258: Conspiracy Theories

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Conspiracy Theories
There are a lot of graduate-educated young-earth creationists.
Title text: There are a lot of graduate-educated young-earth creationists.


Conspiracy theories[edit]

A conspiracy theory purports to explain a social, political, or economic event as being caused or covered up by a covert group or organization. A typical example is the Moon landing conspiracy, which asserts that no human has ever reached the Moon.

Once a conspiracy theory starts, it often grows stronger. This is due to a "Morton's fork", a situation where no matter what is observed, the same conclusion is reached:

  • Facts agreeing with the theory are, of course, evidence for the theory.
  • Facts disagreeing with the theory are considered part of the cover-up. This suggests that there is, in fact, a cover-up in the first place. Therefore, contradictions to the theory are also treated as evidence for the theory.

In the case of the Moon landing, conspiracy theorists assume videos of men walking on the Moon to be faked by Hollywood studios. The existence of the assumed fake videos "proves" the cover-up. Also, the absence of filming crew or anything else needed for faking a video is considered further proof of how carefully the cover-up was planned.

No matter what happens next, it will be taken as evidence for the conspiracy theory. As one person put it: "To a conspiracy theorist, there are only two kinds of evidence: evidence that proves their theory correct, and evidence that proves the conspiracy goes deeper than they ever imagined." In reality, the more elaborate the cover-up, the less realistic it is. There would be many more details to expose, and many more people involved, each of whom could spill the secrets with a lower chance of being identified.

People promoting these theories belong to a small minority, but they gain attention from many people — often without much knowledge on that specific matter. People who have actual knowledge about a given subject just get frustrated by this, because it seems like smart or educated people should reject conspiracy theories for lack of proof. If a conspiracy theory does have proof, it is really science or investigative journalism.

The title text refers to Young Earth creationism, which claims that the Earth is only thousands of years old, instead of the billions of years evolutionary scientists suggest. Believers in this theory generally either ignore evidence for the Earth's age, claim it to be inaccurate or misinterpreted, or claim that it is all part of how the Earth was created. The "conspiracy theory" connection arises when they claim that scientists, for some reason, collectively refuse to consider (what they consider to be) evidence of a young Earth.


In the comic, Hairy starts pointing out perceived "errors" in the "official" 9/11 story, obviously starting to describe the 9/11 conspiracy theory. Cueball immediately cuts him off, and delivers a speech about conspiracy theories being a glitch in reasoning that anyone can experience.

The overall message of the comic, which the title text elaborates upon, is to challenge the assumption that conspiracy theorists are stupid. On the whole, Cueball considers Hairy smart, and is heartbroken to see his friend waste his potential on this. He believes that Hairy, and other conspiracy theorists, have reasoned themselves into their position to some extent, but the reassurance from their belief now stops them from realizing that their initial reasoning was faulty. The comic asserts that anyone can fall into this pattern of thinking, no matter how reasonable or educated they are. The title text gives a point of evidence for this, that many Young Earth creationists are college-educated, and therefore cannot be written off as stupid in general.

Cueball acknowledges that he has been unable to get through to conspiracy theorists in the past, so he tries to get Hairy to see the light by talking about these experiences. He raises the logical fallacies involved in conspiracy theories in general, and compares Hairy's behavior to other conspiracy theories that he believes Hairy wouldn't have fallen for: Young Earth creationism, the Moon landing, and Perpetual motion machines. This is an effort to open Hairy up to the idea that he has, in fact, fallen for a conspiracy theory. When Cueball acknowledges his past debate partners as smart people who were misled by fictions anyway, he is trying to give some counter-reassurance so that Hairy isn't too embarrassed to admit he was wrong.

However, Hairy suddenly claims that humans never landed on the Moon, revealing that he does believe a theory that Cueball assumed was beneath him. Thus, we don't find out whether Cueball's approach would have worked otherwise. The two are left at an impasse where each thinks their beliefs should be obvious to the other; it is as if they are living in different realities. Cueball is so frustrated that he just walks away with no further comment.

Bug reporting[edit]

In the last panel, Cueball asks God to fix the error that allows otherwise reasonable beings to believe conspiracy theories. This follows from Cueball calling this behavior a glitch. This is a not-so-subtle joke as religious belief tends to be connected to certain conspiracy theories (such as Young Earth Creationism, as mentioned in the strip). The joke, then, is that Cueball believes in (and converses with) God, but instead of following religious conspiracy theories, uses the relationship for debugging.

A bug report is a description of some error, or "bug", that occurred when using a computer program, to inform the developer of a problem that needs to be fixed. The comic draws a comparison between prayer and developer feedback. Filing a "bug report" to God should be unnecessary, as God is generally understood by believers to be omniscient. Thus, God must already be aware of the problem, and allow it to exist for explicable reasons of "God's will."


Hairy: The official story of 9-11 is full of holes. Take the—
Cueball: Please, stop, because seeing this happen to you breaks my heart.
Cueball: Conspiracy theories represent a known glitch in human reasoning. The theories are of course occasionally true, but their truth is completely uncorrelated with the believer's certainty. For some reason, sometimes when people think they've uncovered a lie, they raise confirmation bias to an art form. They cut context away from facts and arguments and assemble them into reassuring litanies. And over and over I've argued helplessly with smart people consumed by theories they were sure were irrefutable, theories that in the end proved complete fictions.
Cueball: Young-Earth Creationists, the Moon Landing people, the Perpetual Motion subculture — can't you see you're falling into the same pattern?
Hairy: You don't seriously believe we landed on the moon, do you?
[Cueball walks away, frustrated, with ripple lines behind him.]
[Cueball kneels down with folded hands, praying:]
Cueball: Dear God.
[Booming from the sky:]
Cueball: I would like to file a bug report.

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I have an alternate interpretation of the last panel: instead of Randall using the concept of religion as a conspiracy theory, Cueball clearly believes in a god that exists and this god answers when directly addressed. The existing paragraph's explanation seems to bypass most of the humor in favor of the irony in the religion-conspiracy link. Each time I see this comic, I view the last panel as Cueball (who I would expect to participate in user-driven software quality assurance) legitimately contacting the author/creator (of the universe/Earth/Humanity) to submit a bug report in the same way he would contact the Firefox developers about a bug in their browser. However, it does stand to reason that Randall could have intended both the in-place joke and the external irony.Tryc (talk) 14:44, 19 June 2013 (UTC)

I agree that there is nothing in the comic to suggest a 'religion' or 'atheist' conspiracy theory. I personally would just trash it, but people are sensitive to religious crap, I find. I also have a personal belief that the majority of the 95% (or whatever the true figure is) of Americans who believe in God do so only to the extent that they will answer 'Yes' to a survey question asking if they believe in God. Such a belief does not otherwise inform or alter their lives in any perceptible way. 19:25, 17 January 2014 (UTC)

Religion is not a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theorists have proof. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Why are so many atheists so incompetent at basic principles of logic and skepticism? What you mean to say is that conspiracy theorists have evidence. They tend to lack proof. There is a huge difference, fundamental to the principles of logic and the philosophy of science. — Kazvorpal (talk) 05:51, 29 October 2019 (UTC)
:It's not just atheists specifically, it's ALL humans! It's because of the way our brains are wired, we can't help but believe in the most ridiculous made-up nonsense, it's a survival trait (or it used to be, in the ancestral evolutionary environment). --The Cat Lady (talk) 12:51, 13 August 2021 (UTC)

For me, the most interesting tension comes from ("self-reflective") bug report which doesn't (only) refer to conspiracy theorists but, maybe even more, to Cueball himself who beleives in God but still thinks that his own belief in God is a bug to be reported. Reporting could be seen as reporting to God in which he beleives. And that's the simple one. But also reporting that bug could be a report to the consciousness existing beyond the constraints of very comic Cueball is part of. That consciousness is then xkcd audience. Existence of such a consciousness beyond comic's universe would be the equivalent of God in some other universe. Self-reflective awareness of that "alien" existence, and not having a proof for its own comic universe, would make Cueball a religious guy. Randall Munroe decides about the proving possibilities in this particular case. Marcell (talk) 00:39, 13 April 2014 (UTC)

There's a bug in paragraph three... As of the time of this comment, the second sentence reads "The people are more involved in this questioned issues are just getting frustrated about this human behavior." As written, this is nonsense, and clearly exhibits several grammar errors. Unfortunately the explanation lacks clear clues as to what this sentence is intended to convey, so I have no point of reference from which to fix it without occluding the intended meaning. Help, please. 02:18, 3 September 2014 (UTC)

I've done my best to fix it to what I think was the intended meaning, and to make it flow with the surrounding explain. 02:34, 26 July 2015 (UTC)

I interpreted the last panel as a jab at the subset of atheists who claim intellectual superiority while still believing in random conspiracy theories. -- Flewk (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

before: The title text refers the large number of educated people who believe in Young Earth creationism, stating that the earth is only thousands of years old, instead of the billions of years evolutionary scientists suggest. after: The title text refers the large number of educated people who believe in Young Earth creationism, stating that the earth is only thousands of years old, instead of the billions of years evolutionary scientists and geologists(isotope dating) and physicists(big bang theory) suggest.

I don't think young earth creationism matches the comic's description of uncovering a lie and confirmation bias. I would bet that most young earth creationists believe in it because they were raised to believe it. It may be scientifically invalid, but I don't think it's technically a conspiracy theory for most believers anyway.

you guys all believe in the moon?Overlord of oddities (talk) 02:16, 12 March 2020 (UTC)

maybe in the world of xkcd randall is "god" and they just break the 4th wall An user who has no account yet (talk) 00:44, 7 September 2023 (UTC)

Dear God, please get rid of this ripoff. In Jesus' name Amen. Z1mp0st0rz (talk) 20:17, 11 April 2024 (UTC)