Thursday, May 01, 2014

Only the paranoid survive

I'll use this post as a springboard to discuss conspiracy theories in general:

Gary North is a bright guy, although he's not as smart as he thinks he is. Intellectual pride is the Achilles heel of the conspiracy theorist.

Conspiracy theorists assume that skeptics of conspiracy theorists are simply gullible. We trust what the bureaucrats tell us. We don't question the "official" narrative.

That, however, is not why I have reservations about many conspiracy theories. Moreover, the conspiracy theorist can be just as credulous in a different way.

Which brings me to the next point. This debate tends to be polarized between knee-jerk conspiracy theorists and knee-jerk debunkers. But as we know, bureaucrats do sometimes engage in conspiratorial behavior. Genuine conspiracies have been uncovered from time to time. So we need to stake a middle ground between credulous conspiracy theorists and dismissive debunkers.

One issue is how to interpret official lies. For instance, it wouldn't surprise me if the gov't lied about 9/11. But what does that mean? Does it mean gov't officials were complicit in the attacks?

For the 9/11 Truther, this means bureaucrats lied about their degree of involvement in 9/11. But there's an obvious alternative motivation. They lied about their culpable lack of involvement in 9/11. 9/11 was a huge embarrassment for the gov't because it failed to protect the populace. Moreover, it was a preventable attack in the sense that there was evidence that something was afoot leading up to the attack. Like Arab students taking flight lessons, but only wanting to know how to steer the plane, not land the plane.

So gov't officials are motivated to lie, not to cover their tracks for orchestrating 9/11, but to cover their tracks for failing to "connect the dots." It's funny how Michael Scheuer became a folk hero for some libertarians even though he was clearly trying to shift blame for his own dereliction. 

Another thing which makes some conspiracy theories more plausible is the observable link between a national disaster and appeal to that event as a justification (or pretext?) to pass new laws and create new agencies to allegedly protect the populace from another attack. But in retrospect that looks suspiciously like a staged event which contributes incrementally to a police state. 

Taken by itself, this is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. But whether or not that's the intent, that's the effect. 

Mind you, this development doesn't require a conspiracy theory. It's only natural for politicians who were caught off-guard to deflect attention away from their own negligence by saying, "We need to do something so that something like this will never happen again! (famous last words)." That's the typical bureaucratic reflex to a typical bureaucratic failure.

Likewise, gov't officials may lie about an event to forestall mass "panic." But the official lie gives rise to urban legends. So it takes on a life of its own. They may fuel the very thing they were attempting to extinguish. 

Speaking for myself, what are some factors I consider in assessing a conspiracy theory? In assessing a conspiracy theory, I don't assume that gov't officials are honorable or honest. Indeed, I tend to assume the worst about gov't officials, then ask myself how a dishonorable gov't official would weigh the alternatives.

i) I think a corrupt regime like the Obama administration will do whatever it thinks it can get away with. So the question is, how much does it think it can get away with? That becomes a cost/benefit analysis.

ii) What is the political payoff if the conspiracy succeeds? Does that outweigh the risk if it fails?

iii) What is the risk of exposure? How likely is it that the conspiracy can be kept under wraps? How many people are in the loop? Are mission details "highly compartmented"? Depending on the complexity of the operation, is that even feasible? 

iv) What is the legal or political fallout if it leaks? Does the potential damage in case it backfires significantly exceed the potential benefit? Will the president lose public support? Will the ruling party be voted out of power? Will operatives be prosecuted? Will they flip to implicate higher-ups? 

A calculating politician will consider these factors. 

v) Moral restraint. Even a corrupt politician may have moral inhibitions about doing certain things, not because he's virtuous, but because even conventional morality can act as a restraint on some actions. 

Ironically, a misguided conspiracy theory can throw us off the scent, thereby letting the real political culprits escape into the brush. 


  1. Michael Heiser posted a video about conspiracy thinking that was fun. What if conspiracy thinkers were to take up the narrative found in Star Wars--what would the result be? I linked to the video

  2. Gub'mint tends to be conspiratorial by nature methinks. Business management tends toward the same, albeit at a lesser level with different motivations (profit, avoiding litigation risk, employee morale, etc).

  3. The popular caricature is usually of right-wing conspiracy nuts, secluding themselves in their shotgun-rigged basements while muttering something about the illuminati. But the left and right both have their fair share of conspiracy enthusiasts, it's just that right-wing conspiracy theories revolve around big evil government while left-wing conspiracy theories revolve around big evil corporations.