Causation and Counterargument

Our capacity for teleological reasoning, our thinking that everything has a purpose, principle, or motive to explain it, is almost singularly responsible for the rise of human civilization. It is the mindset of explanation and an ordered universe. In the modern era, “ordered universe” typically means “science,” but that isn’t always how it shakes out. The mind still functions teleologically even when it isn’t in possession of the facts, and that can lead to agency detection bias, confirmation bias, and other typical cognitive fallacies typical of a conspiracy theory’s supporters.

This course has give you a range of skeptical tools to question, explain, and discount everything from fake news stories to paranormal phenomena. Now, you’re going to apply everything you’ve learned to taking on one of the most complex forms of skeptical enquiry: a conspiracy theory. In 7-10 pages, compose an M.L.A. style essay that examines, explains, and refutes the conspiratorial mindset behind a specific conspiracy theory that falls in one or more of the following categories:

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Secret Societies and Inner Sanctum Conspiracies (e.g., Freemasons; Scientologists; etc.)
Medical Cover-ups / Conspiracies (the government’s manufacturing of AIDS/HIV; secret government medical experiments; etc.)
Science Conspiracies and Hoaxes (e.g., moon landing hoax; aliens; the conspiracy of global warming being a hoax; etc.)
Scandal Conspiracies (e.g., 9-11 perpetrators; Jack the Ripper’s royal identity; Pope Joan.)
Forensic Conspiracies (“single bullet” theorists; Boston Marathon bombing; World Trade Center; etc.)
Prophecy Conspiracies: (e.g., predictions or concealments of coming plagues; killer solar flares; asteroid impacts; etc.; the return of planet Nibiru; Raptures and Tribulations; Celestine Prophecy; apocalyptic zombie plagues; etc.
Taking inspiration from your Unit 3 Essay response (in which you analyzed why people continue to believe in superstitions and supernatural phenomena despite living in a science-based, rational society), for your Unit 4 Essay, clinically explain the reasons people become involved in the type of conspiracy theory you’ve chosen as the focus of your essay. Keep this as the central question you will try to answer in your essay: “Why do people invest themselves psychologically, emotionally, culturally, and/or socially in conspiracy theories like the one I’ve selected?” Turn to ALL of the issues we have studied over the course of the semester: fake facts, unreliable definitions of “truth”; trust issues; propaganda; cognitive fallacies such as confirmation bias; etc.

Again, you should focus on one specific conspiracy theory as a main case example. However, to help illustrate the complex conspiratorial mindset behind it, you’re encouraged to use other relevant examples of related conspiracy theories in your critical analysis.

Since this is the final assignment for this course, use your best writing skills and utilize the patterns of writing we have discussed this term: exemplification and definition to present the conspiracy and its background; classification-division and cause-effect to explain the conspiracy; persuasive-argumentative writing to respond to arguments about why people engage in conspiracy theorizing.

Keep in mind, this course is about skepticism, not belief. If you do not approach the topic from a skeptical perspective, but only quibble with what you do or do not believe in the conspiracy, you will fail this assignment outright. If, after everything you’ve learned about skepticism in this course, you still cannot be objectively skeptical about the conspiracy theory you’ve chosen, find another one for your topic.


We accept that the term “conspiracy theory” is, itself, a biased term insofar as it presumes that its speculations are legitimately a substantial and rational system of guesswork. Evolution is a working theory supported by a preponderance of evidence, both biological and paleontological. Creationism is an alternative etiology, but it is technically not a theory. For your purposes, though, “conspiracy theory” should characterize a fringe explanation for a complex intrigue. Just because you’re skeptical about something doesn’t make it a conspiracy. Global warming is not a conspiracy theory. Religion is not a conspiracy theory. The scandal of President Kennedy having an affair with Marilyn Monroe is just a true scandal, but not a conspiracy. That doesn’t mean, however, these aren’t part of a more complex web of hidden intrigues that give rise to conspiracy theories. Some, for example, conspiratorially theorize that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the same people who masterminded the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Now, that’s a cover-up that merits being called a “conspiracy theory.”

The key to success in this assignment, then, is to identify where in this conspiracy theory the arguments and methods of reasoning belie abuses of trust, propaganda techniques, confirmation bias, agency detection bias, and other errant forms of teleological thinking. One way to approach that task is to consider the kind of conspiracy theory you’ve selected to refute and how similarly it operates to other conspiracy theories of that kind.

Before concluding your essay, compose three paragraphs, each representing one of the three successive stages of counterargument: acknowledgment, accommodation, and refutation. (Review the relevant modules about counterargument and refutation before you even attempt this.)

Your three paragraphs should coalesce into one argument debates and ultimately refutes what you believe to be a major counter-perspective. This perspective can be a rival position that another researcher might use to argue the cause of conspiratorial thinking—e.g., a point made by Shermer or Brotherton with which you disagree—or it might be an opposing viewpoint questioning your claim that something is legitimately a type of conspiratorial thinking. It might propose as an alternative cause another cognitive fallacy you feel is wrong-minded, immaterial or irrelevant. Finally, it could present an intellectual challenge to any nuanced point about conspiratorial thinking you made earlier in your essay.

You should NOT DEBATE, nor engage at any time, the conspiracy theorists, themselves. Don’t waste your time refuting the premises of the conspiracy theory nor spar with its supporters. Focus solely on the intellectual arguments about the broader phenomenon of conspiratorial thinking, itself.

Required will be a minimum of five (5) scholarly and/or credible sources in a “Works Cited,” to be judged on its proper MLA-style (design, arrangement, and bibliographic specifications).

“Scholarly” sources appear most often in periodicals, journals, and books–whether in print or in databases–and include cited works of their own and/or primary research by their authors.
“Credible” sources are sources vetted for the accuracy, reliability, and the relatively unbiased nature of their content, typically non-commercial (i.e., not dot-coms).
See the structural outline provided at the end of this document. Use it as an organizational template: follow its tasks of development exactly as shown.

Successful completion of this assignment will be determined by the following criteria, each of which is explained further in the scoring rubric for this assignment:

15% Introduction
05% Overview/Summary
25% Causal Analysis
25% Refutation
05% Conclusion
15% Writing Competency
05% Document Design and Style
05% Document Formatting
Please make sure to use the Scoring Rubric (below) for this assignment to help guide your writing, your developmental aims, your rhetorical strategies, and your editing efforts toward an effective essay.

The following is a basic outline of development for your 7-10 page essay.

Context/Hook: (e.g., a stipulated definition of “conspiracy theory”; an introduction to the type of conspiracies in your topic; a provocative detail from the case example of your essay; a general statement about one of the main motives for conspiratorial thinking)
Topic: Introduce the specific conspiracy theory and its type of conspiratorial thinking as the topic of your essay.
Thesis: Assert a complex and skeptical thesis about the underlying causes, motives, or influences.
Body: Analysis and Explanation
At least one paragraph providing an overview of the conspiracy theory on which to predicate your arguments later, including specific claims used in the conspiracy theory.
One or more paragraphs examining the relevant causes, motives, or factors for the conspiratorial thinking behind this particular conspiracy theory, include (but not limited to) the following:
detailed explanations of these factors;
analysis of comparable conspiracy theories to support your analysis;
quotations and paraphrase from outside, scholarly sources to reinforce your arguments about the motives for this type of conspiratorial thinking;
a broader discussion of conspiratorial thinking, itself, as a cultural, psychological, and/or sociological phenomenon.
Counterargument and Refutation: Ordinarily, a counterargument is completed in one paragraph. However, to demonstrate your proficiency and understanding of the principles of counterargument, you will divide the argument into the following three paragraphs (review 4.5 INFO | Counterargument and Refutation Paragraphs):
One acknowledgment paragraph: Select a counter-perspective to acknowledge and debate. This perspective can be a rival position that another researcher might use to argue the cause of conspiratorial thinking. Or, it might be an opposing viewpoint questioning whether the kind of conspiratorial thinking you’ve selected to discuss is, indeed, a form of conspiracy theorizing, or if it’s a legitimate form of skeptical discourse in its own right. It might present as an alternative cause another cognitive fallacy that you believed to be irrelevant, or it might present an intellectual challenge to any part of your essay’s arguments about conspiratorial thinking. Again, your acknowledged counterpoint SHOULD NOT be an argument made by someone who supports the conspiracy theory, itself. Focus solely on the intellectual arguments about conspiratorial thinking.
One accommodation paragraph: In the same paragraph, develop an extensive accommodation of your opponent’s point, using illustration and other support where feasible. Remain vigilant not to appear to agree with your opponent but, rather, to create an opportunity for common ground.
One refutation paragraph: Refute and debate at length, the opposing point you acknowledged and accommodated in the previous two paragraphs, using the guidelines for refutation outlined in your lessons and readings.
Conclusion Options (Review 3.6 INFO | Conclusions to Essays.)
Summary Conclusion: A re-assertion of your thesis and a summary of your main points.
Editorializing Conclusion: A personal commentary on conspiracy theorists (such as their important role in our culture; or the damage they cause; or a cautionary message about investing in this type of conspiracy theory).
Externalizing Conclusion: A reverse “hook” to a related topic (e.g., in a government cover-up topic, a statement about the importance of transparency in government; in a UFO conspiracy topic, a statement about how society has changed its methods for finding meaning in an age of advanced science and technology).

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