The One True Conspiracy Theory?


You’ve got to love a good conspiracy theory. My favorite is the one about how Sir Paul McCartney is actually a doppelgänger who secretly replaced the first one after the original Paul’s unexpected death. Like all good conspiracy theories, this one weaves together well-chosen, recolored facts into an intriguing narrative. And it’s such a good story that any subsequent evidence or argument to the contrary is easily reinterpreted and absorbed.

Conspiracy theories, as Umberto Eco shows in Foucault’s Pendulum, are an exercise in cherry-picking and run-away confirmation bias. Many of us want so badly to believe that there is more to life than there seems that, like when we watch a fantastical movie, we are prepared to suspend disbelief – ignoring the things that don’t fit in favor of the things that do. It’s the exact reason why clairvoyants seem to know us so well: we do all the work for them.


As a means of teaching critical thinking, there is nothing more effective than a good conspiracy theory. The skills of learning to examine evidence, deconstructing arguments, identifying logical fallacies and cognitive biases are all greatly enhanced by a methodical examination of conspiracy theories.

There is one conspiracy theory, though, that I happen to believe is real. And I am the first to admit that I may be entirely deluded on this one, and deeply mired in confirmation bias, but I cannot escape the thought that it is true. The evidence just fits so damned well.

Here it is: I believe that public education is designed to make kids passive and disengaged so that they will turn into easily led sheeple. Think about it: why would a government want an active, engaged and intelligent population? Answer: They don’t. They would be voted out too quickly. So they cram the syllabus full of content and set heavily weighted standardized assessments to test whether this content has been internalized…and then they tell kids their entire future depends on doing well at school. All of which keeps students and teachers so busy and stressed that there is simply no time for (or inclination towards) authentic learning. And just when teachers and students learn to hack the system, the government changes the syllabus.

The moment I see critical thinking, creativity, individualization and meaningful learning becoming top priorities in our education system I will know that I am wrong. But I do not see this happening any time soon.

If ever.

Do you?


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