How To Spot Hucksters And Frauds

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Within hours of planes crashing into the World Trade Center on 9–11, stories began circulating that it was not, in fact, the planes that caused the towers to collapse, but explosives planted inside by someone with access. Since then a number of conspiracy theories have circulated that people ranging from government employees to Wall Street Traders were responsible for the attack.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that there are no shortage of alleged schemes about the coronavirus epidemic, from theories that the disease is caused by 5G mobile networks to that Bill Gates cooked it up as part of a global plot to electronically track us through vaccinations. Even the president’s son has a pet theory.

The simple truth is that when a tragic event happens, we lose our sense of control and there will never be a shortage of hucksters willing to take advantage of that, for profit or for other reasons. Often, these are elaborate narratives and can seem very convincing. Yet the schemes tend to have common characteristics which we can use to spot and nullify their effect.

The first and most obvious thing most fraudulent conspiracy theories have in common is questionable credentials. Credentials, like a professional degree or certification, are important because they show that someone’s expertise has been recognized by other experts in a specific field of endeavor and that person has subjected themselves to evaluation.

That doesn’t mean someone has to have a piece of paper for their ideas to matter. In fact, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out decades ago, it is often outsiders, like Richard Feynman in virology and Elon Musk in space exploration, who drive paradigm shifts in a particular domain. However, in those cases, the outsiders are almost always working in conjunction with recognized experts.

Of course, the hucksters understand the importance of credentials so they use several ploys to confuse us. They often appear in videos in white lab coats and use scientific sounding words. Like a cargo cult, they adopt the appearance and forms of a scientific method, but discard the substance. Often, they will point to the lack of acceptance by “the establishment” as proof that their ideas are so important they are being “silenced.”

So the first thing we should look at is the credentials of the person or people making the claim. Lacking credentials doesn’t immediately make you wrong and having them doesn’t necessarily make you right. Nevertheless, when someone is unwilling to accept some type of training and evaluation it should put us on our guard.

Real science is transparent. There are no trade secrets. You are providing information on your materials and methods as well as the data that results. The idea is that you want to give everybody all of the information they would need to question your conclusions and judge the value of what you profess to be contributing.

Conspiracy theorists don’t do this. That’s why YouTube is a favorite medium. It’s so hard to fact check. You aren’t expected to provide links or data in an appendix to a video. You can just make assertions set to dramatic music. You can flash images that suggest nefarious activities without making any real assertions.

Another favorite ploy of the hucksters is to point to the lack of data as proof of the importance of their ideas. Of course they don’t have data! That’s part of the cover up! So they refuse to give any real proof and try to bury you in false assertions. They shift the burden of proof to anybody who questions them. Can anybody prove the data doesn’t exist?

We want to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this person giving me all the information I need would need to come to a different conclusion?” “Is he or she open to different interpretations of the same data?

While researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I interviewed dozens of top innovators. Some were world class scientists and engineers. Others were high level executives at large corporations. Still others were highly successful entrepreneurs. Overall, it was a pretty intimidating group.

So I was surprised to find that, with few exceptions, they were some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met. The behavior was so consistent that I felt that it couldn’t be an accident. So I began to research the matter further and found that, to a surprising extent, generosity can be a competitive advantage.

One particular case that comes to mind is Jim Allison, who had his idea for curing cancer rejected by the establishment. The pain was apparent in his voice even 20 years after the fact. Yet he didn’t blame anybody. He tried to understand why people were skeptical, went back and further validated his data, pounded the pavement and kept advocating for his idea. Jim won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2018.

Conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, often go to great lengths to explain how they have been silenced by the establishment and say this is proof of the importance of their ideas. They ascribe malevolent motives to those who disagree with them. For them, there is no such thing as honest dissent.

One thing that always impressed me about the innovators I researched was how they insisted on giving credit to others. This came through especially during fact checks, when they would insist I note the contributions of their collaborators. They never claim that they did it all themselves.

The people who make the biggest breakthroughs aren’t necessarily smarter or harder working than anybody else. However, they are effective knowledge brokers who build up strong networks of collaborators. They don’t always know more, but they know who knows more and that helps them to access that random piece of knowledge or insight that allows them to crack a really tough problem.

Yet conspiracy theorists would have us believe that they possess, by either innate ability or opportunity, some unique insight that others are not privy to. They don’t invite collaboration, scrutiny or alternate perspectives because they believe they are already possess the absolute truth.

We need to have a healthy skepticism, especially with ideas we would tend to agree with. We should ask questions, explore alternative explanations of the same data and be open to additional evidence. What we need to look out for are people who would suggest that we shouldn’t do these things, because they are the ones looking to deceive us.

Greg Satell is an international keynote speaker, adviser and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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Bestselling Author of Cascades and Mapping Innovation, @HBR Contributor, - Learn more at — note: I use Amazon Affiliate links for books.

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