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How Does Ricochet Discern a Conspiracy Theory?

The significance of Dan Holmes’ question about conspiracy theories goes beyond Ricochet’s Code of Conduct–it’s a fascinating question.

I’ll begin at the end of the argument and explain, first, why our Code of Conduct aims to discourage them. Let’s start with the Ricochet founding legend. (Like all good founding legends, it happens to be true). A couple of talkative, good-natured, right-of-center, fun-loving guys were sitting around one day talking about politics and the Internet, and saying, “The thing is, where can you go to talk about this stuff and not waste your time getting into a flame war with the tinfoil-hat brigade?”

Cat-protect.jpgTo an extent, our definition is like Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography. We know a rhetorical rathole when we see it; the whole point of Ricochet is to avoid conversations that go over the same ground without getting anywhere, shed more heat than light, and leave everyone feeling that it’s time to change the channel. So the point of banning most conspiracy-theory talk is not to prevent the truth from outing, but to keep the conversation interesting. 

But that leaves the more interesting question unanswered: Is there in fact a definition of a conspiracy theory more rigorous than “We know it when we see it?” 

Of course there are real conspiracies, even in open societies and liberal democracies. Dan brings up the perfect example–the conspiracy to “hide the decline.” That was, we can clearly see now, a genuine conspiracy. Many people who had been dismissed as tinfoil-hat-brigade types turned out to be absolutely right.  That’s why we say “99 percent” of conspiracy theories, not “100 percent.”

But most conspiracy theories are just deeply implausible, and require a view of the way the world works that is so counter to common sense and experience that it can’t really be viewed as “conservative.”

cat-in-tin-foil-hat.jpgI live in Turkey, so I actually spend all my time trying to explain to people why their pet conspiracy theories are implausible–particularly when these theories concern America, probably the world’s least secretive society. The belief in conspiracies is obviously closely connected to lack of transparency in government. If you can’t see how things really work, it’s impossible to come up with a good mental model of how they don’t work.

When I argue with people here (as I do all the time) about conspiracy theories, I find that the following points seem to make sense to some people, sometimes.

1) It is incredibly hard to keep secrets. The logic of this point is intuitively appreciated by any man who has ever had more than one girlfriend at the same time.

2) The more people who know the secret, the less likely it is to stay a secret. This is why men who have more than one girlfriend at the same time usually try to keep the circle of people who know about this to a minimum.  

3) It is highly unlikely that a major political event would happen owing to the agency of a very small number of people. Think about the manpower required just to make a small thing happen–to run a corner grocery store, for example. The bigger the thing you’re trying to do, the more manpower and expertise you need. If you’re going to stage a coup, control the currency markets, take over the media, or assassinate the president, you’re going to need a big staff. Therefore, it is incredibly unlikely that conspiracies will stay secret.

4) It is incredibly hard to organize anything. Most people grasp this intuitively. If it were so easy to organize people, no one would ever get stressed about planning a wedding. 

5) It is incredibly hard to get people to work effectively toward a goal. Anyone who has ever managed a small business knows how hard it is to get employees to do what they’re supposed to do even when the goal is clear and even when everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and why. To pull off even a modest goal in business, you need sophisticated communications, training, a management hierarchy, accountants, endless meetings. It is extremely hard to do even when you don’t have to do it in secret.  Adding the imperative of secrecy to such an operation would make it exponentially harder–and thus less likely to have happened.

tinfoil_hat_cat.jpgThose are just some basic, obvious points that are easily confirmed by the personal experience of every human being who has ever had any contact with other members of his species. 

The mark of a conspiracy theory is that is assumes the world works in a way that runs counter to these observations: It assumes a very big secret that many people know but none reveal. It assumes the people keeping this secret are better-organized, more competent, and more effective than any of our experience of life suggests people to be. And it assumes this, usually, in preference to a vastly more parsimonious explanation of the event in question.  

Those are some general thoughts, which we can probably refine here. But the basic answer, from Ricochet’s perspective, is that a conspiracy theory is one of those ideas that makes us say, “Oh, man, not that again. Must we waste time talking about this? Wouldn’t it be great if someone set up a website where people could talk about right-of-center politics without having to deal with the flame wars and the tinfoil-hat brigades?’”

  1. Sisyphus

    And just what, exactly, do you find objectionable about my tinfoil hat?

  2. Israel P.

    There was once a conspiracy theory about Israeli agents picking up a top level Nazi in Argentina. Quite a few wise people said it was impossible.  Too hard, too many people involved, dependent on too many closed mouths etc etc.

    Last Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine featured the Eichmann trial, fifty years on.

  3. Cunctator

     OK, OK, now I will delve into the whole birther thing.  I think birthers are a little unhinged.  All they have to do to get results is say “I believe that Mr Obama was born in Hawai’i, however, I am concerned that he is withholding information.  For example, I believe that somewhere in his records he has identifed himself as foreign born, so that he could receive certain scholarships.  Could we please see his records so we can put this to bed for once and for all?”

    There.  (dusts hands).  That could liven up the thread!!!

  4. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Erik Larsen:  OK, OK, now I will delve into the whole birther thing.  I think birthers are a little unhinged.  All they have to do to get results is say “I believe that Mr Obama was born in Hawai’i, however, I am concerned that he is withholding information.  For example, I believe that somewhere in his records he has identifed himself as foreign born, so that he could receive certain scholarships.  Could we please see his records so we can put this to bed for once and for all?”

    There.  (dusts hands).  That could liven up the thread!!! · Apr 10 at 2:09am

    Go ahead, Erik. We’ve had some editorial discussions about this, and my judgment–which reigns, because I am awake, while the others slumber–is that now that Trump has made this into a big news story, we can’t just say, “Oh, come on, must we?” Apparently, we must. So let’s get it out of our systems … 

  5. Cunctator

     CB – let me say that in my experience in administration, I’ve heard innumerable conspiracy theories – how the company was doing this, or that, on the sly to tamp down the working man. 

    The reality – organizations by and large do care, but weird things happen because of incompetence and/or poor planning, salted with bad communication. 

    Expand on a larger scale, and dat’s da answer for conspiracy theories.

  6. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Sisyphus: And just what, exactly, do you find objectionable about my tinfoil hat? · Apr 10 at 1:57am

    Oh, Sisyphus, I didn’t mean you. Your hat is very fetching. 

  7. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Israel P.: There was once a conspiracy theory about Israeli agents picking up a top level Nazi in Argentina. Quite a few wise people said it was impossible.  Too hard, too many people involved, dependent on too many closed mouths etc etc.

    Last Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine featured the Eichmann trial, fifty years on. · Apr 10 at 2:05am

    That’s why we say “99 percent” of conspiracy theories, not “100 percent.” 

  8. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Erik Larsen:  CB – let me say that in my experience in administration, I’ve heard innumerable conspiracy theories – how the company was doing this, or that, on the sly to tamp down the working man. 

    The reality – organizations by and large do care, but weird things happen because of incompetence and/or poor planning, salted with bad communication. 

    Expand on a larger scale, and dat’s da answer for conspiracy theories. · Apr 10 at 2:27am

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve uttered the sentence, “Your default assumption should be incompetence, not conspiracy.” 

  9. Cunctator

     CB, on issues related to conspiracy; problem solved; so that’s good. 

    (Example re incompetence, or “false gold standard”, see JFK autopsy – for an “expert that wasn’t”, which caused innumerable downstream problems). 

    Any other world problems pending?  They are all easy to solve.  I just refer back to VDH’s statement that human nature doesn’t change over time. 

    The problem isn’t capitalism, or socialism, or communism, but rather human nature.  We can be a good species, but we sometimes have individuals that display very bad behaviour.  Add in incompentence, a gullible public, and poor communication, there ya go.  :-D

  10. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Erik Larsen:  CB, on issues related to conspiracy; problem solved; so that’s good. 

    (Example re incompetence, or “false gold standard”, see JFK autopsy – for an “expert that wasn’t”, which caused innumerable downstream problems). 

    Any other world problems pending?  They are all easy to solve.  I just refer back to VDH’s statement that human nature doesn’t change over time. 

    The problem isn’t capitalism, or socialism, or communism, but rather human nature.  We can be a good species, but we sometimes have individuals that display very bad behaviour.  Add in incompentence, a gullible public, and poor communication, there ya go.  :-D · Apr 10 at 2:45am

    Well, actually, the problem is communism. Apart from that, yes, problem solved. 

  11. Cunctator

     Well, in an ideal world (ie, everyone would be like me) communism wouldn’t be so bad.  But people are people, so it’s prisoner’s dilemma multiplied many times, so most systems would fail badly. 

    Freedom is a requirement for optimal systemic success with maximal fairness, and capitalism more or less equals freedom. 

  12. Jerry Broaddus

    The term requires definition. A Nazi in Argentina isn’t a conspiracy, he’s a fugitive. Can a fugitive be a conspiracy? Sure, if a bunch of conspirators gathered in secret to plan him.

  13. Israel P.
    Jerry Broaddus: The term requires definition. A Nazi in Argentina isn’t a conspiracy, he’s a fugitive. Can a fugitive be a conspiracy? Sure, if a bunch of conspirators gathered in secret to plan him. · Apr 10 at 3:14am

    The whole “snuck in and captured him” was a tinfoil hat story for some time.  That’s what I meant.

  14. Ajax von Kaiserpenguin
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:  4) It is incredibly hard to organize anything.  

    Kinda like trying to herd your tinfoil-hatted feline brigade?

  15. mesquito

     Jack Kerouac said the the Vietnam War was a conspiracy between North and South Vietnam to get jeeps.  I always throw that one in.

    Otherwise, the real scandal is what goes on in plain sight, like stealing from the future to buy votes in the present.

  16. Jimmy Carter

    On secrets, how many people were in on 9/11 and for how long?

  17. Foxman

     An old friend always said “Never attribute to malice that which can be fully accounted for by stupidity”

    Erik Larsen:  CB – let me say that in my experience in administration, I’ve heard innumerable conspiracy theories – how the company was doing this, or that, on the sly to tamp down the working man. 

    The reality – organizations by and large do care, but weird things happen because of incompetence and/or poor planning, salted with bad communication. 

    Expand on a larger scale, and dat’s da answer for conspiracy theories. · Apr 10 at 2:27am

  18. Foxman

     I think that the reason it takes so long to upload a  comment is that Ricochet is data-mining my hard drive. ;-)

  19. KayBee

    Was it Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman who said, “Conspiracy, hell!  We couldn’t agree on lunch!” ?

  20. Johannes Allert

    While I was working on my Capstone thesis, I mananged to listen to an interview given by the nephew of General Frank  Andrews (think Andrew Air Force Base). Andrews was killed in an air accident in 1943 and replaced by Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower as head of SHAEF. What I found interesting was during the interview, the nephew hinted at some form of conspiracy regarding the hasty funeral arrangments and the initial inaccuracy of the reports of the crash. I think it’s amazing how pervasive the conspiracy theory is throughout our society. After the Kennedy assasination, it went retro with Pearl Harbor, the death of Adolf Hitler, etc.

    One thing Claire missed was that if in fact all these individuals were in on the secret, you’d have to find a way to eliminate the evidence (as rhe old saying goes, dead men tell no tales). The graveyards, landfills, and waterways would be full to capacity.

    Lastly, funny how a thing started on the left (Obama’s place of birth) get’s pinned on the right — or..was that a premeditated conspiracy too? Oh that Hillary! She’s such a scally-wag!  

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