracy suspicions to nearly every sociopolitical event (all terrorist attacks were false flags, the willingness of Catalonia to be independent was a conspiracy of the European Union against Spain, etc.).
The conspiracy mentality, a psychological tendency to explain a lot of complex socio-historical events in terms of conspiracies, is readily explained by a “logical” consequence of believing with no high enough level of proof in one conspiracy theory: If the CIA organized and covered the assassination of its own president, why would they not organize a huge false-flag attack against their own population, and then why all other Western countries (France, UK, Spain, Suede, Germany, etc.) would not do the same? The belief in one conspiracy theory renders lots of others — if not all — conspiracy theories more plausible . Conspiracy-proneness is thus almost doomed to lead to bias (given the statistical argument proposed above), driven by a general distrust in institutions (political, scientific, and media) , -, .
At the epistemological level, the propensity to suspect conspiracies in every significant event with no serious inquiry is very similar to the numerous predictions of astrologists. According to the law of large numbers, some very rare predictions will be “hits”, whereas a huge majority will be false alarms (still due to the statistical argument). This is the reason why one of us recently equated conspiracist ideation as “bullshit” and wrote that “conspiracy theories do not exist” .
There are no theories in what we call conspiracy theories, but only conspiracy suspicions (i.e. multiple suspicions of conspiracies, supported by only errant data, or even not supported by any data, such as in the Catalonia example above). This is also what one of us told 9/11 conspiracy defenders some years ago: If a serious journalistic inquiry manages to bring proofs of the conspiracy (confessions, official documents proving the conspiracy, etc.), you could be retrospectively “right” about the 9/11 conspiracy, but by pure chance.
You would be “right” for the wrong reasons (the law of large numbers, pseudo-inquiry based on errant data, disrespect of Occam’s razor and burden of proof principles), and this is equivalent to be wrong, as we would say to the astrologist.
The Psychological Arguments: The Irrationality
Finally, the last argument against the healthy view on conspiracy theories is indirect and psychological. Numerous researches show that believers in conspiracy theories are, on average, less rational than non-believers. People who adhere to conspiracy theories will tend to embrace a wide range of irrational ideas, such as belief in paranormal phenomena, magical ideation and superstition –, , – , anthropomorphism or animism , , , , , “bullshit” receptivity , , and creationism .
Moreover, conspiracy believers are more prone than nonbelievers to various cognitive biases: conjunction fallacy , proportion bias –, hypersensitive agency detection , and teleological reasoning . Other studies directly showed that conspiracy believers display more intuitive (i.e. often incorrect) and less analytic (i.e., often correct) thinking than non-believers , . These results are consistent with the observation that nonbelievers score higher on intelligence scales , , , . Moreover, most studies found a negative correlation between conspiracy beliefs and educational level , , –. In addition, adherence to conspiracy theories is often related to psychological disturbance (i.e., schizotypy and paranoia) –, , , , –.
Two last elements have not been yet empirically demonstrated, but are easily illustrated in conspiracists’ discourses and methods on their websites and in online discussions with them: (1) extreme conspiracists are very skeptical about the official version (and sometimes even paranoidally, in an excessive distrust of all official sources), but on the other side believe in a quasi-religious manner — without apparently considering that they could be wrong — to the existence of the conspiracy theories. Often, they do not detail the conspiracy “theory”, but only express a conspiracy suspicion, which is so restrained from falsification. This striking differential cognitive treatment of official versions and conspiracy theories has been called “cognitive asymmetry” by one of us (as reported in ).
As we mentioned above, Chomsky sarcastically enjoined 9/11 conspiracists not only to study nano-thermite and extremely complicated details of the official version, but also to fully consider the extraordinary complexity that such a large-scale conspiracy would require to be successful. Moreover (2), conspiracists exhibit the “primacy of conclusion” fallacy, a common characteristic of socially shared knowledge, such as rumors (e.g. , ).
The Psychological Arguments: Reason Running in Reverse
Whereas science follows the hypothetico-deductive method (testing hypotheses to reach a conclusion) , conspiracists start from the conclusion, select and interpret the facts that fit with the conclusion. When an errant data is explained by an official account, they simply move to the other dozens of errant data in order to keep their faith in the conspiracy. One of us defined the “argumentative mille-feuille” used by conspiracy believers — and producers —, an accumulation of a very high number of errant data apparently in favor of a conspiracy theory, as in the 9/11 case . Whatever the plausibility of each element in isolation (explained versus unexplained errant data), this accumulation produces a feeling of global truthiness, like “everything may not be false”, or “no smoke without fire”. It also sometimes creates some kind of intellectual intimidation, for those who would challenge all the numerous technical arguments.
At the final stage of conversion, conspiracists will also take every explanation of errant data coming from experts as additional proofs of the conspiracy, the experts being part of the conspiracy (as some paranoid conspiracists accused one of us in online discussions about the 9/11 affair)  . Besides, the fact that the conspiracy may not be proved is taken as a proof of the powerfulness of the conspirators, who managed to delete any traces. The conspiracy theory becomes then irrefutable  or unfalsifiable , because of what some of us called the “ultimate confirmation bias”, also present in extreme religious faith . For example, creationists may say that dinosaur fossils were put by the Devil in order to deceive humans (or even by God himself, in order to show that scientific research cannot reach the truth).
To Sum Up
All these arguments — statistical, epistemological, and psychological — very strongly advocate for us in favor of the “unhealthy” or “pathologizing” view on conspiracy theories, and against the “healthy” view. We propose here to rename this “unhealthy” or “pathologizing” view as (ir)rational view on conspiracy theories — a rational analysis of conspiracy theories concluding at their irrationality —, which states that:
(1) At the statistical level, proved conspiracy theories are so rare compared to unverified and delusional conspiracy theories, that considering all conspiracy theories as false is true at a very high level of certainty (probably more than 99%, which is a quasi-certainty, notably higher than the 95% used in statistical inference).
Next, the remaining 1% of the conspiracy theories that could potentially turn out to be right are currently defended for the wrong reasons (errant data), unlike conspiracy inquiries, which do not affirm the existence of conspiracies without strong evidence. As we would do for “correct” predictions of astrologists, which will appear for statistical reasons (the law of large numbers), we will consider all conspiracy theories, as all astrological predictions (even the ones that turned out to be true), as false. A simple suspicion based on previous cases of real conspiracies, errant data, or even the purported benefit to some categories of people (“who benefits from the crime”) will be dismissed as a (false) conspiracy theory.
(2) At the epistemological level, advocates of conspiracies will have to pass Occam’s and Hanlon’s razors, and follow the burden of proof principle. As conspiracies are less parsimonious than official versions, they should be only supported with a high level of proofs (once again, confessions, and declassified documents) and not only errant data about the official version (burden of proof on the shoulders of challengers of the official version, not on its defenders).
At the individual level of believers (3), believing in one conspiracy theory may engage to believe in another one, and to many others. Large number of unverified hypotheses constitute an irrational way to get at a time one hypothesis seemingly corroborated: this would be for wrong reasons (law of large numbers instead of a serious inquiry). Finally, believers in conspiracy theory have lower cognitive abilities, suffer more than nonbelievers from several cognitive biases, embrace many irrational ideas, and this does not, indirectly, advocate in favor of the rationality of their beliefs.
Some defenders of the “healthy” view have gone so far to argue that scholars who adopt the “pathologizing” view, as we do, are themselves pathological, as they would suffer from a “conspiracy theory phobia” . Given the statistical, epistemological and psychological evidence summarized here, we let the reader conclude about the rationality of each side of the debate.
To Broaden the Debate
This controversy is not only of interest for scholars who study conspiracy theories, but also for sociology, as critical or Marxist sociologists were accused by Karl Popper of conspiracist tendencies, by excessively attributing intentions to dominant groups, sometimes coupled with historicism (teleological view of history, as in the Marxist framework) . As our analysis of conspiracy theories suggest, critical sociologists and journalists also have to be prudent in their claims about the intentionality and the internal organization of the “dominant classes” (e.g., the existence of a “worldwide oligarchy”), thus to prove with proper investigations the collusions of leaders in society, and not only exhibit suspicions of collusions . Alliances, and even more secret alliances are less parsimonious explanations than side-effects of social structures (that could be of benefit to some high-status groups, without having been created by them), and in turn less parsimonious than some unintended “perverse effects” of the aggregated wills of individuals .
The present (ir)rational view on conspiracy theories is not surprising for psychologists who study beliefs in general, because it is highly consistent with other domains of beliefs (religious, paranormal, rumors, etc.) , . The function of beliefs is not truth-seeking. They may of course also fulfill epistemic functions, but distinct from scientific knowledge acquisition: to simplify complexity by (1) giving simple explanations, (2) rendering concrete abstract concepts, (3) assimilating new knowledge to existing social representations, (4) justify behaviors (e.g., stereotypes) . Beliefs and ideologies also serve psychological or existential functions, for example restoring a sense of control in an uncontrollable world – or coping with death anxiety . Social functions have also been identified, such as reinforcing ingroup cohesion and social identity of believers. Finally, beliefs also pursue pragmatic aims, such as the proposition of action modalities (strikes, boycott, etc.), mobilization of individuals and groups for a cause  .
A Proposition of Convergence
To conclude, in order to solve the controversy between the seemingly untenable “healthy” view and the far more reasoned (ir)rational view, we would like to encourage defenders of the former to abandon the Sisyphean idea to epistemologically rehabilitate conspiracy theories, and rather to distinguish them from, and encourage healthy conspiracy inquiries (e.g., with journalistic safeguards, such as the triangulation of data sources, confessions, official documents, possibility of disconfirmation, etc.), which should bring proofs instead of errant data. As Stoke  and Dentith  acknowledge, the potentially dangerous accusation of conspiracy — in addition to be less parsimonious — should be the a posteriori consequence of an inquiry, and not the a priori product of irrational suspicion.
This suggestion could solve a true problem evoked by the supporters of the “unhealthy” view on conspiracy theories, the political use of accusation of conspiracy theory: any government or powerful group would not anymore be able to dismiss opponents’ arguments as conspiracy theories, because opponents would not defend conspiracy theories any more. They would support only the results (and not the announcement) of serious journalistic or judicial inquiries bringing positive proofs of the conspiracy.
Hence, our proposition could be an epistemic solution to the longlasting problem of defining warranted versus unwarranted , real versus bogus , or healthy versus unhealthy conspiracy theories, what we may call the “conspiracy demarcation problem”: The formers do simply not exist, because conspiracy theories may in our view be defined as irrational suspicions of conspiracy based on errant data about the official version (“negative” clues). They are opposed to (conspiracy) inquiries, which possibly prove the existence of a particular conspiracy (with once again sound journalistic or judicial investigations, and positive proofs of the conspiracy such as confessions, official documents, leaks, whistleblowers, etc.; note that these proofs could be also in principle brought by non professionals, but perhaps with less likelihood).
We are glad at the end of this paper to read in a recent article by Dentith that he also seems to abandon the concepts of conspiracy theory (and theorizing) in favor of “communities of inquiry”, which is close to what we called here conspiracy inquiry . The proper term should however simply be “inquiry”, or “ongoing case” , as the conclusion of the inquiry will be “strong proofs” or “no strong proofs” for the conspiracy.
We would only add, as we mentioned above, that such communities have to — at least publicly, in order not to manipulate public opinion — consider their own unparsimonious hypothesis of conspiracy as false, until they are able to provide strong and unequivocal evidence (and not errant data) to prove them as true. This is exactly what happened to the inquirers of the Watergate affair: Byford reports that there was at that time a concern even in the team of investigators of the Washington Post to cross the boundary between journalism and “fantasy”. And when they first reported the illegal tapping at the Watergate hotel, the White House tried to discredit the Washington Post by accusation of… conspiracy theory .
We can see with this edifying example that the positive proofs brought by the inquiry eliminated both the epistemic weakness of the irrational accusation from the conspiracy theories, and the possibility for authorities to rule out any opponents’ accusations as conspiracy theories. Dentith also admits that communities of inquiry could or should do it secretly, at least in the beginning of the process .
This is for example what members of Reopen 9/11 associations are not doing, who only try to widely publicize their doubts on the official version. This recommendation may seem weird, but it could be similar for the announcement of the discovery of a wonder drug or vaccine, which should be made only after a long and hard validation procedure. So ironically, we probably need some conspiracies in order to reveal real conspiracies.
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 See for example –.
 The idea that the conspiracy mentality could be strong enough to lead to agree with two contradictory conspiracy theories has indeed not been proved by Wood, Douglas and Sutton , contrary to what they claim in their paper (i.e., that some people believe for example that Oussama Ben Laden was dead before the intervention of the US Army in 2011 in Pakistan, AND is still living somewhere). First, as Basham correctly notes, to agree partially with two contradictory claims could mean that people envisage that the two possibilities are not jointly possible (as the belief that my lost keys are probably in my car or in my bag). Moreover, reanalysis of the data showed that the correlations are due to the refusal of the two contradictory conspiracy theories, and not their acceptance. See  and future research for the update.
 This consequence of the law of large numbers is commonly illustrated by the cases of a random generator of words producing a sensible sentence, or when an infinite number of monkeys during an infinite time will randomly generate Shakespeare’s complete work on writing machines.
 It is certainly possible, as Basham does about this study , to criticize some methodological points of some studies, but certainly not all. And we would add — following the scientific epistemology described above — that Basham has the burden of empirically proving the effectiveness of his criticisms (by showing a disappearance of the effect by some changes in the method, for example), and not only sharing his conceptual or methodological disagreements.
 It seems to us worthless to try to distinguish healthy from unhealthy conspiracy theories, or conspiracy theorizing from conspiracy narratives, as Dentith proposes, because the term conspiracy theory is now very negatively connotated, for all the good reasons we listed in this paper.
 We may indeed think that the confessions about the US/UK WMD were not obtained because of the existence of conspiracy theories, but more certainly due to the reasoning from the US army that it was impossible to cover up the “error” they made.