Let’s establish some common ground first. Conspiracy theory stories can be a lot of fun.
And there’ve been some damn fun stories that have really taken place. For centuries people have been gathering with small groups of trusted allies in shadowy corners, and making plans to cause some sort of havoc, upset some apple-carts, infiltrate some other group in a different shadowy corner, or seize some subtle but far-reaching power. There’s nothing inherently implausible about the idea that secret world domination, or even something a bit less ambitious, might interest some people enough to have a stab at it, or that it might sometimes even work.
Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the king and a large chunk of the aristocracy; President Nixon’s staff broke into Watergate, in just one of a series of covered-up scandals; the CIA has even conducted research into mind-control. I’m not going to argue that something conspiratorial and arguably sinister didn’t go on in these cases and many others, or that they don’t make for some pretty awesome stories to read about.
Even more fun than reading about the underhand dealings of subversive groups from decades past, is the idea of actually being involved in, or gaining knowledge of, a similar plot that’s still ongoing. All over the place, in books, movies, and virtually all forms of storytelling, you’ll be invited to walk in the shoes of the one person who learns the Truth about the massive conspiracy, and how its operators have pulled the wool over the world’s eyes. You see this imagined world through the eyes of society’s lone freethinker, up against the impenetrable behemoth which seems to have tentacles every way you turn, and you’ll have to outwit the conspirators’ attempts to capture and silence you, expose their terrible secrets to the world, destroy them utterly, or all of the above.
And man, do you ever feel cool.
As a literary trope, its use has perhaps become popular to the point of cliché, but who doesn’t love the idea of being the only person to know some world-shattering secret, and having to defy the expectations of a short-sighted society to single-handedly expose the conspiracy and bring some malevolent and tyrannical organisation crashing down?
The world is not as it seems, and you alone are special enough to find out how things really are. A good conspiracy theory seems to push all the right buttons of ego and righteousness to really hook people. We can feel like a part of a superior clique, unlike all the sheeple grazing around us, and we can smugly reinforce our disdain and distrust of authority figures, now that we know what evils they’re capable of.
Conspiracy theories, in short, are really fun.
Unfortunately, they’re also usually bollocks.
Well, when you’ve got such a versatile premise for an exciting story, why would you limit yourself to just recounting facts from boring old reality? You can write about fictional conspiracies in fictional worlds that are as exciting as you want them to be, and create an immensely influential, popular, and lucrative television series (along with numerous spin-offs until it’s long since outstayed its welcome), or come up with one of the most-discussed cultural phenomena of the new millennium and not have to worry about convincing dialogue or basic historical research.
But if you’re really into these stories, you may find yourself tempted to believe that Elvis and Tupac really are in Area 51, experimenting on the Grays that crashed at Roswell and killed the Illuminati leader Paul McCartney, to find out why JFK faked his own death then staged 9/11 in the same studio lot where Bigfoot filmed the moon landings. And although that might make a helluva story as well, its narrative charm has no bearing on whether or not any of it actually happened.
Moving away from the easier question of what’s fun to think about, if we’re going to take any conspiracy theory seriously, we should really hold it to the same standards of rigour as we do all scientific theories. If you’re not taking a skeptical approach, then you’re going to be unavoidably prone to believing something no less false than the ridiculous situation in the previous paragraph. We should hold out for a theory that explains things better than the null hypothesis – otherwise we might as well stick with a much less complicated and much more likely scenario, which still ties up all the same loose ends.
You’ll also want your theory to be falsifiable, if you’re not a total crackpot and are holding on to even a shred of credibility, and this is where a lot of conspiracy theories tend to fall down. Evidence that can be seen as supporting the theory is leapt upon and heralded as inevitable and further conclusive proof, but any disconfirming evidence, which runs against what’s expected – the kind of thing which provokes people doing actual science to adapt, amend, update, or even abandon their previous ideas of what’s true – can be instantly dismissed as just being part of the conspiracy itself. If there’s no evidence where you want there to be, then that is evidence, of the cover-up which must go hand-in-hand with the conspiracy itself.
This way, a committed conspiracy theorist never needs to be shaken from their position, or concern themselves with the notion that they might ever have made a single wrong step, and erroneously picked up an untrue idea or two, at any point in their past. Quite what rational reason they have for remaining so entrenched is rarely satisfactorily explained. If they’ve come to the understanding they have because of evidence, then where is it? And is theirs really the most reasonable conclusion to draw from the evidence in question? Or, if all the evidence for the conspiracy is still being covered up, how did some guy outside of the cabal happen upon all this privileged knowledge in the first place? Where do you get this shit, in other words?
A recurring theme seems to be cynicism regarding other people’s motives, morality, and actions, particularly those of the government – they faked the moon landings and assassinated JFK, after all, among countless other nefarious deeds. Often, a part of my natural rebuttal to these kinds of conspiracies is that people just aren’t that bad, and would surely never do anything so terrible. Although this is sometimes a good poke in the skeptical direction (The US president ordered thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks in his own country? Really?), there have obviously been many people in positions of supreme authority who have done some pretty messed-up shit, so this might not be all that convincing. (Yes, I think I may have just lumped in the Holocaust under a general description of “messed-up shit”. This is why I’m not a journalist.)
More pertinent is the question of the cover-up – so necessary to all good conspiracy theories, but often so utterly implausible. The numbers of people who’d have to keep absolutely quiet about it, the amount of correspondence needing to remain entirely secret, and the hordes of co-conspirators sometimes necessary to pull it off, any of whom could bring the whole thing crashing down if they ever breathed a word of it, is just the kind of massive set of assumptions that Occam’s razor loves to slice clean away.
Not only do these large numbers of people have to be malevolent (which some of us may find easier to swallow than others), they also have to be competent, which is even more outlandish. I was no fan of the most recent Bush administration, but even if they were far more despicably immoral than they ever seemed, they couldn’t have pulled off a massive hoax on the scale of 9/11 if they tried. Guy couldn’t even eat a damn pretzel without adult supervision, for frig’s sake. (More on all that in a future article. The 9/11 conspiracy theories, I mean. I have no particular plans to write anything more about pretzels.)
Sometimes there really is evidence which seems to suggest a deeper pattern to events, a guiding hand moving the pieces, and which hides its true existence from us. It’s important to take all this evidence on board, and not simply become denialists, throwing out the possibility of any furtive conversation involving more than two people as being too ridiculous to ever take place. But because they’re so much fun to play with, it’s clearly true that most conspiracy theories aren’t a part of the real world. Crazy ideas must regularly spring from over-active imaginations, and describe situations that don’t exist, and it might not always be obvious that these ideas were never supposed to be any more than someone’s movie pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer.
Conspiracy theories can be really fun to believe. They can provide exciting and narratively satisfying explanations for so many things that seem strange about the world, but they make huge assumptions to do so, and often have to ignore much simpler and more mundane facts, like pareidolia, or an unremarkable but misleading series of coincidences, or that the world is sometimes a scary and chaotic place with no grand scheme behind it, no pattern that makes sense to us, and sometimes buildings are just destroyed by a small and remote bunch of maniacs and that’s all there is to it. Boring answers like that might not occur to us, or fail to interest us, or terrify us, but they’re usually more rational.
So, to summarise. Conspiracy theories: usually bollocks.
Specific examples hopefully to follow.