Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas

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9781476726625: Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas

The most controversial essays from the bestselling author once called the most dangerous man in America—collected for the first time.

The nation’s most-cited legal scholar who for decades has been at the forefront of applied behavioral economics, and the bestselling author of Nudge and Simpler, Cass Sunstein is one of the world’s most innovative thinkers in the academy and the world of practical politics. In the years leading up to his confirmation as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), Sunstein published hundreds of articles on everything from same-sex marriage to cost-benefit analysis. Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas is a collection of his most famous, insightful, relevant, and inflammatory pieces. Within these pages you will learn:

· Why perfectly rational people sometimes believe crazy conspiracy theories
· What wealthy countries should and should not do about climate change
· Why governments should allow same-sex marriage, and what the “right to marry” is all about
· Why animals have rights (and what that means)
· Why we “misfear,” meaning get scared when we should be unconcerned and are unconcerned when we should get scared
· What kinds of losses make us miserable, and what kinds of losses are absolutely fine
· How to find the balance between religious freedom and gender equality
· And much more . . .

Cass Sunstein is a unique, controversial, and exciting voice in the political world. A man who cuts through the fog of left vs. right arguments and offers logical, evidence-based, and often surprising solutions to today’s most challenging questions.

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About the Author:

Cass R. Sunstein is the nation’s most-cited legal scholar who, for the past fifteen years, also has been at the forefront of behavioral economics. From 2009 to 2012, he served as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His book, Nudge, coauthored with Richard Thaler, was a national bestseller.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Conspiracy Theories & Other Dangerous Ideas



Conspiracy theories are all around us. In August 2004, a poll by Zogby International found that 49 percent of New York City residents believed that officials of the US government “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.”1 In a Scripps-Howard poll in 2006, some 36 percent of respondents agreed that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center or took no action to stop them.”2 Another 16 percent said that it was either very likely or somewhat likely that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.”3

Among normally sober-minded Canadians, a September 2006 poll found that 22 percent believed that “the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden and were actually a plot by influential Americans.”4 In a poll conducted in seven Muslim countries, 78 percent of the respondents did not believe that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by Arabs.5 The most popular account in these countries was that 9/11 was the work of the US or Israeli government.6

In 2013, a poll in the United States found that 37 percent of Americans believe that climate change is a hoax and that 21 percent believe that the US government is hiding evidence of the existence of aliens.7 In China, a bestseller attributed various events (the rise of Adolf Hitler, the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, and environmental destruction in the developing world) to the Rothschild banking dynasty. The analysis was apparently read and debated at high levels of business and government.8 In the aftermath of the explosions at the Boston Marathon in 2013, it was rumored that one of the bombers was an FBI informant and that the organizers of the marathon knew about the attacks in advance. Throughout American history, race-related violence has often been spurred by false rumors, generally pointing to alleged conspiracies by one group against another.9 And with the help of the internet, conspiracy theories can be made available to the world in an instant. There is even a Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies for Dummies.

What causes such theories to arise and spread? Are they important and even threatening, or merely trivial and even amusing? What, if anything, can and should government do about them? The principal goal of this chapter is to sketch some psychological and social mechanisms that produce, sustain, and spread conspiracy theories. An understanding of those processes helps to identify the circumstances in which such theories should be taken seriously and may warrant some kind of official response.

The main (though far from exclusive) focus involves conspiracy theories relating to (and helping to inspire) terrorism, including theories that are connected with or postdate the 9/11 attacks. These theories exist within the United States and, even more virulently, in foreign countries, especially Muslim nations. The existence of both domestic and foreign conspiracy theories is no trivial matter; they can help give rise to serious risks, including risks of violence. While terrorism-related theories are hardly the only ones of interest, they provide a crucial testing ground.

While most people do not accept false conspiracy theories, they can nonetheless hear the voice of their inner conspiracy theorist, at least on occasion. As we shall see, conspiracy theorizing is, in a sense, built into the human condition. As we shall also see, an understanding of conspiracy theories has broad implications for the spread of information and beliefs. Many erroneous judgments, including those that play an important and damaging role in the political arena, are products of the same forces that produce conspiracy theories.

If we are able to see how conspiracy theories arise, we will understand the dynamics behind the dissemination of false rumors and false beliefs of many different kinds. And if we are able to understand how to counteract such theories, we will have some clues about how to correct widespread falsehoods more generally—and about why some efforts at correction fail while others succeed.


There has been much discussion of what, exactly, counts as a conspiracy theory, and about what, if anything, is wrong with those who believe one. Let us bracket the most difficult questions here and suggest more pragmatically that a conspiracy theory can be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by referring to the secret machinations of powerful people who have also managed to conceal their role.

Consider, for example, the following beliefs, which have found varying degrees of acceptance in different communities:

· the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was responsible for the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy;

· doctors deliberately manufactured the AIDS virus;

· the 1996 explosion and crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island was caused by a US military missile;

· the theory of climate change is a deliberate fraud;

· civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by federal agents in 1968;

· the 2002 plane crash that killed Paul Wellstone, the liberal Democratic senator from Minnesota, was engineered by Republican politicians;

· the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged and never actually occurred;

· the Rothschilds and other Jewish bankers have been responsible for the deaths of presidents and for economic distress in Asian nations;

· the Great Depression was a result of a plot by wealthy people to reduce workers’ wages.

Some conspiracy theories have, of course, turned out to be true. The Watergate hotel room used by the Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials in 1972, operating at the behest of the White House. In the 1950s and 1960s, the CIA did, in fact, administer drugs such as LSD under Project MKULTRA in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” Also during the Cold War, Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the US Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect). In 1947, space aliens did, in fact, land in Roswell, New Mexico, and the government covered it all up. (Well, maybe not.)

An important clarification: the focus throughout this chapter is on demonstrably false conspiracy theories, such as the various 9/11 conspiracy theories, not ones that are or may be true. The ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine false theories, and true accounts should not be undermined.

Within the set of false conspiracy theories, it is also important to limit the scope to potentially harmful theories. Not all false conspiracy theories are harmful. Consider the false conspiracy theory, held by many younger members of our society, that a secret group of elves, working in a remote location under the leadership of the mysterious “Santa Claus,” makes and distributes presents on Christmas Eve. This theory turns out to be false but is itself instilled through a widespread conspiracy of the powerful—parents—who conceal their roles in the whole affair. (Consider, too, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.) Unfortunately, not all conspiracy theories are equally benign.

Conspiracy theories generally attribute to certain agents extraordinary powers: to plan, to control others, to maintain secrets, and so forth. Those who believe that those agents possess such powers are especially unlikely to give respectful attention to debunkers, who, in their eyes, may, after all, be agents or dupes of those responsible for the conspiracy in the first place. Because debunkers are untrustworthy, the simplest governmental technique for dispelling false (and also harmful) beliefs—providing credible information—may fail to work for conspiracy theories. This extra resistance to correction through simple techniques is part of what makes conspiracy theories distinctively worrisome.

A broader point is that conspiracy theorists typically overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies, which are assumed to be capable of devising and carrying out sophisticated secret plans—despite abundant evidence that in open societies, government action does not usually remain secret for very long. Consider all the work that must be done to hide and cover up the government’s role in orchestrating a terrorist attack on its own territory or in arranging to kill political opponents. In a closed society, secrets are far easier to keep, and distrust of official accounts makes a great deal of sense. In such societies, conspiracy theories are both more likely to be true and harder to disprove in light of available information. But when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily hide its conspiracies for long.

These points do not mean that it is impossible, even in free societies, for conspiracy theories to be true; we have seen some counterexamples. But it does mean that institutional checks make it unlikely, in such societies, that powerful groups can keep dark secrets for extended periods, at least if those secrets involve important events.

A further question about conspiracy theories—whether true or false, harmful or benign—is whether they are justified. ­Justification and truth are different issues; a true belief may be unjustified, and a justified belief may be untrue. I may believe, correctly, that there are fires within the earth’s core, but if I believe it because the god Vulcan revealed it to me in a dream, my belief is unjustified. Conversely, the false belief in Santa Claus is justified, because children generally have good reason to believe what their parents tell them and follow a sensible heuristic (“If my parents say it, it is probably true”); when children realize that Santa is the product of a widespread conspiracy among parents, they have a justified and true belief that a conspiracy has been at work.

Are conspiracy theories generally unjustified? Under what conditions? Here there are competing accounts and many controversies in epistemology and analytic philosophy. It is unnecessary to take a final stand on the most difficult questions here, in part because the relevant accounts need not be seen as mutually exclusive; each accounts for part of the terrain. A brief review of the possible accounts will be useful for later discussion.

The philosopher Karl Popper famously argued that conspiracy theories overlook the pervasive unintended consequences of political and social action; they assume that all consequences must have been intended by someone.10 The basic idea is that many social outcomes, including large movements in the economy, occur as a result of the acts and omissions of many people, none of whom intended to cause those effects. The Great Depression of the 1930s was not self-consciously engineered by anyone; increases in the unemployment or inflation rate, or in the price of real estate or gasoline, may reflect market pressures rather than intentional action. Nonetheless, there is a pervasive human tendency to think that effects are caused by intentional action, especially by those who stand to benefit (the maxim “Cui bono?”), and for this reason, conspiracy theories have considerable but unwarranted appeal. On one reading of Popper’s ­account, those who accept conspiracy theories are following a sensi­ble ­heuristic, to the effect that consequences are intended; that heuristic often works well, but it also produces systematic ­errors, especially in the context of outcomes that are products of social ­interactions among numerous people.

Popper captures an important feature of some conspiracy theories. They have appeal in light of the attribution of otherwise inexplicable events to intentional action, and of some people’s unwillingness to accept the possibility that significant bad consequences may be a product of invisible-hand mechanisms (such as market forces or evolutionary pressures) or of simple chance rather than of anyone’s plans. A conspiracy theory posits that a social outcome reflects an underlying intentional order, overlooking the possibility that the outcome arises from either spontaneous order or random forces.

Popper is picking up on a still more general fact about human psychology, which is that most people do not like to believe that significant events were caused by bad (or good) luck, and much prefer nonarbitrary causal stories. Note, however, that the domain of Popper’s explanation is quite limited. Many conspiracy theories, including those involving political assassinations and the attacks of 9/11, point to events that are indeed the result of intentional action. The conspiracy theorists go wrong not by positing intentional actors but by misidentifying them.

A broader point is that part of what makes (unjustified) conspiracy theories unjustified is that those who believe them must also have a kind of spreading distrust of all knowledge-producing institutions, in a way that makes it difficult for them to believe anything at all.11 To believe, for example, that the US government destroyed the World Trade Center and then covered its tracks requires an ever-widening conspiracy theory in which the 9/11 Commission, congressional leaders, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the media were either participants in or dupes of the conspiracy. But anyone who believed that would undercut the grounds for many of his other beliefs, which are warranted only by trust in the knowledge-producing institutions created by government and society. How many other things must not be believed, if we are not to believe something accepted by so many diverse actors?

There may not be a logical contradiction here, but conspiracy theorists might well have to question a number of propositions that they seem willing to take for granted. Why reject so many of the claims and judgments supplied by knowledge-producing institutions while accepting the rest? As Robert Anton Wilson notes of the conspiracy theories advanced by Holocaust deniers, “a conspiracy that can deceive us about 6,000,000 deaths can deceive us about anything, and [then] it takes a great leap of faith for Holocaust Revisionists to believe World War II happened at all, or that Franklin Roosevelt did serve as President from 1933 to 1945, or that Marilyn Monroe was more ‘real’ than King Kong or Donald Duck.”12 Consider in this light the words of Oliver Stone, director of the conspiracy-focused film JFK: “I’ve come to have severe doubts about Columbus, about Washington, about the Civil War being fought over slavery, about World War I, about World War II and the supposed fight against Nazism and Japanese control of resources . . . I don’t even know if I was born or who my parents were.”13

This is not a claim that conspiracy theories are always wrong or unwarranted. We have seen that some such theories are true. But if knowledge-producing institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and a free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will usually be unjustified. On the other hand, citizens of societies with systematically censored, malfunctioning, biased,...

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