Friday, September 01, 2006

On Conspiracy Theories

Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence.
Napoleon Bonaparte

There are three members in the chimpanzee family; the common chimpanzee (familiar from Tarzan movies), the bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee) and the human. In common with the others, we humans are social apes; we live together in large groups. We outgun our chimp cousins because we are better language-users and tool-makers. Our social organisation is our evolutionary advantage. A single human wandering naked on the African savannah will soon end up as lion-food, but a band of a hundred humans armed with spears is a different matter. Even the lions stay away.

In order to survive in a troupe of chimps, you need to constantly navigate your way through a minefield of elaborate social ritual and hierarchy. Those who could not do so didn’t survive in the long-term; we are all the offspring of the socially adept. Over the course of evolutionary time, our brains have become hard-wired to understand other people’s intentions. So much so, that we cannot help but see intention even where there is none. We do this all the time, even with our machines. When I’m playing chess against the computer, I think ‘It wants to take my Queen’, or ‘It’s trying to force check-mate’. It doesn’t ‘want’ anything, and it is not ‘trying’ anything, because it is a plastic box. But we humans cannot help but think about situations in terms of human mentality, what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls ‘adopting the intentional stance’.

Therein, however, lie the roots of religion.

Our distant ancestors struggled to make sense of the world around them. Sometimes things went well; rain fell, crops grew, healthy children were born and grew up strong, enemies were vanquished. At other times, things went badly. Women failed to conceive, or died in childbirth, or gave birth to sick or dead children. Even healthy children would grow sick and die for no apparent reason. Rain failed to materialise, crops died, floods inundated them. They were beset by thunderstorms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hunger, plague and pestilence, starvation, accidental death and military defeat. The world could be a very hostile place.

In their attempt to make sense of things, their first resort was their brain-wiring: the intentional stance. These things happen because someone wants them to happen. Our ancestors posited the existence of unseen human-like intelligence to explain the events of their lives that could not be explained by the actions of their peers. God was born. Things happen because of the actions of Spirits. Bad things happen because of the actions of Evil Spirits.

If there is someone around who has the power of life and death over you, it would be well to keep them sweet. They can be both a useful ally and a powerful enemy. Gods empower people, give them control over the natural world. With a God, there is nothing one cannot control. Earthquakes can be stopped, rain summoned, disease cured, simply by performing the correct ceremonies, making the appropriate offerings to the appropriate gods at the appropriate times. Just as a child can plead to its parents for more food, an adult can plead to a God for favour. Freud commented that religious belief was a form of infantilism.

People conceived of their gods as human-like consciousnesses, persons who could be appealed to or pleaded with, who essentially occupied a parental role relative to mere mortals, and who may dispense ‘wrath’ or ‘mercy’ as the mood takes them. Due to the fact that random, unpredictable events happen in the natural world, people were forced to conclude that their gods were petulant and fickle, and didn’t always do what they were asked.

We have learned through our own experience that we massively over-employ the intentional stance. Once we started looking into it properly, we found that climate and disease are best explained as blind natural processes – the ‘physical stance’, as Dennett calls it. Often, no-body wants anything. A lot of things happen in the world just by chance.

Species which are not social would probably not have this tendency to think in the intentional stance. If leopards were ever to develop language, I suspect they would all be atheists. Atheists who enjoy horse-racing.

Modern paranoid conspiracy theories have something in common with religions, in that they attempt to explain large-scale phenomena in terms of the intentions of unseen human-like personalities. People’s first port of call in trying to explain a negative social phenomenon is often the intentional stance; to try to attribute it to malevolent intention on the part of some powerful agency; to blame it on someone (other than themselves).

In modern paranoid conspiracy theories, the unseen forces tend typically to be governments (in particular government secret intelligence organisations such as the CIA), multinational corporations, or sinister quasi-religious secret societies, such as the Freemasons, Rosicrucians or Illuminati. Conspiracy theorists generally cite the alleged covert activities of such groups to explain negative social or cultural phenomena - wars, poverty, famine, ill-health and so on.

However, unlike Gods, the conspirators are always malevolent. Conspirators are the Evil Spirits of the contemporary West. Governments never conspire to improve public health; they may act in such a way as to improve public health, but this is never characterised as a conspiracy. A conspiracy entails secrecy and malevolent intent. An important difference between religions and modern conspiracy theories is that the malevolent forces in modern conspiracy theories tend to be absolutely implacable. Gods can be prayed to or appeased, but multinational corporations and government intelligence agencies, although ultimately composed of individual humans, cannot. They are characterised as remorselessly self-seeking.

The idea that actions have unintended consequences is implicitly accepted by radicals when they advocate commercial boycotts. Throughout my early adulthood it was considered socially unacceptable to buy South African fruit. This commercial boycott by the political Left was lifted once the Mandela government took power. One’s intention when buying fruit is to own fruit (or arguably, to eat fruit), not to give financial support to a fascist regime. Giving financial support to a fascist regime may be an unintended consequence of buying fruit. That’s why the Left encourages us to think about where the fruit comes from before we buy it. By doing so, they implicitly accept the idea that we act from imperfect knowledge and that actions have unintended consequences. At the same time they often rely heavily on conspiracy theories to explain the things they don’t approve of.

It is important to distinguish between conspiracies and paranoid conspiracy theories. Conspiracies happen all the time. Someone obviously conspired to destroy the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001. People may argue over who precisely it was, but everyone agrees that someone did. Of course there have been conspiracies throughout history, but these actual conspiracies take place for a limited period, in a particular place, with a limited scope, and the actual conspirators are not possessed of any special knowledge - they are ordinary humans like the rest of us, and their sinister plots often come unstuck. Nadine Milroy-Sloan was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice after she made false allegations of rape against Neil and Christine Hamilton and sold her story to a tabloid. Conspiracy happens every day. That’s why we have laws against it.

Paranoid Conspiracy Theories, on the other hand, tend to propose conspiracies on a superhuman scale. It is not unusual to find an entire theory of history which is founded on the premise that a single group of conspirators have determined the entire course of human history. As a good example, the Illuminati conspiracy is a favourite. It was first popularised in a series of books by Robert Anton Wilson in the 1970s, and most recently revived by Dan Brown. It states that the entire course of human history, at least in the West, has been determined at the whim of a group of super-rich, super-intelligent individuals, including Western intellectual icons such as Newton and Mozart.

Another example might be any kind of post-von Daniken claim that human life was created on Earth by intelligent aliens, who continue to monitor us; that we are, in effect, an exhibit in an alien zoo, or a giant experiment.

Feminism is another good example of a Paranoid Conspiracy Theory. Men, as a class, have systematically suppressed and controlled women for their own ends, across the entire world, ever since the agricultural revolution, which was about ten thousand years ago (e.g. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy).

The problem with any theory such as this is that it gives the conspirators God-like powers; to determine the course of human history they would need to stand outside of it themselves. They would need perfect information, which no one has. They would need virtually unlimited powers of agency, tantamount to omnipotence.

The satanic ritual abuse cases I mentioned before are evidence that governments, far from being the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother of the conspiracy theorists, often engage in acts of wanton stupidity. Reagan used to plan his meetings with the Soviets after consulting an astrologer. As for dubya, need I say more? The people at the top of the political elite are frequently idiots. They simply do not deserve the grandiose claims made for them by paranoid conspiracy theorists.

The source of the paranoid conspiracy theory – what makes it paranoid in fact - is the belief that everything in human affairs has a profound meaning, that nothing happens by chance: over-use of the intentional stance.

In particular, we can use paranoid conspiracy theories to explain things we do not like. Anything that happens which I disapprove of, happens as a result of the deliberate policy of some sinister and powerful vested interest. The conspiracy theorist is not just religious; she is also pessimistic. She does not stop to question why good things happen, or where the things that she approves of came from.

The impulse towards conspiracy theory is a lot like the impulse towards religion; in many ways conspiracy theories are contemporary forms of religion.

A principal feature of such conspiracy theories is that they are insufficiently supported by evidence, and in many cases, the lack of evidence is interpreted as evidence in itself. In the satanic ritual abuse witch-hunt, the investigators interpret the lack of evidence as an indication of how deep the conspiracy goes. This is bordering on the psychotic.

Conspiracy theories have two significant features which make them attractive. They're simple and they're interesting. They portray the world as a very simple place which is easy to understand. They also portray it as a place full of drama and conflict. This in turn suggests to us a course of action. I have a role in the drama, I have a conflict to pursue, and my life therefore has purpose and meaning. The real world is often a good deal less simple, and a lot more mundane.

The paranoid conspiracy theorist permits no mundane explanations (at least not of things she doesn’t like). She hears that men earn more than women (and let’s not forget that the figures are very often biased or deliberately doctored), and immediately that language starts to come out; ‘It must be the result of a conspiracy’ ‘It can only be because men hate women’. In fact, there may be any number of perfectly innocent explanations to hand. However, these are not favoured, because they are not interesting enough.

“Hypotheses are often framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced” (Carl Sagan, The Demon-haunted world, p25).

The internet is a valuable and entertaining source of conspiracy theories. I came across a theory that the Vatican is deliberately spreading HIV/AIDS around the world. An increase in the spread of AIDS is an unintended consequence of the Vatican’s policy on contraception. To say that the Vatican is deliberately spreading AIDS is simply wrong; at least, there is no evidence for it, and the large-scale death of Catholics would seem not to be in the Vatican’s best interests.

Paranoid Conspiracy theorists have a bad press, which is largely justified. When people talk about 'conspiracy theories' now, they usually mean 'paranoid conspiracy theories', like the Roswell alien landings, or the faked moon landings. These are characterised by :-

(1) The plot is on a very grandiose scale; alien landings would be the most important historical event ever.
(2) The conspirators themselves are grandiose; the conspiracy is always attributed to all-powerful and shadowy ruling elites, generally the CIA, rather than ordinary humans. In terms of strength and power the conspirators are more than human, but morally they are less than human, thus making them demonic (Nathanson and Young)
(3) Most importantly, having no evidence to support them. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the SAS killed Princess Diana, but that doesn't stop people believing it.

Because of paranoid conspiracy theories, people tend to dismiss any allegation of conspiracy out of hand, using the principle of ‘guilt by association’ ("You think there is something suspicious about 9/11? I suppose you think aliens crashed at Roswell as well, do you? I suppose you think the moon landings were faked by Hollywood"). This is a false move. Each case has to be assessed separately on its own merits by examining the evidence, or lack of evidence. (Idea for a meta-conspiracy theory: the CIA deliberately plant a few obviously fake conspiracy theories, like Roswell, in order to put people off the idea that there are any conspiracies, so that they can get on with their real conspiracies unhindered - there must be a novel in there somewhere!)

Whenever you come across a conspiracy theory, what should you make of it? The answer is to treat each one on its own merits, and to look at the evidence. On balance, there is just no evidence to support the claim that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and that its wreckage has been stored ever since in a secret US government installation called Area 51. On balance, it seems that the USA actually did land men on the moon in 1969. On balance, it seems that Princess Diana was not assassinated by the British state. On balance, it seems that Guy Fawkes and his friends really were conspiring to blow up the English parliament and assassinate King James I in 1605. The common sense view is usually the correct one. The key is to look at the evidence.


Anonymous said...

Wow, a very well thought out and laid out article. I enjoyed this.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Great Article and great site!!

I always find the idea of anti-feminists who oppose the idea of conspiracy theories (CTs) a little amusing. They believe in the vast international, multi-generational and predominantly uncoordinated conspiracy of feminism. Some even believe, as I do, that feminism is emotive Marxism. But most refuse to believe or even consider the possibility of any other CTs at all.

This is often based on a number of myths regarding human behaviour. Humankind has sought since the dawn of time to secure resources and influence through deals, deception, violence, lies and corruption. History is littered with examples, but all that stopped at some indeterminate point in the last century when we became civilized. Nobody seeks to control other nations or their resources or the world for that matter. National governments work for the benefit of their people. We live in democracies. Our vote makes a difference. The media are unbiased and expose lies for all to see. Our national banks are not private monopolies, which print money from thin air and loan it (with interest) to our governments.

Many famous and powerful individuals have subscribed to the notion of far-reaching conspiracies carried out by secretive organizations. Some examples:
"Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men's views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the United States, in the Field of commerce and manufacture, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it." Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom (1913)
"The high office of President has been used to foment a plot to destroy the Americans freedom, and before I leave office I must inform the citizen of his plight."
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Columbia University,
10 days before his assassination

"The individual is handicapped by coming face to face with a
conspiracy so monstrous he cannot believe it exists."
J. Edgar Hoover

"...the world is governed by very different personages to what is imagined by those who are not themselves behind the scenes."
Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister, 1844

"We will have a world government whether you like it or not. The only question is whether that government will be achieved by conquest or consent."
James Warburg (CFR), 1950 in statement to US Senate

The League of Nations was founded following WWI. The UN was founded after WWII. One world government will be founded after WWIII (coming soon). The European Economic Union (forerunner of the EU) was Hitler’s plan for post-war/conquest integration. I wonder how that could have happened?

Do you think it’s a coincidence that Europe is merging in to a federal Europe under the flag of the EU? The US, Canada and Mexico are merging under NAFTA and in 2008 – the American Union. South Asia is merging under SAFTA.

It’s not difficult to see what’s happening you just have to look. The EU constitution, which would have created a single European federal super-state, was rejected at the polls – so they split up the component parts and slide it under the back door.

I find it a little difficult to get worked-up about feminism any more – I used to. Then I realized it’s just a single poker game in a vast casino. It was invented by capitalists to bring the remaining 50% of the population into the workforce and make them into tax payers. The idea of collective childcare, run by government, was first proposed by Marx. As was breaking-up the family to destroy society in order to create a socialist (feminist) utopia. but you know all this…

You just don’t think that anyone could have invented both ideologies for the specific intention of reducing the world population to the level of sweat-shop workers in order to maximize efficiency and profits whilst reducing resource consumption.

MRAs just think that all western governments just somehow hate men. Not that these governments support anti-male, pro-feminist, anti-family, pro-minority, pro-abortion, open-borders, international integration, surrender national sovereignty polices because a few banshees scream in their ear. No, it’s because the end-goals of feminists and one-world governmenters and Marxists are one and the same. Unfortunately, for feminists and marxists they are the useful idiots who actually think they will end up with the society they have been promised, when in fact, we will all end up with nothing.

It’s all a capitalist wet dream thought up by a bunch of people who have been running the show since they purchased the Bank of England in 1694, most of the banks of Europe just after and the US Federal Reserve in 1913 (after many unsuccessful attempts). The only world banks not owned by these people belong to Cuba, Iraq(pre-2003), Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Bolivia and Libya – I guess it’s just a coincidence they form the mainstay of the axis of evil…

Phew…what a conspiracy nut!!!

Heretic said...

Dear Conspiracy Nut,
Thanks for your comment. I wonder if you have understood much of my article. I stated clearly that there have been conspiracies throughout history. I argued that evidence was paramount, and I have stated elsewhere the need for Occam's Razor; in other words, I advocate scientific and philsophical best practise. If the evidence points to a conspiracy, then there probably is one. I argued for a theoretical difference between actual conspiracies and paranoid conspiracy theories.

I do regard feminism as a loose network of related conspiracies against men. I do admit the existence of other conspiracies. Conspiracy does happen; as I said, that’s why we have laws against it.

However, I suggest that, as far as MRAs are concerned, these other supposed conspiracies (e.g. the alleged attempt by Freemasons to take control of the Federal Reserve) are simply not relevant, and constitute a distraction. You yourself say: “I find it a little difficult to get worked-up about feminism any more – I used to. Then I realized it’s just a single poker game in a vast casino” . It is the old problem of mission creep. You can't change anything until you can change everything, and if you believe that, you really will never change anything. The result is that you lapse into despair, complacency and paranoia. As such, you are no longer any use to the Men’s Movement.

You seem to be opposed to almost any kind of government, particularly any kind of supra-national political formation.

I can just imagine someone like yourself in Athens in the 6th Century BC saying that any attempt to unite Greece under a single flag would be a fascist conspiracy. Political groupings have always been limited in size by technology. If the fastest means of transmitting information (or military power) is a horse, political entities ain't going to grow very big. As technology improves, the size of political territories can increase. Nowadays, a single global government is possible in theory. In science fiction, a single government can span over many planets, and there is no reason to think this is not theoretically feasible, as long as communications and transport technology permit. The mere growth in the size of countries is not a cause for concern. The type of government is what matters.

The League of Nations and the UN were formed after wars for the specific purpose of preventing future wars; politicians are sometimes benign. Your attempt to compare the EU to a Nazi empire is laughable. Many people have tried to unite Europe, from the Romans to Napoleon to Hitler. The EU is a creation of democratic governments. Why not compare it to the Roman Empire? Why pick Hitler? Just because Hitler was a fascist and tried to unite Europe, it does not follow that any attempt to unite Europe is therefore fascist. I do believe it’s our old friend the Quantifier Shift Fallacy again. The fact is member states benefit from their membership of groups like NAFTA and the EU. Political authorities have entered into trade and peace treaties with each other since the dawn of history, and groupings like the EU are just another example of that. I notice you do not mention NATO. Is that something you approve of?

I have to disagree with this 'top-down' theory of history, that events are controlled by sinister vested interests, who can somehow order the creation of the feminist - or any other - movement, whenever they like. No group in the political elite has that much power. The feminist movement was in many ways a 'bottom up' movement; a grassroots movement of middle-class Leftist women. You seem confused about this – you seem to suggest that Marxism was a conspiracy by capitalists to increase their own power. This is absurd.

You say “You just don’t think that anyone could have invented both ideologies for the specific intention of reducing the world population to the level of sweat-shop workers in order to maximize efficiency and profits whilst reducing resource consumption.” The family and social breakdown caused by feminism has resulted in increased resource consumption, not decreased. A married couple have a house and a car. They get divorced, and they need two houses and two cars. See Angry Harry’s article Feminists Responsible for Traffic Chaos Also, workers living standards have dramatically increased in the last few decades. We are hardly working in sweat shops.

The bottom line is that discussion of questions like ‘Just how fascist is the EU?’ is an irrelevance, and I don’t want to waste my time on it here. I don’t care who owns the banks.

What a can of worms I have opened. I didn't realise that there were so many conspiracy nuts in the men's movement. It is not a happy discovery.

Anonymous said...

Nadine Milroy-Sloan nude photoshoot

jacksambuck said...

Great post and a lesson in rational thinking.
Conspiracy nut is off the deep end and, like a lot of CTsts, he's smarter than he is rational. Your comment nailed the problems in his theory but it shows just how widespread this type of thinking is, in the MRM as in every other movement.
I'm very glad that we share a similar view of the capitalist system(that modern proletarians have it pretty good and that blaming elites for everything is not of much help).
I just watched a video by manwomanmyth that falled prey to the same kind of "intentional" thinking : it explained feminism (it called it "putwomentoworkism") as a conspiracy by Big business and government to, well, put women to work. In this case, as in many others, stupidity(or error) is a superior explanation.

I'd like to point to the similarity between the "intentional stance"-view of the world and the "zero-sum"-view. In other words, "if something bad happens to me, someone else must have profited from it", which is rampant in, for instance, the media's view of economy : "the poor get poorer BECAUSE the rich get richer", despite massive evidence to the contrary. I think we agree on this, but for the record : Humanity's lifespan is increasing, the fraction of people dying of hunger is decreasing, etc...
Feminism's view of Man/Woman relations, just like Marxism is very much a zero-sum-type of ideology, constantly blaming one group for the sufferings of another (no matter how weak the correlation really is).