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Conspiracies and conspiracy theories

There really is a massive conspiracy involving Barack Obama. It started in 2007 and the goal of the conspiracy was no less than a power grab of global proportions. The powerful group behind the conspiracy was called Organizing for America, and their immediate goal was to have Barack Obama elected to the most power office in the world, President of the United States.

It was a conspiracy involving literally millions of people, but it was not a conspiracy theory. There is a big difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory and that’s what I want to talk about here.

In science, a theory is a testable hypothesis. One of the ways to tell a real conspiracy from a conspiracy theory is that it doesn’t explain — it just describes. For example, I can give you a mathematical formula into which you can plug the day number of the year, and it will tell you precisely the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for that day. It is 100% accurate for all of the year 2011. The problem with my formula is that it has no predictive value; it won’t work for tomorrow. The formula is a testable hypothesis, but it doesn’t test well with new data. We observe that while birthers try to explain events according to the birther conspiracy theory, their predictions are abysmally inaccurate: just look at how many times they have said that the people would rise up and kick the usurper out of the White House real soon.  What birther could have predicted that Obama would release his long form out of the blue?

 

This is one of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory, the theorists just make it up as they go along.

The way my Dow Jones predictor formula works is that I add another degree to the polynomial for each new data point I have to accommodate. Similarly, conspiracy theorists have to make the conspiracy bigger to accommodate new evidence. Why did not one member of Congress object to an unconstitutional President? The birthers have to include all of Congress as either willing or coerced members of the conspiracy to explain the event. The alternative explanation, Obama is constitutionally eligible, does not require a vast conspiracy and predicts very well the observed continuation of the government day by day. So rather than the conspiracy theory being stable, it has to be adjusted in scope to explain why more and more information comes forward to contradict it, and now pretty much has expanded to cover the entire government of the United States. In real life, the number of people who know a secret, the more likely that someone will disclose the secret, especially when the secret is “something bad.”

Another hallmark of a conspiracy theory is that it keeps growing in scope to accommodate new information, but no whistle blowers come forward1.

Those historical conspiracies that we all recognize exhibited the characteristic that the evidence grew over time. Things were revealed. There was a process through which the unknown became known. With the birther conspiracy theories, evidence turns out to be all faulty, and the process of belief does not grow over time. Media reporters aren’t launching investigations and saying “maybe there is a story here.”

Another hallmark of a conspiracy theory is who supports it: cranks or serious investigators.

So when anyone tries to slip birtherism in the door under a general argument that come conspiracies are true, on response is to point out that some conspiracies are not, and then ask how to tell the difference.


1Tim Adams, someone who talked like a whistle blower, was never part of the conspiracy, and so didn’t have any inside information to disclose.

9 Responses to Conspiracies and conspiracy theories

  1. avatar
    J.Potter July 25, 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    Well written, Doc, says much more eloquently what I was trying to choke out the other day. There’s a few typos in the last paragraph … come/some and on/one.

  2. avatar
    misha July 25, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

    Here’s a conspiracy that never gained traction:

    http://www.thespoof.com/news/spoof.cfm?headline=s2i9942

  3. avatar
    Obsolete July 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    It took a little while, but eventually the New York Times realized that the Washington Post’s reporters were onto something. They jump-started their own Watergate reporting, and found new details and sources and helped push the scandal more into the open.

    There will be no Woodward/Bernstein for birthers, because there is nothing to the birthers allegations. Not one has turned out to be true, and birthers even try to make crimes out of whole cloth (such as Obama’s SS number having a “CT” prefix. What is the actual crime? What advantage did he gain by having that instead of a “Hawaiian” prefix?”)

    I’ll say it again- the Obama administration is so far one of the cleanest in history. No major indictments/convictions. I can’t even think of any minor figures in trouble either.

  4. avatar
    JD Reed July 25, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    “In real life, the number of people who know a secret, the more likely that someone will disclose the secret, especially when the secret is ‘something bad.’ ”

    Doc, this reminds me of the saying “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.” For a long time, I thought this was originated by a Chicago mob boss, because it was a favorite of his, and these were words that, coming out of a mob boss’s mouth, caused people to sit up and take notice.
    Finally, I learned that the original source was ol’ Ben Franklin, the author of many wise sayings.

  5. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy July 25, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

    Another example of hindsight comes from Arthur Goldwag’s book: Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies:

    Knowing what we know now [the JFK assassination] … film footage of Dealy Plaza from November 22, 1963, seems pregnant with enigma and ironies–from the oddly expectant expressions on the faces of the onlookers on the grassy knoll in the instants before the shots were fired (What were they thinking?), to the play of shadows in the background (Could that flash up there on the overpass have been a gun barrel gleaming in the sun?). Each odd excrescence, every random lump in the visual texture seems suspicious.

    Does this not sound very much like a birther looking at Obama’s long form?

  6. avatar
    aarrgghh July 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    better yet, of course, is: “three can keep a secret if three are dead.”

    JD Reed:“Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”

  7. avatar
    US Citizen July 25, 2011 at 6:13 pm #

    Good article, Doc. Thanks.

  8. avatar
    Lupin July 26, 2011 at 5:08 am #

    As the Chinese (I think?) say: “what falls in a man’s ear is heard all over the world.”

  9. avatar
    Horus July 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    Obsolete: I’ll say it again- the Obama administration is so far one of the cleanest in history. No major indictments/convictions. I can’t even think of any minor figures in trouble either.

    Anyone who was vilified,( ie. Shirley Shrrod, Vann Jones,) was done so with contrived evidence.