I was recently talking to a man who told me, in no uncertain terms, that Bill Gates is dropping nanowires from space to infect the human genome and kill off 90% of the population of Earth. This man was clearly a loonatic, but it got me thinking about conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are easy to create and easy to spread. In fact, some people are so willing to believe them that they’ll add their own twists and “evidence” as they propogate such misinformation through society. It might start off with a theory such as “the media have been bribed by Apple to push their products down our throat at every possible moment”. Somewhere along the line, someone adds “some bank transfer logs were leaked that showed large payments to News International” to the story. It’s completely false, and even if it were true there are many explanations for such a transfer (e.g. legit advertising), but it’s just extra weight to the theory for anyone who doesn’t really question it.
This is where it gets silly. A lot of people just believe the theories the instant they’re told them, but if the government published statistics to say that, for example, “knife crime has gone down 12% in the last year due to better policing”, they’d get scrutinized heavily. Isn’t this totally backward? Isn’t the point of skepticism to question everything you’re told with a rational and open mind? These theories are potentially possible, difficult to disprove, and often tend to line up with current events, but it sure as hell doesn’t mean they’re true.
I get infuriated when trying to talk to people who are obsessed with conspiracy theories. When asked for evidence, or a source from which they heard the theory, they either rant and rave about “protection of sources” (i.e. they made it up), or they point me to a skeptics community site (i.e. the person who posted that thread made it up). If a government minister told you that all crime was down 80% in the last year, you’d ask him to produce the study and sources that he used to produce that statistic. So why, when someone is peddling a conspiracy theory, do people eat it up without any reliable sources at all? It’s madness.
Being a skeptic used to be about analysing information with a rational eye and demanding hard evidence before something is taken as fact. It seems that these days, it has decended into tinfoil-hat storytelling and wild conjecture.