Philosophy is for Everyone

The Difference Between Conspiracy Thinking and Critical Thinking

Many people equate conspiracy thinking and critical thinking. But they are, in fact, quite different.

Now, I am well-acquainted with conspiracy thinking and conspiracy theories. In the late 90s and earlier 2000s, I fell in love with the X-Files, a show which introduced the idea of conspiracy theories to the public on a grand scale.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. You can watch the X-Files on Hulu.

One of the main characters of the X-Files, Fox Mulder, is a gifted FBI agent and criminal profiler who heads up an FBI department called the X-Files.

Other agents in the FBI regard the X-Files with derision because it investigates cases pertaining to paranormal phenomena like UFO sightings and abductions, psychic abilities, and reported sightings of various monsters like vampires, liver-eating mutants, and the New Jersey Devil.

In fact, the FBI is so scornful of the X-Files that they relegate Fox Mulder to the basement to conduct his work.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But Mulder, because of a childhood trauma involving his sister’s ostensible abduction by a UFO, takes his job very seriously, pursuing his work with relentless tenacity.

He is so determined, in fact, that he wins over his partner, agent Dana Scully, a brilliant scientist the FBI assigns to be Mulder’s partner so she can keep him in line and debunk his work.

Photo by Marija Zaric, courtesy of Unsplash.

But through their investigations, Mulder and Scully uncover (among other things) a vast government conspiracy to hide evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life. At first we get the idea that the government does this to prevent widespread public panic.

However, eventually Mulder and Scully discover that elite FBI agents and very wealthy, powerful people in the United States are conspiring with aliens to eventually rule the world.

Ladies and Gentlemen: the original Deep State.

Such ideas are common contemporary TV fare, but in the 90s, they felt groundbreaking. X-Files fans everywhere loved Mulder and Scully. And one of the many reasons we admired them was because they were relentless in their pursuit of the truth, always questioning the reality behind appearance, refusing to accept easy answers.

Nevertheless, one negative aspect of the X-Files is that it has the tendency to equate conspiracy thinking with critical thinking. And in fact, it suggests that the very reason Mulder and Scully are such good thinkers is that they easily spot conspiracy theories.

Conflating conspiracy thinking with critical thinking is a mistake, and it can have grave consequences.

For the sake of this post, I will define the term conspiracy as a plan by a small group, a cabal, to deceive others. Usually the cabal does this to gain power and to control other people.

“Conspiracy”, Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. You can read a conspiracy theory about the U.S. dollar bill here.

Now to be clear, conspiracies do indeed exist, even government conspiracies.

For example, here a few historical facts  in the U.S. around which conspiracy theories developed. But the conspiracy theories  later turned out to be true, or based on factual events:

At one point, the government stole the body parts of deceased people to study the effects of nuclear fallout on the human body.

The government ran a top secret program called MK Ultra. They dosed volunteers with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD to experiment with mind control and behavior modification. Eventually they also dosed some unsuspecting non-voluntary subjects with drugs.

Picture by Raimond Klavins, courtesy of Unsplash.

The FBI spied on John Lennon for a while because of his anti-war songs and protests.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For decades, big tobacco companies knew that cigarettes were dangerous to people’s health, and they hid the evidence anyhow.

These are just a few examples of times when a secret cabal did, in fact, conspire together to deceive or control the public in some way.

And, in fact, recognizing that some people do conspire to deceive us is an important aspect of critical thinking.

At a basic level, critical thinking is the ability to weigh the evidence supporting various arguments and beliefs to test if they are strong or weak.

A fresco of Sappho from Pompei, Herkulaneischer Meister, courtesy of Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And this definition of critical thinking can help us better understand why critical thinking entails understanding that conspiracies do, in fact, occur sometimes.

After all, if we believe that conspiracies never occur, it would require several beliefs with weak evidence to support them.

For example, it would require us to believe, among other things, that no one ever desires to deceive other people to benefit themselves or that they never act on these desires.

And believing this would further require us to believe that everyone is generally unselfish and kind to others. Or it would require us to believe that no one ever plots, motivated by selfish ends.

And of course, if we think about such a belief carefully, we quickly recognize that there is plenty of unfortunate evidence to the contrary.

That is, there is abundant evidence in the world that some people, perhaps many people, do have unselfish or unkind motives. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that at least some of these people conspire with others to act cruelly for their benefit and the detriment of others.

So, on the one hand, critical thinking requires that we realize conspiracies do occur sometimes.

On the other hand, we also demonstrate poor critical thinking when we see conspiracies around every corner and beneath every rock. And thinking this way can also  make us paranoid and misanthropic.

When conspiracy dominates our thinking, we reason something like this: Almost everyone, especially people different from me, have selfish motives and plot with others to deceive me for their benefit.

If we consider such a belief carefully, we also realize that it is a weak argument. And we realize there is evidence contrary to this belief in abundance.

For example, evidence suggests that many people have kind motives, or at least act as though they do, and try to help others.[1] Here’s a good site that shows people acting kind every day: The Good News Network.

Photo by Herbert E. French, Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And of those folk who do have selfish or evil motives, many of them lack the motivation, energy, opportunity, and wherewithal to carry out minor or major scheme against other people. I mean, a lot of people (including me sometimes) lack the motivation to make dinner or mow their lawn, much less conspire to rule the world.

So critical thinking requires us to recognize that conspiracies don’t exist around every corner or under every rock.

And in fact, the more we practice critical thinking, the more we come to a much more nuanced view of people and the world.

For example, the other day, I was walking with my neighbor I.[2] She said, “People make the mistake of thinking that all conservatives believe certain things and all liberals believe certain things. But really, people are a lot more complex and hold a wide variety of views. I think if we remembered this, it would help us a lot.”

My neighbor expresses a truth that, I think, is at the heart of critical thinking about the world and people. Critical thinking helps us understand important truths like this:

While there are some supremely wicked people in the world, most people are a lot like us. They are trying to live a good life, and just like us, they want love, purpose, and safety. And sometimes in their pursuit of these goods, they mess up and are thoughtless or selfish and hurt other people. And just like us, they often regret these errors and try to do better. Kindness and compassion help us all in this process.

It’s important to remember things like this, especially in our current social climate in which conspiracy thinking dominates the airwaves.

Picture by Afif Ramdhasuma, courtesy of Unsplash.

When conspiracy thinking dominates our worldview, it muddles our thinking and fills our heart with misery and misanthropy. But critical thinking is always helpful because it clarifies our thoughts and cultivates realism, kindness, and compassion.


On a related note, you might also like these posts:

Idols of the Mind: Common Thinking Errors

How to Think for Yourself

How to Make a Good Argument

For further reading, you might be interested in these three books I have written (or co-written) to help people think for themselves.

My books are The Argument Builder, The Discovery of Deduction (co-author), and Everyday Debate.

You can find these books at Classical Academic Press here.

And you can also order them from Amazon:

Everyday Debate (I recommend starting with this one.)

The Argument Builder

The Discovery of Deduction


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[1] I say this because we can never completely understand someone’s motives, not even our own.

[2] Thanks to my neighbor, I, who said I could post this comment.

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