A student in one of my logic classes once announced, “Professor Samples, I would like to give you a few reasons why logic is invalid.”
I responded, “Think about what you just said. It sounds like you are attempting to use logic to dismiss logic. That’s self-defeating.”
In part 1 of this series I explained what the enterprise of logic is about and discussed its importance. In this article I will apply the principles of logic to the controversial topic of conspiracy theories.
The Big Conspiracy Theories
You’ve heard of these secret plots. You know, the ones involving the United States government. It appears that a lot of Americans believe that high-level members of the U.S. government are involved in assassinations, cover ups, secret societies, etc. Here are four such conspiracy theories that have gained popular acceptance among many Americans.
JFK Assassination Conspiracy Theory: A Gallup poll taken in 2001 reported that 81% of Americans think that a government conspiracy was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
UFO Conspiracy Theory: Sources disclose that 48% of U.S. citizens believe that literal metallic spacecrafts are visiting Earth from distant places in the universe. Additionally, 71% believe that the U.S. government hasn’t revealed all it knows about the UFO phenomenon.
9/11 Conspiracy Theory: A recent report notes that poll more than a third of Americans now believe that the U.S. government was involved in the events of 9/11. Conspiracy theorists claim that high-level members of the Bush administration either participated in or did nothing to stop the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Secret Society Theory: Many people in the U.S. think that a select group of people who are part of clandestine societies rule the world. Allegedly these shadowy people, who are rich and well connected politically, are part of fraternal organizations that control events around the world for their own benefit. In the 1930s, the Nazis set forth the conspiracy theory that the Jews were the puppet masters behind communism and had manipulated the money markets of Europe to cause societal unrest. Popular author Dan Brown’s latest novel, The Lost Symbol, apparently weaves a story about secret fraternal organizations in early America and how their rituals and symbols have influenced history.
Thinking through Conspiracy Theories
Sometimes such theories prove to be true and factual. People do at times conspire together to carry out an illegal, subversive, or secret plan. For example, it was proven in a court of law that a small group of people conspired to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.
Also members of the American government are not immune from engaging in conspiracy. Former president Richard Nixon later admitted that he knew more about the Watergate break-in than he initially stated. So conspiracy theories, even those involving the United States government, should not be rejected a priori.
Yet most conspiracy theories and particularly the big theories mentioned above, haven’t received the critical analysis they deserve by the American populace.
Here are five logical questions to consider when thinking about such rumors:
1. Does the theory hold together foundationally?
Well-conceived theories are logically sound and internally consistent. Viable explanatory theories avoid self-stultification or being self-defeating in nature (contradictory by both affirming and denying essential elements of the same theory).
2. Does the theory comport with the facts?
Good theories are closely connected to the facts. They not only correspond to the known facts but they make sense of the facts by tying them together in a coherent fashion.
3. Does the theory avoid unwarranted presumptions?
There is a huge difference between presuming to know something and in fact knowing something. Genuine knowledge includes proper justification for one’s true beliefs. Solid theories are based upon that which can be proved or verified.
4. How well does the theory handle counterevidence and viable challenges?
Feasible theories are flexible enough to accommodate possible counterevidence. The most potent explanatory theories carefully consider the best critiques from alternative perspectives and can answer the challenges.
Critical thinking, however, demands that a person fairly consider viable alternatives. Unfortunately too many of the people who believe the four big conspiracies have not done so.
5. Is the theory at least theoretically open to falsification; if so, how?
Viable explanatory theories make claims that can be tested and proven true or false (verified or falsified). Nonfalsifiable claims that cannot be investigated, evaluated, and critiqued carry little rational weight.
Alternative Explanations to the Big Conspiracy Theories
Since conspiracy theories garner so much attention in the popular media, here are some sources that challenge the prevalent conspiracy perspectives.
For a book that challenges the idea that there was a conspiracy behind the assassination of President Kennedy: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi.
For a book that challenges the extraterrestrial hypothesis concerning UFOs (UFOs defined as literal metallic crafts visiting earth from other parts of the universe): Lights in the Sky & Little Green Men by Hugh Ross, Kenneth Richard Samples, and Mark Clark.
For a response to the 9/11 conspiracy perspective: Popular Mechanics website.
For a book that provides measured and accurate information about fraternal organizations and their goals and purposes: Melton’s Encyclopedia Of American Religions by J. Gordon Melton.
Check in next week for more discussion of logic and critical thinking.
For more about the importance of logic and critical thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test. For further detail about conspiracy theories, listen to episode 32 of my podcast, Straight Thinking.