I like to think of myself as having a fairly evidence based world view. I aspire to judge the world around me like a scientist. As such I require evidence, references, and peer review. I tend to be very skeptical about conspiracy theories. About a year ago I read Christopher Steele's now infamous Russia dossier, claiming Russia's FSB helped get Donald Trump elected. What was just as shocking as its content was that I instantly bought it.
The fact that I have believed in this has bothered me a fair bit, so I have been trying to figure out why I believe in it. I will in this post try to explain why and how my world view shapes how I gauge the plausibility of a story. Lets be very clear here, very little proof has been produced to substantiate the claims. If proof emerges that disproves the content of the dossier, I wont dispute it. Everything as far as I know could be made up.
So why would I believe it? Clearly given that I don't share Mr trumps politics I could be biased simply because I want it to be true, but I don't think that is it. I don't believe in common conspiracy theories about other politicians I disagree with. I could say that it "smells" true, but that might be the least scientific way to judge something. "Feeling" or "wanting" the earth to be flat doesn't make it so.
Lets start with the obvious, conspiracies do exist. Watergate, Iran Contras, Enron, the plot to kill Hitler in 1944 and Bernie Madoff are all historical facts. They are however easily outnumbered by the conspiracy theories that have no factual basis, so its prudent to be very skeptical. It means that we need to think hard about what to believe in, especially since conspiracy theories flourish so easily online.
One important marker that tells me this is true is that it never goes over board. Trump is offers lucrative contracts, but he turns them down. The Russians have "Kompromat" on Trump but they never use it. If you make up a Conspiracy theory you don't cut out the juiciest bits. Almost all conspiracy theories are out to discredit someone, and this one is way too off the mark to be useful if it was made up.
My main hint that this is real is the smell of office politics. This is the reason I wanted to write this, and Its also something I think is very important in order to understand the world in a broader sense.
If you have ever worked with other people on a project you know that decisions and actions are very rarely as well coordinated as thy should be. Different people have different ideas and pull in different directions. Ideas are approved or shut down because of from whom they emanate, what group they belong to, their status, what group will benefit or get credit. Conspiracy theorists often ascribe super human coordination to the group of people who are executing the conspiracy. When have a group of people ever been perfectly in line and synchronized? It doesn't happen. If a Conspiracy hinges on people working perfectly together, then its probably not true.
When reading dating profiles, CVs and other self descriptions, I have learned to not read what is written but read the person who chose what to write. You can lie and say you are 6 feet tall, when you are really just 4.8, but you cant escape the fact that you though stating your height was a good idea. That is inescapable, and tells me something deeper about you.
The Steele report sounds like the kind of venting you would hear in a bar from a friend talking about how messed up things are at work. I think a fair bit of the content in the dossier is not very accurate. You could disprove a specific thing in it, but it may still give the over all conspiracy weight. If your friend at the bar tells you management did something stupid today, are they lying? Probably not, but they are probably also not privy to all information and they are only telling you their side of the story. If the boss was there telling you about their reasoning for the decision it might not sound as bad. This is hear say, not facts. Your friend in the bar, may not have all the facts, and may have some things wrong, but they are still probably capturing the culture and issues at their job pretty accurately.
Hunter S Thompson's reporting was once called "The least factual, but most accurate account". I can tell you a story about a someone that is not true but that still accurately reflects a persons personality and motivations. These are assertions about culture.
We often attribute too much intelligence to conspirators. Some how I'm supposed to be convinced George W Bush was the master mind behind 9/11 but he couldn't pronounce "nuclear"? Conspiracies or any kind of illegal behavior emerges from an environment where it is accepted. This is where culture comes in. If you have spent a decade thinking about how to invade Iraq, of course you are going to try to use 9/11 to that end. Bernie Madoff didn't start out as a fraud, but once you are in a culture of success its easy to start hiding losses to retain that culture. As the losses grow you go further and further and soon you you are doing things you once couldn't imagine yourself doing. People don't ask questions because they want to believe what they are told. People don't lie to create conflict, they lie to avoid conflict.
Its what Nick Davies describes as "the Conspiracy of power recognizing power" in his excellent book "hacked off". We envision long tables where powerful men meet in secret to decide the fate of the world, but in reality there is no need to meet. Most powerful people know without asking what actions will be supported or opposed by other powerful people. If you plan to propose a tax cut for the rich, you don't have to ask rich people if they will support you in the next election. If you plan to invade one of the oil riches countries in the world, you don't need to ask oil companies if they are onboard. Facebook told their employees to pay anyone who could make content to generate engagement, and before they know it an army of people are trying to write the most shocking headline about Hillary they can, because that's where a culture of anything-goes-as-long-as-it-generates-clicks eventually takes you.
I have a saying I keep repeating about foreign policy and it goes: "All foreign policy is really domestic policy". If you want to understand a country's foreign policy, you must understand, that it doesn't have a foreign policy, it has an amalgamation of policies driven by different people, sometimes pulling in the same direction and sometimes not. Each individual person, has their own objective, like appealing to a specific electorate, sucking up to the boss, outmaneuvering the boss, helping friends, keeping enemies down or trading favors. Some are ideological, some are not. Culture is important because it is the thing that can make the majority pull in the same direction. The same goes for understanding Companies, Parties, or any other organization.
The content of the steely report is the product of a Russian culture of an over zealous security service. Putin is an old KGB man so in he has created a culture where everything can be solved the KGB way. They didn't plan any of this, they video tape lots of people who stays at their fancy hotels, why not? tape is cheep. It just turned out that one of them decided to run for president of the US. Russian hackers probably try to steel e-mails from everyone, and once the DNC emails landed on their desks, why not leak them to Wikileaks? Russia has attempted to discredit democracies for years, it was just their luck that they found a candidate that slotted neatly in to this narrative. On the other side we have a campaign with a culture of anything goes as long as it pleases Trump. This is not a story of a grand plot, its a story of people who where so busy wining one race, they forgot that there was other things they could loose at in the process.
And this is the point. When the campaign says there was no conspiracy, I think many of them believe what they say. I don't think they recognize that what they did was a conspiracy. There was no secret meeting between Putin and Trump in a hill top castle where they signed a fellowship in blood and used table sized maps to carve up the world between them. When Trump JR shares his email conversations, he thinks that they prove that all they did was meet some Russians to get dirt on Hillery, not conspiring with a foreign power. What he is not recognizing is that the this is what a real conspiracy looks like.