How to make sense of Conspiracy Theories
January 18, 2012 4:22 PM   Subscribe

"How to make sense of Conspiracy Theories" [Part 1 of 9 from YouTube] Rob Ager is best known for his very thoughtful analyses of films such as The Shining [see also this analysis of the Overlook's geometry, previously], A Clockwork Orange [and supplement], Psycho, Pulp Fiction, Aliens, Taxi Driver and others. He has recently completed an analysis of the subject of conspiracy theories. "All of us, from time to time, will believe that two or more people in a particular context have conspired to achieve a mutual aim – be it cheating in a card game or engineering an international war. It isn’t by definition a lapse in logic to believe that a conspiracy has or is going to occur in a given situation. Conspiracies do happen and it is a natural facet of healthy thinking and self-preservation to seek out awareness of conspiracies that may affect our lives." [Text version, Ager's Collative Learning site]
posted by McLir (53 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh sure. That's what they WANT us to believe.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:41 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's Robert Anton Wilson week at BoingBoing. Wait a few hours.
posted by ovvl at 5:57 PM on January 18, 2012


The thing I never see or hear about conspiracy theory is that often the hullabaloo about the false conspiracy theory itself hides or obscures something else.

For example, Roswell. Well, it turns out that the Roswell air base in 1947 housed the only nuclear-armed bomber squadron then in existence. There really were secret military shenanigans going on there. It just wasn't about aliens.

9/11 trutherism? Bullshit. But Zacarias Moussaoui represents a colossal error on the part of the FBI; it shouldn't surprise anyone that there may have been a cover-up to obscure just how bad that screw-up was.

Kennedy and the grassy knoll? Oswald acted alone. But LIFE magazine didn't want anyone to know that it bought the rights to the Zapruder film, and actively prevented its release because of commercial concerns. The government wasn't hiding anything -- but LIFE was.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:14 PM on January 18, 2012 [10 favorites]


What I love about this is that Ager is a HUGE conspiracy theorist. I'm a big fan of his Kubrick analyses, which are 50% brilliant and 50% nuts (like the best conspiracy theories). He has decided that Kubrick was a genius to the extent that it was impossible for him to make a continuity error in any of his films. (Anyone who has worked on a film set knows that it's literally impossible to avoid all continuity errors.) If a glass of water is a little more full in one shot than another, Ager is always convinced that it is a purposeful message from the director.

I am not complaining, and I wouldn't want Ager to be any other way. His nuttiness is part of his brilliance. And every once in a while, he gets me in a cool state of "Oh come ON! That's absurd ... isn't it? I mean ... yeah, it's nuts ... or is it? ... wait..."

Even though it comes at a slight cost of sanity, his belief that EVERYTHING is meaningful and connected allows him to see some interesting things I never would have thought of. Basically, he's crazy so I don't have to be.

Conspiracy theories that are just obviously insane bore me. The fun ones hover just on the edge of plausibility.
posted by grumblebee at 6:18 PM on January 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


CPB, for a long time I would have laughed in your face if you said Oswald acted alone. Then I read Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi (the Manson prosecutor).

Before I read that book, I was positive that some sort of conspiracy had occurred. I wasn't married to any particular theory, but I was sure that there was something there. And now, people laugh at me when I say Oswald acted alone.
posted by Ducks or monkeys at 6:29 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


The ultimate conspiracy is that order emerges from chaos and thus, every accident shines with meaning.
posted by wobh at 6:51 PM on January 18, 2012


Bugliosi is an interesting guy. Read his O.J. book, "Outrage," if you want to get angry at Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. The other great Kennedy book is "Case Closed" by Gerald Posner.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:59 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nice post. Never heard of Ager before but I'm really looking forward to watching the videos you linked. Looks like he's also done an analysis of The Matrix. Jay Weidner is another person who analyzes Kubrick films for conspiracy clues (he also wrote a great essay about 2001: A Space Odyssey called Alchemical Kubrick). This video makes the case that Kubrick deliberately put visual indicators in The Shining to confirm that he had faked the Apollo 11 moon landing footage (the thesis is that the Apollo moon landing really did happen, but that NASA was unable to transmit the TV footage of the event down to earth, so they hired Kubrick to do a mockup in a soundstage).
posted by mediated self at 7:11 PM on January 18, 2012


grumblebee, I haven't seen all of his stuff, but I am not aware of Rob Ager being a conspiracy theorist himself.
posted by McLir at 7:21 PM on January 18, 2012


I love conspiracy theories of all kinds.

It's transparently obvious that 'conspiracies' exist. The government convicts people of conspiracies all the time. The problem with 'conspiracy theory' is that the larger the conspiracy proposed, the closer and closer the 'conspiracy theory' gets to 'religion', where you've gone from a limited, evidence-based explanation for a specific event (for example, organized crime fixing a baseball game) to an allpowerful, omniscient, supernatural force that explains everything (for example: Lizard people from outerspace controlling all of earth politics)
posted by empath at 7:37 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you think about it, in many ways, religion was the first conspiracy theory.
posted by empath at 7:38 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


empath:If you think about it, in many ways, religion was the first conspiracy theory.

Sodom & Gomorrah was an inside job. WAKETH UP, SHEEPLE!
posted by dr_dank at 7:45 PM on January 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


"The conspiracy theory view of society is just a version of this theism, of a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything. It comes from abandoning God and then asking: 'Who is in his place?'" - Karl Popper
posted by mediated self at 7:52 PM on January 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


Wait. I thought the Cigarette Smoking Man killed Kennedy?
posted by maxwelton at 8:26 PM on January 18, 2012


No, it was an MTV executive that killed Kennedy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:35 PM on January 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


empath, I agree. While there have no doubt been plenty of successful conspiracies, the term "conspiracy theory" generally refers to people who don't accept that it's all just people running around like headless chickens, all the way up.
posted by iotic at 8:42 PM on January 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


By his definition of conspiracy theory there are real conspiracies on our planet earth. Every government has a "secret" service. Every corporation has a portfolio of valuable (at least they think) trade "secrets". And the public is not allowed inside the meetings of the WTO the World Bank the Bilderbergers the Devos &c. It is an extremely ignorant dogmatism to label somebody's argument a "conspiracy theory" and think that's the end.

Yes Alex Jones is whack. That doesn't mean there ain't no such thing as the Bilderbergers. And it doesn't mean that the parties at the Bohemian Grove mean jack shit. Or don't. I think it is just a fraternity party, but only they really know.

Belief in a lone gunman is precisely that. A belief. It is not a belief I regularly share (although sometimes I do).
posted by bukvich at 9:03 PM on January 18, 2012


Sodom & Gomorrah was an inside job. WAKETH UP, SHEEPLE!

It goes so much deeper than that. All the way back to Eden.
posted by free hugs at 9:44 PM on January 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


There had to be a second spitter!
posted by popmage at 12:14 AM on January 19, 2012


There's a new documentary, Room 237, about The Shining and the various conspiracy and hidden meaning theories surrounding it.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:10 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


For those of you who enjoyed the his Conspiracy Theory series, I would highly recommend "How news reporting is controlled" series: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 at 5:10 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Kennedy and the grassy knoll? Oswald acted alone.

Based on what? Government statements? Your own personal 1st hand knowledge?
posted by rough ashlar at 5:13 AM on January 19, 2012


9/11 trutherism? Bullshit.

I am far from a 9/11 truther, but no-one has ever convinced me of a sensible way that fires could have simultaneously weakened all the support columns of WTC7 so that it collapsed into its own footprint in less than 10 seconds. It seems to defy all physical intuition about how steel and concrete buildings should behave. Not to mention historical precedence. And yes, I've read the NIST reports.

As I say, I'm not a truther ... I want to believe, as they say.
posted by iotic at 5:27 AM on January 19, 2012


Also, having looked at the Wikipedia list of common conspiracy theories before, I was surprised to read that the death of Marylin Monroe seems rather more suspicious than I thought it would be.

On the other hand, JFK I am less than convinced by, and the moon landings? No way.
posted by iotic at 5:31 AM on January 19, 2012


And yes, I've read the NIST reports.

What did you find unconvincing about its explanation?

'NIST researchers now support the working hypothesis that WTC 7 was far more compromised by falling debris than the FEMA report indicated.
...
the fall of WTC 7 was an example of "progressive collapse," a process in which the failure of parts of a structure ultimately creates strains that cause the entire building to come down. Videos of the fall of WTC 7 show cracks, or "kinks," in the building's facade just before the two penthouses disappeared into the structure, one after the other. The entire building fell in on itself, with the slumping east side of the structure pulling down the west side in a diagonal collapse.

there was one primary reason for the building's failure: In an unusual design, the columns near the visible kinks were carrying exceptionally large loads, roughly 2000 sq. ft. of floor area for each floor. "What our preliminary analysis has shown is that if you take out just one column on one of the lower floors," Sunder notes, "it could cause a vertical progression of collapse so that the entire section comes down."
...
trusses on the fifth and seventh floors were designed to transfer loads from one set of columns to another. With columns on the south face apparently damaged, high stresses would likely have been communicated to columns on the building's other faces, thereby exceeding their load-bearing capacities.
...
a fifth-floor fire burned for up to 7 hours
...
WTC 7 might have withstood the physical damage it received, or the fire that burned for hours, but those combined factors—along with the building's unusual construction—were enough to set off the chain-reaction collapse.'
posted by shivohum at 6:16 AM on January 19, 2012


Five minutes of banging on about dictionary definitions? This looks like it is getting very close to triggering my "this is probably a waste of time" heuristic. Indeed, usually it is a setup for ignoring the actual issue. When someone "checks the dictionary definition", they are doing so in order to avoid actually discussing the issue.

You can grasp the ordinary definition of the phrase "conspiracy theory" without actually penetrating the issue: that there is a community of people who are utterly paranoid about all sorts of things that they feel the need to invent fictionalized accounts of the world. That's the issue: it's the leap from "there's something a bit spooky in the sky I can't explain" to "oh my god, the Bilderberger's are doing it to support their Jewishcultural elite banker friends in suppressing the truth about 9/11". Resolving the profound weirdness of that leap is something that requires more than just a dictionary definition.

There's a whole academic literature around conspiracy theory. And it doesn't usually start with "Well, what does TheFreeDictionary.com say?" ...thankfully.
posted by tommorris at 6:27 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


shivohum - I just don't get how fires can cause this. I really don't. It looks like the whole building collapses at the same time, from end to end. I find it really hard to believe that could be caused by the weakening of a single column - and if it could, it would be nice to see a much better diagram of how that one single column related to the rest of the structure. I wish I could believe in "what our preliminary analysis has shown ..." but ... I just can't picture it. At all.
posted by iotic at 7:26 AM on January 19, 2012


I just don't get...
It looks like...
I find it really hard to believe...
I wish I could believe...
I just can't picture it. At all.


This is conspiracy theory in a nutshell. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorist, one's inability to understand the evidence doesn't make it less true.
posted by Edison Carter at 8:11 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is conspiracy theory in a nutshell.

An ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.
posted by empath at 8:13 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wish I could believe in "what our preliminary analysis has shown ..." but ... I just can't picture it. At all.

Can you picture how slamming two pieces of uranium together would level a city? Human intuition evolved to help you scavenge carrion on the savannah without getting eaten by a lion. It wasn't designed to interpret an event like 9/11.
posted by empath at 8:16 AM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I bow to your greater wisdom. I just wish there was a better explanation available, that's all. Preferably with pictures.
posted by iotic at 8:26 AM on January 19, 2012


Preferably with pictures.

Purdue did a computer simulation of the fall of WTC7, if you're ok with those kinds of pictures.
posted by shivohum at 8:30 AM on January 19, 2012


I just wish there was a better explanation available, that's all. Preferably with pictures.

Well I think you've put your finger on it. Conspiracy theories are wishful thinking for the better explanation (as the Popper quote above suggests). I've heard someone argue, possibly on here, that if you want to understand the lack of good explanations, think about the experiments you used to do in science classes at school. The really simple ones with good theoretical explanations and not a jot of doubt in what the result should be. Something ridiculously simple, like how much salt you can dissolve in water at what temperatures. You know the kind I'm talking about, the ones that never worked.

Well, you know as well as I do that the reason they produced the "wrong" result was the presence of confounding variables. All kinds of things weren't controlled for, because we didn't have the data to do that with, and so we weren't able to correctly predict the outcome of a simple, well-known process. The real world exhibits that kind of unpredictability all the time, but amplified to the order of everything. Read a newspaper, watch YouTube, sit on a street corner and you'll see improbable, unpredictable, downright motherfucking crazy shit happen every day.

And you know what? There really isn't a very good explanation for the vast, vast majority of that stuff, because we simply don't have the data to provide one. We don't know what variables we should be controlling for. You'll no doubt tell me about all the footage, reports and other information available about 9/11, but I've got a question ready to ask in response. Do you really think that we know proportionally more about 9/11 than we knew about that beaker of water we couldn't get the salt to dissolve in like it should?

Most of the time, there just isn't a very good explanation of anything very much. We just don't notice because, most of the time, we don't care.
posted by howfar at 8:46 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Funny, I thought hoping for a better explanation was typical of a scientific outlook on things. But hey, you live and learn - by hoping for a better explanation, I'm a conspiracy theorist. Although I have no theories on the matter.
posted by iotic at 9:04 AM on January 19, 2012


Funny, I thought hoping for a better explanation was typical of a scientific outlook on things. But hey, you live and learn - by hoping for a better explanation, I'm a conspiracy theorist.

There is a scientific explanation. You just don't like it.
posted by empath at 9:05 AM on January 19, 2012


No, I want to like it. I want to know how the WTC buildings are different from other high-rise buildings that have suffered prolonged fires and not collapsed.

shivohum - that Purdue video and study is certainly interesting, though it only describes the towers. Do you know if they also studied WTC7?
posted by iotic at 9:07 AM on January 19, 2012


I want to know how the WTC buildings are different from other high-rise buildings that have suffered prolonged fires and not collapsed.

Aside from the fact that another building fell on it?
posted by empath at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2012


I thought hoping for a better explanation was typical of a scientific outlook on things

Hoping for one that better fits the facts is, hoping for a more "truthy" explanation isn't. For many people evolution and climate change aren't very truthy, because they "just don't get" how an eye can evolve, and "just can't picture" global warming when it was really cold where they live the last three winters.

For a certain value of "better", creation is a much better explanation for the origin of species than evolution. It fills in all the gaps and doesn't leave us scratching our heads going "what the?". The scientific outlook hopes for a better explanation, certainly, but that doesn't mean that every time a better explanation isn't forthcoming the answer is "A wizard/George Bush did it".

You don't appear to be critiquing the mainstream account of the WTC7 collapse on any terms other than its degree of truthiness, while apparently leaving open the possibility that palpably ridiculous and unsustainable conspiracies may just be the real explanation. It seems to me that we have to critically contrast and assess competing theories, not keep an unguarded mind open to the patently false.

G.K. Chesterton - “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
posted by howfar at 9:26 AM on January 19, 2012


Well, as a great man said — "when you have eliminated the improbable, whatever remains, however impossible, must be the truth"
posted by iotic at 10:25 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's the opposite of what he said.
posted by empath at 10:29 AM on January 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


That's the opposite of what he said.

This reminds me of the time someone related that "Occam's Razor means that the simplest explanation is the most likely to be true - and sometimes the simplest explanation is magic!" So many things wrong with the statement that my brain just seized up.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:33 AM on January 19, 2012


I was, of course, referring to Douglas Adams
Sherlock Holmes once said that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible. The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks.
posted by iotic at 10:35 AM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Among the various conspiracy theories around Princess Diana's death, I've always been a bit surprised that "she faked her death" never gained much traction. Given her love-hate relationship with the media, it's not inconceivable that she'd want to disappear forever, so a motive, at least, is there.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:46 AM on January 19, 2012


I was, of course, referring to Douglas Adams

Not to knock Dirk Gently or anything, but his entire methodology was based around bullshitting people... not exactly the best soundbite for trying to find a more accurate truth, heh.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:54 AM on January 19, 2012


Among the various conspiracy theories around Princess Diana's death, I've always been a bit surprised that "she faked her death" never gained much traction.

How would she have faked it? As I understand she was closely followed by a bunch of photographers ...
posted by iotic at 10:56 AM on January 19, 2012


Not into the operating room, I'm pretty sure.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:01 AM on January 19, 2012


Haha, well that is a great conspiracy theory. You heard it here first, folks!

Anyone got anything on Amy Winehouse? Gadaffi? Kim Jong Il?
posted by iotic at 11:05 AM on January 19, 2012


You heard it here first, folks!

See, that's precisely the curious part to me. Why should we have heard it here first, nearly 15 years after her death? I don't think Diana faked her death, but it's not totally implausible, and seems no more irrational to me than any of the other conspiracy theories regarding her death. So why do the other theories have at least some traction among conspiracy theorists, while the faked death apparently has none? I'm not quite arrogant enough to believe I'm the first person ever to conceive of the possibility.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:42 AM on January 19, 2012


And, less seriously: Winehouse is a tough one. A woman who was known to abuse alcohol and drugs to an incredible extent, whose best-known song was about refusing to go into a rehabilitation program, dies of alcohol poisoning—that's a pretty compelling story, and hard to think of anything better. You could say it fits together too well...

Kim Jong Il, well, we know so little about what goes on in North Korea you could make up just about any story you like and we couldn't rule it out. Heck, his death wasn't even reported by North Korean media until 30 hours after it allegedly happened.

Gaddafi, well, it looks like his death, or at least moments very shortly before and after, are reasonably well documented, so it's hard to fit a conspiracy right in there. I might go with something in the events leading up to his death, e.g., his capture was because he was betrayed by his own men or something like that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:02 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The reason that the whole 'faked death, Diana still alive' conspiracy never got footing is because it begs the question that she was alive in the car before the accident. I propose that not only was she actually already a corpse at the time of impact, but that she had actually died four years prior and was only propelled through the world via necromantic animations of a most unsavory kind. Or so my unnamed scrying sources tell me...
posted by FatherDagon at 12:02 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


So she faked her death, just to avoid paparazzi? Never mind her children's weddings or other important events... she was so supremely odd and selfish that she... faked her death?

Okay. This is why I hate conspiracy theory.
posted by Edison Carter at 12:15 PM on January 19, 2012


I was, of course, referring to Douglas Adams

I think there might also be a subconscious link on your part with the fact that Adams was echoing Chesterton's assertions in the stories of Father Brown, the original holistic detective.

"`Not at all,' replied the priest calmly; `it's not the supernatural part I doubt. It's the natural part. I'm exactly in the position of the man who said, `I can believe the impossible, but not the improbable.'`

`That's what you call a paradox, isn't it?' asked the other.

`It's what I call common sense, properly understood,' replied Father Brown. 'It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don't understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing--room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it's only incredible. But I'm much more certain it didn't happen than that Parnell's ghost didn't appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand. So it is with that tale of the curse. It isn't the legend that I disbelieve--it's the history.'"


Oddly enough, this is pretty much precisely why I doubt conspiracy theories to the roots of what passes for my soul. They violate the rules about large groups plotting things that I do understand. For me, that's the definition of a "conspiracy theory". There are plenty of conspiracies, but not one of them is strong enough to overcome human selfishness and stupidity or ingenuity and nobility. People are just a lot more interesting than a grand conspiracy theory can ever allow.
posted by howfar at 2:06 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey: I just saw this in an article related to Megaupload thread and wanted to post it here:

The indictment accuses the suspects of being members of "the Mega Conspiracy, a worldwide criminal organization whose members engaged in criminal copyright infringement and money laundering on a massive scale."

The seven suspects have been charged with participating in a racketeering conspiracy, conspiring to commit copyright infringement, conspiring to commit money laundering and two substantive counts of criminal copyright infringement.

posted by mediated self at 8:02 PM on January 19, 2012


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