The “Comfort” of Conspiracy Theories

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

A common objection to conspiracy theories is that the worldview that conspiracy theories reflects is more psychologically comforting than the actual reality. The objection goes something like this, “You think that X event was the result of a plan agreed to and executed by nefarious people, when in reality the vast majority of people are bumbling and incompetent. People are so incompetent that it is highly unlikely that they could have pulled off such a thing. But, you want to believe that events are always the result of evil elements acting in concert, because that is preferable to believing we live in a world that is actually disorganized and chaotic.”

I’ve seen two examples of this kind of thinking lately with respect to the Iowa caucuses debacle. A friend posted a story on Facebook with the headline, “Out of the Chaos, Let a Thousand Conspiracy Theories Bloom.” She added as a caption, “Because it’s comforting to think the people in charge are super-competent conspirators rather than bumblers?” In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi similarly dismisses any conspiracy thinking:

When historians pore over the Great Iowa Catastrophe of 2020, much of the blame will be focused on Acronym and Shadow, the two firms associated with the balky app that was supposed to count caucus results. For the conspiratorial-minded, the various political connections will be key: Acronym co-founder Tara McGowan is married to Buttigieg strategist Michael Halle, while former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sits on Acronym’s board. Shadow had also been a client of both the Buttigieg and Biden campaigns in 2019.
But garden variety disorganization and stupidity were the major storylines underneath the terrible optics. From the first moment the caucus proceedings were delayed Monday night due to what the Iowa Democratic Party called “inconsistencies in the reporting,” Sanders supporters in particular felt in déjà vu territory. Orlando native Patty Duffy, an out-of-stater who captained for Sanders in the small town of Milo, had flashbacks to the run-up to the Hillary-Bernie convention.

Taibbi didn’t resort to psychologizing, but the effect is the same, “Hey guys, there is no conspiracy going on, these people are just maladroit morons.” Never mind that “inconsistencies in the reporting” might be the result of people acting intentionally and we know for a fact there was a conspiracy at the 2016 Democratic National Convention to shut Bernie out.

But back to the “comfort” argument. It may be that conspiracy theorists find it discomforting to believe that they live in a disordered, anarchic world and therefore seek a psychological palliative of looking for patterns and plots were none in fact exist. I can’t look into their hearts and minds, so I don’t know. But isn’t it equally psychologically comforting to believe that conspiracies are never possible? That major world events are never the result of a group of powerful people doing bad things? The next time an anti-conspiracy theorist raises the comfort objection, wouldn’t it be just as logical for me to respond, “You want to believe that the world is run by essentially good people trying to do the right thing. They just screw up sometimes, or chaos introduces unavoidable mistakes or screw-ups into the system. It’s more comforting to believe that than the people at the top are so indifferent to you and your concerns that they act however they like to protect their power.”

The comfort argument is specious because it’s trotted out time and again before any evidence, pro or con, is presented. It’s an objection designed to shut down discussion. The anti-conspiracy theorist can’t open the door to a single conspiracy theory because, if they do, that opens the door to others. Their worldview depends on keeping them all conspiracy theories — in other words, all psychologically threatening narratives — shut out.


About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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8 Responses to The “Comfort” of Conspiracy Theories

  1. Olaf says:

    What confounds all this is the implicit act of conferring on elites a flattering level of intelligence and enough organizational deft to pull off conspiracies. The more mainstream thinkers dismissing conspiracies think they’re dissing elites harder by calling them stupid.


    • The Venona project was shut down by FDR. One of the generals in charge of Venona decided to ignore Roosevelt and kept the operation going for decades. Nobody involved in defying this direct order talked about it. The only reason we know about Venona is b/c the Soviet archives were briefly opened to Western historians while Yeltsin was in power.

      Our elites are smart people who are perfectly capable. Not always, but sometimes. The smarter thing is to evaluate the arguments on a case-by-case basis instead of making blanket judgments like, “They’re always retards” or “They’re always masterminds.”


  2. Will S. says:

    Reblogged this on Patriactionary and commented:
    Spot on. I’ve been thinking that the old saw, “Never attribute to malice, what can be adequately explained by incompetence”, is a bit too simplistic.

    For example, many people attributed to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘inability’ to resolve Brexit to incompetence, while I maintained all along that she was simply sabotaging it. In light of her successor Boris Johnston’s easy, successful implementation of Brexit, it’s clear to me I was right.


    • Regarding 1), I think his arguments are too general and theoretical. To be blunt, I don’t get the impression that he’s dug into the history of any of the events he’s talking about or the histories of the intelligence agencies that are usually implicated in conspiracy theories. To take one small example: H.R. McMaster in his book, DERELICTION OF DUTY, all but admits that the Gulf of Tonkin was a false flag that at least involved the NSA.

      If he wants to dispute any given conspiracy theory, by all means do so, but do so by arguing against the evidence presented. Dismissing them a priori is lame, IMO.


  3. Ron S. says:

    All fine and dandy, but Epstein didn’t kill himself.


  4. Dave says:

    Why would the Democrats conspire to make themselves look like idiots? To fool us into letting down our guard?


  5. Fenster says:

    A Certs situation: Stop stop you’re both right! There are conspiracies *and* the world tilts toward the chaotic. People act in concert with one another to achieve desired ends. But they have the same problems as all mortals: lack of information, lack of perfect agreement on goals, incompetence. And then it will be inevitable that in order to further those goals groups will feel the need to be less than fully transparent about how to operate. You have all the ingredients you need in that natural organic mix for any level of “conspiracy” you like, whatever you want to call it.


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