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The Paranoid Style of Political Ignorance:

Jesse Walker has an interesting column tracing the longstanding prevalence of paranoid conspiracy-mongering in American politics, which dates all the way back to the Revolution and before. What Richard Hofstader famously called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" has always been common on both the right and the left. Widely believed claims that the US government itself planned the 9/11 attacks Obama is a secret terrorist-sympathizer, that the US government developed the AIDS virus for the purpose of killing blacks, or that the Iraq War was cooked up for the secret purpose of enriching Halliburton and Dick Cheney are among the latest examples (for links to polls on some of these, see here).

An interesting question is why paranoid conspiracy-mongering has persisted despite massive increases in education levels and a great reduction in cost of acquiring accurate political information in the age of the internet and 24 hour cable news. A related question is why so few people are similarly paranoid in their personal lives. Many more people believe that a government conspiracy caused the 9/11 attacks than believe that their coworkers or acquiantances are out to get them.

In my view, the answer to these questions is widespread political ignorance and irrationality. As I explained more fully in my February post on belief in political conspiracy theory:

[I]t is perfectly rational for most people to know very little about politics and public policy - and indeed most people are quite ignorant about even basic aspects of these subjects. Because the chance of your vote influencing the outcome of an election is infinitesmally small, there is little payoff to becoming informed about politics if your only reason for doing so is to be a better voter. By contrast, there are very strong incentives to be well-informed about issues in our personal and professional lives, where our choices are likely to be individually decisive. The person who (falsely) believes that a dark conspiracy is out to get him will impose tremendous costs on himself if he bases his decisions on that assumption; he's likely to end up a paranoid recluse....

...[T]he rationality of political ignorance implies that even people who do have considerable knowledge are likely to be more susceptible to conspiracy theories about political events than in their personal lives. As I explain in this paper . . ., the rationality of political ignorance not only reduces people's incentives to acquire political information, it also undercuts incentives to rationally evaluate the information they do learn. As a result, we are more likely to be highly biased in the way we evaluate political information than information about most other subjects . . . Unlike in our nonpolitical lives, most people have little incentive to critically evaluate their political beliefs in order to weed out biases and and ensure their truth.

Rational political ignorance also helps explain why conspiracy-mongering hasn't declined in an age of increasing education levels and easily available information. Quite simply, even a well-educated rationally ignorant voter has little or no incentive to acquire accurate information or to rationally evaluate the information he does learn. As a result, much of his information-gathering activity will be directed to learning "facts" that are interesting rather than informative and that tend to confirm his preexisting views rather than challenge them. A great deal of social science research shows that people mostly read political media that reflects the views they already hold and show little interest in considering opposing perspectives. Once they accept a conspiracy theory, they are unlikely to seek out information that might refute it.

Is there a solution to the problem? Perhaps not; certainly not an easy one. But if we really want to reduce the impact of paranoid conspiracy-mongering on our society, we should consider reducing the size and scope of government. That way, fewer of our decisions will be made by electoral processes in which ignorance-driven paranoia plays a major role.

alias:

Is there a solution to the problem? Perhaps not; certainly not an easy one. But if we really want to reduce the impact of paranoid conspiracy-mongering on our society, we should consider reducing the size and scope of government. That way, fewer of our decisions will be made by electoral processes in which ignorance-driven paranoia plays a major role.

Well what is the impact of paranoid conspiracy-mongering on our society?
4.25.2008 5:37pm
Ilya Somin:
Well what is the impact of paranoid conspiracy-mongering on our society?

Poorer quality public policy and bad electoral choices.
4.25.2008 5:41pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
A more open government would reduce the conspiracy theorizing. Instead, we are treated to revelations in the New York Times that the Pentagon coached retired military officers as to what to say when they were hired by the networks as "color commentators." Gary Webb's Dark Alliance CIA/drugs series printed in a respectable Knight-Ridder paper, which promptly disavowed it, supports the notion that our government is keeping some heavy-duty stuff from the public awareness.
4.25.2008 5:55pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Ignorance is certainly a factor, but the complimentary desire for simple, easy to understand explanations also plays a role. Most of these conspiracies are not very complex, and they wrap up a problem in a tidy package. (I suppose that makes it easier for the ignorant to understand?)
4.25.2008 5:57pm
M (mail):
Is there a name for the belief that your pet theory explains a really, really large number of the problems of the day, more than is perhaps plausible? ;)
4.25.2008 5:58pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

desire for simple, easy to understand explanations

A lot of the voters resent Obama's nuanced positions on many issues, preferring a simple pro/anti approach. They also believe Obama's practice of listening to people with repellent ideas means Obama endorses those ideas. Further, that some people are beyond the pale, and cannot be spoken with.
4.25.2008 6:06pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Over the years, I have met a lot of conspiracy theory buffs--and running for state senate here in Idaho just increases the ... opportunity. Over the years, I have noticed certain common characteristics of conspiracy buffs. I have noticed some common characteristics among conspiracy theorists on both left and right--and indeed, at times, I have to spend a long time talking to some of these people to figure out which loony bin to place them: right-wing conspiracy buff, or left-wing conspiracy buff.

1. Often above average intelligence--sometimes markedly above average intelligence.

2. Usually not well educated--high school graduates at most.

3. Usually have a chip on their shoulder about the combination of #1 and #2.

My theory is that:

1. People with this combination imagine that the people that run our society--who have graduated from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, etc.--are vastly smarter than themselves.

2. One of the measureable aspects of intelligence is the ability to look at a complex collection of data and see a pattern. The sequence 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, is obvious to all of us here--but to a lot of people, there's nothing obvious about it.

3. This ability to find patterns in complex data collections can also, with enough time and energy, lead one to find patterns in completely random data--especially when you don't have enough information to find the real pattern.

4. Once the pattern has been established, all data must fit into that pattern. If you believe in the Trilateralist Conspiracy/Council on Foreign Relations stuff, then when five different members of the CFR say the same thing, it's a conspiracy. When three of them say X, and two say NOT X, then it's either internal squabbling in the conspiracy, or part of a disinformation campaign to hide the conspiracy.

I do very best to explain to people suffering from this problem that conspiracies require intelligence, and I don't see any evidence that the people running our government are that smart. But the sense of inferiority tends to win.
4.25.2008 6:14pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

A lot of the voters resent Obama's nuanced positions on many issues, preferring a simple pro/anti approach.
There's a difference between "nuanced" and falsely claiming that you didn't support bans on handguns in 1996.
4.25.2008 6:16pm
plutosdad (mail):
I don't know, many conspiracy theorists I know read all the time, especially about politics. That seems like a good theory that covers a lot of cases, but quite often I think a motivation is simple prejudice. People tend to see conspiracies among an opposing political party, but rarely their own.

Also it's not political thought that needs to be taught, but other social sciences like game theory. For instance, I tend to not believe in conpsiracies (at least not long lived ones) since they are often just an excercise in iterative prisoner's dilemma. Eventually the conspirators realize it will fall apart, and whoever betrays the others first wins. I think if more people studied game theory they'd look at political issues quite differently.
4.25.2008 6:16pm
plutosdad (mail):
oops I meant "it's not JUST political"
4.25.2008 6:18pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I hope no one is going to deny that, in the election of 1800, John Adams was scheming to make himself King John I, while Jefferson was a debauched libertine.
4.25.2008 6:25pm
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
Hofstadter is highly overrated, this work nor Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Applying mental health categories to political choices is a pretty cheap trick. It's of a piece with The Authoritarian Personality or the shrink who diagnosed Barry Goldwater as a nut case without having met him.

If you want to diss democracy because most people are uneducated and stupid, you won't get an argument from me.

As for conspiracy theories, they're often, perhaps usually wrong. However, there are conspiracies.
4.25.2008 6:28pm
Dave N (mail):
Ignorance is certainly a factor, but the complimentary desire for simple, easy to understand explanations also plays a role.
Additionally, many people don't want to acknowledge that a non-entity like Lee Oswald or Gravrilo Princip can change history as profoundly as those two men did.

For some reason, it is much more comforting to blame larger sinister conspiracies than simply apply Occam's razor.
4.25.2008 6:29pm
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
. . . this work and Anti-Intellectualism . . .

Proofreading is such a pain, and hard with the on-screen type.
4.25.2008 6:30pm
Christopher M (mail):
Let's not forget that sometimes the conspiracy theories turn out to be true. Once you know that the CIA really did spend quite a while giving secret doses of LSD to all kinds of people -- both government employees and members of the general public -- it gets a little harder to dismiss other claims as just too crazy to be true.
4.25.2008 6:39pm
Stormy Dragon (mail) (www):
It's a psychological defense mechanism: the belief that the world is controlled by unseen forces beyond your control very neatly absolves you of any personal responsibility for the state of society. In particular, the US government is generally very responsive to the demands of the populous. Yet many of them are unhappy with the results. Rather than accept that perhaps there was something wrong with their demands, people instead prefer to blame things on conspiracies that are preventing things from working as they "should have".
4.25.2008 6:40pm
Sam Draper (mail):
Most of the conspiracy minded folks I know are quite a bit smarter and better informed than the average person. One guy in particular was a certifiable genius, and he used his considerable intelligence and knowledge to selectively gather an amazing amount of proof for whichever conspiracy theory he was pursuing at the time. He was well read, spoke four languages, had lived all over the world, and was a former Fortune 500 VP. It is a mistake to label the conspiracy hunters as ignorant; in my opinion and experience they usually suffer from OCD or some other illness and are just trying to force the world to make more sense than it really does.
4.25.2008 6:43pm
Doc518:
Not just education here...my 42 y/o brother and practicing lawyer insists we never landed on the moon. And look at the nuts that come out at the mention of water fluoridation! Evolution, vaccines+autism, virgin births+resurrection...you can't talk these people out of anything based on the facts. ;-)
4.25.2008 6:44pm
Tareeq (www):
The Onion version of this post:

Local intellectual mystified by dumb people.
4.25.2008 6:53pm
CJColucci:
90% of everything is crap. If you have less of anything, you pretty much guarantee having less crap. We get it.
4.25.2008 7:09pm
QuintCarte (mail):
I do think there is a psychological cause of people who habitually entertain conspiracy theories.

I've known a few such people. I will agree with what others have said here; they tend to be very intelligent people - perhaps well educated, perhaps not. But the trait that I picked up on was that they got part of their very sense of identity from the belief in conspiracies. Part of the motive was to be able to hold the view that "I'm so much more clever than most people because I can see and understand what is *really* going on. I'm better than the people around me who just accept the party line / mainstream explanation of everything. Come on Sheeple, wake up like I have!" It is an ego boost pure and simple.

I think a lot of times this attitude was unconsious to the conspiracy theorist, but it was almost universally there. It reminded almost of a teenager who is into the goth scene: "No really, I'm dark and weird and different - I'm SO not mainstream! Look how obvious I make it that I'm not normal!"

I think the "I have secret wisdom that the proles are too dumb to understand" is as much a part of it as being poorly informed about the real facts.
4.25.2008 7:12pm
In a cafe:
This sort of thing happens in all manner of tiny ways. Take for instance last night: I overheard a professor + his wife talking to his wife's mother, who is visiting from England. The mother was making inquires about the 2008 presidential election. During which the son-in-law says: "Well you see, McCain is old and will resign after year in office so that that nut-job Romney can become President--its the only way for Romney to get into office". Mother: "That's awful."
4.25.2008 7:15pm
I couldn't qwerpoiuagree more (mail):
Trying to educate the Amerikan people is a hopeless pursuit. Better to spend you time learning to hoard rice and make ANFO and other high explosives.
4.25.2008 7:17pm
Interested Observer (mail):
It is often asserted that "conspiracy theorists" (or whatever ad hominem attack you prefer) believe out of a desire to make sense of a complex world.

Of course, the reverse is also true. Those who believe that the intoxication of power never influences elites to conspire in furtherance of their interests do so out of a desire to make sense of a complex world. The alternative is a bit too disconcerting to contemplate.

An interesting hypothetical might be to consider, just for a moment, what the implications of a 9/11 conspiracy might be. Without accepting it as true, can you even bring yourself to consider this possibility?


Along the same lines, an interesting question for the ad hominem bomb-throwing arbiters of reality might be:

Are there any conspiracies that have occurred in the history of the world that involve politicians, rather than lower-class criminals? What conspiracies are you allowed to believe in without being considered crazy?

The standard of proof must be very high, because even the mixture of the most secretive and authoritarian administration in U.S. history, combined with undisputable physical anomalies such as steel skyscrapers imploding at free-fall speed, is apparently not enough to even merit an ounce of suspicion.
4.25.2008 7:23pm
ys:

Sam Draper (mail):
Most of the conspiracy minded folks I know are quite a bit smarter and better informed than the average person.

I think you and some other commenters should make a distinction between active conspiracy nuts who spend a lot of effort on those endeavors and much larger numbers of people who simply believe what those nuts come up with, without becoming full-fledged nuts themselves. I think this post's topic is this larger group.

As to the active nuts, just yesterday I heard a discussion on the radio on the latest brain research re: habitual liers. Contrary to the researcher's expectations, observation of their brain found not some deficiencies compared to average people, but a much more extensive net of connections which presumably allow/force(?) them to produce spontaneous lies really fast. I wonder if some brain peculiarity would characterize active conspiracy nuts.
4.25.2008 7:28pm
ys:

"Well you see, McCain is old and will resign after year in office so that that nut-job Romney can become President--its the only way for Romney to get into office". Mother: "That's awful."


I think this a good illustration of a relationship between a theorist and a follower.
4.25.2008 7:34pm
Bruce:
One of the interesting aspects of conspiracy theories is the presumption of universal competence among the conspirators--in order for large and sensational conspiracies to be huge, absolutely effective, and absolutely secret, it would take a large organization of completely dedicated, infallible, and totally loyal people. Which would be the first time in history such an organization has existed, as far as I can tell.
4.25.2008 7:37pm
SenatorX (mail):
"What we are most suble in : Because for many thousands of years it was thought that things (nature, tools, property of all kinds) were also alive and animate, with the power to cause harm and to evade human purposes, the feeling of impotence has been much greater and much more common among men that it would have otherwise have been: for one needed to secure onself against things, just as against men and animals, by force, constraint, flattery, treaties, and sacrifices - and here is the origin of most superstitious practices, that is to say, of a considerable, perhaps preponderant and yet wasted and useless constituent of all the activity hitherto pursued by man! - But because the feeling of impotence and fear was in a state of almost continuous stimulation so strongly and for so long, the feeling of power has evolved to such a degree of subtlety that in this respect man is now a match for the most delicate gold balance. It has become his strongest propensity: the means discovered for creating this feeling almost constitute the history of culture." - Daybreak(23) Nietzsche

Basically it used to be much worse. We have come a long way but have a long way to go. One problem is that what came before for the long history of man may be embedded in us. Good luck rooting it out in a few short centuries.
4.25.2008 7:44pm
Fub:
Ilya Somin wrote at April 25, 2008 at 4:32pm:
A related question is why so few people are similarly paranoid in their personal lives. Many more people believe that a government conspiracy caused the 9/11 attacks than believe that their coworkers or acquiantances are out to get them.
I would distinguish clinical paranoia from "paranoid" political theories.

One characteristic of clinical paranoia is that the paranoid believes the evil forces are focused on him. That is, the paranoia sufferer believes he is the central focus, or a major focus, of the evil scheme.

But those who espouse "paranoid" political theories do not typically share that characteristic. For example, belief that Bush invaded Iraq as a favor to Halliburton does not make the believer a focus of the evil scheme.

For the truly clinically paranoid, that same belief would include something like "and the CIA is out to get me for revealing it".

I think that the feature noted by QuintCarte above at 4.25.2008 6:12pm does represent a transition area between clinical paranoia and the more ordinary political "paranoia":
I think the "I have secret wisdom that the proles are too dumb to understand" is as much a part of it as being poorly informed about the real facts.
As the focus of a believer's political consiracy theory drifts more toward himself, the theory becomes less political and more clinically paranoid.
4.25.2008 7:46pm
LM (mail):
Ignorance can only account for the inaccuracy of conspiracy theories, not the negativity. Where's the movement of zealots out to convince us that a moon landing was beyond our capacity, but we pulled it off anyway, thanks to secret Soviet cooperation?

At least as important as ignorance, I'd argue, is the animal propensity to distrust strangers, and for that propensity in humans to rise and fall with perceived distance, i.e., geographical, cultural, political, ethnic, technological, etc. I'd guess it's the same thing (in addition to pork) that's behind our ability to believe everyone in Congress except our own Representative is a dishonest, incompetent fool. I assume it also contributes (along with our own anonymity) to the disturbingly high levels of hostility and incivility on the Internet. And as long as I'm speculating, I'll also bet there's social science out there supporting some or all this, but damned if I know what or where.
4.25.2008 7:53pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Not just education here...my 42 y/o brother and practicing lawyer insists we never landed on the moon.
That's ridiculous; that's where the mind control rays used by the Bush Administration to make 9/11 happen come from. :-)
4.25.2008 7:59pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

The standard of proof must be very high, because even the mixture of the most secretive and authoritarian administration in U.S. history, combined with undisputable physical anomalies such as steel skyscrapers imploding at free-fall speed, is apparently not enough to even merit an ounce of suspicion.
Yes, they were so smart and evil--and even though they knew that there were no WMDs in Iraq, they suddenly turned into raving idiots, and forgot to "find" a couple metric tons of sarin there to justify the invasion. And forgot to seal the borders to keep terrorists out. And allowed the Abu Ghraib pictures to be released.

Three choices here:

1. Evil, smart, conspiracy--and they turned stupid and lost their will after invading Iraq.

2. They aren't brilliant people who did the best they could with what they knew, and that's wasn't enough.

3. Bush really wanted to end his presidency with disastrous ratings, lose Republican control of Congress, squander hundreds of billions of dollars, thousands of lives, delay (perhaps permanently) winning the War on Terrorism, and seriously impair our national standing in the world.

Which do you really think is mostly likely? #1 requires vast intelligence that suddenly disappeared. #3 is completely irrational--unless Bush is really a Democrat (or an al-Qaeda agent). #2 is the result of applying Occam's Razor.
4.25.2008 8:06pm
GV:
We live in a country where a huge percentage of the population believe that the world is something like 6,000 years old. Given that, the fact that lots of people believe other stupid, crazy crap shouldn't be surprising. We can generalize why people believe really dumb things, but I doubt one answer is all encompassing. People believe dumb crap for lots of different reasons. Indeed, I bet a non-nominal amount of posters on this very board believe evolution is a giant conspiracy by scientists and "secularists."
4.25.2008 8:07pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

And as long as I'm speculating, I'll also bet there's social science out there supporting some or all this, but damned if I know what or where.
It was there, but the Illuminati/CFR/TC/Masonic/Catholic conspiracy has already removed it.
4.25.2008 8:07pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

We live in a country where a huge percentage of the population believe that the world is something like 6,000 years old.
And yet I would guess that a convention of 9/11 conspiracy would find that <1% believe in a 6000 year old Earth.

Pick your poison!


Indeed, I bet a non-nominal amount of posters on this very board believe evolution is a giant conspiracy by scientists and "secularists."
I think a more likely belief is "giant delusion." I don't think that I've ever heard Creationists argue that it was a conspiracy (except by Satan).
4.25.2008 8:13pm
LM (mail):
Interested Observer,

Are there any conspiracies that have occurred in the history of the world that involve politicians, rather than lower-class criminals? What conspiracies are you allowed to believe in without being considered crazy?

The standard of proof must be very high, because even the mixture of the most secretive and authoritarian administration in U.S. history, combined with undisputable physical anomalies such as steel skyscrapers imploding at free-fall speed, is apparently not enough to even merit an ounce of suspicion.

If it's any consolation, straw men aren't the sole province of conspiracy theorists and those who defend them. You have plenty of company.
4.25.2008 8:34pm
ithaqua (mail):
Ignorance, stupidity and paranoia are not, in fact, bipartisan. Only one political party is raving about 'a vast right-wing conspiracy', and it ain't the right wing.

"What Richard Hofstader famously called "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" has always been common on both the right and the left. Widely believed claims that the US government itself planned the 9/11 attacks, Obama is a secret terrorist-sympathizer, that the US government developed the AIDS virus for the purpose of killing blacks, or that the Iraq War was cooked up for the secret purpose of enriching Halliburton and Dick Cheney are among the latest examples (for links to polls on some of these, see here)."

Your examples belie the claim that paranoia is bipartisan. In fact, you give three examples of frothing left-wing lunacy and one demonstrable truth (that Hussein symphathizes with terrorists - his continued membership in the Democrat Party demonstrates that beyond any reasonable doubt). In fact, though you can find some examples of right-wing conspiracy loons (though most of them are closer to libertarians, ie, liberals who hate taxes), the vast, vast majority of this sort of thing comes from the liberals, whose moral relativism and rejection of reason in favor of 'feelings' lends itself to conspiracy-mongering.

Seriously, can you name even one 'conspiracy theory' that's as prominent among conservatives as the "Bush caused 9/11" or "Bush invaded Iraq for oil" or "evil pharma companies cause autism with vaccines and hide the natural herbal cures for cancer" or "Israel is plotting to steal Arab land", et al, theories are among the left? And anything taken from Dr. Strangelove , by the way, doesn't count.
4.25.2008 8:35pm
Anon Y. Mous:

Is there a solution to the problem?


It would certainly be helpful if all those conspirators would stop conspiring with each other.
4.25.2008 8:37pm
ithaqua (mail):
As to Creationism:

Logic dictates that all effects must have a cause; Creation, therefore, requires a Creator. We exist, therefore God exists. QED.

It's certainly allowable, given that premise, to use reason to weigh the various claims about the nature and power of God. (Rational consideration of the evidence for evolution, for example, shows that the theory is (1) false and (2) actively harmful - see, for example, Expelled.) But anyone who denies that simple logical proof above has rejected reason and logical thought itself. Atheists are, quite frankly, the most irrational of human brings ever to exist; they go in the same category as the people who believe in the healing power of crystals and tell stories about their abduction by UFOs.
4.25.2008 8:41pm
ithaqua (mail):
(the above was a preemptive strike at the liberals who were about to cite creation science and/or intelligent design as a conservative form of conspiracy theory)
4.25.2008 8:42pm
LM (mail):
ithaqua,

The answer to some of your questions may be a mirror.
4.25.2008 8:56pm
GV:

I think a more likely belief is "giant delusion." I don't think that I've ever heard Creationists argue that it was a conspiracy (except by Satan).

Clayton, many creationists believe in a world-wide conspiracy. See here.

(I assume ithaqua's posts are parodies.)
4.25.2008 8:59pm
Smokey:
Are there any conspiracies that have occurred in the history of the world that involve politicians, rather than lower-class criminals?
I theorize that a conspiracy exists among national politicians. They have deliberately gamed the system to arrange for lifetime employment for themselves. And for the great majority, their conspiracy is working fabulously well.

Does that make me crazy? For believing that about politicians, I mean.
4.25.2008 9:11pm
Interested Observer:
This country was founded upon a distrust of authority and concentrated political power. For a bunch of supposed libertarians there is certainly a remarkable consensus around here to never question the powers that be, or at least the Bush administration.

I'm not going to try to convince anyone here, but I would plead with you to consider things rationally, rather than rely upon ad hominem attacks and literally question people's sanity because they dare to question the official line.

Some people see progressive leaders repeatedly assasinated by "crazy lone gun men" and buildings defy the laws of physics, and they have a few questions about it. Nothing crazy there.

Applying a variation of the negligence formula, if there is any fire behind the smoke, the potential harm to our democracy is so great that even a 1% possibility merits investigation.

And, by the way, Occam's Razor is not a shortcut to instantly validating whatever argument you are trying to make. The world is a complex place, and that is a lazy crutch.
4.25.2008 9:15pm
genob:
"buildings defy the laws of physics"

The ability to defy the laws of physics would indicate possession of supernatural powers, not a conspiracy among men.
4.25.2008 9:32pm
SenatorX (mail):
"At the same time, Bailyn notes, British administrators "were as convinced as were the leaders of the Revolutionary movement that they were themselves the victims of conspriatorial designs." Colonial governors such as Thomas Hutchinson—a man John Adams accused of "junto conspiracy"—believed, in Bailyn's words, that "the root of all the trouble in the colonies was the maneuvering of a secret, power-hungry cabal that professed loyalty to England while assiduously working to destroy the bonds of authority.""

How do you square things like that with the theory of ignorance?
4.25.2008 10:44pm
Jesse Walker (mail) (www):
Thanks for linking to my piece, Ilya. After reading the discussion I have three quick points:

1. My article does acknowledge that real conspiracies do exist, and that this is one reason why people sometimes take the next step and adopt theories that are, shall we say, less plausible. The CIA has done many nasty things in its history. Political corruption has existed for as long as politics has existed. A bona fide terrorist cabal conspired to attack the U.S. on 9/11. But that doesn't mean that every theory about the CIA, corrupt politicians, or terrorists is true.

2. It isn't just the extreme and the uneducated who adopt dubious and paranoid theories. They're common in virtually every class of society, including the allegedly sober center. Educated professionals are an in-group, and in-groups will always come up with ways to fear and demonize members of out-groups.

To some extent that might fit Ilya's thesis, if you figure that social classes are rationally ignorant of the doings of other parts of society. But Ilya's theories aren't enough to cover the whole phenomenon. For instance:

3. Richard Nixon was not "rationally ignorant" of politics -- quite the opposite -- but he was an intensely paranoid man (and remained prone to conspiracism until his life: he believed Vince Foster was murdered, for example). In that case -- and in many other cases, I suspect -- a sort of projection was involved.

While I'm not a big fan of Hofstadter's famous essay on the paranoid style, I think his discussion of the way projection plays into conspiracy theorizing was on target. It's a pity he couldn't apply that insight to his own circle, and see how their fears of the "radical right" resembled the right's fear of communist subversion...
4.25.2008 10:55pm
Gaius Marius:
Barack Hussein Mohamad Obama is going to sell Israel out to Hamas and Iran.
4.25.2008 11:11pm
LM (mail):
Interested Observer,

I don't know anyone who says Occam's Razor guarantees simple answers. I don't know anyone who doubts the importance of questioning authority. And I don't know anyone who assumes conspiracy theorists are crazy. The conspiracy theorists I know do have an exceptional ability to distort their powers of observation and reason with ideology, and your own Manichaean take on these questions suggests you may have similar tendencies. But that doesn't make them or you crazy.

We solve "what happened" problems by drawing the best inference from available evidence, and Occam's Razor applies. When evidence is irreconcilable with an explanation, the explanation is compromised. But the mere existence of unanswered questions doesn't disprove the explanation.

My problem with 9/11 Truthers isn't that they asked questions. I followed the early debate with interest. But when their questions were answered, they cherry-picked and distorted the answers, manufactured contradictions, came up with new questions and just generally persisted in the same deceptive game of whack-a-mole many evolution skeptics play.

As explanations eliminated the legitimate questions, I got put off by the flimsy, tendentious arguments Truthers used to keep the issue alive. I'm sure there are people who honestly think questions remain unanswered, when in fact they're just never-ending. And the false pretext for the whole enterprise is that we should withhold our confidence in explanations until everything knowable about a thing is known. Of course if we did that, our whole world would unravel. We're constantly and successfully relying on understandings drawn from less than complete information.

Finally, there's the matter of the evidentiary double standard Truthers apply to the official 9/11 narrative and their own often mind-bogglingly improbable theories. But don't get me started....
4.26.2008 1:10am
Bruce:
Senator X and Jesse Walker raise the same very good point. Several very sophisticated politicians have embraced conspiracy theories. Many of the Founders did, for example, with respect to Britain. Also, Abraham Lincoln and a large part of the antebellum Republican Party believed in a "Slave-Power Conspiracy" in which Southern planters in effect planned to take over the entire United States. (I'm not saying that the slave economy wasn't expansionist. Just that I don't think it quite went that far.)
4.26.2008 1:38am
K Parker (mail):
Tony,

Whoa! For a moment, you really had me going with your "Obama's nuanced positions", until I noticed your <sarcasm> tags.
4.26.2008 4:24am
Consenting:
Ilya: "a great reduction in cost of acquiring accurate political information in the age of the internet and 24 hour cable news."

OK. I agree with you in almost all aspects regarding rational ignorance and rational irrationality.

But did you REALLY want to say that the cost of acquiring ACCURATE political information has gone DOWN because of, say, FOX News? I watch that channel every day in part to amuse myself with the voluminous distortions and inaccuracies I count. [Jon Stewart's The Daily Show did a brilliant 2-part dissection of Fox recently, available on YouTube.]
4.26.2008 4:31am
Brett Bellmore:
I think part of the problem is the degree of contempt the media have for conspiracy theorizing of any sort; It leads them to not bother responding to the conspiracy theory with rational argument and evidence. After all, most conspiracy theories are not utterly devoid of evidence in their favor, so the flat denial without evidence or argument becomes a kind of "Which are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" situation.

For instance, the proverbial "Black helicopters" really do exist, and have been photographed. And there's a non-conspiracy explanation for them. But a flat media denial that they exist, reaching the point that the phrase has become a shorthand for loony conspiracy theories, leaves the conspiracy theory as the only available explanation.
4.26.2008 9:02am
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):

or that the Iraq War was cooked up for the secret purpose of enriching Halliburton and Dick Cheney are among the latest examples

Are you saying that the Iraq war hasn't enriched Haliburton and Cheney? I'm not aware that this was ever a secret. It is rational ignorance for most people to be poorly informed about how Brown and Root has prospered by providing services to governments and politicians.
The paranoid style has better explanatory power than the pollyanna model. To conspire is to breathe together. It's what people do. The world is an ecology of competing and interlocking conspiracies. Some are more effective than others. The one where I'm commenting right now, the volokh conspiracy, is more effective than most.
4.26.2008 9:03am
Baldwin (mail):
A related question is why so few people are similarly paranoid in their personal lives. Many more people believe that a government conspiracy caused the 9/11 attacks than believe that their coworkers or acquiantances are out to get them.

Oh, I don't suppose it could be because the odds that my coworkers and acquaintances are members of secret societies like the Skull and Bones are considerably smaller than the odds that the power elite are, huh?
4.26.2008 9:51am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I would like to say that the current favorite right wing conspiracy (and quite popular among the commenters on this site and libertarians in general) is that global warming is some kind of conspiracy cooked up by some huge cabal (not quite sure controlled by whom--but it must be enviro-whackos, euro-weenies and anti-gun nuts, maybe socialists too) to destroy the economy of the United States (again for reasons that are not quite clear).
4.26.2008 11:24am
Dan Weber (www):
My problem with 9/11 Truthers isn't that they asked questions. I followed the early debate with interest. But when their questions were answered, they cherry-picked and distorted the answers, manufactured contradictions, came up with new questions and just generally persisted in the same deceptive game of whack-a-mole many evolution skeptics play.

Yeah, it's the same old song.

I remember when the truthers started, and were all gaga over the "steel doesn't melt at those temperatures." And they were right, steel doesn't melt. But it does weaken significantly.

And their response to this was "oh, okay, then never mind."

Ha ha, just kidding. What happened was that they came up with a new theory. It's well known phenomenon, called "moving the goalposts."

Now we've got the "freefall theory." When it turns out to be crap (that is, when someone shows them what happens when a 20X mass hits series of 1X mass objects), they'll move onto something else, and wonder why people aren't taking them seriously. In fact, that'll be the proof they need to keep themselves going.
4.26.2008 11:47am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
To convince voters of the putative wisdom of reducing the size of government, you'd have to remedy their ignorance. Alternatively, if the voters immediately accepted your proposed course of action, it would suggest that they aren't materially ignorant.
4.26.2008 11:48am
SenatorX (mail):
JFT I can help clear your confusion on that. The theory goes global warming is a scheme to tax the developed nations. The reason for reducing the developed nation's economies while raising the bottom tier economies is to prepare for a one world government. The thinking goes that U.S. citizens for example would not accept a world government unless it was sold as more favorable than the current existence. If you have something you want to implement you first create a problem where your plan is the solution. Supposedly "the plan" is to decrease the standard of living in the 1st world and raise the standard in the 3rd world until some egalitarian midpoint, whether the citizens of the 1st world like it or not. Add some good old fashion carbon trading profits and shake.

I don't know if any of this is true but I have seen with my own eyes world bank members talk about having to lower the wealth of the developed nations if they are going to raise the wealth of the poor nations. I remember one just about a year ago talk about this with one hand high in the air to represent the U.S. (which she brings down) and the other hand real low which she brings up (representing the third world). She said it with a smile and declared it a fact that had to happen.
4.26.2008 11:52am
SenatorX (mail):
Maybe Nietzsche was on to something about power and impotence. Not power in an absolute sense but in a relative sense in respect to an individuals feeling of power. If a King was losing control over some area of his kingdom and no-matter what was tried he couldn't control it, his feeling of power would be slipping. Maybe the trend to blame conspiracies for misfortune is tied to a feeling of impotence which can strike high and low and cross education as well (just because you are educated doesn't necessarily mean you are wise).

This would take into account the trend toward negative conspiracies (what makes me feel weak is what is bad).

It would also account for what other commenters have noticed where some people above average intelligence(imagination) imply "I have secret wisdom that the proles are too dumb to understand". Basically a psychological mechanism maybe for coping with a feeling of impotence.
4.26.2008 12:34pm
genob:

I remember one just about a year ago talk about this with one hand high in the air to represent the U.S. (which she brings down) and the other hand real low which she brings up (representing the third world).


Heck, the leading candidate for the President of the United States doesn't even care if the low hand comes up at all....he just wants to be sure to bring the upper hand down out of "fairness". Punishing success far more important than actually helping anyone.

MR. GIBSON: And in each instance, when the rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down. So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?

SENATOR OBAMA: Well, Charlie, what I've said is that I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.
4.26.2008 1:19pm
Fub:
J. F. Thomas wrote at 4.26.2008 10:24am:
I would like to say that the current favorite right wing conspiracy (and quite popular among the commenters on this site and libertarians in general) is that global warming is some kind of conspiracy cooked up by some huge cabal (not quite sure controlled by whom--but it must be enviro-whackos, euro-weenies and anti-gun nuts, maybe socialists too) to destroy the economy of the United States (again for reasons that are not quite clear).
I don't view the proponents of anthropogenic global warming theories, or those proponents' political "solutions" to its implications, as a conspiracy. I don't think most other conservative or libertarian commenters here do either.

I think the more characteristic conservative or libertarian view is that the AGW political movement is simply explained as emergence or emergent behavior of groups of actors with readily identifiable interests and beliefs. Emergent behavior may look like an actual conspiracy to some, and sometimes it can be the result of an actual conspiracy. But no conspiracy is necessary for the phenomenon to exist.
4.26.2008 2:05pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?

Actually, this was such an incredibly dishonest and stupid question Obama should have actually answered: "Charlie, you are a frigging idiot and I am not going to dignify such an outrageously biased misstatement of the facts with a response."

Most of the people who own stocks do so through some kind of retirement plan (e.g., 401(K)'s or IRA's). Of course, those are taxed differently than ordinary capital gains and generally taxed as ordinary income upon retirement (and taxed even more severely than even ordinary income if you cash them out early). Even for that portion of the 100 million people who do dabble in trading stocks and other equities other than through their retirement programs, again, tax on ordinary income is by far the greatest portion of their taxable income. The proportion of the population that will see a significant difference in their tax bill because of changes in the capital gains rate is very small and mostly in the top brackets.
4.26.2008 2:28pm
genob:
Who cares how small the number is? 100 million or 1 million. Obama thinks its fine to punish success a lot, even if it means harming everyone a little (If raising the rate actually lowers revenues) just out of some screwed up notion of "fairness." Better we are all poor together seems to be his idea of "fair." And is indicative of the broader zero sum notion that rich countries need to get poorer even if it doesn't benefit poorer nations.
4.26.2008 3:02pm
jccamp:
"That way, fewer of our decisions will be made by electoral processes in which ignorance-driven paranoia plays a major role."

Too late. The decision is in.

The Onion
4.26.2008 4:43pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
I think there is a much simpler explanation for the prevalence of conspiracy thinking in recent years: the prevalence of conspiracies and secret history as plots for popular drama and fiction.

The Da Vinci Code
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Matrix
Kill Bill
The Bourne Supremacy
Minority Report
Men in Black
Enemy of the State
National Treasure

In some of these the conspiracy element is played for laughs, e.g. Men in Black; but in many, the assumptions about secret armies, the CIA, or even stranger forces are taken for granted.

If I had a quarter for every paperback thriller I've seen where the Vice President or Attorney General was part of some devilish plot, I could buy a big pizza.

It's well known that when men read a bunch of pron, they start to think that sexual promiscuity is normal. When people read a lot of fiction (or see a lot of drama) where high-level conspiracies are rife, wouldn't they tend to think such conspiracies are common?
4.26.2008 6:48pm
Doc Rampage (mail) (www):
About evolution and global warming as conspiracy theories: I think there is a confusion of categories here. The subjects of conspiracy theories are understood to be secret conspiracies where not only the agendas but the actors are hidden. No one thinks that evolution or global warming are conspiracies in this sense regardless of what words they may use to describe the opposition.

The creationists and the global-warming skeptics are not making any claims that are different in kind from those made by their opponents. Evolution and global-warming proponents are just as happy to accuse creationists and global-warming skeptics of non-rational motives as the reverse. Evolutionists are accused of manufacturing evidence in their efforts to get rid of God; creationists are accused of ignoring evidence when it contradicts the Bible. Global-warming proponents are accused of trying to change the balance of global power by penalizing the industrialized nations; global-warming skeptics are accused of being paid by the oil companies.

In either case it's a bit silly to accuse one side unilaterally of being conspiracy-minded. However, I do have to disagree with the commenter who claimed that all conspiracy theories seem to come from the Left. Many conspiracy theories are politics-neutral in the beginning or come from the Right. But the Left is willing to embrace these conspiracy theorists and the Right kicks them out. That's why they all eventually come to be seen as a part of the Left.
4.26.2008 10:12pm
LM (mail):
Doc,

Funny, I have a couple of right wing friends who used to bend my ear off about the Clintons' murder of Vince Foster. If they've been "kicked out" nobody told them about it. And you might want to look into the political leanings of the 9/11 Truthers. I can't speak to percentages, but an awful lot of them are acolytes of someone who, last I checked, was still running for President as a Republican.
4.26.2008 10:27pm
Doc Rampage (mail) (www):
Sure, there are some conspiracy theories about the Clintons. But Republican politicians don't pander to those conspiracy theorists the way that Democrats pander to JFK and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. In fact Republicans often publicly scold people who hold such views when they come up.

Also, Ron Paul isn't a counter-example to my point, he supports it. He is a wacko conspiracy theorist who was never treated seriously by the other Republican candidates, was repeatedly trashed by the large majority of Republican-leaning pundits (and lost more support among them as his conspiracy theories became known), and was soundly rejected by the voters. As to the voters who supported him, if only 5% of Republicans are prone to conspiracy theories then the Republicans are doing a lot better than the Democrats on that score.
4.27.2008 1:40am
LM (mail):
Which Democratic politicians more mainstream than Ron Paul pander to 9/11 conspiracy theorists?
4.27.2008 3:03am
Bruce Wilder (www):
Reading the comments thread, I am impressed by the extent to which people use "conspiracy" and "conspiracy theory" to dismiss accurate thumbnail summaries of political movements and policies.

"Bush invaded Iraq for the oil" is, perhaps, too brief an analysis, but it is not a conspiracy theory. That the profit derived by Republican corporate stalwarts like Bechtel, Halliburton and Blackwater shaped aspects of Republican policy in Iraq is a fact, not a conspiracy theory.

Historically, Lincoln criticized the Slavepower interest, and famously charged that Douglas, Pierce, Buchanan and Taney were "working together" to further the interest of the Slavepower interest in extending slavery in the U.S. Lincoln's point was not to charge that a small cabal was in conspiracy, but to show how Douglas, while claiming a perfect independence from Buchanan and Taney, was, as a matter of practical effect, cooperating and coordinating with the them to advance the Slavepower interest. Douglas naturally derided this as a conspiracy theory. Not because Lincoln's actually was a conspiracy theory -- certainly not in the clinical, paranoid sense -- but because deriding Lincoln's theory of Douglas's politics was rhetorically effective.

It should be noted that Buchanan and Taney actually were conspiring along exactly the lines Lincoln argued that they were cooperating. That is, Buchanan and Taney actually communicated with each other and coordinated their actions. Douglas, Buchanan's intra-party enemy, certainly did not "conspire".

One of the most famous "conspiracies" of recent years was Hillary Clinton's "Vast Right-wing Conspiracy" to bring down her husband's Presidency. Mrs. Clinton's ill-advised use of the word, conspiracy, made the charge a joke. In fact, Richard Mellon Scaife and others financed and coordinated relentless attacks and investigations and "scandals", including the bogus Paula Jones suit. Kenneth Starr was rewarded for his efforts by an appointment at Pepperdine University, a recipient of considerable Scaife largess. "Conspiracy theory"?

Calling it such may be more useful to those wishing to deny the phenomenon, than to those wishing to describe it.
4.27.2008 3:06am
HughManatee (mail) (www):
What an amazingly ignorant board. Only one person mentioned CIA drug trafficking.

You people need to do some reading and quit patting yourselves on the back for apparently not knowing anything about history, military-intelligence, or psy-ops.

The CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, DoD, etc. do what they want and rely on a massive sophisticated propaganda system to keep the public behaving predictably for national security purposes.

Ever studied the WWII-era Office of War Information?
Ever studied the OSS?
Ever studied how Hollywood and Disney were taken over by the Office of War Information to make propaganda?
Have you studied this relationship post-WWII?

Have you studied how the CIA became a covert Ministry of Culture using fronts like the Congress for Cultural Freedom to co-opt the European left? This is de-classified information.
Read Frances Stonor Saunders' book, 'Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War.'

Gee, would the CIA do social engineering in the US, too?

They certainly did mind control experiments and drug testing in MKULTRA.
And along with the FBI's COINTELPRO, suppressed political dissent with their own Operation CHAOS during the 1960s and 1970s.

Did you know that a 1999 jury determined that a US government conspiracy murdered Martin Luther King?
Did you read the transcripts with all the witnesses that came forward after decades of fearfully keeping quiet? People were murdered to hide that FBI crime.

Did you know that the House Select Committee on Assassinations determined in 1979 that JFK was murdered by a conspiracy?

Did you know that forensics and laws of physics prove Sirhan Sirhan is innocent of shooting live ammo into RFK?
Do you know who the CIA-LAPD officers were that helped disappear evidence of way too many bullets fired for just one gun?

This information is openly available to people who know how to find trustworthy sources to read that aren't professional disinformationists.

Read some ex-CIA whistleblowers-
>Philip Agee
>Victor Marchetti
>John Stockwell
>Ralph McGehee
>Ex-DEA whistleblower, Michael Levine
>Ex-FBI William Turner
>Ex-LAPD Mike Ruppert

Read some ex-State department whistleblowers-
>William Blum
>John Marks

Read some honest lawyers-
>Mark Lane
>William Pepper

Read some ex-military whistleblowers-
Operation Watchtower?
Operation George Orwell?

Operation Mockingbird-
>Read at his own website Carl Bernstein's 1977 article based on leaked senate hearings about CIA-run mainstream media.
>Read Deborah Davis' 1979 book about Katherine Graham's Washington Post and the CIA, 'Katherine the Great.' Ben Bradlee got the first printing shredded for outing his CIA ties.

Church Senate subcommittee hearings?
Operation Gladio?
Operation Northwoods?
IranContra?

9/11-
>The sight of yellow-hot molten metal pouring out of the buildings before coming down?

>The chemical signature of thermite and huge pools of unquenchable molten metal for many weeks after 9/11 under the three destroyed World Trade Center buildings?

>The first responders' oral histories suppressed by Mayor Giuliani until a judge released them in August 2005?

>Seems the firemen heard and saw bombs, a controlled demolition, just as the physical evidence proves.

>Any legit video/photo of the Twin Towers shows the debris being thrown hundreds of feet horizontally and even vertically by massive explosive forces.

So quit posturing about "those ignorant conspiracists with their psychological problems" and do your reading homework to see what kind of planning (conspiring) is standard operating procedure for military-intelligence.

You just might start with Suen Wuu's 'The Art of War' written aprox. 510 B.C.--
"War is primarily a game of deception."
4.27.2008 3:47am
LM (mail):
Doc Rampage,

By the way, the actors don't have to be hidden for there to be a conspiracy theory. Only the conspiracy does. Most of the Truther conspiracies, for example, revolve around George Bush, hardly a hidden figure. The Queen of England and David Rockefeller also figure prominently in popular conspiracies, and I think the secret is out that they exist too.

And there certainly is a conspiracy theory around evolution. It says God-hating scientists are defrauding us with a junk science theory they ginned up as a Trojan horse to replace religion and traditional values with a culture of materialism. That's classic conspiracy theory stuff. It's fundamentally different than creationist efforts to de-legitimize evolution in defense of their religious narratives. Those are open and, by the way, real. That each side accuses the other of lying isn't the point. Only one side says the other has a broad secret social agenda, unrelated to its subject matter which implicitly makes its whole enterprise fraudulent.
4.27.2008 3:58am
Uncle $cam (mail) (www):
Could we ask the NSA for copies of all the those emails Cheney's been deleting?
4.27.2008 8:27am
SusanC:
I don't think conspiracy theories are caused by ignorance of the details (though, to be sure, in many cases there is evidence against the conspiracy theory that its supporters are ignoring).

The problem seems to be more with the type of explanation: the conspiracy theorist supposes that events where deliberately planned by someone, and brought about intentionally.

But perhaps we have situations where large numbers of people (each following their own agenda, and intentionally acting to achieve a local effect they individually deem desirable) combine together to have a global effect that no-one planned or anticipated.

Markets are a good example of this: Today I might decide to sell some of my shares for any number of idiosyncratic and personal reasons, such as wanting the money for a holiday. Large numbers of people making these kind of individual decisions affect the share price without them all needing to (secretly) agree on a plan: "Today will reduce the share price by 5c."

But outside of the specialized vocabulary of economics or physics, we don't have very good ways of talking about these kinds of emergent properties. What we have instead is plenty of vocabulary for talking about intentional behaviour, where people plan to do things.

So I might guess that conspiracy theories are down to the limitations of human language and cognition - most people are not good at reasoning about or describing emergent properties. This might be very hard to fix - for example, if there are genetic and biological bases to our abilities to reason about the intentions of individual humans, and we have no corresponding "mental module" for the emergent properties of large-scale societies. (cf. the research on autism for evidence that reasoning about the intentions of other humans is different from reasoning about inanimate objects).
4.27.2008 8:44am
SusanC:

That way, fewer of our decisions will be made by electoral processes in which ignorance-driven paranoia plays a major role.


But "paranoid" conspiracy theories also effect markets. For example, if large numbers of people falsely believe that a product is harmful, then it won't sell very well.
4.27.2008 8:52am
Doc Rampage (mail) (www):
LM, does John Edwards qualify?

Also, the actors don't need to be hidden but their involvement does. The Truther theory is that Bush was involved in the 9/11 event.

There certainly are and always have been many God-hating scientists who were outspoken supporters of evolution. They have written voluminously about their contempt and even spite for religion. When you combine this with the documented cases of suppression of dissenting views and of fossil fraud, it is no conspiracy theory to say that these cases are motivated by hatred of religion and that there have been other cases that were not documented.

Just to be clear, I don't agree with these ideas (except for the part where irrational hostility plays a part in the suppression of dissenting views), but these ideas are more in the "Bush invaded Iraq to enrich Haliburton" category than the "Bush planned 9/11" category.
4.27.2008 3:20pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
SusanC: ". . . the conspiracy theorist supposes that events were deliberately planned by someone, and brought about intentionally."

Certainly, that's never happened in the Bush Administration.

Ilya Somin: "the Iraq War was cooked up for the secret purpose of enriching Halliburton and Dick Cheney"

I think SusanC raises an important point: we do struggle to "explain" outcomes and events which are the product of complex interaction. I don't think it is because we lack appropriate language, so much as the limitations of the human psyche demand compact, succinct summaries and principles, and the human psyche demands moral narratives -- we are story-telling animals. The language of intention is favored, because it is compact, and because it accords. Actor A wanted and intended and struggled and worked and fought to bring about about Outcome X, by means of Policy P. The intending and struggling and "fighting" satisfies the need for a moral narrative, and the formula is brief, with few elements.

The fact that Policy P was strategic, focused on anticipating, responding to, or provoking Actor B, and that the policy was changed adaptively during the course of events, and Actor B and Actor A, together produced an outcome that neither entirely "intended" at the outset is part of the detailed complexity and emergent nature of reality. But, human brains require a reduction to conceptual models, metaphor, statistical summaries, E=MC2 and "survival of the fittest" or economic "supply and demand". Abstraction and generalization serve the limits of human information processing capability.

The human need for compact analysis combines with the human need for narrative stories on a few archetypal templates to produce four kinds of "conspiracy" explantions:
1.) the actual secret cabal manipulating events, saying one thing and doing another, cooperating while claiming to act independently;
2.) the metaphorical conspiracy, which is actually a political movement, loosely organized, but organized, and acting cooperatively, perhaps over a long period of time; the Project for a New American Century, which supplied much of the pre-baked rationale for invading and occuplying Iraq, as well as key Administration personnel for the Iraq policy, was such a metaphorical conspiracy.
3.) the paranoid conspiracy, which is a psychological pathology functioning, perhaps, as an emotional defense -- "they are out to get me" Paranoia feeds on the human capacity to discern patterns and hidden reality from scant evidence, but not in a good way.
4.) the derisive conspiracy, or "conspiracy" in scare quotes, which makes a metaphor out of 3.) and applies that metaphor to claims from a political opponent, as a way of denigrating the opponent or the claims or both. The opponent may be using 1) or 2) to summarize his claims, which naturally invites 4).

I think Ilya Somin was using 4, when he brought up the Iraq War. Sure, the fact that Cheney made several millions of dollars from the Bush Administration policy of squandering American treasure, blood and honor in Iraq is probably merely incidental to Cheney's advocacy of that policy of American self-destruction; Cheney, after all, is an honorable man.

The need for moral narrative and compact analysis means that we are never going to stop chasing our tails in often unproductive "debate" that centers on challenging the bumperstickers with which human beings "think", as oversimplified or ill-advised. The best bumpersticker summaries, exemplified by principles and insights of science, are the product of carefully constructed and examined intellectual compression. The science consists in understanding the rules and apparatus used to pack a vast amount of knowledge into Darwin's principle of evolution by natural selection, say, or the marginal principle in economics. Politics, at its best, engages in such construction -- ideology relies on such construction, providing a superstructure to support a bumpersticker, rationalizing worldview into arguments over principle.

Conspiracies and political movements (which are not secret conspiracies among small cabals, but which can, nevertheless, endeavor to obscure their intentions and reach, in the manner of a conspiracy) are part of the way the world works, and things get done. So is paranoia.

Conspiracy theories are just one aspect of a general political argument over responsibility and possibility. If you oppose withdrawing from Iraq, you are argue that it is now possible to withdraw. If you've supported a President, who has lost wars and destroyed the economy with his incompetence, malfeasance and corruption, you argue, "most of the things that Presidential elections are about are things that the President can't do anything about anyway."

It is not that we don't have language to understand that actions have consequences, even in an interdependent and complex world, it is that too many don't have the incentive.
4.27.2008 4:04pm
HughManatee (mail) (www):
Mischaracterizing 'the 9/11 truther theory, as "Bush-did-it" is a straw man.

That's NOT what is posited by most of us.
Most likely, a rogue cell within US intelligence decided to write some history and get the oil occupation launched much further into the sand by using double-agents as patsies, possibly software-controlled and beacon-assisted planes, and PROVEN controlled demolition as the unexpected Big Finale.

Many institutions were poised and ready to take advantage of the next big *boom.* Plans for invading Afghanistan were already in motion for oil pipeline reasons that the signatories to the Project for the New American Century global dominance plan had already very publicly declared online.
The PNAC even mentioned the need for a "new Pearl Harbor" to start the plan rolling into history.
Many of the Bush-Cheney administration insiders are part of PNAC. What a coincidence!

A 1998 security conference was held about the culture shift and security plans to be put in place (Patriot Act) after a catastrophic terrorist event. This conference had all the CIA-FBI-CFR honchos there including Phillip Zelikow who later played the Allen Dulles role on the 9/11 Omission Panel's version of the Warren Commission.

So there seems to be a plausibly deniable complicity dynamic along the lines of "Who will rid me of this priest?"-messaging that things would be just great for the military-industrial-CFR-media complex once something big goes *boom*. Raises for everyone and the public doesn't get that damned 'Peace Dividend' they were whining about.
And this dynamic was decades old since this is how the illusion of the Cold War was kept going, too.

Somebody heard this ready answer just waiting for the question and applied their technological savvy to recharging the war machine for a few more decades of massive profits and social control.

The media cover-up mechanisms (in place since WWII) were already tested from WTC'93, OKCity, and TWA800.

The FBI had an informant in the WTC'93 bombing and allowed it to happen. Documented. Complicit judges here and there help with these things.

Physics proves that bombs were planted in OKCity, too. General Partin, a Pentagon ordinance expert, researched this and published the proof which any junior high school student can understand, just like the Conservation of Momentum at the World Trade Center.
The initial news reports that day reported unexploded bombs being cleared. People were murdered to cover this up, like Officer Yeakey who was absurdly declared a suicide.

Hundreds of witnesses, including pilots, and radar saw a missile shoot down TWA800. Chemical testing on recovered materials found the missile rocket fuel. All covered up and journalists likw Kristina Borjesson were fired who reported the truth. CIA produced an animation that defied the laws of physics, just as they did for 9/11.
Standard operating procedure for capping an inconvenient truth.

This is just a thumbnail of suppressed history.
Those of you who really eschew political ignorance will follow up.
4.27.2008 4:06pm
LM (mail):
Doc,

Just to be clear, I don't agree with these ideas (except for the part where irrational hostility plays a part in the suppression of dissenting views), but these ideas are more in the "Bush invaded Iraq to enrich Haliburton" category than the "Bush planned 9/11" category.

I suppose there are some that fall into each category, and the difference is one of degree, not kind. Certainly many truthers believe the Haliburton narrative. It's hard to say that doesn't make it all part of one consistent theory. It's also hard to say how much you'd have to trim from the 9/11 part to turn it into simple partisan delusion. I think these things are fairly fluid. For example, what about, "OBL's hijackers blew up the WTC with Bush's prior knowledge and tacit complicity?" Active complicity? He had nothing to do with the bombing, but saw its advantages, so he had NORAD stand down, and snuck the Saudis out of the country knowing their complicity? At some point the semantic limits of "conspiracy theory" are hair splitting.
4.27.2008 5:05pm
Pazdispenser (mail):
Prof. Somin -

I do hope, for your sake, that this article, its suppositions, aspersions, and lazy logic, in no way, relate to the thesis you will be defending at Harvard.

Really, in the face of all the incidents HughManatee points out,
1999 jury determined that a US government conspiracy murdered Martin Luther King?
House Select Committee on Assassinations determined in 1979 that JFK was murdered by a conspiracy?
[F]orensics and laws of physics prove Sirhan Sirhan is innocent of shooting live ammo into RFK?
CIA-LAPD officers were that helped disappear evidence of way too many bullets fired for just one gun?
Operation Watchtower?
Operation George Orwell?

Operation Mockingbird?
Church Senate subcommittee hearings?
Operation Gladio?
Operation Northwoods?
IranContra?
(plus, I would add the bombing of the Maine and the Gulf of Tonkin incident), isnt the more compelling question,

"Why would rational politically informed Americans (most assuredly, those libertarian legal-wonkish types on Volokh, for example) NOT entertain conspiracy as a matter of course in looking at what 21st-century America has become?"

In getting a Masters in Public Policy, I had to develop and defend a cost-benefit analysis. I chose a topic where I had a certain notion as to what was the "right" course, but it was, in no way clear that that would be the most economic course. To add rigor to my assessment, I performed the analysis from the opposing view (ie, what I perceived to be a cost was, to some parties, a benefit). I would not have achieved the top marks I did, without approaching the analysis from something other than my default perspective.

Prof. Somin, your thinking on conspiracy is in need of a similar exercise. But then, its been my experience, introspection into the very topics some very elite professors claim their bailiwick is often in order. While studying for a Masters in Operations Engineering, from the top ranked (at the time) institution in that field, I found the professor of organizational design focusing on worker motivation alienated his students, the professor teaching Scheduling theory lumped all the work in the course at the end of the semester, and the just-in-time expert needed to chedule an extra class session because he could not manage his lecturing on topic. And it would seem that, with published papers like "Knowledge about Ignorance: New Directions in the Study of Political Information" on your CV, you most definetly dont want to go the way of my esteemed professors, focusing all their energy, expertise, intellectual capital, and reputation on a field they study, but really dont get.
4.27.2008 5:48pm
chlamor:
From Michael Parenti:

Those who suffer from conspiracy phobia are fond of saying: "Do you actually think there's a group of people sitting around in a room plotting things?" For some reason that image is assumed to be so patently absurd as to invite only disclaimers. But where else would people of power get together - on park benches or carousels? Indeed, they meet in rooms: corporate boardrooms, Pentagon command rooms, at the Bohemian Grove, in the choice dining rooms at the best restaurants, resorts, hotels, and estates, in the many conference rooms at the White House, the NSA, the CIA, or wherever. And, yes, they consciously plot - though they call it "planning" and "strategizing" - and they do so in great secrecy, often resisting all efforts at public disclosure. No one confabulates and plans more than political and corporate elites and their hired specialists. To make the world safe for those who own it, politically active elements of the owning class have created a national security state that expends billions of dollars and enlists the efforts of vast numbers of people.

Yet there are individuals who ask with patronizing, incredulous smiles, do you really think that the people at the top have secret agendas, are aware of their larger interests, and talk to each other about them? To which I respond, why would they not? This is not to say that every corporate and political elite is actively dedicated to working for the higher circles of power and property. Nor are they infallible or always correct in their assessments and tactics or always immediately aware of how their interests are being affected by new situations. But they are more attuned and more capable of advancing their vast interests than most other social groups.

The alternative is to believe that the powerful and the privileged are somnambulists, who move about oblivious to questions of power and privilege; that they always tell us the truth and have nothing to hide even when they hide so much; that although most of us ordinary people might consciously try to pursue our own interests, wealthy elites do not; that when those at the top employ force and violence around the world it is only for the laudable reasons they profess; that when they arm, train, and finance covert actions in numerous countries, and then fail to acknowledge their role in such deeds, it is because of oversight or forgetfulness or perhaps modesty; and that it is merely a coincidence how the policies of the national security state so consistently serve the interests of the transnational corporations and the capital-accumulation system throughout the world.
4.27.2008 6:12pm
AlienSpaceBat:
Wow ! Not only blissful in ignorance, but patronisingly dismissive too.

Whereas the intellectually challenged attempt to make sense of a complex world by 'conspiracy theory', if only they were as wise as the majority view in these comments and took their reality from what has been decided for them by higher authorities ! If ever there is a lazy and simplistic way to attempt to understand then surely it is to swallow whole someone else's analysis ?

Surely no-one truly believes, for example, that Oswald really was a lone nut and no others were involved ?

The truth of the JFK story will probably never be known, and I doubt that 9/11 will ever be fully explained. That, however, does not mean that the convenient official accounts are true.

You fall into the trap of observing others, who seeing inconsistency, deception, cover-up and misdirection attempt to come up with alternative hypotheses to explain events. When some of these are far out and unlikely (eg there were no planes involved in 9/11) it does not mean that the official account must be true, and that all attempts to question it are to be described by the catchall 'conspiracy theory' and immediately discounted.

Engage your critical faculties. Ask cui bono ?

You need to try harder, and look more carefully.
4.27.2008 6:41pm
LM (mail):

You fall into the trap of observing others, who seeing inconsistency, deception, cover-up and misdirection attempt to come up with alternative hypotheses to explain events. When some of these are far out and unlikely (eg there were no planes involved in 9/11) it does not mean that the official account must be true, and that all attempts to question it are to be described by the catchall 'conspiracy theory' and immediately discounted.

100% US Grade A straw.
4.27.2008 7:11pm
LM (mail):
... and Doc, I just watched that John Edwards video. That wasn't pandering. He obviously had no idea what the whole nonsense was about, and only promised to look into it. Looking into something you know nothing about is the intelligent thing to do.
4.28.2008 6:04am
SusanC:
Although "conspiracy theory" is often a term of derision, some conspiracies are fairly well supported by the evidence.

For example: the trade in illegal drugs. For illegal drugs to be imported into the U.S., and distributed and sold, a moderately large number of people need to plan in secret to do something illegal.
[Of ourse, there may be several drugs acting independently. But my point is that any single drug smuggling operation necessarily involves quite a few people.]

As a second example: terrorist groups like the IRA. Some actions by the IRA were clearly illegal, and it is also clear that there was an organization behind them with many members. It's a matter of public record that Gerry Adams is the leader of Sinn Fein.
4.28.2008 8:54am
Dan Weber (www):
Are there 9/11 Truthers who don't believe in a missile taking down TWA800?

I admit that I hadn't heard that there were bombs inside OKC. That's a new one for me.
4.28.2008 10:03am
medicis:
There is substantial evidence that elements of the CIA have been involved in cocaine trafficking.

And there is substantial evidence that there is a 'secret government'.

There is substantial evidence that the CIA have been integrally involved in the overthrow of democratically elected populist governments as well as the creation of 'death squads' to murder masses of people.

These sorts of things simply exist and have been well-documented. They are not conspiracy theorist's wet dreams.
4.28.2008 11:25pm