Bronze-level articleConspiracy theory

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Some dare call it

Conspiracy

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Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. The Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all believed in vast conspiracies against them, as do radical Islamists today. It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces.
—John Gray, political philosopher[1]
There’s a similar kind of logic behind all [conspiracy theorist] groups, I think ... They don’t undertake to prove that their view is true [so much as to] find flaws in what the other side is saying.
—Ted Goertzel, sociology professor[2][3]

A conspiracy theory originally meant the "theory" that an event or phenomenon was the result of conspiracy between interested parties; however, from the mid-1960s onward, it is often used to denote ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish or irrational theories.[4][5][6][7] The problem is this results in possibly-rational conspiracy theories getting lost in the midst of the noise of newsworthy but disingenuous ideas such as New World Order or the Moon landing hoax.

Daniel Pipes, in an early essay "adapted from a study prepared for the CIA", attempted to define which beliefs distinguish 'the conspiracy mentality' from 'more conventional patterns of thought'. He defined them as: appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains power, fame, money, and sex. [8]

Contents

[edit] Scope and rationality

There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It's how I know for sure that [we're not] covering up aliens in New Mexico.
—CJ Cregg on government[9]

Some commentary:

"A conspiracy theory is the idea that someone, or a group of someones, acts secretly, with the goal of achieving power, wealth, influence, or other benefit. It can be as small as two petty thugs conspiring to stick up a liquor store, or as big as a group of revolutionaries conspiring to take over their country's government."[10]

"Conspiracy theories as a general category are not necessarily wrong. In fact as the cases of Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair illustrate, small groups of powerful individuals do occasionally seek to affect the course of history, and with some non-trivial degree of success. Moreover, the available, competing explanations -- both official and otherwise -- occasionally represent dueling conspiracy theories, as we will see in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing...[but] there is no a priori method for distinguishing warranted conspiracy theories (say, those explaining Watergate) from those which are unwarranted (say, theories about extraterrestrials abducting humans)."[11]

"A conspiracy theory that has been proven (for example, that President Nixon and his aides plotted to disrupt the course of justice in the Watergate case) is usually called something else — investigative journalism, or just well-researched historical analysis."[12]

"Conspiracy theory is thus a bridge term -- it links subjugating conceptual strategies (paranoid style, political paranoia, conspiracism) to narratives that investigate conspiracies (conspiratology, conspiracy research, conspiracy account). Conspiracy theory is a condensation of all of the above, a metaconcept signifying the struggles of the meaning of the category. We need to recognized that we are on the bridge when we use the term."[13]

[edit] Theory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory

Because the term conspiracy theory has been used in the media to denote grand conspiracy theories involving hundreds or thousands of people as well as plausible things, such as Nazis themselves starting the Reichstag fire,[14] there has been some effort by a few scholars to denote those conspiracy theories that are plausible from those that are irrational/delusional/paranoid ramblings.

One such effort is to call a plausible conspiracy theory a theory of conspiracy[15] while another is to separate the broad concept of conspiracy theory into the broad categorizes of warranted and unwarranted.[16]

Warranted conspiracy theories tend to be small in scope requiring only a small group or be reasonably easy to cover-up. A crucial litmus test is whether any of those who must have been involved or in the know, has ever leaked information. It is a repeatable feature of bogus conspiracy theories that they involve very large numbers of people, not one of whom has ever betrayed the conspiracy. Watergate, the classic conspiracy, was busted in part because of Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, who was a former confidant of J. Edgar Hoover. The more people who are or must be in the know, the less likely it is that the conspiracy will remain secret, and the more certain it becomes that the absence of any leak is indicative that the conspiracy does not exist.

Here is a short list of warranted conspiracy theories (with the ones that are still open in bold):

  • Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks
  • Burr conspiracy (Former vice president Aaron Burr's idiotic plan to set up a nation for himself by claiming land in the Southwest and possibly stealing land from Mexico)[17]
  • Business Plot (ie. a plot by fascist sympathizers to overthrow FDR in 1933)[18]
  • Al Capone was behind the Saint Valentine's Day massacre
  • CIA drug trafficking[19]
  • The Dreyfus affair[20]
  • General Motors streetcar conspiracy[21]
  • Jimmy Hoffa was killed by the Mob and buried in an unknown location[22]
  • Iran-Contra affair[23]
  • The Nazis started the Reichstag fire [24]
  • Operation Condor[25]
  • Operation Gladio[26]
  • Operation Mockingbird[27]
  • Operation Northwoods[28]
  • Project MKULTRA[29]
  • Sicilian Mafia[30]
  • Tuskegee syphilis experiment[31]
  • Watergate[32]

Unwarranted conspiracy theories, on the other hand, tend to gravitate to the grandiose to the point that they approach lunacy. The existence of warranted conspiracy theories, especially when they are later proven to be true, helps fuel a conspiracy mentality that sees conspiracies everywhere and anyone that denies said conspiracy is part of it.

[edit] Classification of conspiracy theories

In his book Culture of Conspiracy, Michael Barkun[33] (a political scientist specializing in conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs) defines three types of conspiracy theories:

  • Event conspiracy: In which a conspiracy is thought to be responsible for a single event or brief series of events, e.g. JFK assassination conspiracies.
  • Systemic conspiracy: A broad conspiracy perpetrated by a specific group in an attempt to subvert government or societal organizations, e.g. Freemasonry.
  • Super-conspiracy: Hierarchical conspiracies combining systemic and event conspiracies in which a supremely powerful organization controls numerous conspiratorial actors, e.g. the New World Order or Reptoids controlling a number of interlocking conspiracies.

[edit] Conspiracy theory checklist

Don't count on converting a conspiracy theorist. However, some questions can determine if a conspiracy theory is warranted or not

[edit] Logistics

  1. How large is the supposed conspiracy?
  2. How many people are part of this conspiracy?
  3. Are there enough of them to carry out the plan?
  4. What infrastructure and resources does it need?
  5. How much time and money did it take and where did this money come from?
  6. If there are many thousands of conspirators, how are they organized?
  7. Where are the secret conferences held?
  8. How do they keep track of membership?
  9. If they are organised through known channels or entities, how do they keep non-members who work there from uncovering the conspiracy?

For instance, the idea that the Nazi themselves set the Reichstag fire would only require handful of men and minimal amount of money to pull off while something like faking the Moon landing would require tens of thousands if not more to carry out; the rock samples alone might require a decade to falsify and filming would take an airtight soundstage orders of magnitude larger than any known vacuum chamber.

[edit] Benefits

  1. Who gains what from the conspiracy and for what price?
  2. Is this the easiest way of gaining it? If not, why was it chosen over the easiest way?
  3. If it is an old conspiracy — who gains what from maintaining it?

Again, the Nazis used the Reichstag fire to scapegoat the communists, it is considered an important factor in their rise to power, and it is hard to imagine that there was an easier way to do it. Conversely, while faking the Moon landing might have been a way to have something to show for the Apollo project, the simpler solution would have been to actually land on the Moon. Also, Richard Nixon is dead, and no one in power has any reason to care about making sure everyone thinks we went to the Moon while he was president.

[edit] Exposure

  1. How likely is it to remain covered up if it has gone on for a long time?
  2. If there are thousands of conspirators, and the conspiracy has gone on for decades, why have none of them defected?
  3. Why have none of them leaked the story?
  4. If many conspirators are dead, why have none of them told the truth on their deathbeds, or in their wills?
  5. There are many intelligence agencies associated with rival nations, with the ability to expose secrets. If, say, the United States government is running a global conspiracy, why have the French, Russian, or Chinese intelligence agencies never revealed it, to cause a major scandal in the United States (if all intelligence agencies are involved, see #2)? If they have, when and where did they do so?

It should be noted that with government-based conspiracy theories one can have issues with the fact there are things about WWI, 100 years ago, that are still classified and therefore unknown to the general public, nullifying these types of questions even with a skeptic - however, these involve what might be termed "rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty" and usually there is significant supporting evidence from other sources.

[edit] Plausibility

  1. Does belief in this theory require accepting inherently contradictive premises that the conspiring entities are incredibly competent, bone stupid, organized, clever, and hopelessly incompetent -- all at the same time?

A notorious example: Chemtrails. If the U.S. government wished to use chemicals to have effects at ground level, high-altitude dispersion would be the most expensively, stupidly ineffective approach imaginable (as well as readily detected by, say, spectrographs and air sampling). So this theory would require believing in an entity (the U.S. government) that is well-resourced, competent, clever, well-advised, and at the same time hopelessly stupid.

Other examples are "secrets" simultaneously well and carefully kept by extremely powerful and aggressive entities, and known to one or (especially) more "bozos on the bus," who know all about it and talk about them openly on the Web and in real life. Apart from chemtrails a common example is the highly organized and thoroughly secret system of concentration camps operated by FEMA, an agency famous for its amazingly chaotic, clumsy, and ineffective handling of rescue and recovery after Katrina. Alternatively, use any other intensely secret program that could be easily discovered and verified by anyone with a common piece of scientific equipment (or Google).

[edit] Denial

Because the war in Afghanistan is a false flag operation to distract WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents to go through.

Denial is strongly linked with conspiracies in two senses. In one, the conspiracy theorist is in denial of the "official story," which is more often than not the one supported by facts. However, in the second sense, anyone denying the existence of a conspiracy inadvertently proves that it must exist. Denial of on-going conspiracies can be taken as proof that said employees are "in on" whatever conspiracy they are busily denying. Usually, the more they deny, the more conspiracy theorists will take it as proof — because, well, "they would say that, wouldn't they!" Furthermore, if people do not deny the theory, this can also be taken as proof on the grounds that "it has never been denied." This applies equally to anyone involved in a large, perhaps mysterious, enterprise, such as "scientists," "the Army," "automobile manufacturers," "Big Science/Petroleum/Tobacco/Florists" etc. That this entire line of reasoning is circular hardly needs pointing out.

A conspiracy theory becomes a total crackpot conspiracy theory when all evidence that might disprove the theory instead becomes co-opted as proof of the "cover-up" of said theory; requiring loyalty, resources, and competence on the part of the conspirators far in excess of what any actual conspiracy can muster.

[edit] Dismissal

"Conspiracy theory" can also be used as a snarl word to dismiss a valid worry that a group is up to something.

Another example would be the discovery of COINTELPRO. People such as the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman suspected that the FBI had a covert program dedicated to tracking, discrediting and destroying them, however they were largely written off as paranoid radicals finding a way to blame the man for their failures. Then, lo and behold, the FBI reveals its COINTELPRO and proves that they were actually correct.

A skeptic must always seek out the truth, even if it does very occasionally end up proving those "nutjobs" right. Considering the sheer number of conspiracies, however, it's inevitable that one or two of them might just be right, but this by no means says that they are generally valid — once a conspiracy theory has been "proven" it ceases to be a conspiracy theory in this sense and just becomes a conspiracy.

Remember, you're not paranoid if They really are out to get you.

[edit] What They don't want you to know

One of the most successful driving forces behind the spread and uptake of conspiracy theories is the entire concept that they're secret and forbidden pieces of information. This goes far beyond them being merely "juicy" like celebrity gossip but right to the heart of how we place value on information.

Things become valuable for their rarity, and occasionally for their utility, although a very common but highly useful thing is still cheap; contrast iron and wood for construction with gold and silver, which have useful electronic conduction properties or novel chemical applications but their price is derived from their rarity. If it wasn't for this rarity they would be just used rather than being held in high regard for specialist applications. The same applies to information — rarity increases value. And just as we can value useless things because they are rare, we can still value information that is rare regardless of its truth value. This is something that has wider reaching consequences in almost all forms of woo. Fad diets, for example, display this particular trope very well as healthy eating advice is simple, effective and "free" — but make it some "secret trick" and people will buy into it happily despite a free and effective alternative being available.

Within the realm of conspiracy theories, information is highly valuable — indeed, it is made valuable by becoming part of of the conspiracy. "What They don't want you to know" is a phrase that is heard and seen everywhere in conspiracy land. Because if information is suppressed by Them to keep it away from you it must be secret, it must be rare, it must be valuable. It's the same force that drives people to brag about a band that only they have heard of, or say "I know something you don't know," even though this defeats the purpose; nothing is cooler than knowing something someone else doesn't. The problem with conspiracies is that people mistake such hoarding value for truth value, i.e., if information is suppressed by Them to keep it away from you it must be secret, it must be rare, it must be valuable, it must be true. Therefore the trope continues to be used to add value, and the illusion of truth, to information.

There are a few other subtle factors at play to enhance this. The idea of information being suppressed and withheld romanticises the idea of the conspiracy. If knowing something that others don't is a big, fat, multi-layered chocolate cake, then being the underdog and fighting against the people who want to stop you is the rich, orgasm-inducing, triple-chocolate icing that spells your name and shouts "happy birthday" with the load of sparklers that gracefully sits atop it. A figure of hate and mistrust to aim emotions at enhances the experience; the Illuminati, the mainstream media, it really doesn't matter so long as it's something to absorb additional hatred and scorn. Thus the "Them" (always capitalise it — always), reinforces the special nature of the information that the conspiracy theory purports to reveal.

The knowledge suppression aspect (for example, free energy suppression) plays nicely into our thinking about the abhorrence of censorship and the want to do something good in the world. Meanwhile, the "Them" aspect plays nicely into the distrust and hatred people hold for corporations, governments or any organisation that exists in the abstract rather than personal. It's easy to demonise an institution, a person less so. When a skeptic wanders into a conspiracy theorist discussion to refute facts, the ad hominem responses of conspiracy advocates tend to be of the type "you work for the Illuminati" or "you're paid by Big Oil" or one of countless other very similar such accusations. It's never "you are the Illuminati" or "you work for David Smales, who lives at 45 9th Avenue with a wife and two children and another on the way, who plays golf at the weekend, likes his pet dog and just happens to be the head of Big Oil". No, They are faceless and easy targets. Even in the circumstances when conspiracy theorists are capable of pointing the finger at a person they can identify outright — such as the pilot in charge of the AC-130 flying over Washington DC during the 9/11 attacks that is accused of dropping wreckage to "fake" the attack on the Pentagon — charges are always accompanied by phrases like "perhaps he didn't know what he was doing or perhaps he was following orders and wasn't aware." Even further, with Bob Lazar, who claimed to work at Area 51, no one seems bothered by who he worked for or with there, it's always faceless government. They are an easy target because They can't be personified.

These factors up the value conspiracy theorists ascribe to information, but unfortunately for them such clichés don't comment on the truth value of such information - in fact, they probably count against such things being true.

[edit] Latching to tragedy

An unfortunate and sometimes callous tendency of a die hard conspiracy buff is to instantly claim that a tragedy, be it a shooting, bombing, suicide, or stubbing their toe in the morning, is by some way fabricated by or the fault of the government. This is often done as a form of confirmation bias, motivated primarily by the earnest fervor and outrage that typically dominates a conspiracy theorist's life. Sometimes, such claims are also made cynically, either for political or financial profit.

An even more unfortunate corollary of this is that any attempts at alternative explanations or deviations from orthodoxy are easily smeared as "conspiracy theories", and an overwhelming sentiment thus obtains where tragedies such as mass shootings, bombings, or suicides are "sacred" or "forbidden", and any discussion, whether in good faith or not, is fundamentally disrespectful. This line of reasoning is much more often used cynically by political figures to stifle discussion which could potentially reveal their incompetence, malfeasance, or general scumminess.

[edit] Misperception of social systems

Social systems do exhibit complex forms of order and integration which emerge from the non-intentional consequences of intentional action; these emergent orders can be mistaken for conspiracies by people who have no real concept of social structure and therefore believe that every aspect of society must be the product of someone's will. For instance, "free" capitalist markets tend to generate oligarchies or even monopolies wherever economies of scale grant competitive advantages and/or where there is a high transaction cost for consumers who switch suppliers. For an observer who naively believes that a free market really always is a level playing field, the formation of oligopolies seems like an anomaly, which the conspiracy theory explains.

A variation on this is found when practices that are common in one context are not generally known to the wider public. For instance, the intelligence agencies of the US and USSR during the Cold War routinely shared information which was kept secret from the citizens of both countries. In business, certain levels of collusion among competitors, especially in oligopolistic markets, are fairly common. Such practices look conspiratorial to outsiders and may even be conspiratorial in a strict sense of the term but have little in common with the fantastic conspiracies postulated by crackpots.

A third form of this misperception occurs when conspiracy theorists assume, on the basis of ignorance and/or stereotyped thinking, that the group who is ostensibly responsible for something could not possibly have done that thing. For instance, conspiracy theories postulating that examples of ancient monumental architecture (the Egyptian or Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge, the Easter Island statues) must have been the product of aliens or whatever usually depend on a serious underestimation of the engineering skills and technological know-how of the actual human beings on the scene.

The 9/11 attacks provide an example of all three forms of this misperception. Many powerful American individuals and institutions benefited from the attacks, including the Bush regime itself and its allies in the military-industrial complex. However, this is in no way an indication that the attacks were an American conspiracy; this is just how global geopolitics works: when something major and unexpected happens, one interest group or another will find a way to benefit from it. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, 9/11 conspiracy theories actually get in the way of a realistic understanding of global geopolitics and the often amoral rules by which it is played[34]. Likewise, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks the Bush regime acted quickly to return to Saudi Arabia high-ranking Saudi officials and members of the Bin Laden family who were in the US at the time; this might seem conspiratorial to the average American but is consistent with standard diplomatic practice. Third, as Immanuel Wallerstein has observed[35], 9/11 truthers under-estimate the actual organizational capacity of Al-Qaida.

[edit] See also

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Conspiracy theories.
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Si vous voulez cet article en français, il peut être trouvé à Théorie du complot.

[edit] External links

[edit] References

Knight, Peter (2003). Conspiracy theories in American history: an encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-812-9.

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Gray, John. Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, page 35
  2. Vocal Minority Insists It Was All Smoke and Mirrors, The New York Times
  3. Also a good description of certain other nutjobs we know...
  4. 20th Century Words (1999) John Ayto, Oxford University Press, p. 15.
  5. Pigden, Charles R (2007) "Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom" Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology Volume 4, Issue 2, Edinburgh University Press pp. 222 DOI: 10.1353/epi.2007.0017.
  6. Coady, David Conspiracy theories: the philosophical debate, Ashgate Publishing; pg 2, 140
  7. Balaban, Oded (2005) Interpreting conflict: Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at Camp David II and Beyond, Peter Lang pg 66.
  8. Daniel Pipes, in Orbis, Winter, 1992: "Dealing with Middle Eastern Conspiracy Theories".
  9. "Bad Moon Rising," The West Wing (2001)
  10. Hodapp, Christopher; Alice Von Kannon (2008) Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies, Wiley; pg 9.
  11. Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories", The Journal of Philosophy Columbia University, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Mar., 1999), pp. 109-126.
  12. Knight, Peter (2003) Conspiracy theories in American history: an encyclopedia, Volume 1; ABC-CLIO; ISBN 978-1-57607-812-9 pg 17.
  13. Bratich, Jack Z. (2010) Conspiracy panics: political rationality and popular culture, SUNY pg 6.
  14. Davidson, Eugene (2004) The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler, University of Missouri Press pg 457.
  15. Parish, Jane (Editor), Martin Parker (Editor) (2001) The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences, Wiley-Blackwell ISBN: 978-0-631-23168-4
  16. Keeley, pg 109-126
  17. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/sfeature/burrconspiracy.html
  18. Knight, pg 625
  19. Knight, pg 237
  20. Zernike, Kate (April 30, 2011). The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories, The New York Times
  21. Keeley pg 109-126
  22. Knight, pg 319
  23. Knight pg 349
  24. Davidson, Eugene (2004) The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler University of Missouri Press pg 457
  25. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Condor.
  26. Knight, pg 231
  27. Knight, pg 486
  28. Knight, pg 117
  29. Knight, pg 490
  30. Knight pg 451
  31. Knight, pg 38, 45, 538
  32. Knight pg 725)
  33. See also this interview with Barkun on C-Span
  34. http://www.boreme.com/posting.php?id=30715
  35. http://www2.binghamton.edu/fbc/commentaries/archive-2012/337en.htm
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