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A Short Checklist for Conspiracy Theorists

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Unlike Wall Street, conspiracy theories are a perfect market, with supply and demand in perpetual equilibrium. This election year has seen soaring demand, with a robust supply organized (secretly, of course, by an anonymous, all-powerful, committee) to meet it. 

Hillary Clinton, it turns out, is mortally ill. That's the latest conspiracy theory to hit the presidential trail (unless I've fallen behind again). Like most conspiracy theories, it's a mix of fantasy, improbability and willful stupidity. And, like others, it will no doubt prove tenacious. If Clinton is elected president, some will swear the woman in the Oval Office is in fact an expertly rouged cadaver.

Countering conspiracy theories is hard, since facts trade at a discount among the conspiracy minded. But for those tempted to jump to conspiracy-tinged conclusions, perhaps a checklist would be a useful precaution. 

1. Ask why. Then ask why again.

Once is not enough. There is a widespread belief among conservatives that the White House ordered the Internal Revenue Service to investigate and harass local Tea Party groups between 2010 and 2012.

Why? Because Tea Partyers oppose President Barack Obama's agenda, obviously.

But Obama has lots of opponents -- some of whom were serious threats to his agenda and re-election, and some of whom were not. Republican consultant Karl Rove's Crossroads groups, for example, raised hundreds of millions of dollars and targeted that sum, with all the skill that Rove could muster, at Obama's political heart.

Obama no doubt wished the lavishly funded Crossroads threat would disappear. But why -- second why here -- would Obama have wanted to thwart local Tea Party groups? The local groups were, more often than not, bumbling, ineffective and sources of embarrassing news coverage. Their members were a driving force behind disastrous Republican candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. Despite their best intentions, the local Tea Party groups aided Democrats' efforts to retain control of the Senate all the way through 2014. Why, oh why, would Obama want to undermine such generous allies? Answer: He wouldn't.

2. When you say "rich and powerful," which "rich and powerful" do you mean?

In a July conversation at the Democratic convention, a Sanders supporter told me, "I think to get ahead in the political system, you have to be willing to do what the upper people believe."

There is ample evidence of the political system's responsiveness to the wealthy, so there's no point questioning whether the policy preferences of the wealthy are favored by politicians -- they absolutely are. But many conspiracy theories are rooted in a belief that the wealthy not only have a voracious appetite for power, but that they all like the same thing.

Yet rich and powerful David Geffen supports gay rights and Democratic politicians who want to -- and sometimes do -- raise his taxes. Rich and powerful Robert Mercer likes conservative politicians who don't care for gay rights and want to cut his tax bill.

Likewise, rich and powerful Tom Steyer wants to make combating climate change the centerpiece of American politics, while rich and powerful Charles and David Koch want to pretend climate change doesn't exist.

So what, exactly, do the rich and powerful want? And if they can't agree, how do they conspire?

3. Exactly how complicated is this anyway?

Surely the greatest conspiracy theory of our era is the climate-change conspiracy. It requires thousands of scientists who lack a common language and work for competing national governments, disparate universities and varied industries to all cook their data in the same pot in service of the same tyrannical goal of, well, something. Oh, and nobody blabs.

It's possible, though highly unlikely, that all those scientists have come to a mistaken conclusion; humans are fallible. But to believe they are engaged in a global conspiracy, you must swaddle part of your brain and leave it like a wailing infant on the doorstep of the nearest con artist.

It's perhaps worth noting that this theory is often held by people who otherwise contend that government in general, and the U.S. government in particular, can't organize the proverbial two-electric-car parade. Think about this when Donald Trump suggests that the great, lumbering, awkward machinery of a national election will be rigged.

4. What's Occam say about this?

"Occam's razor" is a principle, a predisposition really, that favors the simplest theory over more complex alternatives. This is a useful notion to keep in mind concerning the Clintons and other favorite conspiracy topics. Was Clinton White House aide Vince Foster murdered or did he commit suicide? The first is way, way complicated; the second tragically straightforward. 

Of course, simpler doesn't always work. Watergate really was an elaborate conspiracy (although it also went horribly awry, which should tell us something). But simplicity is generally a good first resort.

Take Clinton's e-mail problem. Why would someone employed by the government put a private server in her basement? Because it was "convenient"? Not likely. Because it was a better way to keep in touch with her alien baby? Probably not. Because with a private server she could keep prying eyes away from sensitive personal communications? Simpler is usually better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net