Three Questions to Ask of Any Conspiracy Theory

My wife and I recently began watching a show called Good Girls. Three suburban women, struggling with extreme personal and financial pressures, rob a grocery store. Complications ensue and before long they are laundering money, smuggling prescription meds—and occasionally re-robbing that grocery store. The show is well acted and an interesting watch, at least for Kim and me. Sort of a more family-friendly, female version of Breaking Bad.

One of the show’s primary points of tension involves their circle of trust. At first, it was just the three of them. Their families were blissfully unaware why the mortgage was suddenly up to date, the single mom was able to buy her child an expensive phone, and the struggling couple was able to afford the expensive kidney drug their child needed. The excuses given for the new money were often comical.

But the secret is too big to keep. And each time a person is added to the circle of trust the complications multiply. A store manager figures things out and threatens to notify the police. The husband who finally gets a job on the police force is then forced to choose between sending his wife to jail or tampering with evidence. A random soccer mom accidentally finds out and leverages her knowledge to help cover for her own indiscretions.

At the end of season two, the circle was still less than a dozen people and the pressures were so great the writers had to basically reboot the premise for season three.

And that’s my problem with basically every conspiracy theory. The complications that come with keeping a secret are so immense that they are impossible to maintain.

In the 1970’s some underlings in Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign engineered a break-in at their opponent’s headquarters. The news made its way to the Oval Office. A cover-up was agreed on by a relatively small group of the most powerful men in the world who had great motivations for keeping it.

If word got out that there had been a break-in—and that they’d decided to cover it up—the repercussions would be serious. Loss of power. Even loss of freedom, since what they were doing was criminal. The rewards of keeping the secret were strong. Keeping the secret meant they maintained power and wealth.

The conspiracy fell apart in a matter of just a few days. [1]

Recently, it seems like I am being bombarded by people asking me to believe the latest conspiracy theory. Some are simple concepts, like Watergate. Most are insanely complex. I am always skeptical. And you should be, too.

Here are three questions to ask to keep you from being fooled by the latest fad theory.

  1. For this to be true, how big must the circle of trust be? Keeping secrets is hard. If the Area 51 conspiracy theories are true, hundreds of people have been working in this top-secret installation for fifty years. During this time not a single janitor has given in to the temptation to sneak out a small alien gizmo for their kid to use in show-n-tell. And remember, the more elaborate the theory, the larger the circle.
  2. How big would the rewards be for breaking the circle? Six-figure book deals are a real possibility for a person who can provide dirt on a major political or entertainment figure. And the first person to turn on their accomplices in a criminal enterprise will almost always be given a more lenient sentence—and they may get off scot free. “But they could be risking their lives if they come forward.” People in our society risk their lives for a few hundred bucks or a couple thousand YouTube likes. Is it realistic to believe the lowest-paid person in an elaborate circle of trust wouldn’t disguise their voice, use an alias, and then begin a new life under a new name if millions of dollars were waved in their face?
  3. How long has the circle supposedly held? This is where the multiplication factor really kicks in. Conspiracy theorists say Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.[2] Dozens of powerful men were in on it. To believe the conspiracy we must accept that in almost sixty years not one secretary who had access to the phone calls decided to secure their family’s financial future by selling a deathbed confessional. And no one was overwhelmed by guilt, wanted their fifteen minutes or fame, or just let a key phrase slip at the wrong time. For fifty-seven years.

In his fantastic book, Loving God, Chuck Colson recounts his experience as a Watergate conspirator—and how short-lived the conspiracy was. (His jail time greatly exceeded the duration of the conspiracy.)

Then he moves on to talk about the Resurrection of Jesus. After the Resurrection, the Jewish leaders planted the idea that it was all a conspiracy cooked up by the disciples to hide the fact that they had stolen the body (Matthew 28:13-15).

Colson then puts all the pieces together. While a handful of the most powerful men in the world couldn’t hold a conspiracy together for more than a few days, the powerless disciples held theirs together for decades.

The Watergate conspirators literally had nothing to lose by maintaining the conspiracy and everything to lose if it fell apart. The disciples could have avoided immense pain, suffering, and sacrifice if they had simply shown officials where they put the body. The Watergate conspiracy broke almost instantly, but every one of the disciples went to their graves maintaining their “secret”—and often went to their graves because of the “secret.”

It is one of my favorite pieces of evidence supporting the resurrection. The only explanation of the evidence that makes sense is that the disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead.

It is also one of the biggest reasons that I remain highly skeptical of any conspiracy theory, especially ones that become basically impossible to believe when you ask three question: how many people are in the conspiracy, how much can they gain by abandoning it, and how long has it allegedly lasted?

[1] I loaned out my copy of the book, but I believe it took around 50 days for one of the conspirators to give away the secret.

[2] Just as their predecessors were convinced John Wilkes Booth didn’t act alone in killing Abraham Lincoln.

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