Conspiracy theories: the science behind belief in secret plots

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For every major event, there is usually a theory that argues it was due to a conspiracy. Conspiracy theories are seemingly more popular than ever, so how do supposedly rational people get caught in their tangled webs?


With constant revelations about government surveillance and possibleimpending war, this must be a fertile time for conspiracy theories.

You know when you put the bins out and you realise there's a bag in the corner that you'd forgotten about and you pick it up but it's so old it splits and you are suddenly surrounded by swarms of furious flies and you run indoors screaming and spend three hours in the shower, shuddering? I imagine it's a bit like that.

I'm involved in several conspiracies (apparently). When Channel 5 aired a shockingly non-critical show about moon landing conspiracies, I responded by "confessing" it was true, and inventing other "true" conspiracies, to emphasise how ludicrous the notion was. I made up conspiracies so far-fetched that I thought nobody could possibly believe them, revealing my naiveté about what people are able/willing to take at face value. But of course, it was pointed out often that I wrote this because I am a pawn of those behind the moon landing conspiracy.

Also, when I wrote a piece about Julie Burchill's attack on Transsexuals, I was told I did this because I was part of at least two conspiracies, one run by trans* people, and one dedicated to attacking trans* people. Hopefully it was separate people who were accusing me of these mutually exclusive things, but then you never know with this sort of stuff.

What is it that compels people to cry conspiracy in response to even relatively minor events? (eg me writing a forgettable blog). It would be pointless to critique all that is known here; it would change nothing, and I probably won't live long enough to finish. But there are numerous possible reasons why people get caught up in conspiracies, and how they end up being as complex and enduring as they are.

Written By: Dean Burnett
continue to source article at theguardian.com

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  1. I’ve been thinking about this topic recently. First when seeing a book list from Slate that along with Dawkins’ new book had a book on the JFK assassination and then second when watching a news show discussing Obama’s decision on Syria in the context of previous presidents, specifically LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin.

    The theory that Oswald was not the “lone nut” killer of JFK and that the US orchestrated the Gulf of Tonkin were at one time considered conspiracy theories. I remember the Gulf of Tonkin especially, people thought you were a loonie commie if you suggested that the attacks didn’t happen just as the US government said they did. Then The Pentagon Papers got published and what do ya know all us crazy commies were absolutely right and even the US government’s own history of the war (which was never meant to be public) said so.

    The JFK issue is also interesting. There is just overwhelming evidence that it didn’t happen the way the Warren commission said it did and that from day one the FBI and other government officials were trying to steer eye witness testimony in a way that was clearly obstructing justice and illegal.

    My point isn’t to revisit JFK but to point out that just because something is labelled a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean much to me except that its a theory outside the mainstream of public opinion. Now a lot, probably most opinions that are outside the mainstream are not based on any good data or sound reasoning. I don’t believe that the moon landing was a hoax, or that HARP controls the weather, or that DARPA steered remote controlled drones into the Twin Towers. But any theory should be evaluated based on evidence not on a label, just saying “its a conspiracy theory” is not an argument.

  2. I don’t beleive in being soft on CTs. maybe there are psychological factors and all sorts of pattern recognition going on but what sets them apart is their inability to apply reason to their arguments.

    as for throwing in names like Darwin and Newton… the internet chatrooms are full of theorists reminding the world that “ahhh but they didn’t believe xxxx….” as if being contrary is in itself some sort of virtue. Darwin and Newton did some serious work, more importanty, especiall with Darwin, went out of his way to take apart his own theory and offer up suggestions for testing his theory.

    I have an issue with them because they’re like christians. they know everything that’s wrong with the world including all the reasons they personally can’t/don’t have to do anything about it. generally, like David Icke, you’ll find them simply self-centred loud-mouths spouting gob-shite and crying persecution when they’re told to STFU.

    We’ve all believed in conspiracy theories at some point. our childhood mythology is peppered with urban legends that grew from CTs. then we grew up. most of us.

  3. Fifty years after the assassination of JFK conspiracy crackpots abound.

    Clint Hill, the President’s highly trained and immensely experienced body guard, says that the shots all came from the same place, an elevation behind and to his right, and the Doctor who pronounced says that all the exit wounds comply with what Mr Hill says.

    When asked about the purported conspiracies, Hill said that keeping a conspiracy secret for fifty days is impossible let alone that many years.

    He also said that he tried to protect Kennedy with his own body because that was his job, but he couldn’t get to him quickly enough; subsequently he suffered years of terrible guilt and depression; but what a guy!

  4. The first problem with JFK conspiracy theories is that there are a plural number of theories, not just one. If all the books claiming a JFK conspiracy theory were correct then his assination would have been carried out by some 20 or more gunmen taking aim from the grassy knoll, the book depository, the overpass, the sewer and from within the car. These gunmen would have been from the CIA, the KGB, the mafia, Cuba, the FBI and elsewhere.

    Anyway, why doesn’t the Lincoln assassination conspiracy get the ink that bogus JFK conspiracy does? That is a known and proven conspiracy that included the planned assassinations of the VP and Secratary of State!!!

  5. In reply to #4 by The Jersey Devil:

    Anyway, why doesn’t the Lincoln assassination conspiracy get the ink that bogus JFK conspiracy does?

    False equivalence. The JFK assassination is ripe with inconsistencies. I reserve my judgment on that one.

    • In reply to #5 by obzen:

      In reply to #4 by The Jersey Devil:Anyway, why doesn’t the Lincoln assassination conspiracy get the ink that bogus JFK conspiracy does?False equivalence. The JFK assassination is ripe with inconsistencies. I reserve my judgment on that one.

      False equvalence, indeed. The one conspiracy (Lincoln) is known to have happened for a fact.

      The facts regarding the JFK assassination as I know them all point to one lone malcontent opportunistically shooting the President of the United States of America. Or perhaps there is a better explanation for Oswalds behavior in the approx. 70 minutes following the assassination? (He left work, got on a bus that was stuck in the traffic caused by the assassination, got off that bus and walked home, left his home after a few minutes, killed a police officer then ducked into a movie theatre. To me, Occam’s Razor would imply a man with out a plan.)

      There’s more. How would you reconcile Marina Oswald’s (Lee’s wife) and RFK (Attorney General and Kennedy’s brother) are (were) both convinced that Oswald was the lone gunmen?

      What do you make of the fact that conspirasists consistently misrepresent the position of Govenor Connally in relation to Kennedy regarding the single bullet theory?

      There’s more…

  6. Yeah, yeah, sure. The government never conspires to do anything against us, and anyone who thinks so is coo-coo crazy.

    It sure is nice to read this, a light off-topic break from all the stories about Edward Snowden, who revealed that the government is in fact spying on everyone and is willing to lie to Congress about that under oath, down to the very existence of the program, and that the data being collected is ALREADY being used for purposes other than fighting “terrorists”. I was getting tired of that. It reminds me of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment, or maybe the various times — and there were several — when the U.S. government deliberately exposed unknowing citizens to radiation to see what would happen. Or maybe the Business Plot is a better parallel. You know, the one back in the Depression where a bunch of rich people and military people got together and starting trying to set up a coup d’etat against FDR, the one we have plenty of documentation about. Or maybe the time the CIA worked with the british oil companies to overthrow the democratically-elected government in Iran back in the 1950s, setting us up for decades of having to deal with the people who rose to power afterwords. Or the whole “hey, let’s train and fund Islamic militants to be our proxies against Russia” thing. I think we just killed one of them a year or so back, a guy named Osama Bin Laden, maybe you heard of him? Or there’s Operation Northwoods, or the Iran-Contra scandal, or…

    But yeah, it’s COMPLETELY STUPID to believe that the government is doing anything against our interests and behind our backs. An extraordinary claim indeed, because it has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE.

    • In reply to #6 by The Vicar:

      Yeah, yeah, sure. The government never conspires to do anything against us, and anyone who thinks so is coo-coo crazy.

      Never say never! There is no doubt that secret agencies and politicians, do regularly engage in conspiracies, and will certainly conspire to cover-up when they look like carrying the can for their blunders!

      That does not justify some of the wildly speculative – and often laughable claims, made by obsessive groups exercising their incredulity: – like Moon-landing deniers, or AGW deniers.

    • In reply to #6 by The Vicar:

      Yeah, yeah, sure. The government never conspires to do anything against us, and anyone who thinks so is coo-coo crazy.

      Black and white thinking. Governments aren’t necessarily honourable, however the other thing that they are well known for is sheer incompetence. Really to expect any western government, surrounded by a free press and belligerent citizens like you and I, to be capable of continuing a hoax of this scale successfully for the best part of half a century is wishful thinking. Around half a million people were involved to a greater or lesser degree in the Apollo program. The logistical requirement alone to continue the deception would be greater than the real thing, and would be a far greater risk – think of the result of failure in the hoax, and the sustained damage to the regime, in comparison to failure in an honourable attempt.

      • In reply to #9 by Zhap135:

        Black and white thinking. Governments aren’t necessarily honourable, however the other thing that they are well known for is sheer incompetence. Reall…

        If Snowden hadn’t leaked his documents, which was done deliberately because of his ethical objections to the program, we would know nothing whatsoever about PRISM, a program which spies on pretty nearly every single person who does anything with the Internet anywhere in the world, and which not only required the complicity of thousands of people but also was bringing in corporations to do labor under contract. (Snowden himself was not an employee of the government but of a contractor.) Your point is just plain outright false.

        In fact, all you people saying “the government can’t get anything done”, you’re just idiots. In 1950, there were practically no paved highways. By 1970 you could drive between any two states in the union on the Interstate Highway System. We have a program called Medicare which provides better value for the money than any for-profit insurance which exists, run by — you guessed it, the government.

        You are mistaking the government’s inability to do things it doesn’t really want to do — diplomacy, for example (there’s a lot of money in weapons and mercenary work, and the people making it pay a lot in “lobbying” — for an inability to actually do things it considers important. The U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act was proposed and voted into law within days of 9/11 without being read or debated, because the folks who want to destroy civil liberties had it ready and Congress wanted to be seen taking action. It has successfully been extended since then despite all the reports of Congressional infighting, because it’s something Congress wants to do. Preventing economic collapse? Not so much. Economic collapse is GREAT — for the very rich people who Congress answers to, and in many cases simply are. More opportunities to buy up resources for pennies on the dollar, less spending on regulatory activity — you can even convince people that we should cut taxes on the rich to encourage job growth (which doesn’t work; if it did we’d have full employment by now) and put the burden on the poor instead (making them even more desperate than usual and willing to put up with more crap).

        • In reply to #13 by The Vicar:

          In reply to #9 by Zhap135:

          Black and white thinking. Governments aren’t necessarily honourable, however the other thing that they are well known for is sheer incompetence. Reall…

          If Snowden hadn’t leaked his documents, which was done deliberately because of his ethical objections to the program,…

          Appreciate your pointing out my idiocy, I merely disagreed with you. I do note that you illustrate your point about large scale dastardly schemes withe the evil Medicare program, not to mention the sinister highways network

          The Snowden case rather illustrates my point. The Prism “conspiracy” was sustained for a relatively short space of time before being opened up by a belligerent individual and a free press. If the Firm can’t keep a relatively small operation such as Prism quiet, I fail to see how they could be expected to successfully maintain Capricorn One for half a century.

          If you have sound evidence for faked moon landings I’d love to see it, but please, fluttering flags, no stars, c rocks, converging/diverging shadows hold no interest for me as these have already been debunked.

  7. Governments can’t get anything done. How can people possibly expect them to carry out sophisticated, exquisitely planned and executed conspiracies that would require that hundreds or even thousands of co-conspirators be either bought or systematically assassinated to prevent any of the conspiracy from leaking. Then the same people contradict themselves by claiming that it did leak out despite all that careful planning… Only one problem: no credible witnesses… Oh wait… another problem: no compelling evidence.

    But hey! Who cares? The conspiracy story is waay more seductive right? So we’ll go with that!

    I call this the “James Bond effect” (James Bond theme plays in the background). This is what reading too many Tom Clancy novels and watching too many James Bond movies do to people: they engage in fantasy world daydreaming and wishful thinking. Sadly it often gives CT’s a misplaced sense of pride because they believe they know something you don’t.

    It’s just pathetic.

    Richard Feynman: “The easiest person to fool is ourselves”

  8. Zhap- it goes beyond that. The Russians had a little space program of their own and you can bet they tracked our launches. They’d have liked nothing better than to embarrass us by catching us trying to pull a fast one.

  9. My guess is that the most common reason for peoples’ engagement with conspiracy theories is simply ego – ‘I know something you don’t … I’m privy to this astounding secret, and I’m going to amaze you when I share it with you.’
    Maybe. Just a theory, you understand….

  10. Any crime of consequence was a conspiracy, a bank robbery, a war triggered on false evidence. Just because something is a conspiracy does not make it false.

    Axelrod points out that unless you have 26+ corporations competing, you will get price fixing, even if people from the various corporations never meet or talk to each other. Conspiracy is the norm in business.

  11. There is a way of squashing dissent by saying anyone who does not accept the official theory lock stock and barrel is an insane conspiracy theorist.

    All they are doing is Emperor’s New Clothes style noticing holes the story that need explanation. They don’t claim to know what happened precisely.

    When I did this for 9/11 I was repeatedly chastised for not being able to explain precisely what really happened. Then of course the people who did claim to have a complete candidate theory were dismissed as crazy.

  12. Donald Miller # 16:

    Visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes and hear first hand accounts from all those who were accompanying President Kennedy at the time.

    I think I’d rather stick with what Doctor Kenneth Salyer who pronounced him dead on the spot said rather than a journalistic investigation twenty years after the event.

    The velocity of the rounds will determine the degree to which they will be deflected from their trajectory, and since his head was more or less blown off I imagine they were fired from a very high powered weapon indeed and, notwithstanding the fact that the Cronkite investigation would have taken that into account, as you say, the course of a bullet is unpredictable in any case, so how the fatal ones behaved will be different in any subsequent tests.

    Clint Hill knows his onions and he and the Doctor agreed.

  13. Conspiracy theories are, in many ways, a result of a healthy distrust of those in power. History shows that it is far from unreasonable to assume that your government (or its security/intelligence services) is lying to you about…well, almost anything. The quality of theory varies but they’re usually interesting to listen to and occasionally plausible.

  14. In reply to #7 by Alan4discussion:

    In reply to #6 by The Vicar:

    Yeah, yeah, sure. The government never conspires to do anything against us, and anyone who thinks so is coo-coo crazy.

    Never say never! There is no doubt that secret agencies and politicians, do regularly engage in conspiracies, and will certainly conspire to cover-up when they look like carrying the can for their blunders!

    That does not justify some of the wildly speculative – and often laughable claims, made by obsessive groups exercising their incredulity: – like Moon-landing deniers, or AGW deniers.

    Even on clear-thinking oases, one sometimes encounters wildly speculative, laughable worldviews.

    cf.

    None of us it seems is immune from the sort of paranoia to which we casually accuse others of being susceptible.

    • In reply to #21 by Katy Cordeth:

      None of us it seems is immune from the sort of paranoia to which we casually accuse others of being susceptible.

      Call it paranoia, I call it idealism. I am no longer susceptible, but am not sure how fortunate this makes me.

  15. In reply to #16 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

    In 1992 a consulting firm called Failure Analysis, Inc (now called Exponent) did a computerized, frame by frame analysis of the Zapruder film. Their conclusion was that the ‘single bullet’ theory (that one bullet passed through JFK’s throat and into Governor Connally, causing all of Connally’s injuries) was indeed correct. They also determined the trajectory and the Texas School Book Depository (where Oswald worked) was the only place in the reverse line of fire. FAI is a ISO 9001 outfit, meaning they subject themselves to a third party quality control audit not unlike peer review.

    I saw a special TV show on this analysis on Discovery Channel and found it very convincing.

  16. Donald Miller.

    I’m sorry, I gave you an incomplete web reference yesterday; it should have gone on to read: …,click on T and scroll to “The Reunion”.

    Better tardy and correct than hasty and sloppy.

  17. In reply to #27 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #24 by The Jersey Devil:

    In reply to #16 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

    For whatever reason, the JFK assassination has always fascinated me even though it happened seven years before my birth. I’ve not believed any of the conspiracy theories since seeing Vincent Bugliosi prosecute Oswald in a televised mock trial in 1986.

    To be fair to the original investigation they did do a simulation of a car driving down Elm Street, I remember seeing stock footage of it in one of the many shows I’ve seen on the JFK assassination.

    Some of the problems the Warren commission had was that not all the eye witness testimony matched the physical evidence and that there was some dissent over details that required ‘negotiation’ due to politics. But in the end, they correctly determined that Oswald acted alone and the single bullet theory. BTW, I was referring to a computerized re-enactment which obviously couldn’t be done in ’63/’64. Also, there are apparently two such re-enactments – the other by Dale Myers – and I may have confused which one I saw on TV.

    In my opinion, the biggest reason for the JFK conspiracy theories is because Ruby killed Oswald. If Oswald survived and the case went through judicial due process I doubt any of this conspiracy stuff would get much traction. Plus, it really is a bizarre twist to the story.

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