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Konkvistador comments on Conspiracy Theories as Agency Fictions - LessWrong

30 [deleted] 09 June 2012 03:15PM

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Comment author: [deleted] 10 June 2012 10:28:40AM *  16 points [-]

Examples (or links) would be good here, and would calibrate your point.

A very good point! Thank you for the feedback.

I will build up a list in this comment and then link to it from the original article. To keep the list from bloating, I'm going to stick to well known examples:

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 11 June 2012 09:34:37AM 6 points [-]

What would really be useful would be example of conspiracy theories that were accepted by a fringe group, rejected by the mainstream (for at least a decade, say), and ultimately found to be true. Maybe the COINTELPRO would qualify for this - were some of the targeted groups complaining about FBI targeting them?

Interesting edge case is the whole McCarthy stuff - he was right that there was a quite a bit of communist spying, but he appeared to have no evidence whatsoever for this (and his specific accusations were mostly random). Does accidentally being correct count? Or is this more another case of "reverse stupidity isn't intelligence"?

Comment author: Multiheaded 12 June 2012 07:46:39AM *  3 points [-]

Speaking of COINTELPRO...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens%27_Commission_to_Investigate_the_FBI

Basically, a fringe left-wing group had (mostly) done the job of American institutions when those failed, and revealed a conspiracy to the public. The "commies" were not (just) plotting against the U.S., but protecting it against its own government! That's wilder than most conspiracy theories.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 13 June 2012 04:59:23AM 2 points [-]

Interesting edge case is the whole McCarthy stuff - he was right that there was a quite a bit of communist spying, but he appeared to have no evidence whatsoever for this (and his specific accusations were mostly random).

He was after communist agents of influence not spies specifically and his method was going after people visibly spreading communist memes.

Comment author: Multiheaded 13 August 2012 09:29:17AM *  2 points [-]

That link is a glaring example of the intellectual decline of the American right wing. ESR has said so many dumb things! Radical/trend-setting Western intellectuals do not insist that the Western civilization is evil, held up by slave labour and must atone for its sins, etc. simply because they have some particular anti-Western agenda! This is an essential element of Western culture, I'd say - its self-abnegation, self-doubt, applying higher standards to itself, all that ostensibly "bleak"/"nihilistic"/"ultra-puritan" stuff. We have that relentless drive to fight a war with ourselves. What other culture can mourn and lament its flaws like ours? We even learned to, um, get off on it - in a way.

This is what has been present in it since Christianity's inception: the radicalism, the urge to "immanentize the eschaton", the denial of local boundaries and ties in favor of a global Logos which all would live under and by. A certain left-wing tendency is in our figurative (and maybe literal) blood.

McCarthy looks rather comical in this regard; he saw the tip of the iceberg, guessed that there must be more under the water, but overlooked the fact that R'lyeh itself is beneath and his grandparents were fish-people. (All of it for the better, in my honest opinion!)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 22 August 2012 07:34:50PM 1 point [-]

Radical/trend-setting Western intellectuals do not insist that the Western civilization is evil, held up by slave labour and must atone for its sins, etc. simply because they have some particular anti-Western agenda! This is an essential element of Western culture, I'd say - its self-abnegation, self-doubt, applying higher standards to itself, all that ostensibly "bleak"/"nihilistic"/"ultra-puritan" stuff.

True, however, Eric's point was about why this particular element of Western civilization was elevated above all others over that past century.

Comment author: Multiheaded 22 August 2012 08:16:31PM *  2 points [-]

That explanation is literally impossible. The memes I refer to are Clergy (or Brahmin as Moldbug calls them) memes first and foremost, and the Clergy is a decentralized, informal, horizontal network that operates totally in the open and has deep roots in the West but almost none in Russia.
See: The Open Conspiracy by H.G. Wells. See: Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Foundation and the Dodd Report. On the phenomena mentioned above, see: the Frankfurt School. (will add links later, too lazy)

Philosophy? Universalist. "Serious" literature? Universalist. Social sciences departments? Universalist. NGOs and advocacy organizations? Universalist. The Soviet intelligence agencies/KGB looked like rural thugs next to them. Those thugs were rightly seen as rabid and hostile by the Western intelligentsia from WW2 onwards, and it had no way of controlling them, but at no point did they exercise any serious intellectual influence of their own. The dog could hardly control the mutated tail, but the tail did not wag the dog.

Comment author: MinibearRex 12 June 2012 07:09:46AM 0 points [-]

I'm pretty sure that McCarthy is an example of reverse stupidity. The Soviet Union had plenty of spies in America, just like we had spies in the Soviet Union, but my reading has mostly pointed me towards the hypothesis that McCarthy didn't have any special knowledge of who the Soviet spies were.

Comment author: teageegeepea 13 June 2012 05:26:32PM *  2 points [-]

McCarthy was being fed info from J. Edgar Hoover, who did have access to the Venona transcripts. I don't know if he was given the identities of known spies, but he was sent after Hoover's bureaucratic rivals.

Comment author: Multiheaded 12 June 2012 07:42:14AM 2 points [-]

McCarthy was not after spies as in "trained intelligence workers", he was trying to ferret out a certain subset of his political opponents, whose goals he imagined to be aligned with those of the USSR. Nowdays, of course, most people consider his activities to be anti-American.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 10 June 2012 04:39:45PM 2 points [-]

One thing that seems relevant here as a distinguishing factor which helps point out some but by no means all "conspiracy theories" is that often conspiracy theories as such are long term and overarching. So for example, the Bavarian Illuminati were founded in the 1700s. Thus, a conspiracy about the Illuminati will claim that they have been running things behind the scenes for a long time. That drastically reduces their chances. Moreover, while there are many such conspiracy theories, they often label the group behind the curtain differently. Heuristically, conspiracy theories satisfying such properties should be assigned a very low value.

This doesn't really help though for quite a few conspiracy theories that are commonly ridiculed (e.g. Apollo hoax claims, and 9/11 Truther claims).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 12 June 2012 01:34:18AM 9 points [-]

Some significant counterexamples to your heuristic are the criminal organizations with old historical roots, such as the Camorra or the Cosa Nostra. Their operations have been deeply conspiratorial and at the same time immensely influential, at least at the level of local politics, with institutional continuity of roughly the same vintage as that ascribed to the Illuminati.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 12 June 2012 04:18:16AM 4 points [-]

That's a really good point. But even then, no one has ever been in doubt about their continued existence, and they've never had control of whole continents or the like. But yes, the basic point is sound and does substantially undermine my statement.

Comment author: fubarobfusco 11 June 2012 05:08:02PM 10 points [-]

The Bavarian Illuminati are (rather ironically) an example of an actual political conspiracy whose beliefs would be pretty unremarkable today. They were liberal humanists; they believed in freedom of religion, reason, improving people's morals by studying secular ethics, and republican government. Why were they secretive and conspiratorial? Because they were operating in 18th-century Bavaria, a conservative Catholic monarchy where religious dissent was illegal, the secret police investigated social groups to uncover political dissent, and republicanism would mean overthrowing the government.

It's a silly counterfactual, but I can't resist imagining that if Weishaupt lived today, he'd post on Less Wrong.

Comment author: [deleted] 10 June 2012 04:41:07PM *  2 points [-]

One thing that seems relevant here as a distinguishing factor which helps point out some but by no means all "conspiracy theories" is that often conspiracy theories as such are long term and overarching. So for example, the Bavarian Illuminati were founded in the 1700s. Thus, a conspiracy about the Illuminati will claim that they have been running things behind the scenes for a long time. That drastically reduces their chances. Moreover, while there are many such conspiracy theories, they often label the group behind the curtain differently. Heuristically, conspiracy theories satisfying such properties should be assigned a very low value.

A useful heuristic. I think this kind of "secret elite has been ruling since forever" theory is a product of far thinking.

Comment author: private_messaging 16 June 2012 03:53:47PM *  3 points [-]

I recommend adding human radiation experiments to the list. That one is outstanding because it involved very huge number of personnel, and because of the utterly minuscule backslash when it was declassified. edit: this is a good starting point:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_radiation_experiments_in_the_United_States

It is basically a fact that government can do anything like this, and you wouldn't know. You can't either dismiss or confirm the claims of conspiracies without relying on actual evidence; all attempts to do so are a fallacy of trying to come up with some solution when correct solution is not available.

Comment author: satt 18 June 2012 01:39:27AM 1 point [-]

It is basically a fact that government can do anything like this, and you wouldn't know.

The funny thing (well, maybe not so funny) is that this can hold true for years even when clues are virtually sitting in plain sight, just waiting for someone to join the dots.

For example, of the experiments on that Wikipedia list, I'm most familiar with those Eugene Saenger & co-workers at the University of Cincinnati carried out: administering half-body & total-body irradiation to cancer patients between 1960 & 1971. Between those years Saenger et al. actually published 4 articles about what they did in scientific journals, the first of which appeared in Science! (The references are below to show I'm not making that up.)

The Science article mentions that its two subjects were "patients receiving therapeutic irradiation of the whole body for malignancies", references a paper presented at a 1961 Conference on Total Body Irradiation at the university, and explicitly acknowledges support from "contract DA-49-146-XZ-029 of the Defense Atomic Support Agency", a Department of Defense agency. However, this paper wouldn't have raised red flags for contemporary readers. It implies (most likely falsely) that the irradiation was a normal treatment.

If a sufficiently knowledgeable & careful reader had read the next paper, however, they would've noticed something odd. That paper reported results from 7 patients, once again acknowledged support from a DASA grant, and referenced a 1963 technical report by Saenger for that DoD agency. The wrinkle is that all seven patients are listed as having either carcinoma or sarcoma, but (according to pages 66 & 73-75 of a later paper criticizing Sanger) existing research had already indicated that total body irradiation didn't work adequately for solid tumours like carcinomas & sarcomas. This ought to have been a tip-off that the irradiation wasn't really about treating patients. (Not to mention that neither the Science paper nor this newer paper discussed the therapeutic effect of the irradiation on the patients' cancers. Instead they focused on finding potential biomarkers for acute radiation exposure.)

So the papers published about these particular experiments in 1963 & 1966 had enough information to show where they were taking place, who was running them, that they were (partly) funded by the DoD, that they involved irradiating cancer patients, and that this irradiation wasn't for the subjects' benefit. Yet the research wasn't publicly exposed as dodgy until 1971, and then only because a reporter writing a book interviewed Saenger and Saenger's tongue apparently proved too loose.


  • H. K. Berry, E. L. Saenger, H. Perry, B. I. Friedman, J. G. Kereiakes, Carolyn Scheel (October 1963). "Deoxycytidine in Urine of Humans after Whole-Body Irradiation", Science, 142, 396-398.
  • A. J. Luzzio, B. I. Friedman, J. G. Kereiakes, E. L. Saenger (January 1966). "Specific proteins in serum of total-body irradiated humans", The Journal of Immunology, 96, 64-67.
  • I-W. Chen, J. G. Kereiakes, B. I. Friedman, E. L. Saenger (August 1968). "Radiation-Induced Urinary Excretion of Deoxycytidine by Rats and Humans", ''Radiology'', 91, 343-348.
  • L. A. Gottschalk, R. Kunkel, T. H. Wohl, E. L. Saenger, C. N. Winget (November 1969). "Total and Half Body Irradiation: Effect on Cognitive and Emotional Processes", ''Archives of General Psychiatry'', 21, 574-575.
Comment author: Multiheaded 12 June 2012 07:55:38AM *  0 points [-]

Modern art as a Potemkin village of creativity

I'd like you to explain how covertly supporting creative stuff, usually without the knowledge of its creators, can possibly make it less creative. What, do you think that because America's cultural potential was trumpeted by this agency or that, it actually deceived the public about its merit or something? (For the record, I think that the CIA is a criminal conspiracy in most of its well-known aspects. And Hitler ate sugar!)

If that was not your intended meaning, please rephrase it.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 June 2012 08:09:14AM *  0 points [-]

What, do you think that because America's cultural potential was trumpeted by this agency or that, it actually deceived the public about its merit or something?

If the linked article is correct, the CIA did more than merely trumpet Abstract Expressionism. They arranged funding (e.g., for exhibitions) that would have otherwise not been present, which does indeed signal greater merit than was actually the case.

The apparent success of AE has been something of a mystery to me, but now I know part of the reason why it succeeded. TL; DR: "artistic merit" is signalling.

Comment author: Multiheaded 12 June 2012 09:10:49AM 0 points [-]

They arranged funding (e.g., for exhibitions) that would have otherwise not been present, which does indeed signal greater merit than was actually the case.

But, back then, there was a huge bias against all avant-garde/unconventional art present in the U.S.! Surely the CIA's promotion effort could hardly outbalance the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time.

Comment author: [deleted] 12 June 2012 11:37:12AM 4 points [-]

You've shifted the locus from "[the CIA] deceived the public about its merit..." to "Surely the CIA's promotion effort could hardly outbalance the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time."