OP-ED: Conspiracy Theories: How to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

By Philip A. Yaffe

Conspiracy theories are rife and according to some observers more so today than at any time in recent history. This would be a difficult assertion to confirm; what is incontestable is that hatching conspiracy theories seems to be inherent in the human psyche.


I am not naïve enough to believe that conspiracies never exist; they do. However, on investigation most of them are not only unsubstantiated, they are unreasonable. Here are two cases in point from my own experience.


Misdirected Bias


I used to be an editor of a small newspaper in Los Angeles. I can’t count the number of times I heard stories about how I was in the pocket of a powerful local politician (call him Mr. Mephisto), who ostensibly was manipulating the editorial policy of the paper. The problem with the stories was that they were totally false. I had never even met the politician or had any other contacts with him.


I remember one day I published news report about a controversy that involved my putative “political master.” I happened to meet one of his political opponents. “What do you think of today’s story?” I asked. “Oh, not too bad. Obviously biased in favor of Mephisto, but all-in-all not too bad.” I had bent over backwards to be as objective as I could possibly be, so I retorted, “I’m not going to let you get away with that. Right here and now, we are going to read the story together, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. If you can show me any bias in favor of Mephisto, I will eat the page.”


And this is what we did. When we finished, with a puzzled look on his face he said, “If this story is biased in any direction, it is biased against Mephisto.”


He was correct. When he had read the story the first, he saw it through the miasma of the totally false rumors about me. Mephisto was not my favorite person; I was particularly at odds with him over the particular issue covered in the story. Although I had diligently tried to be objective, apparently some of my disapproval got through the filter — and the second reading.


All this happened decades ago, in the mid-1960s. A more recent example of the flimsy foundation on which most conspiracy theories are based happened only about two years ago.


Argument from Ignorance


We have all heard of people who claim that there was never a man on the Moon, that it was all a fraud. For the first time, I met one of these people. He showed me a picture of astronaut Neil Armstrong on the Moon, insisting that it was a fake done in a photographer’s studio. Not having given the matter much thought, I asked him the first questions that popped into my head.


Question 1: “If the U.S. government really wanted to delude us, wouldn’t their experts have insured a more professional photo whose flaws could not so easily be seen by the untrained eye?” “That just shows how cocky they are and how stupid they think we are,” he replied. Unlikely, but a fair point.


Question 2: “Organizing a plot to convince us that they had sent a man to the Moon must have been a very complex undertaking. Once I can understand, but doing it six times would seem recklessly excessive” “Six times?” he responded. “Yes, there were supposed to have been six Moon landings between 1969 and 1972.” His face went blank. He seemed unaware of this simple, highly-publicized bit of information. He had no answer.


Question 3: “If the purpose of the hoax was to persuade the world of the superiority of America’s capitalist, free-enterprise society over the Soviet Union’s communist, state-controlled society, why didn’t the Soviet Union ever denounce the Moon landings as a fraud? It certainly would have been in their interest to do so.” Now his face became ashen. Apparently he and his conspiracy theory colleagues had never even considered the question.


Needless to say, I never heard from him again.


The moral of these stories? There are too many real problems in the world to spend time and energy creating imaginary ones. If you hear anything that seems too fantastic to be true, check it out; it probably isn’t. More importantly, check out your own beliefs and pet ideas for the same thing. I have never seen any advantage in basing opinions on incorrect information. But obviously there are plenty of disadvantages. Just look at the state of the world.


“Conspiracy theories are the best kind. Whenever investigation turns up a contesting fact, the theory simply expands to include the fact and/or the investigator into the conspiracy. The size they can sometimes reach beggars the imagination.”


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Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics.


He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.


Books by this Author


The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional


The Gettysburg Collection:

A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional


Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it


Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it


What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous?

Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French


The Little Book of BIG Mistakes


Extraordinary Ordinary Things


The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life



Books in “Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists” Series


(at November 2012)


Astronomy & Cosmology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists


Human Biology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists



Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series


(at November 2012)


College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent


Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent


Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent


The Human Body: The Essential Ten Percent


Wise Humor: The Essential Ten Percent


Word for Windows: The Essential Ten Percent

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