The Conspiracy Theory Narrative

Nov 22 2013 @ 8:29am

Benjamin Wallace-Wells runs through the past 50 years of conspiracy theories:

The seduction of conspiracy is the way it orders chaos. In the summer of 1964, the English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell—past 90 years old then and possibly the most famously rational person on the planet—read the early accounts of the Warren Commission Report with mounting alarm. None of the important questions, he thought, were being answered. There was the matter of the parade route being changed without explanation at the last minute, so that the motorcade passed Lee Harvey Oswald’s workplace; the geometrically confounding arrangement of entry and exit wounds; the curious fact that an alibi witness who helped get an alternate suspect released from custody turned out to be a stripper at Jack Ruby’s club.

The logician went to work. Meticulously, Russell documented the discrepancies between each first-person account and the divergences between each report in the media. He gave his document a modest, scientific-sounding title (“16 Questions on the Assassination”) and a just-the-facts tone. This strange hybrid method, through which a literary genre convinces itself it is a science, has become not just a template for ornate conspiracies but a defining way in which American stories are told. In the English tradition of mysteries, the screen­writing guru Robert McKee explained a few years ago, “a murder is committed and the investigation drives inward: You know, you’ve got six possible murderers. In the American tradition, a murder is committed, we start to investigate, and it turns out to encompass all of society.”

William Saletan reviews a variety of polls regarding belief in conspiracies. Among them:

In 1996, near the 50th anniversary of the supposed UFO crash in Roswell, N.M., Gallup asked Americans whether UFOs had “ever visited earth in some form.” Forty-five percent said yes. But when Gallup asked, in the same questionnaire, “Does the US government know more about UFOs than they are telling us,” 71 percent said yes. Surveys of registered voters by Fox News found a similar gap between belief in the legend and general distrust of the feds.

His takeaway:

[C]onspiracists aren’t completely isolated. They’re surrounded by a substantial number of deep skeptics—people who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid but don’t trust the government to tell the whole story. On average, these people seem to represent about a quarter of the population. In many cases, when combined with the conspiracy believers, they add up to a majority. We need to understand more about these skeptics. We need to keep them from falling into the arms of the conspiracy-theory peddlers. If they’re suspicious by nature, earning their trust may be difficult. But the best way to win them over is simple. Tell the truth.

Recent Dish tackling the “magic bullet” theory here. Update from a reader:

Check out the official Johnny Carson YouTube channel. Today they released portions of Johnny’s interview with Jim Garrison, a District Attorney from Louisiana who may be the biggest reason the conspiracy theories have lasted so long. Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Carson’s skepticism, even at that time, is really interesting given how long these theories have lasted. And while Carson lets Garrison lay out his case, he doesn’t pull any punches when he disagrees with Garrison either.