Mistakes are undramatic. We all make them, but many would prefer the drama of sinister motives and conspiracy theories  to the realities of bad judgment and human error. It makes for better headlines and fodder for book titles.

Conspiracy theories are often just thinly veiled prejudices. Behind so many such theories is a distrust of Jews who have been the brunt of endless conspiracies, most notably the endlessly enduring fraud, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But conspiracy theories are certainly not limited to Jews.  Neocons, the Federal Reserve, and various councils formed to address social, political, and economic problems are often deemed to be mere conspiracies to achieve power and wealth at the expense of the rest of us.  But that fact that so many of these organizations fail at their mission does not mean they are a conspiracy.

Conspiracies usually are the result of preordained conclusions that read for confirmation rather than information.  If I want to believe that George W. Bush was responsible for 9/11 I will be able to collect reports of meetings and events that appear to confirm that theory, and simply ignore any contradictory evidence.  There were similar claims that FDR intentionally grouped our ships in Pearl Harbor to drag us into war.  Many in the Middle East believe that Israel caused 9/11 to drag the U.S. into a war against Islam. They repeat the falsehood that the Jews knew not to go to work at the World Trade Center on the day of the attack.  This theory persists even after Bin Laden took credit for the attack.

If you find yourself falling for a conspiracy theory remember the following:

  • Never attribute to a conspiracy that which can be explained with simple incompetence or error.  Humans do tend to err, often dramatically.
  • There are few people who can keep a secret.  Just witness the leaks of confidential and privileged information.
  • Ask yourself what information would you accept that disproves this theory.  If every bit of evidence that disproves the theory is twisted to just further prove the theory; if  your theory can not be disproven then it is likely a conspiracy theory.  When a Swiss court in the 1930’s determined that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a fraud the Nazis just claimed that was proof that the Jews controlled the courts.
  • In the face of irrefutable evidence you can still reach the wrong conclusion. Many conspiracy theories are believed because they rely on facts that are true. But part of the truth can be more misleading than all of a lie. By reading for confirmation, the theorists ignore the conflicting evidence.
  • We often prefer the comfort of lies rather than to question our own beliefs.  It is easier for us to believe in a villain than to accept the uncertainty of human fraility.  Unwavering certainty in explaining very complex events is the hallmark of a conspiracy theorist.
  • Just because one is well read does not mean the theories they espouse have validity.  The very intelligent and the well educated are not immune from the intellectual biases that accept evidence that supports their views, while rejecting evidence that refutes it.

The best remedy for conspiracy theories is an open mind, skepticism, and curiosity.