I wrote this as a response to the post ‘The World is Changing‘ on Muertos’ Blog.

A thought-provoking article, but I think it’s a major mistake to see the conspiracy underground as a unified entity. There are many divisions, and the idea of two distinct camps of conspiracy “believers” and “skeptics” is a false dichotomy. Certainly, there are theorists who gather all available conspiracies under a meta-conspiracy of NWO.  vs. fundamentalist “debunkers” who gather anyone who questions any aspect of their perception of “normal” under a meta-conspiracy of “lunatic fringe”; but curiously, one finds climate change “skeptics” who fit both these profiles.

Then, there are those who get obsessed with proving a single conspiracy theory (eg JFK or chemtrails), while taking a mainstream attitude to all the others. Or those those who fervantly believe in one cluster of conspiracies, while lambasting the proponents of others as tin-foil hat wearers.  In Aotearoa, some of the most vocal “debunkers” are objectivist libertarians, who are die-hard Austrian Schoolers, and climate ’skeptics’, who claim environmentalism is a communist plot.

Your association of conspiracy theory, religion, and utopian politics also seems to suffer from some confirmation bias. In my experience, there have always been some people entering conspiracy discussion from a mythic worldview (often, but not always a fundamentalist christian one), for whom the evil of the conspirators is more important than the falsifiability of any claims, or the evidence for and against them. Similarly there are others who believe critical thinking includes questioning the status quo (eg the official story of 9/11), and for whom establishing which claims can be falsified, and what evidence is available is of critical importance.

I find that “debunkers” or “skeptics” can be similarly divided. There are those  willing to suspend judgement, pull back on the flaming, and have a vigorous debate about the facts of each case. Then there are those, like Penn Jillette, who foam at the mouth at the mere mention that there might be anything untoward about water fluoridation, mercury amalgam, or building 7 falling into its own footprint because of a few office fires, and think conspiracy theorists should be lynched as a blight on humanity.

For example, a landmark court case, Wilks vs. the American Medical Association, found that the AMA had been systematically undermining the practice of chiropractic, despite mounting evidence of its efficacy, and a  complete lack of evidence for claims that its riskier than drugs or surgery. Many medical doctors now refer their patients to chiropractors for conditions where there is peer-reviewed evidence of its benefits. Yet some medical “skeptics” continue to smear chiropractors as “quacks”; the same with herbalists, despite the mounting peer-reviewed evidence for the safety and benefits of many (not all, but many) herbal treatments.

The ThriveDebunked blog gives a great example of a failure to understand scientific method common among “debunkers”:

“If you can show me a working example of a “free energy” device whose operation is clearly and publicly verified by reputable scientific sources—a “free energy” device whose operation and functioning are unmistakable, explainable by science and capable of being reproduced—I will concede that “free energy” exists.”

If the device can be observed to run off “free energy”, after having run any conceivable experiment to test alternative explanations of its energy source, it doesn’t matter if the person writing up the report is a ‘reputable scientific source’. This is an ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy. Certainly being published in a peer-reviewed journal would give the report more credibility, because it means more experienced eyes have failed to find bugs in the experimental method, and perhaps reproduced the results. But a high number of papers published in scientific journals later turn out to be wrong on important points. Being published in a reputable source, or endorsed by a big name scientist, is not what makes a claim scientific.

As for being “explainable by science”, it’s not uncommon for verifiable observations to clash with the theories fashionable in among scientists at a given time. The accumulation of such observations has regularly lead to the scientific revolutions described by Kuhn in his book on paradigm shift. For example, the observable findings of quantum mechanics have yet to be squared with the observable findings that allowed Einstein to unseat aspects of Newtonian mechanics with general relativity. To summarize, fitting nicely with the academic establishment and it’s current Holy Writ is also NOT what makes claims scientific. Scientific knowledge is generated by constantly tweaking or even rewriting theory to fit observation. John Michael Greer writes some interesting points on these and other flaws of “scientism” in the Ecotechnic Future.

I always try to keep in mind the words of one of the founders of western philosophy (if he actually existed), Socrates, who Plato claimed said something like ‘I am the wiser man, because I know, that I know nothing’.

Filed March 2nd, 2012 under Uncategorized