Monday, May 25, 2020

Conspiracy Theories: How to Pick Out the Plausible Ones

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.

11 comments: said...

JFK was assassnate 57 years ago, not nearly eight decades ago.

For quite a long time I took seriously some of the JFK conspiracy theories. It is of course hard to outright disprove a conspiracy theory. in 1974-75 a special committee of the House investigated the assassination, checking on various such theories. I knew a staff person who worked for them. The theory the took the most seriously was the mafia one, although they could never prove it. But it certainly has quite a bit going for it, including that Jack Ruby who killed Oswald as a mafia guy.

However, I have since become more skeptical. Part of this started when I first isited Dealy Plaza in 1987. It is really small, and all those theories about extra shooters in it just suddenly looked pretty weak to me. That, of course, still left those that had Oswald doing it himself by for somebody, the mafia or whomever.

I have sine become more skeptical since reading an article about it published in 2013 on the 0th anniversary in New York Maagazine by Paul Gregory, the old Sovietologist and comparative economist, whnom I know quite well. It turns out when Oswald and Marina arrived in the US it was to Houston, and he was put in touch with the local Russian community, which was more or less led by Paul's dad, who appointed him to be sort of their caretaker, trying to help them get jobs as well as groceries, and so on. Hwe basically said Oswald was such an incompetent loser aside from knowing how to shoot a rifle that nobody would ever get involved in a conspiracy with him. Paul clearly fell for Marina whom Oswald was physically abusing, and it was partlyi because of that they moved to Dalla. Oswald could not hold a job, and it is Paul's view that he did it to impress his wife, who had completel soured on him. Paul was one of the first people the FBI talked to after it happened, and I think played no small role in them coming to the conclusion that Oswald did it by himself, no conspiracy. said...

BTW, Peter, I agree that a sign that a conspiracy theory is not true is when it starts involving lots of people.

Peter Dorman said...

Oops, your arithmetic is right, Barkley. I wonder how six became eight. I'll revise to avoid further head-scratching.

Again, I have no investment in the JFK conspiracy possibility one way or the other. I was intrigued by the evidence Talbot assembles (you should read it -- an interesting book), but it's not conclusive. Maybe yes, maybe no.

Anonymous said...

This is an age of rampant conspiratorialism....

[ Unless this can be supported, I will assume that it is untrue. Conspiracy must have been "rampant" in any number of ages. Possibly it is just that I do not understand this essay. What is the significance, beyond the need to always look for what can be supported or evidence? ]

john c. halasz said...

One should distinguish between conspiracies in the narrow sense, (which can and do occur, but usually to limited effect), and larger scale coordinations between powerful actors and agencies.

A useful analogy would be oligopolies. In the 1990's ADM and several other large grain processing companies, including 2 Japaneses and 2 S. Korean firms, were criminally convicted for a price fixing scheme involving lysine, an amino acid used as a feed supplement in factory farms. The documentary evidence was overwhelming, they were caught dead-to-rights and all pleaded guilty.

But usually no such direct communication between oligopolies is required to maintain a stable arrangement and pricing between market dominant players. Common interests and indirect signaling suffice.

Fred C. Dobbs said...

Massachusetts a half dozen other states have reported more than half of
all their COVID-19 deaths from patients at long-term care facilities via @BostonGlobe

Laura Crimaldi - May 2

The novel coronavirus’s disproportionate impact on long-term care facilities in Massachusetts continued to grow this week, accounting now for nearly 60 percent of all state deaths, one of the highest publicly reported rates in the country.

A half dozen other states — Rhode Island, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Oregon, West Virginia, and Maine, have also reported more than half of all their COVID-19 deaths from patients at long-term care facilities, according to data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Rhode Island appears to have the highest rate in the nation, at about 71 percent, followed by Massachusetts.

Details on infections and deaths within the nation’s nursing homes are spotty — the foundation says only 30 states are publicly reporting data about fatalities in long-term care facilities, angering families and advocates, and making the full impact of the virus’s toll difficult to gauge. ...

“If you have someone in the nursing home, you are just holding your breath,” said Elizabeth Dugan, associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Each day brings new, distressing reports of infection and deaths linked to the disease, which preys on the elderly, frail, and sick. There have been 71 deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, 46 at a nursing home in Lawrence, and 49 at a facility in Belmont.

At least 67 percent of the state’s 476 long-term care facilities have reported one case of infection, according to state data.

Since April 17, coronavirus deaths in long-term care facilities have represented at least half of all deaths in the state and the trend appears to show no signs of abating. ...

Fred C. Dobbs said...

The White House won’t update its economic projections this summer.

The Trump administration will not issue a midyear update to its economic forecasts this summer, breaking decades of tradition amid the uncertainty of a pandemic recession, officials confirmed on Thursday.

The decision will spare the administration from having to reveal its internal projections for how deeply the recession will damage economic growth and how long the pain of high unemployment will persist.

When the administration last published official projections in February, it forecast economic growth of 3.1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2021, and growth rates at or around 3 percent for the ensuing decade. It forecast an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent for the year.

The virus has rendered those projections obsolete. Unemployment could hit 20 percent in June, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told CNN this week. The Congressional Budget Office said in April that it expects the economy will contract by 5.6 percent this year and end with unemployment above 11 percent.

The White House is required by law to issue both an annual budget and a midyear update to it, called a “mid-session review.” Updating economic projections in the mid-session review is optional, but it is a practice that administrations — including President Trump’s — have widely followed since the review was mandated by Congress in 1970.

The decision not to release updated projections was first reported by The Washington Post.

Fred C. Dobbs said...

(At the same link above...)

Another 2.1 million unemployment claims were filed last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, pushing the total past 40 million — the equivalent of one out of every four American workers — since the coronavirus pandemic grabbed hold in mid-March.

The report marks the eighth week in a row that new jobless filings dipped from the peak of almost 6.9 million, but the level is still far above historic highs. ...

Anonymous said...

Fred C. Dobb:

Massachusetts a half dozen other states have reported more than half of
all their COVID-19 deaths from patients at long-term care facilities

[ Both in America and Britain, hospitals routinely transferred coronavirus patients to nursing homes. Also in many states nursing home operators were given legal immunity (including Massachusetts). Also in some cases in America and Britain there was no protection of nursing home staff and no testing of residents of homes...

To be "nice" about the matter, nursing home residents and staff were routinely infected and, yes, killed by policy but equity fund operators will be just fine. ]

Anonymous said...

Fred C. Dobb:

Massachusetts a half dozen other states have reported more than half of
all their COVID-19 deaths from patients at long-term care facilities

[ This was not an accident.
Am I clear enough? ]

Anonymous said...

Fred C. Dobb:

Massachusetts a half dozen other states have reported more than half of
all their COVID-19 deaths from patients at long-term care facilities

[ "Human rights" in America and Britain has nothing to do with men or women as they grow older, but otherwise we are all or, well, mostly for them. ]