No One is Really In Control: A Guide to Judging Conspiracy Theories

This is dedicated to: Jeremy Salmon, who asked me to do this for a podcast a few years ago; Dan Helton, who has edited the aphasia out of this blog; Kristin Knippenberg, my partner and literary editor; and one of my best friends and future co-author (and editor), Shalon Van Tine, who told me to write instead of post on social media.

“The fact that a year ago, anyone thought it made sense to tell the millions of people forced daily to navigate all this stupidity that they needed to focus on a labyrinthine political controversy in Ukraine — and to blast them for deficits of “sobriety and clarity” when they didn’t — told you everything you needed to know about the cluelessness of the people who run this country.

Then the pandemic happened.

No conspiracy theories are necessary to point out that all of the institutions Americans were in the process of rejecting just a year ago have since increased their power and influence. Be it opportunism or coincidence, the international emergency has written a dramatic heel turn into our history.

A sweeping Fed-based rescue program resulted in enormous booms in asset values, allowing America’s wealthiest to increase their net worth by nearly a trillion dollars since the start of the pandemic (in mid-summer, American billionaires were collectively earning $42 billion per week). The disease pummeled people who actually had to travel to work, while empowering conglomerates like Amazon, which tripled its profits in the third quarter alone. Most of our lives are online now, an ironic reward to intelligence services that went unpunished after illegal surveillance programs were disclosed in the Obama years.”

Matt Taibbi, TK Newsletter: 2021 Has to Be Better Edition

Whether or not you endorse Taibbi’s politics, he has a point here. Conspiracies are necessary to see how a good crisis was not allowed to go to waste despite Donald Trump’s tantrums, despite COVID-19 eating away at poor and marginalized people, despite the wave of “left-wing and right-wing populism.” Furthermore, from conspiracies that had roots in partial truths–such as the various Russiagate narratives to Hunter Biden’s computer–to outright Satanic Panic nonsense, the fact that structural incentives make conspiratorial thinking more viable should be noticed. There are two reasons for this: the first is that structural feedback loops and bound choices can look like agency, the second is that agency is more satisfying than stochastic chaos and the stasis of various social forces nullifying each other.

In lieu of that, at the request of Dan Helton and Jeremy Salmon, here are the rules I have devised as a heuristic for dealing with conspiracy. I taught a class on conspiracy theories to high school students in spring. It looked at actual conspiracies, such as those stated in things like the Pentagon Papers and in business collusion, as well as obviously false conspiracies like Reptilians.

Heuristic 1: If it involves more than a few hundred people in the know, outside of one agency within one country or business, it probably isn’t an active conspiracy.

The more people you have involved, the more elaborate the means of cover-up may be. Not only does this increase the energy it would take to suppress the knowledge, it also induces a broader and broader array of interests and counter-interests as well as possibilities for discipline breakdown. Even fear of immediate death would have a hard time controlling 100,000 people to merely keep information secret.

Heuristic 2: Incompetence, more than malice, is the historical basis for a lot of cover-ups. This is particularly true for democratically-elected governments.

If your conspiracy involves a lot of ideological building, then it is harder to maintain belief in that conspiracy. Hence conspiracies about globalism or international elites who share a political vision tend to be hogwash. Take the JFK conspiracies–the most viable one I have heard is that inconsistencies in the medical record are explained by the fact the Secret Service may have actually discharged into the President while trying to aim at Oswald. This is not a sexy conspiracy theory, so it is not widely believed. However, it requires fewer numbers of people and has a more viable reasoning. It’s probably still not true, but given the first two heuristics, it is viable.

Heuristic 3: Immediate self-interest of small parties do make for viable conspiracy groups if they have real access to either cultural or real capital OR weaponry.

I think this is self-evident. However, in the grand scheme of things, these kinds of conspiracies are so regular and so not explanatory that most people barely ever refer to them. So this leads us to heuristic four where things get more complicated.

Heuristic 4: Feedback loops can appear to have agency because of the undermining nature of correlations and the overdetermination of causal factors.

This is one is more difficult and frankly also cuts against a lot of our moral impulses in regards to politics, even when we aren’t engaging in conspiratorial thinking. But what does it mean? Systems do have logics in their design. Now, some of those designs are kluges in a way that preclude a reductive, designed purpose (or to be technical, a teleology), but generally this offloads organizational and cognitive work for both individuals and groups. The down side of this, however, is that these feedback loops can act like fractals and look to have more intentionality than they do. For example, even if systemic bias and income disparities are removed, it can look like bankers or capitalists are actively designing the system to produce such wealth gaps that it keeps X group down beyond anything explicit, because wealth compounds generationally in ways that income and skills access do not. Now this may be what investments were designed to do, but combined with prior periods of racialized access, colonial dispossession and accumulation, etc., this would go into the future even without individual or even systemically-designed ill will. It is not irrational for this to be assumed to be deliberate, but it is almost impossible to prove and kind of irrelevant.

Heuristic 5: In-groups must be coherent organizationally to have the ability to pull off a conspiracy.

This is a fancy way of saying that aggregates of identities rarely act as coherent collective in-groups. This is even true for economic classes, but even more true for more abstract sociological identities such as racial or ethnic groups. Smaller groups are not only easier to control and keep information limited, but they are also more able to collectively act than larger ones. While larger groups may have more “people power,” they also have more issues that district them from operating.

Heuristics 6: Money talks, but there are limited amounts for non-state actors.

Meaning the profit motive is probably the number one likelihood of active conspiracies, which are generally attempts to suppress information, but people underestimate the cost in terms of profits of keeping information and logistics secret. This, probably more than anything else, is the limit to non-governmental conspiracies.

Now, this list of heuristics doesn’t just cut against conspiracy thinking. It also cuts against a lot of political logic in the popular sphere, but it is the beginnings of how one could judge what is likely to have any actual conspiratorial element.

That said, I think conspiracy thinking will continue in political circles: left, center, and, most especially, right. Why? When our ruling classes and their funders seem as clueless to long-term realities as they are now and as their privilege walls them off from consequences, being defeated by them feels impossible and information gaps make the terror of chaos more and more unpalatable. This guide may help you as individuals, but you and I should be under no delusion that this will reverse conspiracy theories as politics: it is, itself, a kind of feedback loop

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