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June 24, 2007

Are Big Conspiracies Easy to Pull Off?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I didn't notice many political bumper stickers last month while driving in the southeast; here in Seattle I see lots of them.

Most of the Seattle bumper stickers are the usual anti-Bush, anti-war variety with slogans ranging from "A village in Texas has lost its idiot" to "IMPEACH!" -- all coming from the sort of folks who used to have "Hate is not a family value" stickers on their Volvos and Priuses.

But that's not what I'm addressing here. Much more interesting stuff is cropping up on the back ends of vehicles.

Today I spotted a sticker-laden minivan where one of the stickers said something to the following effect: "911 was an inside job." And a day or two ago I was following a car whose license plate frame had a slogan asserting that no airplane crashed into the Pentagon on 11 September 2001.

Okay. I can understand partisan "humor" (the first sticker mentioned above) and even partisan wishful thinking (the second one). But the last two cases are in the realm of conspiracy-thinking that goes beyond common sense.

Obviously the people who placed those slogans on their cars believe that the Administration was able to pull off a conspiracy that, if real, was off the charts in terms of resources employed, complexity of tasks, and exquisite timing.

Real-world experience tells most adults that secrets are hard to keep if many people are "in the know" -- especially in an open society such as the United States where people are inclined to blab, blab and blab again. In other words, by this time somebody probably would have stepped forward to proclaim "Yeah, it was me who did the logistics for the Trade Center controlled-demolition, and I got the Ace Hardware receipts to prove I bought the stuff."

Then there's the command and control element. Organizing complicated tasks isn't easy, again something that those adults who have worked in large organizations know.

I'm not a student of conspiracies. Truth is, I normally find the subject boring due to lack of resolution. So I'd appreciate reader input regarding the largest, most complex proven successful conspiracy undertaken in a free society.

Military operations don't count: they might be secret, but they normally don't fall into the realm of what most people understand conspiracies to be. And just for the record, I recognize that it's possible for secrets to be kept by large numbers of people in a free society. The classic case is the secret of the Ultra code-breaking effort in World War 2. But Ultra was during wartime. And it was a legal activity of the British government.

It saddens me that some people are so attracted to conspiracy theories of all sorts, especially if those theories can be distractions when important issues are at stake.

And what damage does such theorizing do to the theorizer (I'm assuming a free society setting)? Common sense and Occam's Razor go into the recycle bin. A lifetime of experience dealing with others gets reduced to If event X might have benefitted Y, then Y must have caused X to happen.

I'm not saying that conspiracies don't happen in free societies. They do, but they tend to be small-scale if they succeed at all. Big conspiracies seldom work, and if they do work it's usually a short-term success -- word eventually gets out.

Okay, comments are now welcome. Please, please try to focus on conspiracies and conspiracy theories as objects of analysis. I don't want a bunch of "Bush and Rove are eeevil!" or "Rosie O'Donnell is an idiot" stuff. Thank you.



posted by Donald at June 24, 2007


I can't prove it -- won't even say I'm dead sure -- but I believe the following two events were conspiracies, and successful ones:

1. The assassination of President Kennedy. Yes, Oswald was one of the shooters, but the script for the whole show was written by others and others were involved.

2. The cover-up of the real cause of TWA Flight 800 exploding while climbing after takeoff. The disaster itself was probably not part of a conspiracy; most likely it was an accident, just as a U.S. Navy missile brought down an Iranian airliner in the 1980s because the decision maker believed it was an enemy attack aircraft. The conspiracy was in hiding the actual chain of events from the public.

Hundreds of eyewitnesses saw a streak of light, such as would emerge from a missile's tail, heading upward. The final report said that everyone was actually seeing burning fuel falling downward. Now I can believe that a handful of people could get it wrong; but my imagination just won't stretch to hundreds of people not being able to tell the difference between up and down. There are many other anomalies as well.

The book First Strike, despite its questionable surmise that the "accident" itself was a planned act of war, makes a tight case that there was an after-the-fact official smokescreen.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 24, 2007 9:26 PM

I just enjoy the idea that our government is under attack by conspiracy theorists. Of course we know that our government is too stupid to arrange something on the scale of 9/11. The sad fact is that they are also too incompetent to manage most everything else they put their vulgar hands to. Look what they have done in Iraq for instance. And a lot of the specifics of institutional incompetence regarding 9/11 HAS been exposed due to the relentless scrutiny of the Conspiracy community. We could start with just what we learned about R. Guiliani, GWB, FEMA, the Air Force etc, etc. Conspiracy Theorists are doing a fine job of questioning the status quo, and hopefully their unwavering zeal will inspire others to do the same. The profileration of these bumper stickers may be a good sign.

Posted by: Robert R. Owen on June 24, 2007 9:51 PM

Sorry, Darby, you illustrate the problem, not the solution. Edward Jay Epstein, some years ago, definitively showed that Oswald had acted alone.
The real logical fallacy in the whackos who believe that bush caused he 9-11 attacks is that they fail to see how illogical that would have been. If bush was so evil as to kill thousands of people to generate a casus belli, why wouldn't he have gone on with many more attacks, suicide bombings, masses of faked al qaeda and iranian documents? similarly, if an evil bush were lying about Saddam's WMDs, why not plant a few planeloads of tools, chemical weapons materials, documents, etc?

Posted by: John Cunningham on June 24, 2007 9:55 PM

Well, the likelihood of being tried and convicted for homicide and criminal conspiracy would tend to be a strong incentive for conspirators to maintain their silence.

I doubt most of the popular conspiracies - JFK, 9/11 - because of a lack of credible evidence.

I think that you unfairly skewed the rules in your question in your favor by excluding military operations. I see no reason to distinguish them from any other large, collaborative enterprise.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on June 24, 2007 10:23 PM

Apologies, Donald: I'm about to say exactly what you didn't want to hear, but...
Israelis do have dead rays! They boil your brains and turn you into a lobotomized moron! As Gaza fighting recently demonstrated...

Sorry. Couldn't resist. Will not do it again.

Posted by: Tat on June 24, 2007 10:34 PM

Guy Fawkes is surely at the top, though I don't know if you can call that a conspiracy. The Russian spy network in the 40s that pilfered the secret of the atomic bomb was quite a conspiracy (and belief in a large Russian spy operation at that level was considered wacky thinking by many at the time!). 9/11 involved dozens of people around the world plotting, as did a few other large-scale Islamist plans. There was also the famous cult in Eastern Oregon back in the 80s who planned to poison a town's water supply in order to throw an election their way (only halfway successful).

As for older conspiracies, there's an article by Gordon Wood (the historian who is namechecked in Good Will Hunting) about the Golden Age of Conspiracies back in the 1700s, when secret societies were truly in vogue. I don't have the title handy, but have a look at his CV and I'm sure it'll turn up.

Posted by: cure on June 24, 2007 10:56 PM

In my previous comment it should read Death rays.
Sorry, I'm experiencing temporary disconnect between my fingers and the brain signals...which might be a consequence know what.

Apologies again, Donald.

Posted by: Tat on June 24, 2007 11:34 PM


What an interesting question! I think the largest, private, successful or semisuccessful conspiracy in US history that I can think of was the 9/11 conspiracy: not the one that pathetic lefty wack-jobs made up, but the 19 real people who hijacked those real planes and actually killed people. Like most large semisuccessful conspiracies, it came unraveled while still in progress (once it became known, passengers on the fourth plane prevented it from getting near its target). You have hit the nail on the head: the problem with conspiracy theories in not that there are no conspiracies, it is that real conspiracies do not behave in the way that these imaginary ones do. As to the harm done by conspiracism, don't get me started on that! I have commented on it here

Posted by: Lester Hunt on June 24, 2007 11:37 PM

I truly believe that a number of persons conspired to get our immigration laws changed in 1965 for self-serving reasons. I believe they consciously sought "the browning of America" for their own selfish reasons and for purely political gain. I also believe they duped a number of people into believing there would be no real changes in the racial make-up of the nation as a result of the change in the quota system. These duplicitous persons were part and parcel of our legal and media systems. Still are.

Posted by: Bob Grier on June 25, 2007 8:06 AM

I'm not sure if I've seen this here or not, and search isn't working properly, but there was an interesting show that came out just six months before 9/11. It was The Lone Gunmen's pilot and it details a government conspiracy to fly a plane into the WTC in order to gather local and international support for war. In all, they sum up the need, plan and execution nicely (although a little far-fetched in the details.)

That being said, I don't buy the basic premise that the government was directly involved, but...what if, instead, they found out about the plan and just decided to "let it happen"? No need to construct any plans, no need for large groups of people, just let Al Queda simply execute their plan. The only thing you need to do is ignore the mountains of evidence that a large-scale strike is scheduled to happen (and there's MORE than sufficient evidence of that) and you've got the act you need to get the support you want and you don't have to get your own hands dirty. There's nothing that connects you to the event because you didn't participate.

I would think Occam would enjoy this particular variation of the theory as it reduces not only the government's involvement, but also how Al Queda could have pulled off such a MASSIVE strike without it being intercepted.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on June 25, 2007 9:53 AM

Guy Fawkes is surely a counter-example. One of the conspirators blabbed. (Rather late in the day, he realised that if you blow up King, Lords and Commons, your victims will include Catholics as well as Protestants.)

Posted by: dearieme on June 25, 2007 9:58 AM

Conspiracies are comforting in the same way religion is comforting. If we can assign blame for bad things that happen, then the world doesn't seem so chaotic. Even better, if we blame people or institutions that we feel we have some kind of control over. So 9/11 wasn't a terrorist plot planned and executed by an amorphous group of people from a far-off land, it was our own government. JFK wasn't killed by a lone nutcase, but by, uh, our own government (I think I'm sensing a pattern here). In both cases, an uncontrollable, unpredictable event is transformed into something that perhaps we could have prevented.

Same goes with urban legends. The vague, pervading sense of fear that many people live under can suddenly be validated by those bastards who keep putting AIDS-contaminated syringes on gas pumps. I'm a shut-in for a reason, dammit!

Posted by: the patriarch on June 25, 2007 10:22 AM

"A tangible source of the world's problems." For some reason, I could not get that sentence out. My brain hasn't warmed up yet. Anyway, kind of sums up the point of my previous comment.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 25, 2007 10:28 AM

More warming up. Narrowing a complex problem down to a single source, thereby giving the illusion that all that needs to be done is get rid of that source.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 25, 2007 10:44 AM

I believe the Post Office is diverting my mail. Whether it is deliberate or not is another story.

Posted by: Murphy on June 25, 2007 10:55 AM

This is a toughie, mostly because of the "you don't know what you don't know" conundrum. Obviously, if pulling off certain types of conspiracies isn't as hard as it looks, there could be a whole bunch of them and no one would ever know.

As for conspiracies that worked pretty much flawlessly, I would point to (1) vast networks of organized crime, probably but not certainly including my second cousin Rocco; (2) a whole series of very peculiar election results over the last century and a quarter, which, even if "discovered" rather interestingly never seem to have gotten reversed; (3) a fair amount of manipulation of a foreign politics by the CIA; (4) the Tweed "ring" and many other examples of municipal machine politics; (5) lots of earmarked legislation clearly not in the public interest that will get passed over the next 12 months, to say nothing of fiscal favors dispensed going back to the founding of the Republic; (6) the assassination of Lincoln, etc., etc.

Maybe these are unfair examples, but to have a more tight discussion, it would be helpful to know exactly how one is defining a "conspiracy." How secret does it have to be, exactly? It almost seems as if you're stacking the deck, by creating a very narrow window between "these things aren't successful conspiracies because we know about them" on the one hand and "I don't believe these things could be conspiracies because I don't have proof that they ever existed" on the other.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 25, 2007 10:56 AM

Although I agree with Bob Grier that the proponents of the 1965 Immigration Bill misrepresented both the intentions that went into drafting it and its results, it was the utter gullibility (and/or cowardice) of those who should have opposed it that has landed us in our present mess.

Tat -- You were zapped by the evil Israelis? That's not nice.

Posted by: ricpic on June 25, 2007 11:10 AM

And then there's the whole "well, maybe it wasn't technically a conspiracy, but given the way things have played out it might as well have been one." Which accounts for most U.S. governmental activity since about 1914, as far as I can tell ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 25, 2007 11:15 AM

I kind of agree with Friedrich---just because "word gets out" doesn't mean "big scale conspiracies don't happen." Many IPO's have really been rather big-scale, if short-term, conspiracies, because the "conspiracy" (the closed circle, the superior information of those in the circle) doesn't really have to last very long to complete its purpose (making the insiders rich). Plus, conspiracies can stay relatively "secret"---as in not prove-able, even if rumored---if all parties continue to benefit from the ongoing "conspiracy" and if those who may not have legally binding "confidentiality agreements"---see the big tobacco companies and their research on how to manipulate nicotine to addict the maximum people, while the CEO's raise their hands in Congress and swear, straightfaced, that nicotine is not addictive. While knowing that their scientists have confidentiality agreements allowing them to be sued for everything they ever have if they release the private research. Look how long that "conspiracy" lasted!! People may "talk"--but not to anybody who can and will actually "blow the whistle" on the actual conspiracy. Even without confidentiality agreements, look how long everybody kept the "lid" on JFK's womanizing in the White House, including sleeping with the mistress of Sam Giancana! Rumored? Yep. Openly discussed and put a stop to? Not at all. So, when does something become a "successful conspiracy"? If the test is "no one ever even hears a rumor of it"--then we wouldn't know what it was anyway, would we?

Posted by: annette on June 25, 2007 11:27 AM

Rick, that was part of the conspiracy, for cover-up! Evil geniuses at work.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 25, 2007 12:26 PM

Sure, and Franklin Roosevelt knew all about the forthcoming attack on Pearl Harbor, and kept the secret from those in command there, so he could have a good lever to pry us into war.

People who conjure up conspiracies use ex post facto logic, and usually make fools of themselves. Maybe once in a hundred cases they have a valid theory.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 25, 2007 1:45 PM

Sorry to butt in again, but one other thought: sometimes the truth or falseness of conspiracy theories isn't so much the real point. It's that even the possibility that some things can happen that is and should be disturbing.

Did the CIA kill Kennedy? I have no idea, but I can tell you this: in 1963 I don't know who had sufficient legal and practical oversight of the CIA to know for sure that CIA operatives didn't kill him.

The post-WWII growth of the National Security State--a revolutionary development constitutionally if ever there was one, even though I've never seen it even discussed in books on constitutional law--practically guarantees that conspiracy theories will proliferate ad infinitum. After all, it allows the government to tax you, spend the money, and never, ever, tell you what they spent it on...for reasons of National Security. Under those circumstances, why shouldn't a degree of paranoia exist?

To take a more homely example: if your employer reserved the right to deduct money from your paycheck and use it for Important Purposes that he assured you were in Your Best Interests, although he wouldn't ever discuss the specifics, how much would that make you trust him?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 25, 2007 4:11 PM

I'm with FvB, especially his first comment above. I think that our invasion of Iraq was engineered by a conspiracy. It was more or less a conspiracy in plain sight, but still. Intelligence was doctored, fake justifications were put out, illegitimate connections were made to 9/11, etc. One could also say the escalation in Vietnam through the Tonkin Resolution was the result of a conspiracy of sorts. It's all in how you define conspiracy, whenever a powerful minority cooperates to rig the system in the name of an outcome they favor but the majority doesn't you could say that was a kind of conspiracy. In that sense conspiracies are all too common.

Posted by: mq on June 25, 2007 9:04 PM

The reason people want to believe that THEY killed Kennedy is because (as far as my Gen X eyes can see), for a large number of legitimate reasons, these people did not enjoy life in the late 60's and 70's, (slogging in Vietnam, watching the riots during the long hot summers)and wanted to believe that there was an alternative, of a moderate liberal United States leading the whole world into a Camelot, and that everything that went wrong later would not have gone wrong if only JFK had been at the helm.

But... take off the rose colored glasses, and you'll learn that JFK was more impulsive, more capricious, more feckless than his successors. That his handling of civil rights enforcement was far worse than LBJ's or Nixon's. That he was more reckless in sending spooks out to do strange things at home and abroad. And that he got us into Vietnam. But he did look good on camera.

Admitting that, of course, means admitting that if you were alive then, you had a hand in everything that went wrong. That every government misstep was one you could have thrown your heft as a citizen to try to avert, but didn't. That you didn't pay attention when you should have. That you took part in the gutting of the cities for the 'burbs, et cetera. So much easier to think it all went wrong because They Killed JFK.

Same thing with 9/11. Almost all of us spent the 90's basking in our vacation from history. Almost all of us helped give Osama Bin Laden the impression of a severely un-serious nation. To admit he did it is to admit you, and I, practically goaded him into it.

So much easier to think it was an inside job.

Posted by: Omri on June 25, 2007 9:06 PM

(2) a whole series of very peculiar election results over the last century and a quarter, which, even if "discovered" rather interestingly never seem to have gotten reversed;

Yes. To my mind, for example, one clearly successful conspiracy resulted in Illinois going to Kennedy rather than Nixon. Similarly, many major embezzlement/kickback/blackmail conspiracies have surely been successful. But there seems to be a major mass-psychological difference between manipulation of numbers (even when they have categorical results like who wins an election) or money, and substitution of major historical facts (who killed whom, was he there, is he really dead, etc.)

Posted by: J. Goard on June 25, 2007 10:34 PM

Interestingly, people who believe in conspiracies tend not to see Islamism as a conspiracy. Perhaps a good conspiracy theory requires the right villains (Nazis, Jews, US govt officials, rich white guys, etc.) and weak or no evidence.

Posted by: Jonathan on June 26, 2007 7:27 AM

I guess I'm just a little bit confused by Omni's thinking, because to me those seem like two different issues. "Wanting to believe everything would have been so much better if JFK hadn't died" (which I admit a certain strain of our population seems to desperately want to believe) seems like an entirely different issue than wanting to believe one person or multiple people participated in his death. Either way, he's dead, and it seems to me that just as many people who believe "Oswald acted alone" also want to believe in "the fantasy of Camelot" as the people who believe "the CIA did it" want to believe in "the fantasy of Camelot." Two different thought threads. How does believing one, or the other, change collective wishful thinking about how magical it all would have been if he'd lived?

In fact, given Jack Ruby's rather stunningly implausible blowing away of Oswald, on TV---theoretically the most wanted criminal in the country---while potbellied Dallas cops just incompetently set up a situation for that to happen, it seems to contain MORE "wishful thinking" to think "Oswald acted alone" than it does to think, uh, maybe some others were involved. Remember, part of the reason we don't really know is that Oswald was killed before anybody heard what he had to say (before he even had a lawyer), and Ruby--after being visited in jail by the head of the Dallas Mob at that time---never would talk. Thinking there might have been a conspiracy isn't just lunatic, although we don't know.

Posted by: annette on June 26, 2007 10:59 AM

I believe Ben Franklin once said something to the effect that three people can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead. I think there is some wisdom in that and I'm skeptical of conspiracy theroies which involve a great number of people remaining silent for long periods of time.

I also wonder why the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are willing to impute such competence to the Bush administration. If they are that clever and that dishonest why weren't large caches of WMD's "disovered" in Iraq?

Posted by: mark on June 26, 2007 11:40 AM

I believe that 911 was a conspiracy. What convinces me of it was the plane that hit the Pentagon. It was marked as hijacked and flew back to DC for 45-50 min after the other two planes hit the Twin Towers. The govt. said that they couldn't scramble any jets to intercept, they were too far away etc, but there's and air force base, Andrews Air Force Base, that's just a few minutes away from the Pentagon, and which the President and Vice President fly out of, that top Pentagon brass flies out of, that foreign heads of state fly in and out of, and that is charged with protecting the White House, Pentagon, and Congress in our nation's capitol. I don't believe for one minute that they couldn't get any scramble jets up from that air base in almost an hour, no way. Until I get a good answer for that one, 911 is a conspiracy in my mind.

Of course conspiracies exist. They have always existed, and many accounts can be read of them in history. Anyone who thinks that small groups of people don't collude to break the law and rig things in their favor has the screw loose, not the conspiracy theorists. Of course there are loony conspiracy theorists, just like there have been kooky scientists in history who try to explain natural events with wierd, wild theories. And then there are some who hit the nail on the head.

Anybody who thinks that a government full of politicians who lie to get elected, lie to stay in office, take graft disguised as "free speech", and who sit on top of almost 3 trillion dollars a year of money to hand out, but have their books wide open to the people who they are stealing it from, is a moron. The government lies about all kinds of stuff, continually, all the time. All governments lie. Winston Churchill said that the truth was so precious that it had to surrounded with an army of lies. I don't think that people understand realpolitik. I think they want to see government as some sort of father figure. Those days are over when you leave your parents' house.

Here's the final proof. Foreign governments all over the world spend large amounts of money on intelligence agencies to spy on their rivals, to find out what is really going on in their rivals corridors of power. According to the non-conspiracy theorists, such money is wasted then, because all they would have to do is pick up any number of national magazines and newspapers to find out the truth, just like they do (haha)! Who do you think has the better, more accurate picture of the situation, the heads of state, who have to deal with the real world to stay in power, or your local pundit, who reads for intellectual entertainment, and who forks over more money in taxes to the government than his ancestors who worked as serfs in the Middle Ages, but thinks he is free and lives in a democracy?

What a joke!

Posted by: Home Run on June 26, 2007 12:52 PM

Conspiracy theory is usually rigorously logical, and works backward, after the fact, to the alleged origins of the disaster. Conspiracy rationales are a hallmark of those who suffer paranoid delusions, and involve elaborate logical reasoning to explain events. This cast of mind usually does not involve the disintegration of personality. Simply stated, those who nurture conspiracy theories tend to be psychotic. Real life is chaotic, and actual conspiracies tend to go haywire, which is where reality and the paranoid conspiracy theorists part company.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 26, 2007 7:34 PM

I can't really count things like the Tweed ring or the Mafia as conspiracies in the same mold as Ultra or the purported 9/11 stuff. Everyone knew that Boss Tweed ran New York; everyone knew that the Mob ran numbers and protection rackets. No one blabbed the details of it for some time, but it wasn't a shock when someone did.

OTOH, Ultra (and the US decrypts of some of the Japanese codes) changed the history books completely when they were revealed during the 1970s. A 9/11 revelation would do the same, of course, not that I think there's one coming.

The 9/11-was-an-inside-job people, to my mind, begin with their conclusions and work back from there. It's something they want to believe, so they find ways to believe it. There is, as far as I can see, no possible evidence that would convince one of these folks that they are wrong. Any potential clincher would just be glued onto the huge kinetic sculpture of the conspiracy theory and all would continue as before.

Karl Popper isn't always the answer, but he is here: falsifiability is your friend.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 26, 2007 9:12 PM

Mr. Lowe and Mr. Wheeler:

Obviously, both of you appear to dismiss 911 conspiracy theories . BTW, I hold no brief for 911 conspiracy theories, nor do I have any particular theories, conspiratorial or otherwise, as to the murder of President Kennedy; I was just using that as an example in my comment above. However, I would point out that Mr. Lowe's example undercuts Mr. Wheeler's assurance that all conspiracy theorists are psychotic. Would an angry Japanese conpiracy theorist, furious at his nation's defeat, who maintained for decades after WWII that the U.S. must have somehow gotten an unfair advantage from being able to read Japanese secret codes really have deserved Mr. Wheeler's diagnosis of his being psychotic? Or was he just psychotic up until being proved right by postwar revelations, then miraculously regaining his sanity? Of course, it's possible that Mr. Wheeler is being consistent by simply asserting that believing anything most members of society consider implausible is automatically a sign of psychoses, whether those beliefs reflect reality or not.

Mr. Lowe, on the other hand, has essentially made the definition of a conspiracy conveniently if bizarrely narrow by insisting that a conspiracy must be so unlikely as to be unbelievable on its face and remain so for apparently at least four decades before it qualifies as a true conspiracy, thus allowing enough time for counterfactual explanations to have been enshrined in history books. Why he selects this time frame is not discussed, nor does he give reasons for why no one outside the conspiracy must ever suspect something conspiratorial is going on, until of course it is finally revealed. None the less, I will grant you that this definition will keep the number of "true" conspiracies to a minimum, although perhaps unfairly excluding those conspiracies in which the apparently implausible secret is never revealed to the public.

On the other hand, if one takes a more relaxed definition of conspiracy as actions by a group of insiders which succeed by keeping enough of their doings sufficiently secret to avoid the societal sanctions that would ordinarily keep them from accomplishing their goals, then conspiracies are a dime a dozen and going on happily all around us constantly. Granted, in most cases they don't stay supersecret forever, but in many cases that doesn't prevent the conspirators from continuing to enjoy the fruits of their labors even after "loose talk" starts to get around, because the key information necessary to invoke social sanctions stays conveniently out of sight long enough to render those toothless.

And finally, perhaps because I'm dumb, I don't see how "falsifiability" would have been much of a rule of thumb to help support or dismiss the crazed Japanese conspiracy theorist who against all odds believed that the U.S. had cracked Japan's secret codes. His conspiracy theory may have been falsifiable, but not by him or by the vast majority of people who remained ignorant of the true facts for many decades, and who thus had little choice but to credit fictional explanations of historical events.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 27, 2007 1:43 AM

Good lord, I never said that "all conspiracy theorists are psychotic." I said that conspiracy theories "are a hallmark" of those who suffer paranoid delusions, and I said that those who nurture these theories "tend to be" psychotic. I made no absolutist assertions whatsoever. I think you would find those ideas broadly supported by mental health professionals.

Wow, how my cautious comments were ballooned into something I never said.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 27, 2007 9:07 AM

Friedrich, a perfect analysis. It's this pervasive notion that anyone who has a conspiracy theory is, by definition, a psychotic is actually helpful to keeping conspiracies quiet. Either one of two things happens: people ignore what's wrong (look how long torture's been going on at Gitmo or how many rights have been removed in the last year alone) and/or they assume anyone who differs from the group think is crazy/partisan/"with the terrorists"/etc.

It never ceases to amaze me how billions of people will accept on blind faith, with all evidence pointing against it, that there's an invisible man in the sky guiding everything in the universe, but even suggest it might be possible that members of the government could've been responsible for heinous acts and you're shouted down as crazy. Honestly, conspiracies aren't really necessary anymore, are they? The current crop of "elected" officials are doing a fine job of screwing us right out in the open and no one's doing a damn thing about it.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on June 27, 2007 10:25 AM

FvB, I think our point of disagreement is between the words "secret" and "conspiracy". Your definition is mostly OK with me, it's just that Tammany Hall (e.g.) was never, to my knowledge, a secret. Anyone who had cause to do business with the City of New York knew who to talk to, and why. Thomas Nast's caricatures, done while the Tweed Ring was very much in power, don't seem like the sort of thing that attaches itself to a hidden system.

As for falsifiability, your Japanese conspiracy theory example is a good one. You are, of course, not dumb. But that puts us in the position of trying to prove a negative, which is (of course) a tough place to be.

If the Japanese guy demands, in (say) 1965 "Prove to me that the Americans weren't reading our codes!", there's no way to satisfy him, in the same way that I can't satisfy someone who demands proof that 9/11 wasn't an inside job. But I can't prove that God didn't create the world from scratch 6,000 years ago, either. It's just that alternatives seem more likely.

Where I brought in Popper, though, was in the way that die-hard conspiracy types will take every bit of information, positive and negative, and magpie them into a mosaic of (what is to them) Truth. Nothing is wasted. Evidence that points to the conspiracy is, of course, golden and untouchable - true on the face of it. Evidence against it either has something wrong with it (applying tests that never get hauled out against the supporting pieces of data, I should add), or is adduced as evidence of the cover-up. Heads they win, tails the opposition loses.

So, to pick a random example, if a 9/11 type says that one key bit of evidence is the way that one of the WTC buildings collapsed, no engineering report showing its actual plausibility can change his mind. They're wrong, or they're planted by dupes of the real conspirators. If another key bit of evidence is a supposed eyewitness report, no further complicating testimony from others in the area is going to change the theorist's mind.

I'm a scientist by trade, so the conspiracy theory method sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my head. If I ran lab experiments and interpreted data in this way, I'd be out of business in short order.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 27, 2007 12:11 PM

"I'm a scientist by trade, so the conspiracy theory method sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my head. If I ran lab experiments and interpreted data in this way, I'd be out of business in short order."

Or you'd be hired by the Bush administration to do climate research.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 27, 2007 1:40 PM

Actually, conspiracy dismissers are exactly like the conspiracy theorists they like to make fun of. Both think they know enough about the situation or event in question to come to a decisive conclusion. What they differ on is the evidence they use to draw that conclusion.

Anybody who wants to try to insert the scientific method into these debates is lunatic, because the event can't be replicated and checked for accuracy by an independent source, so throw the usual scientific method out the window. Its far more like a court trial, where evidence is presented and a jury is supposed to ferret out the truth from what is allowed into the courtroom.

That's the key. All the conclusions are based on eveidence that the "jurists" aren't allowed to verify--all that falls onto intellignece or law enforcement angencies, all of which are under the control and oversight of the government. Documents and evidence can be classified, as it was in the case of the JFK assassination, so the public sees only what the government wants it to see. Tell me how this is scientific?

All of the evidence of 911 and JFK assassination was compiled by government agencies, and testimony was given to and sorted out by government commissions. Yes, the same people who are compiling these reports are also the ones who are suspected of wrongdoing. Even if you believe that the government is capable of actually self-correcting, isn't there an obvious conflict of interest? Does the government lie about other things, and make its credibility suspect?

I think the same people who disregard conspiracies would be the same type to endorse a report by the government which claims the existence of a flat earth because it came from a government commission. After all, the Holy Roman Government never lies, does it? In order not to be a flat-earther, you actually might have to look for cranks and skeptics outside of the mainstream, and then evalute the evidence on an objective basis--that is, what kind of evidence you might be able to glean that actually does exist outside of government sources, or that questions government sources.

I'll bet that the conspiracy dismissers are far more skeptical of a used car salesman than the government, but the used car salesman won't steal half of their income and give them hot air in return every year. At least they can go out in the lot and see the damn car, drive it, and have it checked out by an independent mechanic. Yet they believe the government lock stock and barrel, and they don't have the means or the desire to check up on them to see if they are being lied to! What a bunch of jokesters!

Conspiracies do exist. Supposedly we are in a terrorism war, but our borders are WIDE OPEN! Terrorists could attack any mall in America any day of the year! But we haven't been attacked in 6 years. Cui bono from 911? Cui bono?

Face it, you're being played.

Posted by: Home Run on June 27, 2007 3:43 PM

Most conspiracy theories are crap. Most theories of anything are crap, at least in their initial iterations. What distinguishes conspiracy theories, aside from their obvious implausibility to most people who actually have expertise in the relevant fields, is the attitude of the theories' proponents. Instead of asking, How do we know it's true? they ask, How do we know it's not true? But you can't resolve serious questions about anything complex in this way, because people who want to believe something will find a way to believe it whether it's true or not. That's just human nature, and it's an understanding of that nature that underlies the scientific method, our adversarial legal system, statistical analysis and other tools that we've developed to keep us from fooling ourselves when the stakes are high.

Conspiracy theorists, disproportionately, don't get this. They behave as though truth is obvious but suppressed, so that the most important thing is to get the word out. In reality, the truth is often not obvious. It constantly vies for consideration with a limitless supply of falsehoods, misperceptions and bad ideas, and requires disciplined methods for validation. It isn't like opening the door to a locked room, it's like sifting through the contents of a garbage dump. It's trying to discriminate signal from noise. You can't do that if you keep rearranging your theory as the available information changes.

I wouldn't say conspiracy theorists are psychotic. However, it's clear to me that many of them are ignorant not only of history and technology, but also of the limitations of human knowledge that make methodological discipline and falsifiability critical in the evaluation of complex theories.

Posted by: Jonathan on June 27, 2007 4:00 PM

Are people "conspiracy theorists" as strictly 9/11 and Kennedy? Or are people (like Jonathon, who said Most conspiracy theories are crap. Most theories of anything are crap, at least in their initial iterations. What distinguishes conspiracy theories, aside from their obvious implausibility to most people who actually have expertise in the relevant fields, is the attitude of the theories' proponents. Instead of asking, How do we know it's true? they ask, How do we know it's not true? ) talking about all "conspiracies"---including rigged elections and organized crime and various Wall Street games?? Because I seriously disagree that most people who know anything about Wall Street, for example, think that "insider trading" or the questionable methodology of IPO's are "obviously implausible" at all! Hell, Enron was one big conspiracy, and they've essentially admitted it!! In fact, the more you know, the more eminently believable it is---it's the people who don't know much about it who can be duped by the "conspiracy". Again, how is everyone defining "conspiracy"?

Posted by: annette on June 27, 2007 5:32 PM

Conspiracy theorists question authority, conspiracy dissenters do not. Conspiracy theorists are skeptical and disbelieveing of government, knowing that it is the greatest enemy most people will ever face in their lifetimes, while conspiracy dissenters believe in the goodness and have faith in government.
Conspiracy theorists know history and know that conspiracies have littered the landscape of the past, while conspiracy dissenters think that America is above history. Conspiracy theorists believe in human nature, while conspiracy dissenters believe that human nature stops at the government door.

Conspiracy dissenters actually believe that the scientific method can be applied to second-hand testimony, with no independent verification, while conspiracy theorists know that second hand information is just that, and question the source's validity. Sounds logical to me. But the Flat Earth Society of Governmental Rectitude won't buy it.

Most conspiracy dissenters don't even know the workings of their own local government, wtih all the backroom deals that go on there, much less the shennanigans that go on in D.C. The idea that the government is a gigantic, opaque whorehouse is acceptable to them, but the idea that it is a gigantic, opaque, and violent whorehouse where the gun is sometimes aimed at them is simply unacceptable. On what grounds do they make this distinction? No grounds at all, just a faith that the government serves and protects them, when the real truth is that its the other way around. Daddy's not perfect, but Daddy wouldn't hurt me. No, no, not Daddy.

History is littered with examples of governments using violence against their own citizens, but for some reason, America is the exception. Reasons for this? Nothing but faith, that's all. Not exactly rational, is it?

Remember how much Daddy loves you as he erases the borders of your country, against the wishes of 90% of the public, and then lies to you about it. What's really going on? Who's really making the decisions? I thought you guys knew it all? Could it be some kind of.....CONSPIRACY (DA-DA-DA-DAAAAAAA!)?

Nah. You know everything. Keep on believing in government while it steals everything you have--your money, your rights, your property, your freedom, your country, and maybe even your life. We're the exception to history. Remember that.

Posted by: Home Run on June 27, 2007 6:41 PM

Home Run, you seem to know a lot about what I think and what I believe. But for someone who seems to pride themselves on figuring out what's really going on in the world, you're doing a very slipshod job on that minor task.

For instance, your statements in the first paragraph of your post construct a whole barnyard full of straw men. Somehow, you've decided that these are my views (and those of Johnathan above, whom I agree with wholeheartedly). If your generalizations and leaps of logic in these comments reflect the way you approach larger questions, do you wonder why I'm not inclined to follow?

Posted by: Derek Lowe on June 28, 2007 9:08 AM

Derek Lowe signs his name and stands by his comments. I sign my real name. You can look me up, knock on my door, and engage me in debate over a cup of coffee. I've noticed the conspiracy addicts hide behind pseudonyms, which of course robs them of authority. They don't want their names to be known! They imagine dangers. They want to assail others, but remain invulnerable, behind a wall of anonymity. They want to dish it out rather than take it. Well, then: rational people will simply dismiss most comment offered by those who won't put their names to their views.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 28, 2007 10:16 AM

Derek Lowe,

You just don't like that I saw the flaws in your equating scientific reasoning and method with eyewitness testimony and evidentiary systems that are unable to be independently verified. You had no answer for it, so now I essentially get called a dumb-ass and told I don't know how to think. At least I know the difference between science and criminal investigation. FYI, the two are not equivalent.

I know what you think and believe because you said what you think and believe. Your whole dismissal of conspiracy rests on your blind trust of government. Shaky reasoning at best. People in government lie and coverup quite a bit. They may not lie every time, but they do lie often. Good luck figuring out lie from truth by relying on them to tell you which is which. Any scientist who did that would be laughed out of the lab. Get the difference now?

Posted by: Home Run on June 28, 2007 11:08 AM

Mr. Wheeler, it seems you are focusing on ad hominem arguments rather than issues. I couldn't care less about your real identity. I'll never meet you and I have no desire to. Same with any poster who uses their real name. My guess is even if I offered mine you would just use the ad hominem ad nauseum. We're arguing about opinions or interpretations of facts here. I think made some excellent points, but somehow I get the name-calling treatment from the self-proclaimed logicians in return. I think its ludicrous that people think collusions in the halls of power don't exist if they don't know about them. Its like the proverbial tree falling in the forest--if there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course it does! Just not to them.

History is littered with coverups and collusions. Its your job to prove that thay are improbable and unlikely, rather than my responsibility to do otherwise. My point is already made. I can speculate all I want.

No one of the conspiracy dissenters has answered my question as to why governments and corporations all over the world spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to spy on their rivals when, according to the dissenters, its all out in the open. They aren't just spying on military stuff--oh no! Why do the big players do that? They must know something about real power you do not. They know about the lie.

You know why--because they are lying too! They are all lying.

And when it comes to government investigations, all you know is what they tell you--but they are the ones whose actions are in question! Its the fox guarding the henhouse--if this is your idea of running a farm, you'll be out of business right quick, my friend!

Just like Churchill said, the truth is so precious that it must be surrounded by an army of lies. And if you can't believe a politician of that caliber, who can you trust?

Of course conspiracies exist, of course they do! The real question is what is the truth, not who delivers it. If people didn't lie, we wouldn't have to speculate, but alas, human nature is not that pure. And there's just some of us who understand that and some who don't.

Posted by: Home Run on June 28, 2007 3:07 PM

If there is a psychological pattern or behavioral pattern associated with conspiracy addicts, making note of that pattern is not ad hominem argument. I am simply pointing out that most conspiracy addicts hide behind pseudonyms and are obviously afraid to own up to their views. I am talking about patterns. That pattern is very revealing, and supports my other thesis, that paranoid delusion (which is not the same as paranoia) can and often does support conspiracy rationales. Pointing out patterns is hardly ad hominem argument.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 28, 2007 7:35 PM

You have a pattern of making ad hominem attacks when you have no argument, and you answered not one of my points. I win. Bye.

Posted by: Home Run! on June 28, 2007 10:46 PM

I can't resist one last one Wheeler:


Posted by: Home Run! on June 29, 2007 12:55 AM

Any conspiracy theory that you hear is false. This is why:

There is one fact about conspirators. They tend to "expose" other conspiracies in order to keep theirs hidden. For example, I have heard that the UFOs are diversion created by the CIA to divert attention from their true nefarious activity. People chasing the UFOs do not look at other things.

This is what the Okhrana did when it published "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", setting the world chasing after Jewish conspiracies so that they did not wonder what those Russians were up to.

As a rule, if you discover a conspiracy and live to tell about it, then it was not the true one.

The only True Conspiracy is hidden, and always will be.

Posted by: Adriana on July 6, 2007 12:40 PM

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