Conspiracy Theories Versus Reality

I was talking with a friend of mine recently and out of the blue she made the claim that all over the world scientists are being killed in order to ensure their discoveries are kept secret. She cited a story she’d heard first from a homeless paranoiac and later from a wealthy socialite on a yacht: a scientist in the USA had discovered a cure for cancer but was killed because Big Pharma doesn’t want cancer cured. Big Pharma, according to the story, wants to sell lifetime prescriptions for drugs and anything that cures cancer would get in the way of this goal.

She was vehemently attached to her idea and quickly became angry and then furious when I expressed skepticism. The fact that I’ve worked in the world of cellular biology and know quite a lot about the many problems associated with finding cures for the many different types of cancer was unimportant. All that mattered was I was too “close minded” to be open to her evidence-free conspiracy theory.

My friend was sure she knew what she knew even if she knew nothing about cellular biology or biochemistry, nor knew who this scientist was, nor anything about how actual research is performed. She was too committed to her view of reality to tolerate dissent. She then proceeded to tell me about the “hundreds of times” large automobile manufacturing companies have bought up revolutionary new technologies that could dramatically improve miles-per-gallon and then hidden these technologies from view. The fact that the auto companies spend billions per year in R&D to eke out tiny improvements in gas mileage meant nothing to her; clearly everything was just a conspiracy to throw us off the scent.

I asked her to show me one piece of hard evidence to support her claims, which resulted in a screaming torrent of insults. Not surprisingly we were unable to come to a consensus view of her claims.

Objectively, her beliefs are unsupported by hard evidence. Internet blogs and wild-eyed anecdotes from strangers don’t meet the necessary standards of proof no matter how appealing they may be for our human brains: brains that are hardwired to seek simple answers to every problem in order to conserve what used to be precious scarce calories.

So how do we stop ourselves from believing in conspiracy theories?

First of all, we need to consider the source of the claim. While even experts can be wrong as knowledge unfolds, it is also the fact that experts are far less often wrong than people who know nothing about the subject domain in question. Very few breakthroughs have ever happened because someone who knew nothing about the subject suddenly had a belief about “the answer.” In fact, I can’t think of a single adequately documented case of such a phenomenon. So when a claim is made by someone with little or no domain knowledge, we ought to be skeptical unless they can provide a great deal of credible documentary evidence. As Marcello Truzzi said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It’s easy to be gullible; what matters is to be reasonable.

Secondly we need to understand the domain to which the claim pertains. When we undertake a little research we usually find that there are simple reasons why the claim can’t be true. In the case of the scientist who “discovered how to cure cancer” we begin by learning that all research these days is done by teams, often quite large teams. So removing a single scientist would hardly be enough to ensure a ground-breaking billion-dollar-potential idea simply vanished. Furthermore, as grant proposals and scholarly papers are in the public domain, even killing an entire team would be insufficient to hide the evidence. But perhaps everyone is in on the conspiracy? The organizations that provide the grants, the scholarly journals, the media, Big Pharma, the government, the intelligence agencies, and the shady-looking guy in the corner store who sells us milk when we run out late at night? Perhaps not.

Thirdly we need to employ reason. Once we know that the major pharma companies and the biotech companies are spending billions per year in R&D searching for new chemical entities that can inhibit certain types of cancer because any breakthrough drugs will be worth billions and billions of dollars, we have to wonder what sort of Shareholder Meeting would applaud any management team that was actively suppressing cancer cures while simultaneously spending billions looking for cancer cures.

Once we’ve fallen prey to conspiracy theories it’s very, very difficult to extricate ourselves. So it’s vital we practice a little basic mental hygiene in order to avoid becoming sick in the first place. Every time we hear a surprising claim we need to ask ourselves the necessary questions to establish plausibility. We may need to spend some time doing research in order to acquire the domain knowledge we need to assess plausibility, during which time we need to avoid committing to the theory merely because it’s simple enough for our brains to latch on to.

As our modern technologies serve to amplify our inherent simple-mindedness, it is more essential than ever that we consciously recognize our cognitive biases, understand how easily our brains are fooled into believing things that are impossible, and how much our yearning for simple answers in a complex world can lead us into terrible errors.

Otherwise we will continue our descent into a world of ignorant blustering, rampant mistrust, and false beliefs. We know from history how harmful and terrifying such a world is; surely we don’t really want to go there again merely because we couldn’t be bothered to apply a few basic criteria before committing ourselves to radical beliefs?

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