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My latest Wall Street Journal Mind and Matter column discusses conspiracy
Michael Shermer, the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, has
never received so many angry letters as when he wrote a column for
Scientific American debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories. Mr. Shermer
found himself vilified, often in CAPITAL LETTERS, as a patsy of the
sinister Zionist cabal that deliberately destroyed the twin towers
and blew a hole in the Pentagon while secretly killing off the
passengers of the flights that disappeared, just to make the thing
look more plausible.
John S. Dykes
He tells this story in his fascinating new book, "The Believing
Brain." In Mr. Shermer's view, the brain is a belief engine,
predisposed to see patterns where none exist and to attribute them
to knowing agents rather than to chance-the better to make sense of
the world. Then, having formed a belief, each of us tends to seek
out evidence that confirms it, thus reinforcing the belief.
This is why, on the foundation of some tiny flaw in the
evidence-the supposed lack of roof holes to admit poison-gas cans
in one of the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers for Holocaust
deniers, the expectant faces on the grassy knoll for JFK plotters,
the melting point of steel for 9/11 truthers-we go on to build a
great edifice of mistaken conviction.
I say "we" because, after reading Mr. Shermer's book and others
like it, my uneasy conclusion is that we all do this, even when we
think we do not. It's not a peculiarity of the uneducated or the
fanatical. We do it in our political allegiances, in our religious
faith, even in our championing of scientific theories. And if we
all do it, then how do we know that our own rational rejections of
conspiracy theories are not themselves infected with beliefs so
strong that they are, in effect, conspiracy theories, too?
There was a time, when I was younger, when I was confident that
I knew how to tell a barmy belief from a rational deduction. I have
lost some of that confidence.
This has been caused partly by the frequent experience of having
friends who share my view on one issue but then suddenly reveal a
view on another issue that is anathema to me. I don't believe in
ghosts, says a friend, but there is definitely something to
homeopathy; or God does not run evolution, but the government
should run the economy. Like me, Mr. Shermer is an economic
conservative and a social liberal, so he encounters this dissonance
Mr. Shermer offers a handy guide for those who are confused.
Conspiracy theories are usually bunk when they are too complex,
require too many people to be involved, ratchet up from small
events to grand effects, assign portentous meanings to innocuous
events, express strong suspicion of either governments or
companies, attribute too much power to individuals or generate no
further evidence as time goes by.
Sure. But those are the easy cases. What about the harder
Take climate change. Here is Mr. Shermer's final diagnostic of a
wrong conspiracy theory: "The conspiracy theorist defends the
conspiracy theory tenaciously to the point of refusing to consider
alternative explanations for the events in question, rejecting all
disconfirming evidence for his theory and blatantly seeking only
confirmatory evidence to support what he has already determined to
be the truth."
This describes many of those who strive to blame most climate
change on man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, they reply
that it also describes those who strive to blame most climate
change on the sun.
That's how belief systems work:
On both sides, there is huge belief, buttressed by confirmation
bias, and equally huge belief that the belief and the conspiracy
are all on the other side. Rick Perry, Al Gore-each thinks the
other is a mad conspiracy theorist who will not let the facts get
in the way of prejudices. Maybe both are right.