conspiracy theories and explanations

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Post on 05-Feb-2015



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  • 1. Conspiracy Theories What They Teach Us About Reasoning Well
  • 2. Definitions A conspiracy is a plan by a group of people intended to be implemented in secret. (sometimes for a nefarious or unwelcome purpose is included in the definition.) A conspiracy theory is an explanation of some event that (1) appeals to a conspiracy, and (2) is counter to an official explanation.
  • 3. A Note on the Definitions I think most major conspiracy theories posit a nefarious purpose, but some do not. If you think that the moon landing was faked then you probably think it was done just to gain advantage in winning the cold war. Also, if you think that the U.S. government is hiding evidence of intelligent aliens then you probably think that it is to protect the public from panic. Neither of those aims is very sinister, but both views would count as conspiracy theories; so, Ill leave the sinister purpose out of the definition.
  • 4. Example Since hes explaining an event by appeal to a group of people intending to act in secret (with nefarious purpose) Castros explanation of the explosion fits the definition of a conspiracy theory. Though the CIA documents relevant to the Le Coubre explosion are not public, other documents do confirm Castros early suspicions that the U.S. government plotted to overthrow him. After taking power in Cuba by armed revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro soon became convinced that the United States intended to weaken his government and remove him from power. La Coubre, a ship carrying arms his regime had purchased from Belgium, mysteriously exploded while unloading in Havana Harbor. Castro publicly accused the United States of causing the blast. ( tml The link takes you to the text of the 1960 speech. Search the speech for United States) The cause of the blast remains uncertain. The official account U.S. is that the explosion was caused by accidental mishandling of explosives on board the boat.
  • 5. The CIA, the Mafia and Castro According to a 1971 Washington Post story and recently declassified CIA documents (search for Family Jewels on, the CIA arranged with known mobster Johnny Rosselli for the assassination of Castro. The mafia, miffed with Castro for expelling their casinos from Havana, were happy to help. They tried unsuccessfully for several years to get CIA-provided poison pills into Castros food.
  • 6. Correct Justified Just because Castros suspicion (or any prediction) turns out to be correct doesnt mean that it was justified to believe. Examples: (1) Consistently wrong: Supposedly, psychic Tana Hoy predicted a terrorist bombing of a federal building ninety minutes before Tim mcVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma city. A simple search of Tana Hoys past predictions shows that the ones that arent too vague or obvious are almost all wrong. The correct calls are memorable, but obviously they dont recommend seeking out THs services. (2) Consistently right: Even when a person has made consistently correct claims there is no greater chance that the next claim will be correct. Read (only) the introduction to this paper: es/2009/10/Palmiter-Taha-Star-Creation- 62-Vand.-L.-Rev.-1485-2009.pdf
  • 7. Two requirements for a Justified Conspiracy Theory (1) It should have low reliance on eyewitness testimonial evidence. (2) It should pass common tests for good explanations.
  • 8. Eyewitness Testimony Mistakes are easy. Eyewitness misidentifications are a leading cause of wrongful conviction. ess-Misidentification.php (8 min.) Contamination is easy. Read the Wikipedia page for Loftuss Lost in the mall technique or watch this (4 min.) video to get the idea: Confidence is misleading. In many studies of lineup cases, confidence in a pick is not strongly correlated with accuracy of pick. For just one example, read the abstract (intro paragraph) of this paper: s/Smith_Kassin_Ellsworth_1989.pdf
  • 9. Explanations Overview: An explanation (or hypothesis) is usually offered to explain an event (or observation). The first two characteristics below are necessary for good explanations. The third seems like it should be, but isnt. Simplicity: An explanation with fewer assumptions is more likely to be correct than one with more (all other things being equal). For example, we can explain our observations of the planets and sun with the hypothesis that the earth is the center of our planetary system; however, the sun-centered view of the solar system is much simpler. For one thing, it requires only elliptical orbits and the earth-centered hypothesis requires more complicated orbits with epicycles. Falsifiability: In order for a hypothesis to explain something or make predictions it must be inconsistent with some conceivable observation. If it is consistent with any observation then it isnt testable (it is unfalsifiable). For example, Freuds view of dreams (you dream for what you wish for) has been criticized as unfalsifiable, since to account for nightmares he appeals to sub-conscious wisheswishes that are not observable by anyone (including the wisher)! Only game in town: Just because there are no known alternatives to an explanation, it isnt for that reason likely to be correct. For example, if you cant tell how a magician made a rabbit appear (and you can offer no alternative explanation to REAL MAGIC), that doesnt make REAL MAGIC a likely explanation.
  • 10. How to find an Explanation Start with an observation, develop an explanation (or hypothesis), and then test by looking for other observations youd expect to find if the explanation were correct. 1. If explanation E is correct Wed observe O. 2. We observe O 3. So, explanation E is correct. Is this argument valid? No! (check with a truth table) Is it reliable? It depends on the test (the other observations you look for). Which tests are better?
  • 11. Testing an Explanation If observation O is likely even if E is incorrect then looking for O is not a good test for E. The closer to ~E ~O the better. Check (with a truth table) the validity of ~E ~O , O, E e.g., To explain the observaton that you are a student in this class I might offer the explanation that you are on athletic scholarship because you have the strength of an olympian. To test my hypothesis I might have you lift your textbook above your head, because if you are on scholarship because you have the strength of an olympian you would be able to hoist your textbook. Of course, thats a bad test because you would be able to do that even with below average strength. A better test would be something you couldnt do unless you were olympic strong. Notice that this kind of ideal test is impossible to generate for an unfalsifiable explanation.
  • 12. Are these good explanations? (1) Massive media conspiracy: the entire mainstream media is the product of a conspiracy to deceive and defraud the general public. When evaluating, think about simplicity (how many people would have to be in on the secret?), falsifiability (what research could prove it wrong?), and how to test the hypothesis. (2) Birthers: Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. When evaluating think about how to test the hypothesis. What would you expect to observe only if the theory were correct?) (3) Inside Job: The WTC collapse of 9/11/01 was the result of a controlled demolition. When evaluating the video below think about testimony and the features of a good explanation.