Conspiracy Theory 101

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 18 May 2010, was last revised on 1 June 2013. © Govinthenews Vol. 1:5(7).


What makes a conspiracy theory? What kind of person does it attract? Has history been kind?

Dr. Strangelove and Conspiricism

It may seem odd to begin a discussion on conspiracy theory by reviewing a comedic film made over 44 years ago. Please read on, however, as this review is germane, in all particulars, to the subject. Besides, it relates to one of the most conspiracy-ridden periods the world has ever witnessed.

Dr. Strangelove, a 1964 comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick, is a dark satire on the Cold War and its trappings. In the film, a U.S. Air Force general (Jack D. Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden) conspires to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike on the USSR. He does so to thwart what he believes to be a Communist conspiracy to contaminate the bodily fluids of American citizens with fluoridated water.

The unfolding plot of Dr. Strangelove exposes a string of additional conspiracies, including, as the most conspiratorial of all, the secret installation of a Doomsday Device by the Soviets in a remote, mountainous area. This device was conceived as the ultimate deterrent against nuclear attack, for it could not be deactivated without setting it off. However, because the U.S. had not been told of its existence, it failed as a deterrent. Instead, when threatened by a preemptive strike on the USSR, it guaranteed the nuclear annihilation of practically all life on planet earth…

Conspiracy Theory in History

Dr. Strangelove was a work of fiction based on Peter George’s 1958 novel “Red Alert.” Its central theme, however, followed a well-known conspiracy theory format.

When George’s novel went to press, the most serious conspiracy theory of the day had to do with the 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The theory claimed that the intentions of the Japanese were known in advance by U.S. leaders. FDR and his closest associates obtained deciphered messages and other intelligence that made it clear an attack was imminent, but they withheld that intelligence from the military commanders at Pearl Harbor. This was done, the theory asserts, to keep U.S. military forces from interfering with Japan’s raid; the more damage to American assets, and the more American lives lost, the better, because FDR wanted incensed Americans to rise up, in such righteous fury as to mute the powerful arguments of the pacifists. Later in this discussion we will examine the validity of this theory in some detail.

In an almost unbelievable twist of irony, during the final editing of Dr. Strangelove an earth-shaking series of events began to unfold on the world stage.  Those events culminated in one of modern history’s greatest conspiracy theories of all:

On November 2, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem, President of South Vietnam and close confidant of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Saigon. Twenty days later, on November 22nd, on the very day the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove was scheduled to take place, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, while riding with his wife and the governor of Texas in a motorcade that rolled through Dealy Plaza, past a grassy knoll on one side, and a multi-story schoolbook depository on the other.

Dr. Strangelove’s screening, needless to say, was postponed. In the interim, a section near the end of the film in which the U.S. President, played by Peter Sellers, is hit with a custard pie and knocked to the floor, was edited out. Remarks made in that sketch were thought too insensitive for a nation reeling from Kennedy’s death. The film did not debut until January 1964, weeks after its original release date, to give the American audience time to recover.

Having mentioned these salient points, we reluctantly leave Dr. Strangelove, at least temporarily. Let us proceed to a deeper discussion on conspiracy theory, its historical origins, its predisposition in the human psyche, and its prognosis as a harbinger of historical fallacy, unvarnished truth, or perhaps a mixture of both.

The Utility of Conspiracism

Conspiracy is only theoretical so long as it remains unproven. No conspiracy theory is of established validity, else it would leave the realm of theory in favor of fact. This important lack, however, is a surprisingly weak deterrent to serious conspiracy buffs. Furthermore, the number of serious conspiracy buffs in the world is quite large,

Conspiracism, the belief that conspiracy theories are central to the proper, and “truthful,” unfolding of world history, drives the human psyche to clothe conspiracy theories in the garb of at least tentative credibility.  Because certain historical conspiracy theories have proved true, many–regardless of the generation or belief system they hail from–find the present list of conspiracy theories irresistable. As Frank Mintz, in his 1985 book “Revisionism and the Origins of Parl Harbor,” put it:

“Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups… blames (elites) for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power. (Thus) conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology.”

We glimpse here a connection with populism. Many students of conspiracy theory consider that connection essential. The idea that well-heeled but diabolical people plot in secret, against the lower-rungs of common citizenry, evokes powerful imagery. And because at least a fraction of that imagery portrays a realistic view of the world, conspiracism often grows sturdier legs than a well-organized, logical train of thought might otherwise warrant.

The Role of Logic in Conspiracism

Logic has an important role to play in assessing the validity of any theory, conspiracy theories included. Many conspiracy theorists discount logical analyses, most likely because logic impedes buying into implausible arguments. Fortunately, for individuals who consider such impediments helpful, and who insist on applying logic to the important issues they take under consideration, standards for assessing a proposition’s truth value have been around for centuries. One of these standards is known today as the practical falsiability (or testability) of the argument.


An argument is falsiable if it is possible to show it true or false by observation or experimentation. An argument is testable if it is possible to show its truth value by way of experimentation alone. Logicians today follow the lead of Karl Popper, whose writings elevated the principle of falsiability in the 1920’s. Popper asserted that an argument is not scientific unless it is at least falsiable. By this standard, many of today’s conspiracy theories are on shaky ground because they cannot meet the test of falsiability, while others can be shown to meet that test and can, as a result, be shown to be either true or false.

Ockham’s Razor:

One important standard of logical validity is illustrated by the principle of Ockham’s razor. This principle is also known as lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony. It asserts that any phenomenon is best explained by using the least number of assumptions. It goes further to say that those assumptions that do not affect the observations should be discarded. In other words, when choosing between competing theories on how or why an observation took place, the theory with the fewest premises deserves our closest attention. Popper showed that Ockham’s razor and the principle of falsiability were closely related; simpler theories are superior to complex ones because their empirical content is greater and they are easier to test.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Another standard of validity against which a conspiracy theory should be examined is the potential influence of the prisoner’s dilemma. This problem is an important issue in game theory that has undergone intense analysis since 1950, when it was first formalized (though informal versions, and even a few elementary formal ones, have been around for centuries).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an example of a non-zero-sum game. By way of contrast, in a zero-sum game losses are exactly balanced by winnings. Poker, obviously, is a zero sum game, since for every dollar that is won by a player, a dollar is also lost by another player. In non-zero-sum games, however, all players may win or lose together. The trading of goods and services between economic entities is, by definition, non-zero-sum, because both parties value the goods and services they receive above the value of the goods and services given up in the transaction.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma offers a means of analyzing cooperation between players who are given two choices: cooperate or defect. Each player gains when both cooperate, but if only one cooperates, and the other defects, the defector gains more than the cooperator. If, however, both defect, both will lose, but the net loss is reduced.

Assuming a particular conspiracy theory involves an act performed by several individuals working together, we may ask how likely it is that one or more of the actors will, at some later time, come under the tacit control of the party against whom the act was committed and will, thereupon, be subjected to intense interrogation. The prisoner’s dilemma examines the probability that one of the actors will, in the course of such interrogation, defect to and side with the interrogator.

Game theory suggests that if the interrogator offers a significant reward in return for defection, the likelihood the actor will defect increases. Not only that, but when the number of actors involved goes up, the time lapse between commencement of interrogation and onset of defection is shortened. Any one actor knows that the first defector wins the greater reward, and any delay in defecting could be costly.

The prisoner’s dilemma, when examined closely, militates against assigning high validity scores to any conspiracy theory that involves two or more actors. The probable validity of any given conspiracy theory diminishes steeply as the number of actors goes up.

These tests of the validity of any conspiracy theory are helpful, but are not fool-proof, especially in light of the decision-making models of Graham Allison discussed below. Thus, for example, we can cite a number of examples where the prisoner’s dilemma appeared decisive, while other examples went the other way.

The Role of Rational Thinking in Conspiracy Theory

Graham Allison, a political scientist and professor of government at Harvard, analyzed the Cuban Crisis and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, among others, to gain insight into the bureaucratic analysis of decision making under crisis conditions. The title of his 1971 book “Essence of Decision” came from a comment, made by John F. Kennedy in a speech:

“The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.”

Allison proposed that political decisions are erroneously presumed, by political scientists and students of international relations, to flow from a rational process. That process supposedly considers all options and formulates a rational plan of action. The plan of action is supposedly designed to maximize the utility of the options at hand. But, Allison tells us, life does not work this way, even at the highest levels of the most powerful governments on earth. Instead, he made the following observation:

“An imaginative analyst can construct an account of value-maximizing choice for any action or set of actions performed by a government.”

He called this approach the “Rational Actor Model.” What it portrays is a “rational” process, so-called, that is worked backwards. Andrew M. Coleman, University of Leicester, discusses the concept, and some of its implications, in his 1998 paper, “Rationality assumptions of game theory and the backward induction paradox.”

Allison points out that, by behaving in accordance with such a model, so-called “rational” analysts have to ignore a host of facts to produce analyses that fit the accounts they are obliged to work with. Taking this proposition forward, he asked if, for example, it was safe to presume, as the superpowers did during the Cold War, that the concept of mutually assured destruction was an effective deterrent to nuclear war.

The answer, to Allison, is decidedly negative, and his models cast serious doubts on that most sacrosanct notion. Two nuclear nations could not be counted on, in his opinion, to employ rational decision making processes when deciding whether or not to punch the button. Thus he counseled that relying on an opponent to make rational choices, especially in a high-stakes game (e.g., nuclear war), was an exceedingly dangerous thing to do.

Allison picked apart a number of important historical incidents to demonstrate his thesis. One of the most germane to this discussion had to do with the way the Japanese planned their attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite abundant evidence they could not win a serious war with the United States, the highest officers in the Japanese military concocted an attack whose only possible outcome was to incur the wrath of the U.S., which they knew to be in possession of both the means and the will to utterly destroy them.

No rational decision-making apparatus would have concluded, from extant evidence, that it made sense for the Japanese military to launch a sneak attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor. Furthermore, a large number of the Japanese officers who assisted in planning for, and executing, that attack had been trained in the U.S., including the prestigious military academies at West Point and Annapolis. They had seen America’s military and economic resources, and knew they could be mustered to retaliate, in a devastating way, against foreign aggression. Yet the attack was planned and executed anyway.

Likewise, Allison used the Pearl Harbor model to explain how the United States failed to see the Japanese attack coming. In Allison’s model, the American mistake was to expect the Japanese to make military decisions based on a rational, forward-looking process that assessed all their options sensibly. That was, after all, the way we would have handled things, and we taught that exact methodology in our military academies, both to American and Japanese students, among others.

The intelligence that the commanders at Pearl Harbor received prior to the Japanese attack, when analyzed afterward, disclosed that an attack, by air, was imminent. However, intelligence information has to be interpreted, using templates of human behavior modeled against a set of rational expectations. Without benefit of hindsight, the intelligence in the hands of the Americans could not have led to a correct interpretation (and, I might add, even if it had been so interpreted by a maverick analyst, nobody else would have believed it).

The last thing the American commanders expected was a brazen attack on their base by the Japanese. The most logical meaning, then? Japanese sabotage was ramping up. So, instead of dispersing U.S. aircraft around the airfield, where they would not be sitting ducks for Japanese fighter planes, they ordered the aircraft cloistered in tight, fish-in-a-barrel formations, to help security guards thwart the imaginary Japanese saboteurs.

As might be expected, Allison’s arguments have not met with full acceptance within the academic community. The debate continues, with, methinks, tantalizing possibilities for future improvements in our perceptions of the way “important” people make important decisions.

Conspiracy Theory in History

A number of important historical events, about which important conspiracy theories swirled at the time, have in the course of history proved to involve actual conspiracies. Others have been satisfactorily debunked. Several others remain unsolved mysteries today.

Many undisputed conspiracies can and will be added to the list that follows. Some of these took place thousands of years ago; inasmuch as the earliest are known only through ancient manuscripts that constitute a scant body of evidence, I note them as unquestioned rather than proven. If a date is undisputed, I note it; otherwise the date is shown as EDNK (exact date not known).

A long list of thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories, many of them from the past several centuries, can and will be added as well; for the sake of brevity the most obviously outrageous, of those have been omitted. Each entry in the list will, in time, be examined in detail.

399BC: Sophist Conspiracy against Socrates [UNQUESTIONED].

44BC: Assassination of Julius Caesar [PROVEN].

EDNK: Roman Conspiracy against Jesus [UNQUESTIONED].

1478: The Pazzi Conspiracy [PROVEN].

1603: Treason at Maine [PROVEN].

1603: The Bye Plot [PROVEN].

1717: Origins of Freemasonry [QUESTIONABLE & VARIED].

1776: Origin of the Bavarian Illuminati [QUESTIONABLE].

1865: Assassination of Abraham Lincoln [PROVEN].

1894: The Dreyfus Affair Cover-up [PROVEN].

1903: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion Hoax [PROVEN].

1941: Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor [DEBUNKED].

1945: Operation Paperclip [PROVEN].

1947: UFO Crash in Roswell, New Mexico [QUESTIONABLE].

1948: Operation Mockingbird [PROVEN].


1954: The Lavon Affair (Operation Susannah) [PROVEN].

1962: Operation Northwoods [PROVEN].

1963: Assassination of John F. Kennedy [DEBUNKED].

1968: Assassination of Bobby Kennedy [QUESTIONABLE].

1972: Watergate [PROVEN].

1978: Origins of the AIDS virus [QUESTIONABLE].

1979: Ronald Reagan’s October Surprise [QUESTIONABLE].

1984: Rajneeshee Bioterror Attack [PROVEN].

1986: The Iran-Contra Affair [PROVEN].

2001: 9/11 Terrorist Attacks [TECHNICALLY DEBUNKED].


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