The Limits of Conspiracy Debunking

by David Kordahl

This is a post about conspiracy theories—yes, another one, after a year’s worth—but let’s start by remembering a benign old theory from a little over one year ago, back when ex-vice-president Joe Biden had won just one primary, down in South Carolina, where he had been aided by the endorsement of representative Jim Clyburn. At the end of February 2020, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both led Biden in the national polls, with Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar all not far behind.

Then, suddenly, everything fell into place. On March 1, Buttigieg announced that he would be dropping out, and on March 2, so did Klobuchar. Both appeared that night at rallies to endorse Biden. When Biden had an unexpected run of victories on March 3, Super Tuesday, the new narrative emerged. On March 4, Bloomberg dropped out and endorsed Biden. On March 5, when Warren dropped out, she withheld any endorsement. Many had expected her to endorse Sanders, but eventually she, too, endorsed Biden.

What had happened? At the time, pundits warned us not to fall into the trap of thinking anything was rigged. Here’s a Washington Post headline: “‘Rigged’ rhetoric makes comeback after Trump’s comments and Sanders’s losses—and gives Russia just what it wants.” And another from Vox: “The problem with saying the Democratic primary is ‘rigged’: An expert on actual election rigging debunks the conspiracy theory.” Early the next week, the Associated Press gave an inside report, based on claims from anonymous campaign operatives, that avoided any hint of collusion.

But there was a problem with this preemptive caution. So far as I can tell, despite all the strenuous arguing, these drop-outs were, in fact, rigged.

Naturally, Democratic insiders wouldn’t put it that way, but the new book Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, inadvertently makes the case. When asked on the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast just how involved the Democratic party was in this process of encouraging Buttigieg and Klobuchar to drop out, Allen is unequivocal. “Yes, the party was very involved.” He recalls the worry of the Democratic establishment: that Bernie Sanders would win, and that the nomination would have to be taken away from him.

Yet Allen doesn’t see this as a story of rigging, even when he tells how Jimmy Carter encouraged Buttigieg to drop out, or how Barack Obama called Buttigieg to encourage his Biden endorsement. (Klobuchar, Allen claims, wouldn’t take Obama’s calls, but she knew why he was calling.)

As Allen explains, “All these campaign operatives within a party on different campaigns—they talk to each other, and they talk to the same donors, and so once the idea that it’s time to coalesce gets out there, there’s a lot of contact that goes on among the campaigns about how to make that happen.” Allen concedes that Sanders supporters might interpret this as “rigging,” but argues that when Obama called in his 2012 team to work for Biden, this was more just a reflection that the Democratic establishment had realized to that it was time to “put in some muscle,” nothing more.

I understand Jonathan Allen’s point. Establishment Democrats worried that what happened for Donald Trump in 2016 might happen for Bernie Sanders in 2020, where vote-splitting between similar candidates would give an advantage to the dissimilar one, a candidate loved by a fervent minority within the party, but hated by many others.

But even while I concede the point, I disagree with it. I think there’s nothing wrong with calling behavior that takes agency away from voters “rigging,” which means that I think the Democratic primaries were rigged.

By the standards of March 2020, that might make me a conspiracy theorist. But by the standards of March 2021, I’m not sure the label would stick. A lot has changed in the past year. Today, a majority of Republicans, urged on by Trump, believe there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. Medical suspicions of all kinds have become widespread ever since the COVID lockdowns began. As a professional scientist who (unhappily) voted for Biden and who (happily) has been vaccinated, I don’t fit the profile anymore.

There’s a difference, however, between not signing on for a particular slate of conspiracy beliefs, and writing off the whole topic. Recently, I read two books on conspiracy theories, both published a few years before the most recent iteration of problems began. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect (2018) is a practical book that presumes conspiracy theories are a problem needing to be solved, while Conspiracy Theory in America (2013) is a tract against “conspiracy deniers,” with all the tendentious overtones that that suggests.

Each one, in its way, points toward a distinct problem. The first focuses on the fact that many conspiracy theories are bullshit, and the second focuses on the fact that some conspiracy theories are true. By itself, neither one gets us very far, but together they make a useful (if contradictory) double bill.

Mick West, who wrote Escaping the Rabbit Hole, is an admirable public figure with an intriguing backstory. (One of his videos, debunking assertions about Biden that were floating through social media last week, is embedded above.) West made his fortune programming the early Tony Hawk’s skateboarding video games, and in retirement he has been able to live out the dream of many, arguing with strangers on the Internet full time. His websites countering Morgellons and chemtrails launched him to prominence as a skeptic, and, his ongoing project, remains a lively forum for discussing/debunking trendy topics.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole reflects West’s long history with the subjects he discusses. While early sections of the book seem to me not to give quite enough credit to sophisticated conspiracy theorists, West probably knows more about everyday believers than anyone else alive. And what has West concluded? They’re normal—not especially dumb, or crazy, or even gullible. “No,” writes West, “in fact, the range of people who believe in conspiracy theories is simply a random slice of the general population.”

I’m not sure if West would still agree with this after the past year, but he might. West is fundamentally sympathetic to conspiracy investigators. He presumes that you, the reader of his book, have a friend who has fallen into one of the current conspiracy trends, and you need the tools to dig them out. West’s advice, here, is rational and humane. He counsels you to listen, to find points of agreement, and to stay focused on the subject at hand, rather than rushing in to judge of your friend’s character or intelligence.

All of which, of course, is easier said than done.

West is most helpful once he leaves behind abstractions and discusses specific cases. Part Two of Escaping the Rabbit Hole alternates between popular theories (Chapter 7: Chemtrails) and testimonials (Chapter 8: Stephanie—A Former Chemtrailer). In cases where specific evidence has led a someone down a hole, West shows how providing further information about that evidence can chart a way out. For instance, a photo of barrels strapped into the passenger seats of a commercial airline is often used as evidence for chemtrails. (What more proof would you need that airplanes are spraying chemicals into the atmosphere to keep the public weak?) West shows how, if your friend has been lured into chemtrail belief with this photo, providing context, and explaining that human-sized barrels are often used in place of live passengers for airplane safety tests, can lead your friend out.

But people who believe conspiracy theories based on specific evidence are the easy cases. The more difficult ones are those like Dr. Lance deHaven-Smith, the author of Conspiracy Theory in America, who can be seen below in a clip from RT, the Russian-state-sponsored media organization.

Serious analytical problems in Conspiracy Theory in America make me hesitate to recommend it, but deHaven-Smith makes some worthwhile points. DeHaven-Smith, a professor emeritus of political science at Florida State University, cites his observations of the 2000 presidential election in Florida as the germ of his interest in what he calls “SCADs,” or “State Crimes Against Deomcracy”—his proposal for a term of art that might replace “conspiracy theories,” which he argues is loaded. The book is frustrating to read, because its arguments that are worth considering are layered between provably false claims.

In the beginning, deHaven-Smith tells us, the United States was founded on what might now be called a conspiracy theory, a theory ascribing tyrannical goals to the actions of King George. This type of reasoning, reasoning that assumed one should ascribe devious motives to political actors, formed the background for fashioning checks-and-balances within the American constitution. The framers would have seen all special interest groups, including political parties themselves, as conspiracies against democracy.

Yet gradually these attitudes were corrupted, and by the middle of the twentieth century, it had became taboo within the social sciences even to guess about conspiracies. Karl Popper, with his arguments about how an “open society” can keep no secrets, is listed as the philosophical progenitor of today’s neoliberal complacency, and Leo Strauss, with his celebration of “noble lies,” is painted as the source of neoconservative guile.

As far as historical revisionism goes, this seems plausible enough—at least, it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor can deHaven-Smith’s insight that an assumption of possible conspiracy will lead us to observe state actions differently. Regarding events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy as possible SCADs, rather than simply as mistakes or accidents, leads different details to present themselves as worthy of investigation.

Unfortunately, deHaven-Smith hangs a large part of his contemporary analysis on the contention that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was itself introduced as a form of psychological warfare, when the CIA needed a way to slander anyone who might question Warren Commission. Yet as Mick West points out in Escaping the Rabbit Hole, deHaven-Smith’s timeline doesn’t work. The CIA didn’t invent the phrase “conspiracy theory”— West found it in newspapers from the early 1960s—and it only became common in the 1970s, during the Watergate scandal.

While I agree with deHaven-Smith that the phrase “conspiracy theory” is often used to stop political speculation—I began this post with just such an example!—his sloppy historical reconstruction belies a common pitfall of conspiracy thinking, where a narrative is guessed and the the observations are shoehorned to fit it, rather than the other way around.

This is what I found most frustrating about Conspiracy Theory in America, where political consequences are often considered before the facts. DeHaven-Smith feels confident, for instance, that 9/11 should be recognized as a SCAD, but his analysis is less than helpful:

[T]he term “9/11” should be suspect and should therefore be subjected to scientific and forensic investigation because the term is so powerful while at the same time so simple and compact. It is like a verbal bullet, loaded with explosive implications and shaped for penetration. It is a very short phrase; three numbers and a slash. And yet, in evoking thoughts of the emergency telephone number, it conveys a comprehensive conception of the relationship between citizen and government. The government’s actions are dictated by the emergency and not statutory and constitutional requirements. The citizen’s role is to call for help and wait for it to come.

So does this mean that the phrase “9/11” was planted? Well, without evidence, I’m not sure it means much of anything. This sort of analysis falls into the category of not even wrong.

In Escaping the Rabbit Hole, Mick West discusses the example of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, whose members “seem largely no different from ordinary 9/11 Truthers, they are just architects and engineers who got sucked down the rabbit hole.” In 2021, many of us have been sucked down. We can only hope to meet the grace that West advises:

Even if you feel your friend is being stupid, uneducated, or even crazy, it’s still best to just focus on he facts. Show them where they were were wrong, show them what they missed, show them where their sources are wrong. Don’t tell them they are stupid. Be polite, please!