Saturday, December 17, 2011

Explaining Conspiracy Theory to the Proverbial Man from Mars

     When we’re asked to explain something to a person who has no concept of the thing being explained, we’re sometimes told, “Suppose somebody dropped in from Mars. How would you explain it to him?”
     I recently found myself facing a more daunting challenge. What if the man from Mars came from a culture with a long history of never questioning authority figures? How would you explain conspiracy theory to him? After all, conspiracy theory is based on the idea that authority figures sometimes lie, and that we should question them.
     Just how I accomplished this task may be useful to many of y’all. This article is a brief description of how I handled these challenges.
     I began by saying that I would ask them a question about what they saw. I showed them the following video clip and asked them if the building had fallen by accident or if professionals had brought it down. All of them correctly said that the building had come down as the result of an accident. I then asked them the reasons for their answers.
      I showed them the next video clip and asked the same questions.  To keep them from seeing the words "controlled demolition," I had to advance the video to the 2:13 mark.  All the students correctly said that professionals had brought the building down, and they said why they believed this.

     I then explained to them what the term controlled demolition meant, but I didn’t tell them what they should expect to see when a controlled demolition takes place. Then I showed them the next video clip and asked them the same questions I had asked them before.

     All of them said that it was a case of controlled demolition and said why they believed it. I then told them that the building in question was World Trade Center Building 7, and that the U.S. government had said that it wasn’t a controlled demolition. We further discussed it.
    Then I showed them the following video clip and asked them two questions about it.
     The first question was, “In which direction did President Kennedy’s body fall, forward or backward?” I had to explain to some of them what the words forward and backward meant. They all said that his body had fallen backward. The second question was, “From which direction did the bullet come, a or b (indicating back or front)?” They all said that the bullet had come from the front. I then told them that the U.S. government had said otherwise, and we discussed it.
     Only then did I introduce the matter of conspiracy theory.
     First, I gave the legal definition of conspiracy: “Two or more people involved in a plan to do something that’s against the law.”
     Do government officials conspire? I showed them a slide depicting the covers of two books: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (which was familiar to all of them), and Machiavelli’s The Prince. The latter, I said, is as important to politics as the former is to military science. According to Machiavelli, “Politics, by its very nature, is conspiratorial,” and, “There have been many conspiracies.”
     Then I hit them with a dilemma: Newspaper reporters are authority figures you’re conditioned to trust. Government officials are also authority figures you’re conditioned to trust. What happens when newspaper reporters and government officials say the opposite of one another? They can’t both be right.

 I showed them two pictures; one was a pair of newspaper reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; the other was of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who had played Woodward and Bernstein in the movie about these events. (Yes, I appealed to their trust in movies, which are another authority figure.) Step by step, I led them through the story. Woodward and Bernstein were, by definition, conspiracy theorists.
 I showed them the men who were arrested and mentioned that one of them had a White House telephone number on his person. They were arrested for burglary, attempted wiretapping, and—what was the other? Oh, yes—conspiracy. At a click of a mouse, the word guilty flew onto the screen and, one by one, stamped itself on the suspects’ faces.
     The next slide showed seven men who worked directly for President Nixon. Four were charged with conspiracy, some with obstruction of justice, some with both crimes. I had to explain the legal terms. Again, the word guilty stamped on the faces of six of the seven. The seventh, Charles Colson, received the Latin words nolo contendre, meaning “uncontested.” Colson, too, went to prison for conspiracy.
     Next, it was former Attorney General John Mitchell’s turn: “perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy: GUILTY.”
     Then came the President of the United States Richard Nixon with eleven articles of impeachment, several of which involved conspiracy: “Resigned to avoid impeachment,” and “Pardoned by President Ford.”
     Considering that their own former president is languishing in a local prison, all this information struck a familiar chord.
     I then had them try a little experiment. I showed them a picture of Renaissance painting of a really ugly woman and said, “She’s a really ugly woman!”
     I instructed them to reply, “Oh, that’s just a conspiracy theory!” Then we’d see if calling my remark a conspiracy theory automatically made it untrue. At those words, I clicked the mouse, and the ugly woman faded into a picture of Cameron Diaz. We tried it again with another picture, and the ugly woman faded into a picture of one of their teachers, who is somewhat pretty.
     I said, “Hmm. Let’s try something different.” I showed them a picture of the beautiful actress Gabriella Anwar and said, “She’s a really beautiful woman!” When the students responded as instructed, the picture faded into a picture of one of the students present. “Is she really, really ugly?” I asked them. They didn’t comment, but I’m sure that they agreed that she was pretty.
     Having nailed this one down, we turned to a seemingly unrelated topic: causes and cures for cancer. You can imagine where that discussion led.


  1. Conspiracy Theory, the 1997 movie about Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) depicted a man who saw conspiracies in just about everything. Great movie and it showed that some conspiracies are not simple ludicrous visions of our imaginations. The bigger the conspiracy, the harder it is to doubt it.

  2. The bigger the conspiracy, the more obvious it is. There's only one way to dissuade someone of an obvious fact: make it seem like the thing that only a simpleton could believe. You do that by flattering him with arcane details that make him feel as though he has mastery of the subject that no simpleton could match. As the saying goes, "If you can't convince them, confuse them."
    I learned years ago that the essence of profundity is simply a keen grasp of the obvious.