With those words ringing in my ears, I will try to explore the peculiar world of Conspiracy Theories in the coming series of posts. It turns out that the subject of Conspiracy Theories, like the theories themselves, is a complex and difficult one.
Conspiracy Theories normally display particular characteristics. According to the authors of ‘The Conspiracy Theory Handbook’, Conspiracy theorists:
- are very suspicious of official information
- assume that the conspirators have evil motives
- believe deeply that ‘something is wrong’ and that official information is based on deception.
- believe they are victims of organised persecution.
- question official information and are unconcerned with contradictions
- believe that lack of evidence of a conspiracy is just evidence that the conspirators were successful
- see patterns everywhere (Apophenia). What most people consider random facts are interpreted as products of the conspiracy and included in a larger plot.
Conspiracies, of course, happen. They exist. A paradox of democracy is that those with power are accountable to those who elect them, so there is a strong motivation for the former to deceive the latter in order to perpetuate their power.
I confess that this paradox has led me to consider some conspiracy theories seriously. For example, although I am not aware of a single shred of evidence to support it, I believe it is altogether plausible that a small number of people in the US government may have been aware of the 911 plot before the event, and may have manipulated events to create an outcome favourable to them and their beliefs.
This explanation seems to me to fit known facts and mirrors theories of political manipulation from history like those around the Gunpowder plot in England in 1605. But it is important to note that there is no hard evidence to support this view, nor am I invested in it nor identified with any particular viewpoint.
One of the most famous conspiracies of which we have become aware is the story of Frank Olson who died from an apparently suicidal dive or fall from his New York hotel window in 1953. Olson had been part of a top-secret CIA project code-named MK-Ultra the aim of which was to achieve global mastery through control of the human mind. To this end MK-Ultra experimented with giving doses of LSD to “expendables”. For some reason, they also decided to experiment on their own staff, including Frank Olson, without informing them. Crucially, barely two dozen people knew the true nature of MK-Ultra.
It was over 20 years before the story of MK-Ultra was exposed by the Washington Post and a further 20 years before Olson’s body was exhumed and a forensic pathologist concluded that he had been murdered. This deep and disturbing US government conspiracy involving senior government officials took 40 years to unfold and contains significant characteristics of a conspiracy theory: the official information was untrue, the conspirators had evil motives, the victims’ suffering resulted from organised, intentional personal violation, the government’s actions over time were contradictory and because they had a single intent, i.e. deception, fit a pattern designed to cover ‘wrong-doing’.
‘Crucially’ the number of people ‘in’ on the conspiracy was very low and the time it took for the conspiracy to be exposed was several decades. These two factors form the basis of equations derived by David Grimes of Oxford University and published in a paper entitled ‘On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs ’. In this, he correlates the number of conspirators with the amount of time a genuine conspiracy can remain ‘hidden’. For example, faking the moon landing would have required 411,000 co-conspirators to have remained silent and would have unravelled in less than 3 years and 8 months.
Other ‘true’ conspiracies include The Tuskegee study where 28 black men died of treatable syphilis in the name of science, the Swiss Files Scandal, the Edward Snowden Revelations and the subject of the recent Romanian film, ‘Collective’, a story of corruption permeating the Romanian government, health service and a compliant press which came to light after the deaths of 64 victims of a fire in a Bucharest nightclub.