I’ve been doing some reading about conspiracy theories – the assassination of JFK, Holocaust denial, whether or not the Moon landings were faked, all the usual suspects – and a few points strike me (besides the usual one of "Are these people completely nuts?"):
1. Most conspiracy theories centre around the alleged misdeeds of state or corporate bureaucracies of some kind, especially intelligence agencies, governments generally, big corporations or banks. However, they require these bodies to function at a level of efficency and secrecy to pull off these plots that seems completely contrary to the usual way in which they function. Take M16, for example, who as any fule kno, assassinated Princess Diana in such a ruthlessly efficient operation that no-one has actually been able to prove she didn’t just die in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Is this the same M16 that got comprehensively infiltrated by the Russians during the Cold War? The banks who couldn’t save themselves from losing unimaginable fortunes on bad gambles in 2008 are supposed to be busily engaged in schemes for world domination. The CIA killed Kennedy, its own President, who it was supposed to protect, despite being unable to kill Fidel Castro, something it was actually under orders to do. Are the conspiracies so important that they can only spare the more stupid employees for the day to day operations?
2. Of course, a conspiracist might say that believing that governments and companies are actually blunderingly inefficient half the time just goes to show that that’s what they want us to think. However, that just illustrates the way in which conspiracy theories tend to act as the ultimate intellectual defence mechanism for those with irrational beliefs. If called on them, just claim there’s a conspiracy to cover up their truth. Asked for evidence of that, you can say that it, too, was suppressed by a conspiracy. Proof of that conspiracy, too, cannot be given, since it was so secret. Of course, by the time you’ve taken this to its logical conclusion, you’re well up your own fundament and most of the world will have concluded you’re insane. But, hey, they couldn’t prove you were wrong. Conspiracy theorists don’t like being wrong.
3.Conspiracy theories frequently portray in an extremely crude form genuine social phenomena, being made up by people who have a fairly dim grasp of the actual phenomena but a strong gut hatred of their consequences. For example, a lot of American conspiracy theories have at their core the view that the US political system is in reality controlled by a small self-interested group of people with little accountability to the population in general. Yes, that’s called an elite or ruling class, depending on your theoretical bias, all countries have them (even the ones that like to pretend they don’t have a class system) and they don’t need to meet secretly in the Masonic lodge or at the Bilderberg Group for the system to operate. One is reminded of August Bebel’s famous description of anti-Semitism as "the socialism of fools". Conspiracy theories sometimes come across as the socialism of people who would say they hate socialism.
4. On a related note, conspiracy theories can be a means of putting across in a disguised form views which are unacceptable either to society generally or, even more interestingly, to the people spouting them, on a conscious level at any rate. As explained above, right wingers who claim to fervently support free market economics can believe in theories in effect criticising the ruling elite produced by that system without naming it. An even more obvious example is anti-Semitism smuggled in by the back door, like the kind of American banking conspiracy theory that claims banking is controlled by "European" banks with names like Rothschilds or Goldman Sachs.
5. Conspiracy theorists must hate Occam’s razor. Give them the choice between things happening for the obvious reasons and for complicated reasons that no-one else understands, they’ll go for the latter every time. Are cover ups the result of desperate officials trying to cover their backsides before news of their bungling comes out? No – they’re the result of plots by the Freemasons, who are really controlled by the Illuminati anyway, so they can achieve world domination for the Communists.