Build Your Own Baloney Detector

A tool-kit for avoiding being fooled

Sunday, September 13, 2009


One of the most common examples of baloney is the conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory is a claim that someone or some group of people is trying to effect change, hide the truth, or spread a falsehood, usually maliciously. (The latter point may seem silly, but there are all kinds of benevolent reasons to hide the truth from people, starting with birthday surprises.)

The trouble here is that conspiracies do happen. They happen all the time, in fact. History is full of examples: Caesar’s assassination. The Pazzi Conspiracy (to assassinate the Medici brothers). Guy Fawkes. The conspiracy that put Jane Grey on the throne of England for about nine days. There are scores more. If you read about the reign of almost any king or queen you care to name (certainly before the modern era) and you’ll find that no matter how popular and how capable they were, there were conspiracies against them or their governments.

But here’s the key thing about this abundance of conspiracies: you’ve probably never heard of more than a few of them. Why is that so important? You’ve never heard of most of them because they didn’t succeed. In quick (admittedly not scientific) look at conspiracies and history suggests that the vast majority of conspiracies fail. Often, they fail before the conspirators have a chance even to try their plan.

Why do conspiracies generally fail? Because most conspiracies are a built on two demands: secrecy and resources. Conspiracies, by their natures, are clandestine. In order to work, they almost always are required to surprise their targets. This is because the target is usually someone in a position of greater power, necessitating surprise to level the field.

Unfortunately, conspiracies also need resources. Resources range from time to plan and make arrangements to materials, to people in the right places to make things happen. And here’s where the intrinsic tension in conspiracies comes in. All of these resources are at odds with the secrecy requirement. Gathering materials draws notice. The more people you involve, the more likely someone will leak the information. And the more time the secret is kept, the more chances there are for leaks or discoveries. So every conspiracy has to balance its need for surprise against its need for resources. Getting the balance right (and since each situation is unique, it has its own balance) is difficult. Most conspiracies either fail to gather enough resources to succeed or are found out before they can move effectively.

OK, so most conspiracies fail. But they don’t all fail, right? Sure. But when you hear about a supposed conspiracy, ask yourself a few question:

Is it likely that the would-be conspirators have the resources to pull this off?
Can the secret be kept for as long as is claimed?
Most conspiracy theories that have gained traction claim conspiracies lasting decades.
Are the people who would be able to check on the conspiracy and have the motive to do so the ones claiming that the conspiracy exists?
Conspiracy theorists often overlook that the people with the most to gain from exposing the conspiracy (and are most able to expose it) are not doing so. If the US never landed on the Moon, why didn’t the Russians or the Chinese point it out?
Is it likely that no one on the inside is talking?
Tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people were involved in the Apollo missions, many of whom would have known if the missions were fake. What are the chances that none of them has spoken out? Bear in mind that the United States can’t even keep its nuclear secrets (under higher security than NASA musters) secret for very long.

So while conspiracies happen, if someone tells you that one is happening and succeeding, that’s a warning flag and it’s time to ask more questions. (more…)

posted by John Weiss at 10:31  

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