[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.
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.
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.