First, a couple of assumptions:

  • People are constantly bombarded by claims others want them to believe. Example: E=mc^2, a teacher wants their pupils to know.
  • In many cases these claims are mutually exclusive. Examples: Party X will doom your homeland, vote for party Y which will save your homeland!; but also Party Y will doom your homeland, vote for party X which will save your homeland!
  • In many cases it is very important for a person to choose correctly between such mutually exclusive claims, since the person's best interest depends on this choice. Examples: Vaccinate yourself to avoid severe diseases; but also Vaccines will ruin your health! An incorrect choice will jeopardize one's health.
  • In the vast majority of cases a person cannot judge such claims oneself. All examples cited above require expert knowledge to judge, and no one can be an expert in all fields.

Therefore, it would seem that a person must choose who to trust on these matters. But who?

The most obvious answer seems to be: The consensus of experts in the relevant field.

But this answer turns out to be problematic.

Let me use an example. In the case of medicine, the relevant experts are touted to be the WHO. So should the WHO be trusted and all other opinions dismissed?

My mother is a vehement opponent of the WHO. In particular, she opposes the food pyramid. During our conversations on the subject I will often say that the WHO are the experts, they are more knowledgeable and experienced on the subject than either of us, so they should be trusted. My mother's response is: "But there are other experts! See this media report of a scientific study that contradicts the WHO's findings, see another media report of another scientific study, see doctors X, Y, Z, see this association of doctors and scientists who oppose the WHO. What is left remaining of your 'recourse to experts' argument now? The WHO tout themselves and are touted by mainstream media to be THE experts, but this is simply untrue. They cherry pick pieces of research and trumpet those that support their views and ideologies while ignoring those whose conclusions oppose WHO's tenets. You have arbitrarily chosen just the WHO to trust and are closed-minded, you keep ignoring contradictory evidence"

Indeed - my mother pointed out a weakness in my reasoning, and one I cannot respond to. Why the WHO? Because mainstream media say the WHO are THE experts?

But the situation just got even more dire. My aunt vehemently opposes vaccines. Even worse, she proselytizes this view to her father, who is a very old man and, according the mainstream knowledge, people in his age are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

According to my aunt: * It is controversial whether vaccines help or hurt the immune system; * It is likewise controversial whether vaccines were historically effective in combating contagious diseases; * But most importantly, none of this matters, since nowadays vaccines are a tool for people like Bill Gates to advance their depopulation and surveillance programs. They are poisoned with aluminum, mercury, hormones that are supposed to sterilize people, most recently they are also supposed to contain microchips that will track people's movement and allow to establish which people did not get vaccined.

All above claims are backed up by links to scientists and people who say they have proofs of the purported conspiracy.

Are the above claims outlandish? It seems so. But why? Because everyone knows that vaccine hesitation is founded on myths? Once again we have a recourse to mainstream knowledge. According to my aunt most people believe vaccines are important and safe because they have been told so by mainstream media. So once again I am being accused of repeating not what is obvious and well known, but what certain parties (mainstream media) want us to believe. Also, according to aunt, Google and Facebook censor and remove articles and posts that are skeptical to vaccines.

But there is scientific consensus that vaccines are safe! But, as my aunt points out, scientists who have a different opinion on this matter are being fired from universities.

Therefore, according to my aunt, there is no true consensus on the matter, neither among scientists nor among ordinary people. Rather, an artificial consensus has been created, by muting dissenting opinions.

So, essentially, what we have here is a conspiracy theory crafted to back up a conspiracy theory... Still, the theory seems consistent. If the richest of the rich want to advance depopulation and surveillance programs through vaccination, then the richest of the rich also have the means to control the flow of information.

Is this all outlandish? Yes. But again, why does it seem so outlandish? Because it contradicts mainstream information.

In essence, trusting such 'obvious' things like the food pyramid as per the WHO or the harmlessness of vaccines has been reduced to 'because mainstream media say so'. So we need to trust mainstream information because... it is mainstream information? Such an argumentation indeed seems weak!

How to escape this conundrum? What should we trust if there are many contradictory claims? Should we trust mainstream information or should we (which is practically impossible!) try to judge all other weird claims ourselves?

  • 2
    @Conifold "During the Nazi and communist regimes the vast majority of scientists were upholding the false tenets of the respective ideologies of these regimes. This was because those who dissented were being tortured and/or killed. Something similar happens today, although the methods of enforcing desirable views among scientists are different. Scientists who dissent are called out for 'spreading harmful misinformation', fired from universities, ostracized and laughed at. This happens whenever a scientist dares to express 'homophobic', as well as if they question the safety of vaccines."
    – gaazkam
    Aug 22, 2020 at 20:56
  • 2
    "The system of grants is another method: scientists depend on the money of grant givers and therefore will conduct research in such a way to support the views the grant givers want scientists to support. For these reasons the authority of mainstream universities is shaky at best. But check out these independent scientists who are not afraid of being ostracized, do not depend on grants and reveal the practice of falsificating research in order to please grant givers..."
    – gaazkam
    Aug 22, 2020 at 20:57
  • 2
    I'm not sure what to answer to the above argument put forward by conspiracy theorists. Assuming that it is indeed true that there is overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and instrumental to maintain public health then I can understand the motivation behind ostracizing scientists who dissent. However, this practice does seem to weaken the strength of scietific consensus... (dissenting scientists were already ostracized and the rest does not wish to be) Unfortunately, there are neuroscientists (professors!) who claim that mercury levels in vaccines are toxic for human brain.
    – gaazkam
    Aug 22, 2020 at 20:59
  • 2
    The problem seems to be that it's hard to make a recourse to the authority of the vast majority of participants of mainstream science if mainstream science is precisely what is accused of being ideologized and is therefore not trusted. In my experience, people of faith hold a grudge against mainstream science because mainstream science has employed all of its authority to back up the claim that there is precisely nothing wrong with homosexuality or with abortion. Such people will not believe either of these two claims, so they must disbelieve scientific consensus in general
    – gaazkam
    Aug 22, 2020 at 21:05
  • 2
    Most such people do not go to such extremes as my aunt (to accuse Bill Gates of being a mass murderer). Still, I believe the two things are connected insofar as the argumentation of those who keep believing that, for example, transgenderism and homosexuality is a disorder, abortion is murder, ..., etc, put forth a similar argumentation: that mainstream science is ideologized because of the practice of ostracizing and silencing those who dissent. Given the large percentage of conservatives we can see how many people will distrust mainstream science and in general (and its consensuses).
    – gaazkam
    Aug 22, 2020 at 21:17

4 Answers 4


The big mistake that people make is their disregard for the scientific process. This is exacerbated by media. People will find scientific papers, or news articles that cite scientific papers, which support some odd view that they have. However, a few papers that reach ambiguous conclusions do not dismantle "established knowledge".

At the same time, such people are right to regard "established knowledge" as itself dubious. However, they make a critical error in asserting that because it is dubious, it must be wrong. They end up closing their own minds off to other ideas because their own ideas are on the fringe. Fringe ideas need not only evidence, but overwhelming evidence to dislodge mainstream thought.

To answer your question

How to escape this conundrum? What should we trust if there are many contradictory claims? Should we trust mainstream information or should we (which is practically impossible!) try to judge all other weird claims ourselves?

it totally depends on the claim. Some things like nutrition are constantly being updated; and nutrition itself is prone to wide variance among people with different body chemistries. Other things like whether vaccines work or not have mountains of historical evidence to back them up. While it is possible that we may overturn that evidence, the task becomes exponentially difficult as that historical evidence piles up.

  • have mountains of historical evidence to back them up But the accusation is that it has never been properly proven that vaccines work nor that they do not cause autism; it has only been falsely reported so.
    – gaazkam
    Aug 22, 2020 at 21:24
  • True, but anyone can accuse something of having not been properly proven. That doesn't make that so. The mistake is that because someone makes an accusation that means they should be taken seriously when all they are trying to do is cause a disruption with little or no evidence to support their accusations. We know vaccines work because we eradicated polio with vaccines, for example. Alternative explanations typically claim to have a "smoking gun" of evidence, however a smoking gun is only valid when there is other evidence to support it; a "smoking gun" then is more like a keystone.
    – Reifier
    Aug 23, 2020 at 18:14
  • People will also often say "experts have been wrong before" and that is completely true. However expert consensus is wrong a magnitude less often than non-expert opinion
    – Reifier
    Aug 23, 2020 at 18:16

One possibility is to rely on chains of trust. Maybe I trust my high school friend who became a doctor. He trusts someone he went to med school with and she now works on infectious diseases. Etc., and eventually we arrive at the experts on vaccine effectiveness. This gives an alternative to trusting mainstream media. But the right social networks need to be in place for that, and without those it is not clear that this gives a way to resolve disagreements. Still, one can try to find a mutually trusted person who it is agreed is more expert on the topic.

  • 1
    I'll note that chains of trust should be used as a lever on top of some existing, independent mechanism for evaluating new knowledge. Knowing how to add reliable people to your initial chain of trust is crucial: Once formed, chains of trust tend to be self-reinforcing.
    – Brian
    Aug 28, 2020 at 21:22
  • That's right. But you might get it from some personal interactions. I trust my high school friend because he helped me understand biology in high school, he trusts his med school friend because she helped him understand something in med school, etc.
    – present
    Aug 28, 2020 at 21:41
  • You can use personal interactions as a means to establish a train of trust, but this doesn't directly solve the problem of how to ensure that your initial chain of trust is reliable. It is easy to find a highly opposed communities with established trust chains leading back to "experts." You can't rely on experts to solve this problem unless you first define an expert; such a definition would constitute an independent mechanism.
    – Brian
    Aug 29, 2020 at 16:42
  • Chain of trust seem to be a pretty weak standard compared to consensus. If any one link of your chain is rotten without your knowledge, the whole thing is useless. What if you trust someone who happens to trust another someone who trusts Alex Jones ?
    – armand
    Sep 22, 2020 at 3:33

How to escape this conundrum? What should we trust if there are many contradictory claims? Should we trust mainstream information or should we (which is practically impossible!) try to judge all other weird claims ourselves? epistemology

This question, though formidable, and well formulated and contextualized by informative well crafted introductory paragraphs, is not [univocally] "answerable" in a wold in which epistemology, ontology and metaphysics bleed into one another/are conflated, to the extent they have become. Ideally, the "best" we can do, absent reliable and articulate word-world correspondence [even if not isomorphic], is consensus among relevant "experts" within a domain.

But how would one verify/confirm/jusify that the aggregation of expert's opinions compiled by one's favorite/preferred source is reliable. And what exactly does "reliable" mean anymore?

How, so to speak, to deal with your favorite fact checker's fact checker's fact checker [etc.]? Good luck.


In particular, there is no "mainstream media" monolith, just as there is no monolithic Islam or monolithic Christianity or...

As for vaccines, first, the general idea is brilliant, lifehacking our immune system basically. No doubt it could be harmful to some. But just because some are allergic to peanuts doesn't mean peanut companies are secretly pursuing depopulation, say.

And that "population control" fear mongering, while justifiable in the abstract (it IS a question) doesn't fit the COVID-19 situation, since the response was aimed at saving lives (and even plausible worst-case scenarios didn't project depopulation in the event of a weaker response, but we didn't go for the weaker response anyway).

Conspiracy theories in general are crafted to appear sensitive to evidence, to "explain" things, but they work like young-Earth creationism, neither caring for all evidence nor actually explaining their topic ("God willed it and that's all there is to it" is as close to a nonexplanation as possible). That is, unless they are specified enough; private individuals do deviant things and plot crimes and often do have breakaways who reveal these things, but a pre-existing global cabal going back to ancient Egypt? It is revealing that the criminal conspiracy that is QAnon, based part of their defining mythos on the Question from DC comics/cartoons; they know what they are doing..

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .