Getting Specific: Founded and Unfounded Conspiracy Theories and Why it Matters Now.

I know a fair amount about conspiracy theories. When I was growing up, my father would regularly allude to any number of possible culprits behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His list of possible motives for everyone from J. Edgar Hoover to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson included hushing him up about the existence of extraterrestrials or to keep the Vietnam War going indefinitely. At the time, these ideas seemed just as plausible as any other, including the “official story” as it was referred to by him and others who rejected the idea of Lee Harvey Oswald being the lone assassin.

I love my Dad and even after I learned that the majority of his and others’ misgivings about the JFK assassination had been sufficiently answered several times over, I respect him. He was, at one time, part of the two thirds of Americans who did not believe that Oswald, alone, killed JFK. This event, which would become America’s preeminent conspiracy theory, enthralled and confused. It was the unsettling and complicated event that awakened the country from the docile complacency and domesticity of the 1950s and a return to an anti-establishment strain of America’s civil DNA. My dad who was twelve when Kennedy was assassinated, grew up questioning and distrusting the Government; especially after being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

From my father’s influence, my becoming a 9/11-Truther was all but guaranteed.

Years later, after dozens of hours spent watching conspiracy “documentaries” that claimed to prove the twin towers had to be taken out by a controlled demolition and “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” and “What about building 7?” it was only my desire to ignore contradictory information that allowed me to maintain faith in a massive conspiracy conducted within the US Government involving several moving parts and thousands of collaborators all sworn to secrecy for life. At least two branches of the military, full coordination of all intelligence communities in the US and Canada, not to mention material support from United Airlines, Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration and, perhaps most notably, the 55 military personnel that died in the Pentagon on that day.

I will go no further to debunk my own past beliefs. The point here is not to berate my past-tense self or to belittle anyone who still holds fast to the belief that 9/11 was an inside job. The point is that such a belief is just that, a belief and an unfounded one at that.

This is an important point that must be acknowledged going forward. We need to discuss conspiracy theories, even though the use of the word “theory” is a misnomer, in terms of founded and unfounded.

The fact is, the suspicion of a conspiracy or cover-up might not always be so far fetched, but there are ways to tell if such suspicions are warranted. The number of people involved in a conspiracy can, over time, has been shown to have a fairly reliable mathematical function.

That’s right! Conspiracies unravel and I can prove it mathematically!

Actually, Oxford University’s Dr. David Grimes already has.

Dr. Grimes’ work shows us that if a conspiracy exists and a large enough number of people are involved, it should be only a matter of time before it is revealed. That math can be taken the other way as well. If a supposed conspiracy, say the moon landing, has yet to be proven false after over fifty years, then very few people had to have been involved. Based on this metric, anyone willing to subject their belief in a conspiracy to logical scrutiny should also expect hard evidence by a certain point in time.

Here’s a simple mathematical equation, as I understand Dr. Grimes’ formula the chances of a conspiracy failing is approximately 4:1,000,000 per person per year. That’s a pretty big number. So, if we were to subject the 9/11 conspiracy theory to this metric, considering a number often given as necessary to pull off all of the attacks set at around 100,000, the conspiracy would most likely have unraveled by 2005. Of course, if someone were to say that such a conspiracy could be conducted only by the Executive office of the President (1800 people) and an elite team of less than 200 agents, such a conspiracy may not be revealed in our lifetimes (125 years).  Grimes acknowledges that his number is an estimate based on known conspiracies that have been revealed in the past. Such an equation should only serve as guide.

Smoke.

Consider one of the newest conspiracy theories out there, the suspicion that Trump, his campaign and post-election administrative staff, colluded with Russians to influence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election. It has been less than six months since the election that shocked the world, in which fewer than 20% of the American people voted for Donald Trump and, due to the electoral process, were able to claim an Electoral College victory.

If there had been collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign, assuming that members in the know within the campaign would number about twenty and giving the Russians a team of about 1000 (maybe a generous number, I wouldn’t know). We would expect such a conspiracy to unravel within the next 980 years, with the odds being 1:1 in about 490 years. That would be ludicrous, of course, because either the information would come out within the lifetime of the last conspirator or the information would be released by some sleuth or scholar sometime beforehand. So, if there were some collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians we would expect to have seen something within our lifetimes, obviously.

If nothing has come out, at all, by that point, we should assume that there was no collusion.

Of course, there has been some information that has come out. It hasn’t necessarily implicated Donald Trump, but it keeps moving ever closer to him. The most recent implications being that Jared Kushner met with members of a sanctioned Russian bank, as well as seeking to create a secret communication back-channel between the Trump and the Russians during the Presidential transition period. This, along with Michael Flynn and others’ communications with Russians, have led to open speculation about a possible Trump/Russia collusion in the 2016 election. Not since the assassination of JFK have so many Americans openly discussed the possibility of a conspiracy in earnest.

Fire.

One thing most Americans aren’t talking about anymore, whether or not the election was being hacked by the Russians. Most folks just find the idea too outlandish. Most Americans want to think of themselves as rational people and the stigma assigned to conspiracy theories is so great, especially after that whole big mess where people suggested that the last President of the United States wasn’t even born in the country, no one wants to be lumped in with that.

Well, what about a bit of a thought experiment. As more avid conspiracy theorists may say, “I’m just asking questions.” What if, hypothetically, some individual or group of individuals had hacked into county election offices in various States and were able to keep a few states Red that might have otherwise gone Blue. What would that look like?

How would anyone even know that it had happen?

A December 13, 2016 post by Slate.com‘s Future Tense writer Theodore R. Johnson explained that Russia’s massive disinformation campaign was aimed at “hacking” the American voter by providing a steady stream of anti-Hillary Clinton leaks and fake news stories. This much is true and well known at this point, but for this thought experiment imagine that the mind of the American voter was not the only thing that was hacked. Johnson wrote that “despite a number of pre-election reports citing voting-machine vulnerabilities, anyone going in search of hacked precinct electoral computers is likely to come up empty-handed,” but this is the very task that has been taken on by #unhackthevote.

UnHacktheVote.com has been analyzing and releasing their assessment of the the 2016 Presidential Election and the likely scenarios that they believe may provide evidence of someone, perhaps someone or some group in or from Russia, may have hacked the election for real, and not just in the “our hearts and minds” kinda way.

How, you may ask, does this crackpot intend to prove that the election was hacked? Apparently, they are using a healthy dose of mathematics. Specifically, Continuously Variable Transmission (or CVT) analysis, the same analytic framework used to study the variation in global economic markets. For those not well versed in CVT (including myself), detailed explanation of what this analysis shows on both their website and on Twitter via the hashtag #unhackthevote.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 8.30.33 PM
The caption explains the expectation that as size of precinct increases, variation normalizes.
Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 8.31.31 PM
Here a county that has wide variation between precincts that would have been expected to normalize. The takeaway from this image would be that someone may have superficially altered the vote percentages.

Okay, now that everyone’s conspiracy theory glands are flaring up, allow me to provide an anti-inflammatory. CVT can show a few very interesting things, namely, that higher population precincts (read high population density) were more erratic in whom they voted for in the Presidential election than expected, and that smaller (rural) population density areas may have voted with more regularity than is to be expected. In one, very telling example (shown below) Union County, North Carolina’s rural (or at least more sparsely populated) precincts went overwhelmingly for Clinton but then, as if by magic, that same county’s higher population precincts went for Trump. It was is if Voting for Trump at some point was a function of a higher population precinct; as if the votes were programmed as such. This seemingly inextricable outcome, and here’s where I play the wet blanket, is not only an initial set of findings that have not been subjected to peer review but also represents a set of statistical anomalies that aren’t likely to impress a statistically unsophisticated American public. It may also be premature and there may well be a more logical reason for these anomalies. Only time will tell.

What happens when the smoke clears?

At some point, a conspiracy theory has to be acknowledged as either founded or unfounded. History shows that most major conspiracies (say, the Tuskegee Experiments) were never theorized before they were revealed whereas conspiracy theories such as the Moon Landing being a hoax only became popular after any likelihood of it actually being a conspiracy would have likely unraveled.

With a public armed to the teeth with the greatest conspiracy theory promotion tools the world has ever known (the internet and free time) and ready access to information to either confirm or falsify any conspiracy theory they may have (thanks again to the internet, along with the various echo chambers we humans tend to create for ourselves), there needs to be some arbitrary cut-off whereby a person can say “It’s been 10 years, maybe I can let the whole thing go.” For some, that time period may be only a few months. For some, like my father, nearly a lifetime. I would say that it is not wise hold onto some belief in a conspiracy for too long because 1) it can drive you crazy and 2) if there was anything to it you would have known by now. The problem is that such a belief can become a paranoid obsession, with every coincidence proof of an evermore vast conspiracy to cover up the last conspiracy, ad infinitum. That’s really no way to live.

So, as a concerned citizen, I want any wrong-doing laid bare for all to see. I want everyone who had a hand in any shady deal exposed and prosecuted to the furthest extent of the law. If that means that a conspiracy such as the Russians hacking the Presidential Election is exposed, so be it. If, however, no such hack occurred and the very real Russian interference of fake news stories, hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing emails via WikiLeaks, and attempting to influence the Trump campaign were all that was done (and that is still a Hell of a lot) then, at some point, we all need to acknowledge it.

Note, I am not saying that we have made it that far yet. Right now, investigators such as #UnHacktheVote are doing exactly what needs to happen to say, eventually, whether such a hack occurred or not. A lot of angry voters decided to elect an anti-establishment President and, like it or not, that is who Donald Trump is. Hack or no hack, Trump/Russia collusion or not, Americans need to invest the time they might otherwise use to concoct conspiracy theories to do some deep prolonged introspection.

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