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Impearls: Conspiracy Theories

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Earthdate 2004-06-15

Conspiracy Theories

A correspondent on a political mailing list writes:

I will confess to having a visceral aversion to conspiracy theories.  I once joked that if you combined all the Theories about JFK's death, the only person in Dealy plaza who wasn't trying to kill Kennedy — was Oswald.

Good one!  Yes, I agree completely with you about conspiracy theories (I think your viscera make good rational sense!).  Let's consider a couple of those theories to expose some of their properties — one real conspiracy, one unreal.

For the false conspiracy theory, let's take the story, still pervasive around the Middle East, that 4,000 Jews were warned (presumably by Mossad) that the 9-11 attack was coming and failed to show up for work that day.  This theory, believed by millions, is so ludicrous that mere examination is sufficient to disprove it.  Had it been true, it's virtually impossible that 4,000 disparate office workers (or any other sizable group of persons, “Jews” or not) could have kept such a secret.  With essential certainty, given the thousands of individuals supposedly warned off that day by this scenario, quite a number would inevitably have stepped forward in the interval since 9-11 to reveal the plot.  That hasn't happened.  Hence, this particular conspiracy theory is false.  Q.E.D.

Now let's look at a real conspiracy: Watergate.  Conspiracy theories in order to work require basically all the (artificial) luck and godlike omniscience of the Impossible Missions team of the Mission: Impossible TV show.  In that fictional program, the operatives always know everything they need to know, and everything always goes according to plan.  Yet, that's not at all how things work in the real world.  In reality, one almost never knows much beyond a bare sketch of what's happening in another building, another organization, another country.  Moreover, in the world we live in nothing ever goes exactly (oftentimes not even close) according to plan.  In Watergate, a night watchman tripped up the burglars.  Some similar accident, someone not being where they're expected when they're expected; someone else not expected at all arrives on the scene; or a small security camera, installed since their intelligence was updated, is watching — and presto! the situation is revealed.  If even a small proportion of the blizzard of conspiracy theories that are continually blowing up dust devils around us were true, some of them would be constantly being revealed by those kind of accidental exposures — but they're not.  Ergo, the vast proportion of extant conspiracy theories are false.  Q.E.D.

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