Tag Archives: Conspiracy Theories

Spotting Frauds and Hucksters

Spotting Frauds and Hucksters

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

Within hours of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on 9-11, stories began circulating that it was not, in fact, the planes that caused the towers to collapse, but explosives planted inside by someone with access. Since then, a number of conspiracy theories have circulated that people ranging from government employees to Wall Street Traders were responsible for the attack.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is no shortage of alleged schemes about the coronavirus epidemic, from theories that the disease is caused by 5G mobile networks to that Bill Gates cooked it up as part of a global plot to electronically track us through vaccinations. Even the president’s son has a pet theory.

The simple truth is that when a tragic event happens, we lose our sense of control and there will never be a shortage of hucksters willing to take advantage of that, for profit or for other reasons. Often, these are elaborate narratives and can seem very convincing. Yet the schemes tend to have common characteristics which we can use to spot and nullify their effect.

Questionable Credentials

The first and most obvious thing most fraudulent conspiracy theories have in common is questionable credentials. Credentials, like a professional degree or certification, are important because they show that someone’s expertise has been recognized by other experts in a specific field of endeavor and that person has subjected themselves to evaluation.

That doesn’t mean someone has to have a piece of paper for their ideas to matter. In fact, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out decades ago, it is often outsiders, like Richard Feynman in virology and Elon Musk in space exploration, who drive paradigm shifts in a particular domain. However, in those cases, the outsiders are almost always working in conjunction with recognized experts.

Of course, the hucksters understand the importance of credentials, so they use several ploys to confuse us. They often appear in videos in white lab coats and use scientific sounding words. Like a cargo cult, they adopt the appearance and forms of a scientific method but discard the substance. Often, they will point to the lack of acceptance by “the establishment” as proof that their ideas are so important, they are being silenced.

So, the first thing we should look at is the credentials of the person or people making the claim. Lacking credentials doesn’t immediately make you wrong and having them doesn’t necessarily make you right. Nevertheless, when someone is unwilling to accept some type of training and evaluation it should put us on our guard.

A Lack of Transparency

Real science is transparent. There are no trade secrets. You are providing information on your materials and methods as well as the data that results. The idea is that you want to give everybody all of the information they would need to question your conclusions and judge the value of what you profess to be contributing.

Conspiracy theorists don’t do this. That’s why YouTube is a favorite medium. It’s so hard to fact check. You aren’t expected to provide links or data in an appendix to a video. You can just make assertions set to dramatic music. You can flash images that suggest nefarious activities without making any real assertions.

Another favorite ploy of the hucksters is to point to the lack of data as proof of the importance of their ideas. Of course, they don’t have data! That’s part of the cover up! So, they refuse to give any real proof and try to bury you in false assertions. They shift the burden of proof to anybody who questions them. Can anybody prove the data doesn’t exist?

We want to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this person giving me all the information I would need to come to a different conclusion? Is he or she open to different interpretations of the same data?”

A Persecution Complex

While researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I interviewed dozens of top innovators. Some were world class scientists and engineers. Others were high level executives at large corporations. Still others were highly successful entrepreneurs. Overall, it was a pretty intimidating group.

So, I was surprised to find that, with few exceptions, they were some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. The behavior was so consistent that I felt that it couldn’t be an accident. So, I began to research the matter further and found that, to a surprising extent, generosity can be a competitive advantage.

One particular case that comes to mind is Jim Allison, who had his idea for curing cancer rejected by the establishment. The pain was apparent in his voice even 20 years after the fact. Yet he didn’t blame anybody. He tried to understand why people were skeptical, went back and further validated his data, pounded the pavement and kept advocating for his idea. Jim won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2018.

Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, often go to great lengths to explain how they have been silenced by the establishment and say this is proof of the importance of their ideas. They ascribe malevolent motives to those who disagree with them. For them, there is no such thing as honest dissent.

Have You Ever Seen a Humble Conspiracy Theorist?

One thing that always impressed me about the innovators I researched was how they insisted on giving credit to others. This came through especially during fact checks, when they would insist, I note the contributions of their collaborators. They never claim that they did it all themselves.

The people who make the biggest breakthroughs aren’t necessarily smarter or harder working than anybody else. However, they are effective knowledge brokers who build up strong networks of collaborators. They don’t always know more, but they know who knows more and that helps them to access that random piece of knowledge or insight that allows them to crack a really tough problem.

Yet conspiracy theorists would have us believe that they possess, by either innate ability or opportunity, some unique insight that others are not privy to. They don’t invite collaboration, scrutiny or alternate perspectives because they believe they are already possessing the absolute truth.

We need to have a healthy skepticism, especially with ideas we would tend to agree with. We should ask questions, explore alternative explanations of the same data and be open to additional evidence. What we need to look out for are people who would suggest that we shouldn’t do these things, because they are the ones looking to deceive us.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Unsplash

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How to Free Ourselves of Conspiracy Theories

How to Free Ourselves of Conspiracy Theories

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

If you think about it, postal carriers should be a little bit creepy. If someone told you that an agent of the federal government would come to your house everyday with access to information about places you shop, businesses you transact with and people you know well enough to trade holiday cards with, it might cause you some alarm.

Yet we don’t find postal carriers creepy. In fact, despite vigorous efforts to malign the Postal Service, we trust it far more than most institutions. The truth is that we don’t conjure up conspiracy theories to explain the everyday and mundane, but some far off yonder which we cannot clearly designate, yet find threatening nonetheless.

The function conspiracy theories play is to explain things that we don’t understand and feel out of our control. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the age of Covid has spawned a myriad of crazy, dangerous notions. What we need to come to terms with is that the real problem plaguing society is a basic lack of trust and that is where the battle for truth must be fought.

The Visceral Abstract

One of the frustrating things about modern life is that we experience so little of it directly. As Leonard Read pointed out in his 1966 essay, I, Pencil, the manufacture of even the simplest modern object is beyond the reach of a single person. Today, people depend on technologies to get through their day, but have only the barest notion of how they function.

The truth is that we live in a world of the visceral abstract, where strange theories govern our everyday lives. People may not care much, or even believe in, Einstein’s theory of special relativity, but if GPS satellites aren’t calibrated to take it into account, the delivery man won’t be able to bring their dinner. In much the same way, the Coronavirus will mutate, and the most infectious variant will dominate, no matter what you think of Darwin’s theory.

As Francis Fukuyama explains in his recent book, Identity, the pace of change and disruption in modern society demands that we make choices about who we are. Faced with so much we don’t understand there is no small amount of appeal to rejecting the unknown in favor of simpler explanations in the form of conspiracy theories.

Populists often say that they want to “take our country back,” but what they really mean is that they want to take our existence back. They want to banish the fabulous yonder for something closer and more tangible. They offer safe harbor and, for people who feel stranded on the rocks, with the sea crashing over them, the attraction can be undeniable.

Conforming To Local Majorities

We all have a certain capacity to believe in an idea to or to partake in an action. We may be highly skeptical or wildly enthusiastic, depending on our innate preferences and previous experiences, but history shows that individuals—and, in fact, entire societies—are vulnerable to suggestion.

We are, for example, highly affected by what those around us think. In fact, a series of famous experiments first performed in the 1950’s, and confirmed many times since then, showed that we will conform to the opinions of those around us even if they are obviously wrong. More recent research has found that the effect extends to three degrees of social distance.

The effect is then multiplied by our tendency to be tribal, even when the source of division is arbitrary. For example, in a study where young children were randomly assigned to a red or a blue group, they liked pictures of other kids who wore t-shirts that reflected their own group better. In another study of adults that were randomly assigned to “leopards” and “tigers,” fMRI studies noted hostility to outgroup members regardless of their race.

So it isn’t surprising that people will be more willing to believe, say, a conspiracy theory floated by a high school friend than information from a government agency or recognized news source. If the majority of people around you believe something, you’re likely to believe it too, because that’s what’s close and tangible.

During the pandemic, when everybody is stuck inside, the effect of local majorities, especially in isolated online communities, is significantly more powerful than usual. These communities may be, in fact, at a long distance geographically, but in mental and social space, they make up a large part of our immediate environment.

The Psychology Of Delusion

Once we are exposed to an idea and influenced by those around us to be sympathetic to it, two cognitive biases begin to kick in. The first, called availability bias, is our tendency overweight information that is most available to us. For example, reading or hearing about traffic fatalities on the news will do little to affect our driving habits, but when we pass a bad accident on the road, we’ll naturally slow down and become more cautious.

It’s amazing how powerful availability bias can be. Researchers have found that it even affects how investors react to analysts reports, how corporations invest in research and how jurors evaluate witness testimony. Other studies find that availability bias affects medical judgments. Even in matters of great import, we tend not to look very far for information.

Again, it’s easy to see how the pandemic combined with the Internet can make us more susceptible. Stuck at home, we spend more time engaging with communities online, where we tend to be surrounded by likeminded people. Their opinion will seem more real to us than those of “experts” from outside our community, whether that community is virtual or not.

This effect is then combined with confirmation bias, our tendency to seek out information that supports our prior beliefs and reject contrary evidence. Those who fall prey to conspiracy theories often report spending a lot of time searching the Internet and watching YouTube videos, which confirm and extend their discussions with “fellow travelers.”

Rebuilding Trust

Once we become aware of where conspiracy theories come from, it becomes easier to understand why we tend to be far more suspicious of, say, public officials or medical experts than our postal carriers. We tend to trust those we see as being part of our communities and are suspicious of those we see as outsiders.

Unfortunately, the stresses on our society will only intensify over the next decade as we undergo major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography. These changes will inevitably hit some segments of society harder than others and, it’s safe to assume, those left behind will likely feel that society has forsaken them.

We need to learn how to rebuild trust, even with our enemies and the best—perhaps the only way—to do that is by focusing on shared values. We might, for example, disagree on exactly how our criminal justice system should function, but we can all agree that everyone has the right to live in a safe community. We may not agree on the specifics of a “Green New Deal,” but can all see the importance of investing in our rural communities and small towns.

Most of all, we need to rebuild a sense of connection. Fortunately, network science tells us that it takes relatively few connections to drastically reduce social distance. Trust is personal, not political. It can’t be legislated or mandated but arises out of shared experience that contributes to the collective well-being. Like our mail carriers, our institutions must be seen to be competently serving us and having our best interests at heart.

In the final analysis, our problem is not one of information, but that of basic good will. The antidote is not stronger arguments, but more capable public service.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pixabay

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