Look closer. Think harder. Choose the sound argument over the clever one.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Conspiracy Theories

In the spirit of looking closer and thinking harder, consider the Conspiracy Theory.

From the USENET sci.skeptic FAQ, with my emphasis added:

0.8: What is a Conspiracy Theory?

There are two general categories of conspiracy theory: Grand and Petty.

A Grand conspiracy theory is a belief that there is a large-scale conspiracy by those in power to mislead and/or control the rest of the world. Consider the following example:
There is a conspiracy amongst the computer programmers to control the world. They are only allowing the public to have simple machines, while they control the really powerful ones. There is a computer in they call "The Beast". It has records about everyone. They use this information to manipulate the politicians and businessmen who ostensibly rule the world into doing their will. The Beast was prophesied in the Book of Revelation.
Grand conspiracy theories divide the world into three groups. The Conspirators, the Investigators, and the Dupes. Conspirators have a vast secret. The Investigators have revealed parts of the conspiracy, but much is still secret. Investigators are always in great danger of being silenced by Conspirators. Dupes are just the rest of us. Often the Conspirators show a mixture of incredible subtlety and stunning stupidity.

Evidence produced by the Investigators is always either circumstantial or evaporates when looked at carefully. The theories can never be disproved, since any evidence to the contrary can be dismissed as having been planted by the Conspirators. If you spend any time or effort digging into the evidence produced by Investigators then you will be labelled a Conspirator yourself. Of course, nothing a Conspirator says can be believed.

Petty conspiracy theories are smaller than the Grand variety, and sometimes turn out to be true. Watergate and "Arms for Hostages" episodes both started life as Petty conspiracy theories. Just because a theory involves a conspiracy does not make that theory false. The main difference between Grand and Petty Conspiracy Theories is the number of alleged conspirators. Grand Conspiracy Theories require thousands or even millions.

So then grand conspiracy theories are really a form of unverifiable sensationalism, even paranoia.

I'd add that deliberate misinformation campaigns (e.g., by the KGB) do bear some similarities to Grand Conspiracy Theories. A reasonably large number may participate (e.g., those in the KGB's employ), and may dupe a number of others.

Conspiracy theories work well in novels and movies, since the author has control of all the facts. (E.g., The Davinci Code.) They break down in real life, where the Investigators must account for all pertinent facts, convoluting their theories (often to the point of absurdity) to fit. That's when you see the telltale signs described above: "Conspirators show a mixture of incredible subtlety and stunning stupidity."

One celebrity's remark (I think Dana Carvey) stuck with me. Mocking OJ Simpson's defense team (who painted the prosecution as conspirators): "Those prosecutors must be the smartest, dumbest and luckiest people in the world, all at once..." Well put.

The FAQ's author mentions Watergate as an actual conspiracy (and it was). Less than a dozen people participated. Charles Colson was one. Consider his own reflection (from the book Kingdoms in Conflict, p 70):

In my Watergate experience I saw the inability of men--powerful, highly motivated professionals--to hold together a conspiracy based on a lie. It was less than three weeks from the time that Mr. Nixon knew all the facts to the time John Dean went to the prosecutors. Once that happened Mr. Nixon's presidency was doomed. The actual cover-up lasted less than a month.


By the way, Colson is speaking in the context of the resurrection of Jesus. He continues:

Yet Christ's powerless followers maintained to their grim deaths by execution that they had in fact seen Jesus Christ raised from the dead. There was no conspiracy, no passover plot. Men and women do not give up their comfort--and certainly not their lives--for what they know to be a lie.


(Please keep in mind that each commenter's opinions are only his/her own.)

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