The recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program[i] provide a wonderful example of the improbability of conspiracy theories. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or situation as a result of a secret plan by usually power people or groups”[ii]. Now colloquially the notion of conspiracy theories is typically one that is so well guarded it will never be brought to light. It is not surprising that some people will look at the NSA surveillance program as proof of these other conspiracy theories. After all, powerful people engaged in a secret act. Unfortunately for anyone with this inclination, the NSA program is not equivalent to, for example, the John F. Kennedy murder conspiracy theory[iii]; the moon landing conspiracy theory[iv]; or the 9/11 conspiracy theory[v]. In fact, it is the disclosure of the secret surveillance program by a person in-the-know – and repeated other disclosures after this first occurrence – that makes the NSA conspiracy different from other conspiracy theories.
All conspiracy theories involve the presentation of some information as proof of an assertion. In the case of the NSA “conspiracy” it was revealed that the NSA has access to cell phone call histories, therefore the NSA must be looking into personal information of those phone callers. At first this was denied by officials, but was later admitted. Cleverly finding humor in this process on December 9th the Daily Show with Jon Stewart presented a segment on the NSA surveillance program entitled “That thing they said they’re not doing? They’re totally doing.” And here in lies the difference between the NSA “conspiracy theory” and typical conspiracy theories (such as, the 9/11 conspiracy): the NSA program was found out. Secrets were shared and those secrets confirmed. The last part of this process is the most important part. Without it all you have is hearsay. Collaborated hearsay becomes probable truth.
Probability is at the heart of skeptical thinking in everyday life. Occam’s razor[vi] is a principle of parsimony that state (essentially) that- the simplest explanation is the best. By simple I mean the one involving the fewest unverified assumptions or assertions. When the NSA program’s spying was disclosed and verified, the assertion became a probable truth. This differs greatly from the 9/11 unverified assertions that 9/11 was an “inside job”. For the 9/11 conspiracy the “inside job” claim is the more improbable answer than that provided by government official and others of authority (whom have provided evidence to answer such claims).
One reason that other conspiracy theories are improbable is that there should be people or information that can corroborate claims of conspiracy made. Conspiracy theories that are disclosed and verified by independent (for example, new organizations) or involved persons (people involved in the secret act) because news and history, not conspiracy theories. In addition, withholding secrets can take on a “weight” on the person keeping said secret to the extent that it affects his or her judgment of the world[vii]. This burden can be lifted by disclosing the secret. Secret sharing may also have benefits to the individual in dealing with the secrets he or she carries[viii]. Considering these facts the probability that no one is sharing a secret of the actions of a clandestine group – particularly as the number of persons in this cabal increases and time passes – seems less and less likely.
Now a skeptical conspiracy theorist may say that a lack of evidence is no proof that a conspiracy has not taken place. However this has a couple problems. First, a rational skeptic is not convinced of the truth of every fact or any for that matter. In life many things cannot be known absolutely, but many things may be known probabilistically. In the same way, when the first claims regarding the NSA conspiracy were reported the most rational position was doubt, as no corroboration had occurred. With only this data the conspiracy was improbable, even though it was true. It was only after these assertions had been verified that the probable position was to belief in the conspiracy. Second, not only is making decisions in life based on a lack verifiable data an improbable position, it is a terrible way to maneuver the world. What if one was to pull into an intersection with his or her car based on a person’s information that the road was clear, when the driver could not see at all for him or herself. Driving decisions of this kind would most likely skyrocket accidents across every country on the globe. Making decisions without verifying any information is erratic at best and dangerous at worst.
To close, the NSA surveillance program is not proof of conspiracy theories, it is proof against them. In analyzing any claim the probability should be considered over any hearsay or subjective experiences. Only when claims are verified do they become probable, as well as our opinions.
[iii] Reitzes, D. (2013). JFK conspiracy theories at 50: How the skeptics got it wrong and why it matters. Skeptic, 18, 36-51.
[iv] Dowd, W. (2013). A case study in confirmation bias: A review of the film Room 237. Skeptic, 18, 61-62.
[v] Mole, P. (2006). 9/11 conspiracy theories: The 9/11 truth movement in perspective. Skeptic, 12, 30-42.
[vii] Slepian, M.L., Masicampo, E.J., & Ambady, N. (2013, August 5). Relieving the burdens of secrecy: Revealing secrets influences judgments of hill slant and distance. Social Psychological & Personality Science, Retrieved at http://spp.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/08/02/1948550613498516
[viii] Kelly, A.E., Klusas, J.A., von Weiss, R.T., & Kenny, C. (2001).What is it about revealing secrets that is beneficial? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 651-665.