In 2012 we published an article on conspiracy theories and explored what they are and some of the basic psychology behind them. It is a scary fact that conspiracy theory websites are seeing an increase in traffic. What’s worse some of these conspiracy theories are dangerous i.e. holocaust denial or vaccine scares. According to Dr. Nicholas Terry, a history lecturer at Exeter University , who has monitored Holocaust denial online for 10 years and is co-editing a forthcoming book, Holocaust and Genocide Denial: A Contextual Perspective, (1) holocaust denial websites are increasing in number and amount of traffic.
Conspiracy theories wouldn’t last long people knew how to check facts. Perhaps a failure of the education system or culture or both. Either way in light of this here is our contribution:
How To Check Facts:
- Consider the Source: Who is providing this information? Are they qualified? Any reputable source will have or be willing to provide their education, sources or research. If it doesn’t fit (i.e. a mechanic writing a website on vaccines or an engineer providing information on history like the holocaust) or they are unwilling/unable to provide sources, qualifications…etc. then you should be skeptical of the information being provided.
- Understand Science: It is actually fairly easy to come to a basic understanding of what constitutes science. What is Science, The Scientific Method, Understanding Research Papers , more understanding research papers.
- Logic: Recognizing a valid logical argument is also easy to learn. Logic 1, logic 2, and logic 3 (personal favorite).
- Compare: Is the information consistent with other findings? Consistency doesn’t necessarily imply truth but does lend credibility to the facts provided. This crucially involves number 5.
- Be Open Minded: If an alternative source of information challenges what you already feel is true then you must be open to the possibility that facts you previously believed might not be true. This is the hardest to do once you have made up your mind but a crucial part of learning. Open Mindedness
There are also numerous websites now dedicated to fact checking and debunking the myths, pseudosciences and conspiracy theories spiraling around in popular culture.
- Snopes.com: One of the big ones. First established in 1995 in it’s 22 years it has faithfully been debunking everything from politics to advertising. If there is a popular concept out there snopes has probably looked into it.
- Scienceornot.com: “This website will help you separate real science from nonsense that’s masquerading as science.” A great site that can help anyone determine if the science they are looking at it is true or not.
- Quakwatch: Quack is primarily about the pseudosciences but has a lot of information about other science hoaxes and rumors as well.
- Sciencebasedmedicine.org: Another great one that examines science and medical controversies.
- factcheck.org: Primarily American politics but another great resource.
There are some good organizations and publications as well:
- CSICOP: Committee for Scientific Inquiry of Claims Of the Paranormal. Recently shortened to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) to be more suitable to the broad range of topics they investigate. The also publish the Skeptical Inquirer a great bimonthly magazine committed to skeptical exploration of scientific, medical and other claims.
- The Council For Secular Humanism: The council has been fighting religion, the pseudosciences and paranormal claims for more then 20 years. It also publishes Free Inquiry Magazine
- James Randi Educational Foundation: Randi has been famously offering a million dollars to anyone who can conclusively prove a pseudo-scientific claim, it has never been won. He went on to found his educational foundation ( Randi was by the way involved with CSICOP’s founding many years ago as well). JREF also has a handy list of resources.
- The RationalWiki: This site is so good we often use it a source ourselves. Everything Aliens to Zoology covered in articles in a scientific, non-biased way.
There are dozens, perhaps, thousands of skeptical, atheist, humanistic websites, publications and organizations dedicated to the truth. Wikipedia has a pretty good list , Atheists United’s list is pretty exhaustive as well. As long you are willing to do a little research and stick to reliable resources then you should never have a problem getting to the truth or the very least knowing when to doubt information being provided to you. The trouble lies in the fact the not enough want to make the effort and so are being duped by cleverly worded lies and misinformation. Our hope is this little list helps a person or two sort truth from lies.