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 first 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.

Edit 26/09/2014: Added quotes from Edward Burnay’s Propaganda

 Summary of debate 2

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

Wikipedia definition

We associate conspiracy believers with nutjobs and fanatics. Is this an inaccurate stereotype? Is there a grain of truth?

Sam Harris on admitting you believe in something considered outlandish that you pay a price when interacting with people [YouTube video]

Conspiracy bias encourages unfalsifiable evidence and outlandish claims. It dismisses incoming evidence.

People who are attracted to this kind of thinking may have tendencies to be nutjobs – to descend further and further down the rabbit hole of speculation and mistrust. There may not be many biological and psychological differences between conspiracy believers and normal people. Personality traits may be the determining factor in understanding why these biases develop [See our series on conspiracy theories for more information].

People like things that fit within their world view (Cognitive dissonance) and they don’t like randomness. People overestimate their objectivity.

Conspiracy belief and bias may be a normal behaviour for humans and could be defined as interpretation all new information conspiracy. Conspiracy bias may be a reaction to uncertainty about the world and information received.

There may be nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging that conspiracies happen but the problem may be with pointless speculation and the pushing of information forward and onto people.

Hanlon’s razer – more likely a cock up than a conspiracy [Wikipedia article]

To be a good critical thinker we may need to look at conspiracy theories without being dismissive of them. If we are going to evaluate conspiracy believers, we have to be serious about analysing them.

Conspiracy believers may have a way of thinking that jumpstarts their brains to analytical overdrive. They may also have a monological belief system and an “us versus them” mentality.

Conspiracy believers may believe in more than one theory at a time. Do they believe in contradictory theories?

One member defined conspiracy theories as theories that relate to the explanation and generation of conspiracies. Thus “Conspiracy Theory” would be analogous to “Economic Theory”: It would be the study of why people conspire, how they conspire, what effect this has, etc. [Editors’ Note: This would be a very interesting field of study.]

We should do more investigation into claims of conspiracy to disprove or prove the evidence and prevent invalid claims from gaining popularity.

The scientific method can only disprove information.

People won’t be gullible and passive if they analysed the world critically. A person may be more likely to believe in conspiracies if they have these traits.

Scepticism is important to critical thinking and doesn’t mean dismissal of everything. Most people seem to have an incorrect definition of this term.

People need to come up with their own conclusions and have the skills to critically analyse all the evidence available.

How many buildings fell on 9/11? 1, 2, more than 2? World Trade Centre 7 was not reported on in the mass media. No plane hit World Trade Centre 7 so why did it fall? There may be some discrepancies with the official story and evidence might be suppressed. There is much speculation about how and why the building fell. Why wasn’t this event covered in mainstream media? Some speculate that British journalists reported the event before building fell and this may hint at something dark.

The likelihood of belief or having expectations of conspiracy may depend on where one lives. E.g. A democratic country versus a totalitarian one. Countries where citizens are lacking of knowledge about the outside world, who lack critical thinking skills and are subjected to political propaganda may be more likely to believe in the information fed to them. Having a variety of information and education available may help people become less sheep like.

Some “conspiracies” being published by Chinese news outlets:

  • Western medicine is not using stents to treat heart problems (apparently we have something super amazing that we aren’t sharing with the rest of the world or we are diabolical fools)
  • Western countries are conspiring against China
  • Western countries are dumping GMO food in China to control its people

There is a fine line between truth and conspiracy theory.

Most of the group agreed that distrust in public institutions is growing and getting worse.

Belief in a conspiracy becomes an obsession which may make believers less likely to listen to others and look at opposing points of evidence,

People may have various reasons for believing in things. Conspiracy belief may be a way of speculating about the world without having access to expert knowledge.

People want to be seen as intelligent in front of others so spend time researching.

Conspiracy and conspiracy belief is needed for political survival and power.

People may need a system to determine if conspiracies exist and act against them.

The spectrum of conspiracies – Outlandish Global Conspiracies to Mundane Individual Trickery.

We may need conspiracy belief to alert us about problems in the world and not blindly accept what we are being told.

Conspiracy theorists as evolutionary defence mechanisms. It could be evolutionarily advantageous for a certain percentage of the population to be predisposed to expect and to look for conspiracy theories. Information is often hidden (deliberately or otherwise), and these people could be the lookouts for the group to protect against deceptive threats as a kind of division of labour.

Like any exploratory pursuit most will be misses, but some will be hits, and the more shots you take, the more chances of a hit. We obviously shouldn’t devote all our resources to it, but entertaining crazy ideas increases the chances of hitting upon the truth.

Conspiracy belief makes life more interesting for those who believe in them (and for those who don’t) and could be used to teach critical thinking skills.

Conspiracy bias as conspiracy world view and tendency to see world as this.

Religion as conspiracy and a means of dominating the majority – A thought put forward by a member

Many companies have no economic interests to research the opposing view and evidence. They are not interested in making and investigating counter claims and regulation of standards.

Environmental agencies are not investigating the link between food production and climate change – Is this a conspiracy? Cowspiracy is a documentary that looks at this [Website].

A member put forward the idea that Tony Abbott’s speech patterns are derived from an interpretation of psychology and is used as a means of influencing undecided voters.

Some politicians in the First World believe their quality of life depends on the poverty of the Third World. They don’t want to change this. – A comment made by a member in regards to how politics may “run” the world.

9/11 was a pretext to go to war in Iraq. Some have suggested that our civil liberties were violated after this event due to the usage of “the threat of terrorism” as justification for expanding systems of surveillance and domestic intervention E.g. raids and arrests. It may also have been used to justify increasing the budget and the powers of the police and defence force.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was purposely misrepresented by the government at the time and it has been officially confirmed as such. Some have suggested that this event and Operation Northwoods are examples of (successful) government conspiracies to declare war on other nations.

Totalitarian governments are more likely candidates to be conspiring against people than democratic ones. This is simply because democratic governments requiring that more people are in on the conspiracy due to more frequent exchange of personnel in and out of government.

Do newspapers supply us with propaganda and what is the reason to do this? When flight MH17 was shot down, the Herald Sun depicted Putin as a bad guy despite the lack of evidence indicating his involvement.

TV and newspaper are businesses and may just be trying to sell subscriptions by delivering news that appeals to the masses. An unpopular opinion may be relegated to the back of a newspaper as front page news grabs attention from the majority.

Newscorp is a media corporation that appears to be prepared to buy political influence and lose popularity doing so.

The point of journalists is to be truth vigilantes and not regurgitate mindless talk, journalists need to investigate and confirm information. There is appeal to be the one behind breaking news.

If you can control the question, you can control the answers – A comment about how news can be manipulated to censor information

An argument against conspiracy belief is that people are hard to control from a top down perspective.

Plato’s allegory of the cave was bought up to illustrate how mainstream media is keeping us “in the dark”.

In the case of whistleblowers, it may just take one person to pull the conspiracy castle down.

People may have or choose to limit how they receive their news. E.g. some may only listen to a talk back radio show on the way to work or just check their social media feed for news.

A commonality with conspiracy believers is that a question is raised and a conclusion is given but evidence is not always submitted.

Wilful ignorance is not scepticism and scepticism is not dismissal of all or some ideas.

Both John Kerry and George W. Bush are part of the “secret” fraternity Skull and Bones and this may have complicated the 2004 presidential election as the fraternity has associations with the “power elite”.

We have a weak sense of what people are willing to do and do to the people beneath them when they are in a position of power. The lines can become very blurry in these situations. They may also be operating under oaths of secrecy (“the first rule of fight club”) and privacy.

There is a conspiracy theory from the United States that suggests that Zionist Jewish people rule the world. It may be supported by the coincidence that several chairs of the Federal Reserve Board and major bankers identify as Jewish and may have conflicts of interest because they have American and Israelian dual citizenship.

This of course may just be an expression of anti-Semitism. Some members of the group have suggested that cultural emphasis on academic performance in Asian countries and Jewish communities versus the emphasis of natural talents in Western countries may be the contributing factor rather than a conspiracy.

We can’t have a balanced (capitalist) society where economic interests override others

Two opposing countries (which are geographical neighbours) may not need (much of) an excuse to war against each other. [YouTube video]

You don’t need a conspiracy to explain or cause an event, you just need the right set of circumstances to get the ball rolling.

“If a conspiracy is still discussed, there must be something to it.” Bollocks! The flat earth theory is still discussed. People continue to discuss and believe stupid and wrong ideas all the time.

Where does the stereotype of a conspiracy theorist come from? Most conspiracy believers may be normal people. Why do we always associate them with tin foil hats and the like? Is there an association of personality traits that is strengthened by encountering particular types of people? Are we looking for extremes because they are more interesting? Do we remember the oddness because it stands out?

Some members of the group have suggested we remember the oddballs because they are loud and memorable. Others have suggested that people who are content and well socially integrated are not likely to criticise or analyse the status quo. Therefore, it is mostly people on the fringe of society, those who are hit by hard times, or frustrated, the misfits, the poor, and the socially alienated that are more likely to question the status quo in the first place.

George Orwell’s 1984 – “You have to rebel to be conscious and you have to be conscious to rebel.”

Conspiracy theories are difficult to disprove because they become increasingly elaborate as information (or lack thereof) is uncovered and as time progresses. They are unfalsifiable through the provision of mechanisms to explain everything. “That’s what they want you to believe” is a common way of getting out of explaining your counter-evidence.

Terrorists walk among us, they look like humans. So why do we laugh at the belief that lizard people disguised as humans walk among us? If we believe in terrorists, why is that belief laughed at?

People get the government they deserve. If you don’t rebel, you will have to passively accept what you get.

It is in the government’s best interest to provide us with positive things. E.g. police and health care

Quotes from Propaganda by Edward Burnays


  • “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen machanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” p37
  • “It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind. The American government and numerous patriotic agencies developed a technique which, to most persons accustomed to bidding for public acceptance, was new. They not only appealed to the individual by means of every approach – visual, graphic, and auditory – to support the national endeavour, but they also secured the cooperation of key men in every group – persons who mere word carried authority to hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers… At the same time, the manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental cliches and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror, and the tyranny of the enemy.” p54-55
  • “A presidential candidate may be “drafted” in response to “overwhelming popular demand,” but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.” p60


Interesting questions posed by the group

What is a conspiracy theory?

How can we test for people’s susceptibility to conspiracy theory/belief?

The weapons of mass destruction believed to be in Iraq – was this a conspiracy? Was searching for the WMDs just a petty excuse to invade and start a war? Did public opinion (as represented in the mainstream media) flip after the events of 9/11? Would we have been dismissive of claims of WMDs had this event not occurred?

If you believe in conspiracies, are you a conspiracy theorist? Or are you perceived as such when you strap an ideology or outlandish claim to your belief?

Are conspiracy beliefs regarded as baseless and outlandish because other ideas are more popular? Or is it because of our negative associations and immediate dismissal of conspiracy believers? Does the classification of information play a part in this?

What kind of world would we live in if conspiracy theory didn’t exist?

Is propaganda known as Public Relations? Do we see it as this?

Are we informed as we really think we are?

Are there men in suits in charge of the world?

Is there a powerful group or groups trying to control information and its distribution?

There is too much information available so how can we come to logical conclusions despite the overload? Can we discount or dissect all bits of information? How do we devote time to thoroughly evaluate information?

Are religions a conspiracy by a powerful elite group to control the masses through deception? Or are conspiracy theories religions that explain everything and create a fanatical community?

Should animals have the same rights as humans? Should we treat animals in a similar way to humans as a means of acknowledging their sentience?

Do our economic interests override the respectful treatment of animals? Is this a conspiracy? To ignore that animals have rights? Is this a moral debate?

Should we have animals as pets?

Was it a conspiracy that tobacco companies concealed the health risks of their products?

Are conspiracy theories religions? You can explain everything using the conspiracy as a base e.g. God, aliens, lizard people and men in suits. Why is the world like this?

Should conspiracy theorists be separated into two groups: those who make outlandish claims and those who can sort out the information and rationalise their belief in a critical manner?

Was 9/11 and WMDS orchestrated? Were these events predicted by the language used by politicians before these events?

Why don’t people believe that the governments did enact events like 9/11? Would this be logistically possible? It would have involved a lot of people and would have been extremely difficult to achieve.

What benefit would staging 9/11 have for the US government? Is there not enough direct evidence to indicate 9/11 was a government plot?

Should conspiracies like the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Operation Northwoods be taught in schools?

Do we teach children to trust the government?

Are governments conspiring against each other?

Do we group all governments as distrustful bastards? Do we think they are capable of a major conspiracy against their own citizens?

Do people trust their governments in totalitarian regimes?

Is Russia a totalitarian government?

Who believes the MH17 incident was the fault of Russia?

Is there a difference between propaganda and appealing to the masses?

Is there a lot of substance when a story is published?

Who controls the news? Who controls Reuters?

Is there a line of tolerance when reporting and providing editorial news?

How many of Newscorp’s publications did support a war in Iraq just before the war happened? Was this a coincidence?

Would we have chaos if individualism was widespread and culturally acceptable?

Is the news real? Are we being presented with fairytales? Are we being controlled by the media?

How many people actually read Wikileaks? Can it compete with mainstream media as a news source?

Would and can the mainstream media stop a whistleblower? Would there be a conflict of interest if they did? Some have suggested this may not be so as they could break a story, get famous and sell more subscriptions.

Would the mainstream media admit the WMDS in Iraq was a lie?

Do we know which papers and media outlets are aligned with particular opinions and political parties?

Are people as discerning as we think they are? They may not be as we could be under-estimating our own abilities and those of others.

Can we know everything?

“This raises a lot of questions”, do we say this to get people to look for answers?

Are we raised to believe we need a government?

Do we want to try changing others’ world view by using conspiracy bias?

Would changing a world view make us realise the government is evil?

Are the people we think of as our government, not our government?

Is there a “shadow” government? What is the inner boundary of this conspiracy? How do people get into this secret club? What happens when people want to get out of the club?

Is the world small enough to be controlled by small groups?

Did George W. Bush cheat in the election against Al Gore? Was this a conspiracy? Did it indicate that there wasn’t a group in control of the government?

Jonestown incident, was it a conspiracy to manipulate people? Is this an example of conspiracy being used as a tool by cults?

Why do we have and use cognitive dissonance? Is there an evolutionary advantage to having this?

Are the ages of 5 and six, the age of indoctrination?

Does the government tell use which medication to buy?

What is with all the movies where the government is the bad guy? Are we getting mixed messages from popular culture and mainstream media about whether the government is our friend or our enemy?

Why don’t most of us believe in conspiracy beliefs? Does the evidence suggest otherwise? Are we instead thinking “will I benefit from believing this”?

Does welfare reduce conflict?

Do we not have an incentive to research conspiracy? Are we just apathetic? Is it just too much effort to change ones’ mind?

Are there too many theories? Are we being “conspiracy atheists” ” by shifting the burden of proof on to the conspiracy believers to present us with compelling evidence?

Are conspiracy believers more likely to believe in multiple beliefs?

Why disrupt the game, why not play it?

Could there be a cultural incentive to be sceptical?

Do we overestimate the threat of terrorism?

Does fundamentalism fuel terrorism?

Is it a shorter cognitive leap to believe in terrorists than aliens as we know terrorists exist and they look like people but we have no proof of aliens?

Is it physically impossible for humans to get to Mars?

Would humans reach Mars by launching a generational ship? We wouldn’t need it for a trip to Mars (approximately 1 – 4 years of travel) but we might need one for interstellar and intergalactic travel.

Do aliens exist? Would we ever make contact with aliens? Would they ever make contact with us?

Is the “terrorist” a made up threat?

Are there people in (Australian) jail for the crime of terrorism? Is this just a political lie? Are there terrorists in Australia?

The Boston bombing – was this staged? What was the point of staging this? Was this and incidents like the one in Ferguson excuses for martial law?

Is the idea of an Islamic state fanciful? Could a western country ever become an Islamic state?

Are we working for the government to pay our tithe to them?

What is the level of transparency about government activities available? Are we too lazy to look this up?

Is the ABC truly unbiased? Is it controlled by the government?

Additional content


War in Iraq

Edward Burnays [Wikipedia article] and his seminal text Propaganda

History of propaganda

History of conspiracies and conspiracy theory

The ABC and the Abbott government

Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11

House of Cards (Novel and TV series)

Hilton Hotel bombing

Mars One

This size of space and how this is underestimated in science fiction

Conspiracy Theories mentioned during the debate

Who was behind 9/11? Why did they cause this event to occur?

Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

Obama is Osama – Some people have tried to do facial comparisons to verify this claim

Lizard people walking among us

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