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Conspiracy theories are wonderful examples of the failure of critical thought. These theories come in many forms, but I want to look at just two - logical fallacies where the facts are known but ignored, and beliefs so bizarre that they can only be seen as a form of insanity. There is another class where the facts can't be checked so the theories are unchallengeable, but I will leave discussion of this until another time as the margins here are too small to contain it.
An excellent example of logically impaired conspiracism is the 911 Truth Movement, where a new theory about the events in New York on September 11, 2001 seems to appear daily. Here are some of the things I have been told, and many if not most deniers seem to believe that they are all simultaneously true
A lot of the insane theories surface in the area of alternative or anti-medicine. I have been in the room when an Australian doctor announced that vaccination in Africa is a deliberate policy of genocide carried out by the World Health Organization. A well-respected journalist who writes for several Australian alternative medicine publications once outed me in print as a member of the Illuminati, the world's most secret secret society. (I offered to sponsor her for membership but she didn't reply.) If you are unfamiliar with the Illuminati you might learn more from the head of an organisation called the International Association for Health Freedom, who noted that people like me are "run directly by the Council- the Illuminati- the small group who seek total control of our lives and who are pushing very hard now to impose a dictatorial world government on us via the UN, whose chief is Satan, the father of lies- who is making a major bid right now to control all of our souls as he seeks to force us into a microchipped, psychocivilized society under mind control".
Fluoridated water, anyone? Now there's an agent of mass mind control. Almost as bad as the nanoparticle transmitters in vaccines, the aspartame in soft drinks and the chemicals in the trails behind aircraft. Where did I put my tinfoil hat?
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the October 2008 edition of Australasian Science
The following year the same list was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog
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