Conspiracy Theory Logical Fallacies

Pic: DTKerns (PD)

Pic: DTKerns (PD)

Conspiracies, of course, do occur.  But, of course, not every theory is true.  If yours isn’t built upon the following fallacies, perhaps it’s legit.  Warp writes:

Most conspiracy theories don’t make sense nor withstand any scrutiny. They usually involve operations so immense that it’s basically impossible for them to be kept secret, and all the proof given by conspiracy theorists usually have a very simple explanation (usually much simpler than the explanation given by the theorists).

Yet conspiracy theories are very popular and appealing. Even when they don’t make sense and there’s just no proof, many people still believe them. Why?

One big reason for this is that some conspiracy theorists are clever. They use psychology to make their theories sound more plausible. They appeal to certain psychological phenomena which make people to tend to believe them. However, these psychological tricks are nothing more than logical fallacies. They are simply so well disguised that many people can’t see them for what they are.

Here are some typical logical fallacies used by conspiracy theorists:

Appeal to the “bandwagon effect”

The so-called “bandwagon effect” is a psychological phenomenon where people are eager to believe things if most of the people around them believe that too. Sometimes that thing is true and there’s no harm, but sometimes it’s a misconception, urban legend or, in this case, an unfounded conspiracy theory, in which case the “bandwagon effect” bypasses logical thinking for the worse.

The most typical form of appealing to the bandwagon effect is to say something along the lines of “30% of Americans doubt that…” or “30% of Americans don’t believe the official story”. This is also called an argumentum ad populum, which is a logical fallacy.

Of course that kind of sentence in the beginning of a conspiracy theory doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t prove anything relevant. It’s not like the theory becomes more true if more people believe in it.

Also the percentage itself is always very dubious. It may be completely fabricated or exaggerated by interpreting the poll results conveniently (eg. one easy way for bumping up the percentage is to interpret all people who didn’t answer or who didn’t know what to say as “doubting the official story”). Even if it was a completely genuine number, it would still not be proof of anything else than that there’s a certain amount of gullible people in the world.

That kind of sentence is not proof of anything, yet it’s one of the most used sentences in conspiracy theories. It tries to appeal to the bandwagon effect. It’s effectively saying: “Already this many people doubt the official story, and the numbers are increasing. Are you going to be left alone believing the official story?”

Appeal to rebellion

Conspiracy theories in general, and the “n% of people doubt the story” claims in particular, also appeal to a sense of rebellion in people.

As Wikipedia puts it, “a rebellion is, in the most general sense, a refusal to accept authority.”

People don’t want to be sheep who are patronized by authority and told what they have to do and how they have to think. People usually distrust authorities and many believe that authorities are selfish and abuse people for their own benefit. This is an extremely fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

This is so ingrained in people that a sentence like “the official story” has basically become a synonym for “a coverup/lie”. Whenever “the official story” is mentioned, it immediately makes people think that it’s some kind of coverup, something not true.

Conspiracy theorists are masters at abusing this psyhcological phenomenon for their advantage. They basically insinuate that “if you believe the official story then you are gullible because you are being lied to”. They want to make it feel that doubting the original story is a sign of intelligence and logical thinking. However, believing a conspiracy theory usually shows, quite ironically, a great lack of logical thinking.

This is an actual quote from a JFK assassination conspiracy theory website. It’s almost as hilarious as it is contradictory:

In the end, you have to decide for yourself what to believe. But don’t just believe what the U.S. Government tells you!

(In other words, believe anything you want except the official story!)

Shotgun argumentation

“Shotgun argumentation” is a metaphor from real life: It’s much easier to hunt a rabbit with a shotgun than with a rifle. This is because a rifle only fires one bullet and there’s a high probability of a miss. A shotgun, however, fires tens or even hundreds of small pellets, and the probability of at least one of them hitting the rabbit is quite high.

Shotgun argumentation has the same basic idea: The more small arguments or “evidence” you present in favor of some claim, the higher the probability that someone will believe you regarldess of how ridiculous those arguments are. There are two reasons for this:

Firstly, just the sheer amount of arguments or “evidence” may be enough to convince someone that something strange is going on. The idea is basically: “There is this much evidence against the official story, there must be something wrong with it.” One or two pieces of “evidence” may not be enough to convince anyone, but collect a set of a couple of hundreds of pieces of “evidence” and it immediately starts being more believable.

Of course the fallacy here is that the amount of “evidence” is in no way proof of anything. The vast majority, and usually all of this “evidence” is easily explainable and just patently false. There may be a few points which may be more difficult to explain, but they alone wouldn’t be so convincing.

Secondly, and more closely related to the shotgun methapor: The more arguments or individual pieces of “evidence” you have, the higher the probability that at least some of them will convince someone. Someone might not get convinced by most of the arguments, but among them there may be one or a few which sounds so plausible to him that he is then convinced. Thus one or a few of the “pellets” hit the “rabbit” and killed it: Mission accomplished.

I have a concrete example of this: I had a friend who is academically educated, a MSc, and doing research work (relating to computer science) at a university. He is rational, intelligent and well-educated.

Yet still this person, at least some years ago, completely believed the Moon hoax theory. Why? He said to me quite explicitly that there was one thing that convinced him: The flag moving after it had been planted on the ground.

One of the pellets had hit the rabbit and killed it. The shotgun argumentation had been successful.

If even highly-educated academic people can fall for such “evidence” (which is easily explained), how more easily are more “regular” people going to believe the sheer amount of them? Sadly, quite a lot more easily.

Most conspiracy theorists continue to present the same old tired arguments which are very easy to prove wrong. They need all those arguments, no matter how ridiculous, for their shotgun argumentation tactics to work.

Straw man argumentation

A “straw man argument” is the process of taking an argument of the opponent, distorting it or taking it out of context so that it basically changes meaning, and then ridiculing it in order to make the opponent look bad.

For example, a conspiracy theorist may say something like: “Sceptics argue that stars are too faint to see in space (which is why there are no stars in photographs), yet astronauts said that they could see stars.”

This is a perfect example of a straw man argument. That’s taking an argument completely out of context and changing its meaning.

It’s actually a bit unfortunate that many debunking sites use the sentence “the stars are too faint to be seen” when explaining the lack of stars in photographs. That sentence, while in its context not false, is confusing and misleading. It’s trying to put in simple words a more technical explanation (which usually follows). Unfortunately, it’s too simplistic and good material for straw man arguments. I wish debunkers stopped using simplistic sentences like that one.

(The real explanation for the lacking stars is, of course, related to the exposure time and shutter aperture of the cameras, which were set to photograph the Moon surface illuminated by direct sunlight. The stars are not bright enough for such short exposure times. If the cameras had been set up to photograph the stars, the lunar surface would have been completely overexposed. This is basic photography.)

Wait a minute… I believe Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy.  And couldn’t “shotgun argumentation” also sometimes be called “a lot of evidence?”  Hmm…  Read more here, and just don’t blame everything on one group you feel good about hating.

31 Comments on "Conspiracy Theory Logical Fallacies"

  1. I sense trouble ahead.

  2. A couple propositions:

    1) The only mind I have the power to change is my own. The “backfire effect” causes hardened believers (which includes hardened disbelief) to double down and seek out more supporting evidence when confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs. So arguing about conspiracies is generally a waste of time when the purpose is to change a person’s belief, but may have some value for the bystanders who have not yet formed opinions.

    2) The hallmark of conspiracies is, of course, secrecy. The etymology of the word means “breathe together” and implies a small huddle of whispering co-conspirators who would be opposed if overheard. This need for secrecy inhibits operational effectiveness and the size/scope of a conspiracy. The more people in the know, the greater the likelihood one will leak evidence to an organization like Wikileaks. Also the longer a conspiracy operates, the greater the chance one member will defect and leak. Over time I think the biggest conspiracies have come to light, but I can believe there are some moderately big ones in effect today not yet disclosed.

    With that in mind, I disbelieve most of the prevalent conspiracy theories out there today.

    I don’t believe that 9/11 was an inside job (though I do think the Bush administration had motive to ignore warnings). It isn’t that I think the administration was benevolent in any way, or wouldn’t have conducted such an operation, as that they never displayed competency thereafter. How could you successfully pull off 9/11 in front of thousands of eye witnesses and security cameras, but not plant chemical weapons evidence in the Iraqi desert where no one is watching at all? How could you get away with a crime of that magnitude, but get caught leaking Valerie Plame’s identity to the press? The only explanation I’ve been given is that those failures were an attempt to appear incompetent. But what endgame? The failure of inspectors to find chemical weapons didn’t make 9/11 more plausible as conspiracy for the vast majority who already accepted it as fact. And the minority wasn’t generally swayed by that failure either, unless you count me as a minority of one.

    I don’t believe that fluoride is added to the water as a mind control agent (or other nefarious purpose), even as I suspect that the health benefits to it are low enough that the money might be better spent just preventing dental care to poor people.

    I don’t believe that persistent contrails left by airplanes are a form of geoengineering, or any of the other so-called chemtrail conspiracies and I’ve looked into this one in great detail, having used police scanners and software-defined radios to receive ACARS and ADS-B signals over the year to identify the origin and destination points of planes in air corridors while making time lapses of their contrail behaviors. I’ve also learned at length from an atmospheric physicist how relative humidity affects the formation of persistent contrails (relative to temperature and pressure, and pressure is relative to altitude). I know that in Europe contrail cirrus has been a bigger problem than north America for geographic reasons, and that the airlines have conducted studies and taken efforts to avoid forming them because of threats by European governments to limit the number of flights. Persistent contrails are a real thing that threaten airline business models (and do pose a genuine problem for farmers in that region).

    I don’t believe vaccines cause autism, and do promote their use generally. That includes childhood vaccines and seasonal fly vaccines that I take when I can get it.

    I don’t believe that Big Pharma is suppressing cancer cures, nor that most so-called alt-med has real value but is being suppressed because it doesn’t make Big Pharma rich. I do believe in the placebo/nocebo reactions, and psychosomatic effects more generally. The placebo reaction has been getting stronger in recent years and I wish we could harness it more deliberately (so I don’t object to all homeopathy in all cases for that value alone).

    I don’t believe that Monsanto is engaged in a conspiracy to control the world’s food supply, and know that most of the litigation of farmers has happened where farmers actually misappropriated seeds in violation of contracts (i.e. Bowman v. Monsanto, where the farmer admitted his misdeeds in an attempt to create precedent). That’s not to say I believe Monsanto is a force of benevolence, only that they’re probably not much more evil today than other large multinational corporations looking to corner a market and influence regulators to their advantage. I also don’t believe they’re suppressing evidence of serious harms about biotechnology (and that there’s no logical reason for transgenes to pose serious threats more generally).

    I actually don’t have a strong opinion on the JFK assassination. It happened before my time and isn’t something I’ve been particularly interested in learning about in great detail. I probably leave more room in my mind on this one just because I don’t have a lot of information.

    I do believe that the Watergate burglary and coverup was a real conspiracy, documented very well.

    I do believe that the Iran-Contra affair involved a real conspiracy to bypass Congressional directives and sell arms to Iran in order to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.

    I do believe that the FBI program known as COINTELPRO was a conspiracy to use government force and power to disrupt civil rights activists, and violate their civil rights.

    I do believe that the Department of Defense has engaged in a conspiracy to avoid Congressional oversight by using the so-called “black budget” to funnel funds for programs previously defunded under the name Total Information Awareness.

    Of course these beliefs of mine aren’t shared by many disinfonauts, and I imagine I’ll hear how I’m wrong in reply. I don’t have any vested interests beyond a desire to know and understand the truth for its own sake.


    • misinformation | Feb 16, 2014 at 3:03 am |

      “I actually don’t have a strong opinion on the JFK assassination…and isn’t something I’ve been particularly interested in learning about in great detail.”

      Use your time for something else anyway. Unless you REALLY want to see just how ridiculous the official conspiracy, er, non conspiracy theory is.

      As for the others that you actually DO believe. Aren’t they ALL pretty well documented (not just Watergate) and/or have accepted legal convictions relating to them?

    • Eric_D_Read | Feb 16, 2014 at 8:47 am |

      Well just to take a crack at one of these statements:

      “I don’t believe that Monsanto is engaged in a conspiracy to control the world’s food supply…only that they’re probably not much more evil today than other large multinational corporations looking to corner a market and influence regulators to their advantage.”

      Cornering the market they’re in would result in Monsanto controlling the word’s food supply.
      Therefor, in that example at least, you’ve pretty much said you don’t believe Monsanto is trying to do what is in the nature of all global corporations to try to do.

      • I realized that this point was waiting to be made, but felt I’d rambled on a little too long to explain better what I was really trying to say, so thank you for noticing and giving me a chance to elaborate on that one.

        Here’s two scenarios:

        A) The conspiracy – Monsanto has a strategy to force non-customers to buy their seeds by aggressively enforcing IP laws and relying on the wind to blow transgenetic pollen into neighboring fields. They want to essentially pollute non-customer crops and then use that pollution to sue them for patent violations. In the more extreme versions of this conspiracy, they are creating aluminum-resistant plants, so that in conjunction with chemtrail spraying, Monsanto can force farmers to buy their seeds because nothing else will grow. There are still more extreme conspiracies related to the Monsanto acquisitions of Beeologics and Climate Corp. (Disinfo actually posted the “Robotic Bees to Pollinate Monsanto Crops” story last April, though I suspected the original was an April Fool’s joke that ran a week too late).

        B) The standard model – Monsanto has a strategy to create a product that all commodity crop farmers want to buy because it gives them superior yields, reduces their time spent tilling and applying pesticides, reduces external input costs, guarantees a harvest even in drought conditions, etc. Monsanto has four main competitors in the seed market today: Syngenta, Bayer, Dow & DuPont, and they are all trying to do the same thing (but occasionally license their technology to each other despite that).

        So in A) the desire to control the world food supply there are true shenanigans and a hidden goal which is domination of the human population by controlling the food (and which can go far deeper and to more nefarious ends than mere profit); while in B) the desire to dominate the seed market by making the best product and winning market share through value-add is something that all the seed companies engage in (and thankfully the strong competition means better products for commodity farmers in the long run).

        There’s definitely been consolidation in the seed industry. One can view that as evidence of A) a conspiracy to deliberately eliminate competition or B) an attempt to acquire intellectual property and the talent of the smart scientists who produced it.

        Monsanto pledged publicly not to commercialize the so-called Terminator technology. If they had commercialized it, there wouldn’t be lawsuits against farmers because it wouldn’t be possible to replant sterile seeds. Activists found Terminator seeds terrifying and used that to great effect publicly. So the alternate way Monsanto found to stop the replanting practice is to use IP law to sue farmers who are violating their patents and also frequently, the contracts they signed not to reuse seed.

        There’s plenty to criticize about IP law broadly, and patent law more specifically. I believe that reform is needed. I also believe that without patents, genetic engineering wouldn’t be viable in agriculture as it takes about a decade and $160 million to develop a new product, test it, pass regulatory hurdles and bring it to market. They have to sell a lot of seed to recoup that investment, and their patents are only good for 20 years after filing (and shareholders expect good returns too in that period). So while I believe Monsanto has been heavy-handed in its patent and contract enforcement, I don’t think that enforcement is for the purposes of dominating the food supply, and understand the economic pressures driving their heavy-handedness. I also understand why activists see shenanigans and fear the worst.

  3. Simon Valentine | Feb 14, 2014 at 7:09 pm |

    conspiracy theory logical fallacies is a conspiracy chock-full of logical fallacies!
    cattle who are no-one’s stock
    there is a cow level

  4. Calypso_1 | Feb 14, 2014 at 7:32 pm |

    Hunting wabbits is best done with weasels.

    • Ferrets are good snakers too, or so I heard. That is if a person has a snake problem. Likely in the south.

  5. Tchoutoye | Feb 14, 2014 at 7:41 pm |

    These logical fallacies are so common, so human that they are not particularly typical of conspiracy theories but popular among debunkers as well.

  6. Cortacespedes | Feb 14, 2014 at 7:59 pm |

    About “shotgun argumentation”, the rule generally holds that he who holds the shotgun, will more often than not, win the argument.

    They’re very persuasive.

  7. The issue I think with many conspiracy theories, is how they are looked upon– The dangerous word primarily is “conspiracy” when speaking about manifestation upon this layer of reality– However, I think that most conspiracies don’t actually play out on a conscious level, though in some instance I do believe people are aware of what they are involved in– But I am speaking more upon the forces behind us, or the spirit that flows through us; not necessarily being more aware, but having more than we are aware of playing out–

    That is on some level, it is a conspiracy of synchronicity; in which any person is basically at the level of pawn– I have experienced things like this myself, where things just fall into place, or I do things that have greater effects or more depth in meaning than I originally was aware of while doing so–

    Often, people whom are under pressure to do something immediately, will notice afterwards that they have many reasons for doing so, and often feel like they made the best choice– Science generally dismisses this as having time to think about it and coming up with the reasoning afterwards// but this could be a real superficial understanding of face value.. As we simply become aware of the reasoning our subconscious already knew–

    This idea may sound crazy, but if you think about it, you might find some unexpected observations; not only this, but when applied to the massive amount of conspiracy theories out there, it explains why many of these theories are about situations that may seem to be occurring by mere coincidence and have many other explanations that are easier to accept than something such as a big secret being held by many.. Because from this angle of perception, it is both the coincidence and the synchronicity at play…

  8. Geez, is someone on an anti-conspiracy mission or what? Really, who cares? The sceptics will sceptic, debunkers will debunk, and theorists will theorize. Nothing will change. Mike Lewinski makes an excellent point with his first proposition. While I don’t believe that the Moon landing was faked, that MJ-12 is real or any number of other more ludicrous ideas, I don’t have any doubts that there are in fact conspiracies. That’s just human nature. Conspiracies will happen. But there is an amount of arrogant, know it all debunkers and sceptics that are going to change my mind about that. Is this hardened belief? Probably so. Yet I can’t deny the overwhelming evidence of my own experience. And that experience tells me that what I’ve observed of human nature holds true. People conspire. Whether that was to kill JFK, RFK and MLK, to manufacture consent for the Vietnam war (Gulf of Tonkin) or any of the other historical conspiracies, there’s no reason to doubt unless you’re afraid of some unpleasant truth.

    Et tu Brute?

  9. BuzzCoastin | Feb 14, 2014 at 9:02 pm |

    conspiracy theories are like assholes
    everyone has one
    & they’re hairy and smelly

  10. I attack the cover-up. They go to great, often illegal, lengths to keep things buried. This applies to both Kennedy and 9/11. The cover-up is a major source of contention, and is highly suspicious in both cases. The revelations of Saudi support and funding to 9/11 hijackers being censored by the unelected Bush regime, is enough prima facie evidence to have removed them from power and investigated them for treason.

  11. Rhoid Rager | Feb 15, 2014 at 12:51 am |

    I’ve seriously studied Peak Oil for 10 years now, and I’ve only recently (in the past 2 years or so) turned my attention to the role of money–specifically interest (usury). Throughout this time, I’ve come to the conclusion within myself that there is a layered yet entrenched conspiracy, which requires the participation of most of humanity to perpetuate. Centralized society is a vast pyramid scheme, and has been that way for a long time. This has, as an expected result, created vast cultural reproduction system that supports this mode of organization.

    Hierarchical organization almost without fail applies a hazy mist nearer the top of the pyramid so the multitude nearer the bottom cannot directly see their oppressors. This ambiguity is disastrous for any kind of social change, because it redirects our attention to those who are directly around us who we feel are oppressing us–leaving us divided against each other and unable to direct our latent anger more towards the ambiguous top. ‘Liberal Democracy’ is the latest advent in social technology to further entrench this hierarchical mist, because it provides us with the ideological illusion that we actually control the governing of our lives, and that we can merely remove those we perceive to be at the top of the pyramid–the politicians. It’s all a show.

    This conspiracy of hierarchy has taken hold through usury–piggy-backed on the other social technology, money. It’s adroitly channelled our productive energy to the core hubs of parasitic collection, the so-called ‘seats of power’, and in doing so has convinced us that we require these core hubs to function as a species. But by these means these conspiratorial hubs have created a monster dependent on increasing procurement of their so-called ‘credit’–ironically granted value only by way of our own labour, our own assets and our own creativity. The de-skilled, core-worshipping, oil-dependent masses now demand more ‘credit’ from their masters to live their lives normally, and when it is denied, the masters will discover what they have wrought. They have plunged us all off a thermodynamic cliff of their own making with their untenable ponzi-scheme promises. Everything in our civilization happens in the shadow of this massive pyramid–all problems derive, in some way, from the incredible inertia we have directing us forward off of this cliff.

    Hierarchy is the only conspiracy, everything else is secondary in nature.

    • gustave courbet | Feb 15, 2014 at 1:36 am |

      A couple of recommendations: 1. Bill Still’s documentaries on monetary policy and the fed. They’re much more nuanced then your average anti-fed gold bug and are informative about monetary history, 2. Mark Passio’s lectures (He calls power and money the two major world religions). He kind of comes off as a raving nut but has some interesting philosophical perspectives.

      • Rhoid Rager | Feb 15, 2014 at 1:47 am |

        I’ve seen Bill Still’s documentaries. The one on the Wizard of Oz interpretation is truly trippy, and rings true. Still’s take on gold is spot on, by my estimation, as the banks will likely try to re-establish a gold standard once fiat fails. Stacking gold plays right into their hands and allows them to go back to their beginnings.

        As for Mark Passio, I’ve never heard of him, but I’ll look him up. Thanks for the cite.

    • To cut to the chase, the greatest entitlement program of all time is the “right” to create the money.

  12. gustave courbet | Feb 15, 2014 at 1:39 am |

    While the author isn’t wrong, I fail to see why so called conspiracy theorists were singled out for the use of these or any other number of logical fallacies. One is just is likely to hear them used by the State Department as Alex Jones.

    • Exactly, as we recent heard the Hillary Clinton-appointed neocon at State, Victoria Nuland (whose husband was a founding member of PNAC, Robert Kagan) rant on about Edward Snowden being a traitor, etc.

      No doubt another Clinton-appointee at State, former Bush inner circle guy (and Bush cousin), Marc Grossman would agree!
      A more intelligent take on this subject is Lance Dehaven-Smith’s, Conspiracy Theory in America, published by the University of Texas Press.

    • Craig Bickford | Feb 15, 2014 at 2:56 pm |

      Yup, you have got that right. Often fallacies and fallacious argument components are used by official sources as well, their’s being of a different grouping, although you sometimes see a good straw man marched out. Another thing to consider is everyone makes mistakes, like I’m sure Alex Jones or some under secretary has done in commenting on this that or the other thing in officially sourced media content. The Trivium Method is your best solution to not only not committing these logical fallacies in your own thinking, but to observe it in others arguments or hypotheses.

  13. Aipeed Teaitchse | Feb 15, 2014 at 11:17 am |

    The author of this sophomoric article is mostly full of shit and demonstrates cognitive dissonance in trying to explain cognitive dissonance. These methods of persuasion are just re-hashed basic 101 advertising strategies and we are swimming in an ocean of these styles of arguments anytime anyone’s trying to sell us any thing. While the other crabs in the bucket pull each other back in trying to figure out what happened decades ago, a narrow consortium of corporate/political figures are shaping our future. And they’ll probably use a lot of the same methods mentioned in this article. But “believe anything you want”

  14. Kevin Leonard | Feb 15, 2014 at 11:43 am |

    isn’t the article, itself, something of a straw man argument?

  15. Jan is that you?

    Seriously, if you have some new info that can debunk any of the conspiracy theories that abound please be my guest, just don’t get all self righteous, peering down your nose, and make out that if logic was used we’d all realise that the government is our friend, national statehood is real and there really is an all-loving, all-powerful God who needs you to do/say/wear certain stuff otherwise He gets jealous.
    People believe all kinds of shit because mostly we’ve been bred to be dumb-ass, scared, selfish pricks. But those of us that can still think critically can clearly see that shit doesn’t add up and we are lied to continuously.
    That being said I for one am not into blaming the boogie man or any other ‘other’ (1%, the gov, the Zionists, aliens, blood drinking shape shifting reptilian a etc) because it leads to more anger, more frustration, more alienation and powerlessness. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and stop blaming. But on the other hand just because I don’t adhere to the accepted narrative always it doesn’t mean I believe any other ‘story’ either. Wherever we put our attention we will find proofs to backup our beliefs. Maybe it’s time we deconstructed our beliefs and work our way up instead of the other way around.

  16. misinformation | Feb 16, 2014 at 2:55 am |

    Speaking of logical fallacies:

    “They usually involve operations so immense that it’s basically impossible for them to be kept secret…”

    I heard a story once about a project that utilized around 130,000 people and was kept, virtually a secret for the entire six years of the project. Right up until these two towns in Japan, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, were essentially annihilated. So there’s that.

    • I think it’s important to distinguish the Manhattan Project from the garden variety conspiracy being discussed. It’s a false analogy and I’ll spell out exactly why.

      In a time of war, secrecy is vital to military success. The government acknowledges this need explicitly, and creates laws that penalize spying/leaking. That the government uses secrecy as a strategy for military success is itself an open secret (even as the actual applications of that secrecy are unknown).

      In a conspiracy, secrecy is used to cloak real wrongdoing which would, if generally known, be prosecuted and/or widely opposed (and be quickly criminalized if it didn’t meet criteria for illegality).

      So military secrets are legal, and held secret for reasons of (usually vital) national security. Adhering to Top Secret standards is an act of patriotism in service of the country’s greatest good (prevailing in a war against tyranny and genocide). That’s the official line, anyway, even as I’ll grant plenty of abuse of military secrecy, including some that rises to the level of criminality.

      Conspiracies, by contrast, are usually criminal enterprises and frequently conducted for reasons of treason. Most people would, on stumbling on a military secret of legitimate national security, recognize their civic duty to protect that secret. By contrast, civic duty would compel disclosure of conspiracy secrets that are subverting the law (and I’d argue that is precisely what Edward Snowden has done, and that his disclosures serve to prove the point about the problem of scaling conspiracies… if real illegality is happening, the odds of an honest man discovering it are substantial and so the scope of knowledge must be limited).

      So the black budgets are an example of military secrecy being used to subvert Congressional oversight, and it is possible for these two kinds of secrecy to intersect, and for honest people to be fooled into believing that the secrecy is justified and legal secrecy. But the scope of what can be done within those parameters is fairly limited.

      • misinformation | Feb 17, 2014 at 11:42 pm |

        I appreciate your thoughtful response but it’s actually a lot more straight forward than that. The assertion is that it isn’t possible because in an operation “this big, someone would talk”. The Manhattan Project was huge. It remained a secret. You seem like an intelligent person, I assume you’re familiar with the idea of “compartmentalization” – it’s common and, among other things, how I suspect, the not-too-small operation of Project Assassinate Kennedy was pulled off (note: not the real name of any actual project).

        I don’t even want to discuss “national security”. Using that as a cover went out the window when my grandmother’s shoe size became classified due to national security.

        “So military secrets are legal, and held secret for reasons of (usually
        vital) national security. Adhering to Top Secret standards is an act of
        patriotism in service of the country’s greatest good (prevailing in a
        war against tyranny and genocide). ”

        I know you qualified this with your next sentence but you’ll forgive me if this content makes me throw up in my mouth, a little?

        The proverbial jury is still out on Snowden, his motives, his “leaks” and their implications.

  17. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I think in this context we need to distinguish two types of “secret”. One are secrets that are effectively kept from the general public, and the other are secrets that are effectively kept to the conspirators themselves.

    So the KGB had a vested interest in keeping their compromise of our secrets a secret too. In other contexts they would have gained political advantage in disclosing our secrets (i.e. the U-2 incident).

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