Attacks on Conspiracy Theories Are a Conspiracy

And some of those conspirators don’t even know it.

Mockingbird photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

A conspiracy is a plot by two or more people to do something unsavory. A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain something unusual. Some conspiracy theories are false, some are unproven, some are unprovable, and some have turned out to be true. Closely associated with conspiracy theories are mysteries and unexplained phenomena, like UFOs, Bigfoot, and out-of-place archeological artifacts, which are sometimes the subject of conspiracy theories. Urban legends, fanciful tales told to evoke trepidation, often revolve around conspiracies. Conspiracy theories have the power to induce extreme lunacy in both proponents and critics alike.

Conspiracies are Real

Conspiracies are obviously real. Prosecutors use them all the time in court. On the other hand, there are “crazy” conspiracy theories that are ridiculed as not supported by sufficient evidence. They are dismissed as unlikely. However, many “crazy” conspiracies theories have turned out to be true. Baseball had the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, the steroid scandal of 2004, and the sign-stealing scandal of 2017-18. Watergate, Iran-Contra, My Lai, weapons of mass destruction, warrantless wiretapping, and tortour at Abu Ghraib are also well-known examples. Pedophilia was confirmed in the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, and now the Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking ring. Business conspiracies that affected the lives of so many include: medical crimes of tobacco as a cause of lung cancer and Johnson & Johnson (asbestos in baby powder causing mesothelioma), environmental crimes of Union Carbide (Bhopal), Volkswagen (emissions fraud), and Kerr-McGee (Karen Silkwood), and the financial crimes of Enron, WorldCom, Bernie Madoff, Halliburton, Tyco, and Lehman Brothers. All of these conspiracies started as “crazy” theories that were ignored by authorities and society in general only to be proven true once people started to believe.

Some Theories Have Been Proven

Some conspiracies are so obvious, they are immediately accepted even without proof. The badminton competition at the 2012 London Olympics is an example. In other cases, a conspiracy theory is so far-fetched on first hearing that people shake their heads and forget about it. Those theories are neither believable nor entertaining. But, some of those theories are true:

  • Operation Snow White, the Church of Scientology infiltrated 136 government agencies, foreign embassies, and private organizations to purge unfavorable records about Scientology in more than 30 countries.
  • Fruit Machine, Canada was so paranoid about homosexuality in the 1960s that it developed a “gaydar” machine and used it to exclude or fire more than 400 men from government service. This hardly compares to Canada’s Indian residential school system scandal.
  • Operation Paperclip, the government secretly brought more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians to the United States after World War II.
  • MK ULTRA, the CIA’s mind control experiments conducted illegally on unsuspecting human subjects.
  • COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to illegally infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt American political organizations.

Some theories people don’t WANT to believe because they are so disturbing or had horrifying consequences, such as:

  • Gulf of Tonkin, the government deceived the American public about events that led to the U.S. entering the Vietnam War.
  • Project SUNSHINE, the AEC and USAF procured over 1,500 samples from recently deceased children without prior permission to measure the global dispersion of Sr-90.
  • Tuskegee experiment, the United States Public Health Service conducted clinical studies of untreated syphilis in African-American men between 1932 and 1972.
  • Prohibition poisoning, between 1926 and 1933 the government poisoned alcohol to keep people from drinking, killing more than 10,000 Americans. Fifty years later, the State Department supported Mexico spraying Paraquat on their marijuana fields.
  • War on drugs, Nixon’s declaration of a ‘War on Drugs’ targeted blacks and anti-war activists.
  • PRISM, the NSA’s illegal program of spying on civilian internet users.

These cases all started out as “crazy” speculation until they were found to be true. Even urban legends, like Cropsy, Charlie No-Face, and the North Pond Hermit, turned out to be more than campfire entertainment.

Sometimes it’s not so much an event or action that is a conspiracy, it is an effort to hide the event or action in a coverup. Some of the events covered up involved nuclear accidents, which could have resulted in untold deaths. The Watergate burglary was such a minor political conspiracy that Congress decided not to investigate it before the 1972 election held four months later. However, the coverup of the burglary was huge, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. There are too many political coverups to mention.

Some Theories May Yet Be Proven

Other conspiracies that are often discredited actually have scientific or statistical evidence supporting them, including:

They might be proven one day but it’s difficult to gain momentum to investigate with so many close-minded naysayers blocking the way. Some of the theories, like those concerning climate change and 9/11, have considerable evidence that is mischaracterized and discredited in the press so the public doesn’t know what to believe.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

The most believable conspiracy theories are those in which there is evidence based on:

The makings of the Watergate scandal began in 1967 with the creation of the Vietnam Study Task Force, which was tasked with writing an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War.” Their 1969 report, called colloquially the Pentagon Papers, revealed that the Johnson Administration conspired to lie to Congress and the public about their role in expanding the Vietnam war. The report was leaked to the press in 1971 by Daniel Ellsberg, who was a member of the Task Force. He was charged for his leak under the Espionage Act of 1917 but the charges were dismissed. Members of the Nixon Administration conspired to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in 1971 to find information about Ellsberg’s mental state in order to discredit him. Finding nothing of importance, they conspired to plant listening devices in the Headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. The five burglars were caught. The story was pursued by reporters from the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, aided by whistleblower Deep Throat, eventually leading to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974. The whole conspiracy was insane; it was totally unbelievable. Most people didn’t pay any attention. It was all just politics as usual. Then on the night of October 20, 1973 came the Saturday Night Massacre. After that, the public consensus was to “Impeach the Cox Sacker.” As unbelievable as it was, it would have made a compelling novel. As a true story, it devastated the Nation.

While all of these types of evidence can be altered or even totally fabricated, mostly they are just interpreted in different ways based on preconceived notions. However, they can also provide legitimate proof of a theory if they are authentic.

While popular in courtrooms, eyewitness accounts are too often the products of defective memories or coercion to be of much value in discussing conspiracy theories. They may provide hints to the truth or hide it. They are far from proof. Judges and juries may reach life-or-death verdicts based on eyewitness accounts but society holds proof of conspiracy theories to a higher standard.

The same is true of expert opinions. What is accepted in court holds, or should hold, little sway in proving a conspiracy theory. This belief is asymmetrical. Critics and proponents of a theory will believe experts who support their claim but not those who refute it. Professionals in law enforcement, the military, commercial aviation, and government service are thought to be the most believable of observers until they report seeing a UFO or a cryptid.

Experts may have impressive educational credentials or unique experience profiles, but they are subject to the same human failings as everyone else. They can make professional mistakes, fall victim to psychological biases, and even succumb to intimidation and inducements. As a case in point, Darrell Huff, who wrote the best-seller How To Lie With Statistics, was paid by the tobacco industry to discredit the theory that cigarettes cause lung cancer. He even testified before Congress. As we all know, that conspiracy theory has proven to be true.

Obfuscation is Real Too

Just as many conspiracies are true, so too is the concerted effort to disparage certain conspiracy theories so the public does not take them seriously. That effort is a conspiracy theory in itself, called Operation Mockingbird. Operation Mockingbird is allegedly a decades-long CIA program aimed at manipulating public discourse on sensitive topics. It operated by funding individuals, Mockingbirds, in the media, student groups, and cultural organizations. The Mockingbirds were convinced to disseminate information critical of whistleblowers who expose government conspiracies. The CIA support of Mockingbirds was exposed when a 1967 article in Ramparts magazine reported that the National Student Association received funding from the CIA. Later, in 1975, the Church Committee Congressional investigations exposed secret, illegal wiretapping, bugging, and harassment of American citizens, including reporters, government officials, Supreme Court justices, and most famously, Martin Luther King, Jr. Outspoken critics of some conspiracy theories may, in fact, be Mockingbirds.

Techniques used to censor proponents of conspiracy theories include: targeting, mischaracterization. defamation, denialism, misdirection, and cover up.

Targeting

When detractors talk about conspiracy theories, they ignore the thousands of true and possibly true conspiracies and instead focus on the few that are clearly disprovable, like the moon landings being a hoax, claims of a flat or hollow earth, Holocaust denialism, or Reptilian replacements. Life is short so I won’t comment on astrology, real or not. They are easy targets; they serve to discredit ALL conspiracy theories.

Mockingbirds focus on specific conspiracies involving the government. They don’t care so much about conspiracies in the private sector unless they affect the stock market or a key political donor. That may be the reason why it seems that a greater proportion of business conspiracies are exposed compared to government conspiracies.

Mischaracterization

One commonly used weapon of theory critics is the strawman. They’ll focus on one interpretation or aspect of a theory and ignore more relevant parts. Critics of anti-vaxxers focus on the autism connection and ignore the concern about harmful ingredients and side effects. Critics who proclaim, or deny, that there are coordinated efforts to sway elections confound voter fraud, which involves the rare instances of an individual voting illegally, with election fraud, which refer to the too-common, coordinated efforts to prevent or change many votes, by voter caging, purges of voter rolls, making voter registration difficult, spreading flyers with misinformation, deceptive robocalls, voter intimidation, voter ID laws, and closing polling places or restricting their hours. Critics of Bernie Sanders mischaracterize his platform as socialism, which he DOES NOT advocate, instead of democratic socialism, which he DOES advocate. The unfortunately named movement, Defund the Police, which isn’t about doing away with law enforcement as is alleged by critics, but instead about reprogramming some funding from law enforcement to social support. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter as detractors suggest.

The result of mischaracterization by theory critics is the creation of enough confusion that many people don’t understand what is being discussed.

Defamation

Another tactic theory critics use is defamation, an ad hominem argument. Nobody believed Linda Tripp when she disclosed the affair between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton because she was defamed as a dishonest publicity-seeker. Whistleblowers like Sibel Edmonds, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner were portrayed as unpatriotic lawbreakers. Witnesses of cryptids and UFOs are described as confused, unreliable, inexpert, dishonest, or even inebriated. Many sightings are never reported, especially by professionals, for fear they will be derided and ostracized.

Academia is a hotbed for slight-of-hand defamation. There is study after study after study by psychologists who analyze why people believe some of the least likely conspiracy theories, then they generalize back to the much larger portion of the population who believe only more reasonable theories. They never study prosecuting attorneys for why they claim conspiracies in court. What this does is paint ALL open-minded people with the broad brush of derangement that they identified in a few individuals based on their own biases. That is false guilt-by-association

Denialism

The first three things anyone involved in a crime will do are deny, deny, deny. Critics of conspiracy theories will always deny that a theory is likely or even possible. There is always the chance that the proponent of a theory will second-guess themselves, lose interest, or just give up. Police initially don’t believe many reports of sexual assault, missing persons, and police misconduct on the off chance that the claim will be dropped. That’s why initial reports of conspiracy theories are met with disbelief rather than curiosity. Whistleblowers have to be incredibly persistent. How many levels of an organization do they have to complain to before they get any attention? That’s why some whistleblowers leak directly to the press where they’re more likely to be listened to.

Denialism has consequences. How long did Jeffrey Epstein and his friends molest young women before he was finally brought to justice? How many of the 250 American gymnasts who were abused by Dr. Larry Nassar over 24 years had to report him before USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University took action? How many individuals died of AIDS before the government finally addressed the crisis?

Initial denialism is the accepted approach in society, as perhaps it should be. None of the great paradigm shifts in the history of science were adopted without long periods of discussion and debate, during which they were first ignored and defamed before they were finally accepted and assimilated. It’s called the Semmelweis Reflex. Gullibility isn’t a virtue but there’s a limit to denialism.

Misdirection

Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes use misdirection to derail arguments by theory proponents. Misdirection is sometimes called red herrings or whataboutism. South Park fans know it as the Chewbacca Defense. Sometimes the misdirection is overt, like just changing the topic of an awkward discussion. Sometimes the misdirection is buried in obfuscatory details.

For example, Dr. David Robert Grimes of Oxford University calculated how long a large (5,000+ person) conspiracy is likely to remain a secret before it is leaked. Ignoring external whistleblowers, like journalists and independent investigators, assuming there is no witness intimidation, and assuming all the conspirators had full knowledge of the scheme (i.e., there was no compartmentalization), conspiracies are likely to be exposed in a decade. Smaller conspiracies would have a lower probability of exposure, and take longer to be revealed. In the real world, with compartmentalization, intimidation, and destruction of evidence, a conspiracy theory may never be exposed. It’s like voting for entry into a sports hall-of=fame, if a theory hasn’t garnered a reasonable amount of support in a decade of consideration, it’s not likely to.

Grimes’ calculation is supposed to show that conspiracy theories are unlikely because otherwise they would have been exposed by one or more conspirators. People who cite Grimes to claim that conspiracy theories can’t be true because conspirators don’t come forward, ignore the fact that whistleblowers come forward all the time—Smedley Butler, Daniel Ellsberg, Frank Serpico, Mark Felt (Deep Throat), Karen Silkwood, Sibel Edmonds, Joseph Wilson, “Bunny” Greenhouse. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner. These individuals all came forward to expose conspiracies and were ignored, criticized, demeaned, intimidated, and even prosecuted.

Cover Up and Whitewash

It seems that no information is released from the government without a cover up. There are many possible ingredients for a coverup: ignore claims; fabricate, withhold, alter, or destroy evidence; block, delay, constrain, or hijack investigations; file legal challenges; intimidate or harm participants and opponents; and hire agents (Mockingbirds) to refute the theory. They have become so common that people don’t even recognize them anymore.

While the terms are often used interchangeably, cover-up involves withholding incriminatory evidence, while whitewash involves releasing misleading evidence.

Wikipedia

These actions are applied to virtually every conspiracy theory involving the government (except the ones that they create). Government cover-ups have involved: Watergate; warrantless wiretapping; Iran-Contra; My Lai; the use of white phosphate in Iraq; and tortour at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in violation of the Geneva Convention. Think also of how the government has covered up or whitewashed 9/11 events or UFO sightings, landings, and crashes. It makes you wonder why they are so sensitive about those “unproven” theories.

People are concerned about misinformation. They experience it daily, both online and offline. Some countries are less misinformed than the U.S., some are more misinformed. Domestic politicians are the single most frequently named source of misinformation, though people who self-identify as right-wing are more likely to blame the media. The media, particularly television, began changing in the late 1970s when they turned to profit-driven news divisions. This paradigm-shift in news reporting was exacerbated by Reagan’s 1987 revocation of the Fairness Doctrine and Clinton’s Bill Clinton signing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Fake news has been around for hundreds of years but the internet has turned a campfire into a raging inferno. Most people think that it is the responsibility of  media companies, technology companies, and government to do more to combat misinformation. Still, it persists. The days of Walter Cronkite are over.

Debunkers Are Bullies

When a conspiracy happens, nobody knows about it until some insider writes a book or gets the attention of the media. That’s when the discussion starts. Acceptance is another issue. Conspiracy theorists are routinely derided as crazy by the cancel culture. Some are never investigated because of societal ignorance or apathy. Most conspiracy “theories” are ignored for years before even being discussed openly. That’s what opponents want; they want to control the discussion, and so, everybody’s lives.

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

People who oppose conspiracy theories are portrayed in the media as heroes. They’re not. “Reputable” debunkers are not always reputable. Take the cases of Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Darrell Huff, and outdoing them all, Donald Trump. Their supporters lined up to bolster their false claims.

The status of being considered an expert by society does not equate to being infallible. Experts are subject to the same human failings as everyone else. They can make professional mistakes, fall victim to psychological biases, and even succumb to intimidation and inducements. Darrell Huff isn’t the only example. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. coined the term biostitutes to brand scientists who misrepresent research or commit fraud to serve a benefactor or to make a personal gain. He was specifically criticizing Dr. Paul Offit for his ties to drug companies.

Our government is not alone in doing shady things to discredit conspiracies, and then getting caught. Pharmaceutical companies price-gouge medications. Powerful people silence victims of sexual assault and abuse. Foreign governments attempt to sow discord in the U.S. through social media. Systemic injustices and cultural prejudices hamper some people’s ability to succeed in our society.

[Debunkers] are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority–that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them.

Daniel Engber in FiveThirtyEight

Maybe some debunkers are really just trying to publicize conspiracy theories, bringing them to the public’s attention hoping for a backfire effect.

Proof Not So Positive

Some responses to conspiracy theories are actually just misinformation pushed by legitimate sources. They are called the official explanations. Those official explanations, which are meant to be accepted by the public, are sometimes unlikely, even ludicrous. These “crazy” official explanations virtually guarantee that there will be conspiracy theories.

Take the 1947 incident near Roswell, NM. The first official explanation was a UFO. Then, it was a weather balloon, which all those people in the military who were involved knew it wasn’t. Then 47 years later, the Air Force claimed it was a “balloon” from Project Mogul. But unlike weather balloons of the day, the Mogul balloon was a massive combination of several balloons that contained unusual types of reflectors, lightweight structural supports, metal foil, and other materials. It was meant to spy on Russia. The debris may not have been the result of the crash of an alien craft, but with all the confused disinformation, how could conspiracy theories not develop. Now, more than a few other countries are also investigating UFOs.

Roswell was a single event. Consider Project Blue Book. It wasn’t the first or the last investigation of UFOs by the Air Force, but it is the most well-known. Blue Book investigated 12,618 cases of UFO sightings, 701 of which couldn’t be explained.  were never explained. The problem was that the project became a PR vehicle to discredit UFO sightings, using such reasons as hoaxes, misidentified aircraft, birds, weather balloons, weather and astronomical phenomena, contrails, and even swamp gas. The project’s only scientific consultant, astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek, came to realize that there was “… virtually no scientific dialogue between Blue Book and the outside scientific world … The statistical methods employed by Blue Book are nothing less than a travesty.” Again, debunker efforts backfired.

Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is. The steady flow of reports, often made in concert by reliable observers, raises questions of scientific obligation and responsibility. … does not an obligation exist to say so to the public—not in words of open ridicule but seriously, to keep faith with the trust the public places in science and scientists?

Dr. J. Allen Hynek,

There are many other examples in which the official explanation is as unlikely, if not more unlikely than the conspiracy theory it is trying to debunk. Is the official explanation of 9/11, that 19 minimally-trained conspirators led by a Saudi millionaire living in a cave in Afghanistan, much more likely than the alternative conspiracy, that the US government and some co-conspirators had the attacks conducted within the framework of the al-Qaeda plan?

Furthermore, the official investigations of conspiracies are not always satisfying; they are often partisan, superficial, or inept. Was JFK assassinated by a lone gunman? The 1964 Warren Commission thought so but the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations thought there was evidence of a conspiracy. The investigation conducted by the 911 Commission, was rushed, underfunded, partisan, superficial, AND inept.

Hiding the truth only served to create more lies.

Why So Much Outrage

A conspiracy theory is only relevant if people care about it. Conspiracy theories that are so improbable that they are laughable should just be laughed off. They should be experienced as entertainment, silly but fun to experience like the X-Files, Harry Potter, and fan fiction. So why do some people rail against conspiracy theories so fiercely? Are they like Karens, grammar Nazis, the Holier-Than-Thou, or other type of control freaks? Do they believe they are protectors of science, the authority of government, or societal common sense?

Would finding out that the government participated in a 9/11 conspiracy to start wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be more surprising than when they used the Gulf of Tonkin conspiracy to expand the Vietnam war, or sold weapons to Iran in the 1980s during an arms embargo, or started the War on Drugs to target blacks and anti-war activists.

People who rail against ALL conspiracy theories are really no different from people who espouse the craziest of the crazy theories. They come to a conclusion and can’t be swayed. One is no less “crazy” than the other. Maybe they suffer from cognitive dissonance or lack open-mindedness or are unable to think critically. Maybe they are just insecure bullies. Then again, maybe they are part of a conspiracy against conspiracies—Mockingbirds.

“Mockingbird Aerial Display” by TexasEagle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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