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Too Many People Dare Call It Conspiracy

[Content warning: References to anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic canards]

I feel deep affection for Gary Allen’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy, a bizarre screed about the Federal Reserve/Communist/Trilateral Commission plot for a one world government. From its ridiculous title to its even-more-ridiculous cover image, this is a book that accepts its own nature. In the Aristotelian framework, where everything is trying to be the most perfect example of whatever it is, None Dare Call It Conspiracy has reached a certain apotheosis.

But my problem is the opposite of Allen’s. Too many people dare call too many things conspiracy. Perfectly reasonable hypotheses get attacked as conspiracy theories, derailing the discussion into arguments over when you’re allowed to use the phrase. These arguments are surprisingly tough. Which of the following do you think should be classified as “conspiracy theories”? Which ones are so deranged that people espousing them should be excluded from civilized discussion?

1. Donald Trump and his advisors secretly met with Russian agents to discuss how to throw the 2016 election in his favor.

2. Donald Trump didn’t collaborate with any Russians, but Democrats are working together to convince everyone that he did, in the hopes of getting him indicted or convincing the electorate that he’s a traitor.

3. Insurance companies are working to sabotage any proposal for universal health care; if not for their constant machinations, we would have universal health care already.

4. The ruling classes constantly use lobbyists and soft power to sabotage tax increases, labor laws, and any other policy that increase the relative power of the poor.

5. America’s aid to Israel is not in America’s best interest, but is maintained through the power of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups mainly supported by America’s Jewish community.

6. The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe.

7. Climate scientists routinely exaggerate or massage their studies to get the results they want, or only publish studies that get the results they want, both because of their personal political leanings and because they know it is good for their field to constantly be discovering exciting things that their funders and their supporters among the public want to hear.

8. As above, except with replace climate science with “race science”, with “power posing“, with “the side effects of some drug that earns a pharma company a lot of money”, or your own favorite example.

9. When European trains get bombed, with leaflets distributed near the scene repeating jihadist propaganda, it’s actually a false flag by a rightist trying to discredit Islam.

10. When several prominent Trump critics receive bombs in the mail, it’s actually a “false flag operation” by a leftist trying to discredit Trumpism.

11. Bernie Sanders’ whole campaign is a “false flag operation” by capitalists who are trying to prevent other socialists from entering the race; if Sanders ever shows any signs of winning, he will withdraw under mysterious circumstances.

12. The entire Democratic Socialist movement in America is a “false flag operation” by the CIA, intended to create a wishy-washy Americanized form of socialism that sucks the oxygen away from more aggressive Soviet-style Marxism.

13. The CIA has fixed elections in dozens of foreign countries over the past seventy years or so.

14. The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections.

15. The Catholic Church spent decades covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its priests.

16. A UFO cult has taken over the government and is using it as a base through which to carry out the designs of its extraterrestrial masters.

17. The patriarchy privileges men over women in a variety of ways, excludes women from positions of influence, and suppresses their efforts to win equality.

18. The Bilderberg Meeting secretly plots ways to create a one-world government.

II.

The Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories goes: “You can’t run a big organization in secret without any outsiders noticing or any insiders blowing the whistle.” If we keep this in mind, I think we can resolve some of the awkward tensions above.

For example, the CIA definitely has fixed elections in foreign countries. Is this a conspiracy theory? No. The CIA is not secret. Everyone knows the CIA exists and does nefarious things, even if we don’t know exactly which nefarious things it does. There is no need to keep the CIA secret. It can advertise in public “Wanted: people who are good at doing nefarious things”. And if somebody whistleblows, they will not receive the thanks of a grateful country. They’ll probably just be arrested for leaking classified information, while everybody snoozes. “CIA discovered to have fixed Gabonese elections” is probably a page 5 story at best.

I think “The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections” is a conspiracy theory, with all the unlikeliness that implies. Although the CIA exists openly, fixing US elections would take a powerful conspiracy within the CIA. You would have to hide it from the idealistic young recruits who come in hoping to make the world safe for democracy. You would have to convince all the other CIA agents to hide it from Congress, from the other intelligence services, and from any CIA agent who wasn’t on board. And a whistleblower really would receive the thanks of a grateful country. Although the CIA gets the advantage of existing publicly, the intra-CIA conspiracy to fix elections doesn’t, and so the Basic Argument strikes it down.

(The CIA does work on lots of things the public wouldn’t approve of, like MKULTRA. But the bigger and more controversial they are, the more likely they are to get leaked, which I think supports this theory. At some point the CIA recruits start saying “This isn’t what we signed up for”, and then the usual conspiracy dynamics apply.)

During the 1960s, the CIA sponsored various socialist magazines and organizations with exactly this justification – better direct the sort of people who would be socialist anyway to moderate socialism instead of more violent or Soviet-aligned groups. So why dismiss that they’re behind the modern Democratic Socialists, or Bernie Sanders? As far as I can tell, no reason except the end of the Cold War decreasing their motives, plus it seems like too big a deal to pull off secretly.

Keeping the Basic Argument in mind also helps understand Jews supporting Israel, insurance companies opposing universal health care, scientists sticking to various flawed paradigms, the patriarchy suppressing women, and elites controlling the government. None of these are conspiracy theories, because they’re all obviously in the self-interest of the group involved, so each member can individually decide to do it. That removes the need for the secret coordinating organization, which is the part it’s hard to hide. This means we can dismiss “the Jews caused Brexit” as legitimately a conspiracy theory; if there’s some good reason for Jews to cause Brexit, it’s not obvious to anybody (including the Jews), so you would need the secret centralized organization to convince and coordinate everybody.

This isn’t to say no coordination happens. I expect a little coordination happens openly, through prosocial slogans, just to overcome free rider problems. Remember Trivers’ theory of self-deception – that if something is advantageous to us, we naturally and unconsciously make up explanations for why it’s a good prosocial policy, and then genuinely believe those explanations. If you are rich and want to oppress the poor, you can come up with some philosophy of trickle-down or whatever that makes it sound good. Then you can talk about it with other rich people openly, no secret organizations in smoke-filled rooms necessary, and set up think tanks together. If you’re in the patriarchy, you can push nice-sounding things about gender roles and family values. There is no secret layer beneath the public layer – no smoke-filled room where the rich people get together and say “Let’s push prosocial slogans about rising tides, so that secretly we can dominate everything”. It all happens naturally under the hood, and the Basic Argument isn’t violated.

I think Trump probably met with the Russians. But even if he didn’t, I don’t think that positing “the Democrats are working hard to make the case that he did” qualifies as “conspiracy theory”. People are tempted to genuinely believe whatever puts them on top; that means Democrats probably genuinely believe Trump is guilty. Once they all genuinely believe it, they can talk openly – “How do we help coordinate to reveal the truth to everyone and bring this traitor to justice?” – rather than violating the Basic Argument by meeting secretly to figure out how to best delude the American people. Likewise, I believe climate change is real, but if it isn’t, the way scientists went wrong looks more like this than like a smoke-filled room.

We may have to bring in all of these (and more) to explain why the Catholic Church covering up sex scandals isn’t the kind of conspiracy theory we should automatically reject (or should have automatically rejected before the evidence came in). The Church is a public-facing organization that is known to occasionally keep secrets (like the CIA), but covering up sex scandals seems as far from their stated mission as the CIA fixing US elections. I think we just have to appeal to the Church hierarchy having a culture where this seemed like the obvious thing to do, as natural as insurance companies opposing universal health care. On the other hand, that could be used to justify anything. After all, the Bilderberg Group is known to exist, and maybe it has a culture where plotting a one world government sounds reasonable from the inside. I don’t know what principle rules in the Catholic case but keeps the Bilderberg case out. Maybe we just have to accept that even the most explosive conspiracy theories are sometimes true, and the Church’s sex scandals are one of those times.

As far as I know no UFO cult has ever taken over the federal government. But Scientology did take over the government of Clearwater, Florida. I think this reinforces some of the points above. Scientology is known to exist and known to do nefarious things. Taking over a town government…actually isn’t too far away from what the average member of the public expects them to do. If everyone knows you exist, and everyone knows you’re bad, you’re not a conspiracy, any more than the Nazis were a conspiracy during World War II (and they, too, sometimes secretly manipulated things they weren’t overtly in control of). I think “UFO cult takes over the government” sounds conspiracy-ish only because we read in an implied “…and nobody has heard of this cult or considers it very powerful”.

The train bombing false flag story is true. So why would it have been a conspiracy theory to speculate that the anti-Trump bombs were sent by a leftist? A technical objection: it shouldn’t count as a conspiracy theory because only one person was involved. A more serious take: it’s not impossible that these are false flags, but your prior should be pretty low. Most terrorist bombings by people spouting jihadi propaganda are by Muslims; most letter-bombing of leftists is done by rightists. To jump right away to calling these false flag may not be a “conspiracy theory” in the technical sense, but it’s doing the very conspiracy-theory-ish thing of replacing a simple and direct picture of the world with a more complicated one without having enough evidence to justify such a move. I’m reluctant to say that too strongly, because there have been a few false flags that I called (correctly) before the evidence came in – for example, a few years ago 4Channers pretending to be feminists started a campaign to #EndFathersDay, and I wasn’t fooled. I’m not sure I can verbalize how I figured this out – feminists often do controversial and outrageous things that are not false flags – but sometimes about this one just seemed off. I realize that by giving myself permission to say this I risk everyone else saying “Something about this bombing seems off to me, so I conclude it’s a false flag!” So it goes.

III.

There’s a story about Winston Churchill bothering a certain high society lady. Churchill asked if she would sleep with him for five million pounds; she said such an offer would be hard to resist. Then he asked if she would sleep with him for five pounds; she asked “What kind of a person do you think I am?” Churchill answered “We’ve already established what kind of a person you are; now we’re just haggling over the price.”

I think the above examples prove that this is not the right way to think of conspiracy theories. Imagine Winston Churchill asking you whether a UFO cult secretly controls the government of Clearwater. You say yes. Then he asks if a UFO cult secretly controls the US federal government. “What kind of crazy conspiracy theorist do you think I am?” “We’ve already established there’s a conspiracy, now we’re just haggling over the size”.

Instead, the Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories gives some heuristics for when conspiracies might be more or less plausible. The typical Illuminati-style theory violates all of them; other theories that only violate a few might still be true. Some of these heuristics might be things like:

A. You generally can’t keep the existence of a large organization that engages in clandestine activities secret. If you have an overt large organization that engages in clandestine activities, and everybody knows about it, they can sometimes accomplish conspiracies compatible with their public-facing mission statement (like the CIA destabilizing enemies of America) but are unlikely to accomplish conspiracies very far outside the range of that statement (like the CIA destabilizing America itself).

B. When a group has an obvious interest in an outcome, its members can coordinate upon that outcome without their being any conspiracy. For example, Jews like Israel for reasons that don’t come as a surprise to anybody, so it’s not a conspiracy theory to posit that Jews are involved in supporting Israel; each Jew can make that decision individually for personal reasons. But if Jews wanted a one-world government, that would be surprising and require some secret effort to convince them; claiming that Jews are working for a one-world government is a conspiracy theory. Likewise, it’s unsurprising that the rich don’t like policies that lower their relative standing, so we can figure rich people are influencing the government towards pro-rich and anti-poor policies in some way without it being a conspiracy theory.

C. When a group is able to form an internal culture in which their nefarious goals seem reasonable and prosocial, they can coordinate upon them in ways that might look like a conspiracy to outsiders. For example, rich people say that taxing the rich would punish innovation and reduce dynamism, and probably actually believe this. This lets them coordinate think tanks to lower taxes on the rich without needing smoke-filled underground lairs where they meet and plot against the poor. Likewise, social scientists all liked “power posing” studies because they were exciting, reinforced the standard social science paradigm, and offered a way to reduce gender bias. So for a while lots of studies came out showing power posing was true, and the studies showing it was false never got published, without anyone having to meet in an underground lair and figure out ways to manipulate the science; probably every social scientist who signal-boosted one study and not another believed they were just making the truth slightly more apparent and making the world a better place.

D. All else being equal, small conspiracies are likelier than big conspiracies. A cult may take over a town without the average person knowing it; it would be more surprising for them to take over a country.

E. There is no royal road. Sometimes you can just plead “intuition”, and you’ll be right.

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581 Responses to Too Many People Dare Call It Conspiracy

  1. McClain says:

    Yep! When it’s “Them” it’s a conspiracy. When it’s “Us” it’s just normal human behavior.

    • The Big Red Scary says:

      When estimating the likelihood that members of group A, with which I somehow identify, has done something nasty, I try to increase my objectivity by imagining what I would think if we were considering members of group B, who are more or less allies of group A but with a distinct identity, or members of group C, who are typically considered the “bad guys”. Symmetry between groups is my null-hypothesis, with apparent asymmetry requiring some evidence and explanation.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        Symmetry between groups is my null-hypothesis, with apparent asymmetry requiring some evidence and explanation.

        That’s a really silly null hypothesis. People form different groups because they’re different in systemic ways and those differences have very real effects on group behavior.

        • The Big Red Scary says:

          “People form different groups because they’re different in systemic ways and those differences have very real effects on group behavior.”

          Sure. But it’s often not obvious in advance the ways in which behavior will be different, and I’d like to see evidence before making conclusions. Take for example “liberals” and “conservatives”, in the US sense. The former have a reputation for having more lax social norms with respect to sexual intercourse, the latter a reputation for having stricter social norms in that respect.

          Take some behavior that almost all people on either side consider very nasty, like having sexual intercourse with prepubescent children, or that most people consider somewhat nasty, like having sexual intercourse with post-pubescent but marginally underage youth, or that some people on one side consider acceptable but many people on the other side consider nasty, like polyamory. Now try to guess what percentage of “liberals” versus “conservatives” engage in the above nasty behaviors. I feel fairly confident that polyamory is more common among “liberals” than “conservatives”, but it’s really not obvious to me which group is more likely to engage in the other two nasty behaviors. This is because for the first two behaviors, both groups more or less agree on the social norms, while for the third behavior there is some disagreement.

        • niohiki says:

          I wanted to give a reply and I was thinking about it while clicking on “Reply”, and in my absent-mindedness I instead hit “Report” without realizing what I was doing. It seems I cannot un-report the comment. If Scott sees this – could you please disregard the report? I’m really, really sorry for the confusion.

          About the null hypothesis, it seems like the only reasonable null-hypothesis in absence of evidence. That is, even if you have a prior for groups being different, you don’t have it on how (yet; that’s where you’re going after the null hypothesis). Once you gather evidence, it will fall to one side or the other, right?

          Think of someone flipping a coin where you cannot see it. You may have a 999/1000 prior that it’s either heads or tails – and not the middle option of falling on its side, but you will not know which until you look, so you start by giving them a 50%-50% chance each (well, 999/2000).

        • quanta413 says:

          I think I agree with the above responses.

          Even if our null hypothesis is that groups differ (in some unspecified way), that doesn’t mean our null hypothesis should be that group B differs from group A in a particular direction. A single event (especially a media broadcast one) ranges from weak evidence to total garbage, so it shouldn’t change our opinion much.

  2. Well... says:

    All else being equal, small conspiracies are larger than big conspiracies.

    “It’s the big lies more likely to be believed” – Soundgarden

  3. manwhoisthursday says:

    the patriarchy suppressing women

    The problem with the idea of the patriarchy is that it presumes men’s interests typically coincide more with the interests of other men rather than with those of women, particularly women such as their mothers and sisters.

    The reason patriarchy typically lasted so long because it was broadly more functional for all involved than the alternatives. I mean, the main motive for political organization is to control violence, and prior to the 20th century that mainly had to be done by hand, which meant is naturally fell to men. Also, women who wanted to have sex typically didn’t have much control over reproduction, which made aspiring to anything like a career pretty pointless.

    • onyomi says:

      The problem with the idea of the patriarchy is that it presumes men’s interests typically coincide more with the interests of other men rather than with those of women, particularly women such as their mothers and sisters.

      Though slightly tangential to the topic, I think this gets overlooked too often.

      For example, in most real, old-fashioned patriarchies, wealthy and powerful men get to have multiple wives/concubines. This makes finding even one female partner harder for the vast majority of men, who are not rich and powerful.

      In real matriarchies, by contrast, it seems like average men get a pretty good deal: they get to enjoy promiscuous sex and are not held to a high expectation of supporting any children that may result.

      That the average man would actually be better off under matriarchy is also predicted by at least one historic cause of matriarchy (that I believe applies in this Chinese case; not saying all matriarchies are a result of this; I rather suspect matriarchy is closer to the homo sapiens “forager” default): a lack of men due to war, etc. When men are scarce, women take responsibility for keeping society together and men are in high demand, sexually, without the need to be unusually successful, handsome, etc.

      More generally, since most individual men are in competition with other men to a greater extent than they are with women (both for the affections of women and for success in male-dominated fields), it may not make sense to conceive of “men” (or “women,” for that matter) as a group likely to pursue its collective interests in the way that it makes sense for each individual Jew to have a reason to support Israel. That is patriarchy is probably neither a result of a conspiracy nor a result of men, as a group, pursuing male domination of society, but rather of individual men seeking to outcompete other men in a situation where wombs are relatively dear.

      • Nornagest says:

        In real matriarchies, by contrast, it seems like average men get a pretty good deal: they get to enjoy promiscuous sex and are not held to a high expectation of supporting any children that may result.

        There are matrilineal societies (where kinship is tracked through the female line) and matrifocal societies (where family groups are headed by women), but there aren’t any clear-cut matriarchies (where women hold political leadership) of any size that we know of. There aren’t many apparent cultural universals out there, but this is one.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          What he said. Though I learned the terms matriarchal, matrilineal, matrilocal (newlyweds move in with the bride’s parents) instead.

          • Nornagest says:

            Yeah, that’s a thing too. Not quite the same thing as matrifocal, although there’s probably a positive correlation.

        • Aging Loser says:

          African-American neighborhoods seem to be matriarchal but in a way that doesn’t work out well for the men. I suppose though that this is because there’s no clearly defined function for the men to perform. (I’d be okay with matriarchy if there were clearly defined man-things for me and other men to do that the women saw as meaningful and necessary.)

          • Randy M says:

            Of course it doesn’t work out well for men; men start as children, and children are better off with two consistent parents.

      • “In real matriarchies, by contrast, it seems like average men get a pretty good deal: they get to enjoy promiscuous sex ”

        Why would you assume that is the case? I’d assume it would look more like modern “hook-up culture,” with only a fraction of women exercising their right and, when they choose to do so, doing it with only the most attractive men. The average guy only “hooks up” on occasion,(if that) but when the anthropologists come around, he speaks as if he is Genghis Khan.

        “I rather suspect matriarchy is closer to the homo sapiens “forager” default”

        Well, there are many “forager” peoples, few of whom have ‘matriarchy.’ I’d say that group X which has matriarchy or group Y which has polyandry is just a weird group within foragers or farmers, just as the Mormon fundamentalists are a weird group within industrial-era humans.

    • Furslid says:

      The problem with the idea of the patriarchy is that it presumes men’s interests typically coincide more with the interests of other men rather than with those of women, particularly women such as their mothers and sisters.

      This has always seemed like an odd premise. Under a patriarchy, men are still locked into zero sum competition with other men. It doesn’t seem like supporting the system and loosing those competitions is in their interest.

      What does it benefit me if 90% of the fortune 500 CEOs are male? I’m not one of them and almost certainly never will be.
      What does it benefit the average man to allow polygamy if higher status men take even more of the desirable wives?

      • Statismagician says:

        I think the classic response is something about all Americans being temporarily-embarrassed millionaires, but, yes, we could also just try a different explanation and see if it works better.

        • Don_Flamingo says:

          @Statismagician
          People actually believe that trope?
          Seems overly snarky to me. Conceited members of group A claiming, that it knows the interest of a disagreeing group B better, than they do their own. I thought just unimaginative people, who cannot accurately conceive, that people could disagree with them, have different preferences or disagree about the best way to satisfy the same preferences say that.
          If some study found empirical support for it, then I bet, it’s done by members of A projecting A-preferences on B.

          @Furslid
          Rebelling against a system, where I’m not a CEO of the top 500 is not going to make me or someone I care about more wealthy (or there’s no obvious way, in which it would).
          And if I’m not a top 500 CEO, I have not lost the 500 game, I just never played it. Nor is that game reliant on anyone’s support in particular, because the fact that the game is played is not to my or most people’s detriment.
          Same way I have not lost Denmark’s presidential election.
          Probably because it’s not zero-sum, because we don’t live in such a patriarchy (if a patriarchy is reliant on there being zero-sum games between all parties, which I’m hearing for the first time and is a claim, that I don’t really understand how to interpret).

          I think that a gender doesn’t give you a natural interest group and modelling status and hierarchy competitions as zero-sum games along gender lines is not something people find usually too plausible.
          (well, aside from children in elementary school or those that don’t have much contact or success with the other gender)

          It’s probably different for anti-polygamy attitudes, because that’s more straightforwardly zero-sum and behold:
          Most men live in societies, that don’t allow for polygamy.

          Sorry, if I’m struggling here. Think I’m misinterpreting what is trying to be said.

          • Furslid says:

            The point is that people have no incentive to perpetuate the system that doesn’t benefit them. If you want to use the presidency of Denmark as an example. Why would an American redhead try to fix the presidential election to make sure a redhead is elected? They aren’t in the race. That’s the same reason why the average man doesn’t gain much by promoting some of the patriarchy’s interests.

            As for zero sum games. It’s not that Men vs. Women is zero sum. It’s that men are intense competition with other men. This competition is intense enough that promoting the interests of men as a class isn’t in an individual man’s self interest.

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            @Furslid
            Yes, but people not involved in a system don’t perpetuate systems, but the ones involved do.
            The average man would only promote a hypothetical hierarchies or a patriarchy’s interest, if he’s part of it.
            (though AFAIK nobody seems themselves as an active agent of something called a patriarchy)
            But he wouldn’t try to smash it, because he doesn’t particularly care about it, one way or another.
            I’m not sure that there is intense competition between only men in the economy. In the job market it’s often a competition vs women as well in the entry phase (getting the job).
            But once you’ve gotten the job and stayed on for a while, it’s not really intense. If you’re struggling, you’re losing and will drop out or burn out soon enough.
            You will cease to care about the particular system and try to play another game.
            But once you’re over that, you’ll usually have found your place and rhythm and it’s not exactly intense and draining.
            Only if you’re over it already, you’d have your head free and are powerful enough to maybe change the system, to make it less competetive. But there’s no longer an incentive. And besides, you’ve proven yourself to be a winner. Best raise barriers of entry, so that you can’t get easily replaced?
            I’m not sure, that this process is something that has a straightforward better solution, that people could even agree upon. Or that it’s zero-sum or how we could say that it is. Even if men had some kind of class consciousness, what would they then agree to change? Getting too abstract anyway. Not sure about what/where/when/how/whom and which situations we are actually describing as a situation that needs some kind of solution or is perceived to be ‘unfair’ by which standard of fairness.
            Is intense competition itself perceived as a problem?

            Okay, I’m not exactly sure what the patriarchy argument is trying to say. But I don’t think it’s meant as a conspiracy.
            I think the ‘patriarchy’ is supposed to be something like Moloch, but a specific Moloch resulting in worse outcomes for women (in some categories), rather than men and feminists are concerned about the inequality aspect?

          • Furslid says:

            Right. If there is a patriarchy, it’s a weird emergent thingy that no one really is working for. It’s not a conspiracy where men try to benefit their gender.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        The notion of a patriarchy as a conspiracy among men is ridiculous on its face. Men compete with other men for access to women. We’re not together against you, we’re against each other to try to win you.

        Men have greater variability in almost every heritable trait, and that’s why you have more men CEOs, and generally more men at the extreme of whatever distribution you can think of.

        Everybody has about twice as many female ancestors than male ancestors. Women mated more with high status males whereas even low status women got to mate with reasonable success. This partly explains the greater variability in males mentioned above.

        This in turn, is due to the biological reality that women carry a baby for 9 months while a man can go around and impregnate a woman or two a day.

        Gillette ads notwithstanding, I expect the “patriarchy” to carry on for a good while still.

    • As a steelman of the feminist argument I would point out that no inherent convergence of interest is necessary, rather, punishment of defectors can create an incentive to go along with the existing system. There’s no inherent convergence of interest between the red-haired, but if they ruled the society and punished any redhead who didn’t favor other redheads, it would create an incentive to do so.

      • Hoopyfreud says:

        That’s not a steelman of the general feminist argument, but of the patriarchal argument. You can have feminism without patriarchy.

  4. Jeff Walden says:

    Worth noting that there are false flags perpetrated by the left on the right, too. For the fastest example that comes to my mind (a friend shared the initial reports, so its later falsification stuck in my mind because I forwarded the news to that friend), one woman falsely alleged being attacked while wearing a hijab after Trump’s election. Let no one think the people on their side are always above behaving badly if it’ll advance the cause. 🙁

    • psmith says:

      The entire genre of hate hoaxes is arguably an example.

      • The Nybbler says:

        Most hate hoaxes are just that, hoaxes, not conspiracies — that is, it’s just someone lying without any sort of co-ordination. If there’s a conspiracy, it’s one to credulously accept them as true when it’s convenient. And that only requires a small number of journalists, or a journolist.

        • toastengineer says:

          The “conspiracy” to accept such things seems like it’d fall in to the “Jews Like Israel” category, rather than requiring a small conspiracy.

          • The Nybbler says:

            I’d agree, except that Jornolist really did exist, and on the (conspiracy?) theory that leopards don’t change their spots, I expect something similar still does.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          The conspiracy part comes in when the press reports the event then never mentions the hoax part later when it falls apart. A specific form of the general – “Headline on A1 on Monday, correction on B12 on Thursday”.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yes, particularly when the event does not in any way help the supposed perpetrators. Just before the election a black church in the south was set on fire with “VOTE TRUMP” scrawled across it. This was headline news for days on the anti-Trump media. You would think the obvious question, “how the hell does this help elect Trump?” would make them at least question whether or not this was done by some deranged anti-Trumper. I mean, nobody in the right wing media was pointing to it and saying “ha ha, yes! Look how great this is! Everybody should vote Trump now!” That story was amplified by my anti-Trump Facebook friends, not the pro-Trump ones. Of course later it turned out the perp was an anti-Trump member of that same church, but that was treated like the B12 correction. This all seemed totally obvious to me, but propagandists gonna propagandize.

            That said, my heuristics failed on the MAGABomber. I figured that was a false flag because the devices were inert, and comically so, and “message sent but nobody is in any real danger” maps to “hoax,” but there is that one time the swan is black…

        • Jeff Walden says:

          It seems a bit conspiracy-minded to take the existence of hoaxes to imply that any similar event in the future is also a hoax. Like, elsewhere in this thread, the MAGA bomber dude who was actually real.

          But “conspiracy-minded” may not exactly be conspiracy in the sort of careful parsing engaged in by Scott in the original article. Perhaps a better word is needed than “conspiracy” — something involving “paranoia” maybe, except that because one thing is a hoax thinking others probably are is not really paranoia.

          I’d say the best response to these things is to take them seriously but not immediately prejudge them as truth or hoax. The rush to (sometimes convenient to one’s personal biases) judgment is the mistake. And for most of this sort of thing, there is no real cost to being cautious about reaching conclusions, that I can see.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I agree with that. I’m mad at the media for automatically lending them credence if it supports their biases.

            My usual heuristic is that if the “hate crime” is limited to vandalism/property damage/anonymous threats I go with “probably hoax” because there are more deranged people who want sympathy for being the target of Nazis than there are Nazis.

    • jamesbarney says:

      Does a false accusation count as a false flag though?

      A false flag is a real action, where one party perpetrates it and tries to pin it on another party.

      A false accusation is saying somebody did something they didn’t do.

      • JulieK says:

        There have been a fair amount of fake hate crimes, though. (e.g. People writing racist graffiti on their own door.)

      • Jeff Walden says:

        I’d say a “fabrication”, where the claimant knows that the alleged event never occurred at all, is a false flag. Especially if no one is identifiably accused — “someone did this to me but I don’t know who”.

        I think you’re right that deliberately pointing the finger at a specific person as knowing falsehood is a somewhat different sort of offense. However, it could overlap with false flags. We could imagine someone fabricating an event to “raise awareness” or somesuch, and also accusing a specific person (hated for some other reason, perhaps) at the same time, almost opportunistically.

  5. The Pachyderminator says:

    All else being equal, small conspiracies are larger than big conspiracies.

    “Larger” is probably supposed to read “more likely” or some such.

  6. Le Maistre Chat says:

    If everyone knows you exist, and everyone knows you’re bad, you’re not a conspiracy, any more than the Nazis were a conspiracy during World War II

    A wrinkle: the NSDAP was a secular political party that also contained a New Age cult of Hitler worshipers (the SS) who met in smoke-filled rooms to take over Germany, and also ran the secret death camps.

    • toastengineer says:

      They weren’t particularly quiet about any of these things though, were they? Maybe at the beginning, but it’s not like we’re just now finding out about the Holocaust or the NSDAP bumping off members of the other parties to get elected.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        The SS was quiet about what it was doing from 1933-1945. Some things were kept secret from the general populace (e.g. existence of death camps), while some were even kept secret from government ministers. Himmler was scheming under the noses of ministers like Speer to divert enough resources from the state to, in conjunction with openly buying over 200 companies, make the SS cult independent of Germany.

      • Aapje says:

        @toastengineer

        They constantly used euphemisms to cover up their deeds. They called the Holocaust ‘the final solution.’ The massacre at Babi-Yar was called a ‘major action.’

        Murder was often called ‘special.’ So people who were to be killed were said to be given ‘special treatment.’ The Jews who were made to dispose the corpses at the concentration camps were ‘special units.’ The mobile killing groups were ‘task forces.’

        At first, the murders happened in Germany as part of Aktion T4, but when they actually went full speed ahead with the Holocaust, they switched to extermination camps in remote places, sending Western Jews (and other undesirables) a long distance to obscure their fate.

    • Basil Elton says:

      Just because they put efforts to keep some things secret doesn’t mean they succeeded. General populace knew that bad things happen to Jews and those who oppose NSDAP, and that that’s done by Nazis government, even if it did not know exactly what those things are. People knew that Jews get sent in remote places and anyone with intellect and desire could’ve deduce from publicly available information that those are likely to be some sort of prisons where people are kept in awful conditions and are used for slave labor and die in masses, even if they wouldn’t be able to figure the precise locations or scale of such operations. Due to sheer size of Holocaust it was impossible to perfectly hide, which is exactly the point of the Conspiracy Theory argument.

  7. ScarecrowBoat716 says:

    I tend to think about conspiracy theories like this: “What would the world look like if X was true?” When considering an outlandish conspiracy theory, the answer I tend to gravitate towards is “someone who is credible would have revealed this by now.” Arguing over the purported pieces of evidence is a waste – conspiracy theories as flimsy as “ancient Atlanteans built the pyramids” have lists of evidence that sound appealing when taken as a whole.

    If you were presented with every piece of evidence that 9/11 truthers have compiled, without ever hearing the other side, you would be crazy not to think 9/11 was an inside job. The sheer number of connections and coincidences fit together all too well.

    But what would the world look like if 9/11 was an inside job, on the scale that the truthers believe? More likely than not someone would have revealed it by now. News reporters trying to launch their career would have published legitimate evidence in some major newspaper somewhere. Wikileaks or hackers or whatever would have uncovered something from one of the people involved. A massive plot which would require the complete silence of everyone involved would certainly not go unnoticed. Eventually someone credible would reveal it.

    A few months ago a link was posted on Reddit with the headline “Evidence Shows Hackers Changed Votes in the 2016 Election But No One Will Admit It.” It received somewhere around 50,000 upvotes. Without even clicking the article it didn’t pass the smell test for me. Mostly because of that last part – “But No one Will Admit It.” Uh, why? Why would no one admit that? Surely Nate Silver would be jumping out of his chair if real and credible evidence of votes literally being changed had been revealed. TheRoot.com has this evidence, but no one else does? That would be arguably the biggest political news in American history.

    No one in the Reddit comments questioned the article. And naturally the following day the article was taken down by The Root for failing to meet editorial muster (god I felt so smug when that happened). I didn’t need to read the article at all – using my method, it was obvious from the headline alone that the theory was false.

    I guess the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal could be used as an example of this method not working, but I mean real and credible evidence was eventually revealed. In the information age we should expect such conspiracies to be more and more difficult to hide.

    • randallsquared says:

      > If you were presented with every piece of evidence that 9/11 truthers have compiled, without ever hearing the other side, you would be crazy not to think 9/11 was an inside job.

      > But what would the world look like if 9/11 was an inside job, on the scale that the truthers believe? More likely than not someone would have revealed it by now. News reporters trying to launch their career would have published legitimate evidence in some major newspaper somewhere.

      I think a 9/11 truther would probably assert that this has happened repeatedly, which is how they have compiled that “evidence”? I’m sure they’d have arguments about why those revelations have never blown open the story on a national scale, which probably sound like some combination of conspiracies and normal incentives.

      • 10240 says:

        I’m sure they’d have arguments about why those revelations have never blown open the story on a national scale, which probably sound like some combination of conspiracies and normal incentives.

        … or because y’all dismiss them as a conspiracy theory.

    • toastengineer says:

      I tend to think about conspiracy theories like this: “What would the world look like if X was true?”

      I like to say that if anyone really were in control of the world, the world would be a hell of a lot more orderly than it self-evidently is.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      When considering an outlandish conspiracy theory, the answer I tend to gravitate towards is “someone who is credible would have revealed this by now.”

      But you also have to assume that people who have a vested interest in not caring would actually care. That Obama and elements of his FBI and DOJ conspired to use the FISA process and government surveillance capabilities to spy on their political opposition is well documented. Makes Watergate look like shoplifting bubblegum. No one at CNN cares.

  8. The Nybbler says:

    3. Insurance companies are working to sabotage any proposal for universal health care; if not for their constant machinations, we would have universal health care already.

    Another version: that Intuit and/or H&R Block work to make the tax code more complex; we could have taxes easy to do by hand if not for them.

    My personal favorites are

    1) The US government has secret rooms planted in facilities throughout the US which they use to intercept internet traffic.

    2) The NSA is receiving and analyzing all the call record data for every phone call made in the US.

    3) The US government fabricated an attack to justify involvement in the Vietnam War.
    3a) Also the Spanish-American War

    4) The US government smuggled weapons to belligerents on civilian passenger ships, ultimately leading to the sinking of one such ship with over 1000 civilians aboard.

    5) The CIA is responsible for modern art.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      5) The CIA is responsible for modern art.

      It is truly an evil agency that should be abolished!

    • TDB says:

      I’m trying to think of the stupidest thing I could response in an effort to amuse. But I am stumped.

    • Randy M says:

      5) The CIA is responsible for modern art.

      I thought that was the Soviets. The CIA were responsible for whatever the most demoralizing Russian artistic movement was.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I’m imagining the CIA director calling all the agents together: “I have an idea! Let’s get Russian intellectuals to make cultural works that are really pessimistic and demoralizing!”. All the agents look nervously at each other, wondering who’s going to be the one to tell him.

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          That works as a joke but there’s a world of difference between pessimism and demoralizing and nihilism. Draining life of meaning entirely leaves people rudderless and without motivation and I’d argue that it is absolutely deadly to any society that ends up with it as a belief system.

          Unfortunately nihilism is a lot like Vonnegut’s ice-9 and it spreads by contact and only collapse and replacement with a non-infected society ends it.

        • Randy M says:

          That’s because the CIA is descended from the masons, who are descended from the Templars, who infiltrated and demoralized Russia because of the lack of support of the Orthodox Church in the fall of Acre.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      It’s not clear that (3a) is true, as best I can tell?

      • The Nybbler says:

        I said they were my favorite, not that they were all true. 3a is still muddled. 3b is probably false; while the conclusion that the Maine hit a mine was a huge leap, as far as I know it wasn’t blown up in order to start the war.

        4 is an inflammatory way of putting it, but there were indeed munitions on the Lusitania. Whether the Germans would have used unrestricted submarine warfare if there wasn’t any trafficking of munitions on civilian ships, I don’t know.

    • bean says:

      3) The US government fabricated an attack to justify involvement in the Vietnam War.

      I’m very not sure of this one. I’ve read revisionist accounts of the Gulf of Tonkin which make fairly convincing claims that the usual inconsistencies used as proof the attack was fake are in fact misunderstandings of what was going on at the time, and that the attack was real.

      3a) Also the Spanish-American War

      Definitely false. While I give 70% that the coal bunker explanation is correct (see forthcoming Naval Gazing very soon, possibly tomorrow), that doesn’t mean it was “faked by the US government” in any meaningful sense. I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading on the Spanish-American War, and I don’t think the conventional imperialism narrative holds up that well, any better than “we invaded Iraq for its oil” does. At the time the Sampson Commission reported, President McKinley was still anti-war, and the 1911 investigation into Maine reported a mine, too.

      4) The US government smuggled weapons to belligerents on civilian passenger ships, ultimately leading to the sinking of one such ship with over 1000 civilians aboard.

      I assume this is a reference to Lusitania, in which case no. Lusitania was not sunk because she was carrying weapons, she was sunk because the Germans were practicing unrestricted submarine warfare at the time. She would have been sunk even if there were no weapons aboard, because that is what the Germans were doing at the time. End of story.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        But weren’t the germans only doing that because civilian ships were being used to smuggle weapons? They didn’t sink the Lusitania because the Lusitania was carrying weapons, but because ships like the Lusitania were carrying weapons.

        • woah77 says:

          That is my recollection as well. Also, according to wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_RMS_Lusitania) the Lusitania was carrying munitions.

        • bean says:

          Lusitania was carrying munitions, and I’m not even necessarily criticizing the Germans for sinking her. We did the same thing to Japan 30 years later. But unrestricted submarine warfare was unleashed for reasons a lot more complicated than “running munitions in passenger craft”.

          Also, she wasn’t an American ship, and the US government didn’t put the munitions aboard. At most, we didn’t stop the British from doing so.

  9. shacklesburst says:

    Is this one of the energy drink posts? I reads a little haphazardly put together.

  10. nkurz says:

    I like the examples, but does labeling something a “conspiracy theory” serve a useful purpose beyond declaring that one believes that the theory is false and that anyone dumb enough to believe it should be ashamed? While it’s still technically possible to point to the verbatim meaning “this theory is probably false because it is unlikely that a group large enough to achieve that outcome could have keep their silence until now”, I don’t think strict adherence is required by current usage. Unless there is something essential about retaining this particular categorization, I think it would be better just to discourage the use of the label altogether than to spend time arguing for a return to the original definition.

    • TDB says:

      I have the same response. At best, it should mean something that’s fun/interesting to believe, but not well supported by evidence. IT typically gets used as a smear. I wish I thought I never used it, but I probably do.

      I’m more worried about the possibility that questions where good evidence exists have become difficult to deal with, e.g. the tobacco industry’s efforts to obfuscate or just slant the facts in the 1950s. Or always were and we didn’t notice?

      Is climate change exploring new territory? I’ve always felt there was plenty of space to stipulate that the climate is changing as a result of human activity, but that most of the proposed solutions might seem like Removing a slow cancer with a stick of dynamite. Instead, people who presumably know more about PR than I do decided to use say we shouldn’t listen to scientists and there’s nothing to worry about.

      • Instead, people who presumably know more about PR than I do decided to use say we shouldn’t listen to scientists and there’s nothing to worry about.

        I’m not sure who these “people” are.

        I’m annoyed that the usual arguments against AGW alarmism are the weak ones (the claim that warming isn’t happening or isn’t due to humans) rather than the strong one (there is no good reason to expect the net effects of change to be negative, let alone negative and huge). But I don’t attribute that to some clever PR organization but to the fact that simple arguments spread more easily than complicated ones.

        Just as the fact that most people think of the greenhouse effect as CO2 being an insulator, like a blanket, rather than realizing that it depends on selective transparency, blocking long wave length light more than short, isn’t due to any clever plot. It’s because the wrong idea is easier to understand, if you don’t think about it carefully, than the right one. That’s also a large part of why most discussions of trade issues are put in terms of 18th c. economic theory (absolute advantage), reflected in terms such as “competitiveness” and “unfavorable balance of payments,” rather than in terms of ideas created in the early 19th century and still accepted by economists. Absolute advantage is easier to understand than comparative advantage.

        • Secretly French says:

          there is no good reason to expect the net effects of change to be negative, let alone negative and huge

          I always assumed that there was good reason, namely that humans have built a brittle civilisation for themselves, which has limited capacity to absorb changes in sea-level, or food production capacity, and so on, without catastrophic loss of life. Although there are those who would smirk and say that New York and San Francisco ending up underwater wouldn’t be a negative outcome…

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            Not to rehash the Jan 1 thread, but I think it’s reasonable to expect that the parts of the ecosystem that humans can use to keep themselves alive won’t fundamentally break.

            As for the rest of the rest of the ecology, though…

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Civilization is pretty brittle. We are always a Carrington event away from widespread chaos. But sea level changes and the like will always happen slowly on human time scales. When the price of real estate in San Fransisco drops dramatically, maybe then we should be concerned.

            It’s also worth noting that the “cure” for AGW will have negative effects and huge negative effects at that. CO2 is the product of combustion, which is the chemical reaction which allowed humans to develop civilization in the first place. Drastically reducing our ability to burn stuff is going to lead to deaths and poverty much more reliably than warming by a few degrees.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            Humans survive sea levels that vary by 2 feet on a typical day.

          • Although there are those who would smirk and say that New York and San Francisco ending up underwater wouldn’t be a negative outcome…

            Do you think there is good reason to expect NY and SF to end up underwater? There is a convenient web page that lets you put in a number of meters of SLR and look at the resulting map, zooming in on an area of interest.

            Going further along these lines gets us too far into CW territory, but I’ll be happy to expand on the argument in some suitable later OT.

          • DaveK says:

            There’s a lot of misunderstanding of climate science, even amongst intelligent educated people. Part of this comes from confusion over chaos theory and non-linear dynamics. More reasonable skeptics of AGW point out that it seems unfalsifiable. There are many possible predictions made, some of which contradict each other.

            That’s because 1) new data is always being added which change the models 2) chaotic systems have things called “strange attractors” which are distributions of probabilities. So climate scientists look at possible outcomes and conclude “we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. The scenarios range from the mild and inconsequential to the catastrophic. But the largest probability is changes that will adversely affect the ability of human societies to cope.” This message would not be understood by the general public, so the approach is to focus on alarmism to get people to take it seriously. This unfortunately leads to a “crying wolf” phenomenon, where everything can be seen as potential confirmation of the model. The question is framed by both supporters and detractors incorrectly. The question isn’t “Do CO2 levels affect (x) weather event?” As a part of climate, they do, and would even with no human contributions. The question should be “Does human activity increase the likelihood of problematic weather changes?” Which is also complicated because while the answer is yes, you can’t say specifically what those changes will be, and you also can correctly say that any individual weather phenomenon or pattern is a result of AGW, but you also can’t exactly say what the difference would be in the absence of AGW other then “when adding up a bunch of random things, almost certainly better overall for humans.”

            When partisan argument x manifests- “This weather pattern is proof/refutation of climate change” vs “no it’s not”, both sides are misunderstanding the dynamics of the question. Humans are really bad at being intuitive about statistical things, especially when they are chaotic. What you can look it (to vastly oversimplify) is changes to things that are less prone to change, like arctic ice levels and mountain snowcaps.

            The often repeated headline “scientists say we may be near a tipping point” also leads to confusion. The tipping point concept is real- a point where the criticality line is crossed, and what have been gradual changes move more rapidly like a sand pile collapsing from one more grain, but the time of said tipping point if it exists is unknown. So while the “we may be near a tipping point” line is correct, hearing it repeated again and again sounds like fear mongering to the skeptically inclined.

            Also, the members of the general public who are extremely alarmed misunderstand what’s likely to happen, and tend to think an extinction scenario is imminent. This is an incorrect extrapolation of an absolute worse case scenario, the “venus” scenario, that is based on a ton of conditionals that run contrary to the established scientific consensus. In other words, it’s “assuming scientists are way, way off about x, y, z, a, and b, then it’s possible the planet could overheat to a ridiculous extent and destroy all life on earth.” This scenario is now recognized as unhelpful even by most scientific alarmists on climate change as it’s almost certainly not going to happen and distracts from real understanding of the risks and solutions.

            Nevertheless, the long term prognosis is fairly bad. There is no conceivable way that continuing to increase the CO2 indefinitely over the next few centuries doesn’t lead to very radical and difficult climate changes (other then incredible technological advances being able to counter it).

            Furthermore, some of the possible scenarios really are catastrophic. For example, the possibility that ice melting from the arctic polar caps slows or stops the mid-atlantic ocean warming current which largely results in Europe having high temperatures relative to it’s latitude. This would alter the climate of northern europe to be like Siberia or northern Canada, which would result in collapse of agriculture and the eoosystem in those countries and cause significant similar burdens for the rest of Europe. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this would have catastrophic consequences.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          It’s because the wrong idea is easier to understand, if you don’t think about it carefully, than the right one.

          For me, this level of detail either 1) feels too complicated for my understanding, or 2) I assume if a layperson like me can see a problem, then an expert would have already fixed the problem.

          The older I get, the more I realize that neither of these assumptions holds as well as I thought earlier in my life.

          • woah77 says:

            Yeah, the longer I work in engineering, the more obvious it is to me that people are awful at coordination and that the military is actually really organized for its size.

          • Aapje says:

            ‘Organize or die’ is a good motivator.

          • DaveK says:

            I think the reason the military is surprisingly co-ordinated come from 1) the historical circumstance that after ww2, the USA was the only industrialized country left standing and was thus had an unprecedented ability to reshape the economic order of the world to further it’s supremacy, particularly with making the US dollar the world’s reserve currency 2) it was in a unique conflict with a rival military where the threat of mutual annihiliation prevented direct conflict, but maintaining supremacy and competing over the shape of it’s economic order was or was perceived as existential, and the credibility of this threat and its real horror and capacity to annihilate the other side provided america with strong incentives to strengthen it’s military in an effective way.

            That said there were still plenty of inefficiencies, and it should be noted that just because the US military has been the most dominant in the past does not mean it will continue to be so in the future, and there are some “bugs” in terms of the way the military industrial complex and the world economy has evolved that may be threats to it’s ability to maintain it’s relative efficiency. For a specific example, see the f-35 fighter jet boondoggle that’s occurred over the past decade.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Agreed.

  11. Hoopyfreud says:

    Pretending the invitation is serious because, like everyone on 4chan, I love conspiracy theories and freebase them recreationally…

    1. Donald Trump and his advisors secretly met with Russian agents to discuss how to throw the 2016 election in his favor.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged.

    2. Donald Trump didn’t collaborate with any Russians, but Democrats are working together to convince everyone that he did, in the hopes of getting him indicted or convincing the electorate that he’s a traitor.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged

    3. Insurance companies are working to sabotage any proposal for universal health care; if not for their constant machinations, we would have universal health care already.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged, but also not entertaining

    4. The ruling classes constantly use lobbyists and soft power to sabotage tax increases, labor laws, and any other policy that increase the relative power of the poor.

    Not a conspiracy theory (which isn’t to say I think it’s true, just that it’s not conspiratorial enough as stated), not ultimately deranged.

    5. America’s aid to Israel is not in America’s best interest, but is maintained through the power of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups mainly supported by America’s Jewish community.

    Not a conspiracy theory (same as above), not ultimately deranged

    6. The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe.

    Conspiracy theory, ultimately deranged but entertaining

    7. Climate scientists routinely exaggerate or massage their studies to get the results they want, or only publish studies that get the results they want, both because of their personal political leanings and because they know it is good for their field to constantly be discovering exciting things that their funders and their supporters among the public want to hear.

    Not a conspiracy, just depressing. Deranged but also rational.

    8. As above, except with replace climate science with “race science”, with “power posing“, with “the side effects of some drug that earns a pharma company a lot of money”, or your own favorite example.

    As above.

    9. When European trains get bombed, with leaflets distributed near the scene repeating jihadist propaganda, it’s actually a false flag by a rightist trying to discredit Islam.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged

    10. When several prominent Trump critics receive bombs in the mail, it’s actually a “false flag operation” by a leftist trying to discredit Trumpism.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged

    11. Bernie Sanders’ whole campaign is a “false flag operation” by capitalists who are trying to prevent other socialists from entering the race; if Sanders ever shows any signs of winning, he will withdraw under mysterious circumstances.

    Conspiracy theory of the best sort (difficult to motivate people to do actual bad things with, internally logical but also plainly insane), not ultimately deranged

    12. The entire Democratic Socialist movement in America is a “false flag operation” by the CIA, intended to create a wishy-washy Americanized form of socialism that sucks the oxygen away from more aggressive Soviet-style Marxism.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged

    13. The CIA has fixed elections in dozens of foreign countries over the past seventy years or so.

    Not a conspiracy theory, given that it’s documented for some countries. Each individual case that isn’t substantiated probably is though. Not ultimately deranged.

    14. The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged.

    15. The Catholic Church spent decades covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its priests.

    Conspiracy theory, not ultimately deranged.

    16. A UFO cult has taken over the government and is using it as a base through which to carry out the designs of its extraterrestrial masters.

    Conspiracy theory, probably ultimately deranged, especially if it assumes the extraterrestrial masters are real.

    17. The patriarchy privileges men over women in a variety of ways, excludes women from positions of influence, and suppresses their efforts to win equality.

    Not a conspiracy theory. Not ultimately deranged. Just frustrating.

    18. The Bilderberg Meeting secretly plots ways to create a one-world government.

    Conspiracy theory. Not ultimately deranged.

    My top 5:

    #5

    A UFO cult has taken over the government and is using it as a base through which to carry out the designs of its extraterrestrial masters.

    Funny but not especially deep, with no real correspondences or coincidences to draw on. Entry level.

    #4

    Bernie Sanders’ whole campaign is a “false flag operation” by capitalists who are trying to prevent other socialists from entering the race; if Sanders ever shows any signs of winning, he will withdraw under mysterious circumstances

    Hoo baby, now we’re getting somewhere. There still aren’t any real correspondences to draw on, but the conspiracy now has members and a target, while simultaneously remaining silly and off-the-wall. Points off for being implausible “on the ground”, though.

    #3

    The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe

    “The Jews” is kind of tired at this point, but the fact that this conspiracy is actualized in the form of apparently irrational real-world events that correspond fairly well to the stated aims of the conspiracy mean it’s better than the majority of jew conspiracies. I would have gone with The CIA or The Russians, or even Israel or China, but the meat of the theory is still compelling.

    #2

    The Bilderberg Meeting secretly plots ways to create a one-world government

    The real-world correspondences one can draw are probably… ok. The members and organization aren’t that flashy, but they are mysterious and spooky, and you can drop both work this into a conversation and stop it dead when you do. It’s not egregiously racist, which means that people refuting it have to try to do so on an object level, and that it’s more crazy than it is offensive. If “the jews” were any other group, #3 would probably (((steal))) this spot.

    #1

    The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections.

    As simple as it is stupid, as complex as it is explicative, and as socially rancid as it is subtly compelling. A fine conspiracy theory which, if you put the effort in to maintain as a framework for analysis of the upcoming election, will yield dividends and spools of red string. It’s a bit early to make the call now, but I think a year and a half from now – or, possibly better, two and a half years from now – it’ll be a perfect summer peach.

  12. onyomi says:

    I think part of the problem is slipperiness of definitions.

    For example, I agree that “there is a big, coordinated effort, within a US federal agency, to take down a US president,” is too big and unusual a phenomenon to effectively keep hidden. But if the reality were “a large number of agents working in US federal agency believe the US president is a menace and so, on their own and in small groups, take subtle actions intended to undermine him as much as they think they can get away with,” I think most conservatives (assuming we are talking about a conservative president and liberal operatives here) would probably call that a “conspiracy” too, even if it doesn’t meet the standard of “a large number of people working together in secret.”

    I think this is kind of what happened with e.g. the IRS singling out conservative groups for extra scrutiny. Did that qualify as a conspiracy? Insofar as more than a few people were explicitly coordinating to do something contrary to the generally understood mission of the IRS, I’d say “yes.” In the sense of “was a memo sent out to a large number of people explicitly stating ‘we’re going to get those conservative groups'”? Probably not, though since this did eventually get leaked it could also fall into the category of “conspiracy too big to remain secret,” so I tend to believe that something bigger and more outrageous than e.g. this could not likely remain a secret.

    • jamesbarney says:

      Insofar as more than a few people were explicitly coordinating to do something contrary to the generally understood mission of the IRS, I’d say “yes.”

      After just reading the wikipedia article it looks like a case of mismanagement to me. I don’t think anyone ever got together and decided to target conservative groups.

      It looks like the evidence for conspiracy is there was an excel spreadsheet they used to find groups they thought might be political(and therefore have different rules around taxation). And it had more conservative key words than liberal ones.

      The other piece of evidence for a conspiracy, is more right wing groups were targeted for further scrutiny than left wing groups.

      Evidence opposing the conspiracy, is the FBI did a full investigation for years and came to the conclusion it was gross mismanagement and not enemy hunting.

      On this one I’d believe the FBI. The contrary evidence is very strong, and the FBI is usually a forthright organization, especially on cases with this much publicity.

      There was probably some subconscious partisanship by some people which influenced what keywords were on that list but I don’t think it was as deliberate as enemy hunting. Kind of the way subconscious racism works. An underwriter doesn’t think he’s racist but spends 25% more time looking for inconsistencies when applicants have African-American sounding names. He might not know he does it, he might know he does it but think it’s because he’s found more inconsistencies in the past on African-American resumes in a vicious cycle.

    • orin says:

      Isn’t that just law enforcement doing their jobs? Presumably if you are an FBI agent and you think someone is a menace (counterintel isn’t the same as a criminal investigation after all), then the investigative actions you take against that person are exactly what you should be doing. You shouldn’t think someone is a menace for mere political reasons, but I think it’s clear that whatever issues FBI agents have had with Trump, it wasn’t because he was a Republican.

      • Furslid says:

        Can you be sure that it isn’t because he’s politically opposed to them? One of Scott’s main points in the article is that people craft justifications for their self interest. The rich like maintaining their power. The rich believe in trickle down economics. Their belief in trickle down economics is more because it leads to policies that help the rich than the truth of trickle down economics.

        Couldn’t there be a similar reason for opposition to Trump? Person opposes Trump. Person believes that Trump working with Putin is terrible in a different way than Trump & Hillary & others working with the Saudi royal family.

      • onyomi says:

        I think it’s them thinking they’re doing their jobs which is why it’s possible for something like that to happen on a medium-ish scale before it finally gets out. If it required a lot of people working together on something they knew for sure wasn’t supposed to be a part of their jobs then the “leak threshold” would likely be much lower.

        I guess what I’m saying is that there is overlap (and seemingly growing overlap?) between the venn diagrams for “things government employees think are a reasonable part of their jobs” and “things people not sympathetic to their political goals and priorities would call a conspiracy if they found out about it.”

    • Thomas Jorgensen says:

      That was, uhm, exactly the IRS mission. By definition, if you are right wing, you are not entitled to the tax exemptions these orgs were claiming. (or left wing, for that matter) Right wing groups committing this particular version of tax fraud were really easy to find, because they tended to have names which made it abundantly clear they were in fact political organizations, so some IRS staff went on a turkey shoot. Shooting at – and this is the key fact, very guilty turkeys. Did they target as many left wing orgs? No, because, a, the left did this crime less, and b, when they did they had the sense not to call their organization “Super-liberal gays for Democratic Governance”

      • Jaskologist says:

        “Their question, specifically asked from the IRS to the Coalition for Life of Iowa: ‘Please detail the content of the members of your organization’s prayers,’” Schock declared.

        Would you say that’s exactly the IRS mission?

      • Another Throw says:

        I’m confused because “Super-liberal gays for Democratic Governance” could totally be eligible.

        I never payed any attention to the issue at the time, but I thought it had a lot more to do with the overbroad or impossible requests for additional information. Things like donor and member lists (which I thought NAACP v. Alabama had something to say about…), copies of correspondence with the Koch Foundation, copies of all correspondence, and that sort of thing.

      • Paul Zrimsek says:

        NARAL Pro-Choice America, to name just one has the same 501(c)(4) status that those wingy groups were applying for.

        ETA: Suffice it to say, just being political doesn’t disqualify any organization from tax-exempt status; what you can’t be is primarily engaged in electioneering. If I wanted to steelman the IRS behavior I might suggest that it was the second word in “Tea Party” that made them prick up their ears.

  13. I just read this passage in Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed:

    Years ago I interviewed some white supremacists from an Aryan Nations compound in Idaho about their conviction that the Bilderberg Group — a secretive annual meeting of politicians and business leaders — was a Jewish conspiracy.

    “How can you call it a Jewish conspiracy when practically no Jews go to it?” I asked them.

    “They may not be actual Jews,” one replied, “but they are …” He paused. “… Jewish.”

    So there it was: at Aryan Nations, you didn’t need to be an actual Jew to be Jew-ish.

    • albatross11 says:

      It’s the inverse of No True Scotsman!

    • Null42 says:

      You know, if they weren’t so violent, their obsession with Jews would be kind of funny. Every single problem can be laid at the feet of the Jews, even in European countries with almost no Jews. That Barbara Lerner Spectre quote from years ago keeps getting trotted out and they won’t shut up about the USS Liberty from 1967 to prove that Israel is trying to destroy America.

    • DaveK says:

      This is actually pretty easy. For them, the definition of “jewish” is “evil conspirator who runs the world”- this is what their ideology is based on.

      So whether or not they are ethnically jewish is irrelevant, in the same sense that a whale could be a fish if your definition of fish is “things that live in water”

  14. 10240 says:

    Nitpick-ish: the phrase “(dare) call it a conspiracy” is used in two different contexts here:
    (1) to call the actual things that are happening a conspiracy
    (2) to call someone else’s theory about what is happening a conspiracy, in order to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory.

    (1) is used to promote a particular conspiracy-ish theory, (2) is used to dismiss it; saying that it shouldn’t be called a conspiracy in the “deranged conspiracy theory” sense promotes the theory by saying that it’s plausible. Gary Allen uses the phrase as in (1); Scott uses it, throughout the article, as in (2). Thus, if according to Scott “too many people dare call too many things conspiracy”, then his problem is not quite the opposite of Allen’s.

    • JulieK says:

      I think it would have been a good idea to start out with an explanation like this, rather than taking it for granted that everyone understands why calling something a conspiracy theory means you can now ignore it.

  15. Randy M says:

    I think Trump probably met with the Russians. But even if he didn’t, I don’t think the Democrats arguing that he did qualifies as “conspiracy theory”. People are tempted to genuinely believe whatever puts them on top; that means Democrats probably genuinely believe Trump is guilty.

    This first sentence seems a bit awkward, as I suppose is inevitable when one could argue either facet is a conspiracy.
    But I think you mean to say that the Democrats arguing is not a conspiracy; it is a “conspiracy theory” to propose that Trump conspired with the Russians, although that doesn’t mean it is wrong. I agree that the Democrats themselves are not a conspiracy; they are the conspiracy theorists, though.

    I don’t know what principle rules in the Catholic case but keeps the Bilderberg case out.

    Sometimes implausible things are true. Doesn’t mean you were justified to have believed them beforehand. Compare the conspiracies of the Church hiding a ring of pedophile priests and the Church hiding secret histories belie it’s entire theology, ala Dan Brown. The former was more likely because of the source of the accusations, the time period over which conspiracy would have operated, and the motivation of alleged conspirators. It’s not so much about finding the principle to rule a conspiracy in or out, but just careful application of Beyesian reasoning, isn’t it?

    E. There is no royal road. Sometimes you can just plead “intuition”, and you’ll be right

    If you make enough guesses about anything, ‘sometimes’ you’ll be right. Aren’t you the guy who said (paraphrased), “At least make up some numbers to reason it out?” ‘Sometimes your biases are right’ is a true statement, but seems to be a departure for the rationalist philosophy.

    • woah77 says:

      ‘Sometimes your biases are right’

      I think it’s more accurate to say, in this circumstance, that sometimes your priors are right. It’s not poor reasoning to say “I’ve seen enough things from this group to know that this is more likely than not their work.” It doesn’t mean you have evidence, but if you had evidence you’d have tested the theory and either validated or invalidated it.

  16. Another aspect of this problem:

    History (including current events today and in every era) is a mess of contradictions and puzzles and loose ends. Any comprehensive conspiracy theory cleans it all up. Through that lens, everything makes sense. Everything fits. There are no coincidences. “Seeming” confusion and disorder is replaced by satisfying order.

    And YOU (the conspiracy-theory-believer) are one of the lucky few who understands it all. The existence of a powerful, controlling conspiracy organizes your world.

    This combination of qualities is what makes world-spanning conspiracy theories so emotionally appealing to so many people.

  17. Statismagician says:

    I have to say, Scott, I don’t like your ‘E’. (Even though I think it was pretty clearly meant as a joke.) A vast supermajority of the times that people plead “intuition” about this class of issue, they’re wrong, obviously and trivially. If your defense is ‘sure, I’m a broken clock, but I swear it’s 10:00 AM right now,’ you deserve strictly limited credit even if it really is 10:00 AM. There are deeper points to be made about expert vs. naive intuition* on the one hand, or about metis vs. episteme on another, but I can’t help but feel this glosses over too much.

    *I.e., if some random dude says ‘this political issue seems fishy,’ I probably don’t care; if my dear hypothetical friend the 20-year CIA veteran planner-of-fishy-things implies that he’s pretty sure he saw the plans for the Congolese equivalent, maybe I take it a bit more seriously. Or I ignore my nephew’s suggestions on study design, but at least seriously consider my mentor’s.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You’re right on an Outside View, but I think on an Inside View you’re perfectly allowed to do this.

      IE there is a good general rule “If you think you can predict the market, you are wrong and an idiot.” But if Warren Buffett sometimes says “I think I can predict the market”, and is right, that doesn’t disprove the general rule. It makes the rule harder to hammer into people’s heads, because everyone can say “I, like Buffett, am one of the rare people for whom this works”. But sometimes you just have to accept that this bad thing will happen.

      I think I have, with some accuracy, spotted 4Chan false flag operations. This isn’t to say that I’m always right, or that this isn’t going to license a lot of dumb people to think they can accuse whatever they want of being a false flag, but I don’t think it’s wrong to say it sometimes works.

      • Quixote says:

        Its worth noting that basically everyone who worked or interned for Ben Graham and later started a fund had well above market returns for the 30 or so years following that point. Warren Buffett was not a totally rare and unique case. He was a moderate outlier among a sizable class of people that all outperformed the market.

        Of course since Grahm died in 76 and retired before that there are not many new members of this class. Its likely that the markets have become more efficient since then and you could not find something like this today. But its an important calibration point that a large group of people all applied the same approach and all beat the markets (although by different amounts) for 30+ years.

      • Jiro says:

        I don’t think it’s wrong to say it sometimes works.

        I’ve managed to spot three trolls on /r/slatestarcodex that the moderators did not, including one that I had forgotten about until a moderator tried to bring it up as a counterexample (turned out it was just an example). I did not in the process spot any non-trolls as trolls.

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        4Chan is really really bad at false flag operations. I think the rule is “if your false flag operation totally fails to pass the Intellectual Turing Test, and it’s clearly supposed to be multiple people and not a lone person with ridiculous opinions, then you can call ‘false flag.'”

      • Statismagician says:

        All fair – I certainly don’t say nobody has useful intuition about what is or isn’t a conspiracy, and I definitely filter by intuition to some degree in areas where I think I have a decent knowledge base. But I try not to stop there if I’m arguing a point internally or externally, and, not having personal access to other people’s intuition accuracy figures, don’t necessarily trust it when others do. Obvious exceptions for people who clearly could give a full account if asked to are obvious; e.g. if bean tells me something about naval history I assume it’s a reasonable summary of several weighty tomes and take it as being at the very least first-order true.

        Unrelated, I’d just like to say thanks for responding; I really appreciate the amount of time and effort you put into your posts and into the site generally.

  18. Clarence says:

    More conspiracies:

    19. The neutral debate moderator at CNN leaked the questions to Hillary Clinton in advance, so she was prepared while Trump had to think on his feet.

    20. The Clinton campaign paid for a dossier that the FBI used to justify spying on the Trump campaign.

    21. Joe Biden, possible US president in 2020, behaves in a very creepy way around children and touches their hair and whispers in their ears.

    22. The man who wrote the infamous false flag WMD memo that was used as justification to start the Iraq War was Robert S. Mueller III.

    23. Madeline Albright had proof that Saddam had WMD and called for invasion in 1998.

    24. PNAC, an organization that is totally unable to influence policy via the back room, urged war in Iraq in 1996.

    25. Donna Brazile claimed in her book that after the murder of Seth Rich she was so afraid of assassins that she kept her blinds closed. A not at all strange reaction to a random mugging gone wrong.

    26. The President of the USA just ordered a military withdrawal from a war we have no business being in, only to be overruled not long afterwards by the unelected government.

    27. In 2016 senior leadership within the Obama FBI and Department of Justice, with direct and provable ties straight to the White House, planned and conducted a targeted political operation against a presidential candidate by weaponizing the intelligence community against Donald Trump.

    Using sketchy, intentionally misleading and false information provided to a U.S. District Court Judge, the Obama FBI and DOJ colluded to present an application for wiretaps and surveillance authority to the FISA court; subsequently, they used a FISA warrant as part of an exhaustive counterintelligence operation against their political opposition.

    28. 58 Admitted False Flag Attacks

    29. FDR deliberately baited the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor.

    Admiral J.O. Richardson: The admiral said he was going to tell a story that the lieutenant could regard as a parable. “Assume”, Richardson said, “you were the leader of the greatest nation in the world, and assume that you saw, in another hemisphere, the development of a power which you regarded, and with reasonable support, as a total threat to Western civilization as you knew it. Supposing, however, for various reasons, your conception of the danger was not shared by your constituents, your own people. And you saw the total destruction of western civilization in the hands of this adversary, and your detected in your own people, at the time, on the basis of everything they knew, a lack of appreciation of the problem. Assume you saw that the only salvation of Western civilization was to repel this particular power but that required you to enter a foreign war for which your people were not psychologically or militarily prepared. Assume that what was needed to galvanize your own people for a unified approach towards this basic danger to civilization was an incident in which your posture was clearly of passive non-aggression, and apparent unpreparedness; and the incident in question was a direct act of aggression which had no excuse or justification. Assume that you saw this potentiality developing on the horizon and it was the solution to the dilemma, as you saw it, of saving civilization and galvanizing your own people. It is conceivable, is it not, that you might be less disposed to create a situation in which there might be no doubt as to who struck the first blow”….”It’s a fable. You just think about that fable as you study some of this material. And, it’s conceivable that it might have some enlightening factors.”

    Many of what we call ‘conspiracies’ are the ruling class showing class solidarity. I think it is a mistake to characterize the spread of this culture-poison as the result of one big, planned conspiracy on the part of a shady group of people. Rather, it is the result of thousands of little conspiracies hatched by groups of people with a common instinct. A hivemind, like the people who worked both together and separately to create the GNU/Linux. I think a better phrase would be “So you’re one of those weirdo coincidence theorists, huh?”

    • sharper13 says:

      Here’s one:
      Billionaire Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, spent $100K on a project for former Obama staffers using social media techniques derived from supposed Russian work in 2016 to pretend to be a Russian botnet supporting the Alabama Senate candidacy of Roy Moore. As part of the “He’s supported by the Russians!” smear campaign, they also tried to divert his supporters to a random write-in candidate, Watson, even getting him a Washington Post interview out of their support and causing Moore to be accused of having Russian twitter bot supporters.

      That would have been a good one, except of course it was already reported in the NY Times and Hoffman has since apologized.

      But imagine trying to sell that “conspiracy” story before the internal memo describing it came out….

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think the inclusion of the Joe Biden link takes this from “on-topic discussion of some interesting true conspiracies, with a right-wing bent” to “using this as an excuse to post a bunch of right-wing talking points”. Banned under recent crackdown on politicization.

      You may consider replying to the list above if you have something fascinating to say, but I will have a hair-trigger for deleting bad comments on this subthread.

      • Plumber says:

        “…. recent crackdown on politicization…”

        Can someone please link to what our host means by ” politicization”?

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        I think you’re a little fast on the ban hammer there Scott.

        The only point he made that I’ll take issue with is the first one. The CNN moderator did not leak the questions for a Trump/Hillary debate to Hillary (that we know of). Donna Brazille, working for CNN, gave Hillary the questions for her debate with Bernie.

      • Quixote says:

        Good call.

      • The Joe Biden link went to a “Video Unavailable” page, so I have no idea what it was or whether it justifies a ban. The description of the link could have been a joke.

    • Jiro says:

      More conspiracies:

      Almost all of those are single people and don’t require coordination, so they are disqualified as conspiracy theories, even if Scott thinks being done by a single person is just a technicality.

      • The Nybbler says:

        There’s the one about the Hillary Clinton campaign promoting weak “pied piper” Republican candidates in order to make the general election easier for her. Twist #1 is it worked, Twist #2 is the Republican won anyway.

        • CatCube says:

          I’m not gonna lie, I had to fight to keep from thinking that Donald Trump was a Hillary plant; I’m still not totally sure that he wasn’t and it just backfired on her.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            No, I think it was revealed in the DNC email leaks. They were telling their media allies to play up Trump because they thought he couldn’t win. He wasn’t a plant, but the DNC did the obviously opportune thing. It’s kind of like how I’m really happy the press keeps giving lots of air time to Alexandria Ocaiso-Cortez.

        • Garrett says:

          Didn’t the Republican talking heads to the same thing to defeat Hillary in 2008, suggesting that they switch party registration and vote for that incompetent, unelectable Obama guy in the primaries?

          • EchoChaos says:

            Operation Chaos, yes. It was Rush Limbaugh’s idea, but you have it backwards. It was to vote for Clinton over Obama because she was unelectable.

            And to be fair, she was.

  19. JulieK says:

    Keeping the Basic Argument in mind also helps understand Jews supporting Israel (etc.)

    The Basic Argument might still leave you with only a half-correct understanding of the situation. For example, many Jews support Israel, but an even larger number of American Christians support Israel (in a normal, non-secret way).

  20. nein says:

    Regarding the CIA “fixing” the US elections: probably depends on what “fixing” means and what “the CIA” means.
    Say the CIA has some information about the (anti-CIA? socialist? evil?) candidate A and somebody somewhere in the hierarchy decides to secretly leak it to candidate B. Candidate B publishes it to great effect.
    Is that “fixing the election”? Is it only “fixing” if it’s successful, and only successful because of the CIA? And was it done by “the CIA”, or was it done by one individual? Is it only “the CIA” if it was decided at the highest level, or only if most people in the CIA were involved in the decision and execution in some way or another?

    Did the FBI fix the 2016 election with publications about Clinton’s email server shortly before the election?

  21. reasoned argumentation says:

    [this comment is broken into two parts because it came out very long]

    Scott has some very strange blind spots that are nonetheless entirely predictable – let’s go through the list of potential conspiracies to flesh this out.

    1. Donald Trump and his advisors secretly met with Russian agents to discuss how to throw the 2016 election in his favor.

    True in part but deceptive. Trump’s advisors met with Russian agents, they met with inner city preachers, they met with lots and lots of people – that’s part of running a presidential campaign. Hillary’s advisors met with Russian agents and inner city preachers, etc. The emphasis on “Trump met with Russians!” was a coordinated media operation – apparently journolist doesn’t exist any longer but discord does.

    Verdict – pure framing of a true statement.

    2. Donald Trump didn’t collaborate with any Russians, but Democrats are working together to convince everyone that he did, in the hopes of getting him indicted or convincing the electorate that he’s a traitor.

    False in part (the first – presidential campaigns meet with anyone who can plausibly help them and consider options) true in part because of the missing context from the public presentation. Actual conspiracy? Kinda – some people know and are partisans so choose not to tell the whole story because the whole story doesn’t help their side. Others don’t know the whole context because they’re repeating what they hear from the previous people. Consciously aware partisans include actual FBI agents who have had text messages admitting this behavior publicly revealed.

    Verdict – some conspiring, some emergent behavior.

    3. Insurance companies are working to sabotage any proposal for universal health care; if not for their constant machinations, we would have universal health care already.

    “Sabotage” is leftist framing but sure, insurance companies will lobby to avoid being nationalized / eliminated. Not a conspiracy in the sense of not doing something illegal. Not a conspiracy in the sense that they’re pretty open that they lobby.

    Verdict – describes actual behavior, isn’t a hidden conspiracy.

    4. The ruling classes constantly use lobbyists and soft power to sabotage tax increases, labor laws, and any other policy that increase the relative power of the poor.

    Assumes Marxist class theory is true so is rubbish. Some rich people lobby for some things, other lobby for other things – sometimes these things mesh, other times they clash so you get rich people lobbying on both sides. Rich people aren’t “the ruling class” however.

    Verdict – not even false because it’s based on a model that doesn’t describe reality.

    5. America’s aid to Israel is not in America’s best interest, but is maintained through the power of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups mainly supported by America’s Jewish community.

    People who support America’s aid to Israel often frame it as being in America’s interest but that could be a sales technique. Clearly at least some supporters (if not most) support aid to Israel regardless whether or not it’s in America’s interest. Look, here’s an example of someone saying so that got published very recently:

    https://forward.com/opinion/417394/in-praise-of-dual-loyalty/

    The forward isn’t Storm Front.

    The complex bit is that the same people will say that making statement X is the most vicious slur imaginable and that anyone who says X should be excluded from polite society then will turn around and say X but that X is a good thing. This is a common pattern that doesn’t just crop up here. How do you even evaluate this as a “conspiracy” when the alleged conspirators will admit that they conspire yet say that anyone who says that they are conspiring are horrible people?

    Verdict – not a conspiracy because it’s fully in the open but a second effort – also in the open – to harm anyone who mentions it in a negative context.

    6. The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe.

    Yeah, just wacky and not lining up with the factual evidence that Jews for the most part are strongly anti-Brexit.

    7. Climate scientists routinely exaggerate or massage their studies to get the results they want, or only publish studies that get the results they want, both because of their personal political leanings and because they know it is good for their field to constantly be discovering exciting things that their funders and their supporters among the public want to hear.

    Verdict – factual with supporting evidence from email dumps.

    8. As above, except with replace climate science with “race science”, with “power posing“, with “the side effects of some drug that earns a pharma company a lot of money”, or your own favorite example.

    Three very very unlike items throw together.

    Starting with the first – there is a conspiracy about race science but it’s the opposite from the implication here. Prominent scientists will fake studies to “debunk” factual assertions about racial differences and will not be censured or lose their jobs even when that fraud comes to light (Stephen J Gould). For the most part the scientists walk a fine line of trying to avoid saying things are outright false and restrict themselves to statements that are misleading. This effort has plenty of effort dedicated to keeping members in line and coordinated – see the recent Amy Harmon writing on twitter and in the NY Times.

    “Power posing” and other nonsense – kind of a conspiracy, kind of not – more like “don’t rock the boat”. Everyone wants grants and to publish so they can advance and gain status and the result is more that everyone tacitly agrees to not look too hard at anyone else’s results and to expect that they do the same for you. This type of thing is easy to pull off without central coordination.

    Fake reporting on specific drugs – I’ll narrow this down because lots of medical studies don’t replicate but that much more falls under the previous heading of mutual back scratching. For actual fake reports on drugs, sure – it’s possible. See Vioxx as an example – they were cleared of knowingly hiding evidence that it would kill a lot of people but a bunch of people in the company had some incentive to hide results so they hid them. Ultimately it cost the company a ton of money so if they’re interested in self-preservation they’ll learn and make sure the incentives aren’t there to do the same type of thing again in the future.

    Overall verdict – Scott is trying to pull a fast one because he doesn’t want to discuss the substance of the race science item so he’s grouping unlike things.

    • reasoned argumentation says:

      [part 2]

      9. When European trains get bombed, with leaflets distributed near the scene repeating jihadist propaganda, it’s actually a false flag by a rightist trying to discredit Islam.

      Insane conclusion that’s not impossible in a specific circumstance because people have free will and can choose to do that sort of thing. Discussing conspiracies around this though there’s certainly one in the media to minimize reporting about this – mention it once then bury the story. Never report on motive then just drop the whole matter later. Can you still call that a conspiracy when it’s open though? Journalists will openly question someone’s motives if that person insists on mentioning Islamic terrorism.

      10. When several prominent Trump critics receive bombs in the mail, it’s actually a “false flag operation” by a leftist trying to discredit Trumpism.

      Mis-description – they weren’t bombs. Alternate way of describing it was that Caesar Sayoc sent items that were as similar to a bomb as the clock produced by Clock Boy. Putting that aside, sure, if someone gets an actual bomb in the mail go ahead and assume it was the guy’s enemies. The open question is whether a leftist’s enemies are other leftists or rightists though so you can’t just assume it’s one or the other.

      11. Bernie Sanders’ whole campaign is a “false flag operation” by capitalists who are trying to prevent other socialists from entering the race; if Sanders ever shows any signs of winning, he will withdraw under mysterious circumstances.

      Bernie Sanders likely isn’t running because he thinks he can win nor does he really intend to win. This is a “conspiracy” that can be pulled off by one man so it’s not a conspiracy.

      That a shadowy cabal of capitalists found him and had him run is baseless speculation (as well as something that assumes Marxist class theory that there are people who work in the interests of the “capitalist class”) – when there’s no evidence for it.

      Verdict – kinda true but almost all false.

      12. The entire Democratic Socialist movement in America is a “false flag operation” by the CIA, intended to create a wishy-washy Americanized form of socialism that sucks the oxygen away from more aggressive Soviet-style Marxism.

      Hidden assumption – CIA isn’t a democratic socialist / communist organization. Hidden assumption 2 – it’s a unitary actor. CIA supports Democratic Socialists because lots of people working for CIA are democratic socialists. CIA supports Democratic Socialists because some people there think it sucks the air out of more militant Marxism.

      Verdict – not possible to evaluate because no one individual is Duke of CIA who can direct the agency. Speculation on the motives of an organization that isn’t under any particular command is always going to be false.

      13. The CIA has fixed elections in dozens of foreign countries over the past seventy years or so.

      Sure, documented.

      14. The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections.

      See the description under 12. CIA isn’t one thing. Some people working for CIA are trying to influence the election in 2020 through means at their disposal. The former DCI goes on American television to speak against Trump because he thinks it will be effective. Others in CIA will do their jobs but see their jobs as having implications that are unfavorable to Trump and will leak that stuff to the press – this happens all the time. They’ll get to know other people in CIA who have these same beliefs and they’ll work together. This both is and isn’t “CIA is trying to fix the 2020 election”

      Verdict – not a statement with a truth value.

      15. The Catholic Church spent decades covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its priests.

      Well yeah – plenty of evidence for it but there’s a massive missing element that obviously makes progressives very uncomfortable but has a huge bearing on the matter. From the testimony of the Apostolic Nuncio (basically an ambassador from the Vatican who ranks as a Cardinal and reports directly to the Pope) (read the whole thing, very interesting reading):

      Regarding Cupich, one cannot fail to note his ostentatious arrogance, and the insolence with which he denies the evidence that is now obvious to all: that 80% of the abuses found were committed against young adults by homosexuals who were in a relationship of authority over their victims.

      This lends another dimension – namely that there is a secret society of homosexual priests that has mutually blackmail and a strong incentive to cooperate. If you can show those things the buy-in to showing an actual conspiracy is lower. On top of that you get spontaneous coordination without explicit coordination because each member knows that other members are likely to engage in the same behavior – this lowers risks and increases cohesion considerably.

      Verdict – a bunch of men acted to cover up crimes either due to an explicit conspiracy or an implicit one.

      16. A UFO cult has taken over the government and is using it as a base through which to carry out the designs of its extraterrestrial masters.

      Well part of this assumes the existence of “extraterrestrial masters” so without proving those, can’t be true. Barring that bit – why not? There’s a historical example in Christianity taking over the Roman state.

      Verdict – possible, except for the “extraterrestrial masters” bit.

      17. The patriarchy privileges men over women in a variety of ways, excludes women from positions of influence, and suppresses their efforts to win equality.

      Well, if you exclude the unthinkable – that men and women are different mentally and physically – this is 100% required. The number of sex-skewed ratios in professions and in achievement in various fields are so improbable as to be impossible unless there are mental differences between men and women but that’s impossible, so yeah, this has to be true.

      Verdict – obviously true.

      18. The Bilderberg Meeting secretly plots ways to create a one-world government.

      Well they meet in secret for some reason. Men meeting in secret can usually be assumed to be meeting to gain status, power or money.

      Verdict – plausible but incomplete since you’ve heard of the Bilderberg meeting and any really good conspiracy to take over the world would do better on the secrecy front.

      Ok, that was super long but the overall point is pretty concise – you have to look at the actual content to decide and you need to have a model of how people behave that makes good predictions. Without those things you’re going to be totally lost.

      Secondary verdict is that a lot of these things are arguments over semantics and that your enemies conspire, your friends coordinate and your enemies have “conspiracy theories”.

      EDIT – forgot to include the link to the Apostolic Nuncio’s testimony:

      http://online.wsj.com/media/Viganos-letter.pdf

      • SaiNushi says:

        “Well, if you exclude the unthinkable – that men and women are different mentally and physically”

        CW Warning: why is this unthinkable? I am physically female. I am mentally gender fluid. I experience on a deeply personal level the difference in the mental capacity and interests of my male and female sides. I am deeply aware that most men are stronger and faster than me, even if they only exercise as little as I do.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          He’s being sarcastic. Men and women (and others) are different, but in politically correct culture if you use this explanation for why outcomes are different for men and women, well, that’s what James Damore did and he got fired and unpersoned.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            1. Men and women are exactly the same mentally.
            2. Trans people have the body of one sex but the mind of the other sex.

            These two obviously contradictory statements are now dogma and questioning either one will make you wish you were Emmanuel Goldstein.

            (FTR, 1. is false and 2. is true)

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            Most people, in my experience, won’t go quite as far as saying “men and women are exactly the same” but will instead say that differences are the result of being treated differently by society or having different experiences.

            TERFs believe gender is a social construct but are gender essentialists in the sense that they believe the experience of being a woman is so different from the experience of being a man that it creates two different types of entities, hence they reject trans-ness on principle.

            I think they’re wrong, but they’re at least consistent and have clearly defined beliefs. The mainstream feminist position…well, it depends to some degree on which feminists you ask, but “wishy-washy” is how I’d describe it in general. Once you disconnect the concept of gender from any form of biology or set of defined personality traits or social roles, even defining what gender is becomes almost impossible.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Once you disconnect the concept of gender from any form of biology or set of defined personality traits or social roles, even defining what gender is becomes almost impossible.

            The accelerationist in me is hoping for a future where the terms “men” and “women” are rejected as being too problematic and replaced by “person with a penis” and “person with a vagina”. Based on current trends I would expect we are five years away from that but I dont expect the current trends to continue for five years.

          • John Schilling says:

            @jermo: I have literally (literally literally) never heard anyone use terms like “person with a vagina” other than in on-line discussions, and then only in sarcastic rebuttal to woke gender terminilogy. If your experience is any different, please elaborate.

            I am also unaware of any example of a new term wholly or largely displacing an old one, where the two are synonymous in 99+% of cases, in anything less than multiple decades. Old habits die hard, and useful ones harder still.

            And I am aware of many self-identified transwomen who have penises but vehemently demand to be included in the class of people 99+% of which have vaginas and claim it is a nigh-Hitlerian human rights violation to include them in the class of people 99+% of which have penises. So I am skeptical that adopting the novel terminology “habla penis” and “no habla penis” would result in everybody living happily ever after satisfied that everyone else has properly categorized their gender and sexuality.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            @John Schilling:

            I was not being serious. Apologies if that didnt come through.

            It was more of a thought experiment of what would happen if this viewpoint starts gaining any credibility. I understand that right now it’s a fringe position even in more-progressive-than-thou circles, but that is no guarantee against it gaining mainstream acceptance.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You seem to be assuming I’m implying some opinion of my own by putting these things on the list. I included some things I think are perfectly innocent, some things I think are real conspiracies, and some things I think are loony conspiracy theories. My intuitions don’t exactly line up with yours but I’m surprised you think you can be sure of that without asking.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        My intuitions don’t exactly line up with yours but I’m surprised you think you can be sure of that without asking.

        You’re a prolific and interesting writer so I’ve read the things you’ve written and I think I’ve got a handle on your worldview.

        The only specific blind spots on that list that I had in mind are things that would really be “problematic” for a progressive to notice – the details of the situation in the Catholic Church, for example.

    • WarOnReasons says:

      People who support America’s aid to Israel often frame it as being in America’s interest but that could be a sales technique.

      It is not a sales technique but basic human psychology in action. Most people tend to believe that a government policy which benefits them personally somehow also benefits society as a whole. The US citizens who really care about Israel convince themselves that supporting it is in America’s interest.

      Likewise, those who dislike Israel convince themselves that supporting it is against America’s interest. People like Ron Paul who rage against the US tax dollars going to Israel are quite sincere in their general opposition to the US spending money on foreign countries (even if the same people tend be much less vocal about the US money going to Pakistan or South Africa, for example).

      • eric23 says:

        Like everything about Israel, I am guessing the amount of hyperbole and anger (from both sides) about the Israel-US alliance is well out of proportion to the actual benefit or harm caused to the US by the alliance.

        • Aging Loser says:

          Maybe there’s a huge moral harm/benefit factor. According to Plato just acts harmonize the soul and in this way help the agent; maybe the American national soul is harmonized in this way.

      • Randy M says:

        It is not a sales technique but basic human psychology in action.

        What do you think sales techniques rely on?

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Journolist was accused of suppressing a story. That requires coordination. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma. But whipping up a story can be done in plain sight. Just publishing the story is probably the best way to promote it! Also, the existence of the Steele dossier acted as a Schelling point. That was secret for a long time, but it didn’t require group coordination, only copying it from one individual to another.

    • Null42 says:

      Actually, British Jews *supported* Brexit by a small degree.

      http://www.brin.ac.uk/how-religious-groups-voted-at-the-2016-referendum-on-britains-eu-membership/

      American Jewish columnists in fashionable magazines, on the other hand… 😉

  22. WarOnReasons says:

    Last year the NYTimes gave a typical example of “far-right conspiracy stories that plague Facebook” – allegedly the Palestinian Authority gives financial rewards to families of terrorists who killed Israeli civilians. However, it was pointed out to them that this conspiracy theory is shared not only by the Israeli far-right but by the Palestinian Authority itself whose leaders openly brag about making such payments. The NYT has been forced to issue a two-sentence retraction.

    In an ideal world, editors of a reputable newspaper who discover their views contradicted by reality would take some time to process the new facts and reexamine their positions. In such a world, the NYT would have probably taken at least a short pause before returning to their permanent narratives about the Israeli occupation and the right-wing conspiracy theorists. But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world.

    Teaching people the heuristics or the basic logic of conspiracies, like Scott is trying to do, is probably pointless. Though most people are quite capable of understanding them, they have no motivation to apply them.

  23. The Big Red Scary says:

    I was once told some rather interesting examples of “conspiracies” by a Chicago policeman, who had worked for many years in the narcotics division and seemed to know something about organized crime.

    First, criminal organizations often recruit a promising young college athlete, offering him fast cars and pretty girls, with the understanding that if the athlete goes professional, the organization will take a significant cut of his pay. Something like this, the policeman claimed, was part of the back-story here:

    https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1994-01-20-9401210129-story.html

    Second, these same criminal organizations sometimes recruit promising young law students, offering them fast cars, pretty girls, and tuition, with the understanding that the organization will have need of his legal services in the future.

    Supposing such organizations weren’t involved in criminal activity, it’s not clear to me that either kind of recruitment is really problematic. In particular, is there any law preventing the creation of an organization whose main business is to recruit promising young athletes with such an agreement? I suppose this is what “agents” do, really, without the fast cars and pretty girls.

    • Robert Jones says:

      In the ordinary world, you just pay people money and leave them to decide whether their interests are best served by spending it on fast cars and pretty girls. I guess criminal organisations are able to obtain fast cars and pretty girls at well under market rate.

      • Matthias says:

        Ha, it’s a tax dodge. Just like Google giving employees free food instead of more money!

      • The Nybbler says:

        Fast cars are easy, and I would presume the ones provided to the mob’s future legitimate front men are not stolen. But I’ll bet the mob is better at finding pretty girls of negotiable virtue, and doing the negotiation, than the average law student or even student athlete. So they can provide them at a far lower price than the student could obtain on their own.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          The mob may not be stealing the fast cars, but it may have unusual methods of obtaining a wholesale discount, ‘negotiating’ a discount that would not be available to the average citizen, ‘persuading’ an owner to sell at cost or at a loss, or of evading regulatory barriers to the import and legalization of the cars.

          Smuggling and extortion are just as much a way organized criminals do business as prostitution is. Maybe more so.

  24. Robert Jones says:

    Firstly, I think you need to be clearer about what it means to call something a “conspiracy theory”. Is it just a theory that a conspiracy has occurred? In that case, the theory may or may not be true, and your example 15 would be an example of a true conspiracy theory. Your example 1 is likewise a conspiracy theory, the truth of which is currently unclear (to me) and which reasonable people can take seriously. Or is a “conspiracy theory” by its nature something that reasonable people cannot take seriously?

    Secondly, you really need a source for the claim that the CIA definitely has fixed elections in foreign countries. I think if the CIA fixed an election in Gabon, in the sense of bringing about an outcome which did not reflect the true votes cast, it would be a considerably bigger story than you appear to believe.

    Thirdly, I think the Basic Argument goes through against your examples 4 and 17 more than you appear to believe. Of course example 4 can’t be true because we know that lobbyists don’t affect policies, but that’s not really relevant to whether or not it’s a conspiracy theory. It is nevertheless a conspricacy theory because it requires that “the ruling classes” are engaged in a power struggle with “the poor”. In fact, the ruling classes are engaged in a power struggle among themselves and either don’t think about the poor at all or have some level of desire to improve their situation.

    You rightly say that rich people (like everyone else) self-deceive and represent their self-interest as pro-social and that they openly found think tanks to push those policies. That’s all true and non-conspiratorial. However, it’s easy to see that {think tanks founded by rich people} are pursuing diferent and conflicting agendas. Some want decreased regulation to reduce their costs, while others what increased regulation to increase barriers to entry. The part which makes it conspiratorial is putting “the ruling classes” as the subject as if that diverse group were capable of co-ordinating around a single agenda.

    Similarly for your example 17. We live in a sexist society in which men are privileged over women in a variety of ways and women have less access to positions of influence and efforts to improve equality frequently meet resistance. That’s all true and non-conspiratorial. What makes it conspiratorial is writing “the patriarchy” as the subject as if an abstract concept were an active force in global affairs. These things happen not because of some sinister unifying force but simply by individual actors responding to their incentives.

    • Aging Loser says:

      The Sexist Conspiracy also involves the interesting twist of the conspirers’ amiable motive: they LIKE the victims of their conspiracy so much that they want to make sure that these victims are readily available as sidekicks and conversation-partners — they want to know where to find them when, as is regularly and frequently the case, they desire their company. (I’m thinking of wives, obviously — what a great thing to be confident of finding her more or less where you left her in the morning!)

    • Randy M says:

      Firstly, I think you need to be clearer about what it means to call something a “conspiracy theory”.

      Yeah, I think Scott is confusing a definitional debate and a truth debate.

  25. Here’s my favorite conspiracy theory of all time, one that an antisemitic group once unironically circulated to its members:

    For over a century, international Jewry has been operating a far-reaching conspiracy to boycott food products, unless the food manufacturers agree to pay an extortion tax to Jewish organizations. If that sounds too incredible to believe, then just go to your local supermarket, and search the product packages for the cryptic and otherwise inexplicable markings indicating that the extortion tax was paid: “K,” for example, or “U” surrounded by a circle…

    • The Nybbler says:

      Fun fact: Shake N Bake original has the mark. Inexplicably, so does Shake N Bake Pork. Shake N Bake Italian, however, does not. I would presume this is a matter of the Mafia defending its territory.

  26. fion says:

    Typo: At the end of Part II, “but sometimes about this one just seemed off” – should it be “something about this one”?

  27. kipling_sapling says:

    I don’t know what principle rules in the Catholic case but keeps the Bilderberg case out.

    To me it seems fairly simple. Organizations don’t do large coordinated shadowy things much, but one very common reason that they do is cover-ups. There may not be a secret cabal within the Catholic hierarchy of pedophiles, but there is a not-secret Catholic hierarchy interested in keeping damaging allegations hidden. The same principle applies to the Watergate break-in and may well apply to the Trump-Russia collusion scandal. And cover-ups of sexual abuse within the ranks of an organization are incredibly common. When you hear that a large organization is covering up sexual abuse by its powerful members, you should probably assume that it’s true.

    I think you should have included some analysis of Iran-Contra. It would have strengthened your case about the relative shamefulness between foreign and domestic black ops. Many in the press expected it to be an explosive, presidency-ending scandal, but it turned out to have little lasting impact on public opinion toward the Reagan administration.

    • Anonymous says:

      Organizations don’t do large coordinated shadowy things much, but one very common reason that they do is cover-ups. There may not be a secret cabal within the Catholic hierarchy of pedophiles, but there is a not-secret Catholic hierarchy interested in keeping damaging allegations hidden.

      You may be interested to find that ruining people’s reputations by true public statements is a possibly mortal sin, detraction. So is breach of the seal of the confessional, which is definitely mortal.

      • brad says:

        If the plagiarism was faithful then there’s an exception if the motive is to protect other people.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        Detraction isn’t mortal, or even sinful, if there’s some reason why its necessary to make those statements, and “So that people can avoid getting molested by him” would definitely count.

        • Nick says:

          Correct. Detraction is the unjust revelation of secret crimes. Protecting other people in a community from sexual predation by its leader is surely a case of just cause.

  28. Anonymous says:

    15. The Catholic Church spent decades covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its priests.

    Let me correct that:

    15. Any organization spends arbitrary amounts of time covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its officer-level members.

    Sinful human nature, meet sinful human nature.

  29. SamChevre says:

    Only slightly on-topic, but I read this, though of an old TNH line, and began laughing–so I went and found it, here. (Last two paragraphs.)

    One of the reasons I’ve never believed satanic ritual abuse narratives—the ones where the supposed victims are always being “groomed” (they always use that word) to become the high priest or priestess of the group—is that their stories are devoid of normal human complications. Nobody ever develops chest pains, and has to be gotten out of their ceremonial robes and rushed to an ER. Nothing funny ever happens. Nobody ever fluffs a complex ritual. The air conditioning never breaks down. There are no theological or procedural disputes, no arguments about bookkeeping, no rebellious music committees. Satanic covens are never incapacitated because the potato salad sat out too long before the pre-ceremony setup session potluck. But most tellingly of all, no satanic group is ever riven by dissension because a couple of its members have started selling Amway and they won’t shut up about it.

    Real people aren’t one-dimensional, and vice-versa. If you form a community around some shared interest, sooner or later someone in it is going to get Born Again and start preaching Jesus—unless it’s a born-again group to start with, in which case someone will begin selling Amway, or get into BDSM. It’s one of those things human beings do.

    • eric23 says:

      Disagree with the logic. News accounts of events only include the newsworthy bits.

      The World Bank certainly exists, but have you ever heard of the AC breaking at the World Bank? Or someone being rushed from the World Bank to the hospital with chest pains? I haven’t. I’m sure it happens, but it’s not newsworthy.

    • Murphy says:

      Calibration: how many times do you hear about people trying to sell Amway products to their office mates at the CIA.

      • albatross11 says:

        You wouldn’t expect it in news reports, but you would expect stuff like this in memoirs.

      • DaveK says:

        In MKUltra, something sort of like this did happen, where the agents who would dose each other under the pretense of being prepared if this happened in the field and was done by an enemy agent sort of created their own insane culture that lost touch with the original purpose of the mission, no doubt fueled in part by all the drugs they were taking.

        • DaveK says:

          Which reminds me- MKULTRA and the murder of Frank Olson is one of those “insane sounding” conspiracy theories that actually happened.

  30. Levantine says:

    A. You generally can’t keep the existence of a large organization that engages in clandestine activities secret…..

    I argued this point ten years ago. In response I was faced with the example of the Manhattan Project. And Operation Mockingbird (which appears to have been far from modest). A program of the same nature as Operation Mockingbird spread over Europe, viz. the case of Udo Ulfkotte. The Manhattan Project employed over a hundred thousand people, with just a few dozens aware of its full nature.

    • bean says:

      The Manhattan Project had the major advantage that it was during wartime. And that let the people in charge say “do X, don’t ask why” to the vast majority of the workforce, leveraging loyalty to the US to motivate them. A secret conspiracy acting at cross-purposes to other loyalties isn’t going to be able to do the same.

      • woah77 says:

        That does assume the actions are obviously cross-purpose to their loyalties, which they might not be. “It’s for national security” probably goes quite a ways in defense industries especially if the individual tasks don’t appear to be especially problematic.

      • Quixote says:

        Conspiracies are not necessarily regulated. They don’t need to be honest to people they recruit about who they are working for. If a conspiracy is recruiting someone in Montreal they say they are the militant branch of the Quebecois. If they are recruiting a Madison Wisconsin liberal they say they are a Marxist organization.
        I vaguely recall some interview with some retired espionage official who said it’s possible that most people recruited for specific purposes were in error about who they were working for. Note I might also be recalling something from a book, so don’t take my recollection here as any actual evidence.

        • bean says:

          Granted, and I’ve heard the same claim about people not knowing who they were really working for. But I don’t think that undermines my point. The Manhattan Project worked because it could use the legitimacy of the US government to get people to go along with it, and suppress any questions. That may be the biggest advantage, actually. Classification laws aside, at the time, there wasn’t a constituency for massive government wrongdoing, and anyone trying to sound the alarm would just get picked up by the FBI after the person they were talking to turned them in.

      • albatross11 says:

        Note that this was somewhat effective at keeping the American public from knowing what they were up to, but it sure didn’t work very well at keeping the Soviet Union from learning a lot.

    • FormerRanger says:

      The Manhattan Project was not a secret from a different conspiracy, the USSR’s drive to world domination…

    • John Schilling says:

      “Clandestine” needs to be modified by “illegal” here, and in particular the functional definition of “illegal” where everybody in the local community reacts as if you’ve just committed a common-law felony, not the one where you’ve technically violated a statute that only lawyers know about.

      If the Grassy Knoll Gunman brags to his girlfriend about how influential a badass he is, and she goes to an honest cop or to a journalist, then the cop or journalist will make a good-faith effort at revealing the conspiracy. If a Manhattan Project Scientist brags to his girlfriend, etc, then the cop certainly and journalist probably will be working to patch the leak, and if the girlfriend doesn’t go along with the plan she’ll probably be in jail for her trouble. This makes a huge difference in what level of secrecy can be plausibly maintained.

      Same deal with e.g. CIA plotting to overthrow communist regimes abroad, vs. the democratic one at home.

  31. simbalimsi says:

    I have a meta conspiracy theory that is not based on any evidence except my gut feeling. There are so many incredibly idiotic conspiracy theories going around with so many followers (think flat earthers, chemtrailers, reptile overlords etc) it just does not make a lot of sense.

    So here’s my conspiracy theory: Some nefarious organization might be funding and/or somehow supporting these outrageous conspiracy theories so that when one of their many (or maybe their only) dirty laundry is somehow discovered/leaked, they can just pop up some more extreme version of the leak as well and the public will just group the real leak along with flat earth and whatnot.

    • Murphy says:

      I have a mental image of a shadowy group of plotters in a dark room planning everything out to create huge groups of obviously nuts conspiracy theories…. then at the last moment someone going “oh wait, actually people just did that already while we were planning, don’t tell head office though, that way we still get paid!”

      I kinda find it weird sometimes what conspiracy groups focus on.

      I mean the whole 9/11 conspiracy theory stuff, I kinda get why people like to follow conspiracy theories but why do they pick the ones they do.

      [“melt steel beams” september] gets 44000 hits.

      [“fuel consumption calculator” “koran” “video”] gets 320 hits.

      If I wanted to create the core of a conspiracy theory group I honestly would have chosen that scooby-doo thing about them finding a suitcase with a fuel calculator, a koran and a video on how to fly planes just after the event in luggage that missed the flight. No claims, just repeating the news reports with a raised eyebrow and a sarcastic voice.

    • Cerastes says:

      So here’s my conspiracy theory: Some nefarious organization might be funding and/or somehow supporting these outrageous conspiracy theories so that when one of their many (or maybe their only) dirty laundry is somehow discovered/leaked, they can just pop up some more extreme version of the leak as well and the public will just group the real leak along with flat earth and whatnot.

      I swear I’ve actually seen something like that before, in a TV show or movie, but I cannot recall where I saw it. IIRC, it was a serious show (as in fiction, but drama not comedy), but that’s about all I can remember, other than thinking it was a clever idea.

      • simbalimsi says:

        and I thought I had an original idea for a moment 😀 well, it at least shows it’s not a really stupid idea.

      • Jiro says:

        On Stargate SG-1, they allowed the show “Wormhole X-treme” to go on because people would think any rumors of the Stargate program were just references to the show.

      • albatross11 says:

        There are a lot of dumb people in the world, and a lot of crazy people in the world. For them, nutty conspiracy theories that don’t make any sense work just as well as more subtle ones that are consistent with the evidence.

      • Mr. Doolittle says:

        Futurama did that with Area 51.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Relatedly, there’s also the conspiracy theory that the CIA invented the idea of the “conspiracy theory” to cover up its own machinations.

    • Winja says:

      The “Flat Earth is a Conspiracy Theory designed and disseminated in order to discredit other, true conspiracy theories” is a very common trope in conspiracy circles, especially among those who are enthusiasts of political conspiracy theories, as opposed to the more wacky conspiracy theories; e.g. UFOs, aliens, reptilians, etc.

  32. Salem says:

    What about – let’s say – the 2016 coup in Turkey. A big conspiracy, involving lots of people, far outside their acceptable public mission (note that the plotters weren’t acting on behalf of the Turkish Armed Forces in general, but were going outside the lines of command). Or, if you believe the Gulenist organisation really is a vast all-powerful shadowy conspiracy, then just pick your favourite coup. Coups aren’t exactly rare or under-studied events, and this analysis basically suggests they shouldn’t happen.

    I also think people’s priors on actions being false flags are way too low, but this is not quite the same as something being a conspiracy. False flags can be conspiracies, but they can also be the work of lone individuals.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Coups aren’t exactly rare or under-studied events, and this analysis basically suggests they shouldn’t happen.

      My interpretation is that this analysis suggests otherwise. It’s not that centrally directed secret plans can’t happen. It’s that:

      1) The bigger the plan and the more at odds it is with the institution’s internal culture, the greater the risk of failure, discovery, or both.

      2) The kinds of things we’d label ‘conspiracies’ if a secret group did them CAN sometimes be done by organizations that we know exist openly, but if so, then they usually can’t be kept secret for very long. Or the longevity of the secret is roughly inversely proportional to the size of the secret.

      If so, the analysis would say that while coups CAN happen, they should be at considerable risk of discovery and failure, should be far more likely to succeed in cases where the average member of the military already thinks overthrowing the government sounds like a good plan, and will be easily revealed as having been a deliberate action by specified, identifiable members of the military after the fact.

      All of which is the case.

    • John Schilling says:

      Coups happen, but fail more often than not because by the time the plot is large enough to have even a vaguely plausible chance of success, it is large enough that it will inevitably leak in short order. Almost always the plotters have to move before they have enough committed followers to guarantee success, trusting that their general popularity and their early victories will enable them to recruit the rest on the fly.

      See the Bryan Singer / Tom Cruise movie “Valkyrie” for a surprisingly good take on this by Hollywood. The story is only superficially about a plot to kill Adolf Hitler; the real question was how to go about taking over Nazi Germany, with only a conspiracy small enough to elude discovery by the Nazis.

  33. Murphy says:

    I think there’s an important issue of calibration. How aware are you of real-world conspiracies that have come to light?

    I get the impression that a surprising amount of the time things get little media traction when they’re actually revealed.

    As a doctor , how aware were you of things like Merck making a “hit list” of doctors critical of the safety of their drugs along with strategies to discredit them and methods to signal boost doctors with positive opinions of their drugs?

    Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma went into some depth about that kind of manipulation with companies using soft strategies to enhance the careers of proponents while doing the opposite to detractors.

    It was a real ,organized, hierarchical conspiracy with dozens or hundreds of people “in the know” that managed to remain stable for years before being revealed and even when it was… the results were basically [grasshopper chirrups] and some stern looks from regulators.

    It has a real QALY impact on millions of people. You’d hope doctors would have a class entirely dedicated to the history of manipulations targeting them and their field.

    • arbitraryvalue says:

      As a doctor , how aware were you of things like Merck making a “hit list” of doctors critical of the safety of their drugs along with strategies to discredit them and methods to signal boost doctors with positive opinions of their drugs?

      Maybe there’s more to this, but going along based solely on this sentence, what Merck was doing sounds, well, normal. When I worked at a medical device startup, of course we tried to discredit negative opinions about our product and signal-boost positive opinions. I wouldn’t call it a “hit list” but we did keep track of specific doctors (the few with any opinion, positive or negative, about our product).

      Is the difference simply that Merck has a much, much higher budget than a startup does? I can see how practices which would be completely OK in a field with many small players become ominous when there are only a few huge players instead. Or was Merck actually doing things that would be unethical if done by anyone?

      • Murphy says:

        It was a tad more than re-tweeting positive articles about their product.

        Bump into someone on the street and it isn’t illegal. Do it at 100 times the speed with 100 times the weight behind it and their bones are paste.

        They were creating entire fake journals, ghost writing “scientific” papers and bribing academics to put their names to them. (big issues with manipulating the perceived source of information, plus the whole integrity of science bit)

        They were manipulating the careers of doctors and scientists, pulling strings to make sure detractors couldn’t get important posts while creating cushy gigs and easy paths for proponents.

        and it isn’t even conspiracy theory. it’s public record from documents that came out in court.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      I tried to find the Merck story and while there is a lot of coverage of direct quotes “neutralise,” “discredit,” and “destroy them where they live,” I find almost no coverage of what they actually did. It might be out there somewhere, but not in Bad Pharma. The only specific actions I found were published 4 years earlier.

      (Searching Bad Pharma for the word “intimidate” turned up an unrelated story.)

      • Murphy says:

        When I last looked it up there were archives of all the court documents easily but it’s all leading to dead links now.

        I must have mixed up which Goldacre book it’s in but it’s in one of them. Anyway, here’s one of his articles on it:

        https://www.badscience.net/2009/05/elsevier-get-into-fanzines/

        • Douglas Knight says:

          That link sounds like he read the article that I linked to, not the court documents.

          He certainly didn’t write about the hit list in his other book, because that was before the hit list.

          • Murphy says:

            I’ll dig out my copy to check but it might be the one after bad-pharma, I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That or some of his other material. hell I could be mixing it up with one of his talks to parliament. It all kinda mooshes together after a while.

  34. Eli says:

    What always really bugs me specifically about Jewish Conspiracy theories is: of course Jews “conspire”, that is, form organizations to work towards shared values and interests, and encourage each-other to support such organizations. Most of these are registered with the government and file tax returns and everything. If the ADL was hiding lizard-people, wouldn’t there be some way to find out? Likewise, if the ADL issues a “scathing” statement saying that the Herpton Schools Principal is a raging antisemite, and the Principal steps down, how is it a conspiracy rather than a public action by a public organization resulting in public consequences?

    But on the other hand, I have a rather high prior on AIPAC being somehow fiscally corrupt, just because, as far as I know, most major lobbying organizations in Washington DC engage in behaviors that are technically legal under American law, even if by very borderline arguments, but would be criminalized under any halfway rigorous anti-corruption law, such as those operative in stronger democracies. For me, the “conspiracy theory” is not “AIPAC are a corrupt lobbying group who engage in legalized bribery to support centrist to center-right pro-Israel ideology”, it’s “all that and also they’re vastly more powerful than every competing lobby put together and they orchestrated 9/11 to give Americans a reason to invade Arab countries on their behalf.”

    The thing about an actually-existing organization is that you can actually go and check what they’ve done, and if there’s no evidence they did some particular thing, well, why are you still insisting they did it, when you could criticize or support any of the vast number of things they’ve actually done?

    Also, remember the term “Bayesian Conspiracy”? Hmmm….

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      “all that and also they’re vastly more powerful than every competing lobby put together and they orchestrated 9/11 to give Americans a reason to invade Arab countries on their behalf.”

      The second part of that is loony, but the first half is true.

      Half of all the money donated to the Democratic party and a quarter of the money donated to the Republican party comes from Jews. That’s an awful lot of power and influence for 2% of the population.

      • Half of all the money donated to the Democratic party and a quarter of the money donated to the Republican party comes from Jews. That’s an awful lot of power and influence for 2% of the population.

        But that is largely due to the fact that most people, 95% or more of the population, even people with plenty of money to spare, see no point in donating money to political campaigns, even to candidates they strongly support.

        It is a truism among us political practitioners that the only people who contribute money to campaigns are people who contributed before. And contrary to the image of corrupt lobbyists buying influence with donations, most campaign donors have little or nothing to gain.

        Given that donations to a candidate committee are publicly reported, giving money is costly virtue-signaling in a very direct way. It’s not necessarily even ideological. In local politics, it signals that you’re public-spirited, part of the infrastructure of democracy.

        Of course this intersects with the ethic of philanthropy among Jews. I bet that half or more of all the money donated by individuals to symphony orchestras or museums comes from Jews. Those donations may buy a little prestige, but no power.

        All this is part of my larger point, frequently argued here, that the independent role of money in electoral politics is hugely overrated. The notion that political donors, particularly the vast bulk who give $500 or less, are especially powerful in the process is just bunk.

        • Null42 says:

          There was a funny running comment by Sailer (who’s questionable on this issue, granted) about how someone should find a football team for all the Jewish donors to give to instead of trying to invade Iraq.

          It does seem to be true that Jews like to give money to cultural institutions, universities, and politicians, all of which probably buy more societal influence than other favorite toys of rich people like sports teams. It may be less a matter of some nefarious Jewish plot to control the world than Jews just being more interested in fields of life that tend to lead to influence (maybe as a knock-on effect of higher verbal IQ?)

      • JulieK says:

        Half of all the money donated to the Democratic party and a quarter of the money donated to the Republican party comes from Jews. That’s an awful lot of power and influence for 2% of the population.

        It’s not obvious to me what kind of influence those donations buy. It doesn’t look to me like it’s influence over how the political party views Israel, given that the Democratic party receives more money from Jews, but is *less* pro-Israel.

        How the Republican and Democratic Platforms Differ on Israel (2016)
        Tacking to the right of the Democrats on Israel could turn out to be smart politics for the Republicans: Some 70 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Israel.

      • Eli says:

        Uhhh… I was talking about AIPAC specifically, not “the Jews” broadly. The Jerusalem Post can propagate that kind of headline, but there’s no way in hell I’m actually going to engage with bait that obvious, let alone equate “Jewish donors” with “this one lobby with offices in that one building.”

    • albatross11 says:

      It’s hard to spin up a conspiracy theory about AIPAC influencing US policy for the benefit of Israel, given that this is basically their mission statement. It’s like accusing the leader of the local gay pride parade of being secretly homosexual.

      • RalMirrorAd says:

        Then call it an “Open Conspiracy” as H.G. wells might call it.

        The issue with Israel is that while red Americans may have a positive view of Israel, they have an increasingly negative view of things that may or may not be done on behalf of Israel. People who lay the 20 years of US intervention in the middle east at the Israel Lobby’s feet will still be called conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites even if it is admitted in separate contexts that such interventions were openly desired and openly advocated for by the relevant parties and persons.

        And they would certainly be motivated to deflect blame away from themselves years after the fact when those actions became unpopular.

    • “all that and also they’re vastly more powerful than every competing lobby put together”

      I’d say that’s true. I can’t think of any other lobby which pursues the interests of a foreign country with any similar power. That’s not to say they “control” America’s foreign policy. If they didn’t exist, all the adventures would likely still happen, because the officer class and the MIC want them. But they don’t care a great deal where the adventures occurs so long as their paychecks are signed, so if the Israel lobby is pushing for country X, they’ll go along with it.

      • Eli says:

        I’d say that’s true. I can’t think of any other lobby which pursues the interests of a foreign country with any similar power.

        Saudi Arabia? Which is also a statistical confounder nowadays, since they’re on the same broadly anti-Iranian team as the Israelis these days.

        • Null42 says:

          They’re pretty powerful too. They seem a bit more secretive, though–pretty much everyone knows what AIPAC is up to.

          Of course, Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record for a Muslim country, whereas Israel just has a bad human rights record for a Western country.

  35. steve3920 says:

    Power posing is a bad example … The latest is that Power Posing has always been a real effect, it’s just a small effect (and/or a big effect for a small fraction of the population), so under-powered studies can miss it. Spencer Greenberg has a pre-registered study coming out on this soon with n=1000, bigger than all the other pre-registered studies put together. See discussion on the 80,000 hours podcast a few months ago (search for “power pose” in the transcript).

  36. miguelmadeira says:

    17. The patriarchy privileges men over women in a variety of ways, excludes women from positions of influence, and suppresses their efforts to win equality.

    This is probably off-topic, but I think this is a bit different from the others: 17 does not require that there are individuals making a deliberate and conscious decision of “exclud[ing] women from positions of influence, and suppress[ing] their efforts to win equality”; I think “patriarchy” is supposed to mean (for the people who use the word “patriarchy”) a set of social structures, traditions, etc. that disadvantaged women, not (as in a conspiracy) a group of people making decisions intentionally anti-women.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      “The patriarchy is locking women out of positions of influence” is a bit like “The Catholic Church is covering up sex scandals.” In both cases, there doesn’t actually have to be a grand high Father (holy or otherwise) ordaining that the institution do the thing being discussed; the institution itself will evolve in such a way that thousands of its individual members are carrying out these broad patterns of wrongdoing in parallel.

    • Witness says:

      The Patriarchy makes more sense to me as an egregore than a conspiracy theory.

  37. Mai La Dreapta says:

    I think you’re underselling the significance of category C, which in my book constitutes the majority of contested examples. In particular, unless you have access to the internal dynamics of the organization (which is to say, unless you are already part of the conspiracy), there is no way to tell the difference between a “real” conspiracy and an organization working together on goals that they think are good, even if outsiders generally find them deplorable. Furthermore, I think that the difference is immaterial: these things should count as conspiracies, since they are conspiracies for all practical purposes.

    So actually the Bilderberg group is a type C conspiracy, and so was the cover-up in the Catholic Church, and so was Journolist, and so are lots of things. Conspiracies in this sense are not rare.

    • Jiro says:

      Journolist doesn’t count as a conspiracy theory because everyone who pays any attention can figure out that the media is on the left, just like everyone knows the CIA does covert things. Nobody was surprised to find out about it or asked “why would they do that?”

      • woah77 says:

        No, in that case it was just a conspiracy. As in “These members of the media were conspiring to…”

      • Mai La Dreapta says:

        I can’t tell if you’re being ironic. In case you aren’t, Journolist counts as a conspiracy because it was secret, and because it existed specifically to coordinate things in a way that the public would perceive as spontaneous.

        • dick says:

          And it was outed by insiders-who-were-willing-to-defect as soon as someone did something newsworthy enough to reveal, in accordance with the Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories, yes?

          • Randy M says:

            Sure. So it exists as evidence in favor of short-lived conspiracies being possible, and evidence that long lived conspiracies are unlikely.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            What? No, it isn’t evidence against long term conspiracies at all.

            Was the full list of jourolisters outed? Nope.
            Was Ezra Klein shunned for violating the ideals of journalism? Ha! He went on to found Vox – which Scott Alexander and possibly another living person (though I doubt that there’s another) believes is some “neutral” voice of reason that sticks to rational arguments and isn’t a partisan spin outfit.

            Saying that one conspiracy getting outed is proof that conspiracies in this area get outed generally is bad reasoning – by definition you only hear about the outed conspiracies and the reaction to the outing by people in a position to know about other conspiracies was “blah, no big deal” – the clear implication is that it was no big deal because that sort of thing happens all the time. A reaction that shows that type of conspiracy is rare and against the ethics of the profession would be one where Ezra Klein got shunned and every effort was made to find who was on the list and to make sure they explained themselves before they were permitted to act as journalists again.

            To say the least, that’s not the reaction was.

          • JohnBuridan says:

            @reasoned argumentation
            1) Scott frequently uses the term Voxsplain to denigrate. I don’t know where you got the idea that Scott is some Vox shill. Get real.

            2) Ezra Klein is in various ways not respected by many journalists. For example, he was given a shot to fill in for Shields on PBS NewsHour a few months ago, and the host Judy Woodruff only thinly veiled her contempt. I think there are plenty of journalists out there who are not interested in Klein at all.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            For example, he was given a shot to fill in for Shields on PBS NewsHour a few months ago, and the host Judy Woodruff only thinly veiled her contempt. I think there are plenty of journalists out there who are not interested in Klein at all.

            Ah yes, that unusual level of disrespect where you’ll get called in to fill in on NewsHour but the co-host will still have secret disdain for you.

          • Atlas says:

            Was Ezra Klein shunned for violating the ideals of journalism? Ha! He went on to found Vox – which Scott Alexander and possibly another living person (though I doubt that there’s another) believes is some “neutral” voice of reason that sticks to rational arguments and isn’t a partisan spin outfit.

            Where on Earth did you get this idea? Here’s Scott Alexander on Vox:

            Or maybe the complaint is that they’re pretending to do it from an objective point of view instead of admitting that they have a liberal bias? I will take this complaint seriously when I meet any person anywhere in the world who is not aware that Vox has a liberal bias. The aboriginal people of the North Sentinel Islands have been completely isolated from the rest of civilization for thousands of years, yet every single child in their tribe knows that Vox has a liberal bias. SETI believes that if we contact aliens, we will have to determine their language through universally known truths like prime numbers or the digits of pi, but if for some reason the aliens have different mathematics than we do, we will still be able to communicate over a shared understanding that Vox has a liberal bias.

            https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/23/some-groups-of-people-who-may-not-100-deserve-our-eternal-scorn/

            You might disagree with Scott’s reasoning on other grounds for considering Vox dot com “not 100% worthy of our eternal scorn,” but a belief that Vox is a neutral arbiter without partisan bias was clearly not one of them.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            C’mon – his next two paragraphs make the previous one a joke.

            This is fine. All attempts to explain the news are going to end up with some bias, and I’m okay with this as long as they try to minimize it, present the truth as they understand it, and give more light than heat (though see here)

            And that’s where my experience with Vox has been reassuring. I’ve occasionally argued with them, or made fun of them, or SHOUTED AT THEM THAT THEY ARE SPREADING DAMNABLE LIES. And every time, I’ve been impressed by their kindness, their openness to criticism, and their willingness to pay attention to me even though I can be very annoying.

          • Atlas says:

            C’mon – his next two paragraphs make the previous one a joke.

            How so? He readily acknowledges, contrary to your original assertion, that Vox has a liberal bias in interpreting the news; he then further contends that, since every outlet has a bias, this isn’t a fatal problem as long it doesn’t dominate their examination of every issue, and has been favorably impressed by the Vox writers he’s argued with.

            He goes on to conclude:

            I disagree with Vox about a lot of things, but they’ve generally impressed me in ways that some other news sources haven’t. Also, let’s be honest. Their competitors are places like Salon and Vice. My standards here are dirt-low, and Vox frequently meets them.

            That’s a measured and reasonable assessment of Vox dot com’s value in the media ecosystem that I think many knowledgeable people share and is quite different from your original caricature.

        • Jiro says:

          Journolist counts as a conspiracy because it was secret, and because it existed specifically to coordinate things in a way that the public would perceive as spontaneous.

          But it doesn’t count as a conspiracy theory, meaning a theory with the problems that Scott and others have described.

        • RobJ says:

          it existed specifically to coordinate things in a way that the public would perceive as spontaneous

          This claim seems a bridge too far to me. Journolist looks more like an explicitly created filter bubble than a conspiracy. You see essentially the same types of discussion out in the open on twitter today.

          • Aapje says:

            They coordinated what they would write about certain topics. How is that not a media conspiracy?

            It’s not like they filtered what their community could see. Amish who ban TV & Internet from their homes is an explicitly created filter bubble.

          • RobJ says:

            Maybe I’m being naïve and taking too many statements at face value, but it seems like the point of Journolist was to have a place to discuss ideas with other likeminded journalists and get feedback prior to publishing/submitting stories. Also, easy access to experts on certain topics.

            Why I called it a filter bubble is that they restricted access to mostly just people on one side of the political spectrum, so if someone asked a question like “Anyone know a good source for questions about monetary policy?” or something, they’re almost certainly going to get put in touch with someone with a liberal bent. Of course, there’s a good chance that would have happened even without the list, but it’s making that filter bubble more explicit, which I think is a negative.

            The “coordination” seems like something that could happen anytime likeminded people get together and discuss their work. I work in the power industry and occasionally we have regional meetings between different utilities to discuss shared issues on the regional transmission system. If we are having a discussion and I bring up something like… “Isn’t it ridiculous how we are all using this out-of-date technology X? We should be using new technology Y!” and others agree and return to advocate for this at their own utilities, is that a conspiracy? I wouldn’t call it one.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          Maybe I’m being naive but reading the Wikipedia article on Journolist did not make me outraged in the slightest. It’s a group of likeminded people talking to each other on a private forum… they are allowed to do that. An ousted conspiracy? Certainly members of Journolist would not accept that description. Information sharing with your political group is no conspiracy, it’s what happens in a democracy.

          It’s like being a member of the Heritage Foundation or ISI, there’s no unethical thing going on there. If the Women’s Temperance Union get together at Aunt Wilma’s and air ideas about how to react to marijuana that’s not a conspiracy to react to Big Dope… it’s not even news.

          I think the Journolist is about as much of a problem as political partisanship is generally. Form your own Journolist, if it’s so unfair. It would not be hard. You live in a democracy, go forth and coordinate.

          I’m a big fan of Federalist Paper 51, in which Madison makes the case that the multiplicity of sects keeps the government and preserves the common good:

          Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased.

          I don’t think Freedom of Association is just a right the government should protect, but one we should afford to others as well.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      The big question with the Catholic Church and sex scandal coverups is to what extent there was top-level coordination. Did a bunch of cardinals get together and create guidelines for hushing up sexual abuse scandals? Or did the Church just create a swarm of decentralized vicars and bishops and I don’t know what-all who are all strongly predisposed to hush up each individual scandal, all working in parallel?

      The Catholic Church is a large organization and it’s clearly in their interests to preserve their own reputation, but it doesn’t necessarily require conspiracy (that is, secret organized decision-making to promote a secret agenda) to cause them to do so, any more than it takes a conspiracy to explain why health insurance providers oppose single-payer insurance.

      • Deiseach says:

        Did a bunch of cardinals get together and create guidelines for hushing up sexual abuse scandals?

        Yes and no. There’s a big problem here due to the sheer age of the organisation and the parallel development of canon law and civil law, and the tussle between state powers (like kings) and the hierarchy over who gets to judge, try, and convict in law cases. This was at the root of the row between St Thomas à Becket and King Henry II, where Thomas went from being Henry’s real good buddy and Lord Chancellor to Henry demanding “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” over reasserting royal supremacy over the Church in England. See also church courts versus civil courts which remained in existence even after the Reformation and the founding of the Church of England, gradually dwindling down in authority and influence and being replaced by the civil system.

        So then you get established something like canonical secrecy when trying cases of accusations against clergy, which requires absolute confidentiality and which really comes into conflict with modern mores and is a principle that is open to abuse and at the best of it has the appearance of an organised cover-up.

        Add in the 1962 instruction about dealing with accusations of sexual abuse and you’ve got a mess.

        Put on top of that recent demands by civil authorities to break the seal of the confessional for the prosecution of criminal and especially alleged abuse cases, which is never going to happen (a priest is supposed to die rather than reveal what was told in confession, see St John Nepomuk), and that looks even worse because the theological and sacramental rationale there is not acknowledged or even understood.

  38. Tenacious D says:

    Conspiracy theories about the Freemasons make an interesting test case. Like the CIA, they are a real organization that can openly advertise that they’re keeping secrets. Heuristic D is probably useful here.

    With respect to One World Government conspiracy theories, I don’t think anything like the Bilderberg Group or Davos are secretly pulling strings, but I’d be shocked if the dynamic described in C wasn’t present in existing transnational organizations. People (some of them) who work for them or have access/connections at that level probably believe that expanding their scope and power is reasonable and pro-social.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      I don’t think anything like the Bilderberg Group or Davos are secretly pulling strings

      I try to maintain a strong prior against conspiracies, but what are they talking about at Bilderberg meetings? It’s a little bit like the CIA, it’s an organization whose existence is known, controlled by very powerful people, and they meet in secret. I dont think they’re sharing caviar recipes. It’s unlike the CIA in that the Bilderberg group does not have an explicit mission beyond providing a forum for private discussion between powerful individuals. But, what else do you need for a conspiracy?

      Is it out of the question that some super rich industry leaders and powerful government leaders meet and discuss questions like how to overturn the Brexit vote, how to reduce the price of labor, how to fix the price of oil, (not the greatest examples, I suspect the questions they discuss are at a level of abstraction above of what is even visible to us)?

      • albatross11 says:

        Most likely, they’re not very effective at whatever they’re planning. Have you seen the state of the world lately?

        • jermo sapiens says:

          Well as usual the rich and powerful are doing very well. I know it’s a tautology but any threat to their power is being curtailed rather effectively (i.e., Trump, Brexit, Gilets Jaunes…)

          I think the state of the world is what it is because “whatever they’re planning” is deeply harmful to the world, not that they’re bad at planning it.

          • albatross11 says:

            My best model of the world is this:

            Consider anything that causes you problems–makes you uncomfortable, offends your values, threatens your economic interests, makes your job harder, etc.

            The more powerful[1] you are, the more likely it is that you will manage to get that thing taken care of–made illegal, voluntarily stopped, made socially unacceptable by widespread consensus, stopped via some commercial product you can buy, etc.

            Over time, in a society where things are changing a lot, this will give you a pattern where the people at the bottom are getting inconvenienced in a million ways by stuff they can’t get anyone to care about, while people at the top are seldom inconvenienced by any of the new stuff. (Sometimes they are–plenty of powerful people have been undermined by technology and had their companies’ business model stop working. But powerful people are more likely to be able to do something about it.)

            [1] Power is multidimensional and not easy to compare between individuals, but I’m assuming we can at least make an approximate ordering, where Bill Gates and Bill Clinton and Ben Sasse are all more powerful than I am.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            The more powerful[1] you are, the more likely it is that you will manage to get that thing taken care of–made illegal, voluntarily stopped, made socially unacceptable by widespread consensus, stopped via some commercial product you can buy, etc.

            Exactly. And if you go to Bilderberg meetings, you can meet other powerful people with shared interests, and you can conspire make plans to further your shared interests together.

      • Aapje says:

        @jermo sapiens

        I try to maintain a strong prior against conspiracies, but what are they talking about at Bilderberg meetings?

        This was the official agenda for the last meeting:

        1. Populism in Europe
        2. The inequality challenge
        3. The future of work
        4. Artificial intelligence
        5. The U.S. before midterms
        6. Free trade
        7. U.S. world leadership
        8. Russia
        9. Quantum computing
        10. Saudi Arabia and Iran
        11. The “post-truth” world
        12. Current events

  39. Eli says:

    Well, with more coffee in my blood, I think “conspiracy theories” are a case of the Birthday Paradox: as you increase the size of the (disjunctive) group/sample, the likelihood that some kind of “conspiracy” (of shared birthdays) exists rises quickly. However, the likelihood that any two individuals are members of a given conspiracy is still combinatorially low: you have to pick the shared birthday (1/365) and then pick the two people who share it (1/365**2, assuming independent uniformly random birthdays).

    The apparent high likelihood of a “conspiracy” comes from marginalizing over combinatorially large sample spaces in disjunctive probabilities (the existential quantifier being a dependent sum).

  40. Cerastes says:

    Personally, I think the “plotting in smoke-filled rooms” is the biggest giveaway, and not just because I liked the X-files as a kid. IMHO, the necessity of deliberate, centralized coordination with rationality over-riding baser instincts is a dead giveaway that something is implausible (though not impossible). I mean, our own government is supposed to be a non-conspiratorial example of exactly this, and they can’t even keep the damn lights on.

    All of the plausible or true examples seem to come from emergent behavior mixed with typical human foibles – believing what we want to be true, saving face, greed, selfishness, short-sightedness, mis-aligned incentives, etc., or even just individuals with power (institutional or individual) who are slightly/totally unhinged. But when a postulated chain of events requires large numbers of people coordinating, in secret, and also over-riding these natural human foibles, it becomes far less plausible. Even the actual shady shit the CIA has done (or may have done) falls under this, because even though there’s lots of coordination, secrecy, and discipline, the whole thing falls under the general human tendency to say “the ends justifies the means”.

    I guess my cutoff is “Does this explanation only require that the people involved are merely stupid, irrational, greedy, selfish, etc., or does it require cartoon-chessmaster-villain nefarious plotting?”

  41. Jiro says:

    A technical objection: it shouldn’t count as a conspiracy theory because only one person was involved.

    That’s not a technical objection, that’s a real objection. Having one person means you have no problem of how this big group managed to stay secret. A group composed of one person has no need for coordination, is inherently unknown, and inherently can do unexpected things.

    What you really should do if a conspiracy can be pulled off by one person is notice that the non-conspiracy version can also be pulled off by one person, and thus means nothing. If a single person can fake a conspiracy about bad things done by side A, in the absence of a conspiracy a single person *actually on side A* can also do it. Why are we caring about what a single person on any side does, unless lots of other people are involved (usually by the side’s reaction to the single person)?

    Also, there is another problem with conspiracy theories that you didn’t touch on much: they’re often unfalsifiable. If there’s no evidence, the conspiracy can just be covering it up.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Why are we caring about what a single person on any side does, unless lots of other people are involved (usually by the side’s reaction to the single person)?

      Your general point is well-said. Even this specific point is well said in that much of the time, the actions of an isolated individual do not reflect on the broader movement. But sometimes… they kind of do- another case of “there is no royal road.”

      Off the top of my head, cases where a single relatively ordinary person’s actions may be relevant to what we think of a ‘side’ could include:

      1) Because sometimes an action carried out by a single person is representative of a broader pattern. For example, most school shootings are carried out by a lone individual, but there may be relevant patterns across a broad group of school shootings that can be usefully illustrated by examining a single observed case in detail.

      2) Because sometimes an action carried out by a single person may set a precedent for other, similar actions carried out by others. This is particularly relevant for movements that are relatively new. For instance, it makes a huge difference to a lot of people whether Eliot Rodgers or the MAGAbomber are random mutant one-offs (like the Unabomber, who was not emulated) or whether dozens of other people decide to copycat their crimes. In the first case we have a historical footnote, in the second case we have a crisis on our hands. This merits some attention and consideration, so that we can figure out what to expect.

      3) Because sometimes one individual gets caught, but under circumstances that suggest that other, equally bad things may be happening elsewhere. If a big organization covers up ONE sexual abuse scandal, it’s entirely possible and even likely that they’ve also covered up others and are continuing to cover up others even now.

  42. Conrad Honcho says:

    I think Trump probably met with the Russians.

    Can you elaborate on this, Scott? I mean, the Trump Tower meeting happened, but it doesn’t look like that had anything to do with anything illegal or any kind of election tampering, and nothing came of it. But do you think there was any conspiracy between Trump and Putin’s agents to do nefarious things with regards to the 2016 elections?

    Keep in mind if Trump conspired with Putin, Putin would have proof of this. He could destroy Trump, his family, his name, his Presidency, his entire life’s work in a moment by just revealing Trump’s treason. And with little cost to Putin himself. He could do this at any time for any reason.

    What did the Trump campaign get from Russia that’s so valuable that Trump, Don Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort (who are not completely stupid when it comes to making deals in their favor) all agree that it’s worth it to lock themselves in explosive neck collars and hand the trigger to Vladimir Putin?

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      to lock themselves in explosive neck collars and hand the trigger to Vladimir Putin

      I’m not sold either way on this, but the obvious answer to your question is “because they did not expect to win.”

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        That does not answer the question? Win or lose they could still get wrecked by Vlad. Also I don’t see any evidence that Trump did not expect to win.

        • Deiseach says:

          Because none of them were career politicians, but businesspeople? And if you want to do business in Russia you’re going to be dealing with Putin even if only indirectly via “a very good friend of a very good friend of Vlad’s” who all want a little baksheesh, and if the stories about real estate development in New York city are true, the necessity to grease the palms of certain officials in local government is no new or strange thing.

          Once you’re doing your deals to build or buy property there, someone throwing in “Oh hey, I might know someone who maybe heard something about the opposition candidate, would you be interested?” is just icing on the cake. And since you’re not a career politician who has had all the warnings about what is and is not permissible re: campaign contributions, digging up dirt and so on drilled into them, you’re going to fall into pitholes that experienced politicians would know to avoid.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            “Oh hey, I might know someone who maybe heard something about the opposition candidate, would you be interested?”

            Which is not illegal, or even wrong. And is what Don Jr admits to doing with respect to the Trump Tower meeting.

            It’s only a problem if the research involved committing crimes, like hacking into someone’s email.

            It’s the doing of obviously criminal things while putting yourself at the mercy of foreign bad guys for little gain that I find hard to believe.

            Yes, it’s entirely possible that Trump wanted some money for Facebook ads, so he, Don Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort all put on ski masks and knocked over a liquor store, and then they took photographs of themselves doing it and gave those photographs to Vladimir Putin. But it doesn’t seem very likely.

          • Dan L says:

            Which is not illegal, or even wrong. And is what Don Jr admits to doing with respect to the Trump Tower meeting.

            Soliciting a foreign government for a material campaign contribution is, in fact, illegal.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            So when Hillary paid the law firm to pay the PR firm to pay the British spy to pay the Kremlin agents for dirt on Trump that must have been super mega illegal, right? When do we get to #LockHerUp?

          • Dan L says:

            So when Hillary

            *Takes a shot*

            paid

            You seriously need to go read what campaign finance law actually says, and why this word makes a difference.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            You’re the one making the claim that information counts as a material donation. How about you go find the relevant campaign finance laws and prove it? Because that does not sound at all true.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @DanL

            Then why has Donald Trump Jr. not been charged with any crime? He broadcast every e-mail about the meeting and has forthrightly admitted exactly what he did.

            If in fact what he did is criminal, why has he not been charged?

          • hls2003 says:

            @Conrad Honcho:

            What I assume Dan L is gesturing at are campaign finance laws which prohibit foreign nationals from providing, or US persons from soliciting from foreign nationals, any “thing of value.” The argument is that damaging information on an opponent is a “thing of value” and therefore seeking opposition research from a Russian equivalent to Trump soliciting a cash donation from a foreign national.

            Some courts have held that information, such as polling results, can be considered a “thing of value” for campaign finance purposes. So, e.g., if Rasmussen gave the Trump campaign for free polling results that would normally cost $1 million, then that is a campaign finance violation, because it would be considered a donation exceeding the allowable limit. If Trump paid $1 million for the polls, however, there is no violation, because there has been no “thing of value” donated. Purchases are not donations. Thus, the argument goes, in the topsy-turvy world of campaign finance, the violation is not “getting information” but rather reads more like “getting free goodies.”

            As Eugene Volokh notes in this Washington Post column (with addendum), this could create non-intuitive situations where it is perfectly acceptable to buy opposition research from Vladimir Putin, but a potential violation to take it for free. Volokh believes that interpreting the campaign finance laws so expansively would render them facially invalid under the First Amendment; various of his colleagues disagree. My personal guess is that in a less politically charged context, the First Amendment argument would prevail; but to my knowledge no court has directly addressed a comparable situation, and I think a Trump test case outcome would (to put it mildly) be heavily influenced by venue.

          • Dan L says:

            @Conrad Honcho:

            11 CFR § 100.52(d)(1). Opposition research definitely counts. There’s case law about how that intersects with 1st Amendment issues, but it definitely doesn’t cover surreptitious coordination.

            @EchoChaos:

            There are a number of reasons why, including-but-not-limited-to the FEC being impotent by design and Congressional Republicans running interference. I think there’s a reasonable chance Mueller’s investigation will have something to say on the matter even if it doesn’t amount to an indictment, and House Democrats will likely try subpoenaing something in the nearish future. More news as it comes in.

          • Conrad Honcho says:


            11 CFR 100.52 – Gift, subscription, loan, advance or deposit of money.
            :

            (d)

            (1) For purposes of this section, the term anything of value includes all in-kind contributions. Unless specifically exempted under 11 CFR part 100, subpart C, the provision of any goods or services without charge or at a charge that is less than the usual and normal charge for such goods or services is a contribution. Examples of such goods or services include, but are not limited to: Securities, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, advertising services, membership lists, and mailing lists. If goods or services are provided at less than the usual and normal charge, the amount of the in-kind contribution is the difference between the usual and normal charge for the goods or services at the time of the contribution and the amount charged the political committee.

            (2) For purposes of paragraph (d)(1) of this section, usual and normal charge for goods means the price of those goods in the market from which they ordinarily would have been purchased at the time of the contribution; and usual and normal charge for any services, other than those provided by an unpaid volunteer, means the hourly or piecework charge for the services at a commercially reasonable rate prevailing at the time the services were rendered.

            I suppose it would depend on what form the information ultimately took. I find it hard to believe that merely communicating with a campaign counts as a donation. Were the Access Hollywood “grab ’em by the pussy” tapes then an in-kind donation?

            Regardless, meeting with them to find out what the information was does not appear to be a crime from the statute you cited.

            ETA: “Opposition research” would count as a verb. I’m not so sure it counts as a noun.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Dan L

            The idea that neither Mueller nor one of the many particularly anti-Trump Attorneys General has indicted his son over confessing to a major crime over Twitter is really a non-starter to me.

          • Dan L says:

            @hls2003:

            Pretty much. I agree with Volokh that there are places where campaign finance might conflict with 1st Amendment protections (Citizens United, obviously), but SCOTUS has so far been willing to condone additional restrictions on foreign contributions. And the Trump tower meeting isn’t even close to that grey area.

            @Conrad Honcho:

            ‘Communicating with a campaign’ isn’t nearly enough to count, but if you’re explicitly offering to give strategically useful information directly to a campaign “[as] part of [organization’s] support for [Candidate]” and a campaign official accepts you have a problem. That is very different from a news organization publishing something of its own accord.

            Believe it or not, neither NBC nor WaPo are part of the Clinton campaign.

            @EchoChaos:

            To be clear, you’re confused as to why state AGs would not have indicted someone for violations in a federal election? Am I understanding you right?

            Mueller’s moving fast by Special Counsel standards, but it’s foolish to think he’s indicting everyone possible as early as possible. Absence of evidence means nothing when evidence would not be expected.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Dan L

            State AGs can refer crimes to the local Federal Prosecutor. The Federal Prosecutor for the NY District has not received a referral from the NY AG to my knowledge (and the “crime” was committed in NY, it would be his jurisdiction and he is VERY unfriendly to Trump).

            Mueller’s investigation has aggressively targeted Trump allies and has gotten them for the tiniest process crimes and stuff in their history that was years before they met Trump, but he somehow MISSED that Trump’s son admitted to a Federal felony in front of Congress and on Twitter?

            Neither seems plausible to me.

          • Dan L says:

            @EchoChaos:

            More than any other, NY prosecutors have been working in concert with the Mueller investigation to keep jurisdictional lines clear – Cohen’s case is instructive. You should not expect them to be making unforced errors.

            And as far as Mueller goes, I’m sorry for those that feel that his investigation has been “aggressive”. Efficient, sure, but I have a feeling you’ll be in for a rude awakening when a Democratic House gets subpoena power*. Mueller’s been sticking to the standard playbook of starting at the periphery and moving both up and in as time goes on, but there’s been enough political strategy in the disclosure timing that I’m sure he’s avoiding the gratuitous shitstorm that would come from indicting Individual 1’s son before he’s done gathering evidence.

            * Probability lowered since Pelosi’s back. Establishment types are also less likely to make the unforced errors.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Dan L

            I have heard that argument before. I’ll just leave it at “this stretches credibility too far for me”.

    • Desertopa says:

      I think it would be unwise to discard the hypothesis on the basis of an argument which would weigh heavily against most actual instances of blackmail which occur ever happening. Trump was labelled by the FBI as an individual who would normally never receive security clearance in part because he was judged to be so vulnerable to blackmail. One relatively plausible motivation on his part is that well before the time of the campaign, he was already responding to leverage from Russian creditors. Trump has, throughout his life and career, according to people who’re familiar with him, shown an intense fear of either losing his fortune, or not being perceived by others as being rich. Besides which, he’s not much given to introspection, forward planning or caution. Taking risks to preserve his fortune or his public appearance of wealth would hardly be a leap for him.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Trump was labelled by the FBI as an individual who would normally never receive security clearance

        Do you have a source on that? I could certainly believe Trump would be vulnerable to being blackmailed by women he’s slept with, but I’m very surprised the FBI would publicly name people who they think wouldn’t get a clearance? That seems like a very strange thing for the FBI to comment on publicly.

        But whatever this was that Trump did with the Russians was also agreed to by the likes of Don Jr, Kushner, and Paul Manafort. So it’s not just Trump’s judgement that’s suspect here. And Trump seems moderately okay at evaluating the ROI of various enterprises. More wins than losses anyway. Getting into bed with Putin seems like a cataclysmic risk, so whatever they got must have been enormous. Some leaked emails that didn’t have much in them we didn’t already know or suspect and a handful of FaceBook ads doesn’t seem worth it.

      • S_J says:

        Trump was labelled by the FBI as an individual who would normally never receive security clearance in part because he was judged to be so vulnerable to blackmail.

        For what it is worth, similar statements were aired about Bill Clinton in 1992; they mostly referred to his activities as a student during his Rhodes Scholarship trip overseas. However, Bill Clinton was (and possibly still is) susceptible to blackmail by women.

        I have no idea whether those claims are true now about Trump, or whether they were true then about Bill Clinton.

        But that is the kind of thing that political opponents like to claim.

        So I’m skeptical. Can you cite your source?

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Keep in mind if Trump conspired with Putin, Putin would have proof of this.

      Is that necessarily true though?

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        Yes? Records? A tape of the phone call? Vlad is KGB, and a Bond villain. On what planet is he going to do something extremely blackmailable with one of the two people who’s going to be the next President of the United States and he says “nah, I’m not gonna save the blackmail dirt for this one.”

    • Dan L says:

      What did the Trump campaign get from Russia that’s so valuable that Trump, Don Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort (who are not completely stupid when it comes to making deals in their favor) all agree that it’s worth it to lock themselves in explosive neck collars and hand the trigger to Vladimir Putin?

      Manafort’s collar has been manually detonated, in case you haven’t been paying attention. It appears “money” was one answer, feel free to update your beliefs accordingly.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        What are you talking about? Manafort got busted for tax stuff, false financial statements, and lobbying stuff he did years before. Nothing to do with the 2016 election or Russia.

        • Dan L says:

          Shifted goalposts. If you’re trying to argue that people are too smart to take such large personal risks, the fact that one of the listed price is currently sitting in prison is quite important.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            So you’re saying Putin gave Trump money? How much? Where is this money?

          • Dan L says:

            I don’t really need to point out how egregious that strawman is, do I? You’re never going to gain a better understanding of matters as long as you relentlessly insist on pigeonholing your critics into farcically weak arguments.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I asked: what did Trump get from Putin.

            You said “money.”

            Are you walking that back now? What did Trump get from Putin that was worth the risk of being exposed as working with Putin?

          • Thomas Jorgensen says:

            Well, 60 million dollars we know of for an indisputable fact?
            https://money.cnn.com/2016/07/27/news/donald-trump-russian-deal-mansion/index.html

            Its not difficult to funnel money to a real estate mogul if you control an oligarchy of billionaires..

            2008, though, so this would imply Trump was in their pay for non political reasons before he ever ran. Most likely money laundering. Again, what else would the Russian oligarchy want a real estate mogul for?

          • Dan L says:

            @Conrad Honcho:

            I’m at a keyboard now, so let me spell it out for you in full.

            On August 21 2018, Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight counts of crimes consisting of tax evasion and bank fraud. Retrial and a subsequent cooperation agreement shortly thereafter led to him pleading guilty or otherwise admitting guilt to the remaining counts. As part of his agreement, he is forfeiting quite a bit of the laundered money. Sentencing is an extremely complicated subject, but given the breach of his plea deal he will very likely die in prison. Barring a pardon, of course.

            The money in question was payment for his work in Ukraine from roughly 2006 – 2014, advising a government that could fairly be described as a Russian client. The actual financial crimes began in 2008, and continued as late as August 2017.

            Paul Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. Three months earlier, he owed tens of millions to various Ukranian and Russian interests. In the interim, this debt apparently vanished. In June, he would be named Trump’s campaign manager.

            If you’re an honest mistake theorist that happens to think that Trump is personally innocent of any wrongdoing, the above should be fucking terrifying. If you get the chance to co-opt a single person in an organization, aim for the hiring manager – this is standard tradecraft, and the Soviets absolutely were good at it. The man who picked Trump’s VP apparently spent the entirety of the campaign legally and financially compromised, and it requires a willful level of disbelief to imagine that Putin was not personally aware of this leverage.

            And then today, when listing people who would have helped keep Trump’s campaign above board, you name him specifically.

            Yeah.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I read Manafort’s wikipedia page and I don’t see any indication that the loans disappeared. Oleg Deripaska still seem to think Manafort owes him money. Oleg is also not Putin. I also don’t understand what him recommending Pence has to do with anything.

            Trump’s campaign manager for 3 months had business dealings with Ukrainians who had ties to Russians and therefore Trump is a Russian agent. Do you understand why this sounds like crazy conspiracy stuff? Like you find some guy who had a “business dealing” at some point with an Israeli and therefore it’s “the Jews?”

            You still haven’t answered what Trump got. Come on, man. I know you want to believe your political opponents are part of diabolical foreign conspiracies, but probably not. They probably just have different ideas than you do.

    • graehl says:

      “probably [privileging the hypothesis]” might be more accurate

  43. knockknock says:

    As a Jewish person (and a conservative at that) I have to roll my eyes at all the nefarious societal trends my tribe and I supposedly control. It serves as a reality check for conspiracy theories in general.

    That said, the one I think about most — with at least a grain of plausability — is, “Would a handful of powerful financiers deliberately trash the financial markets, just to defeat Trump or for some other power-grabbing purpose?”

    The X-Files obviously creeped out an entire generation, but my favorite TV sci-fi conspiracy is an old Outer Limits — where aliens intent on demoralizing Earth quietly introduce technology allowing humans to spy on each other. “No one can laugh, or joke — it watches.” Hmmmm … Some 60 years later you’d have to say we’re on our way.

    • Deiseach says:

      As a Jewish person (and a conservative at that) I have to roll my eyes at all the nefarious societal trends my tribe and I supposedly control.

      Yeah! It’s really encroaching on our turf for the originators and maintainers of the Global Control Conspiracy! I’m telling you, the Jesuits have really been slacking off in the past couple centuries, we were supposed to have the World Wide Theocracy with everyone cowering in fear of the Pope well established by now 🙂

      • Evan Þ says:

        Now I want to read a story about the Massive Jesuit Conspiracy and the Massive Jewish Conspiracy battling for global influence and somehow always managing to stymy each other. 😀

  44. Ozy Frantz says:

    The Catholic Church covers up child sexual abuse because the natural state of every sufficiently committed religion or religion-like ideology is covering up child sexual abuse. The Protestants get an unfair pass on this because many individual Protestant denominations are very small, and no one cares if the Reformed Eastern Baptist Church of Jesus is covering up CSA; you have to be really following the scandals to realize that the Protestant child sexual abuse crisis is on the same scale as the Catholic sexual abuse crisis. Buddhism, Judaism, New Age religions, etc. are much less relevant to the average reader and their CSA crises are much more likely to be on page four or five.

    As far as I can tell, there are two ways to prevent CSA coverups. First, you can have multiple people who are very very good people, who will look at all the incentives pointing towards “cover it up” and go “if a child has to be raped to protect God’s church then fuck God’s church.” (Less Wrong currently has this but our bus number is not high.) Second, you can be a denomination whose members don’t particularly care that much about religion and don’t change their lives very much based on it, in which case you’ll be greying and dying but there won’t be any raped kids. The UUs aren’t going to have a CSA scandal any time soon.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      It’s the same incentive structure that led the catholic church to cover up their scandals that also led authorities in England to cover up the child grooming gangs in Rotherham and elsewhere. When otherwise decent people discover information that, if made public, might endanger the integrity of the social fabric, they may decide that the right thing to do is to shut up about it. I think this is why we’re only hearing about catholic scandals now, because the church is no longer integral to the social fabric, people have fewer qualms about taking it down.

      • Walter says:

        Hrrm, in order for that equivalence to stick, the Rotherham cops would have had to be concerned about the overall reputation of immigrants at large, in the same way as the Cahtolic investigators were concerned for the reputation of priests at large, such that outing some of them as predators would have been unacceptable.

        Is that what was going on there though? I always thought the problem in Rotherham was more like, ‘they’ll call us racists if we say anything bad about immigrants’, rather than ‘if we admit that some immigrants are bad racists will use it to paint all immigrants as bad’.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          It’s both. Certainly many people were motivated by the fear of being called racist. But racism has only become a powerful accusation because integration of immigrants is so crucial to the social fabric. You cant bring in millions of foreigners into a homogeneous country like Britain was and expect things to run smoothly without intervention. You need to ensure some level of cohesion, and one way to do that is to make racism the worst sin possible.

          So the concern for immigrants at large led to the concern for the individual not to be called racist.

          Similarly, we can imagine an honest person at the Vatican raising the issue and being told “You wouldnt want to be anti-church now would you” or something along those lines.

        • Watchman says:

          The senior figures who made decisions not to follow up on this, primarily in social care and maybe education rather than the police (who rely on support from other agencies to investigate allegations from at-risk children), do seem to have justified their actions on the grounds of social coherence, which would also explain why a progressive-leaning journalistic core were not keen to run the story. Their assessment seems to have been the damage caused by opening the can of worms here would be worse than that caused by what were appearing to them as isolated cases. Their judgement was probably skewed by incorrect priors on the racism of the British population (for some reason British progressives seem to assume we have higher levels of racism than we do) and by not being aware of the true extent of the abuse. You can see why these decisions might get made as part of an organisation seeing its job as promoting social cohesion, for all that their actual jobs were to protect individual clients. Mission creep and inaccurate priors can effectively a conspiracy make it appears.

    • Deiseach says:

      The UUs aren’t going to have a CSA scandal any time soon.

      Never say never, and I don’t say this in any triumphalist sense, but out of bitter experience as an Irish Catholic seeing the tsunami of abuse cases in my country. Sexual abuse isn’t confined to minors, there are plenty of #ChurchToo scandals for Protestant denominations where adult women were involved; child abuse also covered physical abuse and neglect; and part of the commingled sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church are about gay sex scandals where there are accusations senior clergy (like former Cardinal Ted McCarrick) abused seminarians (who would be young men with a lower age limit of at least 17 to enter the seminary).

      Do you really want to bet there would never be a UU sex scandal involving a parishioner and a clergyperson of any gender? Because I wouldn’t bet that. Many of the Protestant “minister and congregant” sex scandals happened where the clergyperson was acting as a counsellor to that person. You couldn’t see such a scenario developing with a UU church or clergyperson?

      Oh look. Here’s an article about a whole slew of them.

      And here’s a link to one of the cases mentioned in that article – a UU clergyman who brought three teenage Tibetan girls (ages seem to be 16-17 years old) back to the USA in the 90s and was charged and convicted with rape and sexual assault. Not quite child sexual abuse but certainly abuse of a minor:

      In January 1992, a Worcester County grand jury indicted him on 20 counts of rape, five counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14, and one count of assault and battery, according to old news reports.

      It can happen anywhere, any time, involving any one.

      • John Schilling says:

        The UUs, and Protestants generally, are much less likely than the Catholic Church to have child sexual abuse scandals, because A: pedophilia is fortunately rare and B: Protestant churches don’t have much selection pressure for pedophilia vs. not-pedophilia. The Catholic Church’s rule of clerical celibacy means that anyone wanting to be a priest has to sacrifice any hope of a socially acceptable sex life – which is a really big fucking deal for most people, but a non-issue for people whose fetish or orientation means they are never going to have a socially acceptable sex life anyway.

        As you note, this just means “diddling the altarboys” usually gets replaced by “Weinsteinizing vulnerable adult or adult-ish women” for the Protestants, but the latter is about an order of magnitude less reprehensible to the general public so the Catholic Church comes off worse in the press.

        Also, as Ozy notes, the Protestant denominations are usually to disorganized for a really juicy conspiracy.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          Is there any evidence that the Catholic priesthood actually does have a higher proportion of paedophiles in it than the general population?

          • Dack says:

            The John Jay Report stated that they are at about the same rate as the general population.

            Which is presumably a lesser rate than teachers, scout leaders, Chuck E Cheese employees, etc.

      • Jaskologist says:

        Can’t have Child Sex Abuse if your churches don’t have any children.

    • albatross11 says:

      Ozy:

      I see why covering up abuse by high-status insiders is a likely behavior of any group is expected behavior (see also: the blue wall of silence, doctors covering for one anothers’ screw-ups, etc.). But why sexual abuse of children in particular?

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        I dunno but it sure happens a lot.

      • Aapje says:

        @albatross11

        Adults almost always have higher status than children, children are (correctly) more expected to make shit up than adults, etc. So i seems completely logical that people are more likely to disbelieve a kid or a person who make a claim about their childhood experience, than an adult who makes a claim about something that happened when they were already properly adulted*.

        * Yes, I made that up and think it makes sense.

    • S_J says:

      For comparison and contrast: The Boy Scouts of America suffered a sex-abuse scandal in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

      The organization had lots of incentive to cover things up. Incentives that aren’t quite as powerful as the Religion-centric incentives around churches; but incentives that were powerful enough to have most cases swept under the rug as an example of a few bad apples that shouldn’t ruin the public image of the Organization.

      Once the cover-up became impossible, the organization did a careful study and revamping of internal rules, practices, and policies. The most useful of those policies is the rule that no younger child is ever allowed to be alone with an older person (whether an older Scout, or an adult). The organization had to enforce those rules vigorously on everyone to make them stick, no matter how trustworthy any individual in the organization was or is.

      This is a rule that organizations like churches (Catholic, or one of the many hundreds of varieties of Protestant) don’t usually apply to their pastors/priests/elders/deacons/leaders. But it is the best way to prevent this kind of problem. If the rule is extended to everyone, or modified with policies like private counseling sessions are in a room with glass door/walls, the organization can protect itself from all kinds of abuse allegations.

      I’ve said this in a thread elsewhere at SSC: a lot of the outline of how the Catholic Church (or various Protestant Churches) react to sex scandals is very similar to how the world of Hollywood reacted to the scandals around Harvey Weinstein. And it is similar to how the BBC reacted to the scandals of Jimmy Savile.

      The rule that the Boy Scouts observed is apparently one that Harvey Weinstein never followed, or Jimmy Savile would not have considered. In their case, any actor/actress who was in a position to be under their authority should never have consented to a private, closed-door meeting with them.

      • Tenacious D says:

        This is a rule that organizations like churches (Catholic, or one of the many hundreds of varieties of Protestant) don’t usually apply to their pastors/priests/elders/deacons/leaders. But it is the best way to prevent this kind of problem. If the rule is extended to everyone, or modified with policies like private counseling sessions are in a room with glass door/walls, the organization can protect itself from all kinds of abuse allegations

        My experience in Protestant churches (which is admittedly hard to generalize from given the hundreds of varieties as you mention; and I was born after the Boy Scout scandals, for reference) is that there’s at least an awareness to minimize private one-on-one time with minors—how rigid of a rule this is can vary though. For example, it was part of training when I volunteered as a camp counsellor at a church camp in the early 2000s. Also consider the infamous “Pence Rule” (which was a Billy Graham rule before that) which extends the concept to prevent allegations of regular (non-abuse) sex scandals.

      • Walter says:

        The Pence Rule universalizes, heh.

        • Jaskologist says:

          More than you realize. This is also why many traditional long-lived societies evolve the norm that it’s inappropriate for unmarried men and women to work closely together.

          • At the end of one millennium and nine centuries of Christianity, it remains an unshakable assumption of the law in all Christian countries and of the moral judgement of Christians everywhere that if a man and a woman, entering a room together, close the door behind them, the man will come out sadder and the woman wiser.

            (Mencken)

    • sourcreamus says:

      It is not just churches, that is naive. Every group that deals with children has been infiltrated by pedophiles. Boy scouts, youth sports, charities, private schools, public schools, have all had these types of scandals.
      There is nothing unique about the Catholic church or priests, they are just the most famous. There was a widespread naivete among everyone in society about the prevalence of child molesters. The crime was literally unthinkable to most people so no one thought to be vigilant against it.

      • Secretly French says:

        It might not qualify as a qualitative difference to you, but the church is a lot older and tremendously much more powerful than anything else you listed (a power which I think you will agree, though it has been waning steadily since the middle ages, still dwarfs that of the good old boy scouts association of america); and there is also the point that the church required celibacy of its priests, which is not true of anything else in your list and which has been explained elsewhere in these comments as being possibly connected to attracting pederasts.

        • Randy M says:

          But that isn’t true of every religion or religion-like ideology, which Ozy asserts naturally tends toward pedophilia conspiracies.

          • Secretly French says:

            Yes I don’t endorse or even understand that claim, and I was only speaking about The Church, and not church, if you follow my meaning.

          • Randy M says:

            ah, sourcreamus says there is nothing unique about the Catholic church; you are right to bring up celibacy, and it is uniquely hierarchical. The RCC had unique contributing factors; but it is not unique in having, and covering up, minor sex abuse scandals.

            I don’t know about Buddhist or Hindu clergy as far as that goes.

        • sourcreamus says:

          The RCC is unique in those ways but I think it is naive to think that they were unique in attracting pederasts. Some people seem to think that they had more pederasts in their midst because of the celibacy requirement but that is probably not true. That was postulated by those who would like the church to change that policy but in the official catholic report they make a good case that it was not a contributing factor.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      What’s a bus number?

      Also, have there been any Eastern Orthodox sex scandals?

    • DaveK says:

      I’ve only recently become aware about the degree of sexual assault in Protestant churches. It seems to be more girls.

      Is this really equally as common in other religions?

  45. Desertopa says:

    I think “intuition” is turning into a black box something which can be, if not really strictly formalized, at least put into considerably more precise terms.

    Take the “End Father’s Day” example. Real feminists often do controversial and outrageous things. But, most feminists still have at least some modicum of ability to judge what kind of proposals will attract positive vs. negative attention outside extremist circles. And most feminists don’t seem to think that openly fighting against recognition of men, in areas where women are already recognized and with no clear corresponding benefit to women, is a good look. It’s not a goal which brings any kind of benefit other than attacking an outgroup who most feminists would rather they *not* be seen as attacking for no reason.

    There might be actual feminists who would rally behind such a goal, but they’re probably a lot fewer and less likely to coordinate around it than opponents of feminism who’d like to frame the movement as being so eager to openly attack men in such a way with no clear benefit to anyone.

    The “intuition” label serves to conceal actual specific domain information about the subject which can be communicated to other people which makes it easier to make a correct judgment.

    • Ozy Frantz says:

      To be fair, #GiveYourMoneyToWomen was a real, non-4Chan hashtag. I don’t think #EndFathersDay is that implausible as a fashionable-misandry joke, it’s just that the people tweeting about it were all people who think you hyphenate “cis privilege.”

      • Desertopa says:

        #GiveYourMoneyToWomen was a pretty bad look in itself, but at least it provides a tangible benefit to women, about as tangible a benefit as actually exists. Women having less access to hard capital than men, and being undercompensated for social and emotional labor, were already common feminist talking points. Men being overrecognized for fatherhood is, at least, not a common talking point in any part of the feminist movement I’ve had much chance to become familiar with. It’s not like I don’t think any actual feminists would get behind it, but it’s a talking point where the incentives of feminists to get behind it are a lot weaker than those of people who want to make feminists look bad.

      • Deiseach says:

        people who think you hyphenate “cis privilege”

        Does my cis and white privilege cancel out my oppression by the patriarchy as a woman and/or class lack of privilege? I can never work out the equations involved 😀

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I think so, yes. I saw articles after the 2016 election that white women voted for Trump because they were more interested in protecting their white privilege than overthrowing the patriarchy.

        • eyeballfrog says:

          It’s never been clear to me whether privilegedness is a partial order (only some are comparable, but always in a consistent way) or total order (everyone is comparable and can be ranked). I think intersectionality says it should be a partial order, but most intersectionalists I’ve encountered seem to treat it as a total order (e.g. the progressive stack).

        • Hoopyfreud says:

          Frustrated academics will tell you that “that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works, cardinality isn’t the point of intersectionality.” The internet will tell you that that all depends on whether the person speaking wants you to be “punching up” or “punching down,” but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all post hoc nonsense. The equation is drawn up to fit the battle lines.

          • Statismagician says:

            +1.

            To extrapolate, I think a real problem is that none of these are real movements with a coherent ideology/chain of command, so the orthodoxy is just the sum of things the Times has felt like talking about for ~two news cycles.

    • Deiseach says:

      I think something like #EndFathersDay gets traction because you do get well-meaning people pushing for things like Parents Day (which end up reported in the media with attention-grabbing scare headlines like “They want to DO AWAY WITH MOTHERS!!!”) or some local government department changes headings on official forms to “person A and person B” instead of “mother and father”, all in the name of “traditional families are not the norm any more, and we need to be sensitive to modern families where there are single parents or same-sex parents or adoptive parents etc.”

      That makes it easier for “hey, radical feminists want to abolish Fathers Day” to sound plausible instead of “what kind of kooky conspiracy nonsense are you trying to peddle?”

    • Aapje says:

      @Desertopa

      I’ve seen a lot of opposition by feminists to recognize International Men’s Day. International Women’s Day seems to commonly be seen (especially by feminists) as an opportunity to discuss women’s issues and push for change to help women. So feminist opposition seems to be the classic objection to give men’s issues a (somewhat) similar treatment.

      The men’s rights movement has traditionally focused quite a bit on fatherhood issues, especially fathers who are denied contact with their kids, don’t get sole or shared custody when they believe it is the most reasonable, etc. The largest feminist organization, NOW, has opposed laws that make shared custody the default, based on rather absurd objections (claiming that it would enable abuse of children).

      So to me, “End Father’s Day” didn’t seem that implausible as an actual feminist campaign by a small extremist group, if father’s rights groups campaigned on that day (which they may do) and the feminists in question became aware of this through an outrage story that portrayed Father’s Day as an event that gives lots of attention to MRAs.

    • DaveK says:

      The day that was circulating on facebook I knew it was a hoax. The reason- people kept quoting the same three names who had profile pictures- and no one would ever use those particular photos as a profile picture.

  46. Deiseach says:

    The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe.

    Nope, the Tories and “Call me Dave” managed to foof that up all by their little ownsomes.

    The Catholic Church spent decades covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its priests.

    Oh gosh, this is painful. Yes. You have no idea why it sounded like a conspiracy back when it was all coming out, because it was literally unthinkable – imagine somebody telling you that your parents are members of a Satanic cult that engages in human sacrifice, that’s how it sounded.

    Then imagine one day you walk into the house to see your parents with blood-soaked clothing wiping gobbets of flesh off ritual knives. That’s what it felt like.

    • Murphy says:

      It must be a generational thing. Growing up nominally catholic in Ireland 80’s onwards it was a dog-bites-man thing. But that was all post-scandal.

      My dad’s generation… perhaps it depended where you grew up but he wasn’t impressed about how many years it took for anything to be done about his local bishop despite the man not being terribly sneaky about his groping of kids genitals.

      So it might be a little more like your brothers and sisters keep insisting that your parents are doing some messed up stuff, you keep hearing about it from them and others in the community as well…. but it isn’t until you find them actually chewing a toddler in front of you that you start listening.

      I honestly don’t even really get why people seemed to put priests on such a pedestal. They’re supposed to be talking about jesus but that doesn’t make them Jesus. You’d think priests would carry less mystique in the days when every family seemed to have at least one sibling in the clergy if not 2. When someone you really really know, warts and all, is wearing the same robes why would you assume automatic goodness just by dint of being a priest?

    • John Schilling says:

      From my pre-scandal American perspective, it was always “common knowledge” that the priesthood attracted a disproprotionate number of kiddie-diddlers and that their immediate supervisors were likely to turn a blind eye to that, see e.g. the many ha-ha-only-serious priest/altarboy jokes. Only the extent to which supervisors turning a blind eye, turned out to be supervisors colluding with other supervisors to shift the pedophiles into places where they wouldn’t be found out, was surprising. And that does meet almost any definition of a conspiracy theory.

      • albatross11 says:

        Yeah, the idea was in the air, and I remember a guy from my church commenting that this had been the subject of jokes when he was a kid growing up in a very catholic neighborhood.

        If the hierarchy had quietly retired those priests instead of shuffling them off to other parishes to continue their diddling of boys, the scandal would have been enormously less damaging on every level.

        • The original Mr. X says:

          If the hierarchy had quietly retired those priests instead of shuffling them off to other parishes to continue their diddling of boys, the scandal would have been enormously less damaging on every level.

          In defence of the hierarchy, the psychological consensus during the time was that paedophilia could be cured with the appropriate psychiatric intervention, so “Send Fr. McKiddyfiddler to be treated, then try to rehabilitate him back into ministry after he’s cured” would have seemed like a reasonable proposal instead of a PR-driven whitewash.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      A coworker from the generation previous me said she went to confession years ago and told the priest what she knew about some screwing around of Fr SoAndSo, and he said, “Well, if we do anything about it who will say Mass, and who will go to the sick and hear confessions?” And she said, “Fine! I did my part!”
      Pardon my language, but
      For fuck’s sake… to hell with that guy.

  47. Icedcoffee says:

    Point B, about self-interest, isn’t necessarily convincing. You can be naturally incentivized to act in a particular way, and still coordinate to act in that way *more effectively*. E.g., the rich are naturally incentivized to push pro-rich policies, but they can still conspire to push pro-rich policies by illegal methods.

  48. jermo sapiens says:

    I just listened to the Sam Harris podcast where he discusses the Russian involvement in the 2016 election. I generally support Trump and I’m very skeptical of the claims of Russian collusion, but I like Sam and listened with an open mind. Basically it appears that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government body, created a bunch of Facebook pages which were more or less successful, and they were used to spread anti-Clinton messages.

    Ok, fair enough, I have no problems accepting that as true. In terms of election spending, it seems like a drop in the bucket. Certainly, nowhere near as important as the Clinton foundation taking donations from various governments and shady characters worldwide. Or the fact that the entire MSM with the exception of Fox was providing the Clinton campaign with in-kind contributions 24/7. Or the fact that the FBI exonerated Clinton for mishandling classified information for the purpose of evading Freedom of Information requests while there are people currently serving jail time for much less severe mishandling of classified information.

    What this looks like to me is that team Clinton had all of its players using performance enhancing drugs and had bought off all the referees, managed to lose, and then started complaining that one player on the other team once smoked a joint in college and that is AGAINST THE RULES. We’ve named a special prosecutor who is investigating that joint smoked in college for 2 years, and people are speaking of the “College Joint Conspiracy”. Then again my information sources are heavily tilted towards the right wing, with some exceptions like this blog and Sam Harris, which I consider to be left wing and intellectually honest, so I understand that my view is probably not entirely accurate. But also, when I see that CNN is going bezerk over some allegation that Paul Manafort once sent an email to a guy who was friends with Julian Assange’s cousin, my views are reinforced.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      Foreign involvement in elections is not some “joint in a locker room” offense. Furthermore, Americans making sleazy moves in political chess is something we should care about, AS IS Russian involvement in the election.

      Two wrongs don’t make a right.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        We should care about the facebook pages that Russia’s IRA put up. I dont disagree with that. But the fact that Russia did that does not imply the Trump campaign involvement. In fact there is no need for the Trump campaign to be involved. Also, to focus on that when Hillary did things that were so much worse smacks of bad faith.

        The analogy to the joint was made to highlight the relative severity of what Russia did versus what Hillary did. If I am completely way off in believing the Clinton foundation was a transparently fraudulent scheme to collect bribes from foreign interest groups, based on every smart person “knowing” Clinton was going to win, I will stand corrected.

    • Eigengrau says:

      Russian operatives spreading propaganda on social media is indeed small beans. But there’s a lot more than that. You admit that you predominantly receive information from right-wing sources, so I’ll remind you that Russian operatives hacked the DNC and that this is a crime comparable to the Watergate break-in, no “college joint” stuff. If Trump’s team was involved then it is a very serious charge. Then there’s the obstruction of justice claims, for which there is tons of public evidence, once again mirroring Nixon in that the cover up was worse than the initial crime. While I think it’s unlikely that there was any smoke-filled backroom where Trump and associates collectively conspired to hack the DNC, it is entirely possible that Trump’s team was aware of the crime before it happened/emerged and decided to keep quiet about it. Contrast Al Gore in 2000, who immediately called the FBI when he learned of illegal campaign activity committed on his behalf.

      As for Clinton’s transgressions, they are mostly exaggerated. The emails fiasco is routine and never punished in Washington (see: the Bush administration deleting millions of emails, Trump staffers conducting business on personal email accounts, many other examples), the Clinton Foundation was vulnerable to impropriety but no serious transgressions ever emerged and overall is considered a good and efficient charity which Clinton in no way materially profited from, one CNN staffer providing Clinton with an obvious question about Flint’s water for a debate that took place in Flint does not outweigh the millions in free publicity they gave Trump or all the false equivocation that was made between the two candidates. I could go on.

      • the Clinton Foundation was vulnerable to impropriety but no serious transgressions ever emerged and overall is considered a good and efficient charity which Clinton in no way materially profited from

        My conjecture is that it was a way of supporting people who were part of the Clinton political team–giving them positions that provided an income without much work, running conferences in nice hotels, and the like. I think it’s clear that it got a lot of income from foreigners in a position to benefit by influence with the secretary of state, and I believe its income declined quite sharply after Hilary lost. Am I mistaken?

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          That’s pretty much how I saw it as well. Hillary and Bill were able to use the funds to support charities they liked, but also to keep a strong support network (many of the known aides and supporters that worked for them during the 2016 campaign seemed to have positions at the Foundation just before).

          I don’t know enough about non-profit law to say if there is anything illegal about that, but getting foreign nationals with an interest in US politics to fund your payroll while you plan to run for government office (and are currently SOS) does seem…problematic?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            but getting foreign nationals with an interest in US politics to fund your payroll while you plan to run for government office (and are currently SOS) does seem…problematic?

            That’s the main point for me. And the fact that this is downplayed by people who are simultaneously insisting that “Russian influence” on Trump is an unprecedented crime against America raises my cynicism about the whole thing.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Yes, I agree that the sudden concern about Trump being influenced with a lot of shrugging about the Clinton’s makes me cynical.

            I would be perfectly fine with a hard-nosed “everyone goes to jail!” approach to both Clinton and Trump, if we feel that foreign influence is that bad. I struggle with the idea that Clinton is fine and understandable, but Trump is totally beholden to foreign interests. There’s not enough daylight between their activities to treat them that differently. That said, Clinton’s legal team is a whole lot better than Trump’s, so I can see them wiggling through the fine details such that what they do is technically legal while Trump is just bumbling along. While that might make a legal distinction reasonable, from the perspective of morally judging either set of actions, that’s no longer a valid defense.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I would be perfectly fine with a hard-nosed “everyone goes to jail!” approach to both Clinton and Trump

            Agreed.

            That said, Clinton’s legal team is a whole lot better than Trump’s, so I can see them wiggling through the fine details such that what they do is technically legal while Trump is just bumbling along.

            That might be correct. My intuition is that Clinton is from the ingroup and Trump is from the outgroup, and so what’s forgivable from the former is not from the latter. Sprinkle in a bit of prosecutorial discretion, and there you have it.

        • Eigengrau says:

          That’s why I said “vulnerable to impropriety” and “materially profited”. It was definitely used for networking. I’m sure some of the donors thought they could curry political favour through the charity. Whether that actually happened has not emerged.

          The charity has seen a decrease in donations but it’s unclear how much of that is due to the fact that a portion of the foundation was shut down in anticipation of Clinton’s *cough* presidency. The idea was that the mere existence of the global arm of the charity would be too much a conflict of interest for the POTUS.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        I’ll remind you that Russian operatives hacked the DNC and that this is a crime comparable to the Watergate break-in, no “college joint” stuff.

        Do we know for sure the hack was Russian? I’ve heard a couple of things (and my source is impeccable: some guy on twitter) that seem to point to Seth Rich, or at least somebody from within the campaign. For example, apparently it’s been established that the speed at which the data was retrieved from a server indicates it was local. I’ve also heard that John Podesta’s email password was “password”. I dont know how reliable that information is, but it seems at least as reliable as a bald assertion that “the Russians did it”.

        As for obstruction of justice, to the extent this is a Martha Stewart type crime, I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m not outraged.

        I’m surprised by your downplaying of Clinton’s activities. The way Trump has been treated since he announced he was running, I can only imagine what would happen if the Trump foundation had taken in millions from foreign interests (or for that matter, if Trump had received oral sex from a White House intern, I know it’s not relevant but it’s fun to imagine). And mishandling classified information and avoiding FOI are serious crimes, and they also suggest the existence of a larger crime.

        And honest question, if Clinton never profited from the Clinton foundation, how did they amass their fortune? Is it all from speaking fees? It could be, but when you’re being paid $250,000 to give a talk to bankers or foreign dignitaries, the people paying you are more interested in what you can do for them than what you will say during your talk.

        • Eigengrau says:

          Several intelligence agencies and private security firms all concluded independently that Russia was behind the hacks. This does not pass the conspiracy sniff test.

          The Trump Organization did take in millions from foreign interests and continues to do so as Trump has not adequately divested himself or dissolved the business.

          You can’t possibly be suggesting that an affair would be beyond the pale of Trump’s presidency. Literally no one would be the least bit surprised if it happened. Plus, Clinton’s husband’s affair eventually led to his impeachment in the House and is perhaps the defining episode of his entire existence, so there’s your bar for how a presidential affair affects a Democrat. Meanwhile, Trump’s own affairs and sexual harrassment allegations barely crack his top 5 scandals.

          Obstruction of justice is a “whatever” crime (…which brought down Nixon), but mishandling classified communications (which is routine and rarely punished) is a serious crime? The only serious part of the Clinton email scandal was when she had them deleted, which was potentially… obstruction of justice. And of course, Trump has destroyed subpoena’d records many times.

          I have long wanted to write a “Everything bad Clinton was accused of Trump did ten-fold” megapost somewhere. It’s just… true.

          • John Schilling says:

            but mishandling classified communications (which is routine and rarely punished) is a serious crime?

            Literally none of the six sources you cite, describe anyone other than Hillary Clinton ever mishandling classified communications. That is something that is very much not routine, and is usually punished when it is revealed.

            The punishment usually doesn’t go beyond being summarily fired and barred from ever working for the government again(*); actual prison time is rare, and Trump’s “lock her up!” is tiresome. But trying to cast this as no big deal, everyone does it, is also tiresome. And either ignorant or disingenuous, and you are now properly informed.

            * So, w/re Hillary, mission hopefully accomplished.

          • Eigengrau says:

            @John Schilling

            GWB administration deleting millions of emails in violation of Presidential Records Act and Colin Powell using a private email account to communicate with foreign leaders are clear cut examples of the mishandling of classified communications. Karl Rove even had a private email server on which he conducted government business! The worst that happened was some aides were held in contempt of court for failing to comply with subpoenas, but no punishment was handed down.

            The rest of the sources don’t definitively indicate that the communications were classified, but given the extremely wide net of classification in the US federal government (overclassification is a well-known issue), it’s likely that those other communications (involving Ivanka, Donald, Pruitt, various Obama admin members, and a large percentage of all federal employees) also include some classified material.

            The mishandling of classified info *is* punished, but almost never at that level of government, because the violation of departments’ communications policy, is, in fact, routine. Perhaps that’s not fair, but that’s not the point I was making. The original claim was that Clinton was given special treatment. Compared to her colleagues from administrations past and present, she was not.

            The other part of the claim was that obstruction of justice, perjury, conspiracy (“Martha Stewart type crimes”) are no big deals compared to Clinton’s private email server. This is not true, especially at the level of the White House.

            [I probably should have said “which is routine and rarely punished at that level of government”, but I was going for a one-link-per-word-thing and couldn’t be bothered to look up that many examples]

          • John Schilling says:

            GWB administration deleting millions of emails in violation of Presidential Records Act and Colin Powell using a private email account to communicate with foreign leaders are clear cut examples of the mishandling of classified communications.

            You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

        • dick says:

          Do we know for sure the hack was Russian?

          A bunch of spy agencies in different countries all said so in plain terms, so you’d need to either accept that or pose another explanation for why they would do that.

        • The Nybbler says:

          We know the Russians hacked it. We don’t if anyone else did. And you can put Ockham’s Razor away; multiple hacks of a poorly-secured high value target are to be expected.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’ll remind you that Russian operatives hacked the DNC and that this is a crime comparable to the Watergate break-in

        What crime? The Russian operatives who hacked the DNC almost certainly did so as Russian citizens and while in Russia, subject only to Russian law, and I’m fairly confident that Russian law allows for Russian agents to hack whatever Putin et al wants them to hack.

        There is a huge difference between “Russian operatives hacked the DNC”, which is just standard-issue spy work, and “The Trump campaign colluded with Russia to hack the DNC”, which would be a very serious crime for the the US citizens involved if in fact it happened. Confusing these two very different things, is not helpful. Implying the latter when all you have evidence of is the former, even less helpful.

        • Eigengrau says:

          Several Russians have been indicted for crimes including various forms of conspiracy, various cyber crimes, and identity theft.

          I did not confuse the two. I was clear that if Trump’s team was aware of the conspiracy or assisted in any way they would be culpable: “If Trump’s team was involved then it is a very serious charge”. Plus, there is now compelling evidence that this is the case, with it coming to light that Manafort shared proprietary polling data with Kilimnik.

          • John Schilling says:

            Several Russians have been indicted for crimes including various forms of conspiracy, various cyber crimes, and identity theft.

            Indicted by Russian courts, or by American ones? And if the latter, why should anyone else care?

          • dick says:

            The reason Americans care about Russians who commit crimes trying to influence our elections is the “influence our elections” part, not the “commit crimes” part.

          • John Schilling says:

            Then for clarity you should eliminate the word “crime” and talk about Russians influencing our elections.

            They do this, and anyone who says otherwise can be dismissed as hopelessly ignorant. We would prefer that they stop. But they aren’t going to, and saying “this is super dooper extra criminal so you have to stop!” isn’t going to make them stop. Also, it isn’t going to be just the Russians who keep on doing this no matter how much you want them to stop.

            So, go ahead and care. What are you going to do about it?

          • dick says:

            You said, “What crime? …I’m fairly confident that Russian law allows for Russian agents to hack whatever Putin et al wants them to hack.” and Eigengrau answered and then you seem to have taken that to mean they’re a simpleton who expects Russian spies to conform to US law. I was disambiguating those things on their behalf. No one is expecting Russians to get in a huff that a Russian spy broke a US law, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Republicans to. To the extent that the US left is upset about this and the US right isn’t, it’s the latter position that demands explanation.

  49. deciusbrutus says:

    The #EndFathersDay hoax isn’t a conspiracy either. It barely qualifies as a false flag attack. As Chris Rowland once said, “Top kek will always win.”

    Only a couple of people are needed to edit a few photos and sow a few seeds; outrage at the thing they are faking will take over very quickly- almost all of the viralness of the AOC dance ‘scandal’ was generated by the Left yelling about how there wasn’t anything wrong with it- I searched for what literally anyone on the right was saying, and found nothing. The Twitter-zero account was a throwaway.

    I’m not saying that a given attempt to generate kek will tend to be wildly successful, but it’s only the ones that go sufficiently viral that any of us hear about. With a few hundred 4channers working largely on false flag attacks, I expect that every few news cycles one of them achieves the goal of going viral and being believed long enough.

    Now that I have established an opinion about that:
    False false-flag attacks, in which someone does something that looks like a false-flag attack with the primary goal of discrediting the presumed source of the apparent false-flag attack: Paranoia or rational adaptation of tactics to the new landscape?

    An example would be an Islamist infiltrating an anti-immigrant forum and suggesting that the only way people would understand the dangers of Islam is if a bunch of trains derailed and Islamist pamphlets were found at the crash sites. (I do not believe that actually happened, but that belief is entirely based on priors and I can’t imagine what I would encounter that is evidence about it either way)

  50. Atlas says:

    Steve Sailer has often cited Ultra, British intelligence’s decryption of German ciphers during World War 2, as a counterpoint to Basic Argument (a). (I’m eliding some important nuances because I’m trying to compose this comment in a hurry on my phone.)

    Surely it would be impossible to have a massively important government intelligence program that almost 10,000 people worked in kept almost totally under wraps for around 30 years, right?

    Except…it seems that’s exactly what happened with Bletchley Park.

    By the way, there’s a hilarious conspiracy card game apparently originally based on Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy. One of my favorite things about Twitter was people posting screenshots of the cards when something relevant was in the news.

    • albatross11 says:

      Yes, Steve Jackson Games’ _Illuminati!_. A very fun game!

    • Statismagician says:

      I can’t help but feel that ‘external intelligence operation during existential conflict’ is a different sort of thing than [nefarious and internal, by general implication] ‘conspiracy,’ in all but the most technical sense. Also, specific details of an operation =/ existence of an effort to break enemy codes, which presumably everybody who thought at all seriously about it knew was being done somewhere.

      Probably all of this is redundant since you mention eliding due to phone posting, but I still think it ought to be typed out explicitly.

      • Atlas says:

        I was indeed considering this issue, but I think the example is still highly relevant: Firstly, a conspiracy theorist might challenge that distinction and say that a group of elites consider the general population a force to be managed/controlled/opposed just like an enemy foreign nation. (Indeed, I think that many conspiracy theorists would often claim that elites of different nations have more in common with each other than they do with their respective citizenry.) Secondly, how often is there not some ongoing or hypothetical conflict that governments use extreme secrecy in preparing for/waging? Thirdly, consider an aphorism of Scott’s: “If something has happened, then it’s possible.” (Paraphrasing from memory, his exact words may be different.)

        Also, specific details of an operation =/ existence of an effort to break enemy codes, which presumably everybody who thought at all seriously about it knew was being done somewhere.

        I’m not sure that this is true; My understanding—and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong—is that the source of Ultra intelligence was thought to be (a) human source(s) within the German state, and the fact that it was signals intelligence that came from code-breaking was a very closely guarded secret. As bean mentioned below, the British were able to read the communications of many states post-WW2 who weren’t aware that they’d cracked the Enigma code during the war.

        That is to say, I think that the existence, magnitude and success of the British code breaking operation at Bletchley Park were indeed kept quite secret for decades. I think this has interesting implications for what governments are capable of doing and keeping secret if they so desire.

        Also, for an example of a “nefarious and internal” conspiracy, consider the CIA’s MKUltra program, which Scott mentioned in the OP but I think sort of understated the significance of. One could also argue that the disclosures about the Five Eyes surveillance network released by Edward Snowden in 2013 are an example of this, though I don’t know enough about the specifics of the case to say so definitively.

        • bean says:

          I’m not sure that this is true; My understanding—and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong—is that the source of Ultra intelligence was thought to be (a) human source(s) within the German state, and the fact that it was signals intelligence that came from code-breaking was a very closely guarded secret.

          A number of techniques were used to disguise the origins of ULTRA intelligence. At sea, it was usually attributed to direction-finding and clever work by people like the staff of the OIC. (Which was most of the system anyway.) For strategic stuff, they definitely played the HUMINT card fairly heavily. Not sure what they did on land/air. I’m a lot less familiar with that part of the war.

        • MrApophenia says:

          I think you are right that MKULTRA is probably the best example of a “strong conspiracy” that turned out to be real – pretty self-evidently nefarious, involved a large number of people both inside the CIA and outside of it, and it remained secret for decades.

          It is clearly possible for this to happen, even if it is unlikely.

          • gwern says:

            I’m not sure it’s even the best. Proffered for consideration:

            19. The current Prime Minister of Italy, as well as all the intelligence agency leaders and many top military leaders, is a former member of a secret ultra-right-wing Masonic lodge with mafia connections dedicated to the overthrow of liberal democracy in Italy and possibly linked to false-flag terrorist attacks among other things.

    • bean says:

      I think that there are a couple of reasons it lasted so long. First, it was a rather different era, and I suspect that people were less likely to spill secrets just for attention back then. Second, patriotism was working with the need to keep the secret, and Churchill apparently specifically asked that it be kept secret after the war, probably to avoid a “stab in the back” type narrative forming. Also, so the British could give Enigmas to their newly-independent colonies, then sit back and read the traffic.

      I’d also question the scope claims. How many of the 9 or 10,000 people involved knew enough to usefully spill the beans? Intelligence agencies are usually pretty good at compartmentalization, so I’d guess that the number was much smaller. Someone operating a Bombe doesn’t necessarily need to know what code they’re attacking, or how many other bombes there were. And they definitely don’t need to know what is done with the information. And if they don’t know any of that, then their story is just “I had something to do with codebreaking during the war”, which is both illegal to share and not that interesting. So you’re looking at probably an order of magnitude fewer people who have enough of the story to be interesting on their own. And with everyone being quiet, nobody has a chance to put it together, either. But it was starting to leak by the late 60s/early 70s.

      • Atlas says:

        I’d also question the scope claims. How many of the 9 or 10,000 people involved knew enough to usefully spill the beans? Intelligence agencies are usually pretty good at compartmentalization, so I’d guess that the number was much smaller. Someone operating a Bombe doesn’t necessarily need to know what code they’re attacking, or how many other bombes there were. And they definitely don’t need to know what is done with the information. And if they don’t know any of that, then their story is just “I had something to do with codebreaking during the war”, which is both illegal to share and not that interesting. So you’re looking at probably an order of magnitude fewer people who have enough of the story to be interesting on their own

        I think that still somewhat supports conspiracy theorism, though: A conspiracy theorist can argue that, contrary to the Basic Argument that such an operation would be too large not to have leaks, compartmentalization and a mentality of secrecy can result in large numbers of people working on individual components of a larger project without perceiving the bigger picture.

        • bean says:

          I think that still somewhat supports conspiracy theorism, though: A conspiracy theorist can argue that, contrary to the Basic Argument that such an operation would be too large not to have leaks, compartmentalization and a mentality of secrecy can result in large numbers of people working on individual components of a larger project without perceiving the bigger picture.

          Sure, but you need to give them a reason to sign up and accept that. It’s easy for someone joining Bletchley Park or the Manhattan Project to accept that this will further the country’s war aims, and that you can’t know for security reasons. It’s a lot harder to sign up for the Grand Conspiracy of International Jewry (or the Illuminati or whatever) and still manage to pull off the same thing. Why should I join the CGIJ, if I can’t know what it’s up to for security reasons? Particularly when there isn’t the FBI, waiting to arrest anyone who starts poking at the edges, and a general atmosphere of social censure around talking about this kind of stuff.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            They don’t tell you that you’re working for the CGIJ! They hire you to be a market analyst or delivery driver, at normal market rates, and tell you what your specific job duties are. Most of us know too little about our own respective companies to know if the owners/board members are siphoning off profits to buy elections or fund think tanks or whatever. If we did, would we all quit? Nope, we keep working our 9-5 and shrug our shoulders.

            It’s certainly not unusual for a company to have internal secrets and not share all that they know with their employees. Even at a VP level you can’t expect to know all the pieces of the puzzle, and even have some idea why not (not your division, not relevant to your job, legal restrictions).

            Knowing that part of your job is “secret” but not knowing what it is seems to me to work quite well at keeping people quiet. There is nothing to actually report, and a vague feeling of potentially ruining something important out of ignorance if you did try to find out and release it.

            And the GCIJ certainly isn’t telling anyone that they’re doing something illegal, even if they were! If they were real, they would probably get the laws changed to exempt their specific activities anyway, which makes your leak of their secrets a relative “meh” kind of report. “Major Bank conspires to raise their own profits, legally – News at 11!”

          • woah77 says:

            This sounds like spam ads: Economists hate him! Find out these banks 5 simple tricks to increase their profits tenfold!

          • bean says:

            They don’t tell you that you’re working for the CGIJ! They hire you to be a market analyst or delivery driver, at normal market rates, and tell you what your specific job duties are. Most of us know too little about our own respective companies to know if the owners/board members are siphoning off profits to buy elections or fund think tanks or whatever. If we did, would we all quit? Nope, we keep working our 9-5 and shrug our shoulders.

            I’m not sure that’s a good answer. For the GCIJ to have any meaning, there have to be people making decisions for its benefit instead of for the benefit of whoever they’re supposed to be working for. And there have to be other people who can see that these decisions don’t make sense in terms of overt motives. Either those people in the second group have to be completely lacking in curiosity, or they have to be part of the GCIJ. Or they have to have some other reason to accept that their superiors are making decisions they don’t understand, so that they don’t start investigating on their own. “It’s wartime, and this is a vital defense project you aren’t cleared for” is a reason that almost everyone will accept for that. But the GCIJ is going to have a much harder time getting every new Gentile Senior Assistant VP of Retail Investment Banking – Emerging Markets to agree to a similar explanation. Particularly when any slip-up leads to the GCIJ being exposed, instead of the story being quashed by the censors/FBI.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @ bean

            I’m not seeing a relevant distinction between working for a company controlled by a conspiracy and working for a company controlled by a profit-seeking board. What the owners do with the profits is not typically known or discussed. When known, I see both sides producing grumpiness in employees, but not whistle-blowing or quitting.

            I don’t think you need more than a handful of people who really know the conspiracy to make a large one work. The Illuminati are not millions of people, but maybe a few dozen to a few hundred, but well-placed and individually rich and powerful.

          • bean says:

            I’m not seeing a relevant distinction between working for a company controlled by a conspiracy and working for a company controlled by a profit-seeking board. What the owners do with the profits is not typically known or discussed. When known, I see both sides producing grumpiness in employees, but not whistle-blowing or quitting.

            If the company exists only to provide the conspiracy with money, and otherwise behaves exactly as a normal profit-maximizing company would, then you’re correct. But that’s a really weak version of “working for the conspiracy”. If the conspiracy is going to do anything meaningful enough to qualify as an actual conspiracy, it’s going to need to take actions that don’t make sense in a framework that doesn’t include the purposes of the conspiracy. So either a lot of people are going to need to know and be on board with those purposes, or they’ll need a reason to accept “shut up and trust me”. The Manhattan Project had a good reason for the second (national defense), but the GCIJ doesn’t really, and it just takes one person who decides to keep digging to blow the entire thing.

            I don’t think you need more than a handful of people who really know the conspiracy to make a large one work. The Illuminati are not millions of people, but maybe a few dozen to a few hundred, but well-placed and individually rich and powerful.

            Oh, is this a loosely-organized hybrid conspiracy by the rich and powerful to get more rich and powerful? Because if they’re doing that by conventional means (instead of mind-control lasers or whatever) then it’s really not a conspiracy.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’m not seeing a relevant distinction between working for a company controlled by a conspiracy and working for a company controlled by a profit-seeking board.

            If you work for Diebold and your boss says “we need to ship these voting machines by next Tuseday, and we need to cut costs to make our quarterly earnings target, so just do the quick-and-dirty round of QA tests”, you probably work for a company controlled by a profit-seeking board.

            If you work for Diebold and your boss says “Ignore the changelog that says the CEO’s nephew modified and recomplied the voting-machine software at zero-dark-thirty this morning, then deleted the source. We’re shipping that version for the next election, shut up and stop asking questions”, then you just might be working for the Conspiracy.

            And bean is right; if “conspiracy” means corporations trying to make a profit by normal legal means, who cares? We don’t need a special word for that, we do need a special word for e.g. people trying to secretly rig elections, and most of us have been using “conspiracy” specifically for the latter purpose.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            I guess I have in mind the type of conspiracy where it’s “Rich people conspiring against the poor” – which the GCIJ could very well be. Once someone, or a group of people, have a huge amount of money or control a significant part of an economy, their ability to influence others can be quite large. They could potentially even help select winners and losers on the international stage. I would consider a “conspiracy” of Monsanto getting US troops to invade Central America to fit the mold of what we are talking about in this thread.

            I agree that the Diebold example would require a much larger conspiracy with more potential for whistleblowers.

          • John Schilling says:

            OK, but what does “conspiring” mean in the context of “conspiring against the poor”?

            “We would like to sell poor people stuff for as much money as we can get them to part with, and have them work for us for as little money as we can get them to settle for”, then A: true but B: Duh and C: Meh. That’s not “conspiracy”, that’s just commerce. And of course not limited to the poor.

            If there’s some specific nefarious wrongdoing involved, then that runs into the Diebold-example problem of you having to tell your employees to do (or at least ignore) something that they will see as a wrongdoing not associated with normal commerce, and they’ll probably rat you out.

            It would I think be helpful if you could come up with a concrete example of what you mean by “conspiring against the poor”. Monsanto getting troops to invade Central America, OK, but how are they supposed to do that in anything resembling the real world?

          • bean says:

            I would consider a “conspiracy” of Monsanto getting US troops to invade Central America to fit the mold of what we are talking about in this thread.

            This sort of thing is notably absent in the real world. I’m well aware that it used to happen, and was a major employment of the USMC between about 1900 and 1935, but I can’t think of many examples since then. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Iraq is a good counterexample. Any halfway-competent conspiracy would have faked the WMDs instead of what we actually saw. And what would Monsanto gain, either? Usually, the Marines were sent in to protect American investments when the locals got greedy, but that’s very different from what you propose.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            I’m looking at something like this from Scott’s post:

            4. The ruling classes constantly use lobbyists and soft power to sabotage tax increases, labor laws, and any other policy that increase the relative power of the poor.

            There are a few other “conspiracies” on Scott’s list that have a similar feel. I agree with other posters who would like a more rigorous definition of “conspiracy theory” but I don’t think it’s odd for me to consider that one.

            In this case, a few rich tycoons/barons/oligarchs can use their existing economic might to bust unions or whatever. Walmart is fairly well known for busting unions, so unlike the United Fruit Company this is still going on.

            John, that was the specific reference “in the real world” that I had in mind. Any objections to that example?

            In a more modern context, support of Reason Magazine by the Koch brothers, and especially the $900 million they planned to put into the 2016 election, is not at all unknown. If a group of ideological rich people were doing that, but not making knowledge of their activities public, would that count as a “conspiracy”?

          • albatross11 says:

            I have to admit that it doesn’t actually make me feel better about our foreign policy adventures that we lose money on them….

          • bean says:

            If a group of ideological rich people were doing that, but not making knowledge of their activities public, would that count as a “conspiracy”?

            Only in the most technical sense. I really like John’s definition, which includes “contains obvious wrongdoing”. There is no obvious wrongdoing here, and thus, no conspiracy in this context.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            The “wrongdoing” in this sense could be actual illegal (or shady) activities – certain union-busting techniques are not legal, even if hard to prove. Alternately, actively lobbying against the interests of “the poor” can be really bad PR.

            I agree that “wrongdoing” is a good addition to the definition, but would not limit that to strictly illegal activities. I think that is especially important when evaluating conspiracies where the premise is specifically along the lines of “manipulation of the law-making apparatus in order to make the conduct legal.”

          • bean says:

            I agree that “wrongdoing” is a good addition to the definition, but would not limit that to strictly illegal activities. I think that is especially important when evaluating conspiracies where the premise is specifically along the lines of “manipulation of the law-making apparatus in order to make the conduct legal.”

            So is any manipulation of the law-making apparatus a bad thing? Am I allowed to describe the lobbying efforts on behalf of something like gay marriage or reduced financial regulations as a conspiracy? People lobby because it’s how they give feedback to the government. John has invoked “common-law felonies”, and that’s pretty much where I draw the line, too. “Banks lobby to make banking more profitable via minor tweaks to finance regulations” is completely mundane. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any “plot” to influence the law is not conspiracy theory material because the law is publicly visible. Any objective which can be reasonably carried out via law is not so heinous that it would make you need a theory-type conspiracy.

          • John Schilling says:

            In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any “plot” to influence the law is not conspiracy theory material because the law is publicly visible.

            Presumably if they do it by an organized campaign to secretly blackmail legislators, it would qualify. But almost nobody does it that way, when normal lobbying works well enough.

            This is another factor that gets overlooked in sloppy conspiracy-theory thinking. Method Matters. Hearst and Jennings writing editorials agitating for war against Spain is not a conspiracy, even if an unjust war for private gain is the sort of nefarious and grievous wrong that could be the result of conspiracy if pursued by other means. Whatever the goal, if the means by which it is allegedly being pursued are mundane legitimate or at least broadly accepted stuff like lobbying and marketing and editorializing, then you don’t have a Conspiracy Theory. On the other hand, even a legitimate goal like “win a democratic election”, if pursued by clearly wrongful means, can be the basis for a Conspiracy Theory.

            If what you’ve got is just, “X conspired to do Y, which is bad and wrong”, without specifying the means, then you’re not even half way there. And there’s a good chance that, if you try to specify the means, you’ll find that the whole thing collapses into either implausibility or mundanity.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @John

            That’s fair, and I agree that the kind of “conspiracy” we are talking about here is different from the kind where someone rigs an election. The problem I see is that if we take your argument for what it is, we are essentially saying that an entire genre of conspiracy theories, often recognized as such (and several of the examples from Scott’s post) are not, in fact, “Conspiracy Theories” at all.

            That is an entirely reasonable conclusion to reach, especially depending on definitions used. That doesn’t seem useful when presented with a person saying “The Jews run the world!” To say that is not a Conspiracy Theory because Jews use their influence in legal and common ways, often seen and understood by others defeats the purpose of labeling it a conspiracy.

            Given the wide range of plausible definitions for Conspiracy Theory, I don’t think that further discussion along this line is going to be useful, so I don’t plan to respond further.

          • bean says:

            Presumably if they do it by an organized campaign to secretly blackmail legislators, it would qualify. But almost nobody does it that way, when normal lobbying works well enough.

            I suppose, although that’s a somewhat weaker claim than the one I was trying to make. My point is that, no matter how you go about it, nobody is going to write into the law “Oh, it’s now legal for private enterprises to use orbital mind control lasers”. That’s not even on the table, and putting it out in public is going to start a lot of people digging, and probably lead to bad things for your conspiracy. If you’re planning on something really nefarious (which I think we both agree is required for a true Conspiracy Theory), then trying to achieve your objectives through law is a non-starter. I could see a conspiracy theory that, say, Obamacare only was passed by the Supreme Court because Justice Roberts was threatened/bribed/blackmailed, but the legality of Obamacare was within the Overton Window in the first place.

  51. beaker says:

    You seem to be struggling to fit the Catholic Church scenario into a category, and I think that’s because you’re forgetting one: the Catholic Church sex scandal is an example of an actual conspiracy that failed due to the mechanics of the Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories. Sometimes evil people genuinely conspire in smoke-filled rooms and fail because their goal is not sufficiently aligned with that of others in the same organization.

  52. ARabbiAndAFrog says:

    Big fallacy is saying “If conspiracies would real, people would notice” is that it refuses to aknowledge that someone did – conspiracy theorists. They noticed the conspiracy, but people don’t want to hear them. I wonder what this fallacy should be called – refusing to aknowledge your opponent exist while making an argument.

  53. albatross11 says:

    My intuition is that one big problem with a conspiracy is a coordination problem. I mean, the Manhattan Project could solve their coordination problem by having Leslie Groves run things with a whole infrastructure of military organization, a clear chain of command, and an existing unifying principle of loyalty to your country and obedience to your country’s laws and pulling together to fight your country’s (or your people’s) enemy. The Catholic Church has a hierarchy that can help solve the coordination problem, and indeed, the reason the sex scandal in the Church was so horrible is because the hierarchy was involved–bishops were quieting down scandals and moving priests from parish to parish. When a priest was found to be getting sexually involved with a teenage boy[1], the matter was brought to the attention of the Church hierarchy, who promised to deal with the matter and asked everyone to keep quiet about it. The priest was moved somewhere else, and maybe there were rumors that he’d been sent to some kind of therapy or something. The bishop or his representative could make a moral appeal to the people involved not to discuss the matter further, in the interests of protecting the victim’s privacy and helping the disturbed priest in his healing, and in the interests of not blackening the Church’s reputation.

    I guess the other thing that a conspiracy needs is some way of getting people to do what it says. For the Church, that was mostly moral authority, but also the Church has a lot of power over priests and religious. For the Manhattan project or the CIA torture scandal, that was the laws against revealing classified information and some kind of formal employment structure that gave you a boss telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.

    [1] This was the pattern of most of the abuse, as I understand it.

    • S_J says:

      About the Manhattan Project: I’ve seen one story in a University Alumni Magazine about several alumni who were working on a big, secret project for the Government during World War II…and these alumni claim to have quietly talked over lunch one day at the project site, and concluded that they were working on some sort of bomb powered by nuclear energy.

      A year or so later, they saw news about the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, and concluded that they’d been right.

      Along another front: an investigative journalist in Cleveland, OH published an article in 1944 about some sort of secret, large munitions project in the city of Los Alamos, New Mexico. I think the article even identified that J. Robert Oppenheimer was in charge of the facility at Los Alamos. Since Oppenheimber was involved, the journalist wrote that the project must have involved something from the world of theoretical physics.

      This article did quickly reach the desk of Leslie Groves, who figured out how to keep it from spreading to other newspapers via syndication.

      In short: the Manhattan project did not work under perfect secrecy. People who worked on it could figure out the rough outline of the project. Investigative journalists could figure out that the project existed, even if they didn’t know that the Project was code-named “Manhattan”. The idea of a bomb powered by nuclear fission was probably not thinkable, but they could tell that a lot of heavy theoretical-physics knowledge was being used in the project.

      • bean says:

        It’s also worth pointing out that John Campbell famously figured out that something weird was going on out in New Mexico from the number of subscribers he had at a PO box in Albuquerque. But you’re very right that it wasn’t under perfect secrecy, because there were incentives and means to keep the story from spreading that are completely absent from a normal conspiracy.

        • Beck says:

          Was that Sandia Labs or something? I thought the guys in Los Alamos all used the same P.O. box in Santa Fe.
          Which seems like a pretty serious security screwup now that I’m thinking about it.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        Those incentives being: WE ARE AT WAR SO KEEP QUIET, PLEASE.

        • albatross11 says:

          Also, there was IF YOU PUBLICIZE THIS WE’LL SEND YOU TO PRISON, which isn’t a 100% effective motivator, but it is pretty effective.

  54. ragnarrahl says:

    “10. When several prominent Trump critics receive bombs in the mail, it’s actually a “false flag operation” by a leftist trying to discredit Trumpism.”
    Objection, they didn’t receive bombs. They received a bunch of devices that did not and could not explode, designed to look like bombs.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Were they fake, poorly-built-and-so-nonfunctional, or was the guy sending them so crazy that the two categories blend together?

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Not to mention that the guy had a significant social media presence where he was very much a Trump supporter. His van was full of pro-Trump stickers. Unless this guy was running a long con, this doesnt appear to be a false flag. By far, the more likely explanation is that he was completely crazy, maybe he thought that if you build something that looks like a bomb it will explode (some kind of bomb cargo cult).

        That doesnt make much sense but the guy did check off all the boxes for crazy, so crazy remains the preferred explanation.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Why discount the deep-cover explanation, other than low priors?

          Spending enough effort to go that deep cover would require and cause some level of crazy.

      • ragnarrahl says:

        They contained real pyrotechnic powder, but no triggering mechanism, with apparently all the wires leading to nowhere. In theory, if you chuck them in the fireplace you might get an explosion. I hesitate to believe anyone who is sufficiently incapable of knowing-that-they-don’t-know-electronics to bother with the attempt at such a device would acquire knowledge about any pyrokinetic powder that isn’t just gunpowder in the first place (if it was gunpowder, they would just say it was gunpowder). If you don’t know how to make a bomb that has a chance of working, and you are crazy enough to martyr yourself, for MAGA or otherwise, you just buy a gun. The media descriptions seem to imply the powder is some specific type after all, not just dumping out whatever’s in a bunch of random fireworks.

        Possibilities remaining: He intended no direct bodily harm to anyone and is crazy enough to risk this kind of jail for mere bloodless terror. This doesn’t mean false flag, but it leans toward it at least a little, since “everyone’s a little tiny bit scared and mad at my enemies” is a slightly higher payoff than “everyone’s a little tiny bit scared and mad at my allies.”

        Or: He’s crazy and incredibly stupid and got advice from someone who is smarter, knows his beliefs, dislikes him and his beliefs but does not disclose this fact to the person, intended no direct bodily harm to anyone, and considers this person’s imprisonment a smashing success. I’m more inclined toward this hypothesis. Technically, this is not a false flag operation. It’s probably not even a crime depending how you word the advice, although if a government agent did it it would be entrapment.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          That’s much more specific information than I could find about the devices. Is that information public but not on the internet, or are you leaking details that you are privy to as someone involved in the investigation?

          • ragnarrahl says:

            This is just what I read off the wikipedia page and the sources it links to. I’m just naively assuming that whatever information got put in a news article that is concrete detail is true, because there’s no other way to have a discussion about it. (“These are not hoax devices” from the FBI agent is not concrete information, it is him editorializing).
            Obviously where I say things like “seems to imply” or “if it was gunpowder they would just say it’s gunpowder” that’s my interpretation.

  55. theodidactus says:

    This is largely about examples 4, 7, 15, and 17 above but it’s extensible to a lot of inexplicable behavior.

    I’m Will, I’m that guy that wrote Synchronicity , sorta a metaphysical mystery story about an attempt to bomb a library. A few of you liked it. The sequel, Cryptocracy , never uploaded in full but I’ll get around to it any day, I swear, dealt with conspiracies.

    In particular, one thing I noticed a lot circa 2012-2014 (which was when the book was first written), something that has gotten consistently worse since, is the tendency to explain human activity we don’t understand as a concerted effort to maximize EVIL. Scott’s called attention to this a few times on this site (the “barbecue and eat all humans party”, “murderism”, “first-order racism” stuff like that), indeed, this is one of the main reasons I read SSC.

    Anyway, the long and short of it is the book posits several mechanisms for how you can get very complex “sinister conspiracy” type activity from completely benign human behaviors, two of note:

    1) complacent or imaginary regulators: My favorite example of this is the Volkswagen mileage fixing scandal, which by standard “conspiracy refutation” thinking simply shouldn’t have happened: the numbers volkswagen was putting out were simply not possible, or believable, to anyone who took a “good hard look” at the numbers…but absolutely no one had the incentive to do that (even people, like competitors, who would in theory have a pretty strong motive to do so…to this day I still do not fully understand why they were not brought down by some rival company, who presumably employed engineers who study every aspect of a rival’s system and know reported numbers are just chemically impossible…the answer is probably something like ‘corporate inertia’ mixed with ‘everyone was doing it to some extent’). The public assumes someone is “watching over” the system, and that therefore any shenanigans must be the result of a deliberate, coordinated, and VERY sophisticated coverup…but no one was looking, everyone KNEW no one was looking, and everyone knew that even if someone looked, they wouldn’t likely understand what they saw. Almost any conspiracy-adjacent thing that has the word “scandal” affixed to the end of it can be explained in part by this, especially the LIBOR scandal and the Enron scandal (all used in the book). I’d argue that all a “Scandal” is a culture everyone assumes is tolerated seeping out into a wider world where the culture is not tolerated.

    2) A powerful elite monoculture with an eccentric values system: I’m really fascinated by how monocultures can act like a single organism, a slow AI…especially in the context of places like business and finance where everyone’s ostensibly chasing something else like the market or money or something. To paraphrase Orwell, it’s only in war that 2+2 has to equal 4. When you have minimal competition, 2+2 will, almost by magic, begin to equal whatever you want. You don’t really need an Orwellian nightmare-state for this to happen though (arguably, this dynamic is happening in 1984), all you need is a bunch of people that were raised under a similar value system to simultaneously achieve power. Then, underlings will, even unbidden, begin adjusting reality to conform to their superiors expectations. It’s possible that I read too much David Graeber, but I see this happen ALL THE TIME in academia and corporate america.

    When people outside the system see this happening, they either assume it’s top down (the sinister elites FORCING their view of reality on their underlings) or that it’s everyone in the organization deliberately, simultaneously, lying. In reality, it’s simply that within the organization, reported facts MUST look the way the people at the top expect them to.

    Both these “genres” of conspiracy also explain one really pernicious side-effect: what you might call the “spotlight effect” (after the movie, not the spotlight effect in psychology). If you haven’t seen it, Do, because it does an excellent job explaining how the catholic church perpetrated the sex abuse scandal for so long despite repeated, full-throated, ardent truth-telling by people on the inside who saw everything happen. Slight spoiler: the most harrowing and depressing part of the film is when the reporters try to go all “badass newsman” on a lawyer, saying they’re gonna bust the story wide open and finally, finally tell the truth…and the lawyer informs them that he’d been trying to get the newspaper to run a story on this for years and everyone kept ignoring him.

    Spotlight really stresses the value of a weird outsider entering a culture for the first time. god bless Mitch Garabedian

    • albatross11 says:

      The Madoff scandal was a little like this–several people had noticed the pattern of returns and the numbers/behavior of the Madoff funds made no sense. Some had written articles about it; others had gone to the SEC and asked for an investigation[1]. Nobody much cared. Similarly, Weinstein’s tendency to grope random attractive women, demand sex for roles, etc., was apparently an open secret for many years, but somehow didn’t become part of the MSM narrative until it broke open and then everyone wanted to talk about it.

      [1] If you were looking for conspiracies of the “somebody got bribed to keep the feds off Madoff’s back” form, this would be where you’d want to start.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        I was rewatching 30 Rock recently and in Season 6, episode 14, at 5:20 to 5:45, Jenna tells Liz she “even figured out a way not to sleep with Harvey Weinstein”.

        Everybody in Hollywood knew Weinstein was a rapist but they didnt care because he was powerful. These are the people who lecture Americans about the morality of building a wall to stop illegal immigration.

        • Randy M says:

          Part of the reason why the ‘Harvey Weinstein gets sex with actresses’ conspiracy persisted when it would appear that only Harvey Weinstein benefits from that is that for some would-be actresses, while they would prefer to get parts without sleeping with Weinstein, they would still prefer having that option over not getting the parts. Of course, that creates a prisoners dilemma like race to the bottom, and by then there are also those who may feel that since they paid that price, bringing it to light would taint their career.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Absolutely. At every moment prior to #MeToo becoming a thing, every single person who knew about Weinstein held the following thoughts:
            1. Harvey Weinstein is a rapist
            2. It’s better for me if I shut up about it.

            Somehow, Ronan Farrow’s reporting changed the calculus for 2 and now everybody who knew about Weinstein for years suddenly became super outraged at.

            Here’s a good rule to extract from all this: People who succeed in high status professions where success can be had by lying, cheating, and manipulating (mostly actors and politicians) are not to be trusted as moral guides.

          • acymetric says:

            @jermo sapiens

            With regard to 1, it is possible that some of those people considered him sleazy but would not have regarded him as a rapist (either due to incomplete information about what was happening or because of how they defined the term “rapist”). Regardless, point 2 was certainly true for all involved until it wasn’t, as you said.

          • theodidactus says:

            “Spotlight” really left an impression on me because it posed a very difficult moral dilemma: what do you do when you’re a powerful, but not all powerful, person in a system pre-scandal.

            So in spotlight, there were a select group of people who KNEW the church was systematically abusing children. The easy retort here is to say “these people did nothing, and were complicit because of their silence, they should be ashamed.” but spotlight makes it quite clear that they did A LOT. So what do you do when you’re a powerful lawyer, or a church official, who keeps bringing up these facts over and over again, only to be met with “yeah yeah we know, no one wants to hear it?” Eventually, you pretty much have to shut up and play along (The villain-turned-hero of Spotlight has it even worse, he’s a lawyer who has a responsibility to help his clients settle with the church. He can either get a nice quiet settlement, or continue to make waves and his clients get nothing).

            There’s only so many times that you can say “no guys, this is really bad, PAY ATTENTION”…eventually, you have to put your head down, and get back to work…and you do that at your peril…usually. You can’t know in advance.

            and this, especially harvey weinstein, brings up another conspiracy-theory explanation that I use in the book: the evil-as-trope. Different groups of people have different sensitivities. We become acclimated to certain forms of evil, and our cognitive defense mechanism is most often a mental humorous cliche.

            As an example, if you say “the CIA”, I imagine a bearded sloppy-looking guy in aviator sunglasses orchestrating a coup in some 3rd world country. If you say “Hey, Will, the CIA was just caught orchestrating a coup in some 3rd world country” I hate to say that my reflexive response is something like “oh haha, that’s sure a thing that happens,” and then I go on about my business, not really considering that this is something REALLY BAD bordering on COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE.

            Harvey Weinstein stands out as an excellent example of this. As we see in the comments, “Harvey Weinstein leveraged immense power to coerce sex from unwilling people” was a JOKE for years before it was a SIN…I recall similar “jokes” about creepy priests growing up. Old Father Whatshisname with the weird mr. rodgers-y smile…that sure is something those priests probably do. Back to work.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I also wonder if the media is so up in arms about feminism and rape culture and those sorts of things because so many of the men in media are sleazebags.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            The easy retort here is to say “these people did nothing, and were complicit because of their silence, they should be ashamed.” but spotlight makes it quite clear that they did A LOT. So what do you do when you’re a powerful lawyer, or a church official, who keeps bringing up these facts over and over again, only to be met with “yeah yeah we know, no one want to hear it?”

            That sounds completely plausible. And my objection is not to this behavior per se. I dont know if I would sabotage my career if I were in that position. But it’s the insufferable grandstanding after the fact that I object to.

          • 1. Harvey Weinstein is a rapist

            Harvey Weinstein may be a rapist, but I think what most people in Hollywood assumed, and what your quote implied, was that he was getting women to sleep with him in exchange for getting them film roles. That’s sleazy behavior, but it isn’t rape, unless you want to define all sex with prostitutes as rape, which isn’t how we usually use the term.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            That’s sleazy behavior, but it isn’t rape, unless you want to define all sex with prostitutes as rape, which isn’t how we usually use the term.

            Fair point. I dont know the details of the Weinstein story and calling him a rapist is too far based on what I know. I certainly let my antipathy for him get the better of me there.

            However, based on the broader definitions of rape, where consent is coerced, it might fit, but I dont even know enough details to make that call.

            I also wouldnt put what he did in the same category as sleeping with a prostitute. Prostitutes consent and know what they’re getting into, whereas an actress should reasonably expect to be judged on her acting talent.

          • Hoopyfreud says:

            @David

            There are also the actresses like Salma Hayek for whom Weinstein threatened to ruin in the industry/sink their projects unless they “entertained” him. I think I’d count this as rape.

            Full disclosure: I somewhat expect you to deny that Weinstein had this power, as he couldn’t literally forbid someone from working in film in a legal sense. I would say that doesn’t matter.

          • Don_Flamingo says:

            Another more important part of the reason was that he wasn’t all that ‘succesful’ in his predation. Mostly he just creeped women out, but not getting far with it. Don’t really remember all the details of this study/long article, though.

            http://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2018/01/defeating-sexual-aggression-even-harvey.html?m=1

        • sourcreamus says:

          The joke in 30 rock is that Jenna turned down Weinstein 3 out of 5 times. It was known that he was a horrible person who liked to pressure actresses to sleep with him for parts but the rape allegations were not well known.

          • Winja says:

            For the record, Family Guy also called out Kevin Spacey, and Seth McFarnland also specifically joked about Weinstein when he hosted the Oscars or whatever a few years ago.

          • Tarpitz says:

            I knew nothing about Weinstein, but I – and everyone else in UK theatre – knew that Spacey was in the business of offering good-looking young men parts in return for for sex. I certainly was not aware of allegations of sexual assault of a minor, and I think almost no-one else was either. I imagine the view of Weinstein in Hollywood was similar.

      • Telemythides says:

        One explanation I’ve heard for the Madoff scandal is that everyone knew he was up to something, but they all thought it was insider trading. That’d make it rational for them not to do anything about it and just keep their investments with him.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          Sure, that’s true, but it’s not an explanation. It’s an explanation of why he was able to keep his investors, but not of why the SEC failed to shut him down. The SEC weren’t members of his club (except in Albatross’s footnote; but “nobody much cared” is probably the right answer).

          (Front-running, not insider trading. Front-running is smooth; insider trading is not.)

        • reasoned argumentation says:

          The explanation was that everyone thought he was front running his market making clients – a specific type of illegal trading where you screw over your clients for your own benefit.

          The reason everyone thought they could trust him was that he ran it as an ethnic affinity scam and recruited his investors from Jewish networks like Jewish country clubs. They figured he was safe because he would rip off outsiders but not one of their own.

          In other words, they thought they were in on a conspiracy but they actually were getting scammed.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think this is a pretty common pattern for con games. But Madoff was also weird in that he had no obvious exit strategy other than dying before the whole thing collapsed. That makes me think he inched into his fraud over many years and didn’t know how to stop, rather than that he somehow planned it all out except for the part where it all fell apart and he went to prison and his family was ruined.

          • rmtodd says:

            albatross11: I gather that’s a fairly common pattern for embezzlers, i.e. that they steal just a little to cover their financial difficulties at home and that they promise to themselves to make it all good “tomorrow” when things are better, but of course tomorrow never comes and new debts arise that keep needing to be covered…

        • rmtodd says:

          Reminds me of this bit in PJ O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, where he’s talking to people in Albania about how so many Albanians invested in the pyramid schemes that blew up so spectacularly (taking much of the Albanian economy with it) in the 1990s:

          “Then how did so many Albanians get suckered in?” I asked.
          And the answer was simple. “People did not believe these were real pyramid schemes,” Nishku said. “They knew so much money could not be made honestly. They thought there was smuggling and money laundering involved to make these great profits.”

  56. Deiseach says:

    After this post, we should all re-read Foucault’s Pendulum!

  57. The Church is a public-facing organization that is known to occasionally keep secrets (like the CIA), but covering up sex scandals seems as far from their stated mission as the CIA fixing US elections. I think we just have to appeal to the Church hierarchy having a culture where this seemed like the obvious thing to do, as natural as insurance companies opposing universal health care. On the other hand, that could be used to justify anything. After all, the Bilderberg Group is known to exist, and maybe it has a culture where plotting a one world government sounds reasonable from the inside. I don’t know what principle rules in the Catholic case but keeps the Bilderberg case out. Maybe we just have to accept that even the most explosive conspiracy theories are sometimes true, and the Church’s sex scandals are one of those times.

    The highly controversial explanation for the Catholic Church conspiracy is that the Church over time became supersaturated with pedophiles, therefore aligning the individual interests of Priests with the conspiracy, in the same way that some of the other examples in the article function (Jews being aligned with Israel, the rich being aligned with tax cuts etc). They lie together, or the whole thing unravels, and they “hang” together. There’s no reason for Catholics to turn a blind eye to pedophiles, but there is a good reason for pedophiles to turn a blind eye to other pedophiles.

    Obviously, not all Catholics are pedophiles (duh), and so the entirely naturalistic conspiracy will have been brought to light by those non-pedophiles seeing that “this is not what I signed up for”, but because it’s driven by behavioral networks comprising of individuals acting in their mutual interest, exposing one part of the wrongdoing doesn’t do as much as you’d expect to stop the abuse going on. If you’ve got pedophiles at the very top of the Church, concentrated there, as well, then you can have shadowy rooms sitting atop an organic tree of mutual interest.

    As to why this would happen… In the centuries past an unmarried man was suspect. He might have been viewed as either a rogue lacking in good moral foundation, or someone of sexual interests considered unnatural for the time. Joining the Priesthood would be one role men who didn’t want to get married could fit into and still be highly influential and respected. The vast majority of men who didn’t want to get married were not and are not pedophiles, but pedophiles would pick up on these signals. Over generations, pedophiles may have become disproportionately represented within the Priesthood without any need for central coordination. It’s not absurd for it to be staggeringly disproportionate, as the negative counterpart to certain groups being wildly overrepresented in certain scientific fields (not to mention that we have no good idea how many pedophiles exist in the general population). Then when abuse happens, every node in the network that can open things up or shut them down is a lot more likely to do the latter for reasons of mutual interest with the accused.

    Of course, there’s no actual proof that this is the case, so I don’t believe it in the conventional sense, but I find something like this more credible than “we just have to accept that even the most explosive conspriacy theories are sometimes true”, because there will always be a structure of reasons that provide for that “sometimes”. There’s probably some kind of aligning of individual interest going on that keeps the conspiracy natural and organic and without needing constant top down coordination. Perhaps the Church drags its feet on the child abuse thing because there’s some other thing they are doing that would be exposed if they were to try and tear it up root and branch?

    • EchoChaos says:

      Also note that there was a concerted push in the 50s-80s to attract men with homosexual urges to the priesthood on the theory that “you have to be celibate as a homosexual Catholic, so why not do it as a priest”

      Which in practice added both more people who had something they really needed to cover up, and so were amenable to covering up for other people. Additionally, a decent amount of the “child abuse” was adult priests with teenage boys as a result.

      • Winja says:

        Wait, WTF?

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          What part are you WTFing to? I thought everyone knew this.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Another person here not part of everyone.

          • acymetric says:

            @Mark V Anderson

            I think that this borders on common knowledge, but I’m also not surprised to encounter someone that had never heard it.

            XKCD is probably over-cited here, but this seems appropriate.

            https://www.xkcd.com/1053/

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            That xkcd really doesn’t exactly apply – the people who don’t know about the actual cause of the Catholic Church priest boy sexual abuse scandal aren’t exactly anxious to learn – because if they did learn they couldn’t say the reason out loud in their social circles anyway.

            Imparting that knowledge to someone new doesn’t do that person any good – better for them to talk in vague terms about how “people in power abuse it” – that’s much safer for them.

          • Winja says:

            I’m not Catholic, not particularly interested in Catholocism, generally don’t understand why so many people take the Pope seriously (to include mainstream modern press) ,and would not have paid attention during the 50s-80s when the Catholic church was evidently recruiting gay men to be priests.

            I have to wonder at the thought process behind church elders who would have come up with this particular recruitment strategy, as, on its face, it’s a strategy that seems like they were attempting to recruit people who are not demographically or religiously aligned.

            It strikes me as a bit like Ducks Unlimited recruiting vegans.

          • EchoChaos says:

            @Winja

            Not nearly so bad as that. The thought behind it was fairly rational.

            If you are a devout Catholic who is homosexual then your only choice is life-long celibacy. Since you are already devoted to life-long celibacy, why not be a priest?

            Now, it turns out to have not worked as well in practice, but the thought made sense.

    • I think your model makes more sense if you replace “pedophile” with “homosexual.” As I read the evidence, there are a lot of priests, probably including the current Pope, who don’t regard homosexual activities between adults as a serious sin. That has, after all, become the conventional view outside the church.

      What seems to have happened with Cardinal McCarrick was that he was known for a long time to be an active homosexual, but it was only when evidence involving fairly young boys came out that Francis finally acted against him. The previous pope, with a more conventional Catholic view of the subject, had imposed restrictions on McCarrick on the basis of his activity with young adult seminarians, which seems to have been pretty well known.

      Given a situation where a lot of priests are part of an implicit conspiracy to cover up for homosexual activities, you can see how even priests who disapproved of pedophilia would cover up evidence of it for fear of drawing attention to the much more common adult homosexual activity.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      As David Friedman mentioned, it was homosexuality more than paedophilia that caused the scandal (most of the abuse was perpetrated against post-pubescent children). And I’m not so convinced about the “homosexuals joining the priesthood as a socially-acceptable way of staying single” argument: the only study I’ve seen to make a serious effort to study this found that the proportion of homosexual priests was about twice that of the regular population in the 1950s, rising to eight times in the late 70s/early 80s, and then starting to fall again. And yet, the position of homosexuals improved greatly between 1950 and 1980, so under your theory we should expect the proportion to fall during this period.

      • Mr. Doolittle says:

        Unless it’s a delayed effect? That would plausibly work on both sides of the timeline. Considering the length of time to identify yourself as a certain sexual orientation, we should expect a fairly long lead time for a shift. You can’t suddenly become a priest with no previous planning.

    • bullseye says:

      As for the prevalence of pedophilia in the church, maybe you’re right, or maybe MugaSofer is. But as for the cover-up, it looks to me like it’s just “let’s not let the organization look bad”, with the added urgency that turning people away the from the church could send them to hell.

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      The celibacy requirement obviously strongly repels straight men. Women are excluded. So it’s self-evident that non straight men will be severely over represented in the Catholic priesthood.

      I would have thought that mainly meant homosexuals, with a few pedophiles and asexuals in the mix. But perhaps the number of pedophiles in the population is larger than I imagine. Or perhaps they have a larger impact on the church than their number, or they’re very strongly drawn to the priesthood for some further reason.

      • John Schilling says:

        I would have thought that mainly meant homosexuals, with a few pedophiles and asexuals in the mix.

        As homosexuality becomes increasingly tolerated in the outside world, the celibacy requirement begins to repel homosexual men from the priesthood as well. And to a lesser extent from the Catholic church generally, but in the United States at least a gay man can fairly easily live as a cafeteria Catholic and not so much as a priest.

      • It could be the additional factor of how much access priests have to children. Apart from the vague pop cultural idea of choir boys, I’m not sure how much access they have, or it may be that what access they do have has inherently less oversight than, say, schools, where male teachers are naturally suspect. An all male environment is going to attract regular gay men, but the additional factor of how children are intergrated into the Church is going to draw in pedophiles.

  58. Nara Burns says:

    I feel like this account would be improved by reference to Eric Raymond’s discussion of “prospiracy.”

    You also seem to be taking a philosophically analytic approach to the idea of “conspiracy theory”–looking into what the phrase is supposed to entail, or what the necessary and sufficient conditions of “conspiracy theory” are. Is this something that can be mapped onto a Bayesian analysis? I think many (proper) conspiracy theories function similarly to certain kinds of philosophical skepticism, via the introduction of questions for which counter-evidence appears impossible to furnish (like “am I a brain in a vat?”).

  59. eqdw says:

    Over the last, say, five years, as I started to pay detailed attention to various current and historical events, I’ve started to become much much _more_ of a believer in conspiracy theories. So when I started reading this post I was getting ready to argue with Scott on the comments.

    By the end of the post, I was surprised to find that Scott appears to disagree with me on only one small detail: “calling it a conspiracy”.

    See, the way I’ve come to understand (real) conspiracies is as much more organic and emergent than people think they are. That is, I think that the archetypal conspiracy theory of “a handful of people get together and plan their subterfuge” is largely false and fake. I think that the typical _real_ conspiracy involves people either believing or convincing themselves that they’re doing either the right thing or the natural thing, and then doing it.

    So, for example, I think it’s _obvious_ that there was a “conspiracy” to throw the 2016 election to Hillary. It’s just that I don’t think this conspiracy took the form of a handful of influential people scheming to spread lies and subvert leaders in society. I think this conspiracy mostly took the form of a ton of people, some in positions of relative authority, believing really strongly both a) “Trump should not be president”; and b) “it is ethically permissible to abuse my authority at the margins in order to prevent him from being president”.

    This is essentially the same thing Scott is saying here

    C. When a group is able to form an internal culture in which their nefarious goals seem reasonable and prosocial, they can coordinate upon them in ways that might look like a conspiracy to outsiders.

    With the only difference being that Scott does not think it’s appropriate to call that a conspiracy.

    I do think it is appropriate to call things like that a conspiracy. For a few reasons

    1) from the outside, observing the actions and outcomes of both “real” conspiracies and these implicit conspiracies, you see the same outcomes. You see people engaging in actions to bring about a goal other than the one everyone agreed to in the implicit social contract. So if your primary concern is to uphold the social contract, the specific internal dynamics aren’t terribly important to your calculation, and “it’s a conspiracy” communicates much the same information as “it’s a bunch of people who all, for idiosyncratic reasons, are incentivized to do this marginal defection against society, the sum total effect of which is an outcome that sacrifices the utility of society for the utility of their subgroup, and they all are convinced that they have the moral high ground”, but in a much more concise package

    2) I think there’s a fairly smooth continuum between “literal, stereotypical conspiracy of 10 people” and the sort of implicit conspiracy I’m outlining. I don’t think they cleanly bucket into two distinct categories. I suspect that most instances of stereotypical conspiracies are still perpetrated by people who for the most part have rationalized what they’re doing as The Right Thing To Do. So imagine for example you’re part of the 10 man CIA task force installing Pinochet in Chile. What is the internal dynamic of that group like? Is it ten people who say “we are violating international law here boys, because the US needs a foothold in South America. You leak this to journalists and we will kill you. Now lets do it”. Or is it more like “evil communists want to enslave the world. We think this is our best chance at opposing them. I know democracy is important but sometimes people are too stupid to vote for what is good for them. If we have to bend the rules a bit, well, history will show that this was the right thing”.

    I think it’s much more likely that the dynamic resembles the second option, and yet I think most people would be happy to call CIA coups a “conspiracy”. Scott above is not, he says that this isn’t a conspiracy because of course the CIA does coups. But consider the perspective of a Chilean. I’m sure they’d be happy to call it that. Hell, nobody argues against the Russian hackers narrative by saying “come on, there’s no Russian conspiracy to subvert the US government. Because, like, that’s the one thing the KGB is really good at. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just them doing their jobs!”

    And if we can identify a group of 10 people explicitly acting together to achieve a specific goal, each motivated by their private internal belief that it’s the right thing to do, if we can identify that as a conspiracy, I don’t understand why a group of 10,000 people acting together implicitly but otherwise doing the same thing does not count as a conspiracy.

    3) One could imagine a two-tiered conspiracy. At the top tier is a group of 5 or 10 evil, cynical, power-hungry sociopaths who are engaging in a traditional, stereotypical conspiracy. The focus of this conspiracy? To subtly shape public opinion/whatever to incentivize large numbers of people to participate in the bottom tier, implicit conspiracy. To avoid a politically charged example, let’s use marketing as an example. At the top tier are 5 highly paid marketing people who astroturf some fake folk wisdom like, say, I don’t know, coconut oil is a superfood. (Assume for sake of argument that coconut oil is not good for you; I am not familiar with the actual facts of this matter). The next thing you know, millions of people are getting on to the coconut oil bandwagon, shilling coconut oil, selling coconut oil, encouraging everyone and their dog to enrich Big Coconut.

    If I were to tell you “there’s a conspiracy to convince everyone that coconut oil is a major nutrient, propagated by the big coconut companies, to enrich themselves at your expense”, you might bring the Basic Argument out against it: come on man, the scale of that conspiracy, in order to actually move meaningful amounts of ‘nut, would be massive. Somebody, somewhere would blow the whistle. If your model of conspiracy theory only encompasses the stereotypical image of a conspiracy, you might conclude that this is impossible. But there are many ways that a small, focused, well-funded group of people can amplify their efforts via these kinds of mechanisms without cutting those millions of people in on the conspiracy. The large-scale implicit conspiracies can act as a force-multiplier for the small-scale explicit conspiracy, giving them the ability to engage in conspiracies at broader scale without the increased risk of leaks that you would expect to keep their scale in check.

    All in all, I’ve taken to summarizing my point of view as follows: “Most conspiracies are trivially and mundanely true, in a way that most people know about and nobody cares about”.

    • Homo_erectus says:

      I literally registered after months of lurking just to reply to your post and say “Hell yeah!”. You’ve more-or-less explained my view on how actual conspiracies work out in the real world.

    • Paul Torek says:

      Thank you for this. You are sticking to the common sense meaning of “conspiracy”, which is important. Otherwise it becomes a weasel word, a No True Scotsman. Only theories that aren’t true get to count as “conspiracy theories”. That really gives the game away.

      • eqdw says:

        It is really difficult to avoid some level of weaselling when I think about conspiracies. Someone, somewhere, either in these comments or on reddit, pointed out that one reason why he thinks conspiracy theories aren’t legit is non-falsifiability: evidence that would superficially seem to disprove the conspiracy is _actually_ proof of the conspiracy.

        My point about implicit conspiracies seems vulnerable to this. Imagine I have noticed a group of people with no secret coordination whatsoever, and I label this a conspiracy. You give me ironclad evidence that there is no coordination going on at all, and everyone is just following their individualized incentives. I say “that doesn’t matter, it’s still a conspiracy, because the effect of their actions is the same”. This seems like cheating on my part. If “no, literally, I can prove to you that there is no conspiracy” is just more evidence of a conspiracy, then in what sense is my perspective valuable?

        I grapple with this. I’m sure I’m overactive in identifying conspiracies that don’t exist these days. But I still think there’s something there. If you accept a less cut-and-dry, binary, explicit perspective of conspiracies, I think it’s helpful. I’m not so much saying “even these organic, emergent, non-coordinated things are conspiracies”, but rather “organicness, emergence, and non-coordination are not _necessarily_ evidence _against_ a conspiracy, because these are dynamics that also exist to a certain extent within “real” conspiracies”.

        To be honest I prefer to sidestep No True Scotsman type definitional arguments by tabooing “conspiracy” and talking about the specific mechanics. To fall back on the election example: people could argue back and forth on whether or not there was a conspiracy to prevent Trump from being elected. As I’ve said above, I think it would be fair to say that there was. But really, calling that a ‘conspiracy’ doesn’t necessarily give you additional insight into what happened. Per my argument (1), it is an easy and concise way to communicate the idea that there were anti-Trump shenanigans. But really, it’s more valuable to just look at behaviours and incentives. This is part of why I see conspiracies everywhere now, because I don’t think of conspiracies as these extreme, spooky things. I think of it as just one pole of one continuum of human behaviour. There are conspiratorial elements to a lot of things, and I’m open to the possibility in any given situation that these elements are important factors in why things play out the way they do.

    • Aapje says:

      The Nazis were an example of a small-scale explicit conspiracy achieving large-scale goals by deceiving people. They did tell the populace lies about where the Jews were going (to work camps) to get them to cooperate.

      • eqdw says:

        I intentionally tried to avoid this, partly on Godwin’s Law grounds, and partly because I’m not familiar enough with the specifics of Nazi Germany to be confident in the argument. But yes! Goebbels ran a well oiled propaganda machine and was able to mobilize gigantic numbers of people to participate in the Holocaust conspiracy (as in, the conspiracy of perpetrating the holocaust against Jews) without the explicit coordination of “hey everyone let’s secretly oppress the Jews”.

      • watsonbladd says:

        Initial operations in Poland and the Baltics during Barbarossa involved SS and volunteer units trailing behind Wehrmacht units and murdering any Jews they could find. Slave labor was widespread in the German war industries, and the physical condition of those enslaved would make obvious the degree of their maltreatment.

        There was no clean Wehrmacht. There was no equivocation, no shying away in Hitler’s speeches about what he was going to do to the Jews. German amnesia was politically useful to the Western allies, and so it was accepted. Was Hitler practicing deception? Only on those who wanted to be deceived.

    • DaveK says:

      Excellent summation. I think this is an area where rationalists are biased by “conspiracy” being an “outgroup flag.”

    • MostlyHamless says:

      This “two-tiered view” — the core conspirators instigating a mass of witless supporters — seems spot-on.

      Scott is kinda modelling conspiracies as lifeforms that must survive an adverse environment, and then gauging the plausibility of existence for any hypothetized lifeform, from the plausibility of its longer-term survival.

      Well, such “two-tiered lifeforms” have solid advantages, and leapfrog a crucial snag Scott was describing for single-tiered lifeforms. The problem of the “this isn’t what we signed up for” new recruits is patently eliminated when people willingly self-sort themselves into the second tier as based on its publicly stated premise.

      A real-life example that is neither Coconut Oil nor politically contentious, could be the fat vs. carbs case. A few Harvard scientists get bribed by a few sugar industry heads in the 1960s to “scientifically establish” how fat is considered harmful and carbs are our true fundamental nutrient — and soon you have armies of people in the second tier peddling that nutritional pyramid where carbs constitute the wide base and fat the tiny tip. (coinciding with nationwide rise in obesity, diabetes etc.)

      I don’t know if this case constitutes a conspiracy, or is it merely a case of a particular industry branch following its own incentives. Either way, its strength, impact and impressive longevity stemmed precisely from its two-tiered setup.

  60. arlie says:

    One of the things I noticed not long after I first encountered on-line argumentation, was that some people pick up currently fashionable negative labels, and apply them indiscriminately. Or alternatively, they take labels which have been applied to their own arguments/behaviours more or less accurately, and internalize a meaning of “this is wrong” or “this is bad”, and apply them kind of indiscriminately to anything they don’t like.

    Perhaps all that’s really going on here with overuse of “conspiracy theory” is that to some speakers it means “claim that the speaker rejects out of hand” with no additional nuance whatsoever. I.e. if they disagree with your premises, or dislike your conclusions, then they call your claim a “conspiracy theory” in a cargo-cultish manner, as they’ve seen other claims discounted/ignored when other apply that label.

    I’ve certainly seen this with “personal attack”, which I’ve seen used as if it meant “did anything other than agreeing with some claim and praising the person who made it”. Not by everyone, or even by a majority – but by a lot of people, too many of whom were themselves in the habit of behaviour that looks to me like “personal attack” by a more ordinary definition.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      Just what I’d expect from a Marxist Nazi Socialist Heathen misogynist racist. I can dismiss any point you have tried to make without further thought because of your category error.

    • JG28 says:

      Definition Creep

      I notice this especially among online progressives. “mansplaining” used to have a specific meaning and application, but now the uprights have widened so far to mean “man arguing with woman”.

      • Mary says:

        I’ve seen it used to mean “Man asking a woman questions.”

        About a conspiracy theory that the moon landing was fake, at that.

  61. Sigivald says:

    This reminds me of my (fairly effective) argument against 9/11 conspiracy types.

    Not only would that be a huge conspiracy to keep secret, and one with huge defection incentives for everyone involved [not to mention the handwaving ala ‘step 2: ????’ for the end motive], but …

    If the whole idea was to get us involved in a BS war in Iraq “for reasons*”, they have to explain how a super-effective, efficient conspiracy willing and able to kill a few thousand Americans and keep it secret … couldn’t even be bothered to try and fake finding “real” WMDs in Iraq.

    That part, the part the conspirators didn’t do, was the easy part of the Evil Plot, and the one that would justify the Evil Fake War to most if not all of the world, and especially Americans.

    (At least the Crazy Conspiracy types usually had some inspiring reason like “to help take over the world” or “to get all that oil”, even if neither one made any real-world sense.

    The “they lied about WMDs to funnel Halliburton some contracts” people made even less sense – it’d be a thousand times easier and less risky to just … rig some normal contracts, if that was your goal!)

    • cmurdock says:

      Your argument reminds me of xkcd’s argument against the Fake Moon Landing conspiracy: so then why haven’t we gone back (=”gone back”) since 1972?

    • bullseye says:

      Also, if the whole idea was to get us into war with Iraq, why pin the blame on a Saudi living in Afghanistan?

    • Walter says:

      Nod. It is like Dr. Doom’s first appearance. He kidnaps the FF and then uses his Time Machine (!!), to get them to go back in time and try and steal pirate treasure.

      Similarly, if you have the ironclad loyal powerful group of people necessary to rig 9/11 you don’t need oil money. You already have a group of people better than anyone you might ever hire. If you DO need money for some reason, just have your elite spy network make that happen, it would be easier than 9/11 in whatever way they ended up doing it.

      See also, ‘The Hand’ in the Netflix marvel shows. They can raise the dead, and their plan to achieve their aims boils down to ‘ninja fights’. Like, guys, whatever you want, pretty much literally, people will give you in return for bringing their loved ones back to life. Sword fights are not necessary in this situation.

  62. knockknock says:

    Just for a little historical perspective, back in my youth fluoridation was looked at very suspiciously by some.

    And did we miss “Scalia was murdered and the autopsy quashed?” Don’t forget Vince Foster — in fact there’s that long oft-quoted list of Clinton associates who have met suspicious demises. People see patterns and theories take root.

    Even sportsball is full of conspiracy theories. If home runs are up, is the league secretly “juicing the ball?” Is a hot trainer cleverly juicing his horses? Gamblers can be a little paranoid — a game or a race might not be fixed, but some shadowy “They” seem to know the outcome in advance.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      There is something weird I noticed about the Vince Foster thing. During the 2016 election, I started seeing pro-Hillary people on the internet mentioning “oh, those silly right-wingers and the conspiracy theory that Hillary was having an affair with Vince Foster.” I was paying attention to politics back in the 90s and I never, ever, heard anyone suggest Hillary and Vince were having an affair. The conspiracy theory was that he was murdered*. I called up my dad and asked him if he remembered that. He said “no, I thought Hillary was a lesbian.” So I posit a “Vince Foster conspiracy conspiracy.” That to distract from people looking into Vince Foster’s death and the Clinton financial scandals, Hillary’s internet astroturfers were spreading the idea that “the Vince Foster conspiracy” was about an affair, not a murder.

      * Vince Foster was totally murdered.

      • EchoChaos says:

        To raise my hand to somewhat gently disagree, I had heard rumors in the 90s that they were having an affair.

        Note that in the theory I heard the affair was part of the reason she murdered him.

      • dick says:

        “There’s an anti-Hillary conspiracy theory I wasn’t aware of” is less plausible than “Hillary’s internet astroturfers are spreading a false conspiracy theory to distract people from the true ones”? How does this theory survive Scott’s Basic Argument?

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I find it hard to believe there was an anti-Hillary conspiracy theory I wasn’t aware of.

          • dick says:

            And are you now updating your beliefs upon learning you were wrong, or is EchoChaos in Hillary’s employ?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Cautiously. I’m wondering if he’s remembering correctly. When I noticed this trend I went googling and couldn’t find anything older than a few years about it. I couldn’t find anyone saying anything about the alleged affair during the 90s. Only decades later.

          • EchoChaos says:

            I was born in the early 80s, so my recollections are a teenager who was VERY anti-Clinton.

            It is not impossible that I am mashing together an early 2000s memory, but the specific memory I am thinking of was a reference to the two of them being sexually involved when I was a teenager.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          “Internet trolls are spreading false conspiracy theories” isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s an observation.

          Whether or not a conspiracy theory was posted by trolls, crazy people, or astroturfers is beyond evidence, since the three look pretty similar.

          • dick says:

            I feel the same way about these “false flag” arguments. Unless a government or large organization is involved, I don’t care. Unless I’m involved personally somehow, a right-winger bombing a left-wing thing and a left-winger pretending to be a right-winger bombing a left-wing thing are the same thing to me.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            If you ARE personally involved, is a blegg bombing you different from a rube pretending to be a blegg bombing you?

          • dick says:

            Sure, maybe? The point is, if you’re not involved, if it’s just some thing you read in the news, then finding out that it was/wasn’t done by your side doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) tell you anything. Either way, it’s just an asshole committing a crime.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            False flag attacks aren’t made to get ‘uninvolved’ people involved, they’re made to radicalize people who are already aligned with the nominal target.

      • reasoned argumentation says:

        This is a general pattern with the Clintons – they or their agents spread some unlikely story to be debunked which a cooperative media picks up to mock.

        Hillary may or may not have had an affair with Vince Foster but the father of her daughter is almost certainly Webb Hubble. Just look at pictures of Chelsea and Webb side by side.

        • dick says:

          I did, they don’t look similar. You should avoid repeating this if you want to be taken seriously.

          • reasoned argumentation says:

            http://images.gawker.com/mpbsrp7z2rwim47iqziq/c_scale,fl_progressive,q_80,w_800.jpg

            https://www.wnd.com/files/2015/10/Webb-Hubbell_Chelsea-Clinton.jpg

            Your partisanship has blinded you.

            The shots here of Chelsea are after her nose job but she’s older and as you get older you resemble your parents more.

          • knockknock says:

            True or not, it does happen to be a popular theory on the right — Maybe the result of an affair or maybe because the Clintons wanted a child as a political prop but Bill was sterile.

          • dick says:

            Sure, that makes sense! Who wouldn’t, upon finding out they were sterile, go to a colleague at work and ask if he’d mind fathering an illegitimate baby in order to further your political career?

            The Clintons are hands-down the most minutely-examined family in US history. Digging up dirt on the Clintons was (and is) practically an obsession for many people on the right, some of whom happen to be billionaires. Remember all the books and movies? The videotapes they were flogging on the 700 Club? Not to mention that wacky time when the Senate appointed a special prosecutor and gave him subpoena power and an unlimited budget to spend two years exploring Bill’s sex life. You’re not just alleging an affair and an illegitimate child, you’re proposing one of the greatest and most robust cover-ups in human history, and your evidence is looking really hard at publicly available photos from Gawker. This is sad even by conspiracy theory standards.

  63. Winja says:

    “The Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories goes: “You can’t run a big organization in secret without any outsiders noticing or any insiders blowing the whistle.” If we keep this in mind, I think we can resolve some of the awkward tensions above.”

    The entire existence of the military industrial complex disproves the notion that large groups of people can’t keep secrets. There’s something like 4.3 million* people who hold security clearances that grant them access to Secret and Top Secret information, and despite those huge numbers of people who know all sorts of information on all kinds of different programs, the number of people who’ve leaked any kind of information on these things in the last 20 years can be counted on one, maybe two hands.

    *https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/06/06/who-has-security-clearance/102549298/

    • Paul Zrimsek says:

      The Basic Argument begins with “You can’t run a big organization in secret”, not “You can’t openly run a big organization that does secret things”.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      NOBODY AT ALL has access to more information than they need to.

      Most of the Secret-level information isn’t even actually secret. Wikipedia cites their source on listing the crush depth of the Thresher, but the official max depth of that class of vessel is “in excess of 300 feet”, which itself was just fixing an error made by a PR goof that failed to redact someone giving an order to go to 300 feet. (Prior to fixing that leak by declassifying the number, the official number was “in excess of 30 feet”)

  64. Lotus says:

    Keeping the Basic Argument in mind also helps understand Jews supporting Israel, insurance companies opposing universal health care, scientists sticking to various flawed paradigms, the patriarchy suppressing women, and elites controlling the government. None of these are conspiracy theories, because they’re all obviously in the self-interest of the group involved, so each member can individually decide to do it. That removes the need for the secret coordinating organization, which is the part it’s hard to hide.

    […]

    This isn’t to say no coordination happens. I expect a little coordination happens openly, through prosocial slogans, just to overcome free rider problems. Remember Trivers’ theory of self-deception – that if something is advantageous to us, we naturally and unconsciously make up explanations for why it’s a good prosocial policy, and then genuinely believe those explanations.

    Sounds like the whole phenomenon is neatly explained by Conflict Theory™ being true :^)

  65. John Schilling says:

    If you’re going to ask whether a list of things are “conspiracy theories”, you need a solid definition of “conspiracy theory”. One is implied by the Basic Rule, but it really ought to be specified.

    The one I use, which I think matches most colloquial usage is, it’s a Conspiracy Theory if it involves a group of people explicitly colluding to do something that is considered Very Wrong/Illegal(*) by the standards of their own culture, which should be broadly newsworthy but is instead “known” only to conspiracy theorists. Without the first part of this, you don’t have a Conspiracy, and without the second part, it’s just a Conspiracy Fact.

    And, yes, the Basic Argument makes all but the smallest Conspiracy Theories highly implausible.

    * Meaning, members of both political tribes would react to it the way they would react to a common-law felony.

    • John Schilling says:

      Applying my own definition to the list,

      1. Conspiracy Theory only because everyone adds an implied “…and agreed to become Russia’s agent in the White House”. Otherwise, insufficiently-agreed wrongness to be more than sleazy electioneering.

      2. Insufficient wrongness, just sleazy electioneering. With enough knowing deliberate fraud by the DNC it would become a Conspiracy Theory, but unlike #1 not everybody adds that part.

      3-5. Insufficient wrongness, just sleazy lobbying. Add deliberate fraud, extortion, blackmail, whatnot, to get a proper Conspiracy Theory

      6. Conspiracy Theory, because anyone who says “The Jews” in this context is going to be implying more than just lobbying.

      7-8. Insufficient wrongness and lack of explicit collusion, just groupthink

      9. Conspiracy Theory implied by the pluralization, unless the allegation is that it’s always the same guy

      10. Only one guy, so not a Conspiracy Theory

      11. Conspiracy Theory

      12. Borderline Conspiracy Theory, depending on means

      13. Not universally Wrong/Criminal by American standards for an American agent to subvert “enemy” governments, so not a Conspiracy, also now openly acknowledged so not a Theory

      14. Conspiracy Theory

      15. Conspiracy Theory

      16. Conspiracy Theory

      17. Becomes a Conspiracy Theory if we capitalize “Patriarchy” and so imply the existence of actual Patriarchs

      18. Conspiracy Theory for the same reason as #6.

      Looking at this, I see three major subcategories

      A: Arguably legitimate secret activities being labeled as “Conspiracy Theories”

      B: Completely implausible theories due to the Basic Rule

      C: Motte and Baily neatly straddling the border of Conspiracy Theory territory

      And of course the one with the Catholic Church, because WTF?

      • Telemythides says:

        And of course the one with the Catholic Church, because WTF?

        The idea here is that this is the only thing that definitely happened that the Basic Rule would rule out? Because that’s my impression as well.

        • woah77 says:

          Except that basic rule doesn’t rule it out. The basic rule would rule out the Catholic Church if they were trying to keep the Church a secret. As with the US Government, lots of people can hold a secret if they’re a public entity known to not reveal everything about their inner working.

          • Telemythides says:

            It does if you think sexual abuse is very wrong in Catholic Church culture a la CIA trying to fix US elections.

          • woah77 says:

            It doesn’t rule out the basic rule about conspiracies though. The fact that inside the Catholic Church a group of people who’s responsibilities aren’t public knowledge worked to conceal illegal activity doesn’t violate the basic premise that “You can’t run a large organization in secret” because the Catholic Church isn’t secret.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            Also, the conspiracy wasn’t actually that well covered-up; stories about abusive priests were leaking out since at least the 1980s, it’s just that, for some reason, the story didn’t break in a big way until 2002.

          • Aapje says:

            A large part of the reason why these crimes were covered up so much in the past is that Catholics with no position in the church often cooperated in the cover up.

          • Dack says:

            A large part of the reason why these crimes were covered up so much in the past is that Catholics with no position in the church often cooperated in the cover up.

            Can you give an example of what you are talking about here?

          • Aapje says:

            In very catholic communities, priests have high status, which makes people reluctant to take on misbehaving priests for reasons of fear and/or because they get (more than) benefit of the doubt.

            It results in people being disbelieved very strongly, newspapers refusing to write stories about it, mild solutions being accepted (like transferring the perpretrator), etc.

        • John Schilling says:

          @Telemythides: Exactly. I have a pretty high prior for an explicit conspiracy being revealed (*) long before it reaches the scope of the RCC’s coverup of priestly sexual abuse. As noted elsewhere, that there was occasional abuse was an open secret, but the scale and efficacy of the coverup was a real surprise. In one sense, I’m impressed that the Church was able to pull it off. And then disappointed that they put this impressive level of Spy-Fu to such low and mundane use.

          * In the sense that the general existence and nature of the activity are uncontroversial common knowledge, even if you can’t actually prosecute the ringleaders for lack of specific detail.

          • johan_larson says:

            In one sense, I’m impressed that the Church was able to pull it off. And then disappointed that they put this impressive level of Spy-Fu to such low and mundane use.

            It makes one wonder what else they may be hiding, since they’re so good at hiding.

          • John Schilling says:

            The Da Vinci translation of the Magdalene Gospel, of course. And the bit where the Jewish conspiracy that secretly controls the Communist conspiracy that rules the world, is itself secretly ruled by the Jesuits. And of course the Pope’s yodeling habit must never be revealed.

          • Paul Brinkley says:

            And of course the Pope’s yodeling habit must never be revealed.

            And of course, by this, we don’t mean the Pope likes to stand on mountains and sing. Rather, it’s a 500-year-old headdress once held by the von Toggenburgs.

            (It says he’s a Hufflepuff, by the way.)

          • Jaskologist says:

            I like to imagine that Vatican has a secret crack team of exorcists who regularly save the world John Constantine-style. But that probably wouldn’t count as a conspiracy.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            In one sense, I’m impressed that the Church was able to pull it off. And then disappointed that they put this impressive level of Spy-Fu to such low and mundane use.

            TBH, I think this was mostly because the media wasn’t very interested in running priest abuse stories rather than because the Catholic Church, or some subset thereof, was particularly competent at hiding things.* Rod Dreher, a journalist who covers these sorts of things a lot, says that several times before the 2002 revelations he wrote up stories about priestly abuse, only to be told by his editors that they weren’t interested in publishing that kind of thing. Then for some reason the sex-abuse scandal story took off in a big way in the early 2000s, and now here we are.

            * Or in general. Supposedly, when somebody asked Paul VI how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied, “Oh, about half of them.”

          • John Schilling says:

            Rod Dreher, a journalist who covers these sorts of things a lot, says that several times before the 2002 revelations he wrote up stories about priestly abuse, only to be told by his editors that they weren’t interested in publishing that kind of thing.

            That’s because priestly abuse isn’t interesting or newsworthy, except at the most local level. What is interesting, is Cardinals leading networks of bishops and archbishops in an explicit, clandestine effort to make sure the abusive priests are able to evade discovery. Not just interesting, but central to the concept of a Conspiracy Theory in the first place.

            Bob deciding to become a priest because of the altarboy-diddling possibilities, and doing so, isn’t a conspiracy, even if Adam and Charles and David all decided to do the same thing at the same time for the same reason. Bob’s bishop finding out about it and either ignoring it or doing a quick-and-dirty coverup, barely meets the legal definition of “conspiracy” but it’s not what anyone means by Conspiracy Theory, again even if Charlie and Dave’s bishops independently do the same thing.

            Cardinal Ximinez calling a meeting of his archbishops in a smoke-filled room and saying, “OK, if we move Bob to David’s parish, and David to Charles’s parish, and give Charles a teaching assignment, that should throw everyone off the track for at least another few years”, now that’s a Conspiracy Theory. And newsworthy on a national scale.

            And almost impossible to pull off and keep secret for any length of time, which is where the Cathlolics impress me.

          • Dack says:

            Cardinal Ximinez calling a meeting of his archbishops in a smoke-filled room and saying, “OK, if we move Bob to David’s parish, and David to Charles’s parish, and give Charles a teaching assignment, that should throw everyone off the track for at least another few years”, now that’s a Conspiracy Theory.

            Except for the part where you are making it sound like they don’t normally reassign all of the priests every few years.

  66. Erl137 says:

    I think there’s an additional factor here, which is the role of taboo. Is the secret the sort of secret the society encourages you to keep? Or is it one that the society encourages you to reveal?

    This factors into the Bletchley Park and Catholic Church examples, and probably some others. If I worked at Bletchley Park and I tell my patriotic UK neighbor that I did some work on codes during the war, he says “Say no more!” and I feel reinforced in not sharing. And if I did share, he wouldn’t feel a moral outrage that would lead to an attempt to publicize the information.

    Similarly, in the Catholic priest case, the intersection of taboos around sexuality, esp. homosexuality, and taboos around speaking negatively about the church and/or priests, meant that it would be very difficult for any individual to share their story of sexual abuse by a priest, even someone who told such a story was unlikely to be emphasized, and even a story that broke through would be unlikely to be cast as a systematic pattern of abuse.

  67. roystgnr says:

    “None of these are conspiracy theories, because they’re all obviously in the self-interest of the group involved, so each member can individually decide to do it. That removes the need for the secret coordinating organization, which is the part it’s hard to hide.”

    This sounds a little like the “conspiracy and prospiracy” distinction ESR makes, wherein a “prospiracy” is held together by culture rather than by central organization or collusion:

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=67

    ESR distinguishes a “prospiracy” from “a mere subcultural group” by the criterion of “a “secret doctrine” or shared goals which its core members admit among themselves but not to perceived outsiders”, but I think that’s more of a gradient than a bright-line distinction. Every group you mention is certain to have members who don’t share the stated goal, and that limits the extent to which a group member can actually conspire with a random other group member, but it doesn’t limit those individual decisions or significantly counterbalance them.

  68. JASSCC says:

    I think we can draw a clear distinction that is not made in this post between conspiracy theories of two types: those that have the normal problems concerning the supposed conspiracy, and those that have all those problems *and* the problem that they suggest events or ideas that are not merely unlikely (but still plausible), but instead wildly or insanely implausible, or out-and-out false or impossible for evident reasons, setting aside the issue of a conspiracy. I think the two types are commonly not distinguished, and that this probably leads to an unfair amount of skepticism regarding the ideas in the first category once the conspiracy theory label gets affixed to them. For theories in the second category, the conspiracy is invoked, sort of like a MacGuffin in a movie, to do explanatory work that one can see with even a little thought that it cannot do, because no amount of conspiracy can make an obviously false thing true. But, to believers of a certain mindset, the idea that there exist nefarious groups who can do the impossible seemingly has an appeal, perhaps like the appeal of superstition, or perhaps because it suggests a struggle between forces of good and evil.

    An example of the latter is the flat earth conspiracy theory. This is obviously wrong without ever considering the conspiracy aspect (the locus of which appears to be NASA). There’s too much evidence that an ordinarily intelligent and educated sixth grader can assess as amply demonstrating that the Earth is a globe without having to address NASA’s motivation or capability to orchestrate a conspiracy: the conspiracy part cannot possibly explain the evidence away. I think that in cases like this we see people enjoying their belief that a conspiracy can be so powerful as to somehow make the impossible true, and the sense of purpose this gives them in their struggle against that conspiracy, even in the minor form of talking about it.

    Here’s another example I heard from a co-worker who was in the Soviet army in the early 1980s: he told me that it was widely believed among many soldiers he knew that the brass knew that the Americans had some kind of anti-gravity weapon, but they (the brass and the Americans) were keeping it secret. If we wanted to spin a (non-insane) conspiracy theory on top of that one, we could suppose that the whole story might have been USA propaganda that was somehow spread in the red army.

    I think this fits into the same pattern, though the psychological factors involved could be quite complex, due to the amount of secrecy and justified distrust involved in the ordinary relations of a soldier to the red army. To summarize, these cases and others like them differ from the examples in the post in that they entail a belief in a group has impossible or nearly magical capabilities, or at least holds a secret that seems insanely at odds with reality as we know it — not merely something very unlikely. The label “conspiracy theory” unfortunately conflates these with more plausible theories that a conspiracy is acting in shocking ways in secret or keeping a shocking secret of great importance.

    • Secretly French says:

      Hypothesis: as part of their evil schemes, powerful people involved in despicable type-one conspiracies actively prop up ridiculous type-two conspiracies, however they can, and use them to poison the well; anyone who looks too closely at the machinations of the ADL or AIPAC or the 9/11 Commission or the Freemasons or The Church or whatever is instantly draped in the albatross of flat-earth contrails nonsense, evermore to be shunned, and the plans continue to unfold.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      I don’t think the typical Russian grunt soldier in the Cold War knows that “The Americans have an anti-gravity weapon” is not even remotely plausible but “The Americans have fusion bombs” is plausible and true.

      The average theoretical physicist in Cold War USSR might be able to say “There is no such thing as an anti-gravity weapon”, but his denial isn’t credible to the grunts, because he will also deny things that are true.

      • JASSCC says:

        Well, by the 1980s the ordinary red army soldier surely knew that fusion bombs had been developed by both sides decades earlier, and that anti-gravity technology was still completely unknown. So I think it would have been a leap into fantasy to believe in such a device, though less so than for a more learned person with a better understanding of the facts.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          At that point the existence of ‘fusion bombs’ was well-known, but the absence of ‘anti-gravity weapons’ was merely presumed.

          Imagine that they were told of an invisible laser that caused temporary blindness. Is that on the same scale of believable as a secret antigravity weapon?

          If I heard from a mostly credible source about a weapons program that was using theoretical physics to make a weapon, I’d take the description “anti-gravity” with a grain of salt unless I saw practical applications or it started showing up in physics papers.

          • acymetric says:

            How many people do you think are paying attention to physics papers right now? What about 30 years ago? I guess this is typical minding? People who are even tangentially aware of academic papers (in terms of their contents, not whether they exist) are extremely uncommon, and that includes people with college degrees.

        • Mr. Doolittle says:

          My dad was in China in 1993, and said that there were people who would ask him what happened at Tiananmen Square. I think it would be safe to say that an “ordinary red army soldier” might have some level of skepticism about what was really true verses fantasy. Gravity weapons sound like fantasy, but so do fusion bombs.

          • JASSCC says:

            I do not mean to condescend, but I suspect based on your comment that you are too young to remember the early 1980s well. I say this because I recall the time (I was in my early teenage years) and no one had any doubt of the reality of fusion weapons, at least in the US. We had all seen photographs and video of weapons tests. It is not an exaggeration to say ordinary citizens thought about the prospect of the cold war turning into a nuclear war frequently. There were TV shows and movies and pop songs about it. To give one minor example of the impact in my own life, around the new year at the start of 1984 I remember taking a long walk and thinking about how the year was apt to bring, rather than a totalitarian dystopia as in Orwell’s book, a frighteningly strong possibility of the end of the world. Ordinary people discussed the difference in numbers of warheads, advances in MIRV technology, and maximum megaton size of the weapons in the arsenals on each side. I lived in NYC and it was a common remark among teenagers that in the event of a nuclear war it was good to be in the city where there was no possibility of evacuation and you were certain to be vaporized instantly than to live in the suburbs where you might survive horribly and die painfully in a firestorm.

            By contrast, then as now talking about anti-gravity technology was taken as a sign of crank imagination. Not because anyone thought physics absolutely precluded it (unlike FTL travel), but because there was no evidence of any progress in science or technology towards it, and because we all knew it would have such immense practical benefits that it would be too valuable not to use.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            No offense taken, but I think you misunderstand my stance a little. I’m not saying that nuclear weapons were unknown, but being more specific about which kinds of WMDs might really exist.

            Also, I would contend that what an American would confidently know is probably much more than what a Soviet would confidently know. My point about China was about state controlled systems where there was no alternatives to knowing certain information from official channels (which is why a local in China may have no clear answer for “what happened” while an American thousands of miles away watched it as it happened on TV).

          • JASSCC says:

            Mr. Doolittle, you said that fusion bombs sound like fantasy, like anti-gravity weapons: that is what I’m reacting to. It is simply not credible to a person who lived through the era and paid any attention at all that fusion bombs sounded like a fantasy to people who lived then, especially a person serving in the military. I assure you, nearly every mentally competent person of young adult age and above alive then was quite certain that fusion bombs existed, and they were a grave peril. The balance of terror proved that both sides believed that the other possessed such weapons, and both sides made sure to amply demonstrate them up until they banned testing intended at least in part to leave no doubt. It’s not at all like the WMD situation in the middle east. Everyone knew and believed fusion bombs were real. We had no more doubt that fusion bombs were real than you have that the internet is real.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            I agree that the typical American knew about fusion bombs.

            I’m talking about the typical Red Army Soldier, who lived in a much different information environment.

          • Watchman says:

            Considering they used to parade the launch systems (hopefully without warheads, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they were attached) through Red Square at least annually, and that definitely was shown to the population of the USSR, then I think we’re pretty safe saying Red Army soldiers ertr aware of fusion weapons. Looking back, a pretty major strand of the Cold War was demonstrating openly the weapons you did have.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            Sorry, I think part of this is my fault in using sloppy definitions. I am not talking about Fusion Bombs as a general type of nuclear weapon/WMD, but a very specific technology designed to work in a specific way. Even parading them down Red Square doesn’t tell any of the average people on the parade route the yield, triggering mechanism, range, etc. There’s pretty good reason for them to believe that the Soviets have very powerful bombs of some kind, though.

          • John Schilling says:

            There’s pretty good reason for them to believe that the Soviets have very powerful bombs of some kind, though.

            Perhaps I’m confused. Aren’t “fusion bombs” and “very powerful bombs of some kind”, effectively synonymous to anyone who isn’t charged with e.g. actually building the things?

            If it is true that the average Red Army soldier didn’t understand that the missile warheads what could obliterate cities worked on the D+T->4He+n reaction, meh, that’s an interesting curiosity but I’m not sure why it matters. If you are suggesting that the average Red Army soldier lacked operationally significant information about such weapons, that might have informed some decision or action of theirs, that will require some elaboration.

    • DaveK says:

      Well put.

  69. wanda_tinasky says:

    This is just a description of Occam’s Razor, with maybe a little Carl Sagan thrown in. Don’t believe something unless you have a reason to, and extraordinary somethings require extraordinary reasons.

    E. There is no royal road. Sometimes you can just plead “intuition”, and you’ll be right.

    I kind of disagree with this. Bayesian inference is the royal road. I’ll take your elaborate conspiracy theory seriously when it really is the most likely explanation of the facts.

    • DaveK says:

      The problem with that is your prior for “extraordinary.” It can very much depend on your knowledge and experience with a topic.

  70. MugaSofer says:

    Your understanding of the Catholic sex abuse scandal seems to differ from mine in two key ways:

    1. I’m pretty sure that all organizations that deal with minors have had similar issues. Placing adults in authority over groups of children, coupled with society-wide social norms we’ve somewhat moved away from (believe children over adults, hush up scandals, being raped is shameful) inevitably created situations that predators could easily exploit.

    Where the Catholic church differs is its centralized records, several organized attempts to root out the problem, it’s claim to unique moral insight that left believers feeling betrayed, and it’s large body of enemies motivated to use this as an attack.

    2. The existence of child-diddling priests was not a secret. It was widely joked about, just as child-diddling teachers and boy-scout masters and baseball coaches were and are joked about. The shock is a combination of people not knowing the specifics, and fooling themselves into thinking they and their family members were not complicit.

  71. Atlas says:

    Post-modern meta-ironic levels of conspiracy theory: Ron Unz wrote an essay, based on an apparently mainstream academic book, arguing that the CIA played a huge role in inventing/propagating the term “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative in response to wide-spread skepticism about the findings of the Warren Commission.

  72. Freddie deBoer says:

    The first datum of considering conspiracy theories is “people conspire “

  73. Homo_erectus says:

    I find conspiracy theorists, the people spinning up and creating the theories, to be more fascinating than the theories themselves though. Conspiracy theories are boring because they all have basically the same form. “Some group of others is secretly coordinating their actions for their own private gain at the expense of everyone else.”

    Spend some time lurking forums devoted to conspiracies and you’ll see that the people spinning the conspiracy theories comprise whole suites of sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures. Every theory has its own factions and dissenters, heretics, centrists, total wackos, and agnostics.

    If you really want to wade into the deep end, read the thirteen 300+ page long threads devoted to Q on abovetopsecret. Probably everything you could ever want to know about the thought processes that create and sustain conspiracy theories could be learned there.

    I’m fascinated by the idea that a distributed group of people from all over the world are working together, building and continuously rebuilding, a kind of holographic fractal Rube Goldberg machine of the mind that’s composed of every species of logical fallacy and ignorance criss-crossed and cross-bred in a continuous feed-back loop of ever ascending crazy pants.

    It’s a grand testament to how fundamental it is for humans to attempt to make sense of our world by creating stories about how the world works and what place we have in it.

  74. ben says:

    It’s not fixing a domestic election but the CIA spied for LBJ on Goldwater. Apparently, no-one really cared when this was revealed.

  75. Paul Torek says:

    The key heuristic worth keeping is E, no royal road. We’ve already established what kind of thinker you are (a good one, for recognizing the key insight of meta-rationality). Now let’s establish the price: throw away the “conspiracy theory” terminology, because it’s hopelessly broken. It causes more thought-stoppage than insight. The word “conspiracy” is highly useful, as is “theory”, but together, not so much.

    By trying to hold on to “conspiracy theory” as if it were a useful concept, you wind up twisting its literal meaning, as eqdw points out, although not so rudely.

  76. Ed says:

    Although there are certainly many unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, the intriguing instances are those in which they proved accurate. Or, more precisely, those times in which the existence of a conspiracy was powerfully and prominently denied, and when it now appears that the conspiracy theorists were at least as correct as the deniers. For example:

    1) After John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry the South accused a New England abolitionist conspiracy as being responsible–something that Abraham Lincoln (seemingly) rebutted in his speech at the Cooper Institute. But it seems–given the Secret Six–that the Southern conspiracy theorists were rather more correct on the matter than Lincoln was.

    2) It is indisputable that the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand was not the work of a ‘lone wolf’ or even of a Bosnian terrorist group, but was ordered in Belgrade by the commanding officer of Serbian military intelligence. It would seem that (say) Austrian fears of Serbian or Balkan conspiracy were more justified than denials of the same.

    3) 1950’s era fears of a Communist conspiracy don’t seem that exaggerated given the prominence of those who were Soviet agents. At the least, those who denied the existence of a pro-Soviet conspiracy would seem to be as wrong as those who exaggerated it.

    Do the preceding instances support adjustment of the “priors” in evaluating a conspiracy claim? And does the public’s relative lack of knowledge of these past conspiracies bespeak only negligence in historical teaching?

    Or gosh darn it, is it conspiracies all the way down?

    • dick says:

      These are really uncompelling examples. The communist conspiracy theory wasn’t just that Soviet agents existed, it was that Soviet agents had infiltrated high levels of important US institutions like Hollywood, academia, the government, and the military and were using that access to undermine America, and it was pure fantasy. The Serbs assassinating Ferdinand might be a conspiracy, but as Scott explained re: the CIA, conspiracies don’t really qualify if it’s just people in a clandestine spy organization doing their job as spies. Calling that a conspiracy is like saying that Google executives are “conspiring” to sell more ads.

      The first I don’t know much about, but sure, let’s call that a legitimate conspiracy theory. That’s one, out of the last two hundred years of world history. A very good example of “the exception proves the rule”.

      • acymetric says:

        Not that I necessarily disagree with your points, but we really need to define what exactly conspiracy and conspiracy theory mean for this conversation to be worthwhile.

        Is it possible to have a valid conspiracy theory, or are conspiracy theories by definition invalid? If they are invalid, what term would we use for things that seem like conspiracies/conspiracy theories that have some real or at least plausible validity? This isn’t directed at your comment specifically, it is just the comment that made me want to bring it up (and I think it has been mentioned in several other threads with varying levels of answers).

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          The communist conspiracy theory wasn’t just that Soviet agents existed, it was that Soviet agents had infiltrated high levels of important US institutions like Hollywood, academia, the government, and the military and were using that access to undermine America, and it was pure fantasy.

          There’s never been any shortage of communists in Hollywood and academia, but yeah…”people with communist beliefs” or “people with Soviet sympathies” are not at all the same thing as “literal Soviet agents.” And I feel like those distinctions also tend to get blurred away when people start talking about these kinds of things.

          • Ed says:

            Hyzenthlay,

            In answer to your (and the previous) comments:

            First, I agree with acymetric in that we really need to have a consistent definition of what we mean by ‘conspiracy.’ I feel that Scott’s effort to define the term rigorously and narrowly–although perhaps laudable in the abstract–lends itself to a (doubtless unintentional) motte-and-bailey effect, in which the narrow definition of conspiracy excludes all sorts of things most people would use the term to describe.

            Second, and in the same vein, my point was that there have been times in history when the “pro-conspiracy” side looks a lot more accurate in retrospect than their detractors. Dick, if you want to exclude the assassination of Francis Ferdinand based on Scott’s proposed definition of conspiracy, I’ll pose the following hypothetical: take a time machine to a sidewalk cafe in Paris in the summer of 1914, where two Parisians are arguing whether or not Francis Ferdinand’s death was the result of a conspiracy. Explain that you’re from the future, that you know that the assassination was ordered by Serbian military intelligence, and then try to convince the pro-conspiracy Parisian that he’s wrong.

            On the Communist/1950’s issue, I certainly admit that the “Communist conspiracy” thesis is “fantasy” if the goalposts are placed where Dick and Hyzenthlay have placed them. Again, try the time machine hypothetical: go back to 1946 and find an ‘average American’ who is trying to make up his or her mind on the “Communist conspiracy” allegations of the day. Explain that you’re from the future, and then inform them that very prominent Americans like Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White are Soviet spies, that Soviet intelligence is in the process of stealing high-level nuclear secrets with the help of several Americans in the atom bomb program; explain that the Hollywood Ten are or were actual Party members (not people who dropped into the wrong meeting a la Jim Carrey in the Majestic), and add in for good measure the Kim Philby spy ring that runs through British intelligence and won’t be discovered for several years. Then convince said 1946 citizen that the “Communist conspiracy” pundits and politicians are more wrong than their opponents. Could that be done?

          • dick says:

            Dick, if you want to exclude the assassination of Francis Ferdinand based on Scott’s proposed definition of conspiracy, I’ll pose the following hypothetical: take a time machine to a sidewalk cafe in Paris in the summer of 1914, where two Parisians are arguing whether or not Francis Ferdinand’s death was the result of a conspiracy. Explain that you’re from the future, that you know that the assassination was ordered by Serbian military intelligence, and then try to convince the pro-conspiracy Parisian that he’s wrong.

            I’m sympathetic to this, and I did say it is “kind of” a conspiracy, in the abstract. But look at the context: OP was asking, should these examples serve as “priors” to suggest that we should be less prone to reject other conspiracy theories? In that context, the answer seems to be no: as Scott discussed in the CIA example, this is a) spies doing exactly what you’d expect spies to do, and b) people who are immune to the Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories by virtue of the fact that clandestine work and secret-keeping is in their job title, it’s something they were already doing before the conspiracy started. So you can call it a conspiracy theory if you like, but it is definitely not evidence that we should be more open to the more typical “Vince Foster murdered by Clintons” kind of conspiracy where the Basic Argument Against applies.

            Again, try the time machine hypothetical: go back to 1946 and find an ‘average American’ who is trying to make up his or her mind on the “Communist conspiracy” allegations of the day.

            I’m less sympathetic to this. In 1946, maybe I could shock some people, but that was a time when the war was freshly over and we were still nominally allied with Russia, right? If you set your time machine to ten years later, during the height of the Red Scare, I think that revealing what we now know (either about the influence of Communism generally or Soviet agents specifically) would be met with sighs of relief.

          • Mr. Doolittle says:

            @dick

            this is a) spies doing exactly what you’d expect spies to do, and b) people who are immune to the Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories by virtue of the fact that clandestine work and secret-keeping is in their job title,

            How do you define “people with clandestine work in their job title”? I mean, very few people think that Hillary Clinton shot Vince Foster herself. Even the nuttiest accuser thinks that she hired someone (with “clandestine work and secret-keeping in their job title”) to do it. If we accept “well of course the CIA can do it, that’s their job” then we seem to be about 95% of the way to agreeing that conspiracies are quite possible. In other words, it seems to break the Basic Argument to accept an entire field of work where this isn’t just possible, but expected. Even if the CIA, for some reason, were the only group of people in the US who had this ability to break the Basic Argument – why would politically connected people not just hire ex-CIA agents, or if they have the authority, use the CIA to do it? Herbert Hoover did that with the FBI for quite some time.

          • dick says:

            The whole point of Scott’s post was that the default argument against a conspiracy within organization X is “I don’t believe the people within organization X would be that good at keeping their conspiracy secret.” But, as Scott pointed out, that objection doesn’t apply to conspiracy theories about spies doing spy stuff, because they *are* good at keeping their shenanigans secret. And, as he further pointed out, even spies aren’t immune to the Basic Argument if they’re alleged to have done something so illegal or appalling that we’d expect them to spill it.

            In other words, the Basic Argument applies unless the cospirators successfully keeping the secret is what you would expect to happen, due to the situation. So, to suggest that the Vince Foster theory is not subject to the Basic Argument, you would have to believe that there were people working for Hillary who are so experienced at assassination and so loyal and morally bankrupt that for them to carry it out successfully and keep it secret for a decade is the expected outcome. I don’t believe that. It’s still possible – Hillary’s gardener could be Crying Freeman in his spare time – but the Basic Argument applies. I expect extraordinary proof, because the suggestion that she could carry out a successful murder-for-hire and keep it secret is an extraordinary claim.

        • DaveK says:

          I thought Alger Hiss was still an open question, with most of the evidence suggesting he was not a spy.

          • Ed says:

            Not sure if you’re still here, DaveK, but from what I’ve read the evidence seems pretty strong that Hiss was a spy. That includes the sworn testimony of two ex-Communists (Whittaker Chambers and Hede Massing), the forensic evidence linking Hiss’ old typewriter to documents in Chambers’ possession, and decrypted NSA intercepts of Soviet Intelligence referring to a Russian agent code-named “Ales” who appears pretty clearly to be Hiss.

            Incidentally, the Hiss-is-innocent theory involves more conspiracy thinking than the Hiss-is-guilty theory. For starters, you’re still left with Soviet penetration of the U.S. Government (i.e., Agent “Ales” is still out there, we just didn’t get him). Also, the attempts I’ve seen to defend Hiss assert the existence of a U.S. Government conspiracy to frame him, along the lines of Army Intelligence-fabricated-a-typewriter-to-frame-him type of thing. That requires (to me) more conspiratorial thinking than just admitting the probably of the evidence indicating Hiss was working for the NKVD.

    • mtl1882 says:

      As no one addressed #1, the only one I know anything about, I would say that it is basically the same argument that people made against #3.

      There were tons of northern abolitionists who the slaves to free themselves, pretty much by any means necessary–this was not secret. They were a small percentage, but there were definitely some, and they tended to be vocal. Brown got to know those who shared his beliefs (he had very intense beliefs on this issue early on, before coming to Boston), and in that community there were some with particularly extreme views with money or influence (the 6), who were on board with whatever he was doing–it’s unclear what they knew, but they agreed to give him money. It doesn’t seem so much like they conspired with him or among each other to do something specific as they were willing to hand over money to someone who seemed to be planning something liberation-related. But it is reasonable to say there was a conspiracy between these people. However, a few particularly extreme people (who were not simply abolitionists–often this was part of a larger Unitarian belief system) is different than it being a vast conspiracy among many northern abolitionists in the way that the south indicated it was.

      And even then, it’s not entirely clear if they knew exactly what they were funding. Generally funding causes and people was common–it is common now, and it was more common then and in more eccentric ways. Some was organized into political funds as it is today. But a community might buy someone they saw as a great citizen or leader a house as a testament to their appreciation. Being a patron for someone you thought was brilliant and unique in some way, but for that reason not financially secure, was also common–these people were often highly eccentric thinkers. Emerson gave land to Thoreau and Alcott, etc. Brown was one of those people who could have become someone’s “pet” — they loved eccentrics in a way that seems strange today, though I wish it again would become popular. Everyone knew there was an abolitionist movement that encompassed a lot of influential people who helped each other and encouraged various ways of handling it.

      The South generally argued that they’d essentially induced the situation, in the way that people generally argue that those with extremist beliefs “caused” an extreme action, by their irresponsible encouragement. They had used and continued to use this argument. The abolitionists reacted very positively, on the whole, to John Brown, at least from what i can tell. But the wild encouragement came after the act, and in some ways was more about Brown’s courage than what he did–but that kind of belief system certainly had a lot of public support from abolitionists. This was no secret. The South was of course right that they desired the South’s systems to change/collapse, and that their very vocal opinions increased the risk of the rebellions. As a result, they banned abolitionist literature and did other similar things–which again, indicates there was nothing secret about these intentions.

      The larger point was that there were people who were simply offended by slavery and wanted to do something about it, often very independent people to whom slavery would seem the most violating, and while they may have indeed been encouraged morally or financially by northern abolitionists, such a conspiracy was not really needed. This is like Scott’s shared interest point—a lot of people just came to the conclusion slavery was wrong and that they wished to fix it. This intensified for a few reasons, mainly the realization that it was definitely not going away. No great coordination necessary, and no secrecy. It wasn’t surprising, but it quite reasonably panicked the south, because it was going to continue. So they either believed or promoted the idea that they were the victims of a vast conspiracy against southern interests, a violent one as John Brown showed, and that general attitude eventually led them to secede. This was in some sense true, but largely open and uncoordinated–a lot of people just really opposed their way of life on some level, and in particular did not want slavery to spread. The writing was on the wall. But it wasn’t really a conspiracy.

      Lincoln said no Republicans were involved in slave insurrections, and that Brown was a fanatic. Brown wasn’t a member of a political party, as far as I know. He also said that if a Republican conspirator (someone who aided Brown) was identified, he should be brought forth and dealt with. But he said they had failed to find one, and so they shouldn’t make the allegation recklessly. Lincoln also noted that Brown’s personality type is a known one which will recur and attach to some cause. He said this to indicate that it wasn’t unique to Republican thought, but the implications of it are kind of ignored, I think. “That affair, in its philosophy, corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them.” This is essentially what happened to him, and both Lincoln and Booth (and many other Americans) in some ways admired Brown, as courageous conviction was a really respected thing in that era, and few people had seen someone so bold on something that seemed to not be in their self-interest.

      That aside, it’s not clear if the secret 6 were Republicans at that time. They were the type of people who changed parties a lot–they weren’t partisans, they were ministers and idealists who looked at bigger issues. I think most were free soilers, and while that party had recently fused with the new republican party, they may not have gone with it themselves. Boston kind of did its own thing politically.

      So I’d say it was less a conspiracy and more of an open political opposition that manifested in various ways. Lincoln never said no republicans were involved–he said they hadn’t shown that. He also disputed the idea that the abolitionist ideas held by many in the Republican party, most in a completely non-violent and gradual form, themselves were causing this, as there had been a few slave rebellions before the party began. Sorry for the delayed and long post – the topic interests me. The nature of leaders at that time was to be proudly principled or combative, and they had a lot less fear of basic criticism, so they sort of didn’t need to conspire. Of course some did on specific things (and in War, clearly), but in general, they weren’t hiding away in offices with a PR team.

  77. sustrik says:

    I like the almost cryptographic nature of the argument. Compare the following:

    1. We believe that factoring to primes is a hard problem. Therefore, we believe that cryptosystem that would require attackers to factor to primes is safe. Caveat: If all it requires is factoring 15 to 3 and 5, it’s not safe. For big numbers is works though.

    2. We believe that solving coordination problems (problems where incentives of individuals are at odds with incentives of the group) is hard. Therefore, if someone posits an existence of a group that has solved a coordination problem, it’s probably a conspiracy theory. Caveat: If all it requires is coordination between 2 people it may not be. For big numbers it works though.

    • woah77 says:

      It’s not just coordination. It’s trust. There’s an old adage “A secret between three people can be kept if two are dead.” If you’re doing [highly illegal activity] it’s really hard to keep your group secret because the chance that someone will say something that exposes you is really high. Which is why the most likely conspiracies aren’t actually going to be secret organizations.

  78. alphago says:

    maybe it has a culture where plotting a one world government sounds reasonable from the inside

    It seems like a subtext of the World Government examples in this post is that Scott thinks World gov is obviously a terrible idea? But modulo the vagueness in what is meant by World Gov (e.g. at what point is a strengthened UN a world government?), I don’t think it’s at all obvious that this is a bad goal. The current world-wide state of affairs is dangerously close to “might makes right” in international relations, but surely our long-term goal for humanity should be a shift towards rule of law in international affairs, i.e. some constitutionally constrained form of world government?

    Also, in so far as you accept that this is a reasonable goal, it’s no longer conspiratorial to imagine that many people (or liberals, or jews, or me, etc) are pushing for this goal, but avoid using the phrase “world gov” because of the negative connotations.

    • Watchman says:

      World government might be fine, but a single government in this world is a bit difficult to conceive as being effectively democratic, considering that a notable proportion of the world’s population live in non-democratic or imperfect democratic states. So democratic world government is unlikely, and is there any value in autocratic World government, which would have to be might makes right on a grand scale?

      • alphago says:

        a notable proportion of the world’s population live in non-democratic or imperfect democratic states. So democratic world government is unlikely

        World government can be democratic even if some individual countries remain undemocratic, and wealthy western countries would have substantial leverage in pushing for this outcome. More concretely, allowing outside observers in to monitor world elections within countries could be a pre-condition of joining the world government, or alternatively countries could be required to become full-fledged democracies before joining. Note that just because someone favors world government, doesn’t mean they want it to happen overnight or without any preconditions.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      The obvious problem would be that, if the One World Government goes bad, it’s going to be much harder to deal with than a bad national government. Somewhere like North Korea is bad, but only covers a small part of the world, and its citizens have the (extremely slim, admittedly) chance to escape to saner places. What would we do if the entire world ended up like North Korea?

      • alphago says:

        The obvious problem would be that, if the One World Government goes bad, it’s going to be much harder to deal with than a bad national government.

        I agree that this is an obvious (and reasonable) concern. However, there are countless ways in which the future can go seriously wrong, and many (if not most) of those would be *less* likely in an international system governed by meaningful rule of law, rather than current system of (approximately) might-makes-right; this includes reduced incentives for weaker groups to engage in terrorism, and stronger more credible and enforceable norms against powerful countries/alliances conquering large swaths of territory (not to mention the gains in international justice from rule of law).

        Also, it is not an all or nothing choice, which is why I suggested a “constitutionally constrained” form of world government. Just to take one example, the constitutional restraints could potentially involve allowances for countries to maintain their own militaries in addition to a modest rotating/shared world military. Under such a system the likelihood of a world-takeover may actually decrease, as world-wide cultural norms and loyalties develop in support of democratic world governance, a loyalty that for example the Chinese or Middle Easterners may not feel towards US hegemony (or vice versa).

        Unfortunately, there is a strong status quo bias which often leads people to jump from “there are some theoretical risks of world government” straight to “I guess we just have to stick to the status quo of might makes right”. I don’t think there is much basis for this conclusion, and it’s somewhat remarkable how entrenched the notion seems to be among the general public that world government is a crazy or utopian idea.

        • Mary says:

          many (if not most) of those would be *less* likely in an international system governed by meaningful rule of law, rather than current system of (approximately) might-makes-right;

          Your rider about the One-World government is pulling most of the weight there.

          • alphago says:

            Your rider about the One-World government is pulling most of the weight there.

            I suspect it would be unproductive to respond to such a vague critique, but feel free to elaborate if you have substantive objections to the various arguments I made.

          • Aapje says:

            @alphago

            The UN security council is already not governed by meaningful rule of law, but by privilege for some and might makes right.

            The ICC is not applying law fairly equally. Instead, many are exempt from prosecution.

            Given that we already have law-making and law-applying organizations on the world-level, yet these don’t seem to manage implementing a meaningful rule of law, what makes you think this is actually possible given the state of the world today?

        • jermo sapiens says:

          a “constitutionally constrained” form of world government

          If we’ve learned anything from the past 200 years is that whatever is in a written constitution means whatever the present rulers want it to mean. They call this the “living document” doctrine, which is very poetic sounding name for fraud and lies.

  79. ItsGiusto says:

    Keeping the Basic Argument in mind also helps understand Jews supporting Israel, insurance companies opposing universal health care, scientists sticking to various flawed paradigms, the patriarchy suppressing women, and elites controlling the government. None of these are conspiracy theories, because they’re all obviously in the self-interest of the group involved, so each member can individually decide to do it.

    Patriarchy seems to me to be the odd-man out here, potentially because membership in the patriarchy is extremely ill-defined. A statement like “If you’re in the patriarchy, you can push nice-sounding things about gender roles and family values,” seems very suspicious to me. Who’s in the patriarchy? Depending on what is advantageous to whomever is defining patriarchy at the moment, patriarchy can be all men, it can be some men, it can be all of society. Like you have previously said, Scott:

    If patriarchy means everything in the world, then yes, it is the fault of patriarchy. But it’s the kind of patriarchy that feminism as a movement is working day in and day out to reinforce.

    If feminists were more specific, saying that specifically, men are trying to keep women down, then it’d be a stronger statement, which could more easily be disproved. But they never do that, and are always willing to back up to the idea that “patriarchy hurts men too” to explain any and all advantages women get within the current system, to explain any inconsistencies in their theories.

    Patriarchy theory is a an unfalsifiable hypothesis, which gives it, to me a bit of a conspiracy-theory like feel. It’s positing that there’s a nebulous group of people out there who aim to actively keep women down, without really specifying the bounds of such a claim.

    • miguelmadeira says:

      “Patriarchy seems to me to be the odd-man”
      “Patriarchy” is totally the odd-man in this, because (unlike all the other things refered in the post) “patriarchy” is not supposed to be a group of people, but a social system (in the modern left-wing jargon, “patriarchy” means a social organization where men are privileged over women) – it is something more similar to “capitalism” (an abstract social system) than to “Bilderberg group” (a group of individuals). Then, the whole question of “membership of the patriarchy” does not make much sense – who are the members of a form of social organization? Who are the “members” of capitalism, feudalism, slavery, communism, the tribal system of segmentary lineages, monarchy, democracy, etc, etc? What this even mean? The thing most close to “members of a type of social organization” are the people who live in societies of these type (in the sense that both the lords and the serfs are “members” of feudalism, and both the men and women are “members” of the “patriarchy”).

      And, because of this, does not make much sense to present “The patriarchy privileges men over women in a variety of ways, excludes women from positions of influence, and suppresses their efforts to win equality” as a possible conspiracy theory – is like saying that “many blacks are poor because racism” or “many blacks are poor because a culture of poverty” could be “conspiracy theories” (“patriarchy”, “racism” and “culture of poverty” belong all to the set “abstract social forces”).

    • Yosarian2 says:

      I think what Scott was saying is just that people who benefit in terms of social standing from an archaic interpretation of gender roles are like to come to believe that those roles are correct, and will publicly and openly push for those roles to be defended, so no “conspiracy” is needed. Whether that’s what the word “Patriarchy” really means or not seems tangential to the pointm

  80. Tarpitz says:

    It seems to me that things that could reasonably be called conspiracies have some record of both existing and succeeding (for long enough to suit the purposes of the conspirators) in the field of cover-ups of military incompetence. Others here (Bean?) probably know far more about the specifics of either case than I do, but Beatty seems to me to have instigated a successful conspiracy to obscure his culpability for the loss of battlecruisers under his command at Jutland, and the Soviets, as I understand it, managed to almost entirely bury knowledge of the very existence of Operation Mars – a vast and bloody failure – for decades.

    • John Schilling says:

      Covering up military incompetence doesn’t have the core Conspiratorial requirement of Wrongness/Illegality, particularly in wartime where revealing military incompetence would almost necessarily mean revealing specific weaknesses to the enemy.

    • bean says:

      First, what John said.
      Second, a cover-up of something that happened (past tense) is very different from covering up an ongoing conspiracy. Particularly when it’s a thing that went badly, and we simply want to keep it out of the public eye.
      Third, at least in the Beatty case, the cover-up wasn’t successful in suppressing all knowledge of the event. It was successful in throwing up enough doubt that Beatty didn’t get punished. This is a lot easier to do, particularly when you’re a popular and outgoing admiral. Also, Beatty’s case wasn’t obvious wrongdoing. His sins were serious, but they were the sort of thing which are best detected by historians, not the guy standing next to him.
      As for Operation Mars, it’s very simple. The records on the Russian Front are what the Soviets say they are. They trumpet Operation Uranus, don’t talk about Mars, and all the historians go along. You’re not allowed to do the sort of investigations that turn up discrepancies, and it’s made harder by the way the Soviets run things. They treat maps as very secret documents. Most subordinate formations are just going to be told “here are your orders, go do it”. They don’t know if it’s a local counterattack or a major offensive until later, and it’s easy to convert a major offensive into a local counterattack on a really broad front by just not talking about it. So the population who can tell you things is very limited. Oh, and if they talk, they risk a visit from the NKVD/KGB.

  81. knockknock says:

    So a general question: Would the technology of the past 25 years — call it the Internet Age or whatever — make a conspiracy easier to carry out and keep secret, or harder?

  82. christiankl says:

    When it comes to The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections or The Bilderberg Meeting secretly plots ways to create a one-world government, the first reaction shouldn’t be that sounds implausible but what does that claim even mean?.

    Both are one sentence claims where any possible real world scenario would be massively complex.
    One sentence summaries of how complex organizations work.

    Bilderberg was started after WWII when there were strong borders between European nation-states and was a place where people with cosmopolitan ideas went and they succeeded in Europe now being much more integrated then it was back then. Before the internet they also successfully managed to stay quite secret and newspaper editors in high places decided not to publish stories of how those powerful people congregated to keep the whole event under the radar.

    I would expect Bilderberg to be still pretty cosmopolitian and a majority of the members to prefer more open borders and less nation state power.
    On the other hand, I don’t think their views are going to be much different then what I read from Rob Wiblin and other EA on a regular basis on Facebook.

    • DaveK says:

      The intention of Bilderberg was to strengthen the European-US relationship. The meetings were held in secret so honest discussion could be had that wouldn’t be subject to media criticism, in other words so leaders didn’t have to be “political.”

      The formal minutes of the meetings are actually released after a time lapse. It’s the informal social meetings where business and political leaders meet and discuss privately the issues brought up in the formal meetings where the “conspiracy” element comes into play.

      As I was saying, it’s not the cabal CTs imagine, but there probably are discussions ad relationships that the public would not approve of between business leaders and state officials.

  83. VraHos says:

    Just some clarification for the “train bombing” false flag story: It wasn’t actually a bombing, the man chopped down trees so that they would fall across the railroad tracks and the train would hit them.

  84. ajfirecracker says:

    Here’s a conspiracy for you: FBI agents intentionally poisoned tens of thousands of Americans to death. Wait, that one’s real https://slate.com/technology/2010/02/the-little-told-story-of-how-the-u-s-government-poisoned-alcohol-during-prohibition.html

    • Montfort says:

      Not secret, not a conspiracy (the less click-baity description: during prohibition the US Government made the denaturing requirements for industrial alcohol much stronger, including adding methyl alcohol. When bootleggers attempted to convert it back to potable alcohol, they usually could not eliminate enough of the adulterants). Also, I don’t think FBI agents personally added anything to bootleg or industrial alcohol.

      • ajfirecracker says:

        So when you say non-clickbait you mean euphemistic propaganda, right? Because FBI agents really did poison thousands of harmless people to death. Describing why and how doesn’t change that fact.

        Imagine if Wal-Mart poisoned tens of thousands of harmless people to death. Would you call it clickbait to say so, even if they felt they had good reasons for doing it?

        • pedanterrific says:

          Walmart does currently sell denatured alcohol.

          I’m not sure where the line is supposed to be drawn here. All the super-denatured stuff in the Prohibition era was clearly labeled as poisonous, right? The FBI didn’t deliver it to speakeasies in unmarked jugs?

          • ajfirecracker says:

            No they didn’t, but they did take alcohol they knew people were drinking despite the risk and make it much much more poisonous

        • Montfort says:

          Because FBI agents really did poison thousands of harmless people to death

          You’re going to have to cite something else for this, because the article you linked contains 0 occurrences of “FBI” or “agent”.

          I fully stand by my summary of the linked article and regard “clickbait” as an apt description of it.

      • DaveK says:

        If it was done without public knowledge because of potential consequences that would come from public disapproval, then it’s a conspiracy.

        People are being messy about the use of the word “conspiracy.”

        There seems to be confusion over what the word actually means.

        • Montfort says:

          How secret are you suggesting the conditions for getting your product categorized as “industrial” alcohol rather than liquor were? I would guess not secret, but most people didn’t bother to ask.

          • DaveK says:

            I’m not commenting on the particulars of the prohibition claim which I’m not informed about. I’m talking about the definition of the word “conspiracy”. For example, 9/11 WAS a conspiracy- a conspiracy committed by Osama Bin Laden and members of the Al Qaeda network to commit acts of terrorism against the United States.

  85. nameless1 says:

    Imagine you are a militant, really militant atheist. The centrally coordinated Catholic church will look like a conspiracy to you. Not centrally coordinated Protestant, Jewish, Muslim faiths will not, yet in practice they won’t look any less harmful to you.

    So why do we care so much about central coordination or not? Because we believe people either tell the truth or lie and lies have to be coordinated to succeed.

    This, I think, is a very wrong view of psychology (people rarely lie, people tend to convince themselves to believe what it is in their interest to believe) and sociology (group beliefs evolve through interaction inside the group, not some boss suddenly declaring what to believe) and language (black or white true/false statements are rare, most statements tend to express emotional-connotational attitudes).

    • DaveK says:

      Technically, a “conspiracy” doesn’t have to be centrally co-ordinated. But they sometimes are. There was co-ordination at higher levels of the catholic hierarchy, just not at the “highest levels”. I think it’s important to distinguish the word “conspiracy”, meaning people working together in secret to acheive a covert goal because were it done openly it would meet with ethical disapproval of a sanctioning public, and “conspiracy” meaning a paranoid delusional explanation of co-ordinated control where none exists.

  86. Erl137 says:

    There’ve been a number of comments here raising questions about whether “conspiracy theory” is sufficiently well-defined to capture the phenomena in OP.

    I think there’s a better way of articulating the question at stake in this post: paranoia and “the paranoid heuristic”.

    Paranoia looks a lot like a particular psychological phenomenon. It’s hard to nail down a precise definition but given that it can be chemically induced it certainly has some neurological antecedents. It probably has to do with something like a complicated misfiring of hypothesis generation, intent attribution, and deception detection mechanisms in the brain. (Our host would no doubt describe it as Bayesian.)

    The “paranoia heuristic” is the heuristic that characteristically paranoid thoughts are untrue. (That’s not an extant term, just my proposal.) That is, it’s flowing from the claim, to the imputed state of mind that generated the claim, to the reliability of that state of mind, to the likely accuracy of the claim. In terms of deductive logic that’s a series of no-nos, but it works well probabilistically. If paranoia is a state of mind that generates many more false claims than other mind states; claims that are paranoid (i.e., seem likely to flow from paranoia) are unusually likely to be false.

    From this perspective, the purpose of this post is to hone the precision of the paranoid heuristic. When are thoughts that may seem paranoid still pretty likely to be true? When are they especially likely to be false? etc. etc.

    This frame neatly includes the “false flag” items into the broader heading. While no conspiracy is involved, it’s still characteristically paranoid to suspect that actors are motivated not by the superficial motives they appear to have, but by deeper darker secret motives.

    • DaveK says:

      I’ve seen the manifestation of what you’re talking about. It’s a mindstate common among many “conspiracy theory” types that all world events are essentially orchestrated by a secret cabal. They draw conclusions about events before knowing any specifics, and refuse to acknowledge evidence to the contrary or that events might be what they appear to be. Alan Moore once talked about how this worldview was perversely psychologically comforting. The idea that there was a group of people in control, and all the evil in the world could be attributed to them. These types of people also tend to think they are unusually intelligent in that they’re recognized the “pattern”, and insist the only reason other people refuse to see this pattern is because they want to be deceived.

      I think this is likely a soft form of the “event salience” that characterizes paranoid schizophrenics who have delusions like “gangstalking.” They interpret the mundane as extremely personally significant, and create an explanatory pattern that is reinforced by echo chambers. It seems to be a common characteristic, whatever their particular conspiratorial worldview is.

  87. DaveK says:

    So I volunteered for the Ron Paul campaign and had a lot of exposure to the “one world government” type conspiracy stuff.

    After doing a lot of research on the subject, my own conclusion is that is neither the smoky room type conspiracy that books like the one referenced make it out to be, nor is it complete nonsense.

    It is more of the “mutual self interest type” thing Scott is talking about.

    There are no plans and as far as I know, no one pushing for a “one world government.” However, there are groups of powerful people who have a shared experience, having more in common with each other then with citizens of their nation states, who to some extent believe in the concept of “global governance.” That is, that the international power structures that exist and continue to do so independent of elections are fundamentally a good thing, and it is in everyone’s best interest for these structures to continue to exist and expand their power, while guiding the state of the world. Institutions like the world bank, the IMF, etc. The belief is that the welfare of the world is too important to be left to democractic interference, and governance by elites is the best option. David Rockefeller in particular was quite open about this, before he got too old to be actively involved.

    These people also tend to push for further centralization of state power, things like the European Union and Nafta. To some extent they do fund and lobby parties on both sides. The “populist” uprising is to some extent a reaction to this, although it’s not especially coherent.

    The details are complicated, but an example- there was a popular belief that a thinktank called the Council on Foreign Relations to some extent screened potential presidential candidates and decided who was to be treated as “legitimate” and pre-determined the media narrative of how the campaigns would be covered. Again, this is not the “smoky room model”- it has long been the position of the CFR that the US should actively be the “muscle” behind the western world’s economic interests. The group has many leading members of finance, industry, and media. People underestimate the degree to which mergers and consolidation have concentrated disparate influence in a relatively small circle. What happens is, a consensus process is formed, and directives and attitudes trickle down which inform media coverage, consensus, and newsroom culture. Again, there is no “formal” conspiracy. It’s more of a process of building a consensus on who the serious candidates are and how their policies will affect western economic, political, and military interests.

    There absolutely was a general attempt to paint Ron Paul as a “fringe candidate” with “insane policies.”

    I did the research and compiled evidence years ago. I might be able to find it again. But, understand, there’s no “smoking gun”. Just a LOT of smoke, and few sparks so to speak, which paint a general picture of how the system works. But it’s not formal, and I doubt there is any kind of “flow chart” or anything of the sort. It is more something that evolved over time, with specific things strongly pushed.

    This “system” also isn’t all knowing. I legitimately think there was an attempt to paint Trump as “not serious” which badly backfired.

    Getting into “conspiracy” type thinking, I also believe intersectionalism is somewhat being pushed as a means to get a large part of the population to be against populism. I also think the populist energy is somewhat being re-directed against immigrants as opposed to upward.

    This is the kind of thing that is often dismissed as “conspiratorial thinking”- but understand I don’t think these people created intersectionalism. It is not as though they lay out these elaborate master plans like the conspiracy theorists think; they react to changing conditions and re-purpose them or “assimilate them” into the pre-existing power structure. And the mechanism by which this occurs is part directed, part organic.

    Also, if you look into what the NSA has been researching, there have been deliberate attempts to manipulate social media to direct and control political currents. This was revealed in the snowden documents. It’s not a stretch to think that tribal political mentalities are easy to manipulate if you can tweak social media results. And the current modus operandi of shaming, callouts, etc. can be directed and weaponized very easily. If you think that sounds crazy, check out this link from the snowden leaks.

    https://theintercept.com/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/

    • DaveK says:

      And as a sanity check- I don’t believe 9/11 was an “inside job”. I don’t think school shootings are “false flags”, I believe NASA landed on the moon.

      But it’s worth pointing out- I was in a “vulgar” skeptics group where someone posted an article about the US government funding research to manipulate the weather with lasers. People laughed at how absurd and crazy it was. However, I actually read the article and checked out the links, did my own research, and indeed it checked out, the government has funded studies to see if lasers could be used for crowd seeding.

      This is a case I think where “politics is the mindkiller”- government experiments to manipulate the weather “sound” like the sort of thing the anti-rationalist tribe would be excited about.

      This excessive skepticism actually is irrational however. When you think about, given climate change, why wouldn’t the US government be researching this, considering all the things the US has spent money researching with possible military applications. When I pointed out their error to the group, people doubled down, requiring “isolated demands for rigor” from the links. Many of which were from the universities themselves. When i continued to post evidence, and the issue was no longer in doubt, people STILL doubled down.

      “Maybe they’re researching it, but it won’t work.”

      “Well, it’s not going to be used for military purposes.” On the last one, I asked to explain how they could be certain of this. The person justified saying it was ineffective compared to conventional means of warfare.

      I pointed out that even if no one believed the US would use it offensively, it made sense to develop it as a defensive capability. But it became clear the people had already decided “this sounds like outgroup stuff, and I’m going to dig in my heels when confronted with evidence to the contrary.”

      I would say to keep that in mind when evaluating these types of claims, and also understand that just because conspiracy theorists exagerrate claims or distort how they work or make other false claims, doesn’t mean there is absolutely nothing to the claim.

      In fact, it is a known propaganda tactic called “grey propaganda” to increase the noise to signal ratio to obscure things that are out in the public. I.E., there is some evidence that intelligence agencies boosted “UFO” claims to make people who were getting suspicious about activities at Grune Lake (Area 51 top secret aircraft research facility) look ludicrous.

      • ajfirecracker says:

        Why do you believe NASA landed on the moon?

        I think they probably did land on the moon, but I am basing that on 1) common acceptance of the event and 2) an extremely small amount of photographic and video evidence. Those are pretty shaky foundations, but I haven’t seen any particular evidence that would outweigh those in the direction of skepticism.

        My prediction is that your foundations on this are just as shaky

        • askwho says:

          The most convincing evidence to me that NASA landed on the moon is simply “The Russians were watching”. They had plenty of instruments to track the progress of the Americans, so you either buy into the idea that the USSR helped prop up the NASA conspiracy or the moon landings actually happened.

        • Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

          I don’t think NASA had the technical capability to fake the moon landing.

          • John Schilling says:

            They could, but in order to get the low gravity scenes even approximately right they had to film it on the sound stage at the secret Mars base.

          • dick says:

            That’s ridiculous John, if they couldn’t get to the moon then how did they get to Mars? They probably just used the anti-gravity rays they use to control the weather.

        • Yosarian2 says:

          One simple proof that they did was that they left a mirror on the moon designed so that people on Earth can bounce a laser off of it and time how long it takes for the reflected light to get back to a telescope in order to measure the exact distance to the moon. It is still being used for that purpose today.

          .https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2004/21jul_llr

          So any moon conspiracy has to include all the scientists and universities and researchers who have worked on that data for the past 50 years.

          That’s just the start, of course.

          • nkurz says:

            That’s an excellent response to the question of why one should believe that the there is no “moon conspiracy”. I’d love to be in a world where this is the standard response to anyone who suggests the moon landing was faked, instead of the current standard response of “you idiot that’s a conspiracy theory”.

            On the other hand, this doesn’t quite answer the question that “ajfirecracker” asked. Or rather, it answers it perfectly for you, but not for the majority who are unlikely to have a similarly verifiable reason for belief. You are telling us why people should believe in that the moon landing was real, whereas most people probably have less reliable reasons. The bigger question is how we can “upgrade” their current “true belief” to a “justifiable true belief” like you have.

          • John Schilling says:

            I’d love to be in a world where this is the standard response to anyone who suggests the moon landing was faked, instead of the current standard response of “you idiot that’s a conspiracy theory”.

            That’s like the world where anyone walking into a hospital will systematically ask every person they meet “are you the surgeon?” to avoid offending anyone with stereotyping. Nice theory, impractical execution, we really do need some sort of heuristics for a lot of things.

            Including conspiracy theories, because knowing specific technical details like the laser retroreflector and the Dealey Plaza acoustics and the degradation of structural steel at high temperatures and whatnot, for every conspiracy theory in common circulation including the ones that were invented last month, is not practical, nor is trying to find an expert every time the subject is raised. If there’s a heuristic that is very accurate in identifying conspiracy theories, that is very helpful and we are going to use it and we are going to be better informed as a result.

            The correlation between “Requires 40+ people to have effectively colluded to keep a secret in a community which would universally regard that as a Very Wrongful act” and “Is a nonsense conspiracy theory for which investigation would reveal many specific technical flaws” is stronger than the correlation between “lone man wearing scrubs in the OR” and “yeah, he’s the surgeon”, and it saves us more time. We’re going to keep using it.

          • nkurz says:

            @John Schilling

            I recognize the social utility of heuristics, and asking if a group large enough to accomplish the goal could keep the secret is indeed a good heuristic. But if a conspiracy theory still holds after decades and doesn’t look to be dying away on its own accord, I think it calls into question the strategy being used to discredit it. If socially marginalizing the believers was going to be enough to quash the belief, it should have worked by now. Since it hasn’t (and if the goal is convergence on truth rather than generating controversy) I think there’s a lot to recommend a more fact based approach.

            I don’t agree with the parallel you are making with the case of the female surgeon. My emphasis is on more effective solutions for reaching truth, rather than avoiding offense at all costs. I think as a society we are losing ground to conspiracy theories, and that we need a different approach to continue making scientific progress. Rather than a world where everyone is asked if they are the surgeon, I think the closer parallel to my approach would be encouraging the surgeons to wear distinctive garb if they want to avoid misidentification.

      • DaveK says:

        Sorry, I wrote “crowd seeding” when I meant “cloud seeding”