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.

27 responses so far

27 thoughts on “Conspiracy Thinking”

  1. Shelley says:

    The psychological literature tells us that we do a poor job of detecting lies (at about chance level) when trying to read others. The only people who do any better than chance are highly trained. There’s lots of literature on this, and aside from universal facial expressions that are well displayed (such as those that indicate joy, anger, disgust) researchers are finding only tiny indicators that are not terribly specific. A nose itch can be just an itch – or possibly an indicator of stress, which does not mean that the person is lying. (See

    When I watched the video, I thought he meant to say “the assassination and tragedy,” and flubbed it.

  2. ConspicuousCarl says:

    This is the way the conspiracy ends
    This is the way the conspiracy ends
    This is the way the conspiracy ends
    Not with a bang, but an itch/err

  3. Bronze Dog says:

    One thing the media has reinforced with the way they write scripts is that nearly everyone is a poor liar. (Warning: Link to TV Tropes.)

    One thing about conspiracy theories like the JFK assassination I like to point out: They’re paradoxically comforting. A lot of conspiracy theorists can’t accept living in a chaotic, unpredictable world where a lone gunman can assassinate the president of the United States, so they delude themselves into believing the US is so powerful, any harm that comes to it was planned by forces within the US.

  4. Ori Vandewalle says:

    I’ve never seen a good explanation for the abundance of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists. I’ve always believed that most conspiracy theorists are government plants designed to spread misinformation so that we never catch on to their real plan. That makes a lot more sense to me than their being a whole bunch of people who delude themselves and only see the evidence they want to see.

  5. Jim Shaver says:

    To me, McCain’s statement and its intent are clear.

    “…the way Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy agreed to do before the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas.”

    McCain is referring to debates that Goldwater and Kennedy agreed to have before Kennedy’s assassination “intervened” to end any such possibility. The idea that this statement is evidence for any conspiracy is just plain “pleasure” — I mean “nuts”.

  6. Jim Shaver says:

    So Ori, the abundance of ridiculous conspiracy theories is itself a government misinformation conspiracy? That’s what makes more sense to you?! Come into the light, brother, there are still a few more steps to go.

  7. steve12 says:

    I think Ori is probably being sarcastic.

    But he reminds of a good point – conspiracy theories really are a great cover for real, but more mundane, wrongdoing.

    While people worry about the Illuminati or the gov’t covering up aliens., the Goldman Sachs et al. of the world really are rigging the system and the military really is developing new horrible weapons.

    I think both groups love conspiracy theories in that they help cover their activity – at least to some extent.

  8. Ori Vandewalle says:

    Alas, there is no sarcasm smiley on the internet.

  9. steve12 says:

    Here’s a great anti-conspiracy video. It’s Noam Chomsky, who the thruthers think will be an ally, dispelling idiotic truther logic. A little long, but well worth the watch.

    He even gets into the notion of R squared (w/o mentioning it by name) in pointing out that even in a controlled experiment (the opposite of buildings being demolished), a relatively small amount of the total variance can actually be accounted for by what’s manipulated.

  10. Bronze Dog says:

    But he reminds of a good point – conspiracy theories really are a great cover for real, but more mundane, wrongdoing.

    That takes me back to one thing I thought about Area 51 when I got a better perspective about it: Some officials first stupidly tried to deny the facility’s existence, which backfired and drew more attention to it. If they just said they were doing secret stuff and ask the public to accept the secrecy, the theories would have remained mundane like testing secret aircraft. Immediately, I realized that smarter heads in the government would then use the accidental notoriety for counter-intelligence purposes. If they keep the mystery alive and maintain strong security about the place, the Communists would probably start wasting resources in trying to break into the securely locked, empty box and be distracted from hunting down the real secrets.

    Right now, if someone were to crack open Area 51, I’d expect at most an illegal waste dump, given some story I remember about workers there trying to sue the government for damaged caused by their exposure to nasty stuff. If/when it is exposed to the light, it’s going to be disappointing for the public, and the conspiracy nuts will say that they just moved the aliens to another secret base underneath Antarctica or something.

  11. DLC says:

    There’s a rule out there somewhere about Evidence of a conspiracy is in fact proof that no such conspiracy exists, because effective conspirators would not leave evidence. Or something like that.

  12. Jim Shaver says:

    Sorry, Ori. You got me. 🙁

  13. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Ori Vandewalle on 13 Aug 2012 at 11:32 am

    I’ve never seen a good explanation for the abundance of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists.

    If we want to play Evolutionary Psychology, I would guess that most of these people are at the high end of a paranoia instinct which was somewhat useful when we were living in small groups and not exposed to any information not likely to affect us. If Thag the Unsmellable is seen eating a large chunk of meat at night, one would do well to think that he may have stolen it (or been given a bribe). When modern people see an Internet video of George Bush doing the same, there is no guarantee that our cave-evolved intuitions will make the right call. Our diversified brains will have different degrees to which they assume connections between George’s big steak and all of the other information we have accessed.

  14. Laursaurus says:

    Skeptoid had a recent episode on Area 51.

    There also other conspiracy theories the podcast has pointed the “Skeptical Eye” towards.

    Most conspiracy theories are amusing to investigate. But when it comes to 9/11, I get upset. My fear is that the Truthers will succeed in re-writing the truly tragic history I personally endured in my life time. If someone insists on the shooter in the grassy knoll, I just chuckle to myself and end the conversation. But the Truthers lack downright human decency by mocking the horrific suffering.
    On the bright side, skeptical activism can chalk up a bit of success on this particular conspiracy theory. Some very noble and intelligent people held the lunatics feet to the fire in skillful debates. We can also be grateful to the thorough analysis published by Popular Mechanics. There is a very well done point-by-point video rebuttal to Loose Change on YouTube by a Canadian, believe it or not.

    I like the Conspiracy Skeptic podcast a lot, too. But Karl has drawn a line in the sand with 9/11 for understandable reasons. He aims for an upbeat tone, and I suppose we are still a bit raw only 12 years later. Not to mention all the nut cases that tried to shout down everyone from Bill Maher to former president Bill Clinton. Maybe as time passes and the kooks fade into obscurity, he’ll consider taking it on.

    Sadly, I don’t enjoy SGU. It’s just too pessimistic and snarky. But I like your blog. You must have cross-posted this because it popped up 3 times in my Feedly. Great article!

  15. SARA says:

    I always think of conspiracy theorist as similar to people who believe in deities. Similarities exist in finding significance in random occurrences, in assuming a larger plan behind events, in a more powerful and manipulating force.

    As Bronze Dog mentioned people don’t want to believe that things can just randomly happen for no reason. It’s more comforting to explain it with a conspiracy. Just like it’s more comforting to explain the universe with a diety, rather than think about and not understand all the complexity of actual physics.

  16. steve12 says:

    “But the Truthers lack downright human decency by mocking the horrific suffering.”

    I agree, though I don’t think this is their intent. I know some truthers – not activists, but people who believe this nonsense – and they’re intent isn’t to mock or hurt. They really believe a grave injustice has been perpetrated. I don’t think this excuses them the right to think, but I don’t think their intention is malicious.

    And I hope I wasn’t too glib in the post I put re: the matter above. I do take some measure of shadenfreude in the Truther who thinks Chomsky’s going to agree with him, but then gets a lesson in real critical thinking. But the subject matter shouldn’t get lost n the shuffle.

  17. HHC says:

    Does any one other than myself remember when John McCain shouted at the Republican Convention, ” We are all prisoners of war!” and Sarah Palin made a facial grimace and rolled her eyes? Guess he made more than one unique remark during the campaign.

  18. Shelley says:

    Conspiracy theories simplfy life to “right,” “wrong,” “good,” and “evil.” if bad things happen to good people, then evil forces must be at play. . . Somewhere. This is so much more comforting than the understanding that sometimes awful and atrocious things happen outside of our control. If we can just explain it somehow, then it is preventable, comprehensible. And then bad things never randomly happen. There is always an explanation.

  19. Davdoodles says:

    I once saw a conspiracy theorist scratch his own nose.

    The implications were terrifying.

  20. Jared Olsen says:

    Sounds to me like McCain said “the intervention OR tragedy at Dallas”…

    Jim Shaver-‘ “pleasure” — I mean “nuts” ‘ – nice S or F reference!

  21. James Waite says:

    I think that the most interesting feature of the conspiracy theorist is the obsession. We all make incorrect assumptions, normally the idea quickly passes from our thoughts or it changes over time. The conspiracy theorist remains focused.

  22. BillyJoe7 says:

    DLC: “There’s a rule out there somewhere about Evidence of a conspiracy is in fact proof that no such conspiracy exists, because effective conspirators would not leave evidence. Or something like that.”

    The absence of evidence of a conspiracy is, in fact, proof that a conspiracy exists because effective conspirators would not leave evidence.

  23. DOYLE says:

    The person with a conspiracy temperment is like a child who sees in clouds sea-horses,rabbits and elephants.For a fleeting moment the animals “present”themselves visually reasonable.But then the wind stretches them and,that elephant becomes vaguer and vaguer untill it’s gone.The conspiracy moron still sees the elephant,assumes it means harm,and tries to get other to share his ardent stupidity.

  24. The line, “I’m just asking questions” is one I hear a lot. My usual response is,

    “I know, but you don’t want the answers!”

    I was confronted with this line by a generally well meaning guy, regarding why the twin towers collapsed. As I don’t have too much contact with people in the UK who believe the utterly offensive idea that this was a government conspiracy, I don’t really have all the facts to hand. However I did remember some basics about the structural components (steel) of the towers, their melting points and the differences between them and similar buildings to be struck by aircraft which were composed of greater amounts of concrete.

    The point is that this guy had no interest in my reasoning and my pointing to the fact that the answers are there if you look for them. Why do people not want the answers? Why do people cling to ludicrous conspiracies? Why do I think that my anecdote is a worthy reason to rant about conspiracy theorists?

    I don’t know. I’m just a guy asking questions.

  25. Whatever McCain meant by the line, the example he’s using can’t be true. How could Kennedy agree to debate Goldwater in November 1963? Goldwater wouldn’t become the presidential nominee until the next summer.

  26. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Mark Erickson on 17 Aug 2012 at 8:21 am

    Whatever McCain meant by the line, the example he’s using can’t be true. How could Kennedy agree to debate Goldwater in November 1963? Goldwater wouldn’t become the presidential nominee until the next summer.

    Whoa, major bad logic in that unstated premise. Politicians do not have to be official nominees, or even officially announce their campaign, before they can run around doing all kinds of things. In fact, I think Mitt Romney still isn’t officially the Republican candidate according to the paperwork.

    By the way, here’s a June 1963 TIME mag cover featuring Barry Goldwater snuggling an elephant with a ribbon tag line of “CANDIDATE-WATCHING IN THE GOP”:,16641,19630614,00.html

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