- Inability to answer questions
- Inability to employ or understand Occam’s Razor
- Inability to differentiate between good evidence and bad
- Inability to withdraw
- Leaping to conclusions
If you said religious apologists, I’m afraid you’re wrong. Or are you? What I actually was describing are among the classical symptoms attributed to conspiracy theorists. Notice how similar they are to your typical apologist? Now granted, I only gave the merest titles to each to avoid giving away the answer, let’s get into the meat of characteristics and see just how close these two groups really are.
This was sparked as I was driving home Sunday night from a day with the family and hearing a commercial for the crazy radio show Coast to Coast. Coming up was a conspiracy theorist who was going to prove all the weird things that are really going on in the world. It struck me how closely all of the things that they said sounded just like religious apologists I’d heard recently.
So here is the list, plus a few that I thought were too telling in the initial list, along with a comparison to the religious wingnuts.
The conspiracy theorists are always fact-seekers, questioners, people who are trying to discover the truth; skeptics are always “sheep”, patsies for the “corporate masters” etc. They are self-assured that they have the truth, even if they have no evidence to back it up. They are able to draw correlations based on the merest suggestion of a connection, whether that connection exists or not.
The apologist claims to seek the truth and, in fact, has already found it, whether there is evidence to support that claim or not. Anyone who questions their “truth” is biased, unable to see the facts, or being influenced by an evil entity to mislead the faithful.
The conspiracy theorist will always go on and on about a conspiracy no matter how little evidence they have to go on or how much of what they have is simply discredited. (Moreover, as per 1. above, even if you listen to them ninety-eight times, the ninety-ninth time, when you say “no thanks”, you’ll be called a “sheep” again.) Additionally, they have no capacity for precis whatsoever. They go on and on at enormous length.
By the same token, if you’ve listened to Christian apologists at any length, you find the same type of behavior. In fact, this applies to both groups, they’ll find a way to fit their ideas into just about any type of conversation. You can be talking about something entirely unrelated and you’ll get them breaking in on Jesus or the JFK conspiracy, just because their entire lives revolve around that particular element.
3. Inability to answer questions.
For people who loudly advertise their determination to the principle of questioning everything, the conspiracy theorist is pretty poor at answering direct questions from skeptics about the claims that they make.
Of course, theists are the exact same way. It doesn’t matter what questions you ask, if it doesn’t fall within their fanatical beliefs, they really have no means to explain. How do they know it’s their god? Crickets. It seems that in both cases, faith plays a major role. They both have faith that what they believe, even though it has no evidence, must be true and anyone who disagrees, must be lying to themselves.
4. Fondness for certain stock phrases.
These include Cicero’s “cui bono?” (of which it can be said that Cicero understood the importance of having evidence to back it up) and Conan Doyle’s “once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth”. What these phrases have in common is that they are attempts to absolve themselves from any responsibility to produce positive, hard evidence themselves: you simply “eliminate the impossible” (i.e. say the official account can’t stand scrutiny) which means that the wild allegation of your choice, based on “cui bono?” (which is always the government) is therefore the truth.
Theists pull the same thing. How many times have you heard “you have to have faith” or “Jesus said so”? In fact, you can have an entire conversation with theists without having them respond with anything but stock phrases.
“How do you know that you have to believe to go to heaven?”
“Jesus said so.”
“How do you know that Jesus said that, or that Jesus had a clue what he was talking about?”
“You have to have faith.”
5. Inability to employ or understand Occham’s Razor.
Aided by the principle in 4. above, conspiracy theorists never notice that the small inconsistencies in the accounts which they reject are dwarfed by the enormous, gaping holes in logic, likelihood and evidence in any alternative account.
Theists don’t comprehend that the simplest explanation doesn’t include their imaginary friend in the sky. Inserting the most complex thing imaginable, a thing which has no evidentiary support whatsoever, into every conceivable problem isn’t remotely compatible with Occham’s Razor. Try explaining that to a theist though, who, in something like evolution, will assert that this magical god-thing that has no evidence whatsoever is a much more simple explanation than natural evolution, supported by billions of fossils.
6. Inability to tell good evidence from bad.
Conspiracy theorists have no place for peer-review, for scientific knowledge, for the respectability of sources. The fact that a claim has been made by anybody, anywhere, is enough for them to reproduce it and demand that the questions it raises be answered, as if intellectual inquiry were a matter of responding to every rumor. While they do this, of course, they will claim to have “open minds” and abuse the skeptics for apparently lacking same.
Theists, I don’t think, understand evidence at all. They can’t tell the difference between objective evidence and pie-in-the-sky claims.
7. Inability to withdraw.
It’s a rare day indeed when a conspiracy theorist admits that a claim they have made has turned out to be without foundation, whether it be the overall claim itself or any of the evidence produced to support it. Moreover they have a liking (see 3. above) for the technique of avoiding discussion of their claims by “swamping” – piling on a whole lot more material rather than respond to the objections skeptics make to the previous lot.
When was the last time you heard a theist admit his beliefs were wrong? It just doesn’t happen. Very few ever bother to address the problems with their theology, they do, exactly as the conspiracy theorists, pile on more nonsense in the hopes of swamping their critics.
8. Leaping to conclusions.
Conspiracy theorists are very keen indeed to declare the “official” account totally discredited without having remotely enough cause so to do. Of course this enables them to wheel on the Conan Doyle quote as in 4. above. Small inconsistencies in the account of an event, small unanswered questions, small problems in timing of differences in procedure from previous events of the same kind are all more than adequate to declare the “official” account clearly and definitively discredited. It goes without saying that it is not necessary to prove that these inconsistencies are either relevant, or that they even definitely exist.
Theists also jump to irrational conclusions, especially when they try to insert God into the natural world. Every natural disaster is a sign of God’s anger. Every good thing that happens proves God loves you. No matter what the apparent cause for an event, God must have done it! Good or bad, God is responsible and the evident natural cause for anything is just an illusion. It’s God, they tell you! God!
9. Using previous conspiracies as evidence to support their claims.
This argument invokes scandals like the Birmingham Six, the Bologna station bombings, the Zinoviev letter and so on in order to try and demonstrate that their conspiracy theory should be accorded some weight (because it’s “happened before”.) They do not pause to reflect that the conspiracies they are touting are almost always far more unlikely and complicated than the real-life conspiracies with which they make comparison, or that the fact that something might potentially happen does not, in and of itself, make it anything other than extremely unlikely.
I don’t know that there’s necessarily a direct correlation here, but theists often use another logical fallacy, argumentum ad populum, as their defense for believing in the supernatural. Lots of people have believed it, therefore it’s got to have something to it!
No it doesn’t.
10. It’s always a conspiracy.
And it is, isn’t it? No sooner has the body been discovered, the bomb gone off, than the same people are producing the same old stuff, demanding that there are questions which need to be answered, at the same unbearable length. Because the most important thing about these people is that they are people entirely lacking in discrimination. They cannot tell a good theory from a bad one, they cannot tell good evidence from bad evidence and they cannot tell a good source from a bad one. And for that reason, they always come up with the same answer when they ask the same question.
And here, the theist version is “it’s always God!” There’s nothing you can find, nothing so simple or insignificant that they can’t find the fingerprints of God all over. If you pick artichokes for dinner, it’s significant because it’s God’s will!
I’d point out that theists and conspiracy theorists are essentially the same, just in different genres, except it seems that theists and conspiracy theorists are often one and the same. I can’t tell you how many times it’s the theists who are touting UFOs and Bigfoot and JFK conspiracies. I know there have been studies done where the more religious a person is, the more likely they are to accept bizarre pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Being delusional in one way tends to make one delusional in many different ways.
And these are the people telling us they know what they are talking about.