Conspiracies and their theories

15 September 2012 by Thomas Grüter, posted in conspiracy theories, Irrational thinking

Each year in September conspiracies and conspiracies theories about 9/11 are being discussed all over again. The old questions – and a few newer ones – about the sequence of events, possible manipulations of the public and a possible involvement of US agencies are being raised anew.

But, do we really have good reasons to believe that the “true” conspirators are yet to be found? There is no lack of alternative plots on the internet, of course.

“Nothing but conspiracy theories!”, many people will say. While there is no shortage of real conspiracies in politics, finance and sports, the term “conspiracy theory” is used to imply a wild speculation without any foundation in the real world, or even a plain defamation. But how would we know? Is there a way to tell a real conspiracy from a devised one? There are, indeed, a number of indications. Real world conspiracies follow certain rules, rules which most invented conspiracies happily ignore.

Machiavelli about conspiracies

About five hundred years ago, the Italian statesman Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his famous works The Prince and Discourses. With a rational mind he analysed the mechanisms and conditions of governance and didn’t shy away from the conclusion that a good and stable government cannot not always afford to be fair and just. He saw the stability of the state as an important value because a decaying state cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens. In Machiavelli’s time, northern Italy was divided into a large number of city states that were constantly at war with each other. They formed and breached alliances for short-lived advantages. They hired mercenaries (condottieri) who regularly turned against their employers and overthrew governments. Machiavelli was a successful diplomat for his home town Florence, but one day he was falsely accused of a plot to murder the city ruler. He was imprisoned and tortured, but to no avail. Eventually, he was released, gave up his profession and began to write his books.

Therefore, Machiavelli‘s chapter about conspiracies is more than just a theory. He stated that:

  • most conspiracies fail (many are started, but only few succeed)

  • In spite of this, a conspiracy is the worst thing that can happen to a ruler. While only a few people will have the means to start an armed rebellion, everyone can plot against him.

  • Conspiracies should not last long and should not have more than three or four conspirators, because otherwise the risk of betrayal gets out of control.

While a conspiracy lasts, the plotters risk life (or death) sentence if the plot fails, therefore betrayal is always a temptation.

On the other hand, Caesar was murdered by a gang of more than 50 conspirators, and the gunpowder plot lasted more than one year. Still, the 36 barrels of gunpowder were only found one day before the planned attack on parliament and the king. This shows that a large and long lasting conspiracy is not necessarily doomed, but the probability that it fails increases dramatically with time and the number of conspirators. Certainly, a conspiracy running for centuries like Dan Brown depicts in “Angels and Demons” is extremely unlikely.

Conspiracy theories

While conspiracies are everywhere, conspiracy theories do not draw a realistic picture of them. In fact, they emerge from the suspicion that other people or groups may secretly be responsible for failures, accidents, catastrophes and unsolved crimes. This not a recent phenomenon, it has been known for thousands of years, even in the earliest hunter-gatherer tribes. Why are our hunters not finding any game? Because our enemies have secretly displaced or bewitched it! And the bolder the enemies deny any responsibility, the more certain we are that they are behind this. Let our warriors take revenge!

Nero accused the christians of plotting to burn Rome. They took revenge by accusing him and his henchmen of starting the fire. In medieval times, the Jews were the scapegoats for all kinds of epidemics and unsolved crimes.

The Bavarian Illumates were forbidden and dispelled in 1785, nonetheless they were made responsible for all kinds of subsequent events including the French revolution (together with the ungodly philosophers, the encyclopédists and the freemasons). The American geographer and minister Jedidiah Morse even declared that they were all French (as he held them responsible for the French revolution) and wanted to overturn the American government. From that time on, the Illuminates have spooked American conspiracy books mostly in the Latinized form “Illuminati”. Over the years, they became more and more spooky until Dan Brown made them into an centuries-old secret society, with Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo as members.

The idea of secret demonic societies instigating monstrous crimes in the background is not very plausible, but it presents an easy explanation for misadventures and all the evil in the world. If everybody tries to make the world a better place, why doesn’t it work? Very simple: secret evil forces sabotage every effort! Depending on one‘s standpoint, these can be international finance organisations, big oil, multi-national corporations, age-old secret societies, black helicopter folks, Jews or western intelligence agencies.

However, if we apply Machiavelli’s criteria for conspiracies, most of these theories are extremely unlikely. So why do they thrive and prosper? The real reason may be a different one: humans tend to view their peer group as better, friendlier and more cooperative than other groups. This even applies to ad-hoc groups, as psychologists established more than 40 years ago1. But its gets worse: humans tend to be altruistic to their peer group (ingroup) and distrustful of other groups (outgroups). In psychology, this is called “parochial altruism”2,3. While the phenomenon as such has been known for quite a while, there is an ongoing debate if it is an evolutionary or a cultural trait. A simulation, published in Science in 2007 showed that this behaviour indeed constitutes an evolutionary advantage and therefore may prevail among humans. If so, conspiracy theories can be viewed as the rationalisation of our inherited mistrust against outgroups. Therefore they do not need any anchor in reality to gain adherents. Even if a poll states, for example, that 20% of the participants believe that the US government was somehow involved in the terrorists attacks on 9/11, this wouldn’t prove anything about the attack, it would only prove that at least this percentage has a general mistrust against the former US government under President George W. Bush.

[1]Tajfel H, Billig, M, Bundy, RP & Flament C (1971) Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology 1(2), 149-178

[2] Bernhard H, Fischbacher U, Fehr E (2006) Parochial altruism in humans . Nature 442, 912-915

[3] Choi JK & Bowles S (2007) The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War . Science 318, 636


4 Responses to “Conspiracies and their theories”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Very interesting, Thomas. I was wondering though: are there some definite characteristics that differentiate actual conspiracies from conspiracy theories?

    • Thomas Grüter Reply | Permalink

      Khalil, real conspiracies usually struggle with all kind of shortcomings. For example, in the Rainbow Warrior affair two members of the French secret service were unexpectedly caught, which made the affair a huge embarrassment for France.
      Also, conspiracy theories usually claim that the conspiritors do a perfect job in hiding their tracks and influencing the press. Also, conspiracy theorists usually blames THEM, some evil others, while real conspiracies tend to be uncovered by whistleblowers near to plotters.

  2. Eva Reply | Permalink

    Interesting read! I also recently blogged about conspiracy theories, and how they differ from scientific theories. Main difference: conspiracy theories are only for one situation, and scientific theories can be applied in a much broader context (and can predict, of course, although I didn't really touch on that much in my ad hoc example). http://easternblot.net/2012/09/09/one-thousand-people-six-degrees/

    • Thomas Grüter Reply | Permalink

      Eva, scientific theories and conspiracy theories are totally different things. Scientific theories are about the rules and laws of nature, conspiracy theories are about evil outgroups. The provide a rationalisation why we mistrust certain other groups and at the same time, they deepen the chasm between groups, tribes, peoples or countries.

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