It’s Stories All The Way Down

Some thoughts on conspiracy theories and the scientific method

I’ve been thinking lately about human nature, how we understand the world around us, and why conspiracy theories are so attractive.

When I was a freshman in college I loved spouting grand theories. My smarter roommates would mock me, and eventually told me to stop spewing crap. I had fallen in love with stories: The stories we humans use to make sense out of an inexplicable world. But what I lacked at the time was the judgment to know which stories to believe, and which were utter bunk. I lacked a method to validate my stories.

For as long as we’ve been talking, humans have told stories to make sense of the world, from creation myths, to Homer, to the big bang theory. We organize the constant stream of sensory inputs filtering into our brains by turning them into stories.1

Conspiracy theories are a particularly potent kind of story that soothe our anxieties by making sense of a chaotic world. They also stroke our egos because when we join into the conspiracy our intelligence and perception is affirmed. “I, of all people, see behind the curtain to understand the true inner mysteries of life.” We’re all susceptible to this, but these false narratives can be deadly. They often incorrectly demonize an out group, the Jews, the Illuminati, the liberals, the conservatives. Sometimes they convince us to burn 5G towers because they cause Covid-19, or not vaccinate our children because we think vaccines cause autism. That’s bad for us and bad for society.

Jews were blamed for the Black Death and widely massacred in Europe in the 14th century, ostensibly because their religious practices caused them to succumb to the plague less often. This conspiracy theory helped ease gentiles’ fears by giving them a proximate cause for the inexplicable deaths and something they could do to fix it. It didn’t work, because, like most conspiracy theories, it was a fantasy. The plague was caused by fleas, not Jews.

There’s a cure for conspiracy theories, and it emerged a couple of centuries later: the scientific method. The scientific method turns empty conjecture into provable fact. In a nutshell, a question about how something works leads to a hypothesis which experimentation can prove right or wrong.

Why is the sky blue? leads to a prediction, filtering light through a prism separates it into its component colors, which can be tested, then proven, thus answering the question and adding to our understanding of the world around us.

Conspiracy theories stop at hypothesis. The “proof” is simply that it “seems right” – it fits our world view. Of course, the worst proof of a conjecture is that it seems right, cf. confirmation bias, or that everyone you know believes it, or that it makes you feel part of the “in” group and smarter than the others. Those aren’t tests, they’re just ego strokes: attractive, tempting, but ultimately damaging.

Science is a lot harder. It requires testing, and even then, nothing is written in stone. Scientific progress comes from the repeated application of the above steps backed by rigourous observation, peer review, and honesty. It’s a lot easier to just believe something, but it doesn’t add to our understanding of the world or our survival on this planet. Often belief without proof does just the opposite.

Scientific method is useful, but it doesn’t produce “truth,” just a provable theory. The quest for knowledge doesn’t end with a good theory; it requires continued exploration and testing. There’s always a better theory. But it does help us progress toward the truth. And the proof of that is the success we’ve achieved in science and technology in the years since the invention of the method. Without Einstein’s Theory of Relativity there would be no GPS. If Newton didn’t exist, neither would SpaceX.

The scientific method is so powerful and its success so breathtaking that it’s one of the marvels of our age. It’s true that not every conjecture is provable experimentally, and there are many areas of darkness that the scientific method cannot light. But that’s no reason to turn away from the light and return to the darkness of the middle ages. Let’s not start confusing belief with science. There’s room for both, but only the latter can save our planet.

  1. There’s even some evidence that dreaming is our brains’ attempt to organize the random firings of synapses during sleep. No wonder dreams are so weird. ↩︎