deHaven-Smith, L. Conspiracy Theory in America, University of Texas Press, 2013.
DeHaven-Smith, a professor at Florida State University when he wrote this book (now retired), proposes a theory that he refers to as “The CIA’s Conspiracy Theory Conspiracy.” This is a somewhat complex theory to delineate because it involves recursion and indirect self-reference. Essentially, it is a conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory, and the purported purpose of the latter is to degrade the public’s acceptance of conspiracy theories (of which deHaven-Smith’s theory is one). Writing as an academic social scientist, deHaven frames his arguments and evidence as providing “scientific” support for his theory. In this commentary my intention is to critically evaluate that claim.
I will approach this task the way it might be performed by a peer reviewer, a role for which I have considerable experience in my pre-retirement years as an academic scientist. What follows is along the lines of a review I would provide if asked by an academic journal or a granting agency to professionally evaluate the merits of this theory.
deHaven-Smith has proposed a (conspiracy) theory claiming that highly placed government officials (mostly unknown, or unnamed) used the CIA to initiate and carry out a conspiracy that continues to the present day. The goal of this CIA conspiracy was (and is) to transform America’s civic culture from the Founding Father’s hard-nosed realism that included acceptance of conspiracy theories, to today’s environment in which conspiracy theories are typically dismissed and ridiculed as being ludicrous. deHaven-Smith asserts that this conspiracy by the CIA was initiated in 1967 in the form of a memo distributed to CIA offices around the world. The major arguments used in this memo were influenced by the writings of two academic philosophers published during and after WWII, primarily those of Karl Popper, and to a lesser extent those of Leo Strauss. It is argued that the CIA conspiracy launched by this memo continues to be a success and has now become a permanent threat at the heart of the American Government.
Three separate levels of analyses are used, each of which pertains to a different aspect of the theory. One of the weaknesses of the book is that the descriptions and results of the three different analyses are intermixed in a confusing fashion such that it can be difficult to discern which arguments and results apply to which level of analysis. I am going to describe the methods and results for these analyses separately, even though they are intermingled in the book itself.
deHaven-Smith examined historical records to look for examples where there is evidence that the U.S. government engaged in “antidemocratic conspiracies”. Since he considers the word ‘conspiracy’ to be a negatively charged term, he chooses to instead refer to them as State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADs). The exact methods used to identify SCADs are not described in the book, but he cites previously published articles in academic journals where the methods are presumably described in more detail. One important detail that is emphasized in the book is that the evaluations used to identify each individual SCAD during this level of analysis have to be done on a case-by-case basis.
Once the database of events related to the individual SCADs was established using the methods of Level 1, this database was examined to look for patterns across SCADs. deHaven-Smith uses an analogy to law enforcement to describe this methodology. Just as law enforcement looks for patterns across crimes in order to ‘connect the dots’ and get clues about the perpetrator, deHaven-Smith wants to look for patterns across individual SCADs in order to look for evidence of larger scale “antidemocratic conspiracies” carried out by high government officials and other influential elites.
This level of analysis was employed to look for evidence that government officials and elites have not only engaged in an ongoing pattern of SCADs but have also engaged in a conspiracy to hide their conspiratorial activities from the public. For this analysis, deHaven-Smith tries to uncover evidence that the CIA has been carrying out a sophisticated program of Linguistic Thought Control with the aim of trying to convince the public that all allegations of government conspiracies are false.
RESULTS OBTAINED, CONCLUSIONS DRAWN, and MY ASSESSMENTS
Twenty-seven alleged SCADS were identified that were judged to have enough level of confirmation to conclude that they were plausible true SCADs. The primary evidence upon which this conclusion is based is mostly not presented directly in the book for most of these SCADS, but the reader is directed to citations where the direct evidence can be evaluated. Most of the discussion in the book is directed towards two specific controversial alleged SCADs, The Assassination of President Kennedy and Events of 9/11, 2001.
My Assessment: The discussions of the Kennedy assassination and of 9/11 mostly rehash longstanding unresolved issues pertaining to these events and are not likely to convince many “conspiracy theory deniers”. However, overall, the evidence presented makes a plausible argument that the U.S. government has been involved in numerous SCADs.
The following patterns are described in support of the argument that the individual SCADs are not simply isolated events, but evidence of interconnected crimes:
- SCADS cluster around certain events such as elections. For example, over a third of all presidential elections since 1948 and fully half of all elections since 1964 were impacted by assassinations, election tampering, and/or intrigues with foreign powers. Moreover, two-thirds of these tainted elections were marred by multiple events.
- Many SCADS are associated with foreign policy and international conflict.
- SCADS are fairly limited in their modus operandi (MOs). This is illustrated in Figure 5.1 in the book that shows 8 SCADs related to Manipulation of defense/information policy, 7 to assassinations, 5 to planned international events, 4 to election tampering, 2 to burglaries, and 1 to insider manipulation.
- Many SCADs in the post-WWII era indicate both direct and nested connections to two presidents: Richard Nixon and George W. Bush.
- The range of officials targeted for assassination in the post-WWII era is limited to those most directly associated with foreign policy: presidents (and presidential candidates) and senators. Using as his null-hypothesis the proposition that all 100 senators, 435 representatives, 9 supreme court justices, 1 vice president and 1 president should have equal probability of being assassinated in any one year, deHaven-Smith calculates that the odds that the only individuals shot since 1948 have been two presidents (Kennedy and Reagan) are roughly 1 in 274,000 (1 in 49 million if president-to-be Robert Kennedy is included).
- Since the end of WWII, presidents have been targeted only when their elimination would benefit military and pro-war interests.
- Senators have been assassinated only when running for president or when the senate was closely divided and the death of a single senator could significantly impact policy.
- The number of SCADs with “wide government complicity” surged in the 1960s, dropped to zero when the cold war ended in the 1990s, and jumped dramatically in the 2000s.
My Assessment: These bulleted items are the sum total of the evidence presented in the book that the identified scams are interconnected crimes. Unfortunately, these “perceived patterns” described by deHaven-Smith are of little value as scientific evidence. There is an immense cognitive science literature demonstrating that humans’ perceptions of apparent patterns are often illusory and cannot be trusted. The human mind is predisposed to look for patterns, so much so that it often “finds” them even when they do not exist. Perceived apparent patterns as described by deHaven-Smith might be valuable for forming hypotheses or conjectures about what might be true. But they are, by no stretch of the imagination, scientific evidence. At a minimum, the observations that are described would have to be subjected to a statistical analysis to demonstrate that they form a pattern significantly different from what might be expected by mere chance. In only one of the bulleted items above was any attempt made to perform that kind of statistical analysis. And that analysis simply demonstrated the not very interesting point that presidents are more likely to be shot than certain other government officials.
There are 5 lines of evidence provided to support the conclusion that the CIA engaged in a conspiracy to hide their conspiratorial activities from the public.
1) In January of 1967 the CIA sent a memo (Dispatch 1035-960) to its system of local offices that explicitly instructs its agents about how to try to counteract “conspiracy theories” about the Kennedy assassination and subsequent Warren Commision. This memo was revealed by the New York Times via a Freedom of Information request in 1976.
My Assessment: This memo does provide “smoking gun” evidence that at least some officials in the CIA were attempting to undermine conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination in 1967. However, whether this was a single isolated instance or evidence of a much more sinister plan on the part of the CIA is open to interpretation. All I will do here is reproduce the arguments that deHan-Smith makes about this issue in his own words and let the readers decide for themselves.
“[This memo] is a subtle document, conveying many of its messages by indirection and implication. To grasp the nuances in the document requires a very careful reading. Some sections of the dispatch clearly have a surface meaning for ordinary readers, and a deeper, less obvious meaning for readers who are listening for, as it were, a second frequency, a hidden meaning.”
“[The dispatch number] could have at least two meanings. Most people would assume “1035-960” is a number in a numbering and filing system. However, 1035-960 can also be read as “1035 minus 960.” Who is to say the dash is just a dash and not a mathematical operator? Thus 1035-960 could mean “75”, which might refer to the seventy-fifth day of the year or something.”
“In short, the CIA dispatch is subtly suggesting that the official account of the assassination could be wrong about literally everything. The CIA is raising the possibility of a far-flung conspiracy backed by unspecified ‘responsible parties’ who are in the shadows. Dispatch 1035-960 does not say this out loud, but it conveys this message between the lines simply by using the who-was-responsible language.”
“It is almost as if the dispatch is saying the CIA is directly involved in the assassination?”
“As the group [of conspiracy theorists] is given a place among other groups in the listeners belief system, it becomes, in effect, alive and endowed with personality in the observer’s imagination.”
I do not have a clue as to how one should evaluate these kinds of statements, but one thing I am sure of is that these kinds of analyses have zero value as scientific evidence.
2) In 1968 a letter from John P. Roach was published in the London Times Literary Supplement. DeHaven-Smith argues that by examining the language in the letter it is obvious that the letter writer
“was clearly following the directions contained in the CIA Dispatch1035-960.”
“The dispatch suggested pointing out that ‘[Robert] Kennedy would be the last man to overlook or conceal any conspiracy.’ Roche made this idea the theme of his letter.”
My Assessment: DeHaven-Smith does not discuss the merits of the argument itself, only that it seems to him to be too much of a coincidence to assume that both the CIA Dispatch and Roche would bring up this same (powerful) argument. However, skepticism about a single coincidence is not the same as scientific evidence.
3) I could only find a single paragraph in the book that addressed the issue of whether or not scholars and journalists did in fact participate (wittingly or unwittingly) in the alleged conspiracy. I quote the paragraph in its entirety here, but only after noting the curious fact that not a single citation is provided, even though the book contains hundreds of citations documenting other assertions:
“How did the existing literature on conspiracy theories, not to mention the many public officials and pundits who deploy the conspiracy-theory label in public discourse, manage to overlook the conspiratorial suspicions of the nation’s Founders, especially when the Founders’ fears of antidemocratic plots were stated in the Declaration of Independence, elaborated in the Federalist Papers, and written into the U.S. Constitution? How could the literature fail to notice that the Allied powers after World War II prosecuted and convicted Nazi leaders for conspiring to subvert representative democracy in Germany and wage wars of aggression? The literature attacking conspiracy theories has been blind to all this because most conspiracy deniers have accepted the conspiracy-theory label and its pejorative connotations uncritically. It would probably be too much to expect greater awareness of the conspiracy-theory propaganda program, even though it was made public in 1976, but many scholars and journalists still deserve criticism for failing to ask when and under what conditions norms against conspiracy belief emerged in elite discourse. Instead, generally they have embraced these norms and have simply assumed that conspiracy theories are patently irrational and pernicious. This has led journalists and scholars alike to search for the historical roots, not of contemporary elite norms against conspiracy theorizing, but of the supposedly delusional, conspiratorial mind-set.”
My Assessment: Some or all of these assertions might be true, but undocumented accusations are not evidence.
3) The frequencies of stories mentioning “conspiracy theory” in the New York Times increased dramatically from the years 1975 until 2011, mostly due to the expansion of use of the term from politics to entertainment and business. DeHaven-Smith argues that “The rapid spread of the conspiracy-theory label to sports and business suggests that suspicion of elite intrigue is normal when things that are subject to control and manipulation change in ways that benefit those who are in positions to control and manipulate them.”
My Assessment: This is perhaps interesting speculation, but not evidence.
4) The book tracks potential involvement of the New York Times in the conspiracy by searching the archives of the New York Times and counting the number of pejorative terms that show up in stories that mention conspiracy theories. For example, in stories about conspiracy theories the term ‘paranoid’ showed up 20 times in 1968 and the term ‘crackpot’ 3 times in 1973.
My Assessment: This is potentially an interesting analysis except that no control group is included. How many pejorative terms are present in a similar sized sample of stories about other topics? This lack of a control group renders the analysis scientifically worthless.
CONCLUDING UNSCIENTIFIC POSTSCRIPT
I accept the right of anyone to propose and/or accept belief systems, including those that fall under the general definition of conspiracy theories. And I do not disagree with one of the main assertions of this book, that the term “conspiracy theory” is often used as a disparaging label, a label that can have the effect that a theory labelled as such is discounted without being given proper consideration. I would also agree that this book raises some important issues related to “antidemocratic conspiracies,” or State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADs) as deHaven-Smith prefers to call them.
My criticism of this book has simply to do with the fact that deHaven-Smith claims that his book provides scientific evidence in support of his theory. Once that claim is made, the book leaves the domain of belief systems and enters the realm of science. The charts, figures, graphs, and scientific sounding terminology and arguments give the impression that this is a scientific theory supported by scientific evidence. It is not. It is more aptly labelled as pseudoscience, an attempt to buttress an argument by making it seem (to unsophisticated readers) that it is supported by scientific evidence, when the evidence actually presented does not meet even minimal scientific standards.
Ron Boothe (a retired scientist)