This is an age of rampant conspiratorialism. Bill Gates is behind the pandemic because he wants to shoot you full of vaccines. No wait, it’s all those 5G cell towers. Or maybe it’s bioterrorism from China. Or just a hoax perpetrated by international capital to undermine Donald Trump, the people’s tribune. The right wing disinformation machine cranks out this stuff constantly, but paranoid fantasies also emanate from the left/alternative world.
So to counter the conspiracy pandemic, mainstream experts have come forward to advise us on how to detect and puncture unfounded rumors. The problem I see is that sometimes there really are conspiracies, and it isn’t immediately obvious how to separate the ones that might be true from the purely crazy.
In the public interest, I offer the following rule of thumb. A conspiracy, of course, is an agreement by a group of insiders to keep something important secret from the public. If the group is tightly organized, motivated and able to operate separately from those on the outside, it is capable of waging a conspiracy. If you relax these assumptions, however, you need additional groups to hide the initial conspiracy—in other words, secondary conspiracies. And if the secondary conspirators aren’t tight enough a third ring of conspiracies is required. As soon as you find yourself imagining lots of interlocking conspiracies to keep the central one secret you’ve wandered over the line.
Let’s see how this works in a pair of examples. For nearly six decades people have debated whether JFK’s assassination was the work of a conspiracy. I don’t have any particular insight to add, but the kind of plot laid out in David Talbot’s The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government is at least plausible. It’s reasonable to think a secret team of intelligence officials might have carried it out, and if new leads emerge they should be followed up on. That’s because it would take just one fairly small secret action to execute the plot and prevent disclosure: the agents Talbot identifies were closely connected and in the habit of frequently walling themselves off from those outside the club. If the assassination was a CIA hit, a single conspiracy is all it would take to bring it about.
Now consider the claim that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by a cabal of scientists eager to increase their funding, impose a socialist world order or both. What would it take for them to do this? First, there are a lot of climate scientists out there, thousands. They would all have to be in on it. Second, scientific research is not a secretive activity, sequestered from the unwashed. There would have to be ancillary conspiracies among all those who communicate or work in conjunction with the climate plotters: the lab techs, the university research administrators, the journal editors, the funding agencies. You need all these conspiracies to keep the central one secret. And then what about all the people the secondary conspirators come into contact with? How can you prevent other university officials from finding out that some of their colleagues are in cahoots with a nefarious climate plot? Now you’re talking about third-order conspiracies; hell, the whole damn school has to be in on it. Any one conspiracy is a stretch, but if you need conspiracies to cover up the conspiracies that cover up—well, you see the problem.
This can be summarized in a simple test: does the proposed conspiracy entail a small enough number of tightly connected people that only one circle of silence can keep it a secret? If so, maybe you are on to something. If not, if it’s conspiracies all the way down, stay away.
UPDATE: The time lapse between the Kennedy assassination and now has been fixed.