Saturday, October 07, 2006

Conspiracies Real and Imaginary

A Finnish individual, writing as "Nordic," posted an interesting comment on my original positing on conspiracy theories. Nordic points out that there have been many real conspiracies throughout history. This is undeniably true -- though I would deny one of Nordic's examples, the conspiracy that killed JFK. But many examples of perfectly real conspiracies come to mind. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, not by a lone gunman, but by a conspiracy that was aimed at several members of his administration. The Watergate break-in and coverup was a real conspiracy. Heck, the 9/11 attacks themselves were the work of a conspiracy -- not a conpiracy of Israeli and American military organizations by of 19 religious nutcases. So conspiracies are real.

But given that my account of conspiracism holds that there is a sharp discontinuity between that sort of thinking and real theories, I probably have to find a difference between the conspiracies that conspiracists obsess about, and the conspiracies that exist in the real world that you and I actually live in. The alternative would be to say that conspiracism only differs from legitimate theoretical work in terms of it its methodology, and that might end up blurring my supposedly sharp distinction. The difference might then be at most a difference of degree: they are being less rigorous, etc., but they are really in the same business as the social scientist.

Note that a similar issue arises in the case of cryptozoology, the belief in creatures like yetti, sasquatch, and the Loch Ness monster. If cryptozoology is bunk, how is it that scientists find find new species, or ones thought extinct, all the time? What about the ceolocanth ("the living fossil") and the giant squid? Isn't the cryptozoologist just doing what the legitimate zoologist is doing all the time?

How, indeed, is the coelocanth different from Bigfoot? Answer: verifiable physical traces. They reeled in the coelocanth. They netted the giant squid. But they've never found a dead sasquatch, nor any traces from which dna can be extracted. No skeletons. No hair. No poop. Unlike bears, sasquatches do not shit in the woods. (Tip of the hat here to the wonderful "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" episode on cryptozoology.)

What is the similar sharp difference between the infinitude of real conspiracies, and those that are products of conspiracist fantasy? I can think of several, but they all rest on a single one. Real conspirators are, like you and me, fallible. For that reason, real conspiracies tend to be, if they are successful, rather small and short-lived. The successful ones also tend to be very simple, in terms of the number and difficulty of the individual actions required to bring them off. The Reichstag fire, for instance was very simple indeed: just start a fire when nobody is looking. Real conspiracies in general have a marked tendency to come unraveled. The ones that are large and long-lasting are extremely well-known (the CIA, the Communist Party, etc.).

By contrast, the phony conpiracies of conspiracists have God-like powers, including an almost supernatural capacity to stay (unlike the CIA and the CP) virtually invisible to anyone but the conspiracy theorist. Just think how many hundreds of people would have to be involved in order to fake a moon landing or the 9/11 attacks. With no mistakes made by any, any of them, and no defectors, never a death-bed confession, etc. Truly, these were organizations of supermen! The conspiracy that killed JFK was a very, very different sort of thing from the one that killed Lincoln. The latter began to fall apart almost immediately. The former has remained airtight and without a single flaw or weakness for over 4 decades. Pretty interesting, don't you think?

Real conspiracies, I would claim, inhabit the world as it is understood by modern science or by common sense. This is a world of finite beings with finite powers. It is a world where ever gain has its cost, and every strength its Achilles' heel. It is a world of probabilities and degrees of rational certitude. The world of the conspiracist is not like this. It is a world inhabitied by fabulous superbeings with amazing superpowers. A world of absolutes and infallibilities. It is basically the world as apprehended by magical and religious ways of thinking. It is the world of faith, of what Eric Hoffer called the "True Believer."

That is I suppose its greatest attraction.
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