Am I a Whack Job? Or Just a Conspiracy Theorist?

The recent “termination” of James Comey by Donald Trump has led many to think that Trump may have finally jumped the shark. The Trump administration first claimed that the decision lay with the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, but Trump later indicated the decision ultimately lay in his own hands. The lack of any unified public explanation for the dismissal, in conjunction with the fact that Comey was leading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia connections, has inevitably led the media, the opposition and the public alike to posit a conspiracy theory: Comey was fired by Trump for refusing to protect Trump from the Russia probe.

Indeed, the New York Times has reported that Comey refused to pledge loyalty to Trump during a private dinner, adding fuel to the already fiery rumour. It seems that conspiracy has had to go mainstream. The only reasonable conclusion that anyone can draw is that the highest level of government is deliberately attempting to mislead the American public. Conspiracy theorists are no longer “whack-jobs” or “truthers”. They are no longer just survivalists who moved to Montana after the Sandy Hook massacre, convinced that the antichrist Obama had staged the shooting in order to steal their guns… No. Nowadays, the conspiracy theorist is the everyday American. This seems to be the natural result of living in a mismanaged state: a symptom of the bananas growing in the republic.

But, and here’s the problem, if it’s normal to be a conspiracy theorist these days, then how can we tell the “conspiracy theorists” from the “conspiracy theorists”? How can we tell the whack jobs from the everyday Americans?

Here’s a first thought. Whack jobs often believe in multiple conspiracy theories that are unlikely and disconnected. You might find one person crazy enough to believe that there were no planes involved during 9/11… But it is rather unlikely to find someone who believes both that there were no planes involved on 9/11 as well as the theory that the Titanic never sank, or as well as the theory that Roswell was a cover up, or as well as the theory that Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden are the same person. The conspiracies are, as far as most people can tell, incredibly unlikely on their own. But more importantly, there is no connection between 9/11 and the theory that the Titanic never sank. If it is true that there were no planes on 9/11, this in no way increases the probability that the Titanic never sank. The probability of the one case does not affect the probability of the other. Therefore, if you find someone who believes both conspiracies at the same time, they are more likely to inhabit the whack job end of the spectrum. 

Perhaps this distinction can shed some light on the difference between “conspiracy theorists” of the whack job variety and everyday folks who just happen to believe in a conspiracy. It seems that if one accepts multiple unrelated, disconnected conspiracy theories, one is more likely to be a whack job—a person with a proclivity for conspiracies. If on the other hand, one merely believes one conspiracy theory about the Trump administration (or perhaps many conspiracy theories, yet all concern the Trump administration), then one is more likely to be an everyday American, who just happens to believe in a conspiracy theory or two.

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