Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Laying a Conspiracy to Rest

Aaron Brake at Stand to Reason doesn’t like conspiracy theories. He thinks most of them are false and that acknowledging we believe them may damage our Christian testimony.

In the process of trying to make his case, Brake quotes at length from homicide detective J. Warner Wallace’s book Cold-Case Christianity. Wallace argues that successful conspiracy theories are very difficult to execute and maintain.

Criteria for a Successful Conspiracy

Wallace offers five criteria necessary for a successful conspiracy:
  1. A small number of conspirators. The more people involved in a conspiracy, the harder it will be for the group as a whole to maintain the lie.
  2. Thorough and immediate communication. When communication breaks down, conspiracies break down. Without adequate communication, co-conspirators are unable to know what information has been divulged.
  3. A short time span. The shorter amount of time the conspiracy has to be maintained, the better. Longer periods invoke more probability conspirators will confess.
  4. Significant relational connections. In other words, strangers make poor collaborators. The stronger the bond between accomplices (such as a familial bond), the less likely individuals will betray one another.
  5. Little or no pressure. Pressure can come in the form of threats, persecution, incarceration, and more. The more pressure, the more likely conspirators will fold and the conspiracy collapse.
Hmm. Let’s think about those a bit.

Putting Wallace’s Criteria Under the Scope

I have no doubt at all that Wallace’s criteria worked nicely for him as a detective trying to determine if a wife and her boyfriend conspired to do in her husband and bury him out in the back forty, or whether the leaders of two rival street gangs conspired to corner the local drug trade by squeezing out a former partner.

The problem is that large-scale conspiracies do not necessarily operate the same way as small-scale conspiracies in the real world. The vast majority of individuals involved in the furtherance of large-scale conspiracies are what are often called “useful idiots”. These people do the necessary donkey work without the slightest idea of the end game, and are therefore no use at all in uncovering the conspiracy after the fact or tipping off the authorities beforehand.

Wallace’s criteria also depend on two factors he takes for granted but which we obviously cannot. For conspiracies to be easily uncovered, you need an unbiased media and/or an uncompromised police force determined to get at the truth. If either or both have reasons to bury it, be assured the truth will be much more difficult to ascertain.

Moreover, putting pressure on suspected conspirators is little or no use if there is sufficient counterpressure coming from other directions. If the conspirators have good reason to fear something else more than they fear discovery or incarceration, all bets are off.

Even the “short time span” criterion is questionable when the crimes involved are extremely serious. Experience suggests it is harder to admit you conspired to do evil or covered it up ten years down the road than it is to do it right away. Repeating a lie reinforces it and can bring on a state of near-complete denial. And in a large-scale, close-knit conspiracy, the number of friends or family members you may hurt by revealing the truth may easily exceed the number of injured parties you know well enough to care about.

The Rotherham Conspiracy

But let’s stop talking theoretically and get down to cases. All of these counterbalancing factors were in play in keeping the Rotherham conspiracy going for as long as it did. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, I’m not surprised. The mainstream media did not rush to cover it when it first came to light. Nevertheless, it has been exceedingly well documented since. As many as 1,400 underage girls in the northern English town of Rotherham were repeatedly sexually exploited by gangs of predominantly Pakistani men. The criminal ring operated in plain sight for over 16 years.

This massive conspiracy falsified virtually every one of Wallace’s criteria. The number of conspirators was too many to accurately tally, and prosecutions are still ongoing. There was little or no effective communication; with so many participants, maintaining a consistent cover story was virtually impossible. However, that problem was conveniently solved by the number of bystanders who covered for the culprits voluntarily. A long time period was involved, and while there were many close family relationships among the conspirators, of course, there were also huge numbers of strangers who opted to look the other way. The pressure brought to bear on the conspiracy was considerable: mothers, victims and even a Member of Parliament complained to the appropriate authorities repeatedly. And yet police, social workers and health care professionals did nothing at all for over ten years.

Summing Up Rotherham

The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill sums it up:
“There have been similar scandals in other parts of the country, in Telford, Rochdale, Oxfordshire and elsewhere. In each case gangs of men from largely Muslim backgrounds abused and exploited young women from mostly white working-class backgrounds. And often there is evidence that the authorities were conscious of what was happening but took little action against it. They were worried about being seen to demonise Muslims and possibly contributing to what they view as a culture of Islamophobia.”
In this instance, hardly any of J. Warner Wallace’s criteria applied, and where they did, the anticipated result was offset by counterbalancing factors (like fear of being called racist) which Wallace’s criteria do not take into account.

It’s hard to see how Aaron Brake’s contention that conspiracies are rare and difficult to maintain can be supported by the real-world evidence.

Evaluating Conspiracy Theories

All the same, Brake goes on to list four tips for evaluating conspiracy theories:
“First, be skeptical.”
This is not bad advice, but I would suggest that these days it is not just applicable to conspiracy theories, but to the prevailing narrative. It may not be possible to ascertain what really happened in many cases, and conspiracy theorists that draw too many very specific conclusions from speculation or questionable data points are indeed worthy of skepticism. But when there is copious eyewitness evidence to counter the “official story” (as is often the case with recent U.S. shootings), it may be better to reserve judgment than to swallow the company line.
“Second, evaluate each conspiracy based on criteria such as that presented by J. Warner Wallace.”
Rotherham puts the lie to this one. Wallace’s criteria are questionable at best, and in some cases entirely useless. They leave too many relevant factors unconsidered.
“Third, check and evaluate your sources. Where is the evidence or theory coming from? Is there multiple attestation or a number of documented sources? Are the individuals cited considered experts in their field? What is the motive for the conspiracy? Is the motive plausible?”
This appears to make good sense, but it does not always work out in the real world. Police in Rotherham rejected numerous complaints against upstanding citizens of color because they were filed by working-class girls or their mothers. In this case, the underage “white slags” were the ones telling the truth. As for documentation, numerous reports went missing in Rotherham. Needless to say, their absence is no reflection on the truthfulness of the complainants. As for the “experts in their field”, they were the ones doing the covering-up.
“Finally, examine the counter-evidence. What are the best arguments and evidence against the conspiracy theory? Ask yourself, ‘Am I looking at this objectively?’ Also ask, ‘What would it take, in reality, to pull off a conspiracy of this magnitude, and why is it even reasonable to believe such a thing is possible?’ Sometimes answering this last question by itself is enough to put many internet conspiracies to rest.”
This is a great idea provided your sources of evidence against the conspiracy theory are not themselves tainted, which can by no means be guaranteed. The biggest sources of available evidence for or against the validity of any given conspiracy are the people with agendas to push. Legitimate truth seekers are thin on the ground. These days, the side people take on any particular issue is more often than not the one which confirms their existing biases.

And, hey, let’s face it ... if we’re very honest, few of us have the available hours to dredge through the evidence for and against man-made climate change or the statistics related to legal and illegal immigration and their consequences, let alone parse the various theories about each new mass shooting.

More often than not, we default to what we hope is a reliable source of information. The level of analysis Brake is recommending is simply not realistic for most of us.

What Is Truth?

Where does that leave the Christian, you ask? Well, it’s not simple, is it. It brings us back to Pilate and his famous response to Jesus:
Jesus: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate: “What is truth?”
There is a combination of world-weary fatalism and self-justification in Pilate’s rejoinder that ought to remind us that Satan would be perfectly happy if we all punted on first down like Pilate did, entirely abdicating our own responsibility to exercise righteous judgment.

If that seems like an overwhelming task, try asking yourself a few questions: Do I really have an obligation to weigh in with an opinion on every school shooting, political scandal and new questionable scientific claim? If I don’t know for sure whether the moon landing was real or staged, does it actually affect anything important in my life? Is there really anything terribly unchristian about saying, “I’m not well enough informed on that issue to comment”?

Might it not be enough to reserve judgment to those areas of life the Lord is really asking me to deal with — like determining which one of my kids is telling the truth when their stories differ — or at least give them a higher priority in my time and energy?

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