This week Morning Feature will explore why conspiracy theories are so pervasive in our political discourse. Today we explore common reasons people are attracted to conspiracy theories: disappointment of utopian ideals and a resulting sense of dystopia, coupled with the widespread use of disinformation to mask sensitive activities. Thursday and Friday we will explore two common ways people “find” conspiracies: conspiracies of confluence and conspiracies of convenience. Saturday we’ll explore conspiracies of commonality, many of which exist and most of which are not really “conspiracies,” as they’re known groups acting on shared and publicly declared interests.
Note #1: This is not an April Fool’s diary.
Note #2: This series will not attempt to prove or disprove any given conspiracy theory. The series isn’t about donning a tinfoil hat, but asking why we find them attractive, and how we make them.
Conspiracy Theory 101 – Disappointment, Dystopia, Disinformation
Several years ago I wrote a series of novels featuring a web of powerful, shadowy groups trying to shape world events toward their own ends. When their goals were at least temporarily compatible, these groups would work together. When their goals diverged, they worked against each other. It was a fun series to write, because it allowed me to cast ordinary events in a very different light, almost like writing an alternative history.
In the course of that, I researched scores of conspiracy theories. Some of them were true, but most were not. As a fiction writer, I didn’t care if a given theory was supported by evidence, so long as it was rich in fictional possibilities and could be told plausibly. I was writing fiction, after all. Still, I became curious why conspiracy theories were and are so popular in political discourse.
And they are, from speculation that President Obama is secretly a Muslim trying to deliver the U.S. into the hands of Al Qaeda, to speculation that he is part of an international corporate cabal seeking either fascism or even neo-feudalism. By some theories, our present economic crisis was engineered to either bankrupt the U.S. government for the benefit of the Chinese and/or corporate interests, or to enable a socialist takeover of American business.
Why do we look for sinister, shadowy, powerful groups secretly pulling the levers of history? And why do we often cling to those theories even when the evidence fails to support them? Are we gullible fools, or are we acting on some very common forms of reasoning, with just enough basis in history to seem justifiable?
Most of us have some vision of the way our world should be. The visions vary according to our political and moral values, but each of us has some idea of what a “perfect society” would look like. It is our Utopia, one where our most deeply-held values are lived and celebrated throughout the body politic.
In that utopian vision, the government may enact laws that are consistent with those values; at the very least, it does not enact laws that violate those values. Other groups – be they civic, religious, or corporate – either serve those values or again, at the very least, do not violate those values. And our fellow citizens share and uphold those values in their personal and family lives. Disagreements are resolved through calm and reasoned discussion, where everyone shares those values and thus any agreement reached can be endorsed and supported by consensus. And events confirm those values with peace and prosperity, where any challenges can be met by solutions that are consistent with those values.
The problem is not having a utopian vision; I think most of us do at some level. I know I do. The problem happens when we set that utopian vision as the baseline for a worthwhile society. And that’s a problem because the world is messy.
We don’t all share the same values, even here among progressives. What’s more, if we examine our own values deeply enough we’ll usually find some conflicts among them. We value one idea, but we also value another idea, and sometimes life forces us to choose between them. For example, most of us value free speech, but we also value truth, and we also value civil debate. So when someone lies, or advocates violence, we’re forced to choose between our own values. Do we defend free speech or truth? Do we defend free speech or civil debate?
A utopian vision requires people, conditions, and events to dovetail precisely, so we never face those hard choices. The more detailed the vision, the more precisely people, conditions, and events must dovetail, so all those details can flow seamlessly. But in our inescapably stochastic universe, the odds of such seamless dovetailing are extremely remote. The more likely and more common outcome is that events force difficult choices, and people disagree on how to value those choices.
In short, utopian visions inevitably meet with disappointment, and all too often we leap to the opposite extreme.
If a utopian vision is one of people and events dovetailing seamlessly, a dystopian vision is one of malevolence and oppression. Beautiful ideas fail, not because the universe is too stochastic, but because someone or some group is actively working to disrupt or corrupt those beautiful ideas. Dystopian visions demand villains, and most commonly the villain is a person or institution that most people naïvely trust. But the hero suspects the truth, and if only he or she can prove it, the villain will be exposed and removed, and the utopian vision can return.
Why do so often make the leap from a disappointed Utopia to a belief in Dystopia? It is, after all, a logical fallacy of false extremes: if the world is not perfect, it must be dominated by evil. Presented in that light, it seems obvious that we should accept some middle position. Yet throughout human history people have leapt and do leap to the opposite extreme, from Manichaeism to the belief that if President Obama doesn’t nationalize the banking system he must secretly be part of the corporatist cabal.
In fact there’s a very good reason we often leap to this particular extreme: Occam’s razor. Often misstated as “the simplest answer is usually true,” what Occam’s razor says is that when presented with two or more possible theories to explain a phenomenon, we should first test the theory with the fewest causal elements. As a corollary, if that theory bears up to the evidence, we should stop and not look for a more complex theory.
For example, if my car keys aren’t sitting atop my purse beside my desk, Occam’s razor suggests I should first ask if I left them somewhere else. If the evidence doesn’t support that, I should next ask whether someone else here at Casa Crissie needed my keys for some reason, and forgot to put them back. Only if that doesn’t prove out should I consider a more complex explanation, such as that I was kidnapped in my sleep and taken to another house that looks exactly like mine, except my abductors forgot to bring my car keys along…. (Cue Twilight Zone music.)
When a bad event happens or a good event doesn’t happen, the theory with the fewest causal elements is that someone made that bad event happen or blocked that good event. Moreover, the simplest theory for why is that they did so intentionally, because mistakes or accidents require more causal elements than plain evil intent. When a bad event happens or a good event doesn’t, Occam’s razor says to look for a villain first.
But again, Occam’s razor does not say “the simplest answer is usually true.” Indeed it makes no predictions of truth. It merely suggests a best sequence of inquiry. If the evidence does not support the simplest theory, empirical reasoning says we move on and test the next-simplest theory, and continue if that theory fails, until we find the simplest theory supported by the evidence.
And here is where most conspiracy theories jump the rails. A conspiracy theory may offer the fewest causal elements – a villain who intentionally corrupted our utopian vision – but more often than not the evidence does not support that theory. Most of the time, our utopian visions fail for a very prosaic reason: people, conditions, and events didn’t dovetail as seamlessly as the vision required. That may be prosaic, but it’s also a complex theory with many causal elements. It’s messy, and it describes a problem with no simple or guaranteed solution.
But a conspiracy theory has a built-in explanation for that: the Real Evidence has been hidden. After all, a conspiracy implies covert action, so why wouldn’t the villains try to conceal the evidence? And because in most dystopian conspiracy theories the villain is a powerful person or institution – government, corporations, organized religion, etc. – they could conceal the evidence.
So now the absence of evidence is itself evidence of the conspiracy: it proves they’re powerful enough to cover their tracks. And just in case that logical Möbius strip seems patently absurd, we have proof that it’s sometimes true.
Winston Churchill wrote that “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Churchill was referring to the practice of disinformation, false information deliberately spread to distract attention from the truth.
If you’re developing ultra secret aircraft and you don’t want the public asking questions, let it leak out that there may be extraterrestrials flying UFOs to earth. Then have other groups set up to ridicule the UFO hypothesis. Set the “believers” and “skeptics” at each other, let the fireworks begin, and no one asks the real question: what did we see fly over our house last night? And there’s evidence that this was indeed the genesis of most of the UFO-related debate since the 1940s.
Of course, sooner or later most of these cover stories do break, as it’s almost impossible to keep secrets forever. The Church Commission and other inquiries into FBI and CIA activities in the Cold War revealed a host of operations that many Americans find morally repugnant, but that were kept secret for decades under the rubric of “national security.” The tobacco lawsuits developed evidence that tobacco companies not only knew their products were harmful and addictive, but secretly developed additives to make them more addictive, all while running a disinformation campaign using pseudo-science to cover their tracks.
There are plenty of other examples, and they provide fertile soil for conspiracy theories, because obviously sometimes powerful institutions do conceal the evidence of what they’re doing. If they do it sometimes, they might be doing it this time – whatever “this time” is for a particular conspiracy – so you can’t reliably discount every theory for which there is presently no evidence.
And thus the conspiracy theories abound.