Aug 13 2012

Conspiracy Thinking

I remain fascinated with the mindset of the conspiracy theorist. Partly this is because I think we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us – deep within our evolved psyche. There is something very compelling and satisfying about believing that you have peeked behind the curtain and seen the true machinations at work in the world. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are mostly regular people who have fallen into a psychological trap, or perhaps they simply have a greater tendency towards the kinds of thinking that leads to belief in conspiracies. Theirs, however, is a difference in magnitude, not kind.

I recently received an e-mail with an innocent question from someone who appears to fall into the former group – a regular guy whose conspiracy sense has been tickled. The e-mailer’s brother, who is a conspiracy theorist by his account, pointed him to this Youtube video – a short clip from an interview with John McCain and Barack Obama during the 2008 election. Take a look at the interview before reading further.

McCain is apparently posturing about the debate schedule between him and Obama (typical political fare for a US election), and refers back to the debate planning between Barry Goldwater and JFK before the “Intervention and the tragedy at Dallas.”  The video would probably pass most people by without a thought, or perhaps just the slightest notice of the word choice by McCain. Calling the assassination of JFK an “intervention” at first seems like an odd word choice. Did he say “the intervention and the tragedy at Dallas,” or “the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas,” – meaning that the tragedy intervened in the course of events? It’s probably the latter. It’s also possible that the wrong word came out, or the intended word did not come to mind (although there does not appear to be any delay or stuttering). Either way, this is a non-event.

Yet conspiracy theorists have taken this one odd word and made it into evidence for a JFK assassination conspiracy., for example, describes the moment this way:

“the intervention…” (eyes open wide, eyebrows high, grabs nose) “…err tragedy in Dallas…

The insertion of “err” makes it seem like McCain accidentally let slip the big secret, which for some reason he is privy to, and then rapidly corrected himself. I don’t hear an “err” and the flow of the sentence does not suggest a corrected mistake.

A great deal has also been made of the fact that McCain quickly itches his nose during the famous sentence. Many commenters point out that this is a supposed sign of deception, or that it is very telling. Some speculate that the comment was a message to Obama that if he steps out of line he will suffer the same fate as JFK (so of course this threat was delivered on national tv).

It’s also possible, of course, that McCain simply had an itch and was absentmindedly scratching it.

The entire to-do about this video is, of course, absurd. Like most pieces of supposed evidence for such grand conspiracies, it generates more questions than answers. If there were a plot to assassinate JFK, why would McCain know about it? And if he did, why would he keep the secret. He was nobody back in 1963 – an average naval pilot with no inkling of his later political career. The conspiracy theory, therefore, must assume that once a politician gets into the upper reaches of power they are made privy to all the secrets that have been kept over the years. The conspiracy always has to expand and grow in order to make sense of apparent contradictions. Before long you get into the world-wide multi-generational shadow government that controls everything.

The primary mental malfunction of the “intervention” video conspiracy-mongering, however, is the massive anomaly hunting that it represents. Conspiracy theorists don’t have real evidence (because the conspirators hide all the evidence, or course), instead they have anomalies. Anything that seems a bit odd, out of place, coincidental, or all-too-convenient is cast in a sinister light and made to seem as if it is evidence for a conspiracy. Media conspiracy theorists often hide this thinking as “I’m just asking questions” – which is code for, “I’m just anomaly hunting and conspiracy-mongering.”

Imagine all the video of all the politicians and leaders out there that could possibly produce something that can be twisted into vague evidence of something sinister. It doesn’t have to be anything specific – and that’s the point. A scratch of the nose, a certain facial expression or word choice is all it takes. The amount of data out there for conspiracy theorists to mine is vast. The fact that this sort of thing is the best they can come up with is very telling in itself.

The world is a complex and chaotic place, and our ability to make sense of it all is limited by comparison. We like, however, to have a sense of control, so we look for patterns and ways to predict what will happen in this chaotic world. Superstitions are one way to deal with the chaos, and conspiracy theories are another. They are both forms of pattern seeking behavior. The illusion of pattern that leads to the illusion of understanding and therefore control is psychologically appealing. But it is all a neuropsychological illusion.

Rigorous logic and empirical methods need to be applied to let us distinguish real patterns from fake or coincidental ones. Conspiracy thinking is the opposite of rigorous logic. It employs conspiracy logic, which can turn any evidence against a conspiracy or lack of evidence for a conspiracy into evidence for the conspiracy. Conspiracy thinking is a closed  mental feedback loop. There is no way out from within the conspiracy mindset itself.

To a conspiracy theorist, McCain scratched his nose, therefore he is in on a 45 year old plot to assassinate JFK, and the world is run by a shadow government of incredible reach, power, and just enough stupidity (or hubris) so that the conspiracy theorists themselves can see through it all.

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