Most people, especially in academic and scientific institutions, regard belief in conspiracy theories as unjustified (or to put it another way: crazy and paranoid). But they accept that conspiracies can occur, as evidenced by Watergate and other exposed scandals. But they regard most popular conspiracy theories as unlikely. Why is that? This can be called ‘default scepticism’, and it has several components.
One component is the argument that the grander a conspiracy theory, the less likely it is to be true. That is, the more people involved, over more countries, involving multiple institutions and organisations, over longer time spans, the less plausible the conspiracy theory.
Another core argument of default scepticism is simply that information is intrinsically difficult to keep secret, and people are difficult to control. Both of these go hand in hand. This is the argument that, from all we have seen in psychology research and exposed conspiracies in human history, a conspiracy requires a small scale to have a decent chance of success. The grand conspiracies discussed in popular culture would require impossible levels of behavioural and information control. The organisers would have to have absolute confidence that everyone at every level would be compliant indefinitely, and that everything would go off exactly as planned without any hiccups or nasty surprises.
Default scepticism also employs Occam’s Razor, which suggests that when there are two competing explanations, the simpler one is more likely to be true. Hanlon’s Razor is a related axiom that simply says cock-ups are more common than conspiracies. Therefore if you see a horrible event, it is statistically more likely the result of a cock-up than a conspiracy.
Sceptics also often criticise conspiracy theories for being unfalsifiable: They do not make any coherent predictions that could be used to test the theory and prove it false. Instead, they act retrospectively, and reinterpret any and all evidence (even disproving evidence) as confirmatory. For example, I could come up with a hypothesis that there is a giant pink elephant standing right behind you. But when you turn around and can’t see it I explain that it is also invisible. It is possible to come up with an infinite number of unfalsifiable hypotheses that are completely absurd. Being immune to testing is not a good thing.
More detailed discussion of scepticism of conspiracy theories can be found in the Critical Thinker Podcast by Kevin deLaplante:
Psychopaths and Messes
Many conspiracy theorists seem to think those in control are psychopaths, because how else could they do such horrible things and lie about it constantly. But I don’t think that’s a good hypothesis.
Now, there is evidence that the higher you go up the ranks in businesses, the more likely you are to find psychopaths. And we can imagine plausible mechanisms by which this would occur: The charming and intelligent psychopaths, having no qualms with ruining other people’s lives, would excel in a highly competitive environment of office politics.
However, psychopaths are also very impulsive and not particularly cooperative. The typical story of a psychopath involves flitting from place to place, from job to job, making big life decisions on a whim with no regard for others, and little stability in their life. Psychopaths are not generally good long-term planners or good team players. If there ever were a group of psychopaths that came into power, it would be a highly unstable situation and the group would likely fall apart in only a matter of time.
For example, think of the crowded luggage conveyor belt at an airport. It would be best if everyone stepped back to give everyone a clear view of the luggage. But as soon as one person takes one step closer, he obscures the view of everyone else, and they now step closer to see better. And soon everyone is bunched up against the conveyor belt, pushing past each other to see and grab their luggage. Everyone standing back would be ideal, but it is an unstable situation, because as soon as one person violates it, other people are more likely to violate it as well (Nash Equilibrium). I expect a group of cooperating psychopaths would be similarly unstable.
Yes, there are advantages to cooperating, but more often we see cooperation as a means to compete. Think of ant colonies: They could all ally together, but instead more often each nest competes with its neighbours. Family groups of chimps cooperate in order to compete with other families of chimps. Within the group they cooperate, but only as a means to compete with other groups. Ultimately competition at some level is what drove the evolution of cooperation. Thus we have tribalism and patriotism. Even non-psychopaths aren’t particularly cooperative. So the idea of one monolithic group with no rivals cooperating to control the whole world is not particularly plausible, especially when that group is composed of cutthroat psychopaths. A much more plausible scenario than this top-down control is a tangled mess: multiple different nation-states all making temporary alliances to compete with other alliances as they constantly strive for economic success or empire expansion.
This can be seen as a derivative of Hanlon’s Razor. Default scepticism also seems to include the idea: The messier scenario is more plausible than the organised one. Maybe the tragic messes in the world are a result of messiness rather than a result of organisation?
Psychopaths are more common among CEOs than the base rate of psychopathy would predict:
Explanations as to why: