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Hitchens on assertions


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The Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy

by Tim Harding

The 2013 National Australian Skeptics Convention was held from 22 to 24 November in Canberra.  The theme was Science, Skepticism and Conspiracy Theories.  We understand the connection between science and skepticism, but where do conspiracy theories fit in?

You may have noticed that irrational beliefs such as anti-vaccination, anti-fluoridation, anti-GM foods and extra-terrestrial visitations are often associated with conspiracy theories allegedly involving scientists.

The late Christopher Hitchens described conspiracy theories as “the exhaust fumes of democracy” – the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people.  Conspiracy theories appear to make sense of a world that is otherwise confusing.[1]  They do so in an appealingly simple way – by dividing the world into bad guys versus good guys. They also enable people to believe whatever they want to believe, without the bothersome burden of conclusive evidence.

The Scientific Conspiracy Fallacy takes roughly the following form:

   Premise 1: I hold a certain belief.

   Premise 2: The scientific evidence is inconsistent with my belief.

   Conclusion: Therefore, the scientists are conspiring with the Big Bad Government/CIA/NASA/Big Pharma (choose whichever is convenient) to fake the evidence and undermine my belief.

It is a tall order to argue that the whole of science is genuinely mistaken. That is a debate that even the conspiracy theorists know they probably can’t win. So the most convenient explanation for the inconsistency is that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to fake the evidence in specific cases.

In informal logic, many fallacies can be demonstrated by citing a counter-example.  In this case, a possible alternative explanation for the inconsistency is simply that the scientific evidence is right and the conspiracy theorist’s belief is wrong.  The notion that scientists are regularly engaged in conspiracies is implausible, because amongst other things, published scientific papers are required to explain the experimental methods used so that the experiments can be repeated and tested by anybody.  And as Prof. Lawrence Krauss has said, “scientists become famous by proving their colleagues wrong”.[2]


[1] Van der Linden (2013) Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.  Scientific American 18 August, 2013. 

[2] ABC1 TV program ‘Q&A – A Show About Nothing ‘ Transcript 18 February, 2013. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3687812.htm

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