Conspiracy Theories and Keeping Secrets




The Eye in the Pyramid

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According to the working definition of conspiracy theories in “Shit Happens”, it is a necessary condition that the hypothesized conspirators “keep their intentions and actions secret.” Since a central point of “Shit Happens” is that conspiracy theories are universally unwarranted, prima facie warranted conspiracy theories (mainstream explanations involving the individuals involved in Watergate, al Queda, Nazi Germany) need to be addressed.

We can focus the concern that needs to be addressed in terms of a pair of questions. Aren’t we warranted in the common belief that, e.g. al Queda blew up WTC? And isn’t the common belief (e.g. that al Queda blew up WTC) a conspiracy theory?

The strategy I currently find most appealing is to answer the first question positively and the second negatively. The next question that immediately arises is why aren’t these prima facie warranted conspiracy theories really conspiracy theories. My answer is that they fail the necessary condition of keeping secret.

There are several ways in which one can fail to keep secrets. One way is by getting caught and being compelled to testify in a criminal investigation. In this case one may have tried then failed to keep the secret. A related way is when direct evidence (video tape of someone building and planting a bomb) renders the secret no longer kept. Another way of failing to keep secret is illustrated by terrorists broadcasting their involvement in a plot in order to take credit for its success. In this case the sense in which they fail to keep a secret is by no longer even trying to keep it secret.

A true conspiracy theory attempts to leap over a wall of posited secrecy via attempts at inference to the best explanation. The main problems arise in establishing that the proffered explanation is indeed the best instead of swamped by multiple equally plausible explanations. In cases that we are warranted in believing, e.g. that al Queda planned the 9/11 bombings, we aren’t stuck making such a leap.

10 Responses to “Conspiracy Theories and Keeping Secrets”

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    Wait a second. So, I assert the following: “the Masons are plotting to overthrow Monaco and use the gambling revenue to bring the invisible pink unicorn to life. With magic.” And you tell me “belief in that conspiracy theory is unwarranted, see the paper.” And I answer as follows:

    I believe that the Masons are in fact doing what I say.

    That belief entails the belief that the Masons failed to keep their plan secret, for if they didn’t keep it secret, I couldn’t know about it.

    And if the Masons failed to keep their plan secret, it’s not a conspiracy theory.

    Therefore, if my belief that the Masons failed to keep their plan secret is warranted, shit happens fails to make the belief in the whole conspiracy unwarranted.

    I have the following pieces of weird evidence for the overall claim, which, if the Masons were really good at keeping their plans secret, I wouldn’t have found. Therefore my belief that the Masons failed to keep their plans secret is warranted.

    Therefore, shit happens fails to make the belief in the whole conspiracy unwarranted.

    Then what?

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Paul,

    I’m not quite following the dialectic in the imaginary dialogue. Why did Imaginary Pete say “belief in that conspiracy theory is unwarranted, see the paper.”?

    Real Pete doesn’t see why your original assertion is a conspiracy theory in the first place. Suppose, however, you insert “secretly” in front of “plotting” in your original assertion. That yields: “the Masons are secretly plotting to overthrow Monaco and use the gambling revenue to bring the invisible pink unicorn to life. With magic.” Now we’ve got a conspiracy theory. It would even be a conspiracy theory if we dropped the stuff about magic and un-seeable colored animals, yielding “the Masons are secretly plotting to overthrow Monaco and use the gambling revenue”. Call that proposition P to save me some typing.

    If you asserted P, I’d believe that you believed P. You strike me as a sincere fellow. However, I deny that you know P since I deny that your belief in P has sufficient warrant.

    Now, you say you know P. In fact, you say “That belief entails the belief that the Masons failed to keep their plan secret, for if they didn’t keep it secret, I couldn’t know about it.” Unless I’m missing the way your argument should go, then I take it you should be claiming to know P.

    Now, I supose that I can grant that there’s a sense in which if P is known then P has not been kept secret.

    But why should I grant that you know P? You claim it. I claim you are full of shit. (Actually, Imaginary Paul is full of shit. Real Paul seems ok to me.) Why should I grant that you know P, that you have sufficient warrant for P?

    You claim to have evidence:
    “[I]f the Masons were really good at keeping their plans secret, I wouldn’t have found [out]. Therefore my belief that the Masons failed to keep their plans secret is warranted.”

    But why should I believe that you found out P? I’ll grant that you believe P. I’ll also grant that you believe to have found out P. But why should I grant, though, that you have actually found out P? That you have actually collected sufficient warrant for P?

    Maybe you have the following argument against me in mind. If you believe that you know P, you believe that P has not been kept secret, and according to “Shit Happens” what you believe is not a conspiracy theory and therefore is warranted.

    If that’s not at all what you had in mind, I apologize and propose we start over. But if that is what you have in mind, then my main response is that I don’t see that the last step follows. Just because a theory is not a conspiracy theory doesn’t automatically make it warranted.

    Maybe you instead have the following in mind: If you believe that you know P, you believe that P has not been kept secret, and according to “Shit Happens” what you believe is not a conspiracy theory and therefore is believed by you to be warranted.

    To that my main response is: I don’t care if you believe the theory to be warranted. I want to know if is warranted.

    I’m not sure I’m following exactly how you think your argument should go. I do think you raise an interesting difficulty concerning what it means for a conspiracy theorist to believe their own theory and at the same time believe that it involves people keeping a secret.

  3. Pete Mandik says:

    Argh! I just re-read this and realized I completed fucked up in my attempt to quote this:

    “I have the following pieces of weird evidence for the overall claim, which, if the Masons were really good at keeping their plans secret, I wouldn’t have found.”

    Sorry ’bout that. But what were supposed to be the pieces of weird evidence? (Are you keeping them secret?)

  4. Paul Gowder says:

    I’m not totally sure how the argument should go either — it was my attempt to get a nagging intuition down in text, but it might be one of those tricky intuitions that proves to have nothing underneath. (And, for the record, I absolutely love your writing style.)

    Perhaps another way to think about it is this: a conspiracy theory can’t include the claim that the conspirators *are* keeping it secret, because the conspirators haven’t kept it secret from the one holding the theory. Any conspiracy theory has to include the claim that I’ve discovered some kind of evidence that the conspirators missed — the secret messages embedded in the Da Vinci Code, the guy in the trenchcoat who coughed a suspicious number of times outside Big Ben, the hint in Hume’s last words, the “coincidental” movement of the NYSE on May 23…

    But then I’m not sure what the Shit Happens argument does. If the evidence doesn’t fly, then belief in the conspiracy theory wouldn’t be warranted anyway, with or without the S-H argument. If the evidence does fly, then the conspiracy isn’t secret, and so the theory is warranted, again, with or without the S-H argument.

    Once we accept that the discovery of evidence makes an alleged conspiracy non-secret, the S-H argument seems to reduce to “beliefs without evidence aren’t warranted.”

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Paul,

    You raise a powerful point. (Besides the one about how great my writing style is. Thanks for the compliment.) I think that if I don’t spell out the secrecy condition in the right way, then the SH argument is in danger of being stupid. I think my remark about direct evidence in the post is in danger of doing that. I still like, however, my remarks about confessions during an investigation or admissions by credit-seeking terrorists. But I’m not totally satisfied I’ve got my finger on a way of spelling out exactly what’s to like about them.

    One thing that is really making my head hurt is a general puzzle that’s arising about how anyone can be justified in believing that someone is keeping a secret from them. If I know P and I know you know P, but you refuse to say P (even under intense torture with a Brain Hammer) to me, does that count as you keeping P secret?

    I’m not sure what the best thing to say is. If you keep your trap shut and don’t spill your guts, then that seems like a pretty standard sense of having kept your secret (Even though I’ve managed to discover by other means both that P and that you know P ). Now, there’s another sense of keeping P secret, and that’s the one that I think can get me in trouble if I lean on it too much, which is that my knowing P logically entails that P has not been kept secret (even though you and your conspirators all kept zipped lips).

    Well, back to the drawing board.

  6. A.G. says:

    From Carroll Quigley entry on Wiki:

    “Quigley became well known among those who believe that there is an international conspiracy to bring about a one-world government. In his 1966 book, Tragedy and Hope, he based his analysis on his extensive research in the closely-held papers of an Anglo-American elite organization, to which he was given access. According to Quigley, the U.S. and UK governments were secretly controlled through a series of Round Table Groups,”

    Having bought the book when I was a teen, in the more than 1300 pages, there are no footnotes, references or facsimilies of source material. It didn’t require any torture, Quigley willingly let the cat out of the bag in extensive detail. So are those conspiricy theorists, conspiricy theorists no longer since now an insider has owned up? Absent any documentation, is there still a sense in which the material is a secret? Or is the secret out, yet lacking more credibility, the conspiricy theorists are still conspiricy theorists for some other reason?

  7. Pete Mandik says:

    A.G.,

    I’m not quite following what your point is. My point about secrecy is that alleged conspirators allegedly keep secrets, not that conspiracy theorists keep secrets. Is Quigley supposed to be a conspirator? Was he supposed to have been a member of a Round Table Group?

  8. A.G. says:

    Quigley was a reputable historian (a mentor to bill clinton!!) and a huge elitist apparently. He claims to have been close to at least one Round Table group where he had the liberty to freely study their archives and he wrote a 1300+ page book exposing their secrets - to give them credit no less for a job he approved of - but without references to or facs of the materials he studied.

    So my point is, he didn’t keep the secret, yet his most avid readership are still probably conspiricy theorists rather than historians even though Quigley is not obviously a nut case. So maybe there is a way to extend the definition of a secret to include confessions without adequate substantiation. It could be something like, secret externalism!

  9. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi A.G.,

    Since I don’t know much about Quigley I’m not exactly sure what kind of problem his book is supposed to pose. If it does pose a problem, then it must conform to one of three kinds of counterexample. Let me explain.

    The central claim of my paper is that something conforms to the five-part definition in the paper if and only if it is a conspiracy theory and it is unwarranted. So:

    SH < --> (CT & ~W)

    Counterexamples are going to need to fall into one of three groups:

    1) Something that conforms to the definition but is not a conspiracy theory (regardless of whether it’s warranted). SH & ~CT

    2) Something that doesn’t conform to the definition but is pretty obviously a conspiracy theory (regardless of whether it’s warranted). ~SH & CT

    3) Something that does conform to the definition and is both a conspiracy theory and warranted. SH & (CT & W)

    The current post is trying to deal with alleged counterexamples of type-3 by suggesting that they aren’t really CTs. Which of the three do you think the Quigley stuff belongs in?

  10. A.G. says:

    Pete,

    I wasn’t actually trying to challenge, i was just trying to figure out how a well-known example might work in. but you’re right, i need to read your thesis more carefully. wouldn’t be the first time…:)