Conspiracy Theories

I have not seen the movies “V for Vendetta” and “Children of Men” nor have I listened to “Year Zero,” the new album released this week by the explicit rock band Nine Inch Nails. And because I avoid movies and music with “R” rated or explicit content, I am not likely to in the future. However, from what I can gather from news reports, critical reviews, and conversations with people who are familiar with them, they all attempt to push into the mainstream a view that is popular among the most radical liberals and a few of the most reactionary conservatives: that current events, the War on Terrorism, and the policies of Conservative Republicans and especially the Bush administration are intended to overturn and replace our constitutional Republic with some kind of corporate oligarchy or Christian theocracy.

This view is rampant among the more radical, liberal or progressive blogs and forums.

I think that a conspiratorial view of current events and of history has a certain natural appeal. It plucks the same psychological strings that make gossip attractive and wide spread.

We find a base, visceral pleasure in wallowing in the dirty secrets, misdeeds, or misfortunes of others (even when the dirt is more perceived than real). Real or imagined, gossip appears to agree with the observable facts and often exhibits a great deal of logical consistency. Gossip carries a great deal of explanatory power and provides a narrative and framework in which an individual’s actions may be interpreted. Conspiracy theories often exhibit these same attributes.

As with gossip, at a very base, primitive level we would rather see conspiracies. And because of this natural appeal, conspiracy theories should be approached with a great deal of skepticism and self doubt.

Of course, the explanatory power and logical consistency of conspiracy theories can be very seductive. I find the following passages from G. K. Chesterton’s book “Orthodoxy,” wherein he describes the logic of insanity, to be a particularly powerful in describing the kind of logic typical of conspiracy theories. Chesterton is anything but terse, and it is difficult to excerpt his writing, so please forgive the length of the quote, but I think it is worth citing at length and your time to read:

Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.

If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large…. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.

Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.

The similarity between Chesterton’s description of the reasoning of a madman and the logic of conspiracy theories is striking; the horrible clarity of detail Chesterton talks about; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze; the often unanswerable, logical completeness.

Of course, those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory often take this logical completeness and the fact that they are at least unanswerable as evidence of the truthfulness of the theory. On the contrary, it could just as easily be the hallmark of insanity.

Liberal Hollywood visions and musical prognostications of a looming Christian theocracy, corporate oligarchy, or suggestions that President Bush orchestrated the September 11th attacks and the war on terror in a plot to set himself up as some kind of Hitler-like dictator clearly fall into this kind of thinking. If you talk to people who believe these theories, you will probably find it difficult to answer their contracted logic, which is often untempered by humor, charity, or common sense.

Of course, conservatives are just as susceptible to the wiles of conspiracy theories as liberals are and have propagated plenty of their own crazy theories over the years.

And to make things more complicated, surely there are individuals and groups that really do conspire by manipulating, murdering, and political machinations to acquire power and money and to fight against that which is good. Conspiracy theories would serve as an excellent distraction for any real conspiracy. Those who might have spent time fighting the conspirators efforts instead waste their energies shadowboxing. And others are numbed by the “boy who cried wolf” effect of the rampant theories and simply dismiss any conspiracy as imaginary.

So what can we do to avoid the pitfalls of conspiracy theories?

I think that the comments of the late physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman, given in a commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 1974, are very helpful when trying to guard against conspiratorial thinking. He told the students to cultivate

..a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain the results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell that they have been eliminated…. In summary, the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist….I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is [more than] not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

Dr. Feynman’s first principle: that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool, is especially applicable to conspiracy theories. Given the gossip-like attraction of conspiracy theories, we must be careful not to fool ourselves.

These same principles ought to be applied by conspiracy theorists—yet in my experience it is just the contrary. Those who advocate conspiracy theories often show little or no self doubt. The possibility that they might be fooling themselves is excluded from their vocabulary. In fact, conspiracy theorists often exhibit a curious kind of elitism. Their ability to understand the facts and their possession of the knowledge of what is “really happening” seems to make them feel better than other people—who they often seem to view as the “ignorant” masses.

This elitism is evident in the derisive manner in which they usually respond to those who question their theory. Individuals who honestly question the validity of their theories are derided as willfully ignorant, weak minded, unpatriotic, or unwilling to look at the facts, or worse, part of the conspiracy. If you question them they do not allow for the possibility that you might have legitimate concerns—you are automatically inferior.

Ironically, the elitism involved in conspiracy theories is at a certain level not unlike the elitism of the secret societies which the conspiracies discuss. The possession of secret knowledge and membership in a secret society sets you apart and above the ignorant, foolish masses. Likewise, the possession of special knowledge of the existence of a conspiracy and belonging to a select group of “believers” who know what is really going on sets you apart from and above the foolish ignorant masses.

It is valuable to consider how our country might be transformed from a constitutional republic into a dictatorship. Speculative Orwellian or Distopian narratives informed by a circumspect view of history may help us examine the nature of liberty, how it is lost, and how we can protect it. But we must take care. All of us exhibit some degree of the kind of insane, contracted reasoning discussed by Chesterton in the earlier quote or are at times seduced by the gossip like qualities of conspiracy. We need to watch ourselves to make sure that our reason is always tempered by both charity and humor, as well as a dose of good, old, common horse-sense.

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