Sometimes it seems like conspiracies are everywhere, that there are shadowy forms moving behind the facade of the world, and nothing is really as it seems. For most of us this would be a sign that we’re losing control of our grip on reality and sliding into paranoia. For a select few, it’s just the way they view the world.
Conspiracy believers seem to be driven by a certain amount of self-loathing and a feeling of powerlessness which drives them to look for scapegoats wherever they can to blame for taking opportunity away from them and keeping them down, rather than accepting and acknowledging their own shortcomings and trying to do something about them.
Perhaps if we try to understand them and their beliefs we can avoid falling into the same trap and becoming like them.
The Nature of Conspiracies
Much of the time what looks like a conspiracy is just an appealing idea which gets picked up on by more than one person or group with similar interests, with no collusion or organization. The shortage of Nintendo Wii agame machines is not the result of a conspiracy, just of many different people wanting them at the same time.
Not all conspiracies are necessarily malevolent. The American Revolution started as a conspiracy and the Sons of Liberty were a secret, conspiratorial organization. Yet I’m pretty pleased with how their efforts worked out. I don’t even mind the fact that they were terrorists.
Conspirators are extremely unlikely to engage in nefarious deeds which are against their own best interests. Any conspiracy theory which requires them to do so for obscure motives is almost certainly wrong. Like minded people working together to accomplish something which they think is desirable is not necessarily a conspiracy. The Democratic Party is not a conspiracy and neither is the Council on Foreign Relations. You may not agree with their goals and objectives, but they’ve got as much right to pursue them as you do to oppose them.
The more individuals a theory requires to have engaged in conscious acts of evil, the less likely it is to be real. Secret conspiracies requiring the cooperation of entire races, nations or classes of people are extremely unlikely.
To do real harm, conspiracies need to be secret. If a bunch of people band together publicly to do something in the open they are a ‘movement’, not a conspiracy. Ron Paul supporters are not a conspiracy.
When you start to try to connect together wildly different groups as part of a super-conspiracy you know you’ve gone too far. WalMart is not in league with the Peace Corps to take over the world.
Logical Fallacies Common in Conspiracy Theories
Most conspiracy theories are established based on one of several common logical fallacies, which may appear to be true to the believer, but fail certain basic tests of logic and evidence. Some of the most common are:
That one conspiracy can be proven to exist does not prove the existence of any other conspiracies, even if they are superficially similar. (Proof by Example)
Even conspiracies are innocent until proven guilty. You cannot study a possible conspiracy from the starting point that it is a conspiracy and then start looking for evidence to support that assumption. The evidence should lead you to the conspiracy, not the other way around. (Existential Fallacy)
Simple questions don’t usually require complex or farfetched answers. When you burn the roast it’s more likely to be because you left it in the oven for too long than that orbital laser platforms fired on it. (Inductive Generalization)
The fact that a belief is shared by many does not mean that it is correct. At one point 72% of the American public believed there were active WMDs in Iraq. (Argumentum ad Populum)
Just because someone famous says something is true, that doesn’t mean it is. Mel Gibson is a great movie director, but he’s not a holocaust expert. (Appeal to Authority)
You cannot prove that a conspiracy is real by proving that there is no evidence that it is not real. (Argument Ad Ignoratiam).
Just because something happened after another event or in association with another event that does not mean that one thing caused the other. UFOs began to appear at about the time that televisions became popular. That does not mean that televisions cause UFOs. (Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc).
The fact that someone or some group benefits from an event does not mean that they conspired to cause the event. Lyndon Johnson benefitted from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That does not mean that he conspired to cause it. (Argument from Benefit).
To absolutely prove the existence of a secret conspiracy your argument for the existence of the conspiracy must be the only one supported by all the facts. To have a valid conspiracy theory your association of events with a conspiracy must be more credible based on all the facts than any other explanation for those events, including any proposed by the suspected conspirators. The Burning Man festival is not a conspiracy and neither is the Bohemian Grove. (False Dilemma)
Mistaken Identity and Wishful Thinking
That an organization holds secret meetings, has a secret membership list or is joined by invitation only does not make it a conspiracy. Country clubs and sororities are not conspiracies.
When two or more famous or influential people meet together that doesn’t mean they’re hatching a plot or launching a conspiracy. Richard Nixon met with Elvis. That doesn’t mean he hired Elvis as an undercover DEA agent and faked his death.
There really are powerful groups that have agendas and want to influence events in the world. They are almost always proud of their agenda, state it publicly and think it is a good thing, even if you disagree. The Council on Foreign Relations has an agenda, but it’s not secret and it’s got nothing to do with uniting all of North America into a single nation. Conspiracies generally don’t have websites, magazines and PR departments.
If you can buy stock in it it’s not a conspiracy, it’s a company. Halliburton is trying to make money for its shareholders, not rule the world.
The Conspiracy of the ‘Ruling Elite’
The fact that the membership of a group is made up of the rich, powerful and influential does not make it a conspiracy. The NBA is not a conspiracy.
The ruling class doesn’t need to conspire together to seize wealth and power. They already have it. They don’t want your Honda because they already have a Hummer. If there is a conspiracy to seize power look for it to come from an angry and powerless group in society.
The more people who are involved in a group and the more prominent they are, the less likely it is to be a conspiracy. Have you ever seen a politician who wouldn’t like to win votes by exposing a conspiracy and being a hero?
The ruling elite want to keep the lower classes fat and complacent. They are not going to conspire to needlessly oppress or impoverish them. They want you working hard and making money for them, with plenty of food in your belly, a big screen TV to keep you occupied so you don’t plot revolution and a 401k plan so you don’t come begging at their door and trampling their hedges when you’re old.
Yes, there are real conspiracies. They are usually composed of very few people with a strictly defined and limited goal and they can indeed be extremely dangerous.
McVeigh and Nichols conspired to blow up the Murrow Building. The 9/11 hijackers were part of one of the largest real conspiracies, probably involving scores of people and lasting for years. Given their ambitious goals and the number of people involved it’s a near miracle that they were successful.
Once a conspiracy is widely identified as a conspiracy it rapidly loses effectiveness and will either self-destruct, go public, or direct its efforts elsewhere.
When a suspected conspiratorial group lasts long enough to develop arcane rituals and an obsession with secrecy, that’s a sign that it is engaging in mysticism to compensate for a loss of real power. The Bohemian Grove is laughable and pathetic, not threatening.
The claims of individual members and former members of a group suspected of being a conspiracy should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially when addressing the group’s origins, history and purpose. Group members love nothing more than to inflate the importance, accomplishments and mystery of the group they belong to and former members love to get sympathy for being hunted by powerful enemies.
To refer back to the section on logical fallacies, the fact that there are real conspiracies does not mean that all suspected conspiracies are real.
Know Your Conspiracy Theorists
Just as you have to look at who would benefit from a conspiracy, you ought to consider who benefits from promoting belief in conspiracies. If someone is building a carer on promoting conspiracy theories he is the first person you should look out for.
One of the first things a conspiracy does is find some other group to accuse of being involved in a conspiracy in order to distract from their own activities and give their followers an enemy to unite against. So when you hear talk of conspiracies look closely at the real motivations of the accusers.
Conspiracy theories are classic examples of the ‘big lie’ principle in practice. The more outrageous and improbable they are the more likely those inclined to believe are to believe. They could never conceive of telling such a giant whopper themselves, so they assume that the most far fetched story must be true. It’s too outrageous NOT to be true.
More and more it becomes clear that conspiracy belief originates in a perverse form of populism where demagogues like Lou Dobbs and Alex Jones paint anyone who has been successful in business or politics as a criminal elite exploiting and dominating the rest of humanity. They play to the fears of those who feel weak, powerless and uncertain and offer them the strength of irrational confirmation of their worst fears in place of reason.
Conspiracy theorists are often very free with comparisons to Hitler, Mussolini, Nazis and Fascists when applied to the actions of government and business. Yet they are blithely unaware that they are responding to exactly the same arguments which motivated Hitler’s brown shirts in very much the same way.
Conspiracy promoters are often xenophobic and target particular groups which may or may not have actual power as the source of all the problems which good people (those who are part of their self-identified group) face. Jews have been a traditional target, but Catholics and immigrants have also been and remain popular targets.
Apparently once you accept one conspiracy theory it’s easy to accept others. Many conspiracy believers seem to have their critical filters turned completely off and rather than just believing in selected conspiracy theories they accept them all as real, accepting an entire sort of altered reality.
Belief in the mystical truth of the existence a conspiracy requires no factual evidence. It is in many ways just like a religion. When challenged, unreasoning faith can become dangerous fanaticism very quickly. Because their beliefs cannot be tested by logic, conspiracy theorists become especially strenuous in their defense and often prove utterly impervious to reason.
Many conspiracy theories are easy to dismiss as harmless. Who really cares if a handful of people believe the earth is hollow and full of mole men? But even the most seemingly harmless bit of fabulism can become dangerous when believers attempt to make it the basis of actions in the real world, such as medical treatment or a political movement. When actions are being taken which impact peoples lives, welfare and liberty it is incredibly dangerous to base those actions on a theory or a suspicion rather than on empirical reality.
Even worse, perhaps, is the role which obsession with conspiracy fantasies can play in distracting from real threats. A farmer who spends all of his time worrying about alien cattle mutilators and chupacabras may overlook an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease. Medieval doctors who leapt to the conclusion that Jews were conspiring to poison wells overlooked the fleas which were actually causing the Black Death. Similarly, if we spend all of our time worrying about the grand plans of the Rockefellers and Rothschilds we are likely to overlook the more immediate threats posed by petty tyrants closer to home.