Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Slate Star Codex on conspiracy theories
One of my favorite bloggers, Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex, takes on conspiracy theories. He argues that a little thought can help people figure out which ones are plausible.
The Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories goes: “You can’t run a big organization in secret without any outsiders noticing or any insiders blowing the whistle.” If we keep this in mind, I think we can resolve some of the awkward tensions above.
For example, the CIA definitely has fixed elections in foreign countries. Is this a conspiracy theory? No. The CIA is not secret. Everyone knows the CIA exists and does nefarious things, even if we don’t know exactly which nefarious things it does. There is no need to keep the CIA secret. It can advertise in public “Wanted: people who are good at doing nefarious things”. And if somebody whistleblows, they will not receive the thanks of a grateful country. They’ll probably just be arrested for leaking classified information, while everybody snoozes. “CIA discovered to have fixed Gabonese elections” is probably a page 5 story at best.
I think “The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections” is a conspiracy theory, with all the unlikeliness that implies. Although the CIA exists openly, fixing US elections would take a powerful conspiracy within the CIA. You would have to hide it from the idealistic young recruits who come in hoping to make the world safe for democracy. You would have to convince all the other CIA agents to hide it from Congress, from the other intelligence services, and from any CIA agent who wasn’t on board. And a whistleblower really would receive the thanks of a grateful country. Although the CIA gets the advantage of existing publicly, the intra-CIA conspiracy to fix elections doesn’t, and so the Basic Argument strikes it down.
If you are really interested in conspiracy theories, read Jesse Walker's book.