Mar 15 2024

What Is a Grand Conspiracy?

Ah, the categorization question again. This is an endless, but much needed, endeavor within human intellectual activity. We have the need to categorize things, if for no other reason than we need to communicate with each other about them. Often skeptics, like myself, talk about conspiracy theories or grand conspiracies. We also often define exactly what we mean by such terms, although not always exhaustively or definitively. It is too cumbersome to do so every single time we refer to such conspiracy theories. To some extent there is a cumulative aspect to discussions about such topics, either here or, for example, on my podcast. To some extent I expect regular readers or listeners to remember what has come before.

For blog posts I also tend to rely on links to previous articles for background, and I have little patience for those who cannot bother to click these links to answer their questions or before making accusations about not having properly defined a term, for example. I don’t expect people to have memorized my entire catalogue, but click the links that are obviously there to provide further background and explanation. Along those lines, I suspect I will be linking to this very article in all my future articles about conspiracy theories.

What is a grand conspiracy theory? First a bit more background, about categorization itself. There are two concepts I find most useful when thinking about categories – operational definition and defining characteristics. An operational definition is one that essentially is a list of inclusion and exclusion criteria, a formula, that if you follow, will determine if something fits within the category or not. It’s not a vague description or general concept – it is a specific list of criteria that can be followed “operationally”. This comes up a lot in medicine when defining a disease. For example, the operational definition of “essential hypertension” is persistent (three readings or more) systolic blood pressure over 130 or diastolic blood pressure over 80.

Operational definitions often rely upon so-called “defining characteristics” – those features that we feel are essential to the category. For example, how do we define “planet”? Well, astronomers had to agree on what the defining characteristics of “planet” should be, and it was not entirely obvious. The one that created the most controversy was the need to gravitationally clear out one’s orbit – the defining characteristic that excluded Pluto from the list of planets.

There is therefore some subjectivity in categories, because we have to choose the defining characteristics. Also, such characteristics may have fuzzy or non-obvious boundaries. This leads to what philosophers call the “demarcation problem” – there may be a fuzzy border between categories. But, and this is critical, this does not mean the categories themselves don’t exist or are not meaningful.

With all that in mind, how do we operationally define a “grand conspiracy” and what are the defining characteristics. A grand conspiracy has a particular structure, but I think the key defining characteristic is the conspirators themselves. The conspirators are a secret group that have way more power than they should have or any group realistically could have. Further they are operating for their own nefarious goals and are deceiving the public about their existence and their true goals. This shadowy group may operate within a government, or represents a shadow government themselves, or even a secret world government. They can control the media and other institutions as necessary to control the public narrative. They are often portrayed a diabolically clever, able to orchestrate elaborate deceptions and false flag operations, down to tiny details.

But of course there would be no conspiracy theory if such a group were entirely successful. So there must also be an “army of light” that has somehow penetrated the veil of the conspirators, they see the conspiracy for what it is and try to expose it. Then there is everyone else, the “sheeple” who are naive and deceived by the conspiracy.

That is the structure of a grand conspiracy. Functionally, psychologically, the grand conspiracy theory operates in order to insulate the belief of the “conspiracy theorist”. Any evidence that contradicts the conspiracy theory was a “false flag” operation, meant to cast doubt on the conspiracy. The utter lack of direct evidence for the conspiracy is due to the extensive ability of the conspirators to cover up any and all such evidence. So how, then, do the conspiracy theorists even know that the conspiracy exists? They rely on pattern recognition, anomaly hunting, and hyperactive agency detection – not consciously or explicitly, but that is what they do. They look for apparent alignments, or for anything unusual. Then they assume a hidden hand operating behind the scenes, and give it all a sinister interpretation.

Here is a good recent example – Joe Rogan recently “blew” his audience’s mind by claiming that the day before 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld said in a press conference that the Pentagon had lost 2.3 trillion dollars. Then, the next day, a plane crashes into the part of the Pentagon that was carrying out the very audit of that missing trillions. Boom – a grand conspiracy is born (of course fitting into another existing conspiracy that 9/11 was an inside job). The coincidence was the press conference the day before 9/11, which is not much of a coincidence because you can go anomaly hunting by looking at any government activity in the days before 9/11 for anything that can be interpreted in a sinister way.

In this case, Rumsfeld did not say the Pentagon lost $2.3 trillion. He was criticizing the outdated technology in use by the DOD, saying it is not up to the modern standards used by private corporations. An analysis – released to the public one year earlier – concluded that because of the outdated accounting systems, as much as 2.3 trillion dollars in the Pentagon budget cannot be accurately tracked and documented. But of course, Rogan is just laying out a sinister-looking coincidence, not telling a coherent story. What is he actually saying? Was Rumsfeld speaking out of school? Was 9/11 orchestrated in a single day to cover up Rumsfeld’s accidental disclosure? Is Rumsfeld a rebel who was trying to expose the coverup? Would crashing into the Pentagon sufficiently destroy any records of DOD expenditures to hide the fact that $2.3 trillion was stolen? Where is the press on this story? How can anyone make $2.3 trillion disappear? How did the DOD operate with so much money missing from their budget?

Such questions should act as a “reality filter” that quickly marks the story as implausible and even silly. But the grand conspiracy reacts to such narrative problems by simply expanding the scope, depth, and power of the conspiracy. So now we have to hypothesize the existence of a group within the government, complicit with many people in the government, that can steal $2.3 trillion from the federal budget, keep it from the public and the media, and orchestrate and carry our elaborate distractions like 9/11 when necessary.

This is why, logically speaking, grand conspiracy theories collapse under their own weight. They must, by necessity, grow in order to remain viable, until you have a vast multi-generational conspiracy spanning multiple institutions with secret power over many aspects of the world. Any they can keep it all secret by exerting unbelievable control over the thousands and thousands of individuals who would need to be involved. They can bribe, threaten, and kill anyone who would expose them. Except, of course, for the conspiracy theorists themselves, who can work tirelessly to expose them with fear, apparently.

This apparent contradiction has even lead to a meta conspiracy theory that all conspiracy theories are in fact false flag operations, meant to discredit conspiracy theories and theorists so that the real conspiracies can operate in the shadows.

Being a “grand” conspiracy is not just about size. As I have laid out, it is about how such conspiracies allegedly operate, and the intellectual approach of the conspiracy theorists who believe in them. This can fairly easily be distinguished from actual conspiracies, in which more than one person or entity agree together to carry out some secret illegal activity. Actually conspiracies can even become fairly extensive, but the bigger they get the greater the risk that they will be exposed, which they are all the time. Of course, we can’t know about the conspiracies that were never exposed, by definition, but certainly there are a vast number of conspiracies that do ultimately get exposed. It makes it hard to believe that a conspiracy orders of magnitude larger can operate for decades without similarly being exposed.

Ultimately the grand conspiracy theory is about the cognitive style and behavior of the conspiracy theorists – the subject of a growing body of psychological research.

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