A demonstrator holds a banner next to the former World Trade Center site during ceremonies marking the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York September 11, 2008. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (United States)
A demonstrator holds a banner next to the former World Trade Center site during ceremonies marking the seventh anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York September 11, 2008. REUTERS/Eduardo M

How conspiracy theorists think



Much has changed in the 10 years since Twin Towers fell. But for some people, one thing has not changed at all: their conviction that the attack was concocted by the US government.

In the face of all the official inquiries, expert testimony and media investigations, there are still conspiracy theorists who believe 9/11 was a plot cooked up within the Bush administration to provide a pretext for war in the Gulf.

Whatever one thinks of this thesis, there's no disputing its prevalence. According to a fascinating analysis published last week by Slate.com, when the popularity of the conspiracy theory peaked around five years ago, as many as one in three Americans suspected government officials had taken part in the attack. Since then, belief has faded, but even now polls suggest one in eight Americans harbours doubts about the official story.

How can so many people persist with such ideas in the face of so much contrary evidence? It is a question that has also long been asked by Nasa scientists, who are currently dealing with renewed assaults by conspiracy theorists who have for decades insisted the US space agency faked the Apollo moon landings and pocketed the federal funds.

Last week Nasa published its latest rebuttal, in the form of new images taken by a probe that has flown over three Apollo landing sites. The images clearly show the remnants of the lunar module, the "moon buggy" used by the astronauts and even their footprints.

Try telling that to the conspiracy theorists. According to them, the images are just the latest in a long line of fakes, put out to convince the gullible.

And this is the thing about conspiracy theorists in general. As anyone who has tried to engage them in argument will tell you, no amount of evidence seems capable of changing their minds.

It is tempting to dismiss such people as merely irrational. In fact, their reasoning highlights a little-known flaw in one of the foundations of science: the process of inference, by which beliefs are changed by evidence.

Most of us think we understand inferential reasoning. As evidence builds up, it becomes increasingly clear whether our initial beliefs need modification or not, and we are driven towards one conclusion or another.

The only difference between sceptics and true believers is that the former need more evidence to be convinced than the latter. In the end, evidence will always trump prejudice - at least, with rational people.

Surprisingly for something so basic, inferential reasoning was only properly formalised relatively recently. In the 1920s, the mathematicians Emile Borel and Frank Ramsey pointed out a connection between degrees of belief and the concept of probability.

In particular, they showed that the strength of belief could be captured on the same 0 to 1 scale as probability, with 0 representing unshakeable scepticism and 1 being total conviction.

Rational attitudes lie somewhere between these two extremes, with the impact of fresh evidence obeying a simple rule in probability called Bayes's Theorem.

Put simply, this shows that to gauge how to modify our initial level of belief in some idea, we need to compare the chances of getting the new evidence if our idea were true with those that would apply if it were false. If the evidence is more likely on the basis of our idea being true, then we're justified in increasing our initial level of belief.

This seems simple enough. For example, the new images of the Apollo landing sites are obviously more likely to exist if astronauts walked on the moon than if they did not, and so they should increase our belief in Nasa's argument - and decrease our belief in the silly conspiracy theories.

But a moment's thought reveals a problem. While it is of course pretty certain that these images would exist if Nasa had sent astronauts to the moon, it is at least conceivable they would also exist if Nasa were determined to maintain a cover-up. In other words, the existence of images alone provides no evidence either way.

Bayes's Theorem warns us that we must always set evidence in the context of the belief being tested. In the case of the images, most people find that attributing their existence to a hoax is much less plausible than the idea that they're genuine, and so - as Bayes's Theorem requires - they regard the images as boosting the case for the landings having really taken place.

Not so the conspiracy theorists, though. They are convinced Nasa routinely fakes evidence to hide the truth. And in that case, Bayes Theorem allows them to regard precisely the same evidence as backing their hoax theory.

Thus the laws of inference show that - contrary to what we might think - neither side is being irrational about the evidence. They reveal that the real difference between the conspiracy theorists and the rest of us is actually one of trust.

Most of us trust the standard view that astronauts went to the Moon - or, for that matter, that 9/11 was the result of a terrorist attack - and view all the evidence in that light.

Conspiracy theorists, in contrast, lack such trust, and so providing them with ever more evidence serves only to confirm their beliefs.

Those with a scientific training can find this assault on the power of evidence discomforting. Not surprisingly, there have been many attempts to keep "Bayesian" ideas out of science.

But there is no getting around their implication that, in the end, our beliefs about the nature of reality are shot through with subjectivity.

Not that you'll hear much about all this from scientists. Unless you're a member of one of their inner cabals, that is.

Robert Matthews is visiting reader in science at Aston University, Birmingham, England.

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Tentative schedule of 2017/18 Ashes series

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RESULTS

 

Catchweight 63.5kg: Shakriyor Juraev (UZB) beat Bahez Khoshnaw (IRQ). Round 3 TKO (body kick)

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KEY DATES IN AMAZON'S HISTORY

July 5, 1994: Jeff Bezos founds Cadabra Inc, which would later be renamed to Amazon.com, because his lawyer misheard the name as 'cadaver'. In its earliest days, the bookstore operated out of a rented garage in Bellevue, Washington

July 16, 1995: Amazon formally opens as an online bookseller. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought becomes the first item sold on Amazon

1997: Amazon goes public at $18 a share, which has grown about 1,000 per cent at present. Its highest closing price was $197.85 on June 27, 2024

1998: Amazon acquires IMDb, its first major acquisition. It also starts selling CDs and DVDs

2000: Amazon Marketplace opens, allowing people to sell items on the website

2002: Amazon forms what would become Amazon Web Services, opening the Amazon.com platform to all developers. The cloud unit would follow in 2006

2003: Amazon turns in an annual profit of $75 million, the first time it ended a year in the black

2005: Amazon Prime is introduced, its first-ever subscription service that offered US customers free two-day shipping for $79 a year

2006: Amazon Unbox is unveiled, the company's video service that would later morph into Amazon Instant Video and, ultimately, Amazon Video

2007: Amazon's first hardware product, the Kindle e-reader, is introduced; the Fire TV and Fire Phone would come in 2014. Grocery service Amazon Fresh is also started

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2011: The Amazon Appstore for Google's Android is launched. It is still unavailable on Apple's iOS

2014: The Amazon Echo is launched, a speaker that acts as a personal digital assistant powered by Alexa

2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, its biggest acquisition

2018: Amazon's market cap briefly crosses the $1 trillion mark, making it, at the time, only the third company to achieve that milestone

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Etihad Airways regularly flies from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu from around Dh1,500 per person return, including taxes. Buddha Air (buddhaair.com) and Yeti Airlines (yetiairlines.com) fly from Kathmandu to Bharatpur several times a day from about Dh660 return and the flight takes just 20 minutes. Driving is possible but the roads are hilly which means it will take you five or six hours to travel 148 kilometres.

NBA FINALS SO FAR

(Toronto lead 3-2 in best-of-seven series)

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Kill

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DUNE: PART TWO

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Director: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Will Ferrell, America Ferrera
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Despacito's dominance in numbers

Released: 2017

Peak chart position: No.1 in more than 47 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Lebanon

Views: 5.3 billion on YouTube

Sales: With 10 million downloads in the US, Despacito became the first Latin single to receive Diamond sales certification

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2020 Oscars winners: in numbers
  • Parasite – 4
  • 1917– 3
  • Ford v Ferrari – 2
  • Joker – 2
  • Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood – 2
  • American Factory – 1
  • Bombshell – 1
  • Hair Love – 1
  • Jojo Rabbit – 1
  • Judy – 1
  • Little Women – 1
  • Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) – 1
  • Marriage Story – 1
  • Rocketman – 1
  • The Neighbors' Window – 1
  • Toy Story 4 – 1
PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE

1 Man City  26  20 3 3 63 17  63 

2 Liverpool  25 17 6 2 64 20  57 

3 Chelsea  25 14 8 3 49 18  50 

4 Man Utd  26 13 7 6 44 34  46 

----------------------------------------

5 West Ham  26 12 6 8 45 34  42 

----------------------------------------

6 Arsenal  23 13 3 7 36 26  42 

7 Wolves  24 12 4 8 23 18  40 

8 Tottenham  23 12 4 8 31 31  39  

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Processor: Apple M3, 8-core CPU, up to 10-core CPU, 16-core Neural Engine

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COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Ejari
Based: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Founders: Yazeed Al Shamsi, Fahad Albedah, Mohammed Alkhelewy and Khalid Almunif
Sector: PropTech
Total funding: $1 million
Investors: Sanabil 500 Mena, Hambro Perks' Oryx Fund and angel investors
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