Today we will look at why most conspiracy theories are bonkers. In doing so, we will look at what differentiates a legitimate conspiracy theory from the ones associated with tinfoil hats, multiple exclamation points, and Bohemian Grove references.
First, most supposed conspiracies would require a highly unreasonable amount of secrecy. Depending on the plot, it would necessarily involve hundreds, thousands, or even millions of participants. Real conspiracies collapse when an investigator uncovers it or an insider reveals the misdeeds. This is how the public found out about John Wilkes Booth’s conspirators, Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, COINTELPRO, Watergate, the Lewinsky scandal, and NSA abuses.
By contrast, conspiracy theories asserted by Alex Jones and David Icke require accepting that any number of conspirators can seamlessly execute complex plans with untold moving parts and nimbly move around any unexpected obstacles without the plan ever coming apart or being exposed. And by exposed, I don’t mean a YouTuber, saying, “That is not enough blood for someone with a missing limb, so here we see more evidence that the Boston Marathon bombing was staged.” By evidence, I am referring to what Woodward and Bernstein published, what Ken Starr presented in depositions, what then-Bradley Manning released, and what the Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI purloined from government offices.
The more people that know of the plan, the more chance it will be exposed. Each person added to the conspiracy is one more member that can be forgetful, get tricked, be blackmailed, succumb to bribery, or grow disillusioned. Every new recruit is one more person that could expose the plot out of spite, incompetence, guilt, or by accident. Conspiracies about hidden cancer cures, 9/11 being an inside job, and Earth being flat would have been exposed with mounds of specific, irrefutable evidence long ago if they were real.
But wait a minute, Mr. Critical Thinking Skeptic, are you not committing the survivor bias fallacy? Surely there have been evil doings by governments, corporations, or criminal enterprises that were never exposed, right? Yes, it is likely that some plots have stayed furtive. But that does nothing to bolster conspiracy theories that are being supported with flimsy evidence.
Manning and Edward Snowden both leaked around 700,000 documents apiece. Recalling other examples of genuine conspiracy theories and the evidence for them, skeptic blogger Emil Karlsson wrote, “The Watergate scandal had burglars being arrested, a money trail that could be followed and mapped, confessions, and several rounds of incriminating audio tapes. The IB affair revealed that Swedish government had a secret military intelligence and counterintelligence agency that the parliament was unaware of that monitored and registered people … and secretly infiltrated their organizations and attempted to provoke them into committing crimes. This conspiracy was exposed by two journalists and a photographer who got their hands on crucial evidence provided by a disgruntled employee. They then spent months stalking and photographing IB members and even intercepted posts sent between field agents and the headquarters of the organization.”
In a similar exposure, the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI burgled an FBI field office and made off with several dossiers, which they then forwarded to the media. That is how the bureau’s illegal program to surveil, infiltrate, and discredit U.S. political organizations came to light.
Compare that to what WAKETHESHEEPLE!! is offering for his, ahem, evidence. One example is a photo of a World Trade Center tower collapsing, with a couple of windows blowing out a few stories below the mushroom of smoke. The accompanying text reads, “Oops! We set off this explosion too early.” In reality, the windows blew out as the result of unequal pressure. Had the theorist performed diligent journalism by seeking out multiple physicists and architects, he would have gained this information. Instead, he was content to unilaterally deduce and announce what had happened.
On conspiracy theory websites, great evidence will be placed on family members not crying when being interviewed about their loved ones, and this argument from ignorance will be considered of greater value than coroner reports, ballistic evidence, and scores of witnesses. After a shooting in California, a police detective was telling news reporters about the importance of training for such events, and he said that previous drills had paid off. In relating this, he misspoke and said “the shooting, which we played out here today,” as opposed to “the shooting, which played out here today.” About the same time, a fellow law enforcement officer placed his hand on his face. These two events were presented as evidence of it being staged, with the detective accidentally revealing the ruse, which caused his co-worker to cover his face, in an “oh no” moment.
Sometimes such exposures are said to be done on purpose, albeit clandestinely. There have been several non-satirical attempts to tie Simpsons episodes into conspiracy theories. The idea is that that evil Hollywood Jews are tipping their hand at the atrocities they are about to unleash. This has included supposed references to 9/11 and even Pizzagate, more than 25 years before that especially ridiculous conspiracy theory surfaced. Similarly, a passport in The Matrix expiring on Sept. 11, 2001, is supposedly another clue. Of course, this requires ignoring any references to any other dates that appeared in any movie prior to the attacks. While the 9/11/2001 expiration date is mildly interesting, the Law of Truly Large Numbers is in play here.
Other than the no-planes notion, probably the most ridiculous 9/11 theory centers on a 1967 Newsweek cover featuring David Rockefeller. He appears in front of the New York skyline, with his watch at 8:55, which in the twisted mind of a conspiracy theorist, reads 9/11. Theorists are assuming a minimum 34-year-plan with thousands of participants, all based on a man’s location, religion, and jewelry.
Speaking of Truthers, their idea of 9/11 being an inside job means that hijacked airliners were superfluous. If the reasons for the attacks was to get the U.S. into war, why not just blow the towers up and still pin it on Muslims? Or just invade anyway without being attacked, the way the U.S. did in Iraq, Panama, and Grenada? American foreign policy is aggressive enough that no one would have found it strange if the U.S. staged another preemptive strike.
Let’s go back to the low evidentiary threshold most conspiracy theorists have. After the Ariana Grande concert bombing, the PA announcer tried to reassure the audience members that everything was OK so that they would file out calmly and avoid a stampede that would have magnified the tragedy. Footage from inside Manchester Arena showed that panicked attendees had started running, which prompted the announcer to implore, “Please take your time. There’s no need to bunch up. There’s no problems here. Just take your time and exit the building. Everything is fine. Walk slowly, there’s no need to run.”
In some conspiracy theory circles his reassurance that everything was OK was presented as evidence that nothing bad had happened. They also patted themselves on the back for exposing the announcement, which they claimed was not meant to be for public consumption, even though it was given in a crowded venue.
Of course, the theorists did no follow up to see if anyone was killed, talked with no police officers, no concert goers, no ER workers, and did not seek out the PA announcer. They just counted their assertion as proof.
Addressing the conspiracy theory, Snopes noted, “Greater Manchester Police confirmed that they have spoken to grieving families of the 22 deceased and that the coroner is performing postmortem examinations. Once this is complete, identities of the victims will be made public. Police are actively investigating the attack and have taken multiple people into custody. There is also ample footage taken by concert goers that shows everything from the moment the bomb exploded to people scrambling for safety. Authorities have identified the suicide bomber as 22-year-old Salman Abedi.”
Again, all these persons would need to be involved and stay silent for this conspiracy, which would serve no purpose, to have been executed.
Beyond the secrecy, another issue is that conspiracy theorists attribute inconsistent capabilities to those pulling off the plot. Masterminds are portrayed as impossibly brilliant in their management of persons, resources, planning, and execution. They are said to wield nearly unlimited power and cruelty, and are described as ruthless, intelligent, and efficient. They have planned for every contingency, are highly adaptable, have infiltrated the highest levels of government, science, and economics, and have untold minions ready to commit mayhem on their behalf. They conceal or destroy all evidence and ‘disappear’ those who try to expose them. Yet, they are unable to remove YouTube videos. They have the world’s greatest tech minds on their side, yet they are unable to take down websites exposing their dastardly deeds. The strongest argument against alleged conspirators having the massive reach of power attributed to them is that theorists still alive to expose them.