Today’s culture is buzzing with conspiracy theories. Some of these messages may be rooted in reality, but others, not so much. Here’s how to apply the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking to tell the difference.
Tech companies are plotting to take over the planet . . .
There are people living on Venus . . .
Cell phones are going to destroy us all . . .
Aliens have infiltrated human society . . .
These are just a few of the conspiracy theories I’ve encountered in the past, as Part 1 of this article described. Today’s culture is buzzing with such messages like a nest of caffeinated wasps. Some conspiracy messages may be rooted in reality, but others, not so much. Here’s how to apply the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking to tell the difference.
We can recognize some conspiracy theories as false right away by comparing them against the truth of God’s Word.1 For example, conspiracy theories that say Jesus did not die on the cross, merely passing out, oppose clear biblical teachings (not to mention much historical data).
Watch out, though. You may hear specific verses being misapplied or taken out of context to promote a conspiracy theory that is not founded on Scripture.2 That’s why it’s essential to read God’s Word using the historical-grammatical approach—accepting a straightforward interpretation of the text based on how the original audience would have understood it. If the original audience would have understood it as a historical narrative, like Genesis, we accept it as a historical narrative. But if they would have understood it as non-literal poetry, like some of the Psalms, we accept it as non-literal poetry.
If the conspiracy message concerns a worldview topic, it can be worth clarifying whether the message directly challenges the Bible’s truth. For instance, the idea that Jesus’s disciples faked his death opposes a foundational teaching of Scripture. But a conspiracy theory about a big-wig preacher being involved in the mafia—well, that’s another issue and is irrelevant to whether the Bible is true.3
The next vital question is, “Who’s sharing the conspiracy theory, and where are they getting their information?” Conspiracy theories can sound more persuasive coming from people who say they’ve “done their research.” The question is, where did they do their research? What were their sources—and their sources’ sources? Does the information trace back to a murky trail of internet users or to primary sources such as relevant experts, controlled studies, and reliable eyewitness testimony?
Keep in mind, of course, that even experts can believe wrong ideas, make mistakes, and have biases. Likewise, studies may be misled by faulty research methods. Information from studies, experts, and other primary sources can also be misinterpreted, misreported, or misquoted, which is all the more reason to check the original information sources.4
In addition to clarifying what “doing research” means, it’s worth remembering that conspiracy theories aren’t “theories” in the scientific sense. Rather, as Part 1 discussed, they’re typically unconfirmed conjectures.
Clarifying keyword definitions within these conjectures helps to knock away a layer of mystique. For example:
Person 1: I hear the mayor has been sneakily fraternizing with the fire chief. They’re probably planning to blow up the city.
Person 2: What do you mean by “sneakily fraternizing?”
Person 1: Well, they went fishing together.
Person 2: That’s probably because they’re long-time friends.
With keywords clarified, it’s time to question why the conspiracy theory may seem persuasive. Conspiracy theories often harness the power of emotions relating to fear, suspicion, the hurt of betrayal, or the satisfaction of “secret knowledge” rather than logic. And messages which intentionally bypass our logical processing to persuade us are, by definition, propaganda.
To catch propaganda-based fallacies, we can use the critical thinking hack of asking, “Is this message true or false because . . . ?” For instance, “is a conspiracy theory true because . . . it might be true?” Not necessarily. Saying so would involve an appeal to possibility fallacy, suggesting that a conspiracy could be unfolding, so it probably is unfolding. But remember, saying that something might have happened, could be happening, or may happen is not the same as establishing that it has happened, is happening, or will happen.
On the other hand, a conspiracy message is not automatically false just because people may use bad arguments to defend it, because of the type of people who believe it, or because it may seem difficult or unpleasant to believe. Saying so would involve an ad logicam fallacy, genetic fallacy, or appeal to incredulity fallacy, respectively. Similarly, a message is not necessarily false just because some people label it a conspiracy theory. Instead, evaluating whether a message is true or false requires considering the message’s content.
To consider a conspiracy message’s content, ask, “Which parts of this message are observable facts, and which are interpretations, assumptions, or speculations?” For example, imagine somebody tells you that wi-fi and other electronic signals cause harmful effects that “the powers that be” are exploiting to depopulate the planet. What’s fact in that message, and what’s conjecture?
To find out, you may need to do a little careful research. You could search an online academic database and find peer-reviewed studies linking certain electronic signals to potential health hazards. That’s data worth being informed about. But it doesn’t necessarily tell us a conspiracy is unfolding. Without more data, the interpretation that controlling powers are intentionally using these signals to depopulate the planet is only conjecture.
The simplest way to discern whether someone is basing their explanation on observation or conjecture is to ask, “How do you know?” If there are observations to support the conspiracy explanation, the next step is to consider, “Are other observations inconsistent with that explanation? And can another explanation account for the relevant facts just as well?”
For instance, someone might discover a metal cylinder in a field and suggest it belonged to a crash-landed alien spacecraft. However, a more straightforward (and biblical) explanation is that the cylinder came from any number of human-made devices. (For tips on evaluating explanations, see this two-part article series.)
Finally, you can ask, “Are there any other logical fallacies that should make me think twice about this conspiracy message?” Take this message, for example:
“Creationists have been spewing misinformation for years. Either they’re ignorant of their own delusionality, or they’re wilfully conspiring to undermine free society with their lies.”
The loaded terms of spewing, conspiring, and undermine suggest that sinister forces are at play, even though the message has not logically shown that creationists are malevolent—or even misinformed. (On the contrary, see articles on evidence for creation and evidence against evolution5 for why observable reality is consistent with a biblical worldview.) So, this message is employing a question-begging epithet fallacy, which is another form of propaganda.
The message also presents an either-or fallacy by stating that biblical creationists are either deluded or conspirators, when really, neither statement is factual. A final check for logical errors can help you identify such issues in conspiracy messages.
In a world where discerning fact from fiction is growing ever more difficult (but vital), a little biblical critical thinking goes a long way. Conspiracy messages may be zinging through culture, but with these 7 Checks of Critical Thinking, we can make a careful, informed evaluation of any such message.