The term conspiracy theory is wielded as a pejorative, alluding to on-its-face absurdity. But the vocabulary we use has a serious ambiguity problem because conspiracies are not figments of the imagination. There is a tangible and qualitative distinction between plain-vanilla conspiracies (COINTELPRO, Operation Snow White, or the Gunpowder Plot) and their more theatrical cousins (flat earth theory, the moon landing hoax, or the farcical notion that coffee tastes good), yet a clear delineation has been elusive and it's unsatisfying to just assert "this one is crazy, and this one isn't." Both camps involve subterfuge, malevolent intent, covert operations, misinformation, orchestrated deceit, hidden agendas, clandestine networks, and yes, conspiracy, and yet the attempts to differentiate between the two have veered into unsatisfactory or plainly misleading territories.
What I'll argue is the solution boils down to a simple reconfiguration of the definition that captures the essence of the absurdity: conspiracy theories are theories that assume circumstances that render the titular "conspiracy" unnecessary. This is what I'll refer to as the Overkill Conspiracy Hypothesis (OCH). Before we dive into this refinement, it's helpful to explore why traditional distinctions have fallen short.
The section on differences in The People's Pedia showcases some of these misguided attempts. For example, conspiracy theories tend to be in opposition to mainstream consensus but that's a naked appeal to authority — logic that would have tarred the early challengers to the supposed health benignity of smoking as loons. Or that theories portray conspirators acting with extreme malice, but humans can indeed harbor evil intentions (see generally, human history). Another relies on the implausibility of maintaining near-perfect operational security. This is getting better, but while maintaining secrecy is hard, it's definitely not impossible. We have actual, real-life examples of covert military operations, or drug cartels that manage to operate clandestine billion-dollar logistical enterprises.
There's still some useful guidance to draw from the pile of chaff, and that's conspiracy theories' lack of, and resistance to, falsifiability. Despite its unfortunate name, falsifiability is one of my nearest and dearest concepts for navigating the world. Put simply, falsifiability is the ability for a theory to be proven wrong at least hypothetically. The classic example is "I believe all swans are white, but I would change my mind if I saw a black swan". The classic counterexample could be General John DeWitt citing the absence of sabotage by Japanese-Americans during WWII as evidence of future sabotage plans. There is indeed a trend of conspiracy theorists digging into their belief in belief, and dismissing contrary evidence as either fabricated, or (worse) evidence of the conspiracy itself.
I won't talk shit about the falsifiability test; it's really good stuff. But it has limitations. For one, the lack of falsifiability is only a good indication a theory is deficient, not a conclusive determination. There are also practical considerations, like how historical events can be difficult to apply falsifiability because the evidence is incomplete or hopelessly lost, or how insufficient technology in an emerging scientific field can place some falsifiable claims (temporarily, hopefully) beyond scrutiny. So the inability to falsify a theory does not necessarily mean that the theory is bunk.
Beyond those practical limitations, there's also the unfortunate bad actor factor. Theorists with sufficient dishonesty or self-awareness can respond to the existential threat of falsifiability by resorting to vague innuendo to avoid tripping over shoelaces of their own making. Since you can't falsify what isn't firmly posited, they dance around direct assertions, keeping their claims shrouded in a mist of maybe. The only recourse then is going one level higher, and deducing vagueness as a telltale sign of a falsifiability fugitive wherever concrete answers to the who / how / why remain elusive. Applying the vagueness test to the flat earth theory showcases the evasion. It's near-impossible to get any clear answers from proponents: who exactly is behind Big Globe, how did they manage to hoodwink everyone, and why why why why why would anyone devote any effort to this scheme? In contrast, True Conspiracies™ like the atomic spies lack the nebulousness: Soviet Union / covert transmission of nuclear secrets / geopolitical advantage.
Yet the vagueness accusation doesn't apply to all conspiracy theories. The moon landing hoax is surprisingly lucid on this point: NASA / soundstage / geopolitical advantage. And this unveils another defense mechanism against falsification, which is the setting of ridiculously high standards of evidence. Speaking of veils, there's a precedent for this in Islamic law of all places, where convictions for fornication require four eyewitnesses to the same act of intercourse, and only adult male Muslims are deemed competent witnesses. The impossibly stringent standards appear to be in response to the fact that the offense carries the death penalty, and shows it's possible to raise the bar so high that falsifiability is intentionally rendered out of reach.
The moon landing hoax might be subjected to these impossible standards, given that the Apollo 11 landing was meticulously documented over 143 minutes of uninterrupted video footage — a duration too lengthy to fit on a film reel with the technology available at the time. Although only slightly higher than the Lizardman Constant, a surprising 6% of Americans still hold the view that the moon landing was staged. At some point you have to ask how much evidence is enough, but ultimately there's no universally accepted threshold for answering this question.
So falsifiability remains a fantastic tool, but it has legitimate practical limitations, and isn't a conclusive inquiry anyways. Someone's refusal to engage in falsifiability remains excellent evidence they're aware and concerned of subjecting their theory to scrutiny, but their efforts (vagueness or impossible standards) will nevertheless still frustrate a straightforward application of falsifiability. So what's left?
We're finally back again to the Overkill Conspiracy Hypothesis, where the circumstances conspiracy theories must assume also, ironically, render the conspiracy moot. The best way to explain this is by example. Deconstructing a conspiracy theory replicates the thrill of planning a bank heist, so put yourself in the shoes of the unfortunate anonymous bureaucrat tasked with overseeing the moon landing hoax. Remember that the why of the moon landing hoax was to establish geopolitical prestige by having the United States beat the Soviet Union to the lunar chase. So whatever scheme you concoct has to withstand scrutiny from what was, at the time, the most advanced space program employing the greatest space engineers from that half of the world.
The most straightforward countermeasure would be to task already existing NASA engineers to draft up totally fake but absolutely plausible equipment designs. Every single aspect of the entire launch — each rocket, lunar module, ladder, panel, bolt, glove, wrench — would need to be painstakingly fabricated to deceive not just the global audience, but the eagle-eyed experts watching with bated breath from the other side of the Cold War divide. Extend that to all communications, video transmissions, photographs, astronaut testimonies, and 'returned' moon rocks. Each and all of it has to be exhaustively and meticulously examined by dedicated and highly specialized consultants.
But it doesn't stop there, because you also need absolute and perpetual secrecy, as any singular leak would threaten the entire endeavor. The U.S. was well aware Soviet Union spies had successfully snagged closely-guarded nuclear secrets, so whatever countermeasures needed here had to surpass fucking nukes. Like I said before, secrecy is not impossible, just very difficult. I suppose NASA could take a page from the cartels and just institute brutally violent reprisals against any snitches (plus their whole families), but this genre of deterrence can only work if...people know about it. More likely, though, NASA would use the traditional intelligence agency methods of extensive vetting, selective recruitment, and lavish compensation, but now all measures would need to be further amplified to surpass the protective measures around nuclear secrets.
We're talking screening hundreds or thousands of individuals more rigorously than for nuclear secrets, alongside an expanding surveillance apparatus to keep everyone in line. How much do you need to increase NASA's budget (10x? 100x?) to devote toward a risky gambit that, if exposed, would be history's forever laughingstock? If such vast treasuries are already at disposal, it starts to seem easier to just...go to the moon for real.
OCH® has several benefits. It starts by not challenging any conspiracy theorist's premises. It accepts it as given that there is indeed a sufficiently motivated shadowy cabal, and just runs with it. This sidesteps any of the aforementioned concerns about falsifiability fugitives, and still provides a useful rubric for distinguishing plain-vanilla conspiracies from their black sheep brethren.
If we apply OCH to the atomic spies, we can see the theory behind that conspiracy requires no overkill assumptions. The Soviet Union did not have nukes, they wanted nukes, and stealing someone else's blueprints is definitely much easier than developing your own in-house. The necessary assumption (the Soviet Union has an effective espionage program) does not negate the need for the conspiracy.
Contrast that with something like the Sandy Hook hoax, which posits the school shooting as a false flag operation orchestrated by the government to pass restrictive gun laws (or something; see the vagueness section above). Setting aside the fact that no significant firearm legislation actually resulted, the hoax and the hundreds of crisis actors it would have required would have necessitated thousands of auditions, along with all the secrecy hurdles previously discussed. And again, if the government already has access to this mountain of resources, it seems like there are far more efficient methods of spending it (like maybe giving every congressman some gold bars) rather than orchestrating an attack and then hoping the right laws get passed afterward.
It's also beguiling to wonder exactly why the shadowy cabal would even need to orchestrate a fake mass shooting, given the fact that they already regularly happen! Even if the cabal wanted to instigate a slaughter (for whatever reason), the far, far, far simpler method is to just identify the loner incel kid and prod them into committing an actual mass shooting. We've already stipulated the cabal does not care about dead kids. Similarly, if the U.S. wanted to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks as a prelude to global war, it seems far easier to load up an actual plane full of actual explosives and just actually launch it at the actual buildings, rather than to spend the weeks or months to surreptitiously sneak in however many tons of thermite into the World Trade Center (while also coordinating the schedule with the plane impact, for some reason).
Examining other examples of Verified Conspiracies demonstrate how none of them harbor overkill assumptions that render the conspiratorial endeavors moot. In the Watergate scandal, the motive was to gain political advantage by spying on adversaries, and the conspirators did so through simple breaking and entering. No assumptions are required about the capabilities of President Nixon's security entourage that would have rendered the trespass unnecessary. Even something with the scope of Operation Snow White — which remains one of the largest infiltrations of the U.S. government, involving up to 5,000 agents — fits. The fact that they had access to thousands of covert agents isn't overkill, because the agents still needed to infiltrate government agencies to gain access to the documents they wanted destroyed. The assumptions do not belie the need for the conspiracy.
I hold no delusions that I can convince people wedded to their conspiracy theory of their missteps. I don't claim to have any idea how people fall prey to this kind of unfalsifiable absurdist thinking. But at least for the rest of us, it will remain useful to be able to draw a stark distinction between the real and the kooky. Maybe after that we can unearth some answers.
—sent from my lunar module