Summary: 36th Gentle Thinkers Debate (Conspiracy Theories)

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Are you aware of any current or past conspiracies or conspiracy theories? Do you believe there are important conspiracies underlying our society? Have we come to expect dishonesty and conspiracies in public institutions? If we are distrustful of politicians, are we conspiracy theorists? The term “Conspiracy theory” has a short history, and has gradually acquired derogatory overtones, indicating baseless outlandish claims and paranoia. Why is that? Conspiracies are real and some conspiracy theories are true. Do those in power influence the evolution of language in their favour (or is this just another conspiracy theory?)

Note: Based on a comment made in the pre debate discussion, I have opted to use the terms “conspiracy bias”, and “conspiracy belief” and “believer” when discussing conspiracy theory and theorist to clarify why people have tendencies be biased towards particular ways of thinking and evidence.

This summary is interpreted from notes taken during the second debate on this topic and may contain errors. It is not a definitive text and should be used a means of sharing and developing ideas. Edits have been made to make this summary easy to read therefore it does not reflect the actual flow of conversation.

If you wish to correct mistakes, be attributed to or contribute content, please contact me or post a comment.

More summaries can be found via the Summary Index.


Summary form debate 1

Pre debate discussion [Link to debate 1] and [Link to debate 2]

Wikipedia definition

There is a difference between how the word “theory” is used in the vernacular and how it is used in science. In the vernacular, there are associations with speculation and unproven information whereas in science, theories are ways of developing methods to test and seek information.

Is it a conspiracy even if it’s small? E.g. bullying in the workplace? Most of the group believed that this counts as a conspiracy as malevolence is present and the intent is hidden. The malevolence intended behind conspiracies is often seen in retrospect.

There are conspiracies but not all are true. Some are rather far-fetched. Some theories may be wrong or right but we have to work out which ones are which.

China is by no means democratic despite what its citizens think. Information is censored and citizens are subjected to government propaganda. Rote learning is an institution in China and may influence how people think and what they are likely to believe in.

The information available in China about Tiananmen Square is very different from the western world. A Chinese member commented that she had never known about the event until she went to college and a friend helped her break through the Great Firewall of China to get information.

Mainstream media from different countries may have opposing views and skewed biases.

People are limited in what they can think and express in their second language which may make it difficult for some people to express their opinions to native English speakers so they may not just blindly faithful sheep.

People have to judge for themselves what information is true. This is difficult to do if you aren’t exposed to education, information and influences from the outside.

Wikileaks indicates that we have developed a desire to expose everything. Is this because of conspiracy beliefs?

We shouldn’t dismiss everything; instead we should reserve our judgement until we have researched everything from every angle.

We do need to be sceptical and demand rigorous testing of evidence. To have healthy scepticism, you can’t be automatically dismissive of everything but you shouldn’t take things at face value.

It is delusional to think that scientists and governments would work together to pull off a conspiracy. If there really were conspiracies, details would come to light eventually as information can’t be hidden that well. An example provided suggested that the technology of nuclear weaponry was leaked 4 years after the US detonated theirs during World War II.

Some left-wing conspiracy beliefs about government surveillance have been proven true. The situation with the NSA may be worse than we think.

Some ingredients for a conspiracy belief:

  • The official flow of information is incomplete and untrustworthy
  • People try to fill in the gaps and for some this means fitting the information into their world view

What make a conspiracy a belief is considering where the power lies and believing how it is often in the hands of the elite.

People don’t have a good way of processing evidence and information. A member commented that religiosity may cause people to believe in unfalsifiable information.

We need to start with critical analysis as we need to test the validity of information received. We don’t have to make stuff up and we need to develop a good way of testing evidence. There is no point in creating evidence when there is none.

Most conspiracy believers rely on gut feelings and anecdotal evidence which is not a good way of thinking or testing evidence. We should stop filling in gaps in information (with misinformation and gut feelings) and stop blaming people for particular events.

Cover-ups lead people to be suspicious as people aren’t comfortable with gaps in information. Cover-ups are conspiracies not conspiracy theories.

The official story behind JFK’s death was not very good or true. Was there a cover-up? There may have been one depending on if the cause of death was by accident or assassination.

How our government gives us information may give rise to conspiracy beliefs. It can be difficult to get at the truth when the official evidence is suppressed. People prefer to hide things that embarrass them.

“There is no 100% democracy anywhere in the world” – A comment made about the state of the world

The conspiracy beliefs about the US government faking the moon landings don’t take into account that the Russians would have discovered and exposed the hoax and landed their own spacecraft onto the moon.

Imposing thinking on others makes people into sheep and allows others to gain power and profit from our problems.

Illegal behaviour and misleading information may be causing problems in society which could lead to conspiracy beliefs. There may be no or little evidence of particular groups acting up because of their power. Do we need rules to protect us from the self interests of others?

We should be grateful of the work of scientists and critical thinkers that protects us from self interested thinking. In the scientific field one can become famous by disproving others.

There are quite a few groups that work on an interlinked model of manipulation, self interest and power. Whether this includes marketing, religion and certain political parties is for us to decide. To combat the evil in the world, we have to do good deeds and make the world a better place. We could also tip the balance by challenging these groups by asking questions and discovering answers.

If more people think critically, we might be more likely to protest against injustice and the establishment. Despite our insistence on teaching critical thinking skills in schools, they are unwelcome in circles that aren’t education based.

We shouldn’t blindly trust everything but we should have a trust that allows us to question. We need a level of accountability when trusting public institutions.

Spy agencies can’t have carte blanche. We agree that they need the capacity to catch criminals but there should be a level of accountability on how money is spent especially when track records are terrible.

Being further from the locus of concern reduces the concern – A comment on how distance to an event may make us feel uninvolved and apathetic towards it.

If the creationists are right about God creating humans then Adam and Eve’s descendents would have been plagued with mental and physical deformities as they would have had to inbreed with each other.

You can be convicted for conspiracy of murder and fraud.

Interesting questions posed by the group

Are conspiracies purely political? The ones we focus on the most appear to adhere to this perception.

Does conspiracy belief stem from a distrust and fear of the government and science?

Is everyone conspiring against each other?

Do conflicts of interest get in our way of cooperating with others?

Do we have a culture of competition and does it increase peoples’ tendencies to make and break rules?

What do people do about accepting evidence or information?

What is the difference between a cover-up and a conspiracy?

Is peak oil a conspiracy? Are we just misinformed or for whatever reasons, we haven’t been told that we have already hit peak oil?

How can we trust electronic votes if we have evidence that digital data is easily collected and manipulated? Who owns voting machines? Some speculate that people with conflicting interests may own these in the United States.

Do we assess information just on “yes and no” decisions or do we consider the probability of its truthfulness?

Do religion, tradition, mainstream media and advertising have a lot of control over peoples’ beliefs?

Does the power of marketing supersede the authority of others e.g. government, justice system?

Is a conspiracy when there are unexplained events that make us uneasy?

We know about the Western journalists that were beheaded but not of the other people so were we manipulated by the news about the events in Syria but not those in Saudi Arabia?

Why do Western countries take an interest in the Middle East?

Are manipulations and conspiracies linked? Are they the same thing?

Are there elements of truth to conspiracies theories? Or is information misinterpreted and gaps filled incorrectly?

How do you tell the difference between powerful people and conspiracies?

Does the division of power affect how likely people are to rebel? Do we agree with people in power if we are comfortable with our lives?

Is the Chinese government against criticism against it, mass groups of people forming or both? Is this government brainwashing its citizens from a young age?

Can the ATO request information about our purchases from retailers? Is this a conspiracy? Could this information be used for nefarious means?

Can advertising manipulate us to act differently? What are the short and long term effects of advertising?

Is there a difference between manipulation and education?

Is advertising manipulating or educating us to purchase more material goods? Is it teaching us to exceed our sense of moderation?

Are people aware of the effects of advertising on them?

Are different generations more critical thinkers than others? It was suggested that Generation Y may be because they can access a wide range of information and are less likely to take things at face value. However it was also suggested that Baby Boomers have quite a high level of scepticism and distrust of the government due to being raised in a post-war environment.

Does critical thinking come naturally to people? Does natural curiosity lead people to being critical thinkers or do they need to learn critical thinking?

Are the best critical thinkers the ones who teach and force themselves to improve their critical thinking skills?

Did the war in Iraq happen because Saddam Hussein changed his trading currency to Euros?

We need critical voices but how do we get the majority to listen?

Does ASIO stop people from getting jobs due to their interest and actions towards particular people? Philip Adams and Gary Foley were cited as examples of victims.

Does a Joh Bjelke-Petersen arise in every generation because we get too comfortable?

Why do people object to how and why their information is being collected? How is information collected? What information is collected? Why do we want and value our privacy?

Does the government read our emails?

Should we teach lateral thinking skills?

Does every society have something to hide?

Do scientists have a skewed view of the world? Do they only believe in something if there is sufficient evidence? Are there things that can be believed without evidence? [Editor’s note: If you are unfamiliar with the rigorous nature of the scientific method, then how scientists think can seem rather odd.]

Additional content

Nicaragua, the CIA and USA [Wikipedia article]

Edward Snowden

Government Communications Headquaters (GCHW)

Galileo and discovering the sun doesn’t revolve around the earth

Stem cells in the treatment of breast cancer [Editor’s note: It was cited during the debate that there was some research and a treatment developed in this area that was exposed as dangerous and fraudulent. Please consult your doctor and oncologist if you are looking into this type of treatment as I unable confirm this information at this point in time.]


Famous critics of political commentators and critics:

  • Noam Chomsky
  • John Stockwell
  • William Blum
  • Glenn Greenwald

Holocaust denialists – David Irving was the example provided in this debate

Lord Monckton – climate change denialist

Creationist arguments

George Brandis and the Racial Discrimination Act Section 18C (Popularly paraphrased as “you have the right to be a bigot”)

Government security agencies monitoring citizens

Copenhagen interpretation

Conspiracy Theories mentioned during the debate

  • Chemical trails
  • Vaccination causes autism
  • Machines that run on water
  • Perpetual motion
  • Area 51 and the magic door in the desert that will take you to Pine Gap via an underground passage
  • Illuminati
  • A new world order
  • John F Kennedy’s death – assassination or accident?
  • Pope John Paul I’s death – was the Italian mafia and Vatican bank involved? David Yallop’s book In God’s Name suggests that this may have been so.
  • Peak Oil

The following conspiracy beliefs are funnier ones sourced from a reddit thread:

  • Rocks are soft and squishy but they tense up when touched
  • Dinosaurs aren’t real; the CIA promotes this to prevent time travel
  • The world was destroyed on a certain date and humanity hasn’t realised this
  • The CIA developed time travel and killed JFK to prevent him from detonating a nuclear weapon in an alternate universe
  • Light bulbs don’t produce light instead they suck up darkness
  • Nazis live in the hollow core of the Earth
  • China is crippling Western countries by exporting immigrants who slow down our economy by driving slowly and making everyone late to work


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