How to Approach Truth between Mainstream and Conspiracy Theories

A Practical Guide for Beginners

Hjalmar Peters
4 min readJun 5, 2020

For many issues, such as 9/11 or currently COVID-19, there is a mainstream narrative and there are alternative versions, often derogatively referred to as conspiracy theories, which contest the mainstream view in whole or in part. In order to figure out what’s true and what’s not, there are mainly the following three strategies.

Strategy 1: Trust your Gut

Rely on your instincts when deciding whom to believe and whom not to believe. Believe persons when they are self-confident and charismatic. Judge information not by its source and logical coherence, but by how confidently it is presented to you.

Strategy 1 is the simplest strategy to use. People adopting this strategy sometimes wear tin foil hats and believe in a flat earth controlled by reptiloids. Like religions, such belief systems often lack hard, falsifiable links to reality. This, and a certain degree of resilience to plausible arguments among their proponents, can make it impossible to shake a believer’s faith.

Strategy 2: Trust the Mainstream

Only believe what’s compatible with the mainstream view. Trust the mass media. When in doubt about whether or not to believe an information, google for fact-checks and make sure that none of the mainstream media condemns the information in question as disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theory or foreign propaganda.

Strategy 2 is slightly more difficult to use than Strategy 1. The additional effort may pay off in terms of information quality, though. Strategy 2 is clearly the most popular strategy. However, this strategy comes with the disadvantage that it goes unnoticed when the mainstream media are lying, manipulating or simply ignoring. People adopting this strategy are usually of the opinion that only the media of hostile nations engage in propaganda. The dominance of Strategy 2 is the reason why, in every war, most people are convinced that their particular side is the good side.

Strategy 3: Trust your Brain

Get information from various sources, including alternative and foreign media, and try to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong by means of logic and autonomous rational thinking.

Strategy 3 is the most laborious strategy. In return, it may yield improved results compared to the other two strategies. The two-step guide below may help adopt of this strategy. Following this guide allows to tap into non-mainstream sources without the risk of deteriorating into Strategy 1.

Step One

Assign the trust level unreliable to all information except when it originates from a mainstream source such as mass media, Wikipedia, friendly governments, authorities, institutes etc. In the latter case assign the trust level credible. (This step corresponds to Strategy 2, which stops at this point.)

Step Two

Revise trust levels according to the following three rules.

  • “Is Underpinned”-Rule
    If a dubious source underpins an information with a mainstream source, then this information becomes credible.
  • “Can be Inferred”-Rule
    If an information can be inferred from credible facts, then this information becomes credible itself.
    Note that if a dubious source provides an information together with a proof, then this proof needs to be understood, before upgrading the trust level of the information. In particular, it needs to be checked that the proof is logically sound and does not depend on tacit unreliable assumptions.
  • “Is Refuted”-Rule
    If there are two conflicting credible informations, then one of them needs to be downgraded to unreliable.
    Usually, it is clear which information to downgrade, since mistrusting a certain information typically is what leads to arriving at this point in the first place. In order to further corroborate the decision, it may make sense to think about the interests involved (Cui bono?) and to recall whether sources involved were caught lying before.

Ideally, after finishing this two-step process, credible information is true and unreliable information is false. Unfortunately, as a matter of principle, there can be no ultimate certainty about that as long as any reliance on third party evidence is involved. If people, in a self-confident manner, display such certainty nonetheless, then this certainty doesn’t hint at expertise but at poor judgement. What is worse, people committing themselves to specific information without due humility are no longer able to objectively assess new and possibly conflicting information, because their commitment turns any future change of opinion into a loss of face.

A Word about Censorship

There are increased efforts to censor the internet (currently under the pretext of protection from harmful COVID-19 content). While censorship might protect some Strategy 1 users from falling victim to outlandish conspiracy theories, it also prevents the usage of Strategy 3. Without being able to resort to Strategy 3, though, you are doomed to swallow whatever the mainstream media serve you. Furthermore, once censorship is effective, you won’t be able anymore to publicly complain about it. So don’t expect to ever get back your freedom of expression once it is wholly lost for the first time.

A Word about Tribalism

Discussions are often tribal and emotional. In such discussions, arguments are sometimes not judged by their truth content, but by whom they are associated with. Feel free to refer to this article and the above mentioned rules the next time you spot a credible argument being dismissed solely because it is ascribed to a person or group which, according to Strategy 2 users, is untrustworthy, stupid, dangerous or evil.



Hjalmar Peters

Crypto trader, effective altruist, vegan, occasionally enjoys poker, physics and climbing