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Oh, the Conspiracies!


Scientist, technology consultant and best-selling author, David Brin explores the topic of conspiracies theories and how to avoid being sucked into them. He shares his "coping mechanism" and the questions he asks himself when evaluating stories to see where they fall on the continuum betwen total garbage, half-truths, and plausible accounts of actual events.

For David's latest posts, visit the Contrary Brin Blog. For his books and short stories, visit his website


Oh, the Conspiracies!

Courtesy of David Brin, Contrary Brin

Travel anywhere in the world, visit a bar, pub, barbecue or someone’s home or hut for dinner, and you’ll find one topic easy to spark: conspiracies. No matter what the nation, tribe or ethnicity, people will quickly and gladly rail about some group grudge and how “people like me” are being put upon by conniving adversaries who are simultaneously evil and almost-supernaturally clever.

And always: “The world may be filled with fools who believe the cover story. But not me and my brave, insightful and savvy folk. We can see right through to the truth!”  And naturally, those foes flatter themselves in exactly the same way, viewing everyone else – including you – as either patsies or diabolical plotters. 

Ah, humans. Should we be known as Homo credens (one of you suggested), the credulous ape? 

Read texts from olden times and see the same pattern across time. No wonder the age of science seems threatening to many, whose favorite fantasies might shrivel under the light of evidence. I wrote The Transparent Society in hope that more open and reciprocal accountability might show us what is true, rather than what feels so-satisfying to believe.

Alas, there truly are conspirators in this world! Moreover, they have developed a great technique to distract from their nefarious plots — by helping spread a stinging miasma of paranoid ravings – made up or inflated stories that genuine schemes can hide behind. 

(See it illustrated in this stand-alone scene from Existence.)

Indeed, while you’ll admit that this seems true, the last thing you will contemplate is that your favorite conspiracy might be part of that disinformation-distraction fog.

Methods to triage which plots seem plausible

When it comes to conspiracy theories, I know that if I dip my toe into even one, the tar baby will try to suck me into a maelstrom of evidence and "evidence” and persuasive rants and incantations… and in most cases I just don't have the time.  Not even — or especially — the ones that appeal to my ego, my prejudices, or my “side” in contemporary tiffs.

Hence, I have come up with a coping mechanism that you might also try.  A set of questions to ask, when some folks — especially those who are ‘like you’ in some way — try to foist on you their favorite story of an Evil Plot Only We Can See. And we’ll start with one that will reflexively infuriate any and all of you.

Question number one: Have trustworthy experts already worked on the case? Are they accountable, transparent, and aware that they are themselves scrutinized by a variety of interests? Are they answerable to multiple, separate structures? This is, after all, the reason why we set up a civil service with a diversity of agencies and chains of command — then augmented that setup with a free and diverse press — then augmented that with a wide range of member-supported NGOs, from Greenpeace to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

(And if you aren't a dues paying member of a dozen NGOs, each fighting for a future you believe in, then take another look at the hypocrite in the mirror. The method is a lazy person's cheap route to bragging rights: "I'm at least doing something." Here's how.)

Of course, this network of accountability systems is exactly what conspiracy believers (at all ends of the spectrum) claim has failed. Indeed, they hold that such a thing — accountability through competitive openness — is impossible. Certainly Hollywood portrays accountable professionalism to be nonexistent in government. Writers and directors do this for reasons of lazy plotting that I describe here. And in so doing, they spread a poison.

To be clear, betrayal by governmental powers belongs way up there on our list of things to watch for! Take the way the one man — J. Edgar Hoover — for decades dominated the top layers of U.S. federal criminal investigation, often deciding to pursue or quash cases, at whim. Still, we have inarguably the least corrupt institutions in the history of humanity. (If you doubt that, just try slipping a fifty to that cop giving you a ticket, next time. Please. Then write to us from jail.) So, while I am Mr. Transparency, extolling “sousveillance” and looking-back at power, I also am skeptical toward raving paranoia.

Which is not entirely a symptom of just the mad right! Take the lefty "Loose Change" conspiracy theory, about the 9/11 calamity. This scenario claims that the WTC towers were deliberately demolished by explosives planted over the course of months, in order to distract from the intended destruction of WTC Building Number Seven, the real target. Oh, but among the dozens of ways that theory is jibbering loony, there is the fact that explosives leave chemical residues, and the wreckage was sampled not by one agency, or a dozen, but scores of them, local, state, many federal bureaus, news organizations, NGOs, private citizens. If even one of them had proclaimed discovery of such chemicals, every other one would have re-tested — and there was no lack of available debris to analyze.

(Don't get me started on the "melting temperature of steel" drivel that's fountained by fools.)

Do you grasp what I mean by a diversity of skilled professionals? Question number one allows you to deal with some, not all, of the most ridiculous purported plots — those that presume there are no competent people in the world.

Which brings us to question number two:

How many conspirators would be needed by this scheme? How perfect a plan and execution is required?

Loose Change is an extremum that serves as a terrific test case for these questions. In this alternative-9/11 scenario, it would have taken dozens, even scores of the most skilled experts in building demolition to plant the required explosives, which by the way could not use the usual detonation technique, since traveling wave explosive lines would not work, over such distances. So you'd need electronic systems similar to those used in nuclear bombs.

Then you'd need dozens of workers skilled at hiding the charges behind walls and in stand pipes, plus dozens more providing security. Essentially, the entire World Trade Center (WTC) security staff would have to be suborned or replaced. And funny thing… there’s no record of any such staff replacements. Indeed, most died in the disaster.

In other words, you'd need at least a hundred henchmen, performing a task no one has ever done before, amid utterly vacuum-tight secrecy, and executed with perfection never seen in any government project. Oh, don’t forget another several hundred or so conspirators needed in order to perform the bizarre other half of this theory, the faking of the aircraft hijackings!

Now, you might answer: "I don't believe in the "Loose Change" conspiracy! On the other hand, MY favorite one is clearly true!"

Hm, well, show me even one popular conspiracy theory cult that has analyzed points number one and two? 

The most recent right wing dizziness -- over the murder of ex-DNC staffer Seth Rich — is just like every other tirade about Clinton-spawned "murders.” It’s composed of a chain of "coincidences" and arm-waved assertions that never once rises from vague correlation to causation, let alone falsifiable/checkable tests. And never is there a calculation of how many conspirators it would take or how many skilled professionals would have to be suborned.

Oh, but it gets… richer on the right, with babbling jibber-jabber about a "Deep State" conspiracy among civil servants, FBI agents, the entire intelligence community and most of the senior military officer corps… in cahoots with nearly all the scientists, journalists, teachers. .. Yeah that totals what? Five million or so conspirators? But then, I've spoken elsewhere about why there's a propaganda war on smart people.

Which brings us to question number 3: Why would the conspirators who purportedly executed these actions do it? 

What would convince them to betray their oaths, their professions, their conscience and their country? 

I’m not saying it doesn't happen. The Watergate break-ins and coverups involved a fair number of moderately — (not very) — skilled people who did it all for combinations of money, hatred, loyalty-to-a-faction and potential advancement to power. Let me repeat that I know there are conspiracies! Indeed, it is laughable to ignore the biggest and most blatant one, called Fox News, which openly works for a melange of foreign billionaires, from the Saudis to Russian Mafiosi, from Macao casino lords to an Australian deceit mogul. We’ll get to their motives in a bit.

On the other hand, most right wing conspiracy theories are not meant to prove anything, but rather to leave an impression. Ponder the Seth Rich tizzy. Supposedly, he was murdered because he – and not Moscow agents — had spilled those Democratic Party files to Wikileaks. Tasty, since it lets Sean Hannity proclaim “It wasn’t Russians, after all!”

Sure, whatever you say, Ivan. Only let’s apply question number 3. Were those files worth killing anybody over? In fact, almost nothing revealed about Clinton or the DNC was intrinsically all that harmful, just briefly embarrassing. Only the timing, at a perfect moment in the campaign, did Clinton any real harm. (There was no fire, but the well-timed smoke did help kill her.) So, seriously, you’ll commit a capital felony – murder – over files that contain nothing toxic? Below, we’ll see how this “conspiracy” fails every other simple test.

At the opposite political extreme, none of the "Loose Change" zealots have ever offered a plausible reason why even one skilled person would be remotely tempted to devote immense energy and dedication to performing such a heinous act on behalf of some currency speculators, let alone several hundred of our most capable public servants or officers.  

Money? Please. That you would assume so speaks more about your inherent corruptibility, than theirs.

Which brings us to question number 4: Why take the risk?

Seriously, let’s continue with Loose Change, because it provides such a great example of every maniacally stupid conspiracy theory trait. Ponder how each of the skilled conspirators would know:

“These fellows working on this evil plot next to me… any one of them could have recorded our activities and conversations. An hour from now, that fellow over there may spill it all to the FBI and the New York Times. He'll be a hero, get rewards and speaking gigs and be on talk shows forever, while all the rest of us get arrested, tried and then parceled out to prisons where both the inmates and guards will make life hell for traitors and attempted mass murderers."

At which point he'd think: "Maybe I better be that guy who blabs first."

Seriously, how do you stop defections? The communists were dedicated, yet we pulled in defectors all the time. ISIS and Al Qaeda are zealous, yet they leak like sieves. Yes, you can both inspire and terrify your henchmen into mass-uniformity if you run a powerful state like China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia or a narco-kleptocracy, where their families can be crushed, at will. But show me how that would work in a Loose Change scenario.

Seth Rich? Seriously? Show me a democrat who can keep his or her damn mouth shut! Now show me the dozens who would have to be complicit, from local law enforcement to the nearby FBI bureau office, to the victim’s family.

I’m not saying for 100% certain it didn't happen. But consider this simple fact. When you are going to be a whistle blower, the first thing you do is establish murder insurance, by setting up delay-drops containing everything you know, to be released in the event anything happens to you. Don’t these people ever watch movies?

Jesus, starting long ago with Vince Foster… and certainly after the Foster story made the rounds … wouldn’t anyone intending to squeal on the deadly, mass-murdering Clintons know to take basic precautions? Or is it now the notion that every single one of them were stupid asses? Perhaps even as stupid as the millions of fools who believe in Clinton-Murders?

How long has it been? 25 years and half a billion dollars spent investigating the Clintons, in desperate search for something, anything. When G. W. Bush took over the White House and owned the federal government, he re-assigned scores of FBI agents etc. to pore through e-files and cabinets, digging for "smoking guns,” in order to send to jail "the most corrupt" Clintonite politicians. What did the most extensive witch hunt in US history accomplish?

(1) Agents distracted from counter terror before 9/11… in other words outright treason. (Ponder that, plus Bush-Cheney family ties to the Saudis.)

(2) Zero Clintonian officials even indicted for malfeasance of office, a first ever for a two term administration. Later a second U.S. administration accomplished the same perfect-clean record: Obama’s.

This one – Question Number Four – is the biggie and as a society we should be making it our top transparency priority to reinforce it, by encouraging, not punishing whistle blowers. Elsewhere I describe ways to do this that could be entirely consistent with running a healthy and effective civil service. We should do this both in law and via private foundations that offer what I’ve called “Henchman’s Prizes.” 

The easier we make it for henchmen to defect, the fewer of them Blofeld and Doctor Evil and their ilk will be able to hire and trust.  

Sure, some conspiracies are safer from defectors than others. Many ex-employees of Rupert Murdoch have openly and publicly denounced the lie machine, explaining details of the process. These revelations accomplished nothing to staunch the flood of entertaining, voluptuously crowd-pleasing rants and incantations. Not till some of the tattlers found they could nail Fox for things that violated the law.  Then… lo… truth started to matter.

And so, we come to conspiracy question number five.  Who benefits?

Oliver Stone slandered LBJ as the obvious beneficiary of JFK's murder. Sounds plausible, till you realize how desperately Johnson slaved and strived (and aged) aiming to do one thing, to make Kennedy's hopes come true. Alas, that included JFK's horrific-macho ambitions in Vietnam, but also, on the brighter side civil rights, the vastly successful War on Poverty, achievements in space and so on. Is that utter loyalty to every goal consistent with spite and conspiracy to murder? (See Bryan Cranston's film: "All the Way.")

In fact, I have never been able to find anyone who actually benefited from the Kennedy assassination. Though we should watch out for other motives. Take revenge. JFK had haters, ranging from Cuban Communists and (some) Cuban exiles to the KGB to the KKK to the Mafia to Marilyn Monroe fans… and yes, all the way to the armed, dangerously loony, and perfectly situated expert marksman Lee Harvey Oswald.

“Who benefits” can be extended to plotters who thought they would benefit, but failed. Far more plausible than Oliver Stone’s insipid scenario – that (based on zero real evidence) JFK was about to pull out of Vietnam – the very opposite, that some U.S. officers saw we were heading into a quagmire and sought to eliminate the super-macho leader who was plunging us into a devastating mess. Do I believe this? Of course not. But I can concoct paranoid scenarios far better than the ones currently going stale on our DVD shelves.

The Loose Change ditsos collapse with their easily disproved "who benefits" railings, unable to concoct any reason why powerful men would hire hundreds of professionals for such risky treason. 

On the other hand, Fox News has been a money machine for Rupert Murdoch and his Saudi partners, and it helped sustain the Supply Side “Voodoo” Economics (SSVE) cult long after that madness was scientifically refuted, allowing Murdoch's pals to raid the US taxpayer time and again. Above all, by fomenting culture war – AKA phase 8 ofthe US civil war --Murdoch's shills accomplished his top goal: the destruction of U.S. politics as a means for adults to deliberate policy, to negotiate solutions across party lines.

Gridlock is the goal, along with demolition of any trust between the people and the government that they own. So that conspiracy passes the “who benefits” test.

Note that all five of the questions I have asked, so far, are simple, straightforward, and make demands upon the conspiracy ranters, not upon you.

Which brings us to number 6: Who is strenuously keeping things dark?

We do no know for sure (yet) that there was direct collusion between Donald Trump himself and the Kremlin. But his absolute refusal to allow any look into his finances, or his behaviors in Moscow and half a dozen secret debriefings with foreign despots without US witnesses, show someone who is desperate not to allow light onto those topics. 

Now add his obstruction of professional investigations and you have behavior that is certainly far more consistent with a conspiracy than almost any of the other fantasies boiling around.

Question number 7: Is there a simple but devastating rebuttal/answer to the Conspiracy Theory?

Let's illustrate this one with an example. In one of his most famous rants, Glen Beck sought to portray George Soros as a media-propagandist kingpin to match Rupert Murdoch, shouting "George Soros is so powerful he toppled Eight Foreign Governments!"  Its an accusation repeated by Hannity, Carlson, and so many others.  Ooh. Scary government-toppler George Soros.

Now, I’ll surprise you by agreeing with Beck! George Soros did in fact help to topple eight foreign governments! Alas, while nodding along with Beck about that horribly scary, Democrat mogul must be, none of his dittoheads ever asked:

“Say Glen, how about naming those foreign regimes that George Soros toppled?”

Is it a sign of the quality of his audience that no one even considered it pertinent? Oh, it's not just Fox-dittoheads, and their dullard democrat opponents, who would not recognize an opportunity if it fell in their laps. Can you name the foreign regimes that George Soros 'toppled'?  

There's a reason Beck never said their names!  Because doing so would devastate his entire, narrative, beyond all hope of recovery.  (And no, I won’t do it here. When you look it up, you will slap your forehead over being a member of the same species as Fox-viewers.)

Question number eight: Am I doing due diligence by weighing critics of this thing and seeking smart/balanced arbiters?

The Question speaks for itself. And I can almost guarantee that you are not. 

Heck, I'm pretty lazy too.

Still, I have offered a number of ways that our modern fact-arbiting systems can be improved, not by ensconcing some elites to rule of Truth, but by taking advantage of the competitive/adversarial process we're already so good at. 

I pitched some of these ideas in 2017 when Facebook was panicking over its role in 2016 election travesties. But soon they were smugly back to assuring, "We can handle this top-down, trust us." How's that going for you?

See also my FACT Act.

Question number nine: Why should we trust your elites?

Elsewhere I talk about how the central message of most Hollywood films is Suspicion of Authority, or SoA, conveyed in nearly every book or film or song. The basic difference between a decent, rational liberal and a decent, rational conservative is which group in society they worry is conspiring to become Big Brother. 

Conservatives fret about conniving power grabs by snooty academics and faceless government bureaucrats. Liberals see plots by cabals of secret-conniving oligarchs and faceless corporations.

When you put it that way, the only answer is Duh? All of those power centers are inherently dangerous. Ideally, we are warily guarding each others' backs, with liberals grudgingly admitting "all right, I am more worried about plutocrats and you fear bureaucratic excess. I'll listen to you a bit if you'll listen top me."


Given human history, we should long ago have concluded that all elites are inherently dangerous and will be tempted to abuse power, while rationalizing that it is for the greater good.  

Our systems were set up by very clever people so that elites will compete with each other! In their rivalry – sometimes called separation of powers – we have found a way to prevent any one of them from becoming an Orwellian monolith.

So yes! We should examine conspiracy theories! 

I have concocted and promulgated my own, in both fiction and nonfiction.

And if you’ll have a look at mine, I will have a gander at yours. That is how we’ve managed to stay free.

But that synergy breaks down when — amid bilious re-ignited civil war -- one side has convinced all of its partisans that the only way freedom can be harmed is from one direction.

It is political fused spine disease. An inability to turn your head.

I regularly make efforts to prove I do not have a fused political spine. While I declare — based on mountains and tsunamis of proof — that today's American right is completely insane and the tool of a rising oligarchy trying to re-start feudalism…

…I regularly eviscerate shibboleths of a much smaller loony far-left, and urge sane liberals to be wary of their leftist allies. See this: The miracle and compromise of 1947.

These tests are only the beginning

I could go on. These questions are a good start, though, when trying to wade through the modern tsunami of innuendo, distractions and lies. Are there conspiracies? Of course there are! Our civilization is threatened by several, as we speak.  In fact, it is to distract from the real ones that so many false imbecilities are spewed.

These questions won’t eliminate or parse them all.  They are only a start.

Over the long run, we need to keep employing experts whose job it is to inspect possible crimes. Indeed, we need to keep a wide stance… both investing some trust in the skilled professionalism of our diverse civil servants and striving to increase their diverse accountability, their sense that they live and work under scrutiny and light. Only with this combination of high professionalism and fierce citizen oversight do we stand a chance of navigating this ever-foggy era.

[Pictures of famous people from Wikipedia.]

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