What Should One Do About Conspiracy Theories?
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
You may or may not have been following all of the twists and turns in the “Who blew up the Nord Stream?” blame game. The whole thing kicked off when Seymour Hersh published an expose claiming that the US was responsible. It got a lot of attention but not a lot of press.
What got less attention was a thorough debunking, written by Oliver Alexander. He meticulously pointed out the numerous problems with Hersh’s story. I skimmed both and in the end I think the debunking succeeded. I came away convinced that the specific story Hersh outlined is most likely (90% confidence) false. But, by Alexander’s own admission, just because you’ve falsified one version of events, doesn’t mean that you’ve verified another. We’ve eliminated one possibility, hundreds more remain. As it turns out, a Sherlockian process of eliminating all the impossible things until the only thing remaining is the truth, is exceptionally difficult to pull off.
Fortunately Alexander is not just in the business of shooting down theories. In a subsequent post he offers his own theory for what might have happened. He points out that only one of the Nord Stream 2 (NS2) pipelines exploded and that happened 80 km away from the site of the Nord Stream 1 (NS1) explosions and 17 hours beforehand. I had not heard this bit of information, and it does raise a lot of questions. Based on this discontinuity in number, time and space Alexander theorizes that someone had already rigged the NS1 pipeline with explosives, and when one of the NS2 pipes exploded accidently, these people figured that would prompt an inspection of NS1, which would uncover the explosives which had already been placed. This potential forced the hand of the saboteurs and they decided to detonate the two NS1 pipelines while they still could rather than risk detection.
The next question is who would want to rig the NS1 pipelines to explode, but not the NS2 pipelines. Alexander claims that this would be in the interests of Russia. That US/NATO would want both blown up, but Russia would be the only one that would want just NS1 to blow up. I’m not sure I entirely buy his explanation, and he doesn’t go into a lot of detail. Apparently it’s something along the lines of the NS1 being in bad shape and difficult to repair. Here’s the relevant section from his post:
Destroying Nord Stream 1 would allow Russia to increase pressure on Germany, while at the same time not being a massive loss, as they stated that it was “out of commission”. Russia had stated that the decreased flow and eventual shutdown of Nord Stream 1 was caused by European Union sanctions against Russia, which had resulted in technical problems they could not remedy.
I had kind of assumed that when they said the NS1 was having technical problems that this was just a cover. I imagine, if I dug around some more, that Alexander gives a more detailed explanation for these problems. Nevertheless I don’t find his description of motivation entirely convincing. Still motive isn’t his only evidence linking things to Russia:
I believe explosives were planted on the two lines of Nord Stream 1, possibly by the Minerva Julie. This ship had a very strange track directly above the location of the NS1 explosions from the 5th September to 13th September while on route to Saint Petersburg. This was also directly after Russia cut gas supplies through Nord Stream 1 on August 31st 2022. The Minerva Julie left Rotterdam on September 1st.
An interesting Twitter thread suggests that the owner of “Minerva Marine”, the company that owns the Minerva Julie has connections to Putin, Shoigu, Medvedev and other high ranking Russian officials.
This is all very suggestive, but hardly conclusive. And this is where things stood at the end of February when I first started working on this piece, (I took a break to do the Cautionary Tale piece) but then a couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a story claiming that a pro-Ukrainian group was responsible for the sabotage. I was, of course, immediately curious what Alexander would have to say about this claim. I was not disappointed, the NYT didn’t provide a lot of details which could be corroborated, but Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper, did. From this Alexander was able to pin down the actual yacht they suspect of participating, and from there comes to the conclusion that it’s unlikely that this yacht could have pulled it off on its own. Which is to say, he’s not buying it. You would expect that Russia would jump all over the idea that it was pro-Ukrainian forces, but apparently not. According to Alexander:
It is interesting to note that the Russian government is strongly denying this series of events and sticking firmly with the Seymour Hersh story that I have previously debunked. Today Dmitry Peskov [the Russian Press Secretary] was quoted saying “As for some kind of pro-Ukrainian" Dr. Evil ", who organized all this, it's hard to believe in it.” This raises some questions as to why Russia is so keen to completely dismiss a scenario that implicates Ukraine in the destruction of Nord Stream.
We see in this all of the standard elements associated with controversial events. Some unexpected, consequential event happens. Given that it’s unexpected people start searching for explanations. Perhaps a generally accepted explanation quickly emerges: Osama Bin Laden was behind 9/11, Trump lost in 2020 because he got fewer votes. But occasionally, as is the case of Nord Stream, we don’t end up with a generally accepted explanation. (Though previous to the NYT story a lot of people figured the Russians did it, which never made sense to me.)
Whether there’s a mainstream explanation or not, if something is consequential enough then competing explanations are going to emerge. To the extent that a specific explanation is outside of the mainstream, people will label it a conspiracy theory. You can choose to engage with the various explanations — dive into the conspiracies — or you can ignore them and go on with your life. Should you choose to engage you will quickly discover that in the age of the internet there are fire hoses of information available, and within that deluge there are lies, misrepresentations, fake evidence, biased reasoning, insinuations, overconfidence, things that look suspicious but aren’t, things that look suspicious and might be, and things that are, in fact, definitely suspicious. If you’re lucky, tenacious and search long enough you will find data that is actually illuminating, but even so, it’s rarely conclusive. Which is to say the variability is a lot greater, both accurate and inaccurate information are much easier to find, and it’s hard to tell whether we’re better off.
Still, when you do come across accurate information, and I would say that Alexander’s site falls into this last category — it’s actually kind of amazing. His newsletters contain an impressive amount of good data. His secret weapon appears to be publically accessible route information on all the ships in the North Sea above a certain size. (Which unfortunately does not include the yacht implicated in the recent pro-Ukrainian explanation.) But despite this wealth of data (and the wealth of data we have in general these days) and the feeling that you’re getting closer to the truth, we still haven’t reached it. We still don’t know who blew up the pipelines.
Also Hersh’s story which, after considering Alexander’s debunking, seems likely to be false, has 12,000 likes on Substack. Alexander's has 112 (including one from me), and I assume that it wouldn’t even have that many if it wasn’t linked to Hersh’s. His alternative explanation (which seems far more solid than Hersh’s even if I personally remain unconvinced) has all of 14 likes. His rebuttal to the NYT, pro-Ukrainian story has 30.
So where do we go from here? How are we to handle all of the competing explanations, all the information we have available in the age of the internet? Even if we’re attempting to simplify we still have three radically different theories: Hersh’s, Alexander’s and the NYT’s. Our first question might be to ask: does it even matter? And by this I’m not asking whether it matters on a geopolitical level, of course it does, and we’ll get to that, but does it matter for the normal individual if they figure out who blew up the pipelines? Probably not. You might counter that it could be important when it comes time to vote, and still I would argue, not really. First, your vote carries so little power at the national level, even in a swing state, that it’s arguably not even worth the time it takes you to cast a vote to say nothing of the time you might spend researching this one issue. Secondly, even if one candidate wanted to continue helping Ukraine and one wanted to stop, the pipeline explosion would be just a tiny part of deciding whether that’s a good idea or not, and your vote an even tinier part of the process for selecting who gets to make that decision.
Certainly these sorts of things are interesting, and as a way to pass the time it’s probably better than a lot of activities you could engage in, but it’s important to remember that the people in power are mostly going to do what they’re going to do and the fact that you’ve decided the NYT is wrong because you read something in a blog, isn’t going to change that.
Okay, so getting to the bottom of the Nord Stream explosions may not be all that consequential for any given individual, but are there other conspiracies where it is important for you to get to the bottom of them? If not, is having a correct world view about the possibility of conspiracies in general important? I would say the answers to those two questions are “mostly no” and “mostly yes”. Allow me to elaborate.
On the first question, we can imagine that any given conspiracy theory has both a level of impact (if true) and a level of acceptance. Theories like the moon landing being fake or the Earth being flat have huge potential impact but very low acceptance. They’re both well outside the Overton Window. On the other hand the theory that Oswald didn’t act alone in assassinating Kennedy has a low impact (now, probably not then) and very high acceptance. For it to be important for every individual, or indeed any individual to "get to the bottom of things” it has to be high on both counts. It has to have a broad impact enough for it to affect the individual, and a broad enough acceptance that there’s sufficient backing to do something about it. And I’m not really seeing much in that category. Conceivably the idea that the 2020 election was stolen? If true (it’s not) it would certainly be impactful, and given that as of the midterms, 40% of people believe that it might have been, there’s no lack of allies. But even if you are in this 40% your time is better spent changing election laws and volunteering as an observer than it is trying to really “get to the bottom” of whether it’s true or not.
As a less controversial example perhaps Jeffrey Epstein falls into this category. In one of his recent mailbag’s Matt Yglesias was asked “Which widely despised conspiracy theory do you believe in, or at least find most intriguing?” Yglesias answered by holding forth on Jeffrey Epstein, though mostly from the angle that there are far more suspicious circumstances linking Epstein to Republicans than there are linking him to Democrats. Epstein might just be that rare conspiracy where both the impact and the support are high enough that it is worth it for an individual to try to get at the truth. Additionally some of the proposed remedies are small enough to be tractable. And indeed when I just looked, one of those remedies is already moving forward. Apparently they are going to release the names of all of his associates, and some of the allegations.
However, you may have noticed that Yglesias ducked the question. I don’t think anyone would claim Epstein conspiracies are “widely despised”. Which leads me to my second question, if it’s not worth it to investigate any individual conspiracies, does that mean you should dismiss the very idea of government conspiracies? No. I don’t think so. In fact I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there are shenanigans happening behind closed doors all the time. I just don’t think they’re as sophisticated and pervasive as the hardcore theorists want to imagine. As we saw from the Nord Stream example, at a certain point there’s very little additional knowledge to be gained by digging ever deeper. Which is to say that it’s probably not worth diving super deep on any one conspiracy theory, but it’s definitely worth doing a deep dive on the presence of conspiracies and the quality of information in general.
In addition to the back and forth over the Nord Stream pipeline explosions, two other things made me think about this topic recently. The Twitter Files and reading America and Iran by John Ghazvinian (see my short review here).
Starting with the Twitter Files we see all kinds of shenanigans happening, and I certainly don’t have the time or space to cover even a fraction of them in this post. (See here, here, and here if you want a list of takeaways. Or just read the actual info dumps on Twitter itself.) But a couple of things stand out:
First, the government clearly has a lot of influence behind the scenes. So to the points that many people make, yes the government does bad things and it’s not always immediately obvious that they are. The Twitter Files is proof that there are shadowy things afoot. But what they also illustrate is that, once revealed, these efforts look less like a cleverly wielded scalpel and more like a sledgehammer.
Second, the reason they don’t get talked about, or revealed sooner is not because it’s a secret conspiracy known to only a few, but rather because it’s a legal and bureaucratic nightmare that scares away the peons and implicates the higher-ups. It’s clear that there were lots of people at Twitter who could have made similar allegations to those found in the Twitter files, but they would be risking their job, and tangling with the government, and it’s unclear, after all of this, if they’d even be believed. Fear of repercussions, not elegant conspiracies, is how the government gets away with stuff.
Of course we don’t have the same level of access to the internal workings of other social media companies like Facebook and YouTube, though, based on the Twitter Files, it seems safe to infer that similar things were happening. But what does the world look like in the absence of the Twitter Files? Would the government have gotten away with it? That seems doubtful. Certainly I think they would have gotten away with it for longer, but when you look at the scale of the operation, and the number of people involved, there’s no way they would have kept it secret forever. In fact it was already starting to leak out, you just had to dig a little bit.
We see these same things when we consider the United States meddling behind the scenes in Iran. Three events are worth considering:
First, the 1953 Coup: Clearly the US and the UK worked behind the scenes to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister. It was a bad thing, and it was done in secret. But it wasn’t an enormously complicated undertaking, nor did it remain secret forever. Consequently this should encourage us to update our view on how complicated a real conspiracy can be (certainly faking the moon landing seems way too complicated). And also how much effort we should actually spend trying to get to the bottom, if the truth will, eventually, end up being widely known and accepted anyway.
Second, the 1979 Revolution: One reason to doubt that governments are pulling off masterful conspiracies behind the scenes is to look at the far more numerous examples of their massive incompetence. If someone were compiling such a list the lead-up to the 1979 Revolution would have to rank pretty high. The total blindness of the US intelligence community, State Department, and the Executive Branch to the building unrest is just breathtaking. In Ghazvinian’s book he titles the chapter about the revolution “The Unthinkable” because that’s what it was. The American government didn’t think revolution was a low probability outcome, they didn’t think about it as a possibility, period.
Third, the release of the hostages: Here we have an actual conspiracy, one where details have emerged in the period since I started writing. You may have missed it, but we got new information over the weekend. The NYT ran a story wherein Ben Barnes confessed to accompanying his mentor John B. Connally Jr., on a trip to the Middle East where Connally made it known to Middle Eastern leaders that the Iranians should delay releasing the hostages until after the election. Barnes’ story checks out, as much as such a thing can 43 years after the fact, but even so we’re still not looking at definitive proof. This particular example has some instructive features. The scale of the conspiracy is interesting. It was a small effort, not a lot of moving parts, and not a lot of people involved. Also I don’t think the truth was that far off from actual mainstream opinion. The timing of the release was always super suspicious, and had you asked the average American if such a deal was conceivable they probably would have answered in the affirmative.
After considering all of this I return to my initial advice. I don’t think it’s especially important or impactful to spend lots of time trying to get to the bottom of any particular conspiracy theory — to uncover the truth behind a specific event. But I do think it’s important to get a feel for the potential of conspiracies, what governments (and individuals) might be capable of pulling off. And on the flip side of that, while I haven’t spent a lot of time on it, to get a feel for the range of their incompetence as well.
This is all well and good, but how does one go about it, and does the modern firehose of data make this effort more or less difficult? I would say “Both”. It makes it very difficult to be deeply educated about more than a few theories, without completely giving your life over to it, which has its own dangers. And, if you let your guard down it’s easy to get drowned by the colossal deluge of bad information.
On the other hand — to completely mix metaphors — while they are deeply buried, there are nuggets of truth in that firehose. Truth of a purity undreamt of before the internet. But you’re going to have to wade through a lot of shit to get to it.
I suspect that somewhere in this post was a fact you hadn’t previously come across. If so consider donating, and if not consider telling me the secret of your expansive wisdom. Perhaps it is I who should be donating to you.