Tag Archives: conspiracies

What Makes a Good Conspiracy Theory?

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We’ll never get rid of them, but can we at least process them better?


On this blog I frequently debunk conspiracy theories that spread among conservatives: QAnon, Obama’s birth certificate, Dominion voting machines, Antifa’s role in the Capitol insurrection, and so on. But this week a liberal conspiracy theory kept showing up in my social-media news feeds: The accusations against Andrew Cuomo are part of a scheme to install a Republican as governor of New York, so that he can use his pardon power to protect Donald Trump from New York state prosecutions.

Debunking the Cuomo theory. Before I start using this as an example of a conspiracy theory, though, let’s dismiss it as a sensible interpretation of events: Suppose Cuomo resigns or is impeached. His replacement is the Democratic Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who has no reason to pardon Trump. Next in the line of succession are the Temporary President of the Senate, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Attorney General — all Democrats.

Then comes the 2022 election. New York electing a Republican governor is not unheard of: George Pataki served three terms from 1995-2006. But Pataki Republicans are not exactly Trumpists, and in recent cycles Democrats have done quite well in New York. Cuomo won his last election (2018) by 23%. But he doesn’t have some unique ability to pull in votes that puts the governorship in danger if he can’t run. Biden beat Trump in New York in 2020 by 23% as well. Kirsten Gillibrand won the New York senate race in 2018 by 34%. Letitia James won the 2018 Attorney General race by 27%. And the names being discussed as 2022 Republican challengers are not ones that should cause Democrats to quake in fear, particularly if a Trump pardon becomes one of the issues.

In short, raising phony accusations against Cuomo in order to keep Trump out of jail would be a wild scheme that had almost no chance to succeed. Not even Trumpists are crazy enough to invest the kind of resources even a failed attempt would require. And besides, there’s a far more mundane explanation for Cuomo’s problems: Being an asshole finally caught up to him.

My rare attempt at bipartisanship. If conspiracy theories appear in both parties, then sensible people in both parties should want to debunk them. That’s why I was pleased to see someone I rarely agree with, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, contribute to that effort a little while ago with “A Better Way to Think About Conspiracies“.

He starts with the following observation: The only way to get rid of conspiracy theories completely is to induce everyone to accept the expert consensus on everything. Not only is that never going to happen, it shouldn’t happen, because sometimes the expert consensus is self-serving or corrupt or just wrong in the ordinary people-make-mistakes way. I mean, how many experts told us that Saddam had WMDs, or that Trump couldn’t possibly beat Hillary? Worse, occasionally there are real conspiracies, like Nixon’s Plumbers or the baseball owners’ free-agency collusion.

So if we can’t just deny all conspiracies, or insist that people believe whatever the experts say, what can we do?

If you assume that people will always believe in conspiracies, and that sometimes they should, you can try to give them a tool kit for discriminating among different fringe ideas, so that when they venture into outside-the-consensus territory, they become more reasonable and discerning in the ideas they follow and bring back.

Douthat suggests a few sorting principles that can keep people from falling down the Q-Anon rabbit hole.

  • Simple theories are better than baroque ones.
  • Be skeptical of theories that seem tailored to reach a predetermined conclusion.
  • Take fringe theories more seriously when the mainstream narrative has holes.
  • Don’t start accepting all fringe theories just because one of them looks right to you.

To illustrate the simple vs. baroque distinction, he contrasts two origin-of-Covid-19 conspiracy theories: One says “it was designed by the Gates Foundation for some sort of world-domination scheme”, and the other that “it was accidentally released by a Chinese virology lab in Wuhan, a disaster that the Beijing government then sought to cover up”. Douthat rejects the former out of hand, but finds the latter plausible — not true, necessarily, but possibly worth investigating further.

The difference is that the Gates theory requires postulating a whole bunch of other stuff not in evidence. (What powers those nano-chips in the vaccine once they get into your bloodstream?) But the lab-accident theory just has one unusual event, after which a lot of people behave the way we know a lot of people behave: They would rather lie than accept blame. [1]

He illustrates the predetermined-conclusion point by looking at Trump’s various stolen-election theories. If you’ve ever argued with a Trumpist about this, you’ve probably observed what Douthat did: When you disprove one election-fraud theory, the Trumpist doesn’t reconsider his position, but just comes back with another election-fraud theory. If Georgia’s hand-recount disproves the corrupted-voting-machine-software theory (it does), then what about Detroit having more votes than voters? After you debunk that, what about dead people voting? And so on. The conclusion (Trump really won) remains fixed; the conspiracy theories are just roads to get there.

That should count against them.

Douthat’s point about holes in the mainstream narrative is similar to Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific revolutions: Novel theories shouldn’t dislodge an accepted theory unless the accepted theory is having trouble explaining anomalies. As Einstein reflected, “If the Michelson–Morley experiment had not brought us into serious embarrassment, no one would have regarded the relativity theory as a (halfway) redemption.”

The example Douthat gives is Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein’s career is so unlikely that you can hardly blame people for trying to place him in a larger story. I would point to the pee-tape theory of Putin and Trump. There is essentially no evidence of a pee tape, but Trump’s defenders have never offered an alternative explanation of why he was so subservient to Putin. Instead, they just denied what we could all see. If the alternative to the conspiracy theory is believing that the Trump/Putin news conference in Helsinki is perfectly normal behavior for an American president, then I’ll keep looking for a pee tape.

The fourth point ought to go without saying, but there is a strong pull in the opposite direction: Once you leave the mainstream, other outside-the-mainstream folks feel like compatriots. (Once you accept alien visitors, why shouldn’t Atlantis be real?) Douthat makes a good point, though: All the world’s revealed religions have stressed that not every voice that pops into somebody’s head is the voice of God. You have to practice discernment.

I’ll support him by pointing out that even though the experts aren’t always right, they usually are. So when you believe a conspiracy theory, you’re betting on a long shot. Long shots occasionally come in, but no gambler makes a successful career out of betting on one long shot after another.

My additional principles. I agree with all of Douthat’s principles, but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. I want to add some ideas that I can easily imagine him agreeing with. And even if he doesn’t …

You don’t have to accept the convention wisdom, but you should know what it is. If you reject it, you should have a reason. Before you retweet something bizarre, take a moment to google a news story on the topic, or check some reference like Wikipedia. Is there a widely accepted explanation you hadn’t considered? Is there a reason not to accept it? If you have such a reason, fine. But at least consider a non-conspiracy explanation.

Evil people face the same problems you do. Have you ever tried to organize something? It’s hard. It gets harder the more people you need to coordinate, and harder still if it’s something like a surprise party, where it’s supposed to be secret, so you can’t just blast out an announcement.

It’s not any easier to organize something nefarious. If you can’t imagine how a richer, more powerful version of yourself could pull something off, be skeptical that somebody else is managing it.

Who are “they”? One way to avoid realizing just how big and complicated a conspiracy would have to be is to attribute it to a nebulous “them”, as Donald Trump Jr. does in this clip: “There’s no place that they won’t go. This week alone, they canceled Mr. Potato Head, they canceled the Muppets. They’re canceling Dr. Seuss from reading programs.” They who?

Everybody in a conspiracy needs a motive. The reason the baseball-owner-collusion theory was plausible (even before it turned out to be true) was that all 32 owners had the same financial incentive: paying their players less.

Now consider the theory that ICUs are faking the Covid pandemic. Everybody who works there needs to be in on it: nurses, doctors, cleaning staff, and so on. Either they’re not telling their loved ones, or the loved ones are in on it too. What motives could possibly unify all those people?

Very few people are motivated by evil for its own sake. A theory I heard fairly often as same-sex marriage cases were working their way through the courts was that same-sex couples weren’t actually interested in getting married, they were just trying to destroy marriage for the rest of us. We are all occasionally tempted to do something out of spite, but seriously: Would you devote a big chunk of your life to a project that gained you nothing, but just destroyed something for somebody else? Not many people would. [2]

As new information comes in, bad conspiracy theories have to grow. A good conspiracy theory might even shrink. A sure sign of a bad theory is that every objection is met by expanding the conspiracy. “They’re in on it too.”

But if you imagine organizing a conspiracy yourself, you wouldn’t be constantly trying to bring more people in, because each new person is a new risk. Instead, you’d try to identify the smallest possible group that could pull the operation off.

So if you’re on the trail of an actual conspiracy, the more you find out, the closer you should get to understanding the vision of the planner. Rather than “He’s in on it too”, you should start to realize how a small group of people really could do this. [3]

Contrast this with the nanobots-in-the-vaccine theory. Anybody who has access to a Covid vaccine might put it under a microscope and see those bots. Why aren’t they saying anything? They must all be in on it.


[1] My favorite Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theory is similar: After Oswald fires that first non-fatal shot, a Secret Service agent’s gun goes off by mistake, killing JFK. The agent’s superiors then try to cover that up, and things spiral from there.

Having brought up the Kennedy assassination, which educated my whole generation in conspiracy theories, I have to tell this joke: Two authors of JFK-assassination-conspiracy books are sharing a car as they drive to a convention where they’ll both be on a panel. Unfortunately, they are involved in a highway accident and die. But they’re both virtuous people, so they arrive together in the afterlife.

Their introductory tour of Heaven is given by God Himself, and somewhere between the infinite beach and the endless ice cream bar he tells them that there are no secrets in Heaven. “So if you ever want to know anything — about Heaven, about the Earth, about Me — you just have to ask.”

So one of the authors raises the question he’s been wrestling with for years: “Who really did kill Kennedy?”

And God answers, “Oswald, acting alone, pretty much the way the Warren Report says.”

The authors go silent for a while, until eventually one leans over to the other and whispers, “This goes up much higher than we ever imagined.”

[2] This is one reason I suspect that conspiracy theories do better among religious groups that believe in an active Devil. Unlike anybody you actually know, the Devil is motivated by evil for its own sake. And if the Devil has minions, they also are just trying to do harm.

[3] One of my favorite Kennedy-assassination conspiracy books was Best Evidence by David Lifton. (I’m not endorsing his theory, I’m just illustrating a point.) His theory revolves around how investigators think: They trust some kinds of evidence more than others, and they’ll explain away less-trusted evidence if it contradicts more-trusted evidence.

In a murder case, the best evidence is the body; or, after the body is out of reach, the autopsy. So if you could control that evidence, then you wouldn’t need to involve the whole FBI; they would naturally discount eye-witnesses who saw something that the autopsy says didn’t happen.