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Why We Embrace Conspiracy Theories

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
New York State Sex Offender Registry via AP

This week, convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein was found unresponsive in his jail cell from an apparent hanging, the day after a court unsealed a cache of documents from a lawsuit against his alleged procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell. Those documents included affidavits from Virginia Roberts Giuffre, the plaintiff, that allege Epstein trafficked her to major figures including former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Prince Andrew of Britain and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Epstein had allegedly attempted suicide in late July, when he apparently tried to hang himself in his cell. He was removed from that cell and placed on suicide watch. Only 11 days before his successful suicide, he was removed from suicide watch.

The failures were systemic. According to the Associated Press, guards on Epstein's unit were "working extreme overtime shifts to make up for staffing shortages." Epstein's jailers were supposed to check on him every 30 minutes but didn't do so, according to The New York Times. Epstein was also supposed to be housed with another inmate so he wasn't alone; that never happened.

Given the public scrutiny on Epstein -- he was the most famous federal inmate in custody -- it's no wonder that so many Americans are deeply suspicious of his suicide. Epstein had publicly associated with both President Donald Trump and ex-President Bill Clinton; Clinton had flown on Epstein's plane multiple times. Within hours, dueling hashtags #ClintonBodyCount and #TrumpBodyCount trended on Twitter. President Trump, seemingly bothered by the hashtag targeting him, even retweeted Terrence K. Williams: "Died of SUICIDE on 24/7 SUICIDE WATCH? Yeah right! How does that happen ... #JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he's dead ... I see #TrumpBodyCount trending but we know who did this! ... RT if you're not Surprised." Conversely, MSNBC's Joy Reid suggested that Attorney General William Barr, "Trump's consigliere ... whose prime directive is to protect Donald Trump no matter what," might be covering up Epstein's murder.

None of this is good for the country, obviously. But the question is why Americans seem so apt to believe conspiracy theories these days. Some of that certainly has to do with social media, where small pockets of fringe opinion can merge together to create larger pockets of fringe opinion.

Much of it has to do with generalized distrust of the media -- distrust that is largely justified by media unwilling to question conspiracism from one side of the aisle. The same weekend Trump idiotically retweeted the Clinton-Epstein conspiracy theory, no less than three Democratic presidential candidates suggested that Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 while charging that officer, was actually murdered. Not a single reporter apparently bothered to ask why these candidates were ignoring the report of Barack Obama's Department of Justice, which found no evidence of murder.

More of it has to do with the human inability to accept widespread incompetence. Conspiracies are notoriously difficult to pull off. There are simply too many moving parts. Those who believe in conspiracy theories tend to attribute far more control to human beings than they generally have. Better to believe in conspiracies than to accept the difficult truth that those who are supposed to be able to handle their business often fail at it.

In political terms, though, conspiracism turns up the heat radically. That's because every failure becomes evidence of malevolence on the part of your opponent; every oddity becomes yet another data point in favor of the all-powerful evil of those with whom you disagree.

Better, then, to abide by Hanlon's razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." We live in a deeply stupid time. And here's the good news: Stupidity can be handled. Evil is another story.

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