Most of the Great Courses skew heavily left, and with a topic like conspiracies and conspiracy theories, I was bracing myself for a one-sided liberal rant against the idiocy of conservatives. But I have to hand it to the author/lecturer: while it’s clear that he identifies as liberal, for the most part he was quite fair and balanced. He made the point early on that there is (and should be) a distinction between conspiracies and conspiracy theories, because of course, some conspiracies are true. The purpose of the book was to help the listeners identify which conspiracies are likely to be true, which are likely to be false, and how to tell the difference. This section was great–I even listened to it a second time so that I could take notes. He summarized his “BS detection” section with the statement that most conspiracy theories fail either the competency problem or the leakage problem: that is, too many people had to be in on it, had to be perfectly competent (which we all know isn’t likely with humans), had to not lose their nerve or have an attack of conscience or anything else, and had to maintain absolute secrecy after the fact. The wider the network of co-conspirators that would be necessary to pull this off, the more likely it is that the conspiracy is false. Then he gave examples throughout modern history as examples to illustrate his points, dissecting classics like the JFK assassination and (this one was new to me) 9-11 “truthers” who believe that it was an inside job. He even assigns ranks to certain types of conspiracy theories as being more or less likely to be true (without stating whether or not they are so) on the basis of his criteria.
The earlier section of the book discusses the psychological characteristics shared among those who tend to believe in conspiracy theories. This section seemed to assume that the conspiracy theories believed are false, since it discussed things like confirmation bias, cherry-picking data and examples, a psychological mismatch between the magnitude of an event and the seemingly random cause, which makes people want to assign the event a greater meaning.
Finally, the book ends with the flip side: tools used by real conspirators to obfuscate their intentions. They will deny or minimize the problem, call for more evidence, or blame-shift. They too will cherrypick their data to their own ends. They will attack the whistleblowers (the classic ad hominem approach). They will attack the alternatives to their own goals. Or, most Orwellian of all, they will hire front groups and fund scientists with conflicts of interest, set them up to appear independent and unbiased, and get them to argue their case for them.
Overall, very well balanced. I find having clear categories like this to be very helpful when approaching both sides of an issue.
My rating: ****
Language: I think once or twice
Sexual content: none
Violence: graphic depictions of history but that’s all
Political content: present but balanced, I thought.