If you are a conspiracy theorist, you may have some ideas about why I have promised to look at them in more depth but so far have not done so. It could be that I have some convoluted plan for promising to take a closer look and repeatedly failing to do so….
Well, take off your tin foil hat and sit a spell because it’s time to talk conspiracies.
It is true that all conspiracy theories explain something. But we should think for a second why this is important. It is important because we seem to be curious by nature. We are curious about how and why things work (remember our persistent three year old always asking “why?”). Conspiracy theories are nothing if not a precise explanation for how and more importantly why something happened. Usually this means explaining what forces were behind the unfolding of important events.
Important events that seem inexplicable in their magnitude or those whose narrative is full of conflicting reports are fertile ground for conspiracy theories. This is because the theory steps in to provide the essential ingredient of meaning. When things happen which cause us to question the world as we thought we knew it, conspiracy theories sometimes help repair the rift.
Conspiracy theories require several components, but the most important is obviously some conspiracy. This means a group of people acting in concert with a secret agenda toward some common goal. There are some key requirements here, including INTENT and SECRET COORDINATION.
We’ll start first with looking at INTENT. Conspiracy theories require that whatever happens, it happened because some group INTENDED for it to happen. Without intent, you have no conspiracy. You just have a chain of events. These events could be a causal chain or a coincidence, but without their occurrence being the result of a plan (intent), you have no conspiracy.
This causes a few problems. Think back to the problem of determining why anything happens – including why our brains decide to do any given thing at any given moment – and it is clear that intent is a nebulous beast. Technically it is hard to prove that any of us really has enough control over our own lives to intend something with any certainty.
Still, if we are willing to accept a pretty general view of “intent”, we can assume that people with free will can perform actions intended to bring about consequences. But these intentions can get fuzzier as the chain of events expands.
For example, look at a case of criminal intent, say first degree murder. By definition, 1st degree murder is killing with premeditation. If you are guilty of 1st degree murder you intended to kill someone and made a plan (and were ultimately successful).
But carry this thought a bit further. If you murder someone the odds are good that you are going to jail. While official crime statistics reveal that the rate of solved murder cases has dropped in the US in the last 50 years, it still remains true that you are likely to get caught and sentenced to jail if you kill someone, especially if it is premeditated murder.
So what happens if someone murders someone else and then ends up following the most likely path and gets sent to jail? Can we say that the murderer intended to go to jail? After all it was a likely outcome of his behavior and he knew that risk when he decided to kill his victim. No, establishing intent is actually a very tricky thing to do. It may very well be that the victim was seeking the punishment, confinement, security, or whatever, of a jail cell when he settled on the illegal act of killing someone else. Perhaps this was due to some deep seated psychological factor in his life that motivated him to behave in such a way that would lead to his imprisonment. Or perhaps it was not. Intent is foggy where human psychology is involved. When we are trying to establish whether someone intended for something to happen, it is very difficult to separate the intentional outcome from all the associated side effects. The side effects may be events which are just as real as the intended outcome, but they may have little or no association with the original intent. Yes, the killer went to jail. That is an event that happened because he chose to kill someone, but we can not easily describe that as the intent of the initial activity. Determining intent across a chain of events is increasingly tricky as the chain gets longer.
Consider all of the other predictable and unavoidable consequences of the murderer's actions as well. For example, the victim’s family we be very sad to learn of the death of the victim. Now it is possible, depending on the circumstances, that this is also part of the intent of the murderer. Or it could be something he realizes and regrets but which is outweighed by the impulse to kill the victim. Or it could be something he realizes but which does not concern him one way or the other. Or, of course, it could be something that the murderer does not realize at all because he never stops to consider the impact his actions will have on the victim’s family. Each of these is possible. And when we get further into examining conspiracy theories, we will revisit this concept.
But the basic point is that even if we can argue that the consequences could have been easily foreseen by the actor, we can not necessarily ascribe intent to the outcome. If a student stays out all night partying instead of studying and then later fails an exam, did she intend to fail the exam? It is an open question. The answer may be yes or it may be no It may depend on the individual, but in most cases any ulterior motive of any activity – that is, intent for an outcome beyond the obvious and immediate one – is hard to ferret out with any certainty.
So the same is true with groups. Beyond the most obvious and immediate results of a coordinated action, it can be hard to decipher real intent.
To really start at the beginning, we need to consider that while we may be able to discern basic intent of individuals, we have not yet established that the same is true of groups. Can a group act with “intention”?
Just as with the individual, the answer here is yes and no. When the action is simple and easily measurable (what a scientist may call a discreet variable), intent may be fairly easy to assign. Take the example of an election. If 60% of voters choose one candidate over another, it is pretty easy to conclude that these voters, taken as a group, INTENDED for that person to be President, or Mayor or the person who goes and gets lunch today.
Voting is a discreet act. It is easily measurable as the result of having done something that is very specific and very certain. In fact casting a vote is the quintessential form of expressing your intent. I vote for Bob. It is pretty clear that I intend for my vote to help Bob win whatever post he is running for. If 1000 people vote for Bob, it is pretty simple to say “1000 people intended for Bob to win the election.” If 1000 votes comprises a clear majority of the group, it is even acceptable to conclude that, on the whole, the group intended for Bob to win the election.
So groups of people can intend to do something collectively. Note in this case though that no conspiracy is required. It is entirely possible for each of the 1000 voters to decide who to vote for and elect a given candidate without any discussion or coordination amongst themselves. No conspiracy is required in order for a group to act in consort. Sometimes the coordinated action is simply the result of individual participation. We’ll call this, “collective action without coordination.” There is intent, but it is a sort of intent by addition. The intent of the group is established by adding up the intent of all the individuals. Still, it is an example of group intent. So to answer the question, yes, we can at least in some cases establish intent where groups of people are involved.
Now lets look at the other important element of a conspiracy – “secret coordination”. It is not enough for a group of people to all want the same outcome. That is just collective agreement (like an election), that is not a “conspiracy”. Conspiracies rely on both INTENT and SECRET COORDINATION.
The above example of an election was without any coordination. Well what if we have coordination among the members of the group, but it is done openly and not in secret? In this case, what you have is a “campaign”.
There are all kinds of campaigns – political campaigns, environmental campaigns, campaigns to cure disease or end hunger, etc. – but none of these can be described as conspiracies, because the intent (agenda) is all out in the open. A conspiracy requires a hidden agenda, or what I am calling SECRET COORDINATION.
But how can we know about something if it is secret? How can we determine if coordination has been taking place if no one is admitting that it is happening? Therein lies the challenge and excitement of a good conspiracy theory. Determining the hidden agenda of a private group which denies its own existence is challenging stuff indeed. But before we go making fun of the concept, we should first establish that in fact just because something is a secret does not make it unknowable. A secret is nothing more than something that is not widely known (and in most cases is being treated in such a way as to prevent it from becoming widely known).
But to the extent we can learn about anything, we can learn about secrets. When we talk about “unlocking the secrets of the universe” we are talking about learning the inner workings of our surroundings – things that we have not previously known – things that seem almost intentionally hidden from our understanding. We learn about them not by examining them directly, but by examining the impact that these forces have on other things. You can not, for example, see gravity. But you can see the impact it has on everything we see and touch. We learn about gravity by observing its behavior. The secret force of gravity is laid bare by looking not at gravity but at the impact of gravity on our lives.
So a secret thing is potentially knowable. Even if we may not be able to know exactly what the secret is, we can learn about it by examining the things impacted by its existence. Scientists call this “evidence”. The root of the word evidence is the latin verb “videre” meaning “to see” (it is also where we get the word “video”). “Ex-videns”, out of seeing, is where we get “evidence”. So seeing the impact of a secret and invisible thing, like gravity, is a perfectly good source of “evidence”.
Let’s take another very simple example. Let’s say we are watching a basketball game. Each team has a “game plan” and this in many ways fits the definition of a conspiracy. It is a secret plan whose details are known only to a small group. There is INTENT (the desire to ensure a certain outcome – in this case winning the game) and it relies on COORDINATION (the members of the group all supporting or participating in the execution of the plan). The only reason we may have for calling it a game plan instead of a conspiracy is that neither team will deny its existence. The willingness of a coach to admit he has a private strategy for facing the other team is enough to turn what would be a conspiracy into simply a private plan.
Now is a great time to touch upon the difference between PRIVACY and SECRECY.
PRIVACY is where you are willing to acknowledge that you are keeping facts or behavior concealed from the outside world (such as what happens in the privacy of our own homes) and SECRECY is when you are unwilling to share even the existence of the activity with the outside world (such as a secret liaison). It is no secret what newlyweds do on their wedding night. It is, nonetheless, very private.
So a game plan is really not actually a matter of secrecy but one of privacy. But to an outsider, except for the fact that no one is denying its existence, a game plan shares a lot in common with a conspiracy. And this is why it makes a useful example at least to start.
How can we, as fans, tell what the game plan is if we have not been told? Out of seeing, we can gather evidence. In other words, we can watch the play of the team. We can observe the impact the plan has on the behavior of its participants. Even before the post game analysis and the interview with both coaches, we can learn a lot about what a team is trying to do simply by watching them play.
For example, if every time the opposing superstar touches the ball, he is met with two guys defending him (a “double-team”), we can theorize that the team’s plans involved double-teaming the other guys’ best player.
This can in turn, tell us something about the coach’s mindset. The purpose of a double team is to get the ball out of a certain player’s hands. But double-teaming has some downsides. The most important one is that in a 5 on 5 game of basketball, if you are double-teaming one player you are leaving another player undefended somewhere. What coaches usually say is something like this, “We may lose the game, but we are not going to let Kobe Bryant beat us. Let him throw the ball to the open man and see if he can make the shot, but we are not going to let Kobe shoot the ball on us all night”. Thus, if you know the game of basketball pretty well, simply seeing one guy double-teamed a lot can unlock some of the secret plan (or more accurately “private plan”) the team had for the game.
So when the game begins, we are entirely unaware of the game plan of the team we are rooting for, but we can learn something about their plan simply by watching what they do. So there you have an example of how you can learn something that is not shared with you (whether secret or private) simply by observation.
There are any number of factors that influence our ability to learn the private game plan of the team. The most important is knowledge of the game of basketball. If we aren’t a serious viewer of the game, we may not even recognize a double-team when we see one. And if we don’t recognize it, we certainly won’t know that it is part of the team’s game plan. As it turns out, all secrets work like this. If you want to learn about secrets by watching behavior, you need to know how to interpret the behavior you are seeing. It is in the interpretation of behavior that conspiracy theories tend to become most colorful, but more on that later.
By now we have established that we shouldn’t reject the idea of learning something just because it is a secret. If we watch carefully and we know what to look for, we can learn a lot about what is happening without being officially told (as with the game plan) or without being able to see the hidden force directly (as with gravity).
But there is one last element of a conspiracy that needs to be present. All the COORDINATED activity designed with some INTENT in mind must also be planned in SECRET. If everyone knows you have a secret plan it is not a secret it is merely private, and that is a competition not a conspiracy. So just to summarize:
Collective action with no coordination ELECTION
Collective action with open coordination CAMPAIGN
Collective action with private plan COMPETITION
Collective action with SECRET plan CONSPIRACY
These concepts can obviously overlap in the day to day world. Nearly every election involves a campaign (okay, perhaps the office election to see who gets lunch doesn’t have a campaign, but more significant elections do), and most campaigns are forms of competition with those in the other political party or on the other side of an issue. When a campaign starts to employ private strategies, it is engaged in competition. And within campaigns and competitions, history tells us that we sometimes see conspiracies.
It would be comforting if we could debunk all conspiracy theories on the basis that conspiracies are simply paranoid fantasies. If conspiracies never existed, then all theories about assassinations and alien technologies could be dismissed out of hand. But history has shown us that sometimes folks really do conspire together. And the goals of conspiracies are rarely modest. By the time a group engages in secret planning to affect an outcome, the desired outcome is usually grand enough to justify some of the risk and effort of the conspiracy in the first place. So the notion of a “grand conspiracy” may be met with initial skepticism just on that basis alone, however, logic dictates that such skepticism is not in and of itself sufficient to dismiss any conspiracy theory.
In fact, as I have alluded to earlier, anyone who approaches conspiracy theories without an open mind is guilty of the same lack of critical thinking that they often accuse the conspiracy theorists of.
But before we get sidetracked with how to debunk or prove a conspiracy theory, let’s look at some actual conspiracies which do occur with some frequency in our modern world.
Racketeering (the operation of an illegal business by a group) is a very real and concrete example of conspiracy. In order to run an illegal business you need coordinated activity and denial. That is the very definition of conspiracy.
Covert Operations (missions planned and executed so as conceal the identity and/or permit plausible deniability of the sponsor) are another form of conspiracy. This is coordinated action towards a defined goal whose existence is officially denied. That is, once again, a picture perfect definition of conspiracy.
These two examples bring up one of the problems of talking about conspiracies. In each case there are a number of people for whom the conspiracy is not a secret at all. In fact, it is their job. So when we talk about a secret plan, we must always be aware that we need to define “secret from whom?” If the Director of the CIA is aware of a covert operation, is it a conspiracy? Not to him. But if within the CIA there were a private group of agents seeking to undermine the authority of the Director of the CIA, this would be a conspiracy even to him.
In point of practice, we usually informally accept that in the matters of national security, there is a defined group of folks who should be aware of what is going on. If the CIA is involved in a covert operation which is authorized by the duly elected President of the United States and the designated members of congress have been kept informed at least to some degree of the existence of the operation, we generally say that is not a conspiracy. It is a “secret operation coordinated by a small group who will deny its existence” and so is technically a conspiracy, but it is directed at a goal which is generally accepted (as symbolized by the involvement of our elected officials), so we don’t usually say that action rises to the level of conspiracy. It is more of a “ruse” because knowledge of the details, while hidden from the general public, are provided to the representatives of the public. In this sense, these hidden and deniable plans are closer to private plans than secret conspiracies. And in fact we have defined a middle ground that sort of encompasses both of these concepts, and we call it a “state secret” – which is to say, something very private whose mere discussion can reveal too much information. This is why we get into situations where officials will “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of XYZ. It is something private, but so private that even acknowledging it is not private enough. Yet denying it is not appropriate either. It is, in the end, simply “off limits” as a topic of discussion. Thus, covert operations are not conspiracies, but merely “State secrets”.
But these secret operations skirt so close to the definition of conspiracy that sometimes a minor change in how they are executed or what results they are intended to achieve can result in a full blown conspiracy. If for example, the intended outcome is something that the congress has explicitly made illegal, this fact needs to be concealed. This makes it a conspiracy. Or if the scope of the operation expands beyond the limits of Presidential authorization and the President is not informed specifically because he would halt the operation if he knew the details, then this becomes a conspiracy.
Throughout the history of our government there are any number of conspiracies which have been uncovered and an unknown number of conspiracies which may have eluded detection. From the Teapot Dome Scandal, to the Watergate conspiracy, to the Iran Contra affair, we have seen that there is no reason to believe that conspiracies can not take place even at the highest levels of government. Many other acts of political parties paying bribes to rig elections, secret police actions withheld from those who would not approve, and more garden variety political conspiracies seeking to bring ruin or glory to a prominent figure have all been documented throughout the 19th and 20th century in the US. It is not my purpose to revisit those findings here. I am not, for the moment, interested in the details of any particular conspiracy. What is essential at this time is accepting that the Red Billed Conspiracy is a real animal that can be found in the forest. It is not a unicorn. As such, we can not dismiss any conspiracy sightings out of hand on the grounds that conspiracies don’t exist. If we want to refute a given conspiracy theory, we need to refute it on the basis of the evidence and not on the basis of how preposterous, incredible, or alarming it may seem.
Dissecting Conspiracy Theories in the Lab
If we are going to actually learn enough about a conspiracy theory to debunk it (or perhaps accept it), we need to first examine its inner workings. We need to take a specimen and dissect it. Interestingly, no two conspiracy theories are exactly the same, and even between two nearly identical theories, there can be the subtle differences that make them belong to different species. This is one of the complications we run into when we look at conspiracy theories. Disproving one on the basis of some fact or premise will not necessarily disprove another closely related theory which does not share that exact same element. And we can not, scientifically speaking, disprove any given theory simply on the basis of how many closely related cousins have been disproved. Each theory is unique, and unless it shares the same fatal flaw as another conspiracy theory, each theory must be measured on its own merits.
The Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory
The Big Event -- What happened.
The Story -- What the public thinks happened
The Reveal -- What actually happened (the “Truth”)
The Puppet Masters -- Who made it happen
The Grand Plan -- Why they made it happen.
Every conspiracy theory has these elements in common and we’ll now look at them piece by piece under the microscope to get a better appreciation for all the body parts.
The Big Event – In order for a conspiracy theory to be born there has to be an event. This event is usually of great significance at least to the inventor of the theory. The most popular conspiracy theories center around the truly big events in history. Take the JFK assassination or the 9-11 attacks for example. The bigger and more disruptive the event the more likely it will spawn conspiracy theories. This is not just a coincidence. Since the primary purpose of a conspiracy theory is to explain something and reveal hidden order from apparent chaos, the more inexplicable the event, the more necessary a conspiracy becomes for some people. It is very unnerving to live in a world where transformative (and usually horrible) events can take place without warning and for no good reason. So a conspiracy theory seeks to provide peace of mind by showing how the seemingly random event was not random at all but was in fact part of someone’s plan. To the conspiracy theorist, it is more comfortable to accept (or imagine) that the world is in the control of others than it is to believe no one is in control.
So in order for a conspiracy theory to come into being, there needs to be some transformative event that requires a theory of order which explains how such a thing occurred.
The Story – Of course, since conspiracy theories explain how what actually happened is different from what a casual observer might think happened, there has to be an acknowledgement of the run of the mill explanation. This is the “story”. The story is the recap of what the public has “been lead to believe”. It is the “official explanation” of how The Event came to pass. This can include details about events leading up to the big event as well as details about how the event itself unfolded. For example, any JFK conspiracy will touch upon the fact that we were told only three shots were fired.
Since the story is supposed to be a retelling of the inaccurate but widely accepted explanation of the event, every story contains the groundwork for the explanation of what actually happened (the “truth”).
The Reveal – This is the re-telling of the story with all the official lies and misperceptions stripped out. This is the shocking drama of every conspiracy theory. The true unknown tale of what actually happened is usually much more interesting the boring old widely accepted version of events. A boring conspiracy theory is no one’s friend. If the Reveal is more mundane than the Story, a conspiracy theory will find few converts. Only a powerful reveal will earn the time and attention of those who seek the Truth.
The Puppet Masters – Every Reveal immediately begs the question, “How could that happen?” and the answer lies with the principle actors involved in the conspiracy. These are the string pullers who set into motion the chain of events that led to the Big Event. These are the men behind the curtain, creating reality for others. If Plato says all truth seekers are damned to watch shadows on the cave wall, these are the people who are conducting the shadow puppet theater.
The Grand Plan – Met with a shocking revelation about what actually happened and who was behind it, any thinking person would normally ask the question, “Why?” As you recall, “why?” is the big existential puzzle we all face from the age of three. It is the question that drives our lives forward. It is also, as explained above, the question that drives the inception of the conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory that has no explanation for why things happened the way they did, for what the Grand Plan of the conspirators has been, is only half a conspiracy theory. The Grand Plan is the explanatory bow that ties up the package into a neat orderly and self contained idea.
Importantly the plausibility of the Grand Plan has everything to do with how well received a conspiracy may be. If the tale is one of actors who have engaged in a complicated conspiracy toward ends which seem both believable and substantial enough to compel men into all the risks associated with conspiracy, the entire theory takes on an air of plausibility. But likewise if the Grand Plan seems abstract or untenable, even the most tightly wound conspiracy theory will unravel. If the entire theory involving international intrigue and bribery and cloak and dagger wet works boils down to one King wanting to ensure his daughter could get a second cup of coffee at the local café, the theory collapses under its own weight before anyone is even inspired to inspect its contents. But if the motivation was purported to be his desire to keep his daughter safe from a false suitor who vowed to destroy the Kingdom, the entire theory makes some amount of sense. If we can see the pay-off as sufficiently high, the convoluted steps involved in executing the plan become instantly more credible.
Some caution should be exercised here, however. Just as there are some flimsy motivations for murder which have nevertheless proved to be true, actual conspiracies have been uncovered which involved dubious intentions. The effort expended is sometimes out of proportion with the reward. So just because the Grand Plan is unconvincing is not in and of itself enough to disprove a conspiracy theory.