Pop Culture, Big Ideas: ‘Wormwood’ and Minimal Conspiracy Theories

Netflix’s Wormwood is one of the most enjoyable series I watched in 2017, and easily the best documentary. As well as being beautifully made by old-master Errol Morris, the show highlights the virtues of a minimal conspiracy theory.

The series tells the story of military scientist Frank Olsen, who fell to his death from the 13th floor of New York’s Hotel Statler on November 28th, 1953. The death was explained as a suicide by the CIA. Over six episodes, Wormwood argues pretty convincingly that Olsen’s death was something far more sinister.

The reason Wormwood is genuinely convincing is the scale of the theory: it is a minimal conspiracy theory. For example, there are only a small number of alleged conspirators. A lot of the more popular conspiracy theories out there are implausible simply because too many people are involved.

Using secrecy as a key criterion of success for a potential conspiracy, Grimes applied his model to four alleged plots, estimating the maximum number of people required to be in on the intrigue, and how long it would take for them to unravel.


Hoax moon landings (410,000 people) would have been revealed in three years eight months, climate change fraud (405,000 people) in three years and nine months, a coverup of unsafe vaccinations (22,000) in three years and two months and a suppressed cancer cure (714,000 people) in three years and three months.


The Guardian, ‘Secret Success: Equations Give Calculations for Keeping Conspiracies Quiet’

That’s not the only reason Wormwood’s hypothesis holds up, of course. It also helps that the claim made is clearly defined. That means evidence for and against the theory can actually be assessed. This is not the case with more wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, who make every piece of information work to fit their preconceived idea of ‘what really happened!


Ass man
Excerpt from a 1953 CIA publication, released under FOI Act in 1997


Maximal Conspiracy Theories

Another Netflix show, simply called CONSPIRACY deals with this other end of the conspiracy theory spectrum. While the show does not necessarily endorse all the ideas it explores, it definitely discusses maximal conspiracy theories.




It’s fun stuff, even if none of it stands up to scrutiny. What’s interesting is that even the wildest jungle of irrational paranoid thinking sometimes grows from a little seed of legitimate doubt and scepticism.

The wild-sounding claim that Hitler may not have died was actually a pretty reasonable suspicion to hold. At least up until the 1970s, when conclusive evidence of Hitler’s death became widely available.

Real footage of fake footage, for real?


The idea that the first moon landing was faked is completely absurd. But scepticism about claims made by the great powers during the Cold War was, and is, pretty damn rational. Lying about landing on the moon to get one over on the Russians is just the sort of thing the US would have done during the Cold War. But why lie about it when you can just do it?

Hunting for the Kernel

Sometimes, if you peel back enough layers of myth-making, you actually do find a solid minimal conspiracy theory. A great example of this is 9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB! At its most extreme this very popular theory holds that the attacks on New York City in 2001 were orchestrated directly by the US government. It’s claimed that shadowy government operatives rigged the Twin Towers and Tower 7 with demolition explosives and fired missiles at the Pentagon, then claimed it was a plane. The planes that hit the towers were flown by remote control. The passengers were taken off the planes by the state and are locked in prison camps. And on and on and on.

Yeah, I did the 9/11s


As fun as they are to read, these theories are all total horseshit, as has been explained over and over again. But, at the centre of all the paranoid fantasising about 9/11 lies a concrete fact – the Bush administration, and the US power-elite generally, benefited hugely from the 9/11 attacks. More importantly, Bush – along with a number of international actors – used the attacks as a pretence to launch illegal and ongoing wars of aggression in the Middle East. An international conspiracy theory the truth of which isn’t even slightly controversial.

An argument could even be made that, even though 9/11 itself was not premeditated, making such an event the pretext for reasserting US dominance was. This is especially plausible considering numerous members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) held key positions in the Bush administration. The PNAC’s explicit goal was reasserting US military dominance globally. In Rebuilding America’s Defenses they point out that a ‘catastrophic and catalyzing event’ could speed up this process. So, when they got their catastrophe in the form of 9/11, is it unreasonable to think they leapt into action?

Skeptics™ versus Truth

None of this is to say that all conspiracy theories have an element of truth, or that we should endorse them simply because they have healthy anti-authoritarian roots. My point is that we need to make intellectual space for conspiratorial ideas while maintaining intellectual hygiene.

Those in power generally want to hold onto and expand that power, and will sometimes use criminal means to do so. As such, the blanket rejection of conspiracy theories by the Skeptics crowd may well be as damaging to the quest for truth as the wild-mythmaking of the tin-foil hat crowd.


I’m sorry, Scully, I never meant to hurt you!


<– Read the previous edition of Pop Culture, Big Ideas

. . .

I wrote above that big conspiracies always fail, but astute readers will have noticed a contradiction. Frank Olsen’s murder itself was a small conspiracy involving less than ten people directly. But it was ordered by the CIA, a branch of the US government, so surely this is a huge conspiracy! No, it isn’t.

The murder of Frank Olsen was a crime carried out by a small group of conspirators. But the CIA policy that led to the murder of Frank Olsen and many others was the opposite of criminal. The government-endorsed policies of the CIA are above the law; part and parcel of the state that makes the law and the machinery of violence that enforces it on citizens. Beyond a certain level of state power, the law is no longer relevant, however much we wish it were otherwise. This leads to a bit of a paradox: huge government conspiracies are sometimes real, but they’re legal and therefore not conspiracies.

So, while the act of murdering Frank Olsen involved a conspiracy, ordering that murder was just business as usual, carried out by agents of the state in accordance with government policy.

Sorry about those facts

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