Curious definition of “secret”

I started thinking about this idea when I read this article on Mental Floss about various conspiracy claims (they do not deserve any proximity to the word “theory”) regarding Denver International Airport. And it reflects the same thing that can be found in virtually every conspiracy idea: that some secret society will go to great lengths to create some master plan that must remain secret, and then leave clues all over the fucking place.

Seriously, what the hell purpose is this supposed to serve? Does it not somehow count as a secret unless it’s hinted at extensively? Is it more fun this way? Do those who are in on it need to be signaled because they’re not sure where or what it is, or do they simply need reminders? “Oh, yeah, Denver Airport, that’s the one we’re launching the revolution from. I keep thinking it’s Des Moines…”

Sure, just mentioning it makes it obvious, but apparently it’s not clear enough on its own, because the belief is widespread, enough that it is almost a cultural assumption that ‘conspiracy’ means ‘lots of subtle symbols and indicators.’ People think the flight numbers of the 9/11 planes are rebuses, and dollar bills have secret symbols on them. Such beliefs are necessary for conspiracists to believe they’re clever, able to fathom the puzzle, but it’s safe to say it would be phenomenally stupid to put a bunch of hints around, if the intention really were to remain secret. Mystery novels do not reflect real life, and sinister cabals of the type that feature so prominently in the fevered dreams of conspiracists would have no desire to play fucking games.

But that’s really how it must be viewed, when it comes down to it; they can’t possibly be taking this seriously. If someone really believed that the symbols and sniglets they were finding pointed to a secret society or whatever, the last thing that anyone sane should do would be to smugly announce it – that would be a great way to get disappeared, wouldn’t it? What do they think would happen, some shadowy figure is going to come up to them some night to shake a finger and say, “Oh ho ho, you got us, you little scamp! [Sigh] What are we going to do with you?”

Hey, listen, I’m on board with solving crimes by catching the subtle mistakes and traces of evidence accidentally left behind, but that’s not at all what we’re talking about here. And at some later point, I’ll deal with the backwards process of creating a scenario and then finding the evidence to fit it, which can be done for just about anything that can be imagined. No, this is specifically the idea that these items are purposefully placed, daring someone to put it all together. As if wondering about something mysterious or hard to understand takes some kind of elaborate skill…

There is a lot of psychological fodder in the whole thing: the idea that whoever is behind the conspiracy must be stupider than the one who “discovers” it, the pattern-seeking nature of humans that makes us invent such scenarios in the first place, the overwhelming desire for there to be something going on behind the scenes. And of course, the way that no one seems to realize that if some arcane society left behind such specific details, they obviously intended for them to be found, meaning they would have nothing to do with any real conspiracy. Naturally, that would just send the conspiracists off on another quest…

But this next bit is something that I had originally set aside for later, and have now decided to tackle right here, because a 500-word post is too short anymore. Occam’s Razor is a common tool in critical thinking, but with subjects such as these, it seems to actually support the idea of a conspiracy. To continue using this example, given all of the little details of the airport’s design and decoration, there could be a lot of reasons that explain how each came about – but ‘conspiracy’ is a single answer that addresses all of them. Thus, the simplest answer is probably the correct one; isn’t that how it goes?

Well, yes and no. The first thing to recognize, as mentioned above, is that once the idea of a conspiracy has been introduced, many of the further examples of ‘evidence’ were selected solely because they fit, or could be made to fit, while ignoring all of those bits that did not fit, or pointed specifically away from such an idea. We can’t be selective about what we address and what we ignore – explanations have to cover all of it.

More importantly, however, “conspiracy” is a simple word, but hardly a simple concept. It doesn’t even mean anything all by itself – conspiracy to do what? Which is usually where things fall apart, because it tends to be as diverse as, “making the runways look like swastikas,” and, “being partially funded by Freemasons.” You can conspire to throw a surprise birthday party too, and that’s just as illegal as the previous two, which is to say, not at all. Even if we posit that something truly illegal is going on, or planned, it helps a lot to actually specify what. It helps even more to have the ‘evidence,’ you know, lead towards the idea – Nazis and Freemasons aren’t exactly related in any way, and of course, the statue that caused the death of the artist is, um… what, now we’re dealing with some kind of mummy’s curse or something? Is coherence a bit too much to expect? Believe me (or don’t, and check for yourself,) but a really stunning number of conspiracy claims are exactly this scattered and bewildering, buttressed only by the idea that something “doesn’t seem right.” Yeah, I guess if you find connections between a failed baggage system and Navajo symbols on the floor, there are a lot of things that aren’t going to seem right to you…

Ignoring all that, however, and simply going with the prominent claims that some secret organization exists, again, we’re talking about a simple description for a ridiculously convoluted and detailed idea – an entire airport built because of, in service of, or to promote the future plans of this organization, which involves billions of dollars and who knows how many hundreds to thousands of people, all loyal and dedicated to whatever sinister plan is being imagined, and this is evidenced by, you know, creepy murals. A picture is worth a thousand words I guess. Yet this hardly qualifies as the simplest answer in any way, and even a separate explanation for each individual bit of ‘evidence’ is less involved, and requires less machinations, than one conspiracy. An umbrella standing in a corner could be a spy’s signal to his confederates to meet at that spot when it rains, but it’s a hell of a lot more likely that someone simply forgot their umbrella. And I hardly think I need to point out that artists and decorators can be wildly imaginative and more than a little flakey – their goals are usually not to be normal.

As a comparison, the military of any country tends to have a lot of secrets; it’s the nature of security, since if you know your opponent’s defenses you can subvert them easier. Do military operatives go around dropping clues and providing puzzles regarding their secrets? It’s a ludicrous thought, isn’t it? Misinformation is occasionally planted, perhaps best evidenced in the planning of the Normandy Invasion of WWII, and even that wasn’t as obvious as most of the things seized on by conspiracists as ‘evidence,’ not to mention that none of it was evidence at all – it was simply bait. But it’s safe to say that the big painting in the lobby of the Pentagon does not show all of the missile bases around the world if interpreted correctly, because not only is there no freaking point to that, it’s inviting trouble.

Moreover, there have actually been very few conspiracies, ever, throughout history, throughout the world. And of those, most of them have been very small scale, precisely because the fewer people who know something, the better, and huge plans have too many variables to function smoothly. Even if we assume that some organization is capable of controlling so many aspects of life in even a small city as to make some elaborate plan viable, then we’re to believe that some mook with a cheesy website is going to blow the lid off of it? Please.

Of course, the most amusing bit is that those who earnestly promote these ideas then get quite indignant when they’re not being taken seriously

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