By Mike Cronin
As we saw last week, Occam’s razor is one tool for helping us avoid falling into the trap of believing in every conspiracy theory that comes along. Another way to evaluate conspiracy theories for credibility is by asking the simple question: Who stands to gain? In 1998, when Hillary Clinton was First Lady, she alleged that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to besmirch her husband over the Monica Lewisnky scandal. The political right certainly made every attempt to tarnish her husband for his indiscretion, but that was not a conspiracy, it was simply opposition politics. The right stood to gain by impeaching the president, but it didn’t take any secret cabal to put together a smear campaign; each individual pundit and politician was able to drum up outrage on his own! On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton stood to gain if she could rally support by painting herself as the embattled victim fighting for truth and dignity, so she let fly with the allegation, and it became one of the most often-cited Hillary quotes. When the president from one party provides his opposition with the ingredients of a scandal, OF COURSE the opposition will take advantage of the opportunity! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom!
Like the “vast conspiracy” against the Clintons, sometimes the activity of a conspiracy theory is credible, but the motives and/or competence ascribed to the perpetrators are dubious: The political right is fond of alleging that the left controls the education system and is intentionally dumbing down our kids through Common Core, campus speech codes, revisionist history curricula, etc. As with the right’s non-conspiratorial opposition to the Clintons, the state of our education system need not be attributed to a conspiracy of the left. Instead, the state of our education system is the accumulated results of long-term government control. OF COURSE a government-controlled education system is going to promote and advance a pro-government agenda! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom!
Let’s look at another example:
Some allege that the wars in Iraq (Desert Storm in 1991, Iraqi Freedom beginning in 2003) were all about oil. It is easy to fan that flame, as Dick Chenney (President Bush Sr’s Secretary of Defense, and Bush Jr’s Vice President) was the CEO of Haliburton (a huge company that provides all manner of services to the oil industry) in between the Bushes presidencies. In the sense that the Bush administrations conspired to go to war in order to gain personal control of Iraqi oil, the answer is doubtful, as Iraqi oil remains under Iraqi control. However, there is a more credible context under which “oil” can be held as the reason for the wars: Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia (his forces actually did cross the border at Najaf). That meant he held a significant portion of the world’s oil reserves (and therefore the lifeblood of international commerce) at risk. OF COURSE the Iraq Wars were about oil! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom…but not the same one some conspiracy theorists would have us believe.
Often, though, the conspiracy theories are just ludicrous. From the 1990s onward, the term “black helicopters” has picked up the connotation among believers that nefarious forces under the auspices of the United Nations patrol the US and engage in clandestine activities designed to bring about a “New World Order.” IF such forces exist, and IF they used helicopters for transportation, it is highly unlikely they would adopt a “signature” that would defeat their efforts to remain hidden.
“Chemtrails” is another ridiculous theory. Supposedly, “they” are using jet airliners to spray mysterious chemical agents across the nation for unknown purposes. The evidence: Contrails. Occam’s razor leaves us no guesswork here: The simplest explanation for contrails is that they are CONTRAILS, not weaponized chemical clouds. Who stands to gain? The charlatans selling “reports” on chemtrails.
Probably one of the looniest has to be the flat earthers. Yes, there are still people out there who believe the world is flat. In order to swallow that pill, you have to ignore or evade absolutely proven scientific facts. For example, you have to believe that every photo and bit of video from orbit showing the curvature of the earth has been faked. That would require that all space programs across the globe have conspired to tell the same lie to billions of people since the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957. The real conspiracy here is the one being perpetrated by the theorists themselves in furthering this drivel.
“What is more likely, a complicated scenario that requires tortured logic to arrive at, or the simple explanation?” “Who stands to benefit, the alleged conspirators, or the person alleging the conspiracy?” When you examine a conspiracy theory and ask a few simple questions, OF COURSE you’ll get a much better sense of the theorists’ credibility!