Conspiracy theory bleg

People in other countries, including the elites, often believe quite bizarre conspiracy theories about the United States and its government, even when those theories contradict each other.  Do you know of good social science research trying to explain the (general) content of what they believe, why they believe it, and how they ever — if indeed they ever — come to a more reasoned understanding?

I thank you all in advance for your suggestions.

Comments

I didn't know you considered Ron Paul another country...

Doesn't everyone?

Many members of the U.S. military do not consider Ron Paul another country.

Guys, FYI, we are leaving the "ridicule you" phase and entering the "fight you" phase, so please plan accordingly.

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I am new to this blog and just read most of the comments running through the stream. I'd like to ask about a much bigger conspiracy than any mentioned thus far. Much, much bigger. This is the Personalized Conspiracy Theory of History. It is a world view, impervious to logic, that is held like a vice by a very large number of humans. It is particularly popular among those who feel that in some way or other they have not succeeded quite as they deserved. If you are a true believer (an unwitting one, of course), then you attribute all the woes of the world—all your woes, that is— to "them". Without them the world would be a huge, delectable dish of peaches and cream. For "they" are a ruthlessly efficient group bent on exploiting the virtuous for their own selfish and invariably nefarious ends. Depending on where you stand they are the communists or the capitalists, or the conservatives or liberals, the Giants or the Dodgers, Christians or Jews or Muslims, Members of the Country Club, or those who are not Members of the Country Club. Or if your case has progressed to the ultimate and hopeless stage: the rest of the world, outside you.

An antidote to this fantastically popular view of how things are might be generated by watching large communities of our neighbors: the animals living in the larger, wild world. For this is simply not how things are on the savanna, where no group rules but each contributes to the whole by constantly interacting with others. It seems to me that even a subcutaneous injection of this truth might just possibly provoke, in all but hopeless cases, at least a suspicion that this in not how things really are in the human world either.

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One may expand the question to our own government, as often American elites - and the public at large - can have strange ideas about how other national governments operate. (ex: the continuing belief amongst large parts of the public that think Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11). Mote, beam, etc.

I only point this out as there may be social science research on the international scene that explores the effect of conspiracy logic in the diplomatic/political realm.

Sadam Huessein did have sonething to do with 9/11. The rise of Al Qaeda corresponded to US bases being put in Saudia Arabia because of the Gulf War. Osama bin Laden was very clear about that motivation.

albert, another one....Sadam once worked for the CIA and was armed and paid to fight Iran while Al Qaeda once worked for the CIA and was armed and paid to fight people as well.

Saddam had long been a Soviet client until the Iran-Iraq war (so most of the American equipment in the conflict remained with the Shah's old army), and subsequently he met directly with Rumsfeld so I wouldn't reduce it to "C.I.A". I think you're mistaken about al Qaeda, it only came into existence in response to the presence of U.S forces in Saudi Arabia. There was a previous mujahideen organization bin Laden was involved in, the M.A.K, but it played a rather minor role in the Afghan war. Zawahiri's book "Knights Under the Prophet's Banner" says that they received their funding from the donations of Muslims rather than C.I.A/I.S.I, but you'd expect him to say that and the Saudi's agreed to match whatever the U.S spent (I'm not sure if Zawahiri denied connection to that funding source). C.I.A officers involved in the operation have said that they supported local mujahideen rather than "Afghan Arabs" who were regarded as either useless or nuisances. Again, you'd expect a denial of such involvement nowadays though it doesn't sound implausible (on the other hand, the I.S.I may have had a lot of autonomy the C.I.A didn't need to be concerned with). The C.I.A connection is often asserted, but so far I haven't seen any evidence put forward that the U.S government had even heard of Osama before he formed al Qaeda.

"There was a previous mujahideen organization bin Laden was involved in"

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/jul/08/july7.development

"Bin Laden was...Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west. "

and how many other sons of US made billionaires were involved in the mujadeen...How many of them had dads on the same board of directors as the ex-Head Of The CIA(George Bush)? oh right the CIA never heard of Osama Bin Laden back then...you are a denier.

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Gabe,

Your link is a Guardian opinion piece by Robin Cook; "The Ginger Gnome" and least effective foreign secretary of the last 20 years. Blair re-shuffled him as soon as practicable.

It's riddled with over-generalisations and silly errors. It doesn't even get the translation of AQ right. But the general espousement of the "blowback" theory displays exactly the bizzare conspiracy mindset Tyler asked us to debate. You can't accept that Osama was a product of a chain of events with many actors, from Saudi domestic corruption and neoptism, the rise of modern Wahhabism, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Pakistan ISI response, Saddam and the first Gulf War, and yes, a (minor) role for US policy in the Cold War.

No, the reality is too complex and not emotionally satisfying for you. Instead you have to make a bogeyman created solely by the US, indeed, the CIA no less, and led by your bete noir, Donald Rumsfeld.

You probably have a scale model the grassy knoll in your bedroom, and have illustrated the point of this thread perfectly.

"You probably have a scale model the grassy knoll in your bedroom, and have illustrated the point of this thread perfectly."

Ad hominems already?

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It is complex and the us has supported the most house of saud, which has been important to the spread of wahabism...as you admit. I'm honestly not even sure what your having a problem with. You think the CIA is just for protecting you then go on and continue your pleasant dreams.

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Cass Sunstein has a great paper on the topic.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1084585

I applaud your substantive answer.

I have nothing substantive, but isn't Al Qaeda a conspiracy?

Well 9/11 was definitively a conspiracy.

Conspiracy: an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot

But I wouldn't consider Al Qaeda a conspiratorial group in general.

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Many people, like Tyler, exhibit an anti-conspiracy theory bias. I suspect that its a form of status signaling.

Yes, my vague impression is that conspiracy theorizing was somewhat high status in the late 1960s into the 1980s, with a peak in the Watergate era, but has fallen hugely in status. Many prestigious 1970s movies, like "Chinatown" and "All The President's Men," were very conspiracy theory-minded.

The big inflection point was Oliver Stone's "JFK" in 1991, which earned 8 Oscar nominations. The serious media got very worked up over the entertainment media's credulity and made a big to-do over how conspiracy theorizing was for losers.

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This is actually for Steve Sailer below, but we're at the limit of threading there.

What about X-Files? It started in '93 and had at least 5 good seasons and two spin-offs (Lone Gunman and Millennium). You could even argue that it made David Duchovny the star he is today.

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More from Sunstein’s 2008 paper “Conspiracy Theories:”

“Here we suggest two concrete ideas for government officials attempting to fashion a response to such theories. First, responding to more rather than fewer conspiracy theories has a kind of synergy benefit: it reduces the legitimating effect of responding to any one of them, because it dilutes the contrast with unrebutted theories. Second, we suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.”

Great idea, Cass! The government should hire agents provocateurs! That tactic has a long history of working out well ...

Sunstein states:

“Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.”

A conspiring government, such as the Obama Administration, that includes, say, Cass Sunstein in a key role would be the very definition of “well-motivated,” so we don’t have to worry about that!

Hey, that's genius!

Let's have the government conspire....

Oh wait....

(why can't these people EVER get it?)

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Here's the abstract of Sunstein's paper:

"Abstract:
Many millions of people hold conspiracy theories; they believe that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event. A recent example is the belief, widespread in some parts of the world, that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out not by Al Qaeda, but by Israel or the United States. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined. Such theories typically spread as a result of identifiable cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and reputational influences. A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a crippled epistemology, in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. Various policy dilemmas, such as the question whether it is better for government to rebut conspiracy theories or to ignore them, are explored in this light."

What could be more sanity-inducing than for the government to fight theories about clandestine conspiracies by organizing clandestine conspiracies?

Marvelously said Steve!

Also, while it is true that many individuals usually have contradictory conspiracy theories, I would not use that as an argument for discredit them.

Governments are the first actors on having dysfunctional polices too. The example of Al-Quaida is well known; US using them as freedom-fighters first and as an evil later. But also even simultaneous policies, when France sank the Rainbow Warrior, I am sure some other department was giving aid to Greenpeace as an honorable NGO. Conspiracy theories whether fabrication or not, can be equally contradictory too.

As I always say, if you have nothing to hide, you lead a very boring life, and noone should be interested in spying on you.

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Don't forget "tax cuts always pay for themselves."

I've NEVER heard anyone say that tax cuts ALWAYS pay for themselves.

Who do you assert says this?

He has a conspiracy theory that this is what republicans are peddling.

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The need for Emanuel Goldstein's exceeds the need for logical consistency.

Also, never underestimate the power of hate to give meaning and purpose to human lives ...

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The way I see it, it's less about maintaining a coherent narrative, and more about maintaining a consistent hierarchy of relationships. In other words, it's okay to simultaneously believe that, say, rich people have a cure for cancer but are keeping it to themselves, and rich people will sell out everyone and everything (a position I met one person having), because what is actually believed is that rich people are not to be trusted.

It's much like the use of a MacGuffin in storytelling. The details of the MacGuffin are immaterial, but they allow an easy establishment of protagonists, antagonists, and plot.

The upshot of this, though, is quite disconcerting: a reasoned understanding is, in most cases, unnecessary. It's okay to believe conflicting individual statements, because the conclusion about where one lies in the network of hierarchies of relationships is all that really matters. In much the same way that assuming the earth is flat and there are no relativistic or quantum effects is sufficient for us to make correct day-to-day judgements whenever we drive to work, making erroneous assumptions about hidden actions can still lead people to useful conclusions about how to interact with said force.

In fact, it may very well be that the contradictions exist because they are not arrived at via the same logical chain. Taking my example above, one might observe, "The rich have more than me, but do not appear to do anything different than I do." One can reasonably conclude, "The rich perform some hidden action to account for the observed difference." Add in, "The rich have more than anyone I know," and, "Among my peers, actions are hidden only if they are evil," and you might (still reasonably) conclude, "The rich engage in evil acts." From there, it's easy to make further statements like, "The rich are hoarding the cure for cancer," and "The rich will sell everything for a profit," without jeopardizing your belief system. The causality travels from the belief about the institution to the hidden actions of the institution, not vice versa.

+1. You win the discussion!

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Yup, welcome to 99% of political debate! Nailed it.

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Really nailed it. So generic and so true

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One of my favorites (and not just foreigners espoused this one) was that George W Bush was an idiot, but he also masterminded 9/11 and managed to keep that under wraps. Also it was the Jews.

Obvious straw man. Saying that 911 was an inside job is not equivalent to saying GW was the mastermind. The scientific evidence from ae911truth shows the buildings were destroyed by controlled demolition. You don't have to know who planned it to know it was an inside job.

Scientific evidence shows that you're a moron.

Building seven fell at free fall acceleration for 2 1/4 seconds, which is inconsistent with a gravitational crush down collapse with resistance from the underlying structure. There was evidence of nano-thermite found in the dust from the world trade center, both before and after the explosive reaction. The squibs 20-60 stories below the collapse front were very vocalized ejections out of the building at high speeds that are inconsistent with a crush down theory because of their height relative to the collapse front. The videos show molten metal streaming out of the building before the collapse.

I prefer logic to ad hominem. You don't know anything about me. Even Jonathon Kay, who is definitely not a truther, says that the average 911 truth activist is extremely intelligent.

Yeah but how intelligent is Jonathon Kay? As in, maybe he has no idea what he's talking about? Appeal to authority is as devoid of logic as ad hominem.

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I hear Jonathon Kay masterminded 9/11. Extremely intelligent voices told me this.

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I have never understood what would be the point of a conspiracy bringing the towers when they were already hit by the airplanes and uncontrollably ablaze -- which was the chief atrocity of that day, in which many hundreds of innocent people were killed. I mean, you do agree that the planes hit the buildings? That thousands of people who saw them do so are not lying? The collapse of the towers was just frosting on the cake after that.

And by the way sound travels through steel much faster than through the air. The shock wave of the collapse propagated far more rapidly through the structures than the debries fall did. Thats why they began disintegrating well in advance of the falling debries cloud. Its also why seismographs registered the collapse before the debries hit the ground.

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Scientific evidence suggests you've never seen a building rigged for controlled demolition. If you did, you'd never believe any of the tens of thousands of people in the buildings would miss seeing the explosives, including the blind guy.

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Andrew Gelman disagrees with the interpretation of that conspiracy theory paper.

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What's irrational about this at all?

The research seems entirely consistent with some people just having a more diffuse prior - some people believe the most likely event was almost certain, while others assign much higher probability to a wide range of possible events.

I'm not aware of how people express multinomial probabilities in a survey where each possibility is ranked on an ordinal scale well enough to know whether thsi is an explanation, but it seems to me to be absurd that effort wasn't taken to try to rule out the simple, rational, explanation that some people just don't like to be as certain about things.

Yes, I was thinking the same thing. Belief is not necessarily yes or no.

We find that someone has eaten the cake. You think Alice ate the cake. I, however, know that Alice doesn't like cake, and so I think it could be Bill or Catherine who ate the cake.

Therefore, someone who thinks there is a higher possibility of Bill eating the cake, also thinks there is a higher possibility of Catherine eating the cake, even though these two theories contradict each other.

But if someone comes in with a poorly worded survey, it may look like I have a contradictory belief.

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Obama is an incompetent, affirmative-action, teleprompter-dependent president. Who is the most radical, dangerous president ever and will radically transform and destroy the country.

Walt Whitman had a paper about this I believe -
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes"

> Obama is an incompetent, affirmative-action, teleprompter-dependent president. Who is the most radical, dangerous president ever and will radically transform and destroy the country.

Without engaging in a debate on the merits, that doesn't seem incompatible to me.

My dog is an incompetent driver who ended up in the driver's seat only because I stepped out to get a beverage. She might also be the most radical, dangerous driver ever behind the wheel of my truck, and might radically transform and destroy my garage.

Neither competence nor malice are required for destruction.

If the danger is caused by agent's incompetence, you are correct that the two sets of attributes are not incompatible. However, if the danger is caused by the agent's pursuit of a "radical political agenda," then the two are incompatible. Successfully pursuing such an agenda requires a high degree of instrumental rationality. I think you may be confused because "radical" here refers to the content of the agents belief's, not something analogous to "radically destroy my garage."

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I wonder if any of the research discusses the impact of the American-dominated images of international cinema and syndicated television.

Re-runs of "Dallas" and "Baywatch" and screenings of "Fast and Furious" and "Mission Impossible" must make an impression.

Something like this? http://www.tobymiller.org/images/Cultural%20Studies/Film/Anti-Americanism%20and%20Popular%20Culture.pdf

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To be fair, many of the US conspiracy theorists I know are Americans. The idea that the US government is up to no good has a pretty long history in your own country and people like to make documentaries about it and show them online.

Other ideas:

1) JFK assassination sowed the seeds.
2) The perception that vested interests in the US have disproportionate power.
3) Much of Hollywood's output.

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Some conspiracy theories are true and some are false. Patriotic flag waving Americans are really unlikely to believe in conspiracy theories about the US government doing bad things and everyone else is much more likely to believe in those theories. This includes people in foreign countries and people that are skeptical of the US government that live inside the US. They have a prior that the US government can do bad things, so they don't have to completely change their worldview to believe in a conspiracy theory. Note, they would be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories regardless of whether those theories were right or wrong.

Which ones are true?

The government lied about The Gulf of Tonkin for a couple decades. Anyone who spoke up was smeared as a conspiracy theorist. The mainstream media helped the government maintain the lie.

Operation Northwoods was approved by people in positions with a lot of authority in the US government and those people kept working for the government for many years...they weren't fired(accept for Allen Dulles...who came back into service a few months later when JFK was killed, to investigate the murder of the guy who fired him). Lemnitzer worked with Wolfowitz under Ford...so this shows that the type of thinking that would allow the government to engage in false flags was enouraged.

Tuskeegee syphillis experiments, MK Ultra( read about that!) , Operation Ajax, Operation Gladio, USS Liberty.

Max Cleland, a US senator with a purple heart who was on the 9/11 comission, said the 9/11 comission was comitting a fraud against the American people.

These are reasons why conspiracy theories exist.

There's a lot more reasons than that, but point taken.

Yeah, "conspiracy theory" is too broad, because there really are conspiracies to do bad things in the world, and some of them really are done by rich and powerful and prominent people. Along with the examples above, look at the post-9/11 scandals. If someone told you in 2003 that NSA had turned Echelon against the American people, and the CIA was running a network of secret prisons where terrorism suspects were being disappeared into and tortured, he was a crazy conspiracy theorist. Someone who says that stuff happened today is just telling you he reads the news now and then. Or many years ago, what if someone had told you that the Catholic Church was running a massive, international conspiracy (with links all the way to the top) to shuffle pedophile priests from parish to parish, shielding them from any consequences and hushing up any resulting scandals? Obvious anti-Catholic nut, right?

The defining feature of a crazy conspiracy theory seems to me to be a kind of evidence-proof-ness; someone in the full grips of one finds it possible to explain every new contradictory piece of evidence in terms of their conspiracy theory. This plays well with a kind of movie-plot view of unfamiliar parts of the world, where people fantasize about 1000-person conspiracies from which no information leaks and in which every member is ultra competent and utterly devoted to the cause of the conspiracy.

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Please provide solid evidence that Max Cleland said sny such thing, and in the full context.

The slaughter of the poor nut cases at Waco, and the cover up, were surely legit examples of a conspiracy theory.

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A few moments of google-foo reveals this (start at around 3:10), where Cleland famously calls the commission+administration's suppression of documents "a scam" on Wolf Blitzer's show. Hope this helps.

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Applying some of the key insights from the economics of religion might help. Why would a rational person believe something insane?

1. Group membership through working on conspiracy websites, magazines, and "fan clubs" that form tight bonds between people.
2. Loudly believing a conspiracy theory makes it costly to enter and leave that group.
3. Loudly acting out on this belief through protests and running websites increases barriers to leaving the group.
4. Good feeling from thinking that you know the "truth" and nobody else does. Similar to religion.
5. A small number of people you can share your conspiracy with.
6. Confirmation bias,

What are the other benefits?

But why about the USG in particular? Just because it's there and it's a big target?

Sure. Conspiracy theorists used to obsesses about the Masons and Vatican more. And religions all seem to obsess about death and eternal punishment/reward. Pretty big targets. I'm sure part of it is also confirmation bias. "I hate group X, so I'm likely to believe anything bad about them, discount the good, and even make things up."

In Catholic and the more advanced Muslim autocracies, Masonic temples really were central to anti-government conspiracies. We don't believe that in the U.S. because, here, the Masons won. (If you't don't believe _that_, check out the back of a dollar bill.)

The Anti-Masonic party had a lot of political success after William Morgan was murdered by Masons.

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Conversely, Jesuits really did conspire in the interests of the Vatican, which is why several Catholic kings banned them from their countries in the late 18th century.

Those all support my idea. Thanks.

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The P2 Masonic Lodge in Rome was revealed in 1980 to have set up a shadow government to run Italy after a right wing coup.

In general, post-WWII Italian politics have been a vast fever swamp of conspiracy:

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2009/06/il-divo.html

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Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Jesuit order in 1773. It was not restored until 1814.

This fact had little, if any, effect on anti-Jesuit conspiracy theorists, who assumed the supposed dissolution was all part of a devious Vatican plot.

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There are a few sociology grad students at the Erasmus University (under Dick Houtman) that are working on conspiracy theories and political discourse.

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I've seen architects state that the collapse of the twin towers couldn’t have happened the way it did without controlled demolition. I still haven’t seen anyone declare anything proving them wrong.

The problem with conspiracy theorists is that you may agree with them on some things where you ma have your doubts but there are other things (sometimes where you know more than them) that make no sense at all and make them sound like loonies. Grouping conspiracy theories together makes them lose credibility.

So any engineers, demolition experts, or metallurgists who don't subscribe to your conspiracy theory are clearly in on the conspiracy right?

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> I’ve seen architects state that the collapse of the twin towers couldn’t have happened the way it did without controlled demolition. I still haven’t seen anyone declare anything proving them wrong.

What is "controlled demolition" ?

How about weakening all the vertical girders with jet-fuel fired flames, till the buckle, thus dropping a tens of millions of pounds heavy pile driver on the bottom 2/3 of the towers?

Does THAT count as "controlled demolition"?

Or do the girders have to be destroyed by some chemical that's NOT jet fuel?

Gah.

Well remember, jet fuel wasn't the only thing on those planes. They would've also carried tanks full of the mind control agents airliners use to make chemtrails. Who knows what temperature that stuff burns at...

http://xkcd.com/966/

There's always a +1 for a well reasoned XKCD.

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An older friend of mine who did materials science at MIT was telling me how he believed the towers could have survived if they had been laced with asbestos like older buildings. That there hasn't actually been as good a replacement with the same heat and fire resistant properties. Very interesting I think.

If you were a terrorist, or wanted to set terrorist up, why not base the 'controlled demolition' in the basement or lower floors rather than crash a plane into the building? It should certainly have been possible to plant bombs down there since it had already happened in '93. Controlled demolitions also usually require taking out all the concreate other materials to gain access to the beams that support the building. That never happened. No secondary explosions at the base of the building either.

Conspiracy theories always indicate to me that people think the world is more organized than it actually is. Hey lets gather and become the greatest demolition experts in modern history then hire a bunch of nuts with box cutters to hijack planes and cover up our master stroke. Sounds like a bad two part episode of 80's GI Joe.

Exactly. Occam's razor was 'designed' for exactly these kinds of theories.

Not only are the mechanisms really complex, then you have to posit all those folks involved managing to keep it all secret.

Don't forget the part where the very busy publicly accessible towers were destroyed by hidden explosives but the highly secure government building known as the Pentagon had to be hit by a missile from the outside.

Truthers think they are basing their beliefs on "evidence" but they are extraordinarily willing to believe random people on the Internet who claim to have calculated beyond a shadow of a doubt what was or was not possible in a unique event with hundreds of unique inputs, and they are extraordinarily skeptical of any 'official' person who claims otherwise.

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Note that removal of asbestos from the construction of the space shuttle solid fuel booster rockets may have been critical in reducing resistance to burn through in the Challenger disaster.

Asbestos is really useful stuff.

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Sounds like a bad two part episode of 80′s GI Joe.

But now we know it was an inside job, and knowing is half the battle.

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I still haven’t seen anyone declare anything proving them wrong.
Try this.
http://www.implosionworld.com/Article-WTC%20STUDY%208-06%20w%20clarif%20as%20of%209-8-06%20.pdf

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You sure showed me.

Once a person buys into a conspiracy theory there's almost nothing you can say to them, or show to them, to get them to give it up.

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"I’ve seen architects state that the collapse of the twin towers couldn’t have happened the way it did without controlled demolition. I still haven’t seen anyone declare anything proving them wrong. "

How hard have you looked? Popular Mechanics devoted most of two different issues to debunking the more popular 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Link: http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/military/news/1227842

And they published a book with their findings:
http://www.amazon.com/Debunking-11-Myths-Conspiracy-Theories/dp/1588165477/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1330995375&sr=8-2

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More than that, if you were trying to hide some sketchy parts of the official story on some big event, the best way to do that would be to encourage the growth of crazy conspiracy theories. At some point, it would become impossible for anyone to question any part of the official story without taking great pains to distance themselves from the wackos. I mean, I'm definitely susceptible to this--anyone who hasn't already convinced me of their intelligence and wisdom and bullshit-detection capabilities who starts talking about some new wrinkle of why the official story of 9/11 is wrong raises all my "I don't have time to talk to crazies" defenses right away. This sucks, and yet, life's too short to talk to the vast number of crazies who really do exist and really will suck away as much time as you give them, whether about the evil plots of the Islamofacists or the dark scheming of the Jews or whatever.

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A minority complex seems to play a role in the anti-US, anti-Jewish, anti-capitalist conspiracy theories. (And these, I think, covers a large part of all conspiracy theories.)

I think you'll find most anti-capitalist theories are not really conspiracy theories in the true sense of the word, i.e. there are no puppet masters.

"corporations" and dick cheney are common targets.

And the Koch brothers!

Yawn. And George Soros.

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Soros- good one. You could generalize that to all hedge fund managers.

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Plus he's Jewish.

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"None Dare Call It a Conspiracy" published in the 1971 is a pretty important book if you want to analyze many of the current theories.
http://www.captaincanadacrusades.ca/articles/none-dare-call-it-conspiracy%5B1%5D.pdf

I avoided it for years because I had heard it was "anti-semitic". I was surprised when I finally read it to see that Allen was EXPLICITY and adamantly not biggoted against any religion or race. In fact he said in the book in the 1970's that the smears of "anti-semitism" had already been falsely used for decades in regards to any attempts to criticize the Federal Reserve, Council on Foreign Relations or the military industrial complex.

Being wary of the corrosion of individual rights or uneeded wars is very American thus the slurs of anti-american or unpatriotic ring false as well.

Being in favor of limited government and low taxes is not anti-capitalist in the least...therefore one of the biggest threads of conspiracy theories in this country is neither anti-jew, anti-us nor anti-capitalist....you may think "None Dare " is a horrible book...would love to hear it discussed but this strawman stuff of puffing up your chest and calling everyone else a biggot and being proud of yourself for being yes-men to Cass Sunstein, Tyler Cowen and the NYT is silly.

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It seems to me that the penchant towards conspiracy theories betrays a deep believe in some kind of the Almighty.
One just can't grasp that anything that happens does it without some kind of conscious decision.
There always are some "they" who personalize any kind of event, occurrence or whatever.

And the US is one of the candidates to be the Almighty, its power matches the requirements of the suspicious.

Also, believing in/propagating/espousing conspiracy theories make you feel smart. You get it, the dumb masses don't see behind the curtain the way you do, etc.

In spite of the history of the US government lying in order to start wars....it seems that many still want to believe the government and media do not lie about such serious matters. It seems to really help some people maintain this cognitive dissonance if they can dehumanize "conspiracy theorist" as being anti-semitic or "joo-haters" in spite of much evidence to the contrary. They hate to believe that those who are skeptical of fishy casus belli are actually just not big proponents of violence as a solution to human problems.

Similar to the way a battered wife will stick up for her abusive husband, a person who is nto skeptical of government stories promoting wars and centralization of power will always make justifications for the government lying about things.

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I can't claim credit for this explanation, but another possibility is that it's a coping mechanism.

Is it better to believe that George W. Bush, with the help of nefarious operators within Diebold, stole the election in 2004, or that your political beliefs aren't nearly
as popular (or as important) as you think?

))) right

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Some people call this "crank magnetism."

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In Russia conspiracy theories (in 00s) was mostly fueled by state propaganda, before that they were manufactured by different small parties. So, the mechanism looks like following - an average person has nothing against conspiracy (if one is lazy to check on internet, or 'rationally ignorant' because he likes idea due to basic instincts ( see Myth of rational voter - there few researches are cited )), and powerful elites exploit them for their benefit.

Such that newly elected pres Putin maintains, that US wants ( by military force ) to 'steal' valuable natural resources ( for this reason quite substantial increase in military spending is required and endorsed ), that there will be in future great migration of people ( though papers from links at MR shows - the peak of migration was in 80s and slowly decreases due to more opportunities at home across the world), so Russia needs to make immigration restrictions to face such a huge wave of new migrants (in fact to meet European demands for visa free travel ) , these moronic claims are many times repeated on TV, by controlled press ( and most of regular press is actually under some control from Kremlin ) and become a way of thinking of large population.
So Putin is somewhat rational when devising his conspiracies, but there are no signs of his rationality for citizens, so they get these claims as something close to reality.

As to why Putin thinks that fear of conspiracy threats is a good way to achieve his ends and why it actually works is another story. I think, that there are two main issues here ( in respect to Russia ) first - worldvaluessurvey.org research shows that self expression values in Russia are anomalously low ( and though they slowly change, still they are no near European level ) ( it could be explained by USSR legacy and bad conditions in 90s ( when worldvaluessurvey detected sharp drop in expression values in former USSR countries even compared with 80s ) second - deeply conservative personality of mr Putin, who feels, that fear is a good driver for people.

so conspiracy is a political tool and also there are means, that this tool can actually work.

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I've found Canadians to be very receptive to American conspiracy theories. 9/11 theories are given more credence among the Canadians I've talked to than the Americans I have talked to about it. If I had to guess it has to do with other countries having an inferiority complex towards the United States. It also may be that other countries the United States is an ambigious outside force on their lives so it might be easier to believe the United States is more of a force in every aspect of life than it actually is.

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"People in other countries..."

Hilarious. Glad to know we don't have any of that garbage here. What's that--Sherrif Joe Arpaio is calling a press conference?

(Maybe his Cold Case Posse finally found the WMD!)

Do you actually imagine that conspiracy theories about the United States are more prevalent in the rest of the world than they are here? Are are you just flattering youself with some sloppy thinking and loose definitions?

For my part, the three most controversial things I believe are:
1. Oswald killed Kennedy, and he was the only shooter.
2. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
3. Armstrong walked on the Moon.

Tell me again about the conspiracy theorists in other parts of the world.

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During World War I, many Russians somehow got the idea that the royal family was secretly in league with the Germans, which is probably in contention for both the most influential and also the most implausible conspiracy theory in history.

However, the overall drift of this thinking, that the Tsar's management of the war effort was a disaster and had to be removed if there was going to be any chance of repairing the damage, was correct. The idea seems to have been that the Tsar and Tsarina were screwing up the war so bad that they must have wanted the Germans to win! Every conspiracy theory arises for a reason.

Not that crazy - if I recall correctly, the Tsar and the Kaiser were second cousins. Google the "Willy-Nicky letters."

I stated the belief wasn't crazy, but it wasn't true. Nikolai squashed several German peace initiatives during the war (the Tsar refused to make a separate peace and abandon the other Allies; the Bolsheviks did exactly this within months of taking power). He also took personal charge of the war effort, in contrast for example to his cousin who was somewhat detached throughout the war. He just screwed things up really badly.

You said "implausible". It wasn't true, but it was hardly implausible to the man in the street given that the Russian family was almost entirely of German ancestry. For that matter the British royal house in 1914 was mostly of German ancestry as well, but the English didn't, as far as I know, ever accuse George V of being a German agent.

Actually George V had to change his name for that exact reason. Previously he was George Saxe-Goburg. The "House of Windsor" is, I think, just completely made-up. They picked as English-sounding name as they could think of.

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There were weirder secrets that that the Russian public didn't know about. The reason the Czarina got the Czar to give Rasputin so much influence in government (which was bad for the war effort) was because he seemed on several occasions to have been able to induce some kind of placebo-like stoppage of the Crown Prince's top-secret hemophilic bleeding. Compared to the reality, the assumption that the German-born Czarina was on Germany's side was Occam's Razor in action.

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Not at all to the initial question, but I liked this piece on Julian Assange's notion of 'conspiracy' by philosopher Peter Ludlow.

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/12/peter-ludlow-on-the-political-philosophy-of-julian-assange.html

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People who tell themselves that their lives stink because they are being held down by an oppressor with superpowers will believe virtually anything about the superpowers of their oppressors. That way their lives are not their fault. Which is extremely comforting.

That's why The Jews Are Behind 9/11, Bush Lied Us Into War, and The CIA Invented AIDS, among many other things.

It is certainly not limited to Europeans with inferiority complexes.

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Hi Tyler--if you're doing a piece on conspiracy theories, there is a good entry in the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought under "conspiracy theory" that says:

[quote] *Conspiracy Theory*: The paranoid belief that there exists a gigantic and sinister conspiracy dedicated to, or responsible for, the subversion and ultimate destruction of a way of life. The historian Richard Hofstader has noted that what distinguishes the paranoid type of conspiracy is that its proponents see a vast plot as the [i]motive force[/i] in historical events. For the paranoid, history itself becomes a conspiracy, initiated by evil forces of transcendent power. Those inclined to accept conspiracies often view them in apocalyptic terms, trafficking, in Hofstader's phrase, 'in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values'. Plots can flow into other paranoid plots, generating ever-larger invisible machinations--a paranoid circle that can readily degenerate into terrorism against real and perceived enemies. A susceptibility to conspiracy theories is often a symptom of political weakness, rooted in the feeling that one is powerless to influence one's own life. [end quote]

Hope that helps!

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Other ridiculous conspiracy theories include the widespread notion that Lincoln's assassination was the result of a Confederate conspiracy, that WWI began due to a Serbian military intelligence conspiracy to murder the Archduke, and that the invasion of Iraq was the result of a conspiracy of various politicians, intellectuals, and conmen.

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The book China Safari has considerable discussion about African conspiracy theories as they relate to China. It's nothing resembling academic literature, but it provides good context.

In China there is a tendency to believe any claim about "miracle drugs" which I think is basically the same function as a political conspiracy theory. A sort of intuitive conception of problem solving.

The weirdest conspiracy theory I ran across, was an educated Columbian girl arguing that Monsanto caused the 2009 food crisis as a way to convince governments to allow GMOs.

A few Latin Americanists I've discussed this with have pointed out that in more than a few cases the conspiracy theories have ended up being true - i.e. Pinochet. In general the CIA has tried to build a mystique around itself for cloak and dagger activity, that is perhaps completely false, but nevertheless is widely believed.

The CIA is basically all about protecting the best American recipes for apple pie. I have met a crazed ex-Iranian who refused to believe this and went as far as insisting America put homicidal maniacs in charge of countries and gave them chemical weapons to attack Iran.

There is nothing you can do to convince these people of the awesomeness of our best apple pie recipes...they always go back to "I was there, so and so attacked us with chemical weapons and I am not even religous, I like free trade capitalism and most american culture but you have a corrupt governemnt!"

The inane ravings of these lunatics is sickening.

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Dweck`s (Dr. Carol Dweck - "Mindset") discusses people with a "fixed ability" mindset needing to blame others for their failings.
Kahneman ( Dr. Daniel Kahneman - Thinking, Fast and Slow) discusses the instant answers that his System 1 provides. Unless the conscious mind (System 2) is involved these answers fit the associative mind's system. The answers "feel" correct and the person has a high degree of confidence in them.
Trivers (Dr. Robert Trivers' The Folly of Fools) discusses people's use of self-deception to effectively lie to achieve an advantage. In most of these cases, the advantage is more psychological than financial, but politicians and other leaders can use their self-deception to gain political advantage.
In all of these cases, the person involved has to consciously choose to rationally consider the ideas (System 2) for logical contradiction to be detected.

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conspiracy theories serve as a explanation, why others are more rich / powerful,
without admitting that they are themselves less intelligent / able.
So the USA and your government is the primary focus.
But Germany is catching up, unfortunately. We have some German communist,
Dr. "Class War" Flassbeck, who is selling the theory, that the difficulties of many EU countries are the product of some German union conspiracy.
Nothing is to weird, to not find some followers.

I follow you for the first sentence anyways.

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The first few minutes of this BBC podcast discusses conspiracy theory with a few sociologist. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01b1g96

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Another wacky conspiracy theory that, somehow, is widely believed by elites in crazy places like London, Toronto, Canberra, and Tokyo is that American politics and foreign policy tends to be disproportionately influenced by Jews who have strong ties to Israel, such as Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, and Doug Feith. Does anybody have an explanation for how this kind of insanity gets spread?

I once hear an insane conspiracy theory that super rich and powerful people meet once a year at a convention and all the big media groups agreed to not even mention it for 20 years. He said it was the "Bunnyburger group"...we all know the media would never agree to not mention huge news stories like that for 20 years.

Then there's this even nuttier conspiracy theory that rich and powerful people got bored with meeting just in secret so they also started a Swiss winter meeting called Dadis or something like that where they meet in a blaze of publicity, and invite journalists not just to report on them but also pay them to lecture them. Some nutjobs think that the payments and access cause the press to report more favorably upon the rich and powerful. I guess there's no accounting for what lunatics will believe.

Can any conspiracy be said to occur 'in a blaze of publicity'?

Of course, the best kind are. Cover your actual deeds with a public explanation. Make the lie even bigger, a public spectacle. And buy off the press to be your mouthpiece, who are looking for scoops on "what's next" from the movers and shakers.

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That's just what They want you to think....

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Good catch. How about the one where some white people are so scared of 'the other' that they spend tremendous time and energy producing anti-immigration rhetoric disproportionately influenced by their own racism?

And then there's the insane theory that big moneyed interests, like large growers and other employers of poorly paiud workers, sabotaged the comprehensive immigration reform of 1986 that was supposed to be both an amnesty and internal enforcement at jobsites against new illegal employment by calling up their pet Congressmen and threatening to cut off campaign contributions unless the INS inspectors were withdrawn. Obviously, this couldn't possibly have happened. The very idea must be the product of some diseased brain.

"The very idea must be the product of some diseased brain."

Yes. Given the well funded anti-immigration effort that spawned FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA and how their resources dwarf the pro-immigrant "think-tank" and public interest lobbying groups. It's also funny to read this during the Obama administration, which is setting deportation records and has seen cross-border apprehensions fall to their lowest level since the early 1970s due to a lack of people crossing the border and increased enforcement.

But in the end economics will prevail and labor where flow to where it is most highly valued despite the petty efforts and temporary setbacks created by restrictionists like President Obama.

Right, the sinister might of Michigan opthamologist John Tanton has, all by itself, triumphed over powerless individuals and institutions like President Bush, President Obama, John McCain, Ted Kennedy, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chamber of Commerce, the Catholic Church, and the Democratic Party.

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I like how the same conspiracy theorist that say that freedom hating muslims are hiding under our beds waiting to commit terrorism and that we need to engage in starvation creating trade blockades and sanctions or possibly nuclear attacks on poor countries around the world are also the same people who are always quick to call people "anti-immigrant" or "xenophobic".

The essence of mainstream sanity is to believe that these three indisputable propositions should embody the Grand Strategy of the U.S.:

Invite the World
Invade the World
In hock to the World

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Name one. Hint: I'm not one.

Also, I think the conspiracy theorists you are positing here are pretty rare. In my experience the Muslim-fearing, warmongering types are also pretty anti-immigration.

You aren't familiar with many leading neoconservative publicists, are you? Muslim-fearing, warmongering, _and_ pro-immigration is a common combination of views in D.C. thinktanks. Max Boot, for example, likes to argue that we need more immigration to have more cannon fodder.

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I admit I'm not that conversant with the neocon output. Can't say I'm too impressed with what I do know.

I was alluding to mainstream Republicans really, like all the current candidates for President. They are all fighting with each other over who is more anti-immigration, as well as who is more eager to bomb Iran.

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David Brooks is tolerated here. Tyler loves to post his articles.

Also, the muslim-fearing warmongering types here are more like the NPR/NYT warmongerer...they supported invading Iraq when it mattered.

They never criticized the blockades/bombing sanctions when Clinton/Albright and Bush did them pre-9/11...200,00 dead kids was "worth it". Then after it became apparent that WMD was a lie they said we were really there to spread freedom and when that was shown to be a lie they said oil...and when oil production in Iraq was lower than under Sadam and it was pointed out that OPEC was continually berating Sadam for producing too much....then just dazed confusion and reccomendations for cool thai restraunts.

I am different than Sailer i think...I am open border....but I still see then ridiculousness of those who pretend we need NDAA and a couple Patriot acts and Departement of Homeland Security to protect us from Al Qaeda when at the same time everyone knows anyone in the world can walk across the border anytime they damn well please....I just don't understand how people believe in both the Al Qaeda conspiracies and that our current Police state apparatus is needed to protect us from them AND that our current immigration set up is good.

and that combo belief seem to be integral to all the David Brooks supporters here.

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George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and John McCain were all true believers in Invite the World / Invade the World.

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Then the Reps have changed some, because Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, etc are all Invade The World/DISinvite The World

Paul at least is Retreat From The World so he's different that way.

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Conspiracy theories usually don't contain weasel phrases like "disproportionately influenced by".

maguro, please activate your sarcasm detector.

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There's another psychotic conspiracy theory going around: that powerful people in Tel Aviv, Washington, and New York are conspiring to attack Iran!

Can you imagine how deranged you'd have to be to believe that? Everybody who has even had that thought flit through his head once should be straitjacketed and shot up with Risperdal, for his own good.

Las Vegas too (Adelson).

Again, these conspiracies you are uncovering are too public. Try something more hidden.

These conspiracies couldn't be true because Occalms razor tells us that someone would have come forward and released this info in public if it was really true.

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Another dangerous wacko was General Smedley Butler, Medal of Honor winner, who claimed that he had invaded various Latin American banana republics because that's what American business interests had wanted. What kind of mental imbalance accounts for these ravings?

Well Cass Sunstein had a good idea on how to fix those Smelly Butler conspiracies...possiblly banning books or maybe just nudging book sales downward with a conspiracy tax...also was a smart idea of Cass Sunsteins to pay people to write biggoted things on message boards to smear Smelly Butler conspiracies by association.

Right. From Cass Sunstein's "Conspiracy Theories:"

"What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5)."

Sunstein then offers a truly brilliant plan for how the government should combat conspiracy theories: by mounting secret conspiracies against conspiracy theorists!

Is that for real? Sunstein seems like a smart guy but boy is that stupid.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1084585##

Conspiracy Theories

Cass R. Sunstein
Harvard Law School

Adrian Vermeule
Harvard Law School

January 15, 2008

Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-03
U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 199
U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 387

Abstract:
Many millions of people hold conspiracy theories; they believe that powerful people have worked together in order to withhold the truth about some important practice or some terrible event. A recent example is the belief, widespread in some parts of the world, that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out not by Al Qaeda, but by Israel or the United States. Those who subscribe to conspiracy theories may create serious risks, including risks of violence, and the existence of such theories raises significant challenges for policy and law. The first challenge is to understand the mechanisms by which conspiracy theories prosper; the second challenge is to understand how such theories might be undermined. Such theories typically spread as a result of identifiable cognitive blunders, operating in conjunction with informational and reputational influences. A distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is their self-sealing quality. Conspiracy theorists are not likely to be persuaded by an attempt to dispel their theories; they may even characterize that very attempt as further proof of the conspiracy. Because those who hold conspiracy theories typically suffer from a crippled epistemology, in accordance with which it is rational to hold such theories, the best response consists in cognitive infiltration of extremist groups. Various policy dilemmas, such as the question whether it is better for government to rebut conspiracy theories or to ignore them, are explored in this light.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 30

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Yes, Sunstein is for real.

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Tyler went out of his way to praise Cass Sunstein and Obama's smart hire when it was announced. Never heard any response from the beltway libertarians explaining why we needed to spend more tax money on "cognitive infiltration" to combat dangerous conspiracy theories about the government lying in order to decrease the rights of individuals.

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@Gabe:
Wearas the Glenn Beck crowd immediately saw Cass as a danger.

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Hey "311"...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLuZB6vJUzg
Cleland interview...a little partisian for my taste...but clearly he is asking some valid questions.

...also look up all the other people on the comission who have come out since saying the CIA lied to them extensively, also ask yourself why Kissinger had to resign as 9/11 comission head after being asked to release his possible conflicts of interest with regards to the House of Saud being a HUGE client of Kissinger associates.

I understand if you want to keep lying to yourself and pretend the government is looking out for your best interest...good luck with that.

Conspiracies are way more common than most people think.

The reason they are often so incorrect is because the information channel is so unreliable.

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Just as an aside, I'm quite receptive to the idea that conspiracies are common. But competent conspiracies are probably not all that common. The Peter Principle, the Iron Law of Institutions, principal/agent problems, all exist for every organization of people. It would be a remarkable thing if they weighed less on secretive organizations that couldn't keep an HR office and a payroll dept. out in the open, where the boss seldom got to see what his employees were up to, etc.

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More from Sunstein's 2008 paper "Conspiracy Theories:"

"Here we suggest two concrete ideas for government officials attempting to fashion a response to such theories. First, responding to more rather than fewer conspiracy theories has a kind of synergy benefit: it reduces the legitimating effect of responding to any one of them, because it dilutes the contrast with unrebutted theories. Second, we suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories. They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity."

What could be more sanity-inducing than clandestine government conspiracies against conspiracy theorists?

Sunstein states:

"Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so."

A conspiring government, such as the Obama Administration, that includes, say, Cass Sunstein in a key role would be the very definition of "well-motivated," so we don't have to worry about that.

So it's true that being paranoid doesn't mean that they're not out to get you.

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Lots of other governments have come up with ideas similar to Sunstein's of "infiltration" of anti-government groups, leading to the amusing history of double agents turning into agents provocateurs, either at the behest of their bosses in the government or freelancing. People in these jobs, unsurprisingly, have a strong incentive to use their positions as plants within anti-government organizations to whip up exactly the kind of anti-government views and behavior the government is supposedly paying them to suppress. It's do it yourself job security!

For example, in 1905 the Czarist government almost fell after the Bloody Sunday march on the Winter Palace organized by Father Georgi Gapon, who was a double agent working with the Czar's secret police (and had his own agenda as well -- it's all very complicated, as is typical whenever governments employ these tactics).

Also, as a commenter pointed out, the Romanov dynasty's best hope for survival, the formidable reforming conservative prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, was assassinated in 1911 by Dmitry Bogrov, a leftist radical who was also working for the Czar's secret police.

Here in modern America, neo-Nazi shock jock Hal Turner was on the payroll of the FBI for much of the last decade, a case to which the press has paid little attention. Turner was arrested last June for making death threats against Richard Posner and two other federal judges.

Remember what came out about the FBI in testimony after the first World Trade Center bombing? It certainly didn't make me more trustful of what the FBI and CIA are up to.

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In all seriousness have you ever heard the theory that monopoly money-printing-privelages are actually controlled by a small group of extremely rich people and that these extremely rich people like for the masses to think monopoly money-printing-privelages are set up to maximize utility for all people, but when the shit hits the fan the first priority is to make sure the really rich people are bailed out while making the lower classes actually have debt piled onto their accounts?

Don't know how this one got started, it goes against everything taught in most macroeconomics classes.

Obviously, it's just a conspiracy theory that the bailouts of 2008 happened.

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I have a theory that Steve Sailer is trying to take over this blog.

Have you ever seen Tyler and Steve at the same time?

I haven't.

But, then, I _would_ say that.

LOL

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(stolen from NPR) Apparently we are having a really hard time apologizing for the recent Koran burnings in Afghanistan because the Afghans simply don't understand how the United States could possibly make a mistake. Generalizing, perhaps people in other countries (as well as some in the US) believe that since the US is omnipotent or close to it, any action which seems to be a poor outcome for the US must actually be intentional, and hence part of a secret conspiracy.

Note that being a 9/11 truther requires a lot of faith in the capability of the federal government.

Celestus...your argument via NPR sounds an awful lot like the Abu Graib defense passed down from the top of the pyramid....that it was all Lyndsie England's fault...couple bad apples...had nothing to do with the institutional policies. A clear lie.

Also I don't think the head of the CIA is the same type of person you will find working at your local DMV office. It is a little simplistic minded to stereotype all 20 million people working for the government. This type of group think is typical of biggots.

Abu Graib absolutely was the fault of Lyndie England and Charles Graner. And maybe General What's Her Name for having a general lack of control over her troops. It certainly had nothing to do with US interrogation policy, as England and Graner weren't even interrogators, just run of the mill psycho prison guards.

"There is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes," retired Army Major Gen. Antonio Taguba ---The guy who investigated Abu Ghraib...and was fired afterwards for coming up with the wrong answers.

If you believe some enlisted chick from West Virginia was in charge of how the prisoners at Bagram and Abu Ghraib are treated then you are naive.

No one said that Graner and England were "in charge" of prisoner treatment throughout the theater, but what they did at Abu Graib - making man-pyramids, etc - they did on their own and are responsible for.

Do you blame Barack Obama and Eric Holder whenever a guard abuses a prisoner at East Bumfuck Federal Prison?

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I thought that it took a lot of faith in the capability of government to support the Patriot Act and a Department of Homeland Security, expanded CIA/NSA budgets and several new wars.

maguro,
You should read general Taguba's report if you think pyramid building was the worst crime committed at Abu Ghraib and you don't understand that Lyndsie England was scapegoat.

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Speaking of conspiracy theories, the Atlantic Monthly / National Journal has a long article up sympathetically recounting a conspiracy theory popular within the Congressional Black Caucus:

Disparate Impact: Black Lawmakers and Ethics Investigations

by Shane Goldmacher

A disproportionate share of cases have been brought against Congressional Black Caucus members. African-American lawmakers would like to know why.

...The facts say this: African-Americans make up 10 percent of the House, but as of the end of February, five of the sitting six named lawmakers under review by the House Ethics Committee are black. The pattern isn't new. At one point in late 2009, seven lawmakers were known to be involved in formal House ethics inquiries; all were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. An eighth caucus member, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, had also been under investigation, but his probe was halted temporarily while the Justice Department undertook an inquiry of its own.

All told, about one-third of sitting black lawmakers have been named in an ethics probe during their careers, according to a National Journal review.

Only two members of Congress have been formally charged with ethics violations in recent years and have faced the specter of public trials -- Reps. Charles Rangel of New York (censured) and Maxine Waters of California (investigation ongoing). Both are black. There are no African-Americans in the Senate. Remember the most recent black senator, Roland Burris of Illinois? Reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 2009.

Those are the facts, as Cleaver said. The question is why so many African-American members have been in the ethics spotlight.

In interviews with more than a dozen members of the CBC, an unsettling thread emerges: They feel targeted. There could be no other explanation, many said, for what they see as disproportionate treatment at the hands of ethics investigators. They describe a disquieting reality of being black in Congress today: a feeling that each move they make is unfairly scrutinized. "We all feel threatened," said Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, as he sat by the fireplace off the House floor. "If the only reason that you would suffer a complaint is because of your skin color, that is a cause for concern."

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/disparate-impact-black-lawmakers-and-ethics-investigations/253931/

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In general, the legal doctrine of "disparate impact" -- that racial discrimination can be inferred merely from statistical disparities in outcomes -- is a version of conspiracy theory thinking. Occamite explanations (e.g., blacks tend to be more crime prone and/or less competent at getting away with their crimes) are ruled out as unthinkable, leaving as the most likely explanation some kind of shadowy conspiracy against blacks.

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The really interesting question is why some conspiracy theories are considered the mark of a social pariah and other conspiracy theories are considered the mark of the Right Sort of Person.

As we see here, The Atlantic / National Journal takes it seriously enough to devote many pages to a conspiracy theory held by numerous members of the Congressional Black Congress that whites are out to get them.

Conversely, when Larry Summers argued that it wasn't a conspiracy that not many women were tenured professors in Harvard math and engineering departments, he immediately became a Bad Person. To try to save his job, he handed $50,000,000 to Drew Gilpin Faust to spend on feminist causes at Harvard. But he still lost his job and, through sheer coincidence, Dr. Faust had somehow acquired enough supporters within Harvard to replace him.

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If you want to learn more about how conspiracy theories grow then you should check out infowars.com.

They have an article up today linking to actual Rockefeller Foundation pdfs where they talk about using Bill Moyers and lots of other media personalities to promote food scarcity memes promoting world government and depopulation propaganda.

http://www.infowars.com/documents-reveal-rockefeller-foundation-actively-engaged-in-mass-mind-control/

people see this and wander why it is that they have to go to "wacko" sites to find this information.

Representative democracy is, itself rule by conspiracy.

Another insight into this comes from the leaked Palintir presentation, where they were proposing running an organized intimidation campaign against Wikileaks supporters like Glenn Greenwald.

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My Lebanese friend explained to me that his government (and most in the middle east) encourage these conspiracy theories as a way to scapegoat their own failings. Since they control the media in their countries, its very easy.

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The question you should be asking isn't "why are conspiracy theories so common." Its obvious why they are common, because conspiracies are common. History itself is a list of conspiracies that took place in the past.

The real question you should be asking is "Why are so many conspiracy theories so wrong."

Conspiracy theories are stories told by outsiders about how insiders are secretly manipulating things to produce this or that historical event.

Insiders do secretly manipulate things to produce historical events, which is why we keep finding out things we didn't know about the twentieth century as historians go through the now opened Russian archives. But they usually succeed in keeping the details from outsiders. The outsiders who are conspiracy theorists can really only guess, and they often guess wrong.

The best conspiracy theorists are good at pointing out that there is something really fishy here, or the problems with the establishment narrative, but they tend to wind up looking ridiculous when they try to explain what really happened.

For example, I probably will never know why the United States invaded Iraq. If I have grandchildren, maybe they will find out. And this was one case where the "government version" was debunked within weeks of the event.

Well said.

As for the Iraq Attaq, I think Oliver Stone's 2008 movie "W," in which almost all the dialogue is repurposed from published accounts, is fairly reasonable: various Daddy Issues played a big role in George W. Bush's feelings.

My more offbeat theory is that Cheney had been driven slightly nuts by years of practicing to be Acting President of a post-apocalyptic America after a nuclear decapitation of Washington in a program set up by Oliver North in the 1980s. From the Atlantic, March 2004:

"The Armageddon Plan

"During the Reagan era Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were key players in a clandestine program designed to set aside the legal lines of succession and immediately install a new "President" in the event that a nuclear attack killed the country's leaders. The program helps explain the behavior of the Bush Administration on and after 9/11

By JAMES MANN

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/03/the-armageddon-plan/2902/

Cheney had usually struck observers as a level-headed guy, which is probably why he was trained for this Strangelovian role. But I think it slowly went to his head, and he became obsessed with the dangers of unlikely but catastrophic events: "the one percent doctrine."

Or, maybe Cheney's logic was right: a 99 percent chance of being wrong about Iraq was not too high of an expected value to pay?

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"The real question you should be asking is “Why are so many conspiracy theories so wrong.”"

Right.

One widespread reason is because the real answers are unpopular. For example, consider all the crazy things people have thought about Obama: he wasn't born in the U.S., he's a Muslim, he's brilliant and hard-working, he's actually Arab not black, he's charismatic, his real father was a Communist poet, he has a long track record of getting things done, he's post-racial, etc.

The boring, depressing reality is that just as George W. Bush was the legacy President, a man who never would have risen above a sales management position if not for his father, Barack Obama is the affirmative action President. Nobody ever would have thought of him as Presidential Timber if his father hadn't been black. For example, if he'd gone through life as Barry Soetoro, a half-Indonesian guy, he'd be, what, a community college English professor somewhere? The number three guy in the legal department of a Fortune 1000 firm? A respected teacher at an expensive prep school?

"One widespread reason is because the real answers are unpopular. "
You may be on to something here!

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How is your Obama opinion an unmasked 'conspiracy'? You're no longer talking about conspiracies at all, and frankly haven't been for most of this thread.

You aren't totally off base that Obama's race helped him get elected, but it was hardly a conspiracy that he was black, or that he was running for president, or that he won. Who was conspiring here?

You can't let anything get discussed without bringing race into it, Steve, and that's why everyone thinks you are so tiresome.

The reality is actually scarier than that if there was a big conspiracy run by an Inner Party of evil but brilliant know-it-alls, like O'Brien in "1984" or Mustapha Mond in "Brave New World." The reality is that nobody in charge knows much about what is going on.

Why is that? Well, there are inevitable reasons such as that acquiring knowledge and making good decisions with it is costly. And then there are the, uh, evitable reasons that I like to harp on: because we have all sorts of tacit agreements about what nice people who have nice status Are Not Supposed to Know.

Every so often somebody with lots of status, like Larry Summers or James D. Watson, gets caught redhanded Knowing Things We Aren't Supposed to Know and then is publicly humiliated to encourage the others to Not Know.

Not surprisingly, this willful ignorance causes lots of relatively stupid stuff to happen, like the American government obsessing over the danger that genius Iraqi physicists will blow up the world or an unimpressive guy like Barack Obama becoming President.

One of the things you are supposed to act like you believe is that there is a giant conspiracy against blacks in America that explains their low levels of average achievement. In reality, there's a mild but pervasive mood and structure of favoritism in favor of blacks, which led to the craziness of Obamania.

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For example, the most plausible cloak and dagger theory about Obama is one that has gotten almost no traction despite a fair amount of circumstantial evidence: that Obama's mother, father, step-father, and, possibly, grandmother all had CIA connections.

His mother worked from 1967 onward at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, which was central to the 1965 military coup and subsequent massacre in Indonesia. Obama writes in "Dreams from My Father" about what CIA men at the embassy told her about the slaughter. She spent most of her career in Cold War frontline states such as Indonesia and Pakistan.

His stepfather was an officer in the Indonesian Army during the tumult and then, through a rich, powerful relative, got a nice job with an American oil company in government relations.

His biological father was a protege of the CIA's man in Kenyan politics, Tom Mboya, which is how he got to the U. of Hawaii in the first place. Remarkably, Barack Obama Sr. was the anchor witness in the biggest trial in Kenyan history -- the trial of the Kikuyu gunman who assassinated Mboya in 1969.

Now, it's fun to think of the CIA as the all-powerful puppetmaster, but it's more realistic to conceive of it as an international version of the municipal favor bank familiar from "The Wire." A CIA connection can help explain some minor details of Obama's career, such as why his main private sector employment was at Business International, which had sometimes served as a CIA front.

There would be nothing hugely sinister here, just a favor being done for the son of some people who had done some favors for the American empire. Moving to Chicago can be seen as dropping out of the international career that his parents' connections would have inclined him toward.

Nobody is interested in this theory because it doesn't serve political or psychological wants.

I certainly don't expect that the National Review would be interested in digging up facts about who is funded by the CIA.

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Fun with conspiracy theories:

http://xkcd.com/966/

Outstanding.

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COINTELPRO

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'The Believing Brain' by Michael Shermer. Also an earlier book by Shermer 'Why People Believe Weird Things'. There is no one better and explaining the science of conspiracy. Most of Shermer's stuff is great.
Has a book on psychology of markets too, 'MInd of the Market'. http://www.michaelshermer.com/books/

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The real question is what government contract is Tyler going after here...going to work for the State Department, The Fed. Has Tyler been approached to cognitively infiltrate libertarians and guide criticism at existing institutions into the directions desired by our elites? Tyler still good buddies with Cass Sunstein? ever talk with each other informally about how best to cognitively infiltrate?

Yes that is indeed 'the real question'. Carry on.

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lol

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I suppose Whit Stillman's movie "Barcelona" does not count as good social science research, but maybe the character Fred had some insight when he said, "I think it's well-known that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence, at least in Europe." Its possible "quite bizarre conspiracy theories" share the same roots .

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I like conspiracy theories for the entertainment value.

A lot of conspiracy theories are formulated by fringe people because to not believe the official story is to be turned into a fringe person. People on the fringe suffer no costs for their conspiracy theories, thus many theories are believed and shared by this group. Whenever something truthful (or truthy!) comes out, a concerted effort is made to make believers seem like fringe lunatics. The Obama birth certificate story is a very good example of this. The government pushed a lie (the long form birth certificate was released), most people believed it and those who said it hadn't been released were called "birthers" (along with the conspiracy theorists who already believed he was a Kenyan by birth) and pushed to the fringe of the debate. This is often a conspiracy fueling factor: some grain of truth (in this case Obama had not released his long form birth certificate) is obfuscated, either willingly or unwillingly (info doesn't exist because theory is completely wrong), and this creates an aura of truth to the conspiracy. Why did the Obama admin and its defenders say the long form birth certificate was released, when it in fact wasn't? Later the Obama admin released it. Maybe it's all a Sunstein plot: truthful information designed to diffuse the conspiracy through "cognitive diversity."

Now there's another shot being taken by the "birthers", who claim that the released birth certificate and selective service record are forgeries. Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, who has been targeted by the Obama admin (already pushed to the fringe), led a team of investigators and their report was issued last week.

"A lot of conspiracy theories are formulated by fringe people because to not believe the official story is to be turned into a fringe person. People on the fringe suffer no costs for their conspiracy theories, thus many theories are believed and shared by this group."

+1

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Two suggestions:

1) On conspiracy theory in the U.S., Timothy Melley is great: "In Empire of Conspiracy, Melley explores the recent growth of anxieties about thought-control, assassination, political indoctrination, stalking, surveillance, and corporate and government plots. At the heart of these developments, he believes, lies a widespread sense of crisis in the way Americans think about human autonomy and individuality. Nothing reveals this crisis more than the remarkably consistent form of expression that Melley calls "agency panic"-an intense fear that individuals can be shaped or controlled by powerful external forces." [http://www.amazon.com/Empire-Conspiracy-Culture-Paranoia-Postwar/dp/0801486068]

2) On the Middle East, Daniel Pipes: http://www.danielpipes.org/books/hidden.php

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David Aaronovitch wrote Voodoo Histories: the role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History (2009).

He is a journalist. More scholarly: Jovan Byford: Conspiracy Theories, a Critical Introduction.

http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?PID=414418

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I would guess that the single simplest explanation for why foreign elites often believe the U.S. government is conspiring against them is because it often is.

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If you read the leaked wiki leaks files, indeed most of the conspiracy theories I felt were absurd turn out to be true. Nevertheless, rational ignorance or directed learning might explain part of it.

That was my experience as well.
Furthermore, when I looked deeply into any historical subject or spoke to the experts on it they pointed to very clear conspiracies. They however often refused to believe the accepted conspiracies in anyone else's field. This form of anti-conspiracy bias seems very common in academia.

Also, Tyler seems to find it odd that people hold logically incompatible beliefs about conspiracies. Sorry Tyler, but people hold logically incompatible beliefs about almost everything. Its pretty normal. I'll give you a very common one: a) Abortion is murder. b) its morally justified to kill to stop a murder c) Its immoral to kill abortion doctors for performing abortions. The above set is logically inconsistent yet its held by almost every evangelical that I have met.

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If you read the leaked wiki leaks files, indeed most of the conspiracy theories I felt were absurd turn out to be true.

Strange, can you point me to some? When I read them, I thought that the US government's actions were entirely expected and quite justified. The US government was also more suspicious of the Saudis, etc., than critics portray. However, the cables generally portrayed other countries, especially non-democratic allies, in a poor light. For example, they claimed that foreign countries that complain about drones explicitly give their okay to them, as well as to US military actions.

Certainly the leaked cables are written by US government actors, and should be taken with a grain of salt for that reason. But I really would like you to point out which absurd conspiracy theories were true.

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Tyler: Most of what I've read on this topic has a domestic focus, not a global one. But there is some anthropology that fits what you're looking for. You might look up Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order, edited by Harry G. West and Todd Sanders. (In political science, there is Daniel Pipes' The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy, which I haven't read. I didn't think much of Pipes' more general book on conspiracy theories, so I'm wary of recommending this other one; still, if nothing else it might include some interesting data.)

Beyond your request for social science research, I think the important thing here is that it's human nature to find patterns and to build narratives, and that we're especially prone to jumping to conclusions when dealing with people from other nations, factions, subcultures, or layers of the social hierarchy. This is exacerbated by the fact that some sorts of conspiracies do, in fact, sometimes exist -- countries do actually plot invasions, conduct covert operations, give assistance to terrorists, etc. Any nation as powerful as the U.S. is going to inspire conspiracy theories abroad, just as Americans will inevitably come up with conspiracy theories about other nations. (Just listen to Rick Santorum going on about Iran's influence in Latin America.)

As for the Sunstein paper: While it has some cogent thoughts, it also goes off the rails sometimes.

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IMHO Government is much more secretive than it needs to be. This probably tends to support conspiracy theories.

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I am also quite interested in the conspiracy mind. I have several aquaintances who are enthusiastic truthers, birthers, or explain the sinister workings of the Bilderberg Group. They all subscribe to multiple unrelated conspiracies. For instance, the federal reserved is controlled by the Illuminati and there are UFOs at Area 51. To my eye they share some common traits.

The first is that they each have some sense of being marginalized by society. One these acquaintances has deep insecurities. Another had been unable to make a living in his career of choice, despite a 20 year effort. And a third spent nearly 4 1/2 years in prison for non-violent "victimless" crimes. (Victimless is his assessment, however, there is nothing imaginary about his marginalization.) None-the-less, each one will explain to me in great detail how this group or that group is and has been manipulating and controlling our world events and ultimately our lives. Perhaps it is a coincident, but all three are acknowledged atheists. I bring this up because if God's will is not responsible for the (mis)fortunes that may visit them, then accountability must lay elsewhere. I don't think my friend really believes that the Illuminati destroyed his music career. But I do think that his anger and frustrations are channeled or sublimated to something that is still much larger and more powerful than himself. It unburdens self-accountability.

There is another quality they share which is also a bit more frightening. Although only one of them actually prepare for Armageddon, all three harbor fears/ fantasies of the break down of society. I say fantasy because on a perverse level, they all actually seem to, uh, kind of like the idea. And why wouldn't they? After all this would be a tremendous opportunity for someone who feels marginalized to reassert themselves in a new social order.

There is no science here, though. This is anecdotal and I'm just guessing.

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The U.S. government spends a lot of money annually meddling in the affairs of foreign countries, some of it on the record, some of it secretly. How could this _not_ induce speculation about what the most powerful organization on earth is up to?

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I wonder how much conspiracy theories are just an attempt to bring order to a really confusing reality. Like, large organizations act in complicated and hard-to-fathom ways because they're complicated things, with internal politics and institutional memory and such. Some of that is corruption of some form (whether that's the boss getting a nice job for his mistress or the CEO reorganizing the management of an unloved part of the company with the thought that it will fail visibly and he can get rid of it). Most of it is just complexity.

From the outside, you watch this huge organization doing basically crazy things (if it were a thinking individual, which it isn't), like invading Iraq and then not taking the oil which was the only thing worth having there, or doubling down on big gas guzzling minivans and SUVs despite rising gas prices, or keeping incompetent teachers presiding over unruly students without enough textbooks. And you want to somehow make a coherent story about how this all makes sense--Dick Cheney's really playing a deep game you don't understand that makes the Iraq invasion make sense, or Detroit's in cahoots with Big Oil trying to keep Americans burning too much gasoline, or DCPS is trying to short the poor black and brown kids that go there out of an education.

And the reality is that these organizations act the way they do for internal reasons that are hard to understand, and harder to understand the further away from them you are and the less you understand them. A conspiracy theory is easier to work with.

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I can't point to good research, but I can give you a couple of pointers about what people in Latin America are willing to believe. I'll illustrate it with an example: not long ago Venezuelan president Chávez suggested that the reason he, Argentinian president Cristina Kirshner and former Brazilian president Ignacio Lula da Silva all had cancer was probably a conspiracy by the US. Given Chávez's stridency he's not taken very seriously, but if you were to poll and educated audience anywhere in LatAm I would bet the prevailing answer would be "it is possible". The reasons seem straightforward:

1- There is an asymmetry in technological achievement between the US and most of the rest of the world. Can the US somehow "implant" cancer (or some other disease) in people it would rather not have to deal with? Well, it can spy and bomb people from unmanned undetectable planes, it can mutate avian flu virus to make it more lethal, so why not?

2- The US government has an official doctrine called "plausible deniability". Why should anyone believe anything it says? It will deny or spin assassination abroad as if it were a minor matter. It doesn't even mind letting the public know it performed the assassinations as long as the confirmation is not official.

3- History has taught Latin America that the US will try to pull some appalling, even hilariously silly, plots: witness the documented attempts to poison Fidel Castro so his beard would fall off, for example. Some of the US's misdeeds are not so funny and still happened: they range from the inoculation of syphilis on Guatemalan indians for experimentation purposes to the instigation of coups d'êtat all over the place (Cuba, Panama, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil...). US involvement in these events was evident to residents of these countries but could be established as a fact only recently. Up until then said involvement was a conspiracy theory.

Thus whether the conspiracy theories about the US and its government seem bizarre or not might depend 1- lack of hard facts to disprove them (can cancer be inoculated?), 2-on context (is the US government capable of doing something like that?) and 3- past experience (did previous conspiracy theories turn out to be right?).

Kind regards,

Nice post Ricardo,
In addition to the important concept of "plausible deniability" any bool on the CIA or good conspira y theorist will make frequent reference to the concepts of "limited hangout" and "compartmentalization". These are building block components of many conspiracies.

Conspiracy theorist get insulted when smarter debunkers don't even attempt to learn the basics before trying to debunk things.

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Have you seen the latest science on people believing in mutually contradictory conspiracy theories?

In an article published in Social Psychological and Personality Science the authors suggest that this ability to believe in contradictory conspiracy theories is really due to an underlying level of suspicion. From the Live Science reporting:

"They're explained by the overarching theory that there is some kind of cover-up, that authorities are withholding information from us," said Karen Douglas, a study researcher and reader in the school of psychology sciences at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. "It's not that people are gullible or silly by having those beliefs. … It all fits into the same picture."

http://www.livescience.com/18171-contradicting-conspiracy-theories-mistrust.html

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Tyler,

Kathryn Olmsted's "Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11" is on my to-read list, though I can't vouch for what it covers as far as general social science research about people's willingness to believe conspiracy theories regardless of content, but from descriptions it looks at historic incidents that have made Americans more likely to believe conspiracy theories. Olmsted is a history professor at UC Davis.

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This link came out today and is directly relatable:
http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/03/haiti-quakes/
excerpt:

"Well for one, the article was created on Feb. 10, 2010, only a month after the major 7.0 earthquake which caused search index volume for “haiti” to skyrocket. Also, the red advisory text was only added on Aug. 27, 2011, as is evident from checking the history of the Wiki. So this article existed online for over a year with no disclaimer, creating plenty of opportunity for people to see the fraudulent post and reblog it it without verifying the project with the Discovery Channel or CARICOM. (And reblog it and reblog it.)

Perpetuating the rumor still, the Discovery Channel does in fact have a website dedicated to the theoretical prospect of an Atlantic tunnel, but nowhere on the site does it say this project is under construction."

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