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(Related, but not quite the same as, How should unfalsifiable claims be handled?)

What standards should be used when attempting to debunk "conspiracy theory" claims?

Consider as an example Has the US Government tagged people to be killed with stickers on the mailboxes? I suspect that the claim is false, but I am having trouble imagining what kind of answer would satisfactorily establish this.

  • Should we demand evidence that would convince a reasonable skeptic, based on our usual referencing standards (e.g. peer-reviewed journals, etc)? Such evidence is unlikely to convince a genuine adherent of the claim. If there really is a government conspiracy to kill millions of citizens, surely the conspirators would also be capable of planting misinformation in reputable journals, so they can't be relied upon. Anyway, most reasonable skeptics probably don't consider the claim credible in the first place.

  • Should we demand incontrovertible evidence, that would convince any rational thinker? ("Every US government employee has been interrogated under the influence of magical truth serum, and all of them denied the existence of the conspiracy.") This probably doesn't exist - by that standard, the claim is likely unfalsifiable.

  • Should we give original arguments as to the implausibility of the claim? ("If the government wanted to kill people, they would surely organize it in a more efficient way, using electronic records instead of mailbox stickers.") We generally don't allow such "theory answers".

  • Should we require that the asker specify in advance what sort of evidence they would regard as satisfactory? In that case, if what they specify is reasonable, we can attempt to search for it, without fear that it will be rejected as conspiracy misinformation. If it's unreasonable (they want magical truth serum interrogation transcripts), we could close the question. But maybe this places an excessive burden on the asker. We don't demand this of people asking more mundane questions; we apply community standards of evidence. Also, having the asker state their personal standard of evidence makes the question less generally applicable; a future reader might not find that particular set of evidence convincing.

  • Should we just leave such questions open and unanswered indefinitely, until such indeterminate time as incontrovertible evidence may surface?

  • Should we simply close all such questions? (What criteria should be applied in identifying "such questions"?)

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What do you mean by a "conspiracy theory" claim?

  • If by a "conspiracy theory" claim you consider something you already assume to be false (i.e. a "conspiracy theory"), and you are asking us how to retrofit an answer to that. Just don't. Look at the evidence first and and make up your mind about it based on that. Answer based on the evidence.

  • If by a "conspiracy theory" claim you mean something that is widely believed, or that involves a large number of persons, or that is implausible: no particular treatment is needed. For example see our answers on moon landing, evolution etc. Look for the evidence and report on it.

In no case starting from an answer and retrofitting evidence will lead to a good skeptical answer. You need to look at all the evidence and not cherry pick the evidence which supports your case. Also, arguments from incredulity are not "theoretical answers", they are merely poor logic.

  • 1
    That's a good question. I guess what I mean, as in the above example, is a claim that is disbelieved by the mainstream, and which includes a claim that positive evidence exists but is being actively suppressed, and/or that negative evidence, which appears to be valid on its face, is intentional misinformation. I did not mean to brand it a "conspiracy theory" simply because I don't happen to believe it. – Nate Eldredge Jul 16 '15 at 18:10
  • So can you give an example of how one might hypothetically answer the "mailbox" question? Suppose I have searched in good faith but failed to find any convincing evidence in favor of the claim. When I find evidence against it, how should I evaluate whether it is convincing by the standards of this site? – Nate Eldredge Jul 16 '15 at 18:13
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    I would investigate whether there are actually all these stickers to start with. If they actually exist, what they mean. If there are no stickers, then we're done. The question is not really good because it's vague about the claim, but, in general, to disprove something, simply look at what the claim ...claims. – Sklivvz Jul 16 '15 at 18:21
  • "Conspiracy Theory" doesn't mean false, and doesn't mean disbelieved by the mainstream. Like the mainstream, I accept the September 11 attacks in the USA were the result of a conspiracy theory - one that involved at least 19 hijackers affiliated with al-Qaeda, and probably more. – Oddthinking Jul 21 '15 at 7:52
  • @Oddthinking I don't think I've assumed it was false (see my second point). – Sklivvz Jul 21 '15 at 15:29
  • Sklivvz: Sorry - more addressed at @Nate than you. – Oddthinking Jul 22 '15 at 2:13
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Should we demand evidence that would convince a reasonable skeptic [...]

Should we demand incontrovertible evidence [...]

We should present the best available evidence that actually addresses the claim, and preferably situate it within the entire body of research on a topic. See this answer for a sample hierarchy of evidence quality.

Should we give original arguments as to the implausibility of the claim?

No. See the Original Research policy. I once tried to give an answer that included an appeal to expected evidence that I hadn't found, and it led me down the wrong track, initially giving an incorrect/incomplete answer (see here).

Should we require that the asker specify in advance what sort of evidence they would regard as satisfactory?

No. The asker doesn't get to constrain what evidence a good answer will provide. The asker is just one of hundreds/thousands of potential viewers, and presenting the best available evidence makes sure that the question is useful for the largest number of readers.

Should we just leave such questions open and unanswered indefinitely, until such indeterminate time as incontrovertible evidence may surface?

I think this is fine. Scientists and skeptics need to be fine with uncertainty and unanswered questions.

Should we simply close all such questions? (What criteria should be applied in identifying "such questions"?)

No. That would presume that there is no evidence on the matter. Just because none of us know how to answer a question doesn't mean that an expert in the area or just somebody with better search terms doesn't know about some bit of evidence or body of research that we haven't been able to turn up.

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    "The asker doesn't get to constrain what evidence a good answer will provide." I note that I sometimes ask the OP what an answer (in either direction) might look like. This isn't intended to constrain the answerer, but to highlight my perception that no possible answer could be given, in a way that allows for the fact that I might merely lack the imagination to see how it could be answered. – Oddthinking Jul 21 '15 at 7:48
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Carl Sagan's adage "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." rationalwiki rebuttal-1 rebuttal-2 seems apropos:

  1. various other dimensions (besides stickers) make this particular claim extraordinary (120 million dead)
  2. the evidence is not extraordinary. That the evidence is not extraordinary is itself evidence of a hoax. The only evidence is an unbacked opinion presented as an anonymous video. Any amateur youtube producer can make a simple video that advocates a claim without substantiation. The video does not interview soldiers who have decided to defect rather than carry out such orders, nor does it reveal smuggled footage of killings or even sticker types and placement...

Perhaps this is too close to argument from incredulity for some, but the difference in critique is not that the claim is impossible because it can't be imagined... but rather that the burden of proof rests with the claimant to prove extraordinary claims rather than on the skeptic and that burden becomes larger as the claim becomes more extraordinary because of what we have learned about the nature of false claims and their claimants.

I've included dissenting links above as a guide to how some might react negatively to Sagan's maxim but have not made the step of applying them here.

  • I suspect you are stretching Sagan's maxim a bit. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence to be called true. Lack of evidence, though, doesn't prove them false. Lack of evidence means we don't know. It could be false, or it could be that we haven't looked well enough. – Sklivvz Jul 29 '15 at 22:09
  • But it's impossible to prove anything false, so in the absence of extraordinary evidence we have to conclude there is no basis to the claim. – Mark Jul 29 '15 at 22:55
  • @Sklivvz Unless, we know that a typical property of a hoax is weak or no evidence relative to the implausibility of the claim. And that there are people called hoaxsters that enjoy spreading hoaxes. One can also show that some fields of inquiry have many hoaxes and hoaxsters. No evidence, plus evidence of many hoaxes becomes evidence that a similar claim is likely a hoax. – Paul Jul 30 '15 at 8:06
  • @Paul that's quite illogical: other claims in the same field can't in any way change the veracity of a claim. For example: there are many hoaxes in medicine, and a lot of claims for which we don't have an evidence-based answer. Yet, once in a while, something implausible turns out to be true. There are some conspiracy theories which turned out to be true as well, for example MKULTRA. Of course, years ago there was no evidence, yet it was a true conspiracy theory. – Sklivvz Jul 30 '15 at 10:14

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