Conspiracy is as natural as breathing. And since the struggles for advantage nearly always have a rhetorical strain, we believe that the systematic contemplation of them forces itself on the student of rhetoric. Indeed, of all the motives in Machiavelli, is not the most usable for us his attempt to transcend the disorders of his times, not by either total acquiescence or total avoidance, but by seeking to scrutinize them as accurately and calmly as he could? (Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1962, p. 166)
An old joke goes, “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” So given all the tricks and lessons of the mind that we’ve previously covered, how do we make sense of things? How do we ensure that we haven’t somehow unwittingly donned a proverbial tin-foil hat and fallen prey to some wacky conspiracy theory in error? In other words, how do we avoid making up scenarios in our minds when there aren’t any there? How do we avoid apophenia (i.e., Type I errors or false positives) of this nature?
Recent research by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky has shown, through a series of experiments, that individuals who feel that they lacked control over their lives were more likely to make Type I errors—i.e., seeing images that weren’t there, developing superstitions, and perceiving conspiracies where none existed.
That isn’t to say conspiracies do not exist, of course. The Pentagon Papers are a perfect example of real conspiracy. Daniel Ellsberg was a young, bright Harvard economics PhD and former Marine that served under Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon (the subject of the stellar documentary The Fog of War by Errol Morris) during the Vietnam War. Later, Elsberg would become one of the experts at the RAND Corporation on the Vietnam conflict and was invited to contribute to a classified document commissioned by McNamara, which would later become known as the Pentagon Papers.
Disgusted by what he read, Ellsberg used his high-level security clearance to leak this information to the only industry protected by the Constitution of the United States of America, the free press. The Pentagon Papers revealed, among other things, that government decision makers knew that the war was unwinnable but would persist in the conflict despite this knowledge. Additionally, it was acknowledged that the government decision would cause many more casualties, many of which would never be made public.
The Nixon Administration’s attempts to suppress this information included even burglarizing the offices of Lewis Fielding (Ellsberg’s psychiatrist) to dig up dirt to discredit Ellsberg in the media. Fortunately, they failed to find any such files. The revelation of the conspiracy noted in the Pentagon Papers eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.
Even more scandalous information regarding the Vietnam conflict would surface with the publication of an article with the unusual title “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish” by Robert J. Hanyok. Originally published in 2001 in the National Security Agency’s classified journal Cryptologic Quarterly, the article was made public in 2003 under the Freedom of Information Act. Hanyok’s article revealed that the Congressional resolution to authorize broad military action in Vietnam at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s request was based on falsified records. They created the appearance that North Vietnam had attacked American destroyers on August 4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin. A similar manipulation of intelligence was used to justify the Iraq War.
It is important to differentiate clearly between ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ consequences since most modern legal systems differentiate between mens rea (intent) and actus rea (action). If you can demonstrate that there was no intent to break the law, then it was an accident and, therefore, unpunishable making ‘unintended consequences’ the escape hatch for perpetrators of legitimate conspiracies. Obviously there are plenty of unfounded conspiracy theories, however, there is plenty of conspiracy evidence too.