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Opinion | A Better Way to Think About Conspiracies

What makes it plausible is that it doesn’t depend on some complex plot for a one-world government; it just depends on the human and bureaucratic capacity for error and the authoritarian tendency toward cover-up. And this points to an excellent rule for anyone who looks at an official narrative and thinks that something seems suspicious: In following your suspicions, never leap to a malignant conspiracy to explain something that can be explained by incompetence and self-protection first.

After the November election, I spent a fair amount of time arguing with conservatives who were convinced that it had been stolen for Joe Biden, and after a while I noticed that I was often playing Whac-a-Mole: They would raise a fishy-seeming piece of evidence, I would show them something debunking it, and then they would just move on to a different piece of evidence that assumed a different kind of conspiracy — shifting from stuffed ballot boxes in urban districts to computer shenanigans in suburban districts, say — without losing an iota in their certainty.

That kind of shift doesn’t prove the new example false, but it should make you suspect that what’s happening is a search for facts to fit a predetermined narrative, rather than just the observation of a suspicious fact with an open mind about where it leads. If you’re reading someone who can’t seem to internalize the implications of having an argument proved wrong, or who constantly cites easily discredited examples, you’re not being discerning; you’ve either wandered into someone’s ideological fixation or you’re a mark for intentional fake news.

For example: If you tell me that the C.I.A. killed John F. Kennedy, I will be dismissive, because the boring official narrative of his assassination — hawkish president killed by a Marxist loner who previously tried to assassinate a right-wing general — fits the facts perfectly well on its own. But if you tell me that some mysterious foreign intelligence agency was involved in Jeffrey Epstein’s strange career, I will be more open to your theories, because so much about Epstein’s dizzying ascent from prep school math teacher to procurer to the famous and the rich remains mystifying even now.

Likewise, every fringe theory about U.F.O.s — that they’re some kind of secret military supertechnology, that they’re really aliens, that they’re something stranger still — became a lot more plausible in the last couple of years, because the footage released by Pentagon sources created a mystery that no official or consensus narrative has adequately explained.

This kind of slippage is clearly a feature of conspiratorial thinking: Joining an out-group that holds one specific outlandish opinion seems to encourage a sense that every out-group must be on to something, every outlandish opinion must be right. Thus the person who starts out believing that Epstein didn’t kill himself ends up going full QAnon. Or the person who decides that the Centers for Disease Control is wrong about their chronic illness ends up refusing chemotherapy for cancer.

But at the same time, there is no intellectually necessary reason why believing in one piece of secret knowledge, one specific conspiracy theory, should require a general belief in every fringe idea.

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