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The Human Fallibility Test

Why “the election was hacked” and other conspiracy theories are wrong

Human beings mess up. A lot.

Even the smartest, most talented, most disciplined among us are fallible creatures guessing their way through life.

When explaining how something happened, if you don’t allow for human beings messing up, you’re probably wrong.

The main flaw in most conspiracy theories is that they rely on human perfection.

Not only did everyone do their part flawlessly, they maintained perfect message discipline afterwards. No one left any evidence, no one talked.

That becomes increasingly implausible the more people had to be involved to pull it off.

As Ben Franklin said, “three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

The 21st century standard bearer is the claim that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job. The U.S. government destroyed the Twin Towers in a controlled demolition, to drum up support for invading Iraq, expand domestic surveillance, funnel money to defense contractors, etc.

Think about how many people needed to perform flawlessly to make this work:

  • the planners in the Bush administration, who put the plot together impressively fast, or perhaps planners in the Clinton administration as well
  • whoever procured the explosives — and they needed a lot — plus whoever they got it from
  • the operatives (CIA?) who planted the charges
  • security and maintenance staff in the towers
  • first responders and rescue workers, plus crews that worked on the site afterwards
  • some combination of al-Qaeda, the passengers on UA Flight 93, and U.S. intelligence officers

Tons of witnesses saw the planes hit, and we’ve all seen the footage, so virtually no one insists that part was fake.

But to blow the charges shortly after impact required the hijackers to be in on the plot, or the government to know the exact timing of the attack and keep that knowledge a secret.

Or perhaps they had a vague idea of when it would happen and planted the charges far in advance. But then more maintenance and security workers had to be in on it.

That’s hundreds, probably thousands of people, none of whom messed up at all.

Here’s the version that doesn’t fail the Human Fallibility Test:

  • Airline security messed up. Everyone assumed hijackers just wanted to get on television or fly to Cuba, creating a loophole for suicide attackers.
  • The government messed up. They should have taken al-Qaeda more seriously.
  • The intelligence services messed up. Local officials missed important information, and didn’t pass what they had up the chain in time. Federal agencies didn’t share information with each other, and the dots remained unconnected. Looking back, it’s obvious that the information was there, but that’s hindsight bias.
  • Also in hindsight, the people who designed and built the Twin Towers messed up. But it’s hard to fault them for creating a structure that could not withstand the impact of a passenger jet and very hot fires without weakening (not melting, weakening) enough to collapse under the weight of all the floors above.
  • Al-Qaeda messed up, too — telling the flight instructor you don’t care about landing? come on — but because of the other mistakes, only part of their attack was thwarted.

What’s especially fascinating about the 9/11 conspiracy theory is that many of its proponents believe the government is incompetent. Those idiots in Washington can’t do anything right.

Except this, apparently. In this case, the government displayed superhuman competence. Everyone did what they needed to do, and no one messed up, before or after.

It gets more ridiculous the more you think about it.

To most people, debunking the 9/11 conspiracy theory is shooting fish in a barrel. But the Green Party’s Jill Stein thinks we need another inquiry into September 11th because we “deserve to know the truth.” And now she’s leading an effort to recount 2016 election results in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania because voting machines might have been hacked.

For some, latching on to this theory is just their way of processing Trump’s victory. But enough seem to believe it that we should run the Human Fallibility Test.

It fails on four counts:

  1. The hackers picked three states that would fit perfectly into a post-election narrative about the white working class for which there is evidence nationwide.
  2. The hackers guessed the final vote so perfectly that Trump eked out a narrow win in all three states, but not by the same margin in each, thereby covering their tracks.
  3. Wisconsin raised suspicions because Trump did 7 points better in counties with electronic voting machines compared to counties with paper ballots. That means the hackers had to add votes for Donald Trump (or subtract votes for Hillary Clinton) from the voting machine totals without knowing how the paper ballots would turn out.
  4. This 7 point gap disappears when controlling for race and education, which means the hackers figured out in advance that, in Wisconsin, Hillary was outperforming the national trend among whites without a college degree and, without knowing the paper votes, changed the machine votes to bring the statewide tally in line with the national trend.

If they did all that, I’d have to tip my hat. As Ron Burgundy said in response to Baxter eating an entire wheel of cheese: “I’m not even mad. That’s amazing.”

An alternative explanation, which passes the HF test: pollsters misjudged who would show up to vote in these states. They built “likely voter” models around the assumption that the Obama coalition would show up for Hillary, and that white working class voters would make up a similar percentage of the electorate in 2016 as in 2012. They were wrong.

It’s possible there were some small discrepancies with the 2016 vote, and we probably don’t know every detail of what happened on 9/11. But we know enough to be reasonably confident in the prevailing narrative.

However, when doubters say there’s no proof, true believers often respond by pointing to confirmed conspiracies from the past.

We know about the U.S. and U.K.-backed 1953 coup in Iran, the Bay of Pigs, and failed plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. We know about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, MK Ultra, and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works testing facility at Area 51. We know the United States tortured terrorist suspects and killed American citizens in drone strikes.

If we know all that, there must be tons we don’t know!

But there’s another, more logical interpretation: the government really didn’t want the public to know about any of that, but we found out anyway.

They still have secrets, of course, like the identity and location of spies, or the specs on next generation attack drones.

But those are small things. Details. We know about the big stuff.

That’s why people who follow national security were surprised at the shock so many displayed in response to the 2013 Snowden leaks.

You didn’t know the government was monitoring internet activity and phone metadata? Sure, Edward Snowden provided additional details, but it’s been public knowledge since 2002.

In Them: Adventures with Extremists, Jon Ronson interviews Denis Healey, a leading British politician, baron, and founding member of the Bilderberg group. Founded in 1954, Bilderberg is a “secret” society of Western elites devoted to preventing another world war and promoting capitalism. David Rockefeller is another founding member. Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, and the presidents of large American and European banks have attended Bilderberg conferences.

Many conspiracy theorists see Bilderberg — along with secret meetings in Bohemian Grove, California — as proof that a hidden cabal is behind everything. But after spending time with a variety of extremists, and interviewing Healey and other Bilderberg members, Ronson comes to the conclusion that no one runs the world.

When you think about it, that’s scarier. Humanity is a speeding vehicle with no driver. Every so often, someone can nudge it in one direction or another, but it mostly veers about haphazardly.

If you’re unhappy with your life, it’s probably a combination of unfortunate circumstances and your own mistakes. But if someone else, someone powerful, is doing it to you on purpose, than you have someone to be angry at. Things will improve if you can just get rid of them. That’s comforting.

It’s more comforting to think a few hackers rigged the election than accept that millions of your fellow citizens want Donald Trump to be president.

It’s more comforting to think the U.S. government was behind 9/11 than to accept that national security is that vulnerable.

It’s more comforting to think there’s massive voter fraud than accept that a majority of American voters wanted Hillary Clinton to be president.

It’s more comforting to think a few crooked American officials were behind Benghazi than accept that diplomatic facilities are under constant threat, information does not move efficiently through the bureaucracy, and leaders often speak publicly without knowing what happened.

It’s comforting knowing that it’s the Joker’s fault and that Batman will save the day.

Reality, with all its fallible humans, is unsettling.

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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.

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