Heuristics for investigating "conspiracies"

Approaching controversial and ambiguous topics

I've always had an interest in mysterious and controversial subjects of enquiry, many of which are conventionally dismissed as “conspiracy theories”. Sometimes the appeal is to do with their eccentric proponents; sometimes with the elaborate and far-fetched worlds they postulate; sometimes because there is genuinely disconcerting information which raises difficult but very real questions; and in other cases, the evidence of wrongdoing is so strong that their labelling as mere “conspiracy theory” seems absurd.

Many professional “sceptics” will indiscriminately “debunk” anything deemed “conspiratorial” (little more than a euphemism for whatever has been left unaffirmed by “official sources”) or will offer their own ambitious critiques of conspiracies as a whole – throwing simplistic dismissals at everything labelled conspiracy while accusing those who believe them of stupidity or mental disorders. Sometimes professional sceptics are paid for their work, whether through an organisation they work for, private donors, or supporters.

Many professional “conspiracy theorists” will indiscriminately promote whatever information conforms to their narrative, and reject those who doubt it as ignorant and naïve, or as part of an organised effort to undermine the perceived truth. Often they're supported directly by a fan-base - who are already convinced and invested in the narrative's legitimacy – and are endorsed by media platforms to promote positions deemed politically advantageous to those outlets.

On both sides, there are large fan-bases who propagate their narratives for free and do the work of amplifying the claims made by their side. Looking into either the conspiracy theory or anti-conspiracy discourses, a few of the same themes become clear.

  1. A reflexive trust in one side of a narrative over the other, with little consideration of the strongest proponents of the counter-narrative.

  2. The dismissal of those who disagree as stupid, naïve, paranoid or as “part of the conspiracy”.

  3. Using the weakest proponents of an argument to make it seem easy to dismiss.

These are ways of avoiding serious engagement with a topic, ways of silencing the “false narrative” before it has been genuinely considered.

Approaching any highly contentious topic requires that the investigator assumes that they do not already have the solution and may never know “the truth”. A full understanding is unlikely in any discussion in which there is information and data which is unavailable - either because it no longer exists or remains undisclosed - or in which a lot of directly conflicting information is at hand. In such situations, grand theories are of little use, and heuristics (“rules of thumb”) are a preferable approach to understanding a subject as well as one can, rather than taking up a particular narrative to put one's doubts at rest.

With that in mind, here are a few heuristics which have helped me in my own amateur research, which might be a starting point in discussing controversial topics in a less knee-jerk way. They are neither complete nor sufficient to reach any valid conclusions, and none of them are beyond manipulation. It is incumbent on the person defending their interpretations to make a case that their application of these heuristics justifies the hypothesis they defend:

  1. Identify key narratives. There are always two or more overarching narratives in any contentious subject, and more sub-narratives emerge the deeper down you go. The truth tends to lie somewhere between these narratives.

  2. Identifying interests. Every prominent narrative is propagated by those with an interest in spreading it, whether for personal, emotional, ideological, financial reasons or whatever else. As a result, the researcher must attempt to infer the biases and interests any proponent might have, as well as their social or professional relationships. The researcher must consider how the opposing sides want the discussion to be perceived so that they can avoid being fooled by convincing rhetoric.

  3. Best representatives. The researcher should always base their understanding on the most informed sources that they can find, whether due to their expertise or experience, on both opposing sides of any controversial issue. Comparing a good representative to a bad one might make a good meme but it doesn't make good research.

  4. Primary sources. The sources a researcher relies on should, whenever possible, come directly from the horse’s mouth. Direct first-hand experience or primary research is always preferable to anyone's interpretations or explication of such sources. Of course, primary sources themselves can be falsified on various grounds.

  5. Trusted sources. When direct access to source materials can't be found or understood directly by the researcher, they are forced to fall back on trust that a source is valid. Those who appear to have the most experience and the most independence must be considered over those who lack it. This heuristic has the potential to be the most vulnerable to self-deception and error. The researcher must be careful not to trust any source too much, since no source is beyond the possibility of deception, whether maliciously or due to error.

  6. Induction. Perhaps the most elementary method of reasoning about controversial subjects is induction, in which experiences and observations are used to supply supporting evidence for a hypothesised conclusion. Such evidence may increase the probability of a particular hypothesis but cannot prove it with any certainty.

  7. Parallelism. When deciding upon new lines of enquiry and hypotheses to investigate, one will often be juggling limited information from questionable sources. Under such conditions, new inroads may be found and investigated on the basis of their parallels with other, similar, cases. In criminal profiling, this is understood as the Modus operandi of a criminal individual or organisation. It should be emphasised, however, that apparent parallels between a set of cases does not count as evidence against an accused party. It will, however, if used in moderation, lead an investigator in the direction of evidence, guiding their enquiries towards those parties with modes of operating which parallel the crimes under investigation.

  8. Abduction. Any working hypotheses about a controversial subject should be decided upon through a process of abduction: proposing the simplest explanation which accounts for all known information. There may be many possible implications depending on the limited information at hand, and the murkier the subject, the less likely it is that any explanation will satisfy all the information available. With the knowledge that they're using only best guesses, the researcher can regulate the enthusiasm with which they defend their abductive position. They should prefer not to claim adherence to a conclusive narrative rather than defend a weak one. There is no shortage of narratives floating about, but those who prioritise the quality of evidence over their conviction to a story are few and far between.

All of these heuristics are subject to human error and judgement, and can consequently be misused and misapplied by a researcher. Characteristics of the researcher such as ethical proclivities and personal biases will inevitably affect the application of these heuristics, especially when applied to subjects with limited available information.

As such, while these rules may guide a researcher in their exploration of controversial subjects, they do not guarantee that their conclusions will conform with reality, nor that they are unbiased or otherwise correct. Perhaps one rule, more concrete than any of the aforementioned heuristics, is that in subject areas with sufficiently limited, cloudy, biased, messy or incomplete information one cannot be sure that the hypotheses they draw are correct. Accepting this lack of closure is fundamental.