Like many types of paranoid thinking, conspiracy theorists fasten on unimportant details and regard them as key. The tax protestors get caught up in your name being in all-caps for Social Security, which means that it’s not you but some artificial entity. Their proof that the income tax is illegal hinges on a delivery of a document to the State of Ohio that did not happen in the right way, even though everyone in Ohio knew about it. There is the nod and the knowing look that they can’t be fooled. The real truth isn’t known to all those other people, who are blithely going about their business thinking everything is just fine, and completely on the up-and-up.

The belief that the real answer is hidden, being kept from the masses by nefarious actors precedes the actual explanations. They don’t come to believe that doctors are hiding cures because they are presented with plausible evidence of same, but because they don’t trust doctors, or perhaps anyone in authority, and someone tacks a specific example onto that. All-caps often figure prominently in their explanations, trying to impress upon you the importance of this particular set of details that they are now pointing out to you. So that you’ll KNOW.

I keep forgetting that this applies to history in general, when people are dead-enders for lost causes. There is the same focus on petty details that you are supposed to understand are actually important. Holocaust deniers will do this. Not all, certainly. There are representatives of every idea who can appear plausible. But when you come upon them, those small details and all caps are frequent. It should be noted that the small details are often quite true. And certainly, there are times when small details matter, as every reader of mysteries knows. “Yes, his father cannot have been in the Christmas Revels at Bath in 1942, because the Royal Fusiliers were in Tunisia at the time.” But forest/trees is the repeated issue. The King James only people are sometimes like this, as are those telling you that the Catholic Church is the Antichrist.

This type of reasoning can also infect discussions that are not unreasonable in themselves. One will often hear the claim that the Civil War was not about slavery. I think that is ultimately wrong, and the evidence against the premise is substantial.

Yet there are genuine arguments in its favor, not confined to unimportant details. Nevertheless, there is a high percentage of people making the argument who do get lost in the weeds, unwilling to come out.

I have found them impossible, because they are not actually operating from facts, they are using facts in the service of some emotion-driven or cultural belief. The effect is the same as in CS Lewis’s belief about hell, that all the doors are locked – but from the inside only. The Dwarves could taste the banquet if they could only choose to.

17 thoughts on “Conspiracies”

  1. IMO, an important factor in the current fad for conspiracy theory is entertainment value. CT makes for great stories, which (again IMO) is why so much entertainment uses it for plots.

    People see/read so much fiction with CT that it seems plausible in the real world. That’s also why people fall for Nigerian-type scams; they’ve read lots of fiction about John Q. Nobody stumbling into a crime/conspiracy scenario with buckets of money floating around.

  2. People are great at pattern detection, in the sense that they can *see* patterns even if they’re not there. Presumably there was a strong evolutionary advantage in being able to do so.
    They’re also quite slow to discard patterns once they’ve locked in on one. Again, presumably it was better evolutionary wise to stick to your model than to keep switching to new ones. But I don’t think there was any evolutionary forces making us good at finding correct patterns out of the varied pieces of “information” that we ingest from the news media.
    You ever talked to a Trump Russian truther? They’ll list off every time Trump sold a property to a rich Russian, and give no credence to the fact that the guy’s whole life was about selling high end real estate, and that rich Russians, like the rich from most corrupt countries, love buying real estate in the West as a way to move assets to a safer jurisdiction. Then they’ll tell you that after decades of Trump either willingly or unwillingly being a Russian agent (they switch back and forth mid story), that the joke about the Russians finding Hillary’s emails were actually the way they communicated for them to do just that.
    It’s completely, well, insane.

  3. Couple of thoughts on conspiracy theories.

    Firstly, the general quality and overall versimilitude of conspiracy theorists in this country is severely deficient. If you want truly amazing conspiracy theories and the theorists behind them, you really have to go overseas.

    Serbia, for example, has a fine tradition of such things, and I would go so far as to say that it’s well-woven into the entire culture–Such as I, an outsider to it, have encountered. Serbians I have met, mostly first-generation emigres to the US, have an amazing faculty for producing and arguing in favor of their preferred theories, which seem to be a form of art or entertainment, as opposed to evidence of life-long obsessional-delusional issues. You’ll hear them tell you things that if someone truly believed them, well… They’d be hiding under their beds, 24-7.

    It’s an amazing thing to observe, as a participant. It’s an art form, much as “doing the dozens” is prevalent in many African-American subcultures. You’ll hear it start with something relatively innocuous, and before long you’re entangled in a wide-ranging discussion that free-forms itself into a parallel universe where Franz Ferdinand was not murdered by Gavrilo Princip, but Sophie shot him because she’d discovered the love triangle he was in with the driver, and poor Gavrilo was an innocent passer-by who tried desperately to disarm her before the murder-suicide she committed turned into WWI. You may offer up objections, evidences from history, but the true Serbian artiste will agree with you, and then two sentences later turn your protestations into yet more confirmation and affirmation for what is actually the amazing piece of performance art that you’re unwittingly participating in. It’s an amazing thing to observe, and entirely alien to most American sensibilities.

    Once you get into the maze of discussion, you find yourself nodding along, agreeing with them, finding it perfectly reasonable that Sophie procured her pistol there in Sarajevo from the cousin of someone your informant grew up with, and that she’d known all along that the state visit they were making was mere cover for her husband’s illicit homosexual affair that she’d determined to end violently in order to save her and her children’s reputation…

    It all seems so reasonable, so right, while you’re talking to the Serbian delivering this service to your ears, but about five minutes after you walk out into fresh open air, you’re going to find yourself going “Heyyyyy… Wait a minute; how could Sophie have known someone’s Bosnian cousin who happened to have a Browning pistol like that…? What about the eye-witness accounts that describe Princip making the attack…?”.

    I’m telling you, it’s an unappreciated art form that most American conspiracy theorists simply cannot match. I think it’s a cultural thing; most of our schizoid conspiracy theorists are mentally ill, while the Serbian ones I’ve met are perfectly lucid and appear sane, for a given value of that term.

    On a more serious note, it is my opinion that most of the conspiracy theorists I’ve run into are desperately trying to make sense of a world they find utterly insane and unpredictable. It’s way easier and far more comforting to believe that there was a CIA-led conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy than to accept that some random nutter could kill the “leader of the free world”. A conspiracy theorist is usually someone who cannot tolerate the idea of random crap happening–It’s got to be the result of someone with agency, because the idea that you could walk out your door and have a meteorite take you and your house out is something that would leave them completely unable to cope with the implications. They latch onto the idea of the grassy-knoll gunman because that way they can make sense of a world where such things happen. It is a coping mechanism, more than anything else.

    I still say, however, that many of the Serbians I’ve met here in the US have turned it into a performance art form, and raised it to a level that your average American theorist simply can’t hope to match.

  4. Superstitions. Reminds The Zookeeper’s Wife, a book about WWII Warsaw:

    Also, pregnancy should stay hidden as long as possible, and not be divulged, even by the husband, lest a jealous neighbor cast the evil eye on the baby. In Antonina’s day the evil eye, born of envy to sour and begrudge good fortune, worried many Poles, who believed a happy event invited evil and that praising a newborn cast a vicious spell. “What a beautiful baby” became so poisonous that, as antidote, the mother had to counter with: “Oh, it’s an ugly child,” and then spit in disgust. Following similar logic, when a girl got her first period it was customary for her mother to slap her.

  5. Kirk, I have spent time in Romania and agree. It is not only the randomness that disorients them, but the fear of there being no one in charge. To be on one’s own in the world, master of your fate, is a perilous thing. In America we get exercised about the rich, or the 1% having too much power, and this can extend to beliefs in an Illuminati, or networks of Jews pulling all the strings. The idea that power is actually quite distributed, especially in America, is abhorrent. The local zoning board or police force has more power over your daily life than the feds, and even they have mostly negative power. Your health, your children, your job, your church, your neighborhood – all these are what make your life.

    Brian is correct about pattern-detection as well. We overfit the data to an explanation, because our brains will not tolerate having no narrative. We can’t just go on with our day without an explanation. It will gnaw at us and the brain will keep chugging. We may think of conspiracy theories as this normal faculty run amok rather than something separate which only a minority of us possess. That is perhaps why psychologists persisted for so long believing developmental theories for schizophrenia in the face of all evidence. It seemed like what happened to all of us, just worse. Some other mental health issues are indeed like that. Wiring is important in worsening depression and anxiety to the point of incapacitation, but we all understand the shallow ends of those swamps.

  6. Intelligent Design seems like a variant of the same type of reasoning that leads to CT: The natural order is so complex, it couldn’t possibly have come about as the outcome of evolutionary feedback mechanisms in response to chance mutations, etc. It’s easier to wrap our minds around a plot than around the possibility that there is no plot. It’s also easy to overestimate conditional probabilities which tend to figure in conspiracy theories (what are the odds?).

  7. The issue with conspiracy theories is they obfuscate real conspiracies.

    Which do exist, usually for the most mundane of reasons- money or power.

  8. To expand on Raven’s point on false & real conspiracies — a possible example is all the conspiracy theories which have grown up around the assassination of JFK in Dallas. A really interesting take on that event comes from Bonar Menninger’s 1992 book “Mortal Error”, in which he presents a fairly convincing analysis of forensic evidence that JFK was hit twice by two very different kinds of bullets — the first from Oswald’s WWII-era rifle and the second from the then-new AR-15 accidentally fired by a Secret Service agent travelling in the car behind Kennedy’s.

    Menninger’s hypothesis is that VP Johnson was quickly informed about what had happened, and took steps to prevent the story going any further. It would not have been good to tell the American people that their President had been accidentally killed by his own Secret Service. That generally successful real conspiracy to suppress information created the conditions for innumerable false conspiracy theories.

    But what should we call something like the “Climate Change” scam, where politicians, academics, and media types promulgate a story line which is demonstrably scientific nonsense? Is that a conspiracy on the part of the usual suspects? Or is it a form of mass self-delusion?

  9. bob baer, former? company operative, had a certain view when he examined the kennedy assassination, for the history channel, he thought there was someone other than Oswald, but acoustic and other evidence, proved there was no grassy knoll shooter, but he found another twist extrapolating from oswalds actions that day, he may have had contacts with other activists, however, there was more to this,

  10. it’s an unappreciated art form that most American conspiracy theorists simply cannot match. I think it’s a cultural thing; most of our schizoid conspiracy theorists are mentally ill,

    The Russia Hoax CT lives on in an amazing number of Trump haters. You see them on Facebook and in some blogs. The same people will absolutely deny the reality of “Crossfire Hurricane” in spite of increasing evidence. They will tell you Trump has told 18,000 lies but there is no response when they are asked for an example.

    The Climate Change Hoax is more of the sort that the Daycare Centers abuse hysteria was, or the Satanic Rituals hysteria or Recovered Memories. The last was stopped only by the lawsuit won by Gary Ramona which ended malpractice insurance for that “treatment.”

    Recovered Memories was making money for “therapists” but Climate Change is making billions for the people involved.

    I would like to see a Peter Schweizer-style book about it. He does such a good job of researching money trails.

  11. Conspiracy theories are for losers. So Serbs, etc., don’t just say that they’re a small nation in a volatile region, they have to come up with a theory about some huge secret conspiracy to keep them down. Americans in general do not have to explain why we are oppressed or unsuccessful, so we don’t have a culture of conspiracy theories.

    The Russian Hoax craziness is an atypical situation, as it was driven by a couple of Arkansas grifters who have decades of well-known conspiracy theorizing behind them in attempts to ward off the consequences of their actions. The fact that one of our two political parties followed them off the cliff so happily does naturally lead one to wonder why, but we’ll say no more on that point for now…

  12. Here is an interesting piece on conspiracy theories in the Climate Change scam.

    Some of the discussions of Pielke Sr. veered into the paranoid, with Skeptical Science team members on several occasions fantasizing that Pielke Sr. was perhaps the point man in a global climate denier conspiracy. If only they could somehow access his university emails, one mused, “Look, if the deniers’ emails are exposed I have no doubt that what we see will be unbelieveable, mind blowing, maybe even criminal. Why none has tried legitimitely (i.e., through FOIA) to access their emails is beyond me.”

    The idea that Pielke Sr. is a climate denier is laughable. Skeptical Science consistently interpreted Pielke Sr.’s willingness to engage with their mortal enemies (such as Anthony Watts of the skeptical blog WattsUpWithThat) not as a sign of a magnanimous senior statesman willing to help anyone bring their ideas to the peer-reviewed literature, but as evidence of some sort of deep and irreparable moral turpitude. The hacked discussions are infused with such Manichean paranoia.

    I still wonder what is behind this thing.

  13. “I still wonder what is behind this thing.”

    Assuming that you mean the whole “anthropogenic climate change” thing, the answer would be “watermelons-that-walk”.

    Whole thing is down to an anti-democratic grab for power. They tried using the “coming Ice Age” back when I was a kid, and when that dog proved that it didn’t (more like, couldn’t…) hunt, they went back into the kennel to pick another.

    Elephant in the room that nobody wants to discuss is how much greener the earth is, and the increased fertility with the warmth. People are going to starve if that reverses, assuming we don’t chop the population down considerably via the COVID-19 “opportunity”. Which has the potential to kill an awful lot of people just from the social dislocations it’s going to drive, completely ignoring the first-order disease effects.

  14. @ Gavin Longmuir – I first ran across that theory in Bill James’s book. He made a plausible case for it, though perhaps he got it from Menninger. It would explain why there would be small inconsistencies that are identifiable by many people, yet none of the second conspirator theories held up. As for Oswald working with others, Ion Mihai Pacepa, the head of the Romanian secret police who defected to the US in 1979, stated that the KGB repeatedly took partial credit for Oswald behind closed doors. Their story was that he had come to them and they had offered some advice, then were told to back out fast. The higher-ups wanted to have nothing to do with it. At that point, Oswald was already in motion. Pacepa’s own assessment was that they didn’t help as much as they bragged, but probably did have some effect. LHO was just a typical violent commie of the era, which was obscured by the many people not wanting that to be so. The media focused on how the event had taken place in Texas and that Oswald had been in the USMC, trying to give the idea that conservatives were somehow to blame for all this.

    Conspiracies are attempted all the time. Most of them fail either from incompetence, or are exposed later because it is hard to keep such things secret. Someone eventually squeals. A good rule of thumb in examining whether a particular conspiracy might actually be possible is to ask yourself how many people would know but have to be quiet. The longer it goes, the more unlikely it is.

  15. On the subject of the War of the Inevitable Outcome of the Three-Fifths Compromise, slavery was not only an end but a means to an end. It was a proxy for control of the national government – and also of the state governments, as power was skewed toward slave-dense districts. Given that the desire for political power has two motives that are not mutually exclusive, the desire to rule and the desire to defend self and/or others against real or imagined threats, and that large cultures are not monoliths, one would expect multiple political factions in each North and South. A lot of people get so hung up on the central question of the relation between slavery and the way they fail to develop the curiosity to explore the political factionalism in detail, how approaches to secession and war and unrelated issues varied on each side of the Mason-Dixon.

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