Conspiracies do happen, but we should be skeptical of conspiracy theories … especially the ones we’d like to believe. (More)

Conspiracy Theories, Part III: Who Do You Trust? (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy with a look at the enduring attraction of conspiracy theories. Thursday we explored Karl Popper’s view that such theories fill a teleological gap in modern culture. Yesterday we saw several kinds of theories, including conspiracies of convenience and conflation. Today we conclude with why we must be wary of conspiracy theories, especially those that affirm our deeply-held beliefs.

Note: Today’s article reprises the conclusion of a 2009 and 2011 Morning Feature series on conspiracy theories, with some editing and additional material.

An Enigmatic Conspiracy:

In 1974, former Royal Air Force officer Frederick Winterbotham was the first to break almost 30 years of silence on The ULTRA Secret. This was the British code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park where cryptanalysts were able to decipher much of the World War II German message traffic encrypted on the Enigma machine. It was a huge operation, employing hundreds if not thousands, during one of the most widely studied events in human history. And no one had leaked it for 29 years.

The revelation cast much of the historical analysis about World War II into doubt. How many “brilliant” plans had been based on detailed knowledge of German dispositions and intentions? How many “mistakes” were outright negligence or, worse, intentional sacrifices to keep the ULTRA project secret? Over the next decade, the pendulum swung toward claims that Bletchley Park singlehandedly won the war, then back toward a view that the code-breakers’ information was often useful but rarely decisive.

The operation was kept secret after the war because the British and Americans didn’t want the Russians to know how good we’d become at code-breaking. In fact the Russians already knew about ULTRA, courtesy of the Cambridge Five: a group of British intelligence officers later revealed to be Soviet agents. By the time the British and Americans knew the Russians knew about ULTRA, the habit of secrecy had been set. No one involved in ULTRA saw any reason to reveal it, and it remained secret until Winterbotham broke the story.

Conspiracies do happen.

Bletchley Park was a classic conspiracy of commonality, that is, people acting in concert to direct events toward shared interests, where at least some of the action is done in secret or under cover of disinformation. Acting to cause the events distinguishes it from conspiracies of convenience, where people and groups take advantage of events they did not cause. To prove a true conspiracy of commonality, you have to prove specific actions planned and carried out with the intent to cause the event.

As we saw yesterday, it’s not enough to show that Vice President Lyndon Johnson benefited politically from the assassination of President John Kennedy. Any vice president would. Nor is it enough to claim that Johnson and and Texas Gov. John Connally suggested the presidential motorcade route through Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, as Roger Stone argues in his new book. Even if they did suggest that route, they may have done so for entirely innocent reasons, and the route was published in Dallas newspapers on November 19th, giving any would-be assassin plenty of time to plan an ambush. To prove a true conspiracy of commonality, Stone would have to present evidence proving that LBJ chose that route specifically to put President Kennedy in an assassin’s crosshairs … and of course he doesn’t have that evidence.

‘Open’ conspiracies.

Had LBJ planned the assassination, it would have required a large conspiracy of commonality, and those are hard to hide. In fact, they’re usually obvious. Specific plans may be kept secret, at least until they happen, but the main actors and their motivations are usually well known.

For example, it’s no secret that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce want government to help business owners and block labor unions. The Chamber and similar groups openly declare such motivations on their websites and in press releases. They may keep the details of a plan to thwart a given labor organizing drive secret, at least until they attempt to carry out the plan, but that’s still an ‘open’ conspiracy … and the openness of most conspiracies of commonality is a key point.

Disinformation

Huge conspiracies can rarely act in complete secrecy, or at least not for very long. They usually involve prominent actors, so their actions get at least some attention. Some of their actions are impossible to hide by the nature of the action itself. For example, you can’t test a new military jet in an underground hangar. But a clever P.R. campaign can hide public events behind disinformation, such as speculation about unidentified flying objects from other worlds.

In the 1940s and 50s, ‘leaks’ that UFOs might be visiting earth sparked a spate of science fiction movies, but also a plethora of concerned citizen groups determined to discover the truth. Some of the same government officials who first leaked UFO reports later became skeptics who debunked such claims, while other officials began as skeptics and later claimed the UFO reports were real. And recently declassified CIA documents revealed that at least some of those officials were engaged in a disinformation campaign to keep the UFO debate bubbling … and deflect attention from the legitimate question: What flew over my house last night?

The real answer – when it wasn’t an ordinary aircraft – was probably a classified military project. But so long as believers and skeptics were arguing about little grey visitors from Zeta Reticuli, the military could test almost anything, almost anywhere, and no one would be the wiser.

In terms of hiding classified technology that can only be tested out in plain sight, it was a great success. But that success comes at a steep price: an entirely justified distrust of government and our media. Every time our government spreads disinformation and the media obligingly repeat it – as happened in the run-up to the Iraq War – the distrust only deepens. It becomes more difficult to know what sources to trust and what claims to believe, and more difficult to make informed decisions as citizens in a democracy.

Skepticism vs. Cynicism

But distrust is itself corrosive, and that’s why it’s important to distinguish between skepticism and cynicism.

A skeptic suspends judgment unless and until a claim is supported or rebutted by evidence. For the skeptic, the default judgment is “I don’t know.” Yes, there are exceptions. If someone claims to have crossed a street from one fifth-floor balcony to another – by walking on air – it’s reasonable to conclude that claim is either a lie or a metaphor not meant to be taken literally. But in general, the skeptic’s response is to ask for evidence.

A cynic, on the other hand, believes the claim is a lie unless proven otherwise. The cynic needs no evidence to believe the claim is a lie, because that conclusion is based on a general belief that people always lie, especially people in government or other powerful institutions. Indeed a cynic is as gullible as someone who believes The Official Story without question. The only difference is that the cynic disbelieves The Official Story … without question …

… unless The Official Story confirms what the cynic already believes. We’re all subject to confirmation bias, the tendency to unquestioningly accept new information that confirms our existing beliefs, and unquestioningly reject new information that contradicts our existing beliefs. And confirmation bias makes us all susceptible to conspiracy theories that reinforce what we already believe.

Healthy skepticism requires that we acknowledge our existing beliefs and then set them aside and look at the evidence. Or, in the case of most conspiracy theories, the lack of evidence. We have to be able to say: “That fits what I believe this group might do … but where is the proof they did do it?”

When it comes to conspiracy theories, the worst source to trust is … your own gut feelings. And that’s exactly why they’re so popular.

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Happy Saturday!