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Posts Tagged ‘conspiracy theories’

He really is. He’s the guy whose main schtick is the Illuminati reptilian alien trans-dimensional Freemason conspiracy, of which just about everybody rich or famous is suspected to be a part.

Yeah. That guy. He’s been on this train for years, and sufficiently large crowds of people are… entertained? intrigued? also crazy? …that he regularly lectures to packed-out crowds in large theatres, and sells an impressive number of books.

I saw part of one of his lectures yesterday on an obscure Sky TV channel. He was astounded at how true-to-life the film Monsters, Inc. was. If he were right about even a quarter of the stuff he was saying, he’d basically be a harbinger of the apocalypse in a Clive Barker novel.

A lot of his conspiracy ideas are, on the face of it, rather horrifying notions, if you forfeit your senses long enough to take them seriously for a moment. We’re all being lied to by the people in control, who sit at the top of the pyramid pulling the strings of the presidents and world leaders below. Of course the idea of evil forces acting behind the scenes to further their own power, with no regard for our well-being, is a disturbing one.

And yet, at the same time, I’m far from the first to note that deranged conspiracy theories are often a way of imposing structure and order onto a scary and chaotic world. The horrifying conspiracy actually provides some sort of reassurance.

For instance, Icke believes that the 9/11 attacks were obviously orchestrated by whoever’s really running the show, for their own nefarious ends. But the idea that George Bush – a man who “can’t even tie his own shoelaces” – might have been responsible is something he finds comical. The brilliant minds really behind it all were playing Bush for a fool, just like the rest of us.

As scary as that idea is, here’s another frightening scenario: George Bush, a man no better equipped to command the world’s largest superpower than he appears, actually persuaded people to give him millions of dollars, with which he also persuaded half the population of said superpower that he was the best man to take charge of the country.

Jesus. If I think about that too long, I might start needing a cuddle and some reassurance that the space lizards have got it all under control.

Another point Icke made – which I think was intended as some kind of rarely seen supporting evidence for his overall theory – was about the amount of human suffering in the world that’s caused by people. Or rather, not people people, but secret reptilian people. Because, when you look at the number of children starving to death around the world, or dying of preventable diseases, or being shot and blown up in unnecessary wars, or suffering in any number of ways because of other human activity, it seems clear that these aren’t the actions of real human beings. We have empathy, we care for people, we could never do such dreadful, damaging things. The reptilians lack such compassion, and only they must be responsible for such atrocities.

Except the truth is scarier than that, too. The human mind has evolved an astounding capacity for compartmentalisation, rationalisation, self-deception, and just about everything else necessary for subjugating, dehumanising, and destroying each other, given the right circumstances. All the ghoulish, evil things in which Icke sees the work of malevolent aliens? That’s all human behaviour. And human behaviour is all that we’re capable of.

If David Icke thinks his world of hidden dimension-crossing aliens vying for global domination is a scary place, he needs to open his eyes and take a look at the world he’s really living in.

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A brief report on my colossal achievements of the day.

Rhys Morgan posted a link on Twitter earlier today to this comment on a blog discussion about the notorious non-medicine Miracle Mineral Solution. It’s one of a series of comments in which someone called Maria asserts that Rhys’s father is using him to make money, by attacking fake medicine on other people’s blogs.

At one point, she even seems to claim that Rhys himself doesn’t exist – or at least, that the online presence attributed to him is actually a cynical ploy by his father to rake in the Big Pharma payouts.

I and hundreds of others have seen Rhys in the flesh and can confirm that he is neither a hologram nor an urban legend. So, this particular piece of alt-med lunacy is just funny.

Kash Farooq tweeted:

@rhysmorgan Ahh. “Big Pharma pays you” conspiracy, now is it? I preferred the conspiracy theory that claimed you didn’t exist.

To which I replied:

@kashfarooq This sounds like a fun game. @rhysmorgan shot JFK! #rhysmorganconspiracytheories

And thus a hashtag game was born. Some of my favourites include:

Soylent Green is @rhysmorgan!!

It was @rhysmorgan swimming in Loch Ness in the 1934 photograph

@rhysmorgan is just a big hole through which aliens enter the hollow earth

‘Peer reviewed’ actually means that @rhysmorgan checked it to make sure it fitted with Big Pharma’s agenda

Paul the octopus knew too much about @rhysmorgan.

And many, many more.

Apparently it was the third highest trending topic, either in all of Twitter or just in the UK, or something. I missed it because I was in a meeting. But it’s pretty awesome. This is the stuff I feel proud of these days. Maybe in years to come I’ll feel ashamed that I ever considered something like this an accomplishment. Especially if I ever actually get a damn novel finished.

Incidentally, I just thought of the title for this post now, several hours too late. Maybe it’s just as well I didn’t come up with it sooner because it’s terrible.

As a brief post-script, there are currently 51 comments on this post, and the debate seems to be carrying on. And it’s hilarious. Join the fun!

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One day I will write up an actual conspiracy theory article myself. I’ve made a start on a couple, but with the case of 9/11 in particular, I find myself getting bogged down in some really complex and intricate arguments. For now, I’m just putting this up here as a placeholder.

To summarise, though, my position is that the standard, widely held explanation for the events of September 11th 2001 is by far the most likely scenario. It was an attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda, orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, in which a group of Muslim extremists engaged in suicide missions, forcibly taking control of four commercial airliners mid-flight and attempting to crash them into strategic locations, with the aim of causing terror and destruction. The US government did not know about the plot ahead of time, and was not involved in its execution. The twin towers weren’t lined with explosives. The planes weren’t really missiles in hologram disguises. There is no good reason to suppose the existence of any conspiracy beyond that conducted by bin Laden and a bunch of dedicated religious fanatics in a cave somewhere.

I plan to look at some of the truthers’ arguments in the future. For now, these guys pretty much seem to have it covered:

Debunking 9/11 does exactly what it says on the tin, with crazy thoroughness and rigour and brilliance.
911Myths also answers a lot of supposedly probing questions often asked about many aspects of the attacks.

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So, I guess I should’ve done this one sooner. Pseudoscience is pretty much the pinnacle of anathema to everything I’m struggling for on this blog (hey, writing dozens of words about stuff as often as five or six times a month is a real struggle sometimes). I’m all about science, and a worldview based on empirical data and testable theories. I’m an atheist, but the interesting fight isn’t just against religion, it’s against the irrationality and flawed thinking that underlies all kinds of non-reality-based beliefs and ideas, religion included.

Pseudoscience is what you get when a hopeful but misleading patina of science is used to try and smarten up some ideas which, however nice they might be, have no connection to the real world. It’s some phenomenon or notion whose fans will stand by it unwaveringly, regardless of whether it’s actually supported by any evidence. Astrology, for instance, is widely regarded as a pseudoscience. Its claims can be shown to be empty and meaningless once you bring a few actual scientific investigative techniques into it, and its adherents have to sacrifice intellectual honesty to scrape together a flimsy charade of supporting evidence.

Obviously nobody ever thinks that what they’re doing is pseudoscience. People don’t believe that they’re deliberately ignoring contradictory evidence and sticking to unsupported claims long after they’ve been shown conclusively to be untenable. They’re much more likely to think that they’re steadfastly fighting an uphill battle for a truth that the rest of the world is too blind to accept. As a result, it’s sometimes hard to untangle good, healthy debate and disagreement on the one hand, from actual pseudoscientific nonsense on the other. When people have conflicting ideas, how can you tell if there’s a reasonable, scientific difference in opposing parties’ interpretations of the data, or if one side’s just full of shit?

Well, despite what contradictory views different people might have on Ufology, or Bigfootonomy, or the current deadness-to-aliveness quotient of Elvis Presley, there are some definite protocols and standards which you have to adhere to if you want to legitimately call what you’re doing science.

When addressing pseudoscience, it’s not really constructive or desirable to simply declare “This entire field of study is bunk”, regardless of how tempting it might often be. There’s always the possibility that someone may come along and provide a robust scientific theory about something we might have written off as complete crap – and if there’s ever any evidence that this is what’s happened, we need to be open to it. But a lot of stuff is bullshit, has no supportive evidence, and isn’t likely to anytime soon.

So, rather than simply listing a number of disciplines which are stamped irreparably with the label “Pseudoscience” and may never be taken seriously by anyone who values their scientific credibility, more common is to provide a list of “red flags” – things which generally indicate poor methodology, irrational and ideology-driven research, and that you would do well to be more than usually doubtful about.

What follows is a list of these things to look out for, which should warn you that proper science might not be at the top of the agenda. I’m taking a lot of cues from similar lists at Skeptoid, and these three wikis, but with my own suggestions for how best to calibrate your bullshit detector.

Decrying the scientific method as inappropriate or inadequate to apply to this particular claim

Look, science is just awesome. As the internets are so often keen to point out (and score geek cred for referencing xkcd), it works, bitches. If you’re doing science, you really ought to have a pretty good understanding of how it works (which isn’t hard to grasp), and why it’s important to apply these principles to any new hypothesis before we credit it with being probably true.

This means that, if you’re going to claim that your new idea will revolutionise our understanding of the universe, you can’t get all touchy and offended when people start asking for proof, trying to knock it down, poking holes in it, and bringing up whatever pesky facts might cast doubt upon it. They just want to know you’re not as full of shit as all those loons with their own Grand Unifying Theories, who share your passion but whose ideas don’t make a lick of sense.

If you want people to take you seriously, and believe that you’re any different from the loons, you should be doing everything in your power to help them with their knocking and poking. Because however much this hypothesis is your beautiful darling baby, and you know it will change the world and make you a hero and persuade everyone to shove that haggard old Liberty bint out of the way to make room for a statue of you, you must never forget the crucial and constant scientific principle that it might all be total bollocks.

If you’re wrong, you should really be keen to find that out. If you’re right, you’ll have a theory that’s all the stronger and more convincing for having withstood everything that humanity’s current scientific understanding could hurl against it. This has been the path of every established theory in the whole of science. You are not above this process.

This includes medical practitioners who claim that they don’t have time to waste performing rigorous scientific tests on the alternative treatments they’re dishing out, because they’re “too busy curing people” to bother with any of that. As if all those researchers painstakingly performing controlled studies to determine the actual effects of their treatments are just trying to find ways to pass the time.

One person’s subjective interpretation of one small set of data points – say, how an individual doctor remembers the general feedback he’s got from a handful of patients about a particular pill he’s been giving them – is a far less effective way of finding out the real effects of a treatment than a proper, blinded, scientific study, which can include information from thousands of people and rule out countless potential sources of bias. These studies are why you’re not likely to get a prescription of leeches or thalidomide from your GP anytime soon. They’re the best way we have of finding out what reality is like. (Read Ben Goldacre‘s book for a more thorough discussion of things like the placebo effect, observer bias, and the numerous other phenomena which can make our personal judgments totally unreliable when it comes to the efficacy of medical treatments.)

Being batshit crazy

Now, granted, some batshit crazy stuff does in fact turn out to be real, like quantum mechanics or Mr. T, but these examples are relatively few. You can label yourself a mould-breaking freethinker unfettered by the constrictions of current paradigms, but that won’t stop people calling you an ignorant jackass. Yes, Galileo was right, even though he was viewed as heretical by an oppressive establishment dogmatically set in its ways. But just the second thing on its own isn’t enough.

It might not sit well with the part of us that wants to cheer on the underdog, and see some high-and-mighty ivory-tower types collapse under their own hubris, but most claims which totally contradict established science are going to turn out to be completely wrong. In most cases, such science is established for good reason, and has a lot of data backing it up. If all of this is going to be overturned, it probably won’t be because of a single set of results from one new experiment – particularly given how easy it is for the ignorant, scientifically illiterate, and borderline mentally unstable to make scientific claims.

Obviously this new claim may end up being borne out over time, and the old ideas will then need to be abandoned – but for every Galileo, there’s a thousand whining ideologues, raving lunatics, or honestly mistaken researchers who thought they might’ve discovered something they could publish a career-making paper on but are finding it too painful to admit to themselves that they’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Science by press conference

Good news, everyone! I’ve invented a new type of fish which completely vanishes when left unattended, leaving no decaying and unhygenic remains behind at all! It totally worked this one time, when Reid and Hofstadter from the physics lab challenged me to an office-chair race, and I left it completely unattended. Except for my cat, who’d been asleep by the test tube rack, but he definitely wasn’t involved. He’s not a scientist. He hasn’t even got a PhD. The point is, I’m a groundbreaking genius, and now I need substantial funding for further research. Yes, mine is the only lab to have produced any such results so far. Yes, it’s just the one result. But we’re all very excited by the empty, slightly greasy plate which constitutes our lone data point, and we look forward to developing this technology into something accessible to everyone. Did you hear what I said about funding?”

There’s a reason very little actual science tends to turn up this way, in sudden monumental bursts, where whole long-standing paradigms are suddenly overturned in one brief newscast. If someone gathers together a horde of journalists, camera crews, and other sundry spectators, to make some grand announcement about a world-shattering scientific accomplishment never before mentioned in the public sphere, then there’s a good chance that they may have taken one or two short-cuts in the actual science.

Science depends on peer review and replication of results – if you give the details of your experiments to other, independent researchers, they should be able to do the same stuff as you did, if they recreate the same conditions. You have to give other scientists a chance to try it for themselves, and maybe tighten up the protocols (like not letting the cat inside the lab) to see if there might be an explanation for your results which doesn’t imply that everything you know is wrong. A good scientist doing credible work will understand and appreciate the need for this kind of scientific rigour, and welcome the opportunity either to further bolster their claims with independent evidence, or to falsify their own findings before they do something silly like call a press conference over something that will turn out to be easily disproven by the emergence of a well fed cat.

Heads I’m right, tails you’re wrong

My first point was that the best way to prove the scientific merit of your idea is to go through all the usual rigmarole of the scientific method. One specific example of this is that you need to make sure that your idea is potentially falsifiable.

There should be a constant attitude in science – especially with regard to new and unproven ideas – which goes along the lines of, “Take THAT, supposed laws of nature!” You should be trying to bitchslap every contending theory down with the most awkward facts you can muster, and be prepared to chuck it out, if it can’t take the heat and collapses into either inconsistency or tears.

You need to be doing the kinds of experiments where you can say in advance, “We’re going to do this, this, and this, and we predict that will happen. If that does indeed happen, then great, we might be onto something – but if the other turns out to happen instead, then we’re going to have to rethink this theory.” You need to be able to point out, ahead of time, what observations could be made, which would blow your theory out of the water if they were ever reliably demonstrated. You try your damnedest to disprove it, and let everyone else have a go, and if they can’t, then you’ve got yourself a respectable theory.

All good science has something which could totally screw it up like this. Evolution? Precambrian rabbit. The Standard Model of particle physics? If the Higgs boson doesn’t turn up where it should be in the LHC. Science.

But how do you prove homeopathy doesn’t work? Well, you might have thought that repeated analysis of experimental data showing it to have no significant clinical effect beyond that of a placebo would count as disconfirming evidence, but its proponents don’t seem willing to take this as a sign that they need to seriously rethink their ideas. In actual medicine, new treatments are constantly being tested against those already in use, and if they don’t show a significant effect, nobody keeps pushing for them to be widely adopted. They scrap it, or make some significant changes before testing it again, and don’t keep prescribing it to people in the meantime as if it worked. Homeopaths don’t seem to work like this. If someone isn’t willing to suggest what results would falsify their hypothesis if observed, and genuinely rethink their ideas if what they predicted would happen didn’t happen, this should cast doubt on how scientific they’re being.

The pseudoscience, it ain’t a-changin’

It’s never a good sign when your supposedly scientific field goes for a long time without making any significant developments, or adapting to new information and more recent research. Any useful scientific theory makes predictions about future observations, and will generally gather supporting evidence over time as these predictions are vindicated – or, it will change and refine its ideas when new data contradicts the predictions it made.

Astrology is an excellent example in this case. There’s been almost no noticeable change to it in centuries, despite repeated disconfirming evidence, and the fact that the traditional astrological arrangement of zodiac signs simply doesn’t apply any more. I remember one day at school over a decade ago, we were discussing in class a newspaper article about the actual positions in the sky of the constellations of Leo, Aquarius, and so forth, in the modern world, compared with when the standard arrangement of western astrology was first put together. Technically, based on where the constellations actually are in the sky, it was said that my birthday should fall somewhere in Sagittarius, rather than Capricorn. But there’s been no actual progress in the study of astrology resulting from this or any other development in our understanding. It’s completely static, and oblivious to new data. This does not bode well for scientific integrity.

“Energy”

Whenever some new supposedly scientific practice or product throws the word “energy” around, take a shot. Wait, I mean, be skeptical. In science, “energy” is a term referring to a well defined concept, describing how much work (itself a well defined thermodynamical concept) can be performed by a force. In pseudoscience, it’s usually just some vague, wishy-washy notion of “life force“, which some subset of animate objects is assumed to possess, but which can apparently never be quantified, directly measured, or observed in any other way that might actually be useful. It can supposedly be “felt”, by those attuned to it, but this kind of claim doesn’t stand up even to a nine-year-old’s investigations.

If a new claim is based on harnessing “energy”, but never really explains what that means or how it’s consistent with our understanding of the physical laws of the universe, that’s a big red flag. It should never be enough that you’re expected to “feel” something working, because there are many, many ways that your “feelings” can be misleading.

“Natural”

Another magic word which, when it comes to a large number of alternative medical products, health supplements and the like, shouldn’t be nearly as persuasive as it often is. “From the ecosystem that brought you such previous best-sellers as arsenic, smallpox, cocaine, and HIV, comes our new all-natural sensation…”

Obviously that last one’s not such a great example, since we all know the AIDS virus is actually a divine punishment for gayness and/or was created by the government as a means of population control. But the point still stands that Nature’s a bitch, and you should not expect her to be on your side. Chemicals designed specifically to be as beneficial to humans as possible, on the other hand, might be a better option.

Don’t go too far the other way and assume that natural = bad, or your diet will take a serious downturn – but if the “natural” quality of some remedy is being touted as a plus, there’s a good chance it’s meant to be emotionally persuasive, because there’s really nothing rational or logical to be persuaded by.

It cures cancer, makes the bed, and house-trains your unicorn

If something’s too good to be true, then it’s tautologically bullshit. And if a new scientific development comes overflowing with promises of the many wonderful ways it will change your life for the better, the problems it will solve, and the quick fixes it will fix quickly, then that should be a hint that the people making these claims might be more interested in parting some fools from their money than genuinely breaking new scientific ground. (This is especially true if the grandiose promises are being made in a high-profile public announcement, and the practical results are all still yet to materialise.)

Does it work? TRY BUY IT AND SEE FOR YOURSELF

If the people doing the research are also the people taking your money for the product whose efficacy they’ve been researching, that’s not a great sign. What should be even more suspicious is when they can’t provide any actual data to suggest that the product works, and their best suggestion is that you spend your own money (or even just your own time and effort) on performing a non-blinded and unreliable study by yourself, with a sample size of one. (That one being you. And nobody is a statistically significant sample size all on their own.)

If they’re promoting or selling it, and making claims for its effectiveness, there should really be data by now supporting the idea that it actually does something. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it” might be a fine way to approach, say, oysters, or bungee jumping, or homosexuality, but it’s not a sound principle on which to base scientific research.

It’s a conspiracy!

The usual reason for ideas not being accepted by the scientific community is that they’re bad science. People who claim that their amazing findings are being suppressed by a conspiracy are much more likely to fall into the “batshit crazy” category mentioned above, than to have actually achieved anything that anyone could possibly have reason to suppress. It’s much more likely that they just don’t have the data to suggest that their hypotheses are anything other than wishful thinking, and so the scientific community is justifiably uninterested.

It profoundly misunderstands the nature of science and the motives of scientists to suggest that there exists any kind of grand conspiracy which is innately hostile to new ideas, and strives to preserve the status quo. Science is all about discovery, and improving our understanding, and scientists love discovering new stuff they can’t explain, and for which they’ll have to come up with a new theory. If you’re even dimly aware of something called “the past”, and have an idea of what things were like there, and how different were the levels of technology and our understanding of the world, then it should be clear that science is anything but stagnant and unchanging.

Sometimes, an individual scientist will be too attached to their preferred, established theory to accept new data which should prompt them to update their ideas. But the process as a whole is geared entirely around going where the evidence points, and people complaining about their ideas not being accepted probably just don’t have any such data.

foorp fo nedruB

That’s a reversed burden of proof, for those of you busy trying to translate it from Klingon or something. If someone comes along with a new product or scientific claim, you’re under no obligation to take them seriously until they’ve demonstrated that it works. You’re not obliged to prove that it’s completely impossible before making any kind of judgment, or give them the benefit of the doubt until then.

Homeopathy and astrology, for instance, are both claimed to work by mechanisms that seem entirely implausible, based on our current understanding of multiple areas of science. This doesn’t prove with absolute certainty that nothing will ever come of them, but nobody’s interested in doing that. You can’t absolutely prove that my pet unicorn Hildegaard isn’t spying on you right now and telepathically reporting your every move back to me, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat it like a credible theory. These ideas all fail a number of basic tests for scientific plausibility, so until someone actually produces some convincing, repeatable, rigorously scientific results, you can ignore the crackpots continuing to promote them. If you’re not being presented with any data, but still being told to “trust” this idea, or told that your skepticism isn’t appropriate or justified, then you might just be looking at a big ol’ steaming pile of pseudoscience.

Impedimentarily obfuscatory collocution

As is so often the case, things go much more smoothly and productively in science if people know what the hell you’re talking about.

Science has jargon in almost every field, and this is fine and necessary. Physicists, for instance, often talk about neutrinos, and quarks, and bosons, and fermions, and many other terms not in common usage. But this doesn’t make them needlessly technical and opaque; they’re just labels for things which don’t often come up in discussion outside of particular scientific circles. Someone not familiar with the sport of badminton might not know the word “shuttlecock”, but they could probably get to grips with it and use it appropriately after being shown what one is. They wouldn’t insist on everyone avoiding the technical talk and referring constantly to “the ball thingy with the feathers on”.

Expecting physicists to go without these terms would be like abandoning the words “man” and “woman”, and attempting to describe people’s gender in terms of factors like their shape, or anatomy, or whether they smell nice. It doesn’t add anything to transparency, or simplify the discussion at all (in fact, quite the opposite).

Corporate jargon is an endlessly fun object of mockery, even though a lot of the phrases involved seem to be perfectly acceptable idioms communicating useful concepts that our language doesn’t otherwise account for. People usually start taking objection when it’s not really being used to communicate anything – when pointlessly verbose and grandiloquent language is used as if to deliberately obscure the meaning. (“Synergy” can actually mean something, but it can just be something to say if you want to sound business-savvy.)

A common sign of pseudoscience is to see lots of technical language being thrown around which looks plausibly scientific, but can’t be consistently reconciled with any other scientific field, or which doesn’t explain its jargon expressions in more mundane terms. SkepticWiki has some good examples, including “quantum biofeedback”, “Counter Clockwise Molecular Spin of Water Molecules”, and “total consciousness of the universe”. There’s also a lot of technical-sounding variants on the ill defined concept of “energy”, as mentioned above. This sort of thing should raise your skeptical hackles still further.

I’ll add more in future, but this seems like an adequate start.

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Let’s establish some common ground first. Conspiracy theory stories can be a lot of fun.

And there’ve been some damn fun stories that have really taken place. For centuries people have been gathering with small groups of trusted allies in shadowy corners, and making plans to cause some sort of havoc, upset some apple-carts, infiltrate some other group in a different shadowy corner, or seize some subtle but far-reaching power. There’s nothing inherently implausible about the idea that secret world domination, or even something a bit less ambitious, might interest some people enough to have a stab at it, or that it might sometimes even work.

Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the king and a large chunk of the aristocracy; President Nixon’s staff broke into Watergate, in just one of a series of covered-up scandals; the CIA has even conducted research into mind-control. I’m not going to argue that something conspiratorial and arguably sinister didn’t go on in these cases and many others, or that they don’t make for some pretty awesome stories to read about.

Even more fun than reading about the underhand dealings of subversive groups from decades past, is the idea of actually being involved in, or gaining knowledge of, a similar plot that’s still ongoing. All over the place, in books, movies, and virtually all forms of storytelling, you’ll be invited to walk in the shoes of the one person who learns the Truth about the massive conspiracy, and how its operators have pulled the wool over the world’s eyes. You see this imagined world through the eyes of society’s lone freethinker, up against the impenetrable behemoth which seems to have tentacles every way you turn, and you’ll have to outwit the conspirators’ attempts to capture and silence you, expose their terrible secrets to the world, destroy them utterly, or all of the above.

And man, do you ever feel cool.

As a literary trope, its use has perhaps become popular to the point of cliché, but who doesn’t love the idea of being the only person to know some world-shattering secret, and having to defy the expectations of a short-sighted society to single-handedly expose the conspiracy and bring some malevolent and tyrannical organisation crashing down?

The world is not as it seems, and you alone are special enough to find out how things really are. A good conspiracy theory seems to push all the right buttons of ego and righteousness to really hook people. We can feel like a part of a superior clique, unlike all the sheeple grazing around us, and we can smugly reinforce our disdain and distrust of authority figures, now that we know what evils they’re capable of.

Conspiracy theories, in short, are really fun.

Unfortunately, they’re also usually bollocks.

Well, when you’ve got such a versatile premise for an exciting story, why would you limit yourself to just recounting facts from boring old reality? You can write about fictional conspiracies in fictional worlds that are as exciting as you want them to be, and create an immensely influential, popular, and lucrative television series (along with numerous spin-offs until it’s long since outstayed its welcome), or come up with one of the most-discussed cultural phenomena of the new millennium and not have to worry about convincing dialogue or basic historical research.

But if you’re really into these stories, you may find yourself tempted to believe that Elvis and Tupac really are in Area 51, experimenting on the Grays that crashed at Roswell and killed the Illuminati leader Paul McCartney, to find out why JFK faked his own death then staged 9/11 in the same studio lot where Bigfoot filmed the moon landings. And although that might make a helluva story as well, its narrative charm has no bearing on whether or not any of it actually happened.

Moving away from the easier question of what’s fun to think about, if we’re going to take any conspiracy theory seriously, we should really hold it to the same standards of rigour as we do all scientific theories. If you’re not taking a skeptical approach, then you’re going to be unavoidably prone to believing something no less false than the ridiculous situation in the previous paragraph. We should hold out for a theory that explains things better than the null hypothesis – otherwise we might as well stick with a much less complicated and much more likely scenario, which still ties up all the same loose ends.

You’ll also want your theory to be falsifiable, if you’re not a total crackpot and are holding on to even a shred of credibility, and this is where a lot of conspiracy theories tend to fall down. Evidence that can be seen as supporting the theory is leapt upon and heralded as inevitable and further conclusive proof, but any disconfirming evidence, which runs against what’s expected – the kind of thing which provokes people doing actual science to adapt, amend, update, or even abandon their previous ideas of what’s true – can be instantly dismissed as just being part of the conspiracy itself. If there’s no evidence where you want there to be, then that is evidence, of the cover-up which must go hand-in-hand with the conspiracy itself.

This way, a committed conspiracy theorist never needs to be shaken from their position, or concern themselves with the notion that they might ever have made a single wrong step, and erroneously picked up an untrue idea or two, at any point in their past. Quite what rational reason they have for remaining so entrenched is rarely satisfactorily explained. If they’ve come to the understanding they have because of evidence, then where is it? And is theirs really the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the evidence in question? Or, if all the evidence for the conspiracy is still being covered up, how did some guy outside of the cabal happen upon all this privileged knowledge in the first place? Where do you get this shit, in other words?

A recurring theme seems to be cynicism regarding other people’s motives, morality, and actions, particularly those of the government – they faked the moon landings and assassinated JFK, after all, among countless other nefarious deeds. Often, a part of my natural rebuttal to these kinds of conspiracies is that people just aren’t that bad, and would surely never do anything so terrible. Although this is sometimes a good poke in the skeptical direction (The US president ordered thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks in his own country? Really?), there have obviously been many people in positions of supreme authority who have done some pretty messed-up shit, so this might not be all that convincing. (Yes, I think I may have just lumped in the Holocaust under a general description of “messed-up shit”. This is why I’m not a journalist.)

More pertinent is the question of the cover-up – so necessary to all good conspiracy theories, but often so utterly implausible. The numbers of people who’d have to keep absolutely quiet about it, the amount of correspondence needing to remain entirely secret, and the hordes of co-conspirators sometimes necessary to pull it off, any of whom could bring the whole thing crashing down if they ever breathed a word of it, is just the kind of massive set of assumptions that Occam’s razor loves to slice clean away.

Not only do these large numbers of people have to be malevolent (which some of us may find easier to swallow than others), they also have to be competent, which is even more outlandish. I was no fan of the most recent Bush administration, but even if they were far more despicably immoral than they ever seemed, they couldn’t have pulled off a massive hoax on the scale of 9/11 if they tried. Guy couldn’t even eat a damn pretzel without adult supervision, for frig’s sake. (More on all that in a future article. The 9/11 conspiracy theories, I mean. I have no particular plans to write anything more about pretzels.)

Sometimes there really is evidence which seems to suggest a deeper pattern to events, a guiding hand moving the pieces, and which hides its true existence from us. It’s important to take all this evidence on board, and not simply become denialists, throwing out the possibility of any furtive conversation involving more than two people as being too ridiculous to ever take place. But because they’re so much fun to play with, it’s clearly true that most conspiracy theories aren’t a part of the real world. Crazy ideas must regularly spring from over-active imaginations, and describe situations that don’t exist, and it might not always be obvious that these ideas were never supposed to be any more than someone’s movie pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer.

Conspiracy theories can be really fun to believe. They can provide exciting and narratively satisfying explanations for so many things that seem strange about the world, but they make huge assumptions to do so, and often have to ignore much simpler and more mundane facts, like pareidolia, or an unremarkable but misleading series of coincidences, or that the world is sometimes a scary and chaotic place with no grand scheme behind it, no pattern that makes sense to us, and sometimes buildings are just destroyed by a small and remote bunch of maniacs and that’s all there is to it. Boring answers like that might not occur to us, or fail to interest us, or terrify us, but they’re usually more rational.

So, to summarise. Conspiracy theories: usually bollocks.

Specific examples hopefully to follow.

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After the roaring success of similar campaigns for both Tibet and Willy, it’s now time to discuss Free Energy. (Ha.)

The idea of free energy is pretty much what it sounds like. It doesn’t just work in the “free cable” sense of tapping into someone else’s pipeline, but rather by actually creating new and usable energy, often literally from thin air. It’s like taking candy from a baby, then selling it to another baby, then stealing it back again, and repeating the pattern indefinitely.

These kinds of machines which promise ultimate power at low, low prices are still a recurrent phenomenon, and make for pretty big business. Perhaps it’s not surprising that people regularly claim to have invented or discovered some device, mechanism, or physical process which would render that whole fossil fuel problem moot. It’s an appealing notion, to have something which could power itself and let you siphon off the overflow, storing and using all this new energy as it spills out from… somewhere. Unfortunately – at least, if you’re living under Homer Simpson’s roof and obey the laws of thermodynamics – the Universe places an inconvenient embargo on the whole idea.

Although there might seem to be many ways you can “get” energy where there wasn’t any before, you’re never really conjuring anything out of nowhere. If you light a match, you’ll be releasing heat (thermal energy) that wasn’t around before, but it comes at the cost of the resources you’re burning. The amount of energy released in the flame exactly matches the lost energy that existed in a different form in the chemicals that made up the match.

Calculated in this broader, chemical sense, energy isn’t something that can ever be created or destroyed, but only transferred from one state to another. If you burn some oil for energy, you can’t keep the oil and burn it again. If a system is kicked into action by something falling, like water in a water wheel, then it would take at least as much energy as you got out of it if you wanted to raise the stuff back up to its original height again. (This is why Wikipedia’s gallery of perpetual motion machines are all doomed to failure; a system can’t, by itself, generate more energy than it uses to keep itself going indefinitely.)

Them laws of thermodynamics ain’t no slouch, incidentally. The first one – pretty much the “no conjuring” rule as described above – is among the most solidly convincing theories in modern science. If you throw that out, then a whole lot of really useful physics goes with it. Centuries of sophisticated learning and understanding shouldn’t be scribbled over with the first new and crazy idea to come along with Earth-shattering claims.

However cunningly you try and arrange something with magnets to keep propelling itself around on its own metaphorical steam, it can’t be done.

If a flywheel is spinning, and seems happy to keep on doing so pretty much indefinitely (some are set up with such low friction that their rundown time is measured in years) then that’s all well and good, and may be a useful way of storing energy, such that it can be usefully transferred from one form to another. But to get any energy out so that you can use it, you need to let the flywheel push against something else to power it – and in so doing, you’ll be exerting a similar push against the spin of the flywheel, causing it to slow down from the friction. The energy you get out can never be more than the energy you had to put in to get it spinning that fast in the first place.

If you want to run a car on water, you’re going to have to do something more than Stanley Meyer did, because if all you’re doing is separating water into the oxygen and hydrogen that it’s made of, then burning the hydrogen and oxygen to make water again, you’re never going to get any more out when it burns, than you needed to put in to separate them. You just go round in circles, and no work is being done.

Unless, y’know, you’re throwing out almost all of physics again. That site describes the problem of how do it “economically”, and says that by traditional methods the car “could not recharge from the process quickly enough”, but makes it sound like levels of energy input and output are two separate issues to be improved upon. They don’t seem to mention the thing about needing more than 100% efficiency, which makes recharging from the process “quickly enough” about as likely as being able to run fast enough to overtake your own knees.

Creating energy this way would be like magicking water into existence by taking some water, freezing it, then melting the ice, and experting to find more water than you started with. It’s not going to get you very far. You don’t get something for nothing.

Admittedly, not every device needs to get something from nothing, while still being intended to revolutionise the world of making stuff go. Wikipedia lists several resource-consuming machines which provide apparent perpetual motion, like that little drinking-bird thing that helped Homer keep the power plant safe while he went out to buy a muu-muu. (Huh, lot of Simpsons references in this entry. Well, two.) The way those work is surprisingly sophisticated, and there’s some fascinating science behind subtle sources of energy like ambient temperature gradients, or pressure from photons.

This isn’t any kind of a loophole around the laws of thermodynamics, but maybe you don’t need to circumvent them, if energy can be grabbed from plausible sources, in such quantities that it might seem effectively free to us. I can’t rule that out, but the problem then comes back to the perennial sticking point: if you want to be taken seriously, publish some damn science. If you actually do an experiment, and find something to support your claims, and then tell other people what you did so that they can try it too and see if you’re still right, then vindication surely awaits. But what you’re saying sounds unlikely, and it sounds very similar to some other unlikely-sounding things, which are demonstrable nonsense and which break many well established laws of science. You’re going to have to actually show us something impressive.

Of course, there are always reasons why they can’t do that just now, often relating to the various conspiracy theories in place to suppress the knowledge of this world-changing technology, and preserve the status quo for those who find it profitable. I’m not aware that any significant evidence has ever been presented that this is actually happening – of course, this could mean that it’s all been covered up, but it could more simply mean that it was never there. (More on conspiracy theories in general over here.)

I’m sticking with my “publish some damn science” argument. I don’t see how data from every scientific lab could be kept out of every respectable scientific journal – those scientists and journals would be fascinated to learn anything new that’s well supported (that’s kinda what science is, after all), even if some politicians and oil magnates wanted it kept quiet.

But when established science is so strongly indicative that you’re full of shit, in a field with a history of fraud (and other business practices which should maybe raise a suspicious eyebrow), we’re going to wait for some actual evidence before accepting that you, unlike the conmen and failures who’ve gone before, really have revolutionised everything we understand about the Universe. And while everybody seems cagey as to how these things are supposed to work, and what tests might be done to find out whether they really do, and while Reuters reports credulously on supposed new developments, we’re going to keep doubting that The Man is keeping you down.

Science loves discovering things which it can’t explain, and which shatter old paradigms. Find us some actual evidence, or even just show us what’s going on and let us find it, and the scientific and skeptical community will totally be on your side. Stop holding press conferences and asking for more and more research money. It’s not working.

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Well, I haven’t, and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. But collectively speaking, we humans have definitely gone to there. Some people think we didn’t. Those people are wrong. (I’m tired, so I may not be providing quite the usual level of sparkling prose and witty repartee for this one.)

For now, this is just going to be a placeholder with a list of some other resources, to which I might add my own thoughts on certain specific points in future. I’m holding off on that for now, mostly because I have absolutely no astronomical or aeronautical background of any sort whatever, and everything I’m about to discuss has already been talked about in more and better detail by many more qualified folks. I know that the whole point of this blog is to say things which have already been said elsewhere, but have never before been said by me; still, I’m going to stop at putting up some links to more informed resources for the time being. Places you might want to go to learn why we know that the evidence strongly asserts that people did walk on the surface of the Moon include (but are not limited to):

Moon Base Clavius
A Debunking of the Moon Hoax Theory by Robert A. Braeunig
MoonHoax
Fox TV and the Apollo Moon Hoax by the Bad Astronomer
And even Wikipedia’s page on Apollo Moon Landing hoax conspiracy theories has some pretty good discussion and citations at the moment.

So yeah, I’m delegating this one for now. Maybe once I’m more experienced and less averse to doing research, or actually think I know some things, I’ll come back to it.

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