The probability of “Deep State” and other conspiracies

The recent $450,000 defamation judgement against a conspiracy theorist who targeted the parent of a Sandy Hook massacre victim reminded me that crazy conspiratorial thinking is often not a harmless exercise. Instead, the social media memes that spread unfounded rumors and plots can cause real damage. The grieving Sandy Hook parents, for instance, have received a steady flood of hate messages and threats from followers of Alex Jones and other agitators.

Hint: Donald Trump is likely in “Alex Jones tin-foil hat” territory when it comes to his “Deep State” ramblings.

I ran across an interesting research article last year while writing about the math behind “grand conspiracies” and small-change plots.  This study, by two Swiss researchers, Marko Kovic and Tobias Füchslin, gives credence to the hypothesis that humans more often fall into “conspiracy thinking” as a way to cope with very improbable events.

In other words, when a very unlikely “Sandy Hook” happens, perhaps caused by a single demented killer with far-too-lethal, too-easy-to-obtain weapons, some people “need a bigger explanation” than those basic facts. And the more improbable the event, the more wildly exotic the explanation needs to be in order to “make sense” of the event. In short, they are absolutely convinced that there must be some big conspiracy behind the event. In this case, thousands of people became convinced that these deaths of 27 teachers and young children never actually happened, rather it was part of a grand conspiracy to take away people’s guns.

Kovic and Füchslin tested several low-probability and exotic scenarios with a variety of subjects, finding that some respondents “need” some kind of clear cause-effect explanation that goes beyond basic randomness. In these cases, conspiracy “causes,” even though wildly implausible and unsupported by fact, become a kind of “coping mechanism” to help the person deal with the uncertainty over “bad news.” [1]

The anti-vaccine “conspiracy”

The news is full of these wildly improbable and widely debunked conspiracies. For years now, “anti-vaxxers” have asserted that great cabals of scientists and politicians are “hiding the facts” of harmful effects of life-saving vaccines. The roots of this conspiracy instead lie in a very (almost criminally) bad study by a researcher who still tries to profit off his debunked research, plus a very poor understanding by much of the public of the math of group immunity to diseases.

This misdirection is compounded (as this Swiss study suggests) by the reality that vaccine harm innately has a very low probability, which causes parents to become convinced that there must be some conspiratorial reason beyond chance if a bad outcome does occur. This is similar on the other side to winners of a random lottery becoming absolutely convinced that they made a gifted number choice, or even were “chosen by God” to win the prize. As this blog often notes, most of the time random is really random.

And as I noted in my earlier post on the subject, the number of people required to be “in on” most purported “grand conspiracies” is often massive and, worse still, the numbers of combinations of people required to engage with everybody else in the “trust against the lie” required to keep the conspiracy going grows factorially (e.g., say, 100 times 99 times 98 times 97, etc., a massive number even at 100 supposed conspirators).

You can attempt a grand conspiracy, but the odds of one person breaking the chain to do some “truth-telling” quickly grow to “highly likely.” This is why most purported “grand conspiracies” don’t really exist.

“Small conspiracies,” on the other hand, such as those found in organized crime families, work only with a very small number of trusted (and usually familial) associates who are “in on” the crime, and these plots typically require some form of omertà (code of silence) or other potential for revenge for “squealers,” as well as weak law enforcement.

Trumpian conspiracies

The “grand conspiracies” that Donald Trump believes are directed against him are different from the conspiracies in which he has historically engaged himself. The latter look more like Mafia scams, with literal family members and sketchy fixers engaged to do much of the dirty work, and only a couple of shady partners required to close the deal. Most people do not realize that the Trump Organization proper consists of very few people in any decision/knowledge role.

And because big-dollar white-collar tax crime and money laundering are so rarely prosecuted in the United States, the odds have actually been with the Trump family in their financial dealings to date. Unfortunately, it does not take a “grand conspiracy” to launder millions of dollars and hide profits in the real estate business. A large percentage of high-rise luxury properties near my home on the Gulf Coast of Florida are owned by easy-to-setup shell companies with shadowy hard-to-trace owners from Eastern Europe and South America. No great conspiracy here, just bad laws, weak enforcement, and a lot of people in the chain who prefer to ignore the funny smell of the money changing hands.

The Russia investigation “Deep State grand conspiracy” that Trump alleges against him, on the other hand, would necessarily require a large-scale coordination of hundreds of national security career civil servants putting their careers at risk, as well as both Republican and Democrat-appointed directors of multiple security agencies coordinating their work. In accordance with the research of Kovic and Füchslin noted above, the Trump-cult paranoia seems to get larger the tinier this probability gets.

Now outside of his own small family-crime shop, Trump’s attempts to create his own small-time conspiracies, such as the trading of information on a political opponent in return for Congressionally-allocated military aid, quickly fall apart as participants on the fringes tell their stories.

The more probable hypothesis

For the much more probable hypothesis of the origins of the original Trump-Russia investigations, my simplified scenario, taken from several good sources, looks like this:

In the run-up to the 2016 elections, intelligence operatives from multiple U.S. agencies and multiple countries began noticing that several clownish, ham-handed doofuses (e.g., Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, multiple Trump children) were presenting themselves as representatives of candidate Donald Trump while at the same time seeking meetings with known Russian organized crime and Putin-tied figures who have for years been perpetually under international surveillance. Reports flooded in to agency heads saying, “Holy @#(&! — Look at all the sleazy Russians being contacted by this campaign!” And thus, investigations began, because that would be normal, wise, and the most probable outcome.

No conspiracy, no “spying,” just people doing their job. [2]

In short, never assume large-scale conspiracies are true when ordinary thievery, lying, and incompetence are far, far more likely.


  1. The science podcast Skeptics Guide to the Universe interviewed Tobias Füchslin about his study in an episode last year (#668, about two-thirds into the episode).
  2. Slate’s legal editor, Dahia Lithwick, hosts an excellent podcast called Amicus. In this recent episode, House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes discusses how the multi-agency investigation into Trump’s Russia connections unfolded in real time. (Unless Rep. Himes is also part of the Deep State conspiracy!).

4 thoughts on “The probability of “Deep State” and other conspiracies

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