You are here: Home / Academia / When could a conspiracy theory be true?
When could a conspiracy theory be true?

When could a conspiracy theory be true?

As Ahsan’s affirmative action hire for this blog, I know little about Pakistani politics, even less about football, and all I know about Younis Khan is that Farooq bares an unhealthy obsession with him. What’s more, I’m currently knee deep in historical research for my dissertation, so I’ll limit my occasional contributions to random musings on political/historical events that I find interesting.

With that in mind, my current research is on why states launch covert regime changes – such as, assassinations, coup d’états, and rigged elections. As part of my dissertation, I’ve been compiling a dataset of all covert regime changes conducted by the United States during the Cold War. So far, I can document 63 cases. But there are countless conspiracy theories of the CIA’s involvement in controversial historical events all throughout the world. Some of these are true. Some of these have a kernel of truth, but are greatly exaggerated. But many – probably most – are false.

There’s a good anecdote of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-Lai in 1971 that reflects this dynamic. When Chou asked Kissinger about the CIA’s covert activities, Kissinger replied that Chou “vastly overestimates the competence of the CIA.” Yet, Chou pressed on “whenever something happens in the world, they are always thought of.” Yes, Kissinger retorted, “that is true, and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”

Perhaps because I spend my time trying to document actual covert operations by piecing together archival documents, I find most conspiracy theories to be infuriating. I’ve also noticed that both Americans and Pakistanis seem particularly prone to buy into them.

Why do we believe them? A lot of reasons, I suspect. Some people probably like theories that boil complex political events down into simple black and white answers – like that the Illuminati or Freemasons control the world. Others probably want the world to be more mysterious, like those who believe that aliens landed in Roswell. Still others are political expedient by demonizing one’s opponents (e.g. Clinton Body Count) or rejecting historical facts (e.g. Holocaust Deniers). Some people, like Jenny McCarthy, probably like the idea of being part of a special group of enlightened people fighting against vast malevolent enemies. Lastly, Errol Morris argues that the consequences of some events appear so disproportionate to their causes that it’s hard to accept simple explanations – hence why most Americans prefer to believe that JFK was assassinated in a great conspiracy than by a pathetic lone gunman.

But whatever the reason, we believe a lot of nonsense. One in four Americans believes Obama is not a U.S. citizen. One-third of Americans believe in UFOs. Six percent believe that the moon landings were faked. Only 4% of Pakistanis believe that Al Qaeda was behind 9/11 and 19% believe that the U.S. attacked itself.

But as Joseph Heller pointed out in Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” So when should a conspiracy theory be rejected?

I would suggest the following three rules:

1. If ALL potential evidence proves the theory correct, it is probably wrong.

Conspiracy theories survive because any evidence supporting theory confirms it. Any evidence opposing the theory also confirms it, by showing that there is a conspiracy out there to hide the truth. I don’t think I need to elaborate on why this is BS.

2. If the theory presupposes vast governmental competence, it is probably wrong.

I’ve always been amazed by people who think the U.S. government could pull off a huge conspiracy like faking 9/11 or the moon landing. Thousands of people would have to be in on an operation of that size. I wish the U.S. government had the ability to make that many bureaucrats do their job, but when has that ever occurred? If my dissertation has taught me anything, it’s that vast governmental conspiracies don’t play out like they do in the Bourne Supremacy. They play out like they did at the Bay of Pigs.

 3. If the theory presupposes that academics ignore opportunities to publish controversial findings, it is probably wrong.

Any academic can tell you about the pressure they face to publish original articles – particularly ones that go against the prevailing conventional wisdom. So if there were a case to be made for conspiracies like vaccines causing autism or leftists faking global warming, there would be many people trying to get tenure by proving so.

About Lindsey O'Rourke

Lindsey is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago and a Predoc at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies.

Comments are closed.