Conspiracy Theories – Out of the Matrix

March 2006
by Steven Novella, MD

There are no shortage of conspiracy theories in the halls of pseudoscience and pseudohistory, not to mention pop culture mythology. According to a 1992 New York Times survey, 77 percent of Americans hold the demonstrably wrong belief that the JFK assassination was the work of a conspiracy. Others believe there are conspiracies to suppress a cure for cancer or hide knowledge of cold fusion or other “free energy” sources. There are those who say that the AIDS virus was created in a government lab specifically to target the gay community or that vaccines are a government program designed to cause illness. The biggest conspiracy theories contend that the entire world is secretly run by a shadowy organization of megalomaniacs, like the Iluminati or the Men in Black.

So what is the appeal of such conspiracies? For one, humans have a well documented propensity for pattern recognition. We seek out patterns as a way of making sense of the complex world around us. Sometimes we see patterns that are not there. Humans also have a natural, and evolutionarily adaptive, paranoia. It’s good to be wary of potential harm or abuse, otherwise we would be easily victimized or deceived. But like all adaptive mental tendencies, in some individuals paranoia can be too strong, even overwhelming.

Hard-core conspiracy theorists tend to have a cartoon view of the world, one in which all people fall into one of three groups: the conspirators, the crusaders, and the dupes. The conspirators are portrayed as evil and powerful, seeking control for its own sake. They are often granted unimaginable cleverness and resources, and their reach knows no bounds. At the same time, they are ascribed unbelievable stupidity-for how else could their conspiracy be uncovered? The crusaders are the believers themselves. They feel they are a small band of freedom-fighters, an army of light, saving the world from incredible malfeasance. The dupes are everyone else.

But grand conspiracies (and that’s what we’re talking about here) require the cooperation of countless people over long periods of time and across many institutions. This is the first major logical fault with grand conspiracy theories -they tend to collapse under their own weight. The problem is explaining how the conspirators are able to maintain secrecy and control. If the U.S. were hiding UFOs and aliens over decades, the number of people that would need to be involved is huge. How do they keep them all silent? How do they get the funding and the space to run such an operation? Have all the presidential administrations since Roswell been involved? How do they prevent leaks-say, the kinds of leaks that recently outed the government’s domestic spying program? Wouldn’t other governments have discovered the presence of aliens? Are they too involved? In order to answer these questions, more and more power and scope must be ceded to the conspirators, until you have to believe that they run the world.

Second, conspiracy theorists tend to believe that everything happens for a reason – a logical fallacy known as the argument from final consequences. For example, Bush’s power and popularity benefited from 9/11, therefore he must have perpetrated 9/11. The assassination of JFK had enormous consequences; therefore it could not have been the insane act of a lone nut. It must have had an equally enormous cause – a conspiracy. The more elegant view is that we simply live in a wacky world and sometimes stuff happens.

Conspiracy theorists also make much of what we don’t know. If the quirky details of a complex historical event cannot be explained and documented to an arbitrarily high degree, then there must be a reason for our ignorance. They engage in anomaly hunting – looking for any apparent anomaly and then proclaiming that evidence of a conspiracy. Their unstated premise, however, is that apparent anomalies would not exist without a conspiracy. Therefore the dark hand of a conspiracy must be at work in the shadows. Again, Occam would remind us that complexity naturally leads to inexplicable chaos without the need for a purposeful conspiracy.

The final, and most insidious, problem with conspiracy theories is that they quickly become a closed belief system. Why is there no evidence for a conspiracy? Because the conspirators have hidden all the evidence. Why is there evidence that the conspiracy is wrong? Because the conspirators fabricated and planted that evidence. How could they have done that? Because they have frightening power and reach (which brings us back to the first problem). Therefore, there is no amount or type of evidence that can convince a conspiracy theorist that he’s wrong, which means that his (or her) beliefs are comfortably unhinged from reality.

The alternative, alas, is to live in reality. Reality can be frightening and confusing, with questions that are difficult to answer and problems that are hard to solve. But in the real world, at least there are no all-powerful cabals, controlling us from behind the scenes.

Letters and Dr. Novella’s Responses

So Steve Novella obviously was a witness on the grassy knoll back in Dallas circa 11/22/63, has read–nay, MEMORIZED the Warren Report (how many volumes was it, ten or 12?) and possess Divine Omniscience? Otherwise, by dismissing ALL suspicion that JFK was murdered by a conspiracy as “silly,” he is blowing smoke out of his flabby, homicidal ass (bad enough) into our faces (unforgivable).

With ANY homicide, the FIRST suspects are ALWAYS those who benefit, and when MANY have a logical motive (as is usual in ANY political assassination), a conspiracy is presumed, to be DISPROVED rather than proved. This is elementary criminology. Most assassinations of heads of state–Olaf Palme, Diem-Nhu, Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi, Alberto Moro,etc.– grew out of proven conspiracies, as did Lincoln’s. Even when murders seem senseless and random–as in the Manson Family killings–a conspiracy is usually NECESSARY to complete the crime. As for JFK’s death, all the theories I’m familiar with–the Mafia, Castro, Hoover, LBJ–are unsatisfactory, but each makes more sense than the idiotic fantasy conjured up by the Warren Commission (of course; Jack Ruby LOVED Kennedy SO much, he just HAD to kill Oswald before his trial. Who’s being “silly” now, Mr. Chief Justice?), which is widely regarded as the most inept criminal investigation of the twentieth century. I certainly don’t think Oliver Stone’s JFK is accurate or even credible history, but 2 scenes are required viewing for Mr.Novella and anyone else who dismisses a conspiracy out of hand; the dissection of Arlen Spector’s sub-moronic “Magic Bullet” theory, and the UNEDITED Zapruder film, in which JFK’s head is blown off in two directions, neither of which correspond to Oswald’s alleged firing position. Until then, you are no smarter than those Born Again mutants who think Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs to church on Sunday.

Conspiracies–the Mafia, Teapot Dome, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the CIA’s overthrow of Allende, the FBI’s harassment of Dr. King and its ongoing use of agents provocateur to undermine anti-war groups–EXIST like it or not. They’re founded and manned by human beings, who are mostly inept and stupid, acting out of greed and servility. But even these pitiful beings are intellectually superior to you, Mr. Novell, You’re no SKEPTIC…just the most pathetic brand of naif.

SincerelyProud to be Paranoid, David Adams Murphy(Rev.) Pawtucket, RI

Dr. Novella responds:

I will ignore the many ad-hominem and childish attacks in Mr. Murphy’s letter and address the factual and logical points that I can (with some difficulty) extract from it.

Mr. Murphy argues that in a political assassination a conspiracy is to be assumed until proven otherwise. I disagree. In any crime, all plausible possibilities should be considered with an open mind. It is reasonable to prioritize these possibilities based upon probability (plausibility and statistics), but not to assume any of them. For example, it is true then when a wife is murdered, the husband is statistically the most likely suspect. However, this would not justify assuming the husband is guilty until proven innocent or ignoring other possible suspects.

Not only is this logic not valid, but I reject the premise that a theory other than a conspiracy is unproven in the JFK case. I refer to the excellent book Case Closed by Gerald Posner, that builds a very compelling case that Lee Harvey Oswald was indeed the “lone gunman” in the JFK assassination. In addition, as Mr. Murphy admits, none of the proposed conspiracy theories is satisfactory – in fact they all stink.

Mr. Murphy’s assumption that I have rejected JFK assassination theories out of hand is false. It is based on the compelling evidence for Lee Oswald and the lack of credible evidence for any conspiracy, in addition to the sloppy logic and evidence of conspiracy theorists.

Murphy also refers to the “magic bullet” theory. This misrepresentation of the forensics of the event (as credulously dramatized by Oliver Stone) has been thoroughly analyzed and discredited. In fact, a detailed analysis by the Failure Analysis Associates (and excellently reported on by Peter Jennings in his special on the JFK assassination) shows that the physical and forensic evidence solidly supports a lone gunman in the sniper’s nest occupied by Oswald.

I have also viewed a recently digitally enhanced version of the Zapruder film, in addition to neurological analysis of the reaction of JFK’s head to the bullet entry. In short, it is consistent with a single shot from the back (again, the sniper’s nest). This shot blew off part of JFK’s skull resulting in a high energy jet of tissue shooting out of the skull wound in a forward and right trajectory, forcing his head back and to the left. The jet of tissue is clearly visible on certain frames of the Zapruder film and is estimated to have shot up 30 ft.

Finally, Murphy lists other conspiracies to prove that “conspiracies…exist.” I never argued that they do not. My comments, as specifically mentioned, were confined to grand conspiracies, unsustainably huge conspiracies. The examples given by Murphy differ significantly in that they were not that secret, or they involved one group or agency over a confined period of time, and they were all uncovered, with evidence to prove the existence of a conspiracy. They do not support the existence of a secret grand conspiracy for which there is no compelling evidence.