Dean Esmay has a good post up about how the assumed failure of pre-war intelligence on WMDs is unlikely to have been the result of a conspiracy, but is very likely to have been an error. In it, he talks about the proliferation of conspiracy theories in general, including ones hatched by those on the right about Clinton’s murdering Vince Foster, and the like.
I’m in agreement with Dean here:
Of course, I can’t convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. But just remember: the harder you strain to make weak evidence look supportable, the weirder the places you find yourself in. Apply Occam’s Razor and all of these speculations suddenly come into sharp relief: all things considered, the simplest explanation tends to be the most correct. The amount of assumptions you need to make before believing there was some big lie and coverup on pre-war intelligence are enormous; the number you need to believe that we–yes we, including people on all sides of the political spectrum–were simply wrong are quite small.
I’ve noticed how very popular conspiracy theories have become in my lifetime. In the movie “Dr. Strangelove,” the Jack D. Ripper character who thought flouride was a Commie plot to poison our precious body fluids was a joke. But if you stay up late some night to listen to “Coast to Coast,” you’ll hear an almost endless exchange of ideas that make that one sound positively mainstream.
In my lifetime, I really think it all began (well, not began exactly, but became popularized) with the Kennedy assassination. The vast majority of Americans believed–and still believe–that Oswald did not act alone. The polls have been fairly consistent over time: three-quarters of respondents think there was a conspiracy. Three-quarters is practically a unanimity in the world of opinion polling.
I’m not here to debate the merits of assassination theories–although my personal opinion, after doing a great deal of research a while back on the subject, (including reading Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, which I recommend to anyone interested), is that the evidence is overwhelming that Oswald was both the lone gunman and the lone planner, improbable though that may seem.
If the demographics here are representative of the population as a whole, my guess is that the majority of readers disagree with me. My real point, though, is that the Kennedy assassination opened the door to an almost kneejerk conspiratorial explanation for many subsequent events.
Why are conspiracy theories so popular? One reason, I believe, is the decline of general (not specialized) education in science, decried by Carl Sagan in his book, The Demon-Haunted World:
We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
For “understanding of science and technology” I would actually substitute the more general “understanding and use of critical thinking.”
But whatever the cause, there’s little doubt in my mind that conspiracy theories have become more and more commonplace. One of my most chilling experiences was a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a good friend of mine. We were sitting having lunch and chatting when she quite casually mentioned that she believes Bush knew all about 9/11 beforehand and let it go forward for his own purposes. A lovely person (a therapist, no less–naturally!), up until that moment she’d never shown any indication of that sort of mindset. But she could not be dissuaded from her idea, and I must say I gave her a wider berth after that.
Along with Dean, I’m an Occam’s Razor person myself. I tend to think people are far more likely to be incompetent than cannily and successfully conspiratorial. And I’m aghast that so many people seem to think otherwise.
What’s the origin of the need to see a conspiracy behind every unpleasant event? One reason is the desire for order and control–even though, paradoxically, conspiracy theories posit a shadowy world out of the control of most of us. But, like children who want everything to have a reason and an explanation, conspiracy theorists can rest assured that at least someone (if only the conspirators) is in control and that there are few accidents, few random terrible and unpredictable events that we cannot control.
The same, I believe, is true for some of the demonization of Bush: better to believe he’s evil but in control than that the situation is inherently somewhat chaotic. Nature–and people–seem to abhor the vacuum of anarchy, and conspiracy theories rush in to fill the void.