By Mike Cronin
Last week I wrote about critical thinking. This week I thought we might look at an area that is ripe for its practical application: Conspiracy theories.
Some people believe the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by our own government in order to provide the Bush administration a pretext to go to war. Others believe the Apollo moon landings were faked. Conspiracy theories abound: Aliens at Area 51. JFK’s murder. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The list keeps growing.
How do we get at the truth? Sometimes we can’t. While the truth may be discoverable, the means of discovery are not always available at the time the conspiracy theory is popular, nor is discovery always worth the price to find out even if the means are available.
On the other hand, we have thinking tools to help us decide whether a given conspiracy theory is plausible. These allow us to dismiss the implausible theories. One of these tools is called Occam’s razor. In a nutshell, Occam’s razor says that there is seldom any need to consider complicated answers when simple ones will do.
Let’s take the case of UFOs at Area 51. The theory generally postulates that aliens crashed on earth near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the US government is holding their bodies and recovered spacecraft at Area 51. In order to believe that, you have to accept:
- Out of all the possible places the aliens could visit in our galaxy, the aliens came here.
- The aliens have faster-than-light travel (which our science believes to be impossible) or they can hibernate for hundreds or thousands of years. Either way their technology is fantastically beyond ours.
- Their fantastic technological advantage both failed them utterly (because they crashed) and succeeded spectacularly (because their bodies and spaceship survived the crash roughly intact.)
- Out of all of the possible places they could have crashed, they wound up hitting rural New Mexico.
- Our government bureaucrats have been savvy enough to keep the real truth secret all of this time.
It might be possible…but the “evidence” to support the theory to date amounts to not much more than fuzzy pictures and unverifiable “eye-witness” testimony, while the holes in the theory are powerful. For example: Remember the space shuttle Columbia disaster? If the aliens’ spacecraft made it through reentry intact, there would have been a huge crater at the impact location like the one near Winslow, Arizona:
If it broke up during reentry, there would have been debris scattered for hundreds or thousands of miles along the descent path:
Let’s apply Occam’s razor: It is far more likely that there was never an alien spacecraft crash in 1947 or any other year. Most likely, whatever the government recovered in New Mexico in 1947 was man-made and that whatever goes on at Area 51 now is wholly human activity devoid of alien influence. Why believe that? Because there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial that intelligent extra-terrestrials have visited earth.
Why does there always seem to be a slate of such conspiracy theories “active” at any given time? Because conspiracy theories are fun and profitable! There is no shortage of people who will “investigate” such mysteries and sell their findings in the form of books and special reports. There are others who make and market souvenirs. If the theory gains enough of a following, there will be entire TV shows dedicated to “solving” (i.e. perpetuating) the myth or even movies that popularize various explanations. (For example: there was a movie called Capricorn One that gave credence to the idea that the government could fake a maned Mars landing – which no doubt fueled the Apollo conspiracy). It’s all meant to keep the gravy train on track.
The conspiracy theory-industrial complex is mostly harmless when understood for what it is. For example: Like most people, I can enjoy a sci-fi mega-flick like Independence Day or its forthcoming sequel Resurgence (which romanticize the idea of aliens at Area 51). However, for me to enjoy such movies, I have to suspend my disbelief (i.e. “ignore” my faculty for critical thinking).
On the other hand, there is a dark side to the conspiracy market. It manifests in at least two ways:
- There are an abundance of Americans whose education neglected to cover critical thinking. They cannot “suspend their disbelief” because they don’t have any!
- A viable market for conspiracy theories is also fertile ground for politicians to play upon people’s fears: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” (H.L. Mencken)