Conspiracy Detector and the Conjunction Fallacy

Historian of science and Skeptics Society foun...
Michael Shermer. Image via Wikipedia

With the recent conviction in the Lakin Court-Martial, I turn my thoughts to conspiracy theories.

It’s no secret that I follow Michael Shermer and his movement to inject logic and critical thinking into human culture. Dr. Shermer is the founder of “Skeptic” magazine and a frequent speaker on critical thinking, skeptical inquiry, and the scientific method.

Almost everywhere he goes, Dr. Shermer is confronted by conspiracy theorists, theologians, junk science whacks, pseudoscience whacks, and just plain whacks. As a result, he developed various coping mechanisms over the years for maintaining his sanity in the face of idiocy.

We face similar trials as Criminal Defense Attorneys. Many clients, in explaining their facts to me, pontificate that “the Army is out to get me.” I try to respond with logic. “OK, lets think about this, kiddo. If we include reserve and National Guard personnel, you are roughly 1/1,000,000th of the Army. Currently, you are a Private, and you haven’t yet finished basic training. Do you really believe that a bunch of Generals and Sergeants Major are conspiring to ensure that you fail in your entry-level schooling?” They look at me with blank stares for a few seconds. Then, they invariably reply “Sir, I just know what I know.”

Of course they do.

I try. I really do. I want to work with them in a logical, calculated way to eliminate or mitigate whatever mess they face. Many persist in their belief of a grand, camouflage conspiracy. They write their congressman, the Inspector General, and the media. Nothing happens. Of course, those outlets then become part of the grand conspiracy.

Is it a result of our tendency, as humans, to overstate our own importance? Is it the result of fantastically written movies we observed in our more formative years? Video games? Grandiose religious perceptions? I honestly have no answer. I just know that there is a tendency to rationalize inappropriately or illogically when bad things happen.

One answer is the Conjunction Fallacy. This is essentially a cognitive bias that ignores logic and probability, and it occurs when someone assumes that several specific conditions are more probable than one general circumstance. Consider the following example:

Brian is a lawyer in south Florida. He is active in many criminal defense circles, and enjoys being involved in the CDL community. He hates people who consider themselves social media gurus, and he often writes articles bemoaning the enrichment of these charlatans.

Which of these is more likely?

  1. Brian is a founder of the South Florida Anti-Social Media Guru Association.
  2. Brian speaks openly at bar events to young lawyers about not being scammed by folks selling cyber-snake-oil.

A majority of you would choose 2. It is a more general assumption based on the facts. 1 is also possible, but it is more specific and, therefore, less probable.

Where the Conjunction Fallacy really applies is thus: 1 and 2 together are less probable than 1 alone. Additionally, 1 and 2 together are less probable than 2 alone.

The logic is unmistakable, yet this fallacy is heard in our offices almost every day. It is the hallmark of every conspiracy theory. How can we cope? We can try to reason our client to safer, more logical territory, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes, we fail in our attempts to correct the azimuth, and we must find ways to mitigate the damage that can be done when a client emphatically asserts a conspiracy theory–especially to a jury.

Most of us are good at mitigating things that we know and understand, but that’s the catch. The hardest part of dealing with a conspiracy theory is assessing the severity of the theory. Dr. Shermer has a set of evaluation criteria that can be applied directly to our practice. Consider this excerpt of his latest article in “Scientific American.”

Nevertheless, we cannot just dismiss all such theories out of hand, because real conspiracies do sometimes happen. Instead we should look for signs that indicate a conspiracy theory is likely to be untrue. The more that it manifests the following characteristics, the less probable that the theory is grounded in reality:

  1. Proof of the conspiracy supposedly emerges from a pattern of “connecting the dots” between events that need not be causally connected. When no evidence supports these connections except the allegation of the conspiracy or when the evidence fits equally well to other causal connections — or to randomness — the conspiracy theory is likely to be false.
  2. The agents behind the pattern of the conspiracy would need nearly superhuman power to pull it off. People are usually not nearly so powerful as we think they are.
  3. The conspiracy is complex, and its successful completion demands a large number of elements.
  4. Similarly, the conspiracy involves large numbers of people who would all need to keep silent about their secrets. The more people involved, the less realistic it becomes.
  5. The conspiracy encompasses a grand ambition for control over a nation, economy or political system. If it suggests world domination, the theory is even less likely to be true.
  6. The conspiracy theory ratchets up from small events that might be true to much larger, much less probable events.
  7. The conspiracy theory assigns portentous, sinister meanings to what are most likely innocuous, insignificant events.
  8. The theory tends to commingle facts and speculations without distinguishing between the two and without assigning degrees of probability or of factuality.
  9. The theorist is indiscriminately suspicious of all government agencies or private groups, which suggests an inability to nuance differences between true and false conspiracies.
  10. The conspiracy theorist refuses to consider alternative explanations, rejecting all disconfirming evidence and blatantly seeking only confirmatory evidence to support what he or she has a priori determined to be the truth.

The fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Most of the time stuff just happens, and our brains connect the dots into meaningful patterns.

Thanks, Mike. I’ll be keeping this list under the glass on my desk.