Ten Guidelines to Conspiracy Theories

Over the years I’ve seen people from many different backgrounds take a swing at conspiracy theories. Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style to take a shot at Goldwater. Daniel Pipes complained that left-wing conspiracy theories don’t get the abuse that right-wing theories do. Gregory Camp tried to get his fellow Christians to stop fretting about the Federal Reserve.

Now, thanks to Svend White, I find anarchist and historian Peter Staudenmaier on the Against the Grain podcast talking about what makes a conspiracy theory. Staudenmaier acknowledges that as an anarchist he’s been on both sides of the theories, and he feels the anarchist community needs to stop going in for conspiracism.

Staudenmaier defines conspiracy theories as a “tendency to hold specific and identifiable social groups responsible for what seem to be inexplicable aspects of the social world.” He sees conspiracy theories as a flattening of history, or a reducing of a complex institutional problem down to a simple problem of evil people.

The core of Staudenmaier’s talk is his list of ten (or so) common tropes found in conspiratorial thinking. He’s not very precise, but I’ve tried to pull them out here. Some theories will have some of these indicators, others will have other indicators, likely none will have all.

  1. Rejection of contingency.

    In the realm of their chosen conspiracy, conspiracists believe that “everything happens for a reason” …

  2. False dichotomy between coincidence and conspiracy

    … and that reason is almost always tied back to the conspirators.

  3. Misunderstanding of the intentionality. “Intention gap”

    Conspiracism does not account for fallibility. It assumes that powerful will always get what they want, which implies that what they get is what they wanted to begin with.

  4. Mistaking elaborateness for complexity

    Conspiracism lacks a third dimension. Think of the standard Glenn Beck blackboard, with its names and arrows. In reality, that board would need hundreds more arrows, dotted lines, loops and squiggles to make sense of the connections that drive events.

  5. Plausibility /= probability

    Common in all pseudo-disciplines. Conspiracists often make the unconscious jump from believing something is merely possible to believing that something actually occurred. There are an infinite number of events that could happen, but that doesn’t mean they actually will.

  6. Argumentation from insinuation

    Conspiracists will often argue elliptically, leaving it to the reader to fill in their accusation. This allows the avoid stating their claims, which frequently are unsupported and appear ridiculous when stated baldly.

  7. Non-sequiturs

    Related to the above, conspiracists often throw out facts that don’t really support their argument, but sound impressive.

  8. Arguments from prejudice

    Conspiracists will sometimes class groups of people together and use common prejudices against that group as part of their argument. The obvious examples are the Jews, but Muslims, Arabs, government employees and socialists are also popular.

  9. False Concreteness

    There are things going on in social reality that are big and hard to grasp. A conspiracy theory acts as a handle, blaming some group for some diffuse complicated problem. This gives you a target to focus your ire.

  10. Telling detail or errant data

    Pseudo-disciplines often focus on the details that don’t seem to fit with the establishment narrative. Sometimes these details are real anomalies, and sometimes they are artifacts of the conspirator’s ignorance.

  • James Thompson

    Great shot of Mr Beck!

  • kessy_athena

    I think the fundamental feature of conspiracy thinking is a complete disregard of Hanlon’s Razor: never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

    • Andrew G.

      Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.

  • http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com/ Michael Caton

    Great post. Conspiracy theories are comforting in a way, because they suggest the world is rational, even if dark. Hey guys, want a scary idea? No one really knows what’s going on, no one’s driving, and no one knows what’s going to happen!

    • gratch

      Yes! That’s it exactly. I have a co-worker who goes on CONSTANTLY about the New World Order and Illuminati and the Masons and all the rest. It’s given me a glimpse into that mindset and I think that’s part of it. Some people just can’t handle the idea that not everything happens for a reason. And so, even if it’s a bad reason, it’s still a comfort to them. Plus I think it’s an ego thing. You know, there’s this world wide conspiracy of the most powerful movers and shakers enacting a plan right in front of everybody and nobody sees it but little old me. It lets you feel superior to all your imagined enemies because you’re on to them and they don’t even know it.

    • http://blog.nikhilkrishnaswamy.com NK

      That sounds familiar: people insisting there’s some mighty, all-controlling force out there when there most likely isn’t, but they stick with it because the alternative is just too scary to contemplate.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    the anarchist community

    You made a funny.

    • Mogg

      There’s an Anarchy Club not far from where I live. Complying with the legal requirements for a club committee must be an intereting dilemma.

  • Revyloution

    My all time favorite argument against conspiracy theories is just a simple quote.

    “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”
    Benjamin Franklin

    • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

      Well said! Conspiratorialists always overestimate the ability of those in charge of putative schemes, to keep those involved in them perpetually quiet. The fact is, the more people who are involved in a supposed conspiracy, the greater the chance of a leak. The number of people who’d have to cooperate with a lot of these conspiracies can be considerable. Assuming they’ll stay compliant and quiet is not reasonable.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      You can’t trust that Franklin guy, I hear he was thick with the Illuminati.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    One of the things about conspiracies that make them — in an odd way — comforting, is that they explain why things may not be going in the conspiratorialist’s favor. They’re an assertion that “the game is rigged,” so it’s no wonder one’s life isn’t going too well.

  • Noelle

    I find mass incompetence and dumb luck much more likely than large groups of people secretly cooperating. Nobody’s that organized.

    Ya know, there’s a certain satisfaction and relief to know there is no reason, meaning, or master plan.

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    One more thing: I note that the Glennster rages and fumes over the machinations of George Soros and the various organizations he funds … yet, he never tells his audience he’s on the payroll of the Koch brothers. I can only assume Glennie-boy must be unaware his own precious Jesus clearly, unambiguously, and explicitly ordered him never, ever to be a hypocrite. So why is he one? One wonders why he thinks he should get away with this rather obvious un-Christian behavior.

    • kessy_athena

      Simple. He gets paid an obscene amount of money to do it and his audience doesn’t care as long as he’s telling them what they want to hear and feeding their moral outrage addiction.

  • rumitoid

    Very clever but you think I’m not on to you, vor? Easy to see right through this weak attempt to discredit the idea of conspiracies, and that you are a front man for The Worldwide Cabal of Darkness. Make conspiracies seem foolish and then who will listen, right?

    Proof? All these comments are written in your style: did you think no one notice? And then there’s point 8, Arguments from Prejudice: you really blew it there, my friend. Prejudice? Nice attempt to parry. This is the unholy alliance as exactly outlined by Glenn Beck, an ingenious union of evil forces. Jews and Muslims at odds with each other: pathetic. THEY HAVE THE SAME BIBLICAL FATHER!!!! It is a ruse to to drive up the price of oil and dry up the treasury of America. There has been no Six Day War or trouble with the Palestinians and Jews. Pure propaganda. With computers the photo-shopping has gotten much better but I heard a brilliant photo analysis formerly with the CIA and recognized as the authpritative voice on photo and film (the one who showed conclusively that the Zapruda film was a fake) has shown–proven–those images of a conflict in that region are all doctored, utterly flase.
    Besides that, we know that all is fair for Muslims to achieve their sinister (with their Jewish brothers).

    Oh, and your headwater point. Truly clumsy and very telling. Trying to imply that things “happen for a reason” only if you are a deluded nutjob. This solidifies you as among the godless. The Christain God is a God of order and REASON, intervening or allowing only that which He desires for His mysterious ends.

    Point 3: I do not have to account for fallibility. God is all powerful and directs me in His fight against the likes of you. Spirit informs, but your hardened heart wouldn’t know that.

    Point 9: only the heathen would think this a legitimate argument.
    “There are things going on in social reality that are big and hard to grasp. A conspiracy theory acts as a handle, blaming some group for some diffuse complicated problem. This gives you a target to focus your ire.”
    Nothing is too hard or big for God to grasp. God reveals the target to His righteous cadre to do his will, carry out His wrath if necessary. It is not ire but His justice that prevaileth through His humble servants.

    You must be feeling pretty silly or embarrassed about now. Bet you never thought you’d run into anyone nearly as sharp as me from that side you despise. We Beckians will resist and eventually overwhelm your Cabal of Darkness from creating a satanic One World Order. Count on it!

    • gratch

      Excellent parody! Funny, not too long and not in danger of being a Poe since it was obviously not actually written by a Beck-ite. The clue was in the spelling and accurate use of capitalization.

  • rumitoid

    Just kidding, of course.

  • Svend White

    Thanks for the nod. And, even more, for the handy summary! I’ll be sure to link back to it.