James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, July 11, 2005

What Makes Conspiracy Theories Plausible

I've encountered several discussions of conspiracy theories via internet and e-mail recently, both related and unrelated to the London attacks. Sunni Maravillosa reflects my general view:

I'm tempted to dismiss [a conspiracy theorist friend's] claims a nontrivial portion of the time, because often a conspiracy explanation not only goes against Occam's Razor, it simply seems too implausible -- too much needs to be going on behind the scenes for the conspiracy to be likely, and for it to stay secret.

But ... he was in the military years ago, and saw things I'll never see. He's smart and has a memory that seems to never lose facts, and reads things that I wouldn't know exist, if not for him. Maybe they're the products of other conspiracy theorists, maybe not. I don't have the tools and time to adequately evaluate that, and probably never will; it isn't a question I'm interested in doing the grunt work required to answer. So even as I turn away, the thought He may be right remains, tickling my brain.

This got me thinking as to why conspiracies are plausible:

1. Occam's razor (the simplist explanation is the best) may actually be more in line with conspiracy if all the facts are accounted for. Occam's razor also shouldn't apply if the "official explanation" relies on a long train of coincidences, uncharacteristic errors, and accidents.

2. Those who carry out the conspiracy may not know about it:

a) Breaking things down to single individual actions, most of them may not raise suspicion. If US Intelligence smuggled a couple of thousand high-level Nazis into the United States after World War II, would the people doing the gruntwork know that’s what they were doing? It’s not as if the same guy drove the German prisoner to a base, flew him over the Atlantic, and issued him a Social Security number.

b) If you believe in the goodness of the organization you serve, you wouldn’t suspect any evil intent if your supervisor’s supervisor makes an odd request. If you ask for an explanation, you may get a satisfactory one, such as “The President asked us to…” The President has a bigger grasp of the big picture than you do, right?

3. There are reasons to Remain Silent:

a) You are among the conspirators, and either do not have a conscience, or believe you’re doing the right thing.
b) The conspiracy has a satanic or other religious element to it - fear of curses or worse if you break your vow of secrecy
c) Systems of reward, blackmail, and threats convinces you that you (and friends, family etc) have too much to lose if you come forward
d) Lack of hard evidence, such as documentation, makes it unlikely that you would be believed anyway
e) You are too ashamed of your involvement to come forward.
f) You know that something was amiss, but do not know really what it was.
g) You go to a newspaper - a reporter is interested, but the editor yanks the story.
h) You go to the FBI - an agent wants to investigate, but his superiors quash it.

4. If conspiracies operate like networks instead of hierarchies, they would be hard to untangle:

a) If just 1% of the population is willing to gain power and wealth through violent or dishonest means, that’s a recruiting base of 3 million people in the USA alone.
b) Imagine small overlapping circles of business, government, academic, media, and religious elites, all willing to game the system for their own benefit.
c) The pool of honest but ambitious men and women and ideological “useful” idiots is far larger - and it is they who unwittingly carry out the agenda of conspirators.
d) If one crime is caught and prosecuted by honest police, prosecutors, and judges, they may be unaware that the criminals are part of a larger web: they wouldn't know that they had a valuable "piece" of a larger puzzle.

4. Conspirators may be in possession of secret knowledge that can not be discovered through conventional science or uncovered by traditional detective work.

5. Conspirators may be in possession of advanced forms of mind control by which they control operatives who do the really dirty work (such as assassinations).

6. Conspiracy theorists are dismissed because:

a) Those who come to disbelieve what they’ve been taught tend to unconventional in other matters, making them odd personalities, which means that
b) They may be in a position, socially and economically, where they do not have as much to lose if they expose and unravel the system.
c) A lot of other people have a lot invested in society as it now is, and are determined to dismiss “cranks” and disbelieve conspiracy theories - because they can’t afford not to.


  1. Another thing that makes them plausible is that so many folks are so quick to accuse the conspiracy theorist of wearing the tin foil hat. Discussion of the issue is seen as taboo and is shouted down.

  2. Conspiracies are becoming more plausible because of the increasingly concentrated institutional structure of our society.

    Ruling classes have always had the motive; but the centralized corporate state (with its interlocking directorate of corporations, government regulatory agencies, universities, and foundations), run by the same rotating Power Elite, presents the means and opportunity as well. It's a lot harder to conspire when the "commanding heights" of the system are controlled by a few hundred centralized, hierarchical organizations, and the leadership of those organizations have institutionalized ties with each others.

    And depending on the nature of a conspiracy, it only takes a handful of strategically located people to carry out. When the conspiracy involves organizing a complex positive action, it might require too many people to keep secret or operate effectively. But when it's simply a negative goal of not allowing something to happen (e.g., not taking effective action to thwart an an anticipated Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet), all you need is a handful of people in gatekeeper positions to keep stuff in their in-boxes a couple days extra.

    My main area of disagreement with conspiracy theorists of the Right is they get the causation all mixed up. They assume personality-centered conspiracies motivated by some esoteric ideology like Freemasonry or Illuminism, and then see institutional structure as being created as part of a conscious design to further the ends of Great Cthulhu, or whatever. In reality, the institutional structure came about through fairly straightforward political and economic causes, and the Power Elite is a natural outgrowth of that institutional structure.

    BTW, as you say, the the press's utter aversion to digging into anything that runs counter to the official line also helps to keep the lid on things. The press made some feeble ventures into investagative journalism with the Bush National Guard memo and the Gitmo story, for example. When the specific sources they relied on proved to be questionable, the government was effectively innoculated against the issue ever being raised again in the mainstream press--even though there's a ton of much more damning evidence that they've been ignoring all along. Thanks to Dan Rather, all the reams of documents and painstaking analysis at The AWOL Project is just "tinfoil hat" stuff that they'll never touch.

  3. Greg Fisher. Oz.6:30 PM PDT

    Check out this link:

    I especially liked the "non-terrestrial officers" bit!