Tuesday, November 1, 2011
The Conspiratorial Mind at Work
Donald Ogden Stewart, one of the resident wits of the Algonquin Round Table, has been credited with the observation that there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. Include me in the first camp. I think the two kinds of people in the world are those who believe in conspiracies and those who don’t.
Conspiracies happen, to be sure, but my experience and observation leads me to believe that they are not as common as most people think and are rarely successful for the simple reason that Ben Franklin posited in Poor Richard’s Almanac some two hundred fifty years ago: Three can keep a secret only when two are dead.
One of my favorite principles, in trying to sort out a tough question, is that of Occam’s Razor, which states, in essence, that the simplest of competing theories should generally be preferred the more complex theories or explanations.
Consider the application of that principle to an issue such as President Obama’s birth certificate. The simplest theory would be that since he produced a certificate, the genuineness of which was attested to by the governor and the secretary of state of Hawaii, which issued it, we should accept its validity and move on to more important matters.
To believe otherwise, you would have to believe that those elected officials were lying; that someone thought, nearly fifty years ago, to plant bogus birth announcements in the Honolulu papers, realizing that this phony baby was going to be president; that every candidate, Republican and Democrat, who ran against Obama and checked his background with a microscope decided to be quiet about it; that the same could be said for every single news outlet, which otherwise was starving for a sensational scoop … the head begins to swim — no, flounder — in rough intellectual waters.
Experts who study such matters say, and it makes sense, that conspiracy theories and paranoid reactions tend to be triggered by shocks and calamities. I’ve often thought, for example, that the assassination of President Kennedy was such a profound shock that many people could cope with it in no other way but to imagine a conspiracy at work. The notion that one nut with a gun could so easily upset the order in which we imagine we live (even though that’s the way the evidence points) is not acceptable. It makes the world too random and chaotic, hence some greater force must have been behind the disruption. Since it’s impossible to prove a negative, that suspicion will never go away because there’s always a chance, however remote, that it could turn out to be right.
The crash of the economy in 2008 provided fodder for conspiracy buffs of all stripes. It didn’t happen because normal people (many of whom you wouldn’t mind having as neighbors) did some things they may have felt uneasy about, but also figured couldn’t be that bad. It happened because (take your pick) greedy bankers and Wall Street financial houses or government officials deliberately set out to screw the country. There’s a quote that captures much of the current feeling.
“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
The quote was made on the Senate floor by the junior Republican from Wisconsin, Sen. Joe McCarthy, on June 14, 1951.