12. Conspiracy theories as an obstacle for the scientific analysis of global risks

Global risk may sometimes be associated with conspiracy theories such as the Illuminati or the idea that lizard men control the world. Of course, every effort must be made to develop the study of catastrophic global risks into a serious discipline that has no association with such nutty theorizing.

When a conspiracy theory predicts a certain risk, it tends to be highly specific: the world will end on such-and-such a date, caused by such-and-such event. In contrast, the scientific analysis of risk considers many possible risks, as probability distributions over time, including the possibility of complex overlapping factors and/or cascades. In addition, conspiracy theory risks will often come with a pre-packaged solution; the promulgator of the conspiracy theory happens to know the one solution to deal with the risk. In contrast, those engaged in the scientific study of global catastrophic risk will not necessarily claim that they have any idea how to deal with the risk. If they do have a proposed solution, it will not be entirely certain—rather, it will be a work in progress, amenable to further suggestions, elaborations, redundant safety elements and precautions.

The more poorly we predict the future, the more dangerous it is. The primary danger of the future is its unpredictability. Conspiracy theories are harmful to future prediction, not just because of their general lunacy, but because they focus attention on too narrow a set of future possibilities. Furthermore, they assume superconfidence in the prognostic abilities of their adherents. A good prediction of the future does not predict concrete facts, but describes a space of possible scenarios. On the basis of this knowledge it is possible to determine central points in this space and deploy countermeasures to deal with them.

Such "predictions" undermine trust in any sensible basis underlying them, for example that a large act of terrorism could weaken the dollar and potentially cause an economic collapse as part of a chain reaction. Conspiracy theories also tend to fall prey to the fundamental attribution error—that is, that there must be a “Them,” a deliberately malevolent actor on whom to place the blame. In reality, there is usually no such arch-villain; there may be a group, or the disaster might happen as a complete accident, or as a result of human actions which are not deliberately malevolent. Focusing on conspiracy theories, or allowing conspiracy theories to influence our thinking in any way, biases our thinking in this way.

At the same time, although the majority of conspiracy theories are false, there is always the wild chance that one of them could turn out to be true. There was a conspiracy theory by industrialists to take over the U.S. Government in a coup during 1933, the so-called Business Plot, but it was foiled when a General in on the plot decided to report it to the government. Conspiracies do exist, but conspiracy theorists tend to overestimate the degree to which groups and individuals are capable of covert coordination. Regardless, consider the saying: if you cannot catch a cat in a dark room, that does not mean that the cat is not present.