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Are some conspiracy theories true?

(From my latest book: What Am I Doing With My Life?)

Are Some Conspiracy Theories True?

Many people believe that the condensation trails made by airliners are actual plumes of chemicals – 'chemtrails' – created by secret government programme. Surprisingly large numbers believe the Moon landings were faked by NASA and the US government. Many believe the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was an 'inside job' by the US government and involved a controlled demolition. Other popular conspiracy theories are that 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was faked to promote gun control, that the pharmaceutical industry has covered up the fact that some vaccinations cause autism, that an alien spaceship crashed at Roswell and is currently stored in a place called Area 51, and that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy involving multiple shooters.
Why are we drawn to conspiracy theories? Research suggests a combination of three things. First, we want to understand how the world works. Conspiracy theories offer us narratives that explain events in an easy-to-understand way: powerful secret plotters are orchestrating them. Second, we want to feel secure and in control. Conspiracy theories often offer us fairly a simple recipe for taking back control: we must overthrow those powerful secret plotters. Third, conspiracy theories enhance our own self-image: as a conspiracy theorist, you enter into a world of like-minded insiders who see can how things really are – unlike the poor, deluded saps on the outside.
To call a belief a 'conspiracy theory' is often a way of dismissing it out of hand. The 'conspiracy theorist' is assumed to be paranoid and unhinged. Despite their popularity, all the conspiracy theories outlined above are widely considered to be nonsense.
The term 'conspiracy theory' is used a various way. Some use 'conspiracy theory' so that by definition a conspiracy theory is either false or at least not well-supported by evidence. In the unlikely event that one of the above theories was shown to be true, it would  cease to be a 'conspiracy theory'. Some use 'conspiracy theory' in an even more restricted way, so that only theories that are completely cranky qualify.
However, others, myself included, say that what makes a theory a 'conspiracy theory' is just its content, irrespective of how reasonable or unreasonable it might happen to be. By a 'conspiracy theory', I mean a theory that posits a major conspiracy – a secret plot by some influential body and group to do something illegal, harmful or at least frowned upon – whether or not the theory is true or well supported. So, on my use of the term, a conspiracy theory could turn out to be both reasonable and true (even if most aren't).
Actually, every now and then a conspiracy theory is shown to be true. For example, Watergate was a secret conspiracy within the US Republican Party – including President Nixon – to bug Democrat offices and later cover it up (this exciting story became the focus of a film called All The President's Men). Iran–Contra was a secret conspiracy by senior officials under Reagan to sell arms to Iran, despite that being illegal, and then to use the profits to fund the right-wing Contra rebel groups in Nicaragua. Again, this conspiracy theory is true.
Still, many conspiracy theories are false and poorly supported. In fact, just a little common sense can often reveal that a conspiracy theory is unlikely to be true.
Take for example the theory that 9/11 was an inside job. The main evidence for this theory is that various features of the event are supposedly otherwise difficult to explain, such as the way the Twin Towers came down after the planes hit them. They came straight down, just like in a controlled demolition. But now consider how elaborate and huge the conspiracy would have to be. Many thousands of people would need to be in on it, including the teams that placed the explosives undetected inside the towers, the pilots who killed themselves (why would they do that?), or, if the aircraft were remote controlled, the various teams required on the ground, including at airports. The chances of such an elaborate plot failing or being exposed by a slip up or someone spilling the beans would be huge. If the aim of 9/11 was to legitimise going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, say, then why have the planes being flown by Saudis? But, perhaps most problematic of all, why choose such an extraordinarily risky and elaborate method of justifying going to war when far, far simpler and less risky ways of achieving that same result were available? While it's possible 9/11 was an inside job – just as it's possible there are fairies at the bottom of the garden – the evidence in each case points strongly against it.
However, while 9/11 probably wasn't an 'inside job', so-called 'false flag' operations aren't entirely mythical. A 'false flag' operation involves mounting an attack on yourself or your allies while disguised as the enemy. 9/11 conspiracy theorists typically believe 9/11 was a false flag operation: a US attack on the US disguised to look like an attack by foreigners.
Interestingly, the US military have planned such false flag attacks in the past. In the 1960s, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off a plot to commit hijackings and bombings and plant misleading evidence that the attacks were mounted by Castro's Cuba. Operation Northwoods, as it was known, was designed to justify a US invasion of Cuba to change the regime. The attacks never took place, but, under a different president, they might have done.
World War II began with a false flag operation. In 1939, before the German invasion of Poland, Nazi soldiers and intelligence officers dressed in Polish military uniforms carried out attacks against German targets, leaving behind dead 'Polish' soldiers who were actually concentration camp victims. These attacks were then used by Hitler to justify his invasion.
So, conspiracy theories can turn out to be true. One or two have turned out to be true. Of course it's important we control our tendency to see conspiracies everywhere – a tendency that in some folk has clearly run completely out of control. But let's not forget that, occasionally, conspiracies happen.


Martin Cooke said…
A conspiracy by top people would probably be very well organised and executed. It could afford to employ some of the best people. So, we would be unlikely to find out much about it, if there was such a conspiracy. And it would be important to know if there was one, given that we believe in democracy. Does that mean that a relatively big weight should be given to evidence that there is such a conspiracy?

Even if it does, that would not make conspiracy theorists rational. They believe in the theory, so they would not be. It is rational to take the idea seriously, but not rational to jump to a conclusion before all the evidence is in. Incidentally, materialists who believe in the best current scientific theories stuck together in a less than analytic-philosophical way would be similarly irrational (because of that being a belief).
psbraterman said…
Of course, when Presidents don't allow officials to testify to Congress, or UK governments refused to publish the results of investigations, it is quite rational to suspect a conspiracy.

I suspect you had this in mind.
Martin said…
Can I recommend American Conspiracy Theories by Joseph E. Uscinski, Joseph M. Parent? They go through the research and make the claim that pretty much everyone believe in one conspiracy theory or another. My common sense is your conspiracy theory and vice versa. It is somewhat humbling to realise that we are all fallible in some way or another.

Some time ago I became interested in Richard Dawkins' sneer. Dawkins has undoubtedly made an extra-ordinary contribution to science, his conversations with religious people we interesting, informed and engaging. But I couldn't understand why he seemed to me to slightly sneering at the people he was talking to. I decided to read as many of his popular science books as I could get hold of, to try to understand his thinking better.

I came to the conclusion that Richard and I agreed on pretty much everything about how the world works, except one seemingly small but important point. Dawkins believes in reality of scientific progress, that each year our knowledge about how the world works builds on past achievements. I believe that the body of work that we call Science grows, but that the sum of human knowledge does not grow in the same way, for the following reason. I believe that human nature changes very little, if at all over time. That is we are all very similar as a species, and that history shows the human race to have pretty much the same list of foibles over the course of time. Specifically, I as an atheist view the belief in God as a delusion (here's my linking point because conspiracy theories are types of more work-a-day delusions). Dawkins says he has grown out of religion so why can't others. I say delusions are central to the human experience, just a few days sleep deprivation and you and I will be as psychotic as the next man. Dawkins' sneer is because he doesn't understand he is as subject to delusions just as much as the next man, specifically religious people.

Uscinski & Parent make the point that when researching conspiracy theories there is a fundamental problem of establishing with certainty which theories are true and which are false. I believe at some early point in our development we must ALL make a leap of faith of one sort or another, probably mostly culturally conditioned, and from then on in we all create a world around us that conforms to this leap of faith.

So endeth the lesson for today!
Chris said…
It's a good thing you cited Northwoods, because as I was reading this essay I kept thinking: "but does he knows about Northwoods"? Not that I believe 9/11 was an inside job, but I do believe it's proper and ideal to respond to almost all US war claims with EXTREME skepticism, and to presume state actors have divergent interests from mundane citizens.

Honestly, I think the most interesting question raised by your piece is why is someone in the UK only generating conspiracy theories omnipresent in the USA? That's one interesting question. And if the answer is because the US, unlike the UK, is conspiracy prone, that raises a further interesting question: why?

Is the UK not conspiracy prone?

All the best,
Chris Byron (CB)
Andre Surkis said…
I completely agree with you that already one or two have already turned out to be true. I am not paranoid, I am not looking for a conspiracy in everything, but even the story with COVID 19 is considered by some as a conspiracy ...

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