Conspiracies without theories, theories without conspiracies, and theories about conspiracies.

A post last month on /r/slatestarcodex asked whether professors who believe in conspiracy theories should get to keep their jobs. That question seems pretty easy to me – if their beliefs interfere with their teaching, then firing or some other kind of discipline is appropriate, otherwise not. What’s more interesting to me is one of the follow-up comments:

“MKUltra, the Gulf of Tonkin, Bohemian Grove, CIA involvement with the Dalai Lama, Cigarettes causing cancer, the testomony of ‘Nayirah’ before the Gulf War, Operation Mockingbird, CIA involvement in the importation of Cocaine, The Iran-Contra affair, even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster all started as conspiracy theories.”

This is an “outside view” approach to conspiracy theories, and I think it’s the right approach in most cases. Let’s say I want to know whether jet fuel can melt steel beams. Since most of what I know about metallurgy comes from reading useless things on Wikipedia (did you know there’s such a thing as purple gold?) I probably shouldn’t trust my own expertise on the matter. Instead, I should find out what metallurgists are saying.

But let’s say some guy on the internet, claiming to be a metallurgist, says jet fuel can or can’t melt steel beams. How do I know if he’s full of it? I probably look to see whether he has a Ph.D., what school it comes from, whether he seems to be a member of his field in good standing, and so on.

That’s a lot of work, though. And though I could conceivably do that kind of checking for one or two popular conspiracy theories, I couldn’t possibly do it for all of them. I need some kind of general rule for how believable I think conspiracy theories are. And the the Redditor’s approach is basically right – estimate roughly how often conspiracy theories have turned out to be true in the past, and assume that’s the fraction of current conspiracy theories that are true.

Always consider the baseline – that’s Tetlock’s most important advice for guessing correctly about things. But when you’re considering “the baseline”, it’s really important to think carefully about what the baseline actually is. Because I think the Redditor gets this part wrong – I don’t think the Nayirah testimony is a correct baseline case for “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.”

When I think of the core things that are considered “whacko conspiracy theories” – “9/11 was an inside job”, “the government is hiding aliens in Area 51”, and so on – I realize that they meet four criteria:

  1. Conspiracy: There has to be a real or imaginary conspiracy. “The sun revolves around the earth” was not a conpiracy theory even though it was something untrue that many people believed, because there was never a group of people who knew that it was true and tried to convince the public otherwise. Lacking a conspiracy, a theory is just a theory.
  2. Theory: There has to be a theory about the conspiracy. Project MKUltra and (mentioned later in the thread) the Tuskegee syphilis experiments were undeniably conspiracies, but so far as I know, there was never a point when they were “theories” – they went, basically overnight, from being things no one but the conspirators had ever heard of, to being confirmed facts. Lacking a theory, a conspiracy is just a conspiracy.
  3. Fringe: Beyond those two conditions – and I acknowledge this is the squishiest part of my definition – I don’t think that “conspiracy theory” properly applies to all theories about conspiracies. Rather, I think that theories about conspiracies are only “conspiracy theories” if they aren’t mainstream, where “mainstream” is a concept that’s problematic and difficult to define, but nevertheless means something like “you wouldn’t be surprised to see someone claim this in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.”
  4. Fog of War: The theory has to have been around for a while. I’m not sure exactly how long, but I think for most theories there’s a rough sense of “long enough for the fog of war to have cleared.” Sometimes literally – literal war, I mean, not literal fog. It’s not a conspiracy theory yet, if something just happened and we’re still waiting for evidence to come in.

It doesn’t seem to me that the Nayirah testimony fits these criteria very well. Events happened as follows:

  • In October of 1990, a woman named Nayirah testified that she had seen Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators and leave them to die. She was lying, and there was in fact a conspiracy – specifically, a conspiracy by a public relations firm hired by government of Kuwait.
  • The government of Iraq immediately denied her claims. Shortly thereafter, a Reuters story reported that Kuwaiti doctors from the hospital in question also denied the claims.
  • In March of 1991, a reporter claimed on ABC TV New Tonight that Nayirah was lying.
  • In January of 1992, numerous sources reported that Nayirah was lying as part of a conspiracy, with extensive documentation.

The case clearly meets the “conspiracy” criterion. It also meets the “theory” criterion, in that at least some people publicly doubted the story immediately. Which leaves us with the fuzzier “fringe” and “fog of war” criteria – were the doubts mainstream, and how long did the conspiracy remain a secret?

These events happened when I was quite young, so I have no firsthand impression of how “mainstream” the doubters were. The fact that Reuters ran a critical story almost immediately, and ABC ran a critical story six months later, suggests to me that doubts were mainstream – a “respectable” minority opinion, even if most people believed Nayirah’s testimony was true at the time. So it seems like this case fails the “fringe” criterion.

Even if that were not the case, the time between the first accusations of conspiracy and “official” confirmation of the conspiracy was barely over a year, and for much of that time, it was very difficult to get reliable information from Kuwait due to Iraqi occupation, U.S. invasion, and the aftermath thereof. So I think the case fails the “fog of war” criterion as well.

Overall, the Nayirah testimony seems similar to the question, as of 2003, of whether Saddam Hussein had an active chemical or nuclear weapons program. “He does” and “he doesn’t” were both plausible theories that were taken seriously by big-name publications – even if most of those publications took the position that ultimately turned out to be wrong. If you include, in the definition of “mainstream”, partisan publications with generally good reputations for fact-checking – e.g. “small magazines” like Mother Jones or Reason – then mainstream skepticism was widespread.

The 9/11 Truther theories seem much different to me. They seem to meet the “fringe” criterion – I am not aware of any mainstream publication ever treating those theories as credible – and the “fog of war” criterion – seventeen years after the attacks, it seems unlikely that new evidence will come to light.

Let’s take a look at the other examples from the Reddit thread:

  • The MKUltra project ran from 1953 through 1973 and was officially confirmed in 1975. The CIA secretly funded many experiments on human subjects, at least some of which violated then-current ethical standards. That’s certainly a very successful conspiracy. But this one may be a “conpiracy without a theory” – it’s not clear to me that anyone publicly alleged that the CIA was doing mind-control research until it was revealed officially.
  • The second Gulf of Tonkin incident probably counts as a conspiracy – Robert McNamara was informed early on that it probably didn’t happen, and Johnson recorded private doubts in 1965. Senator Wayne Morse raised public doubts almost immediately, and while it’s unclear to me how seriously he was taken at the time, by 1968 his suspicions were mainstream enough that they led to a new round of congressional hearings. It’s tricky to say exactly how long the “conspiracy” lasted, because it had been widely believed for decades but only confirmed definitively in 2005. But it seems to me it was only a “fringe” theory for a couple of years, at most.
  • Bohemian Grove does not seem to be a conpiracy at all, but rather, a private club that shuns outsiders. It’s possible they’re all conspiring about something – anyone got a theory?
  • The CIA Tibetan program was presumably secretive, because it was a CIA program, although it seems to me like the kind of thing that the CIA is supposed to do secretively, so I’m not sure I’d call it a “conspiracy” per se. More importantly, it’s not clear whether there was ever a “theory” about it.
  • There have been widespread suspicions that tobacco causes health problems since well before modern epidemiological research was possible – and before modern spelling as well. The empirical connection between smoking and lung cancer was established in the late 1930s (you know who else wanted you to quit smoking?!) and in the 1950s, non-Nazi scientists realized that Hitler had exactly one good idea. “Smoking causes cancer” was never a “fringe” idea.
  • Operation Mockingbird may refer either to the wiretapping of two journalists or to wider CIA involvement in the media. If it’s the latter, it was publicly confirmed by Rampart magazine in 1967; it’s unclear whether a theory about a conspiracy existed before that.

…and I’m started to get tired of writing. But the overall trend I’m seeing is that almost all alleged “conspiracy theories that turned out to be true” fail at least one of the criteria. I am unable to think of a single example that meets all four criteria and was also later confirmed to be true.

When I say things like “fringe” and “mainstream”, I’m intentionally making an argument about nebulously-defined “respectability.” If I define a conspiracy theory to be an unbelievable theory based on poor evidence, then “all conspiracy theories are false” is pretty much a tautology – so long as you trust my judgement about “unbelievable” and “poor evidence.”

But if I say “a conspiracy theory is anything the New York Times, Mother Jones, and the National Review all agree is ridiculous”, then “all conspiracy theories are false” is controversial indeed. There’s still a bit of a circular quality to the argument – “respectable” publications are the ones that are widely respected – but I’m referring not to the thorny question of who deserves to be respected, but the easier question of who actually commands widespread respect.

And that’s where I base my argument. I’m claiming, tentatively, that there has never been a theory about a conspiracy that has been fringe long enough for the fog of war to have cleared, and has later been widely acknowledged to be true. I’m willing to say with roughly 100% confidence that there have been nearly zero incidents of this kind; I’m willing to say with about 50% confidence that the number of such incidents is literally zero. And I believe this implies we should disbelieve basically all current conspiracy theories. If you can think of an example that meets all four of my criteria and was later proven to be true – or correct my understanding of any of the examples listed above – please let me know!

Perhaps ironically, the single most common reason I found for not considering something to be a conspiracy theory is the “theory” criteria. It’s not that governments and other groups don’t conspire against the public – they do, with some frequency. But when they’re caught, it’s virtually never by fringe figures, but rather by mainstream journalists and congressional inquiries. I’m not telling you not to believe in conspiracies; I’m telling you not to believe conspiracy theorists.

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