Lately I keep running into conspiracy theories everywhere; there’s a conspiracy of doctors and immunologists to vaccinate people despite it being very dangerous to do so, there’s a conspiracy of of people more critically acclaimed than me who are so afraid of me that they’re making a concerted effort to prevent me from getting critical acclaim, there’s a conspiracy of hundreds of thousands of researchers in hundreds of different areas faking billions of points of data to convince us of climate change for profit and the ever popular the moon landing is a hoax conspiracy.

In any case, I started thinking about why it is that conspiracy theories are so popular and yet carry such a stigma that if you call those things conspiracy theories, even the people making the claims will take a step back to say that calling their curious mumblings conspiracy theories is a little over the top.

I think conspiracies are inherently attractive because they make for such good stories. We like stories about underdogs going against impossible odds and coming through on the other side, if not unscathed then at least alive and in a condition that can be generously called victory. And what worse odds than when the people you’re supposed to be able to trust suddenly turn on you to plot your downfall for fun and profit?

Protest against ACTA in Toulouse on February 11th, 2012 by Pierre Selim

The thing that makes the very term “conspiracy theory” so very loaded that even people spinning real-life conspiracies want to stay away from that brush inevitably brings me around to Guy Fawkes. Today, we know him as the face of the revolution, based on the movie V for Vendetta (though you should really read the comic book even if you didn’t like the film). And sure, he was a revolutionary, of a sort.

Guy Fawkes was a reasonably unremarkable man in his life. He was a war veteran and a devout catholic but honestly, so were a lot of men in those days. But he was, like the story says, part of the conspiracy known as the Gunpowder treason plot. Cooked up by only 12 men, all with everything to lose, the plot was very simple; blow up the House of Lords with king James I and most, if not all, of his Privy Council as well as many of the king’s family inside. If succesfull, the next in line of succession would have been placed on the throne as a catholic monarch. Of course this was not meant to be and someone blabbed. The king got an anonymous letter informing him of the plot, at which point the conspirators were all rounded up and hanged, drawn and quartered. A common punishment at the time by the way, one which the conspirators must have known was waiting for them should they be discovered.

And such is the fate of most conspiracies where the number of participants exceeds two. One person can sometimes keep a secret (often not) but two people is pushing it. If one of the conpirators is very motivated and very careful, they can usually keep the other one quiet. But five people? Ten? Somebody will talk or get accidentally overheard. And I’m pretty sure that the risk of getting caught increases exponentially with every person you add to the conspiracy.

This of course doesn’t mean that conspiracies don’t exist. There will always be people who will try to get the most out of the people around them using any means necessary, including illegal ones. But most conspiracies will get outed even before they get even close to completing their aim, however simple it may be. It turns out that simple human incompetense will always conquer all.

I’m thinking of rewatching the original Bourne Trilogy because a) Matt Damon, b) Julia Stiles, and c) if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.