When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was a big believer in conspiracy, particularly the “plot to kill Kennedy.” I ridiculed those around me who doubted a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death and regularly told them that they just didn’t know all the facts. Anyone who knew all the facts would clearly believe what I believed.
How my first doubts came regarding “the plot to kill Kennedy” is another story but I have long since learned the folly of my ways. But now I am an ex-believer, and like many ex-believers, I am rabid in my atheism. Here are three* reasons why you should take me seriously, regardless of what conspiracy theories you hold dear.
1. You object to my objection before I even explain it
When I tell conspiracists that I don’t buy conspiracy theories, most won’t even let me finish before objecting to what I am saying. But I rarely cite a specific theory I am objecting to unless it has already come up in the conversation. I usually frame my objection as an objection to conspiracy theories as a whole, rather than one particular one.
So my question to the true believer is “Why object before you know what theory I may be critiquing? What if it’s alien anal probes? Do you really agree that people are getting probed by aliens?”
The reason you object to my objection before you have even heard me out is because you are a true believer. It’s not like I am saying “I have a problem with liberalism” or “I have a problem with the Liberal Party of Canada.” An equivalent of these would be “I have a problem with all political ideologies” or “I have a problem with political parties.” Certainly anyone with an open mind would want to hear why I might have a problem with political ideologies or political parties as such, before objecting to the very idea that I have a problem with either.
But, like any proselytizer, the conspiracist has to object before I’ve made any specific objections because you must start undermining my point of view before I’ve even stated any specifics. This is because belief in conspiracies is essentially the same as belief in religion – one might say “God is the greatest conspiracy theory of all” – or belief in politicized religion posing as ideology. Belief is right, righteous, a privilege of the elect, and those who do not believe must be converted.
Belief is substantiated by what Kolakowski calls the “Law of Infinite Cornucopia”; every belief system will take all – or nearly all – facts presented (whether they be interpreted pro or con) about the nature of the world or the nature of the belief system as proof of that belief system, no matter what.
Believers are an exclusive group who are in some way better than the rest of us, who have not yet been saved and cannot see that we are ignorant. Believers have an answer for every objection, usually before the objection is completed, and they can be extremely dismissive.
The believer objects to my objection because it is an objection to their beliefs. Before I can present any facts or opinions, I must be challenged – and better yet, put down – for this affront.
2. The Historian’s Fallacy
The Historian’s Fallacy put simply is this: when looking back into history, most of us tend to assume that actors knew the outcome of events before they happened, something that is obviously not true. This fallacy is obviously not just confined to historians, but clearly afflicts most people, as with the cliche: he / she “should have known better.”
The historian’s fallacy is one of the fundamental bases of most – if not all – conspiracy theories. Find me a conspiracy theory that doesn’t heavily rely on the assumption that the perpetrators knew exactly how events were to unfold or – if they didn’t quite – were able to wholly anticipate the problems in implementing their master plan and therefore able to wholly suppress those that tried to stop their scheme and prevent their plans from unfolding exactly how they foresaw. I don’t know of any and I would be interested to have such a theory explained to me. But I doubt it exists.
The conspiracy theories I’m familiar with do not (or barely) allow for accidents despite the fact that accidents are fundamental to our understanding of human beings. Think of your average day: How many times a day is someone apologizing for doing or saying the wrong thing? How many times a day are you or a friend or family member filled with self-righteousness because someone didn’t do something the way you or they wanted?
As psychology progresses as a discipline – as we move beyond behaviouralism to a more complete understanding of human beings including their social contexts – the concept of the ‘individual will’ becomes further and further diluted and less and less useful to explaining why people do the things they do, and why things happen because of the things people do.
Accidents – things contrary to the intentions of of human beings – are a major part of this understanding – because they help explain behaviour that occurs all the time but cannot be explained by will – but they have no place in conspiracy theories.
The most successful conspirators of the 20th century, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks – who, not coincidentally were also the most successful exploiters of politicized religion of the 20th century – made numerous mistakes along the way and eventually failed in achieving even some of their less ambitious goals.
But conspiracy theories require the opposite and the additional difficulty of near-total secrecy with this complete and mistake-free success. The conspirators in conspiracy theories not only don’t make mistakes, but they have unlimited resources and reach – human, monetary, institutional – and they and their subordinates are the most efficient and effective human beings in history. Everything gets done when it needs to as quickly and as secretly as necessary.
If something does go wrong – or somehow a conspirator makes a mistake – there is always an extraordinarily well-conceived back up plan – or five – to bail him out. Every possibility is accounted for and every contingency is expected and prepared for.
The conspirators in conspiracy theories are more like comic-book or movie super-villains than they are like the human beings who actually populate governments, secret societies and corporations usually blamed by conspiracists. Or, perhaps more appropriately given the religious origins of conspiracy theories, they are more like demons and demigods. In the West we are supposed to have rejected pantheism but we have replaced the belief in spirits in nature with the belief in super-human political actors in power (or behind power, as it were).
3. Cui bono?
The object of any murder investigation is to find the murderer. In doing so, detectives ask questions regarding means, motive and opportunity. In a perfectly functioning justice system, which questions would be the most important?
The conspiracist would say motive but the actual truth is that means and opportunity are far more important. Means and opportunity give the who, the what, the where, the when and the how. Motive only gives the why and the why isn’t of any concern to the justice system.
Because we are human, the detectives, judge, jury and public all want to know the why – after all it’s human nature (and when we are presented with a ‘why’ we don’t like or don’t want to accept or can’t understand, we call the crimes incomprehensible) – but the why really isn’t necessary to solving the murder.
Conspiracists only care about motive and regularly forget or ignore means and opportunity, throw scorn upon those who think means and opportunity are more important, or invent crazy and completely impossible means and opportunities to justify motive.
Worse, they combine the obsession with motive with the historian’s fallacy, thereby focusing all their attention only on the people who most benefit from the supposed conspiracy after the fact. That’s how Lyndon Johnson shot JFK, George Bush knocked down the WTC, or FDR bombed Pearl Harbor. All three obviously benefited from the incidents and therefore, in many conspiracists’ minds, they must have something to do with it.
But this is the exact opposite way to go about trying to find out what happened. Only means and opportunity – properly documented, another issue conpsiracists cannot get their head around – can actually prove guilt. Motive proves nothing. “Cui bono” doesn’t even narrow down the list of suspects. If anything – when dealing with world events with numerous ramifications – it expands the list of suspects too much so the investigator is drowning in useless information.
|Who||Narrows the list of suspects||Expands the list of suspects if the event is anything more than a petty crime||Narrows the list of suspects|
|What||Narrows the list of suspects||May help explain||Narrows the list of suspects|
|Where||Narrows the list of suspects||Rarely helps explain, unless the act was a political statement||Narrows the list of suspects|
|When||Narrows the list of suspects||Rarely helps explain||Narrows the list of suspects|
|Why||Rarely helps explain||Provides the explanation||Rarely helps explain|
|How||Narrows the list of suspects||May help explain||Narrows the list of suspects|
So those are three general things that are wrong with every conspiracy theory I have encountered. If you think objecting to conspiracy theories as a whole is a ridiculous thing to do, I suggest you read Voodoo Histories, which lays out the objection to the very notion of conspiracy theories – and further explains why it is an affront to the study of history – way better than I can.
For a specific rebuttal of a specific conspiracy theory, I know of no better book than Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History. If you still believe that a conspiracy existed to kill JFK after reading this book, you are so far gone there is nothing to be done. You would belong to the conspiracy theory equivalent of Bush’s “solid 20%,” who, in the words of Seth Meyers, would still have supported him had he run over Dakota Fanning with a bus. The only thing to do with true believers like that is to ignore them until they run out of breath as no argument will ever reach them.