As it turns out, our neurons are none too picky about where they get their patterns. Common plots of mystery novels and cinematic thrillers, for example, create strong and persistent webs of association which our non-conscious minds find very satisfying when matched by events in the real world.
Jeffrey Epstein’s life, as reported in both mainstream and tabloid news, reads like a pulp fiction potboiler. In the summer of 2019, the plot appeared to be arcing toward its final chapters, the suave villain’s inevitable comeuppance. He was about to get his, and the victims would have their day.
Where the plots of such stories certainly don’t bend is toward the villain suddenly pulling down the curtain by killing himself before trial and judgment, resulting in the dismissal of all charges against him and no victory for the long-suffering targets of his abuse. Faced with such a shock, ordinarily rational people found this turn of events difficult to reconcile with their expectations. Even New York mayor Bill de Blasio felt that Epstein’s death was somehow “too convenient”. Thus began the rash of negative inference, the hunt for gaps in the official story that would reveal Epstein’s death to be part of something bigger, something that made more sense, that comprised a more satisfying narrative.
The machine gains steam
Jeffrey Epstein’s body was discovered about 6:30 AM on August 10, 2019, in a cell at the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center, hanging by the neck from a strip of bedsheet tied to the upper bunk. The subsequent investigation revealed a dysfunctional prison environment rife with neglect and insufficient training. Contrary to protocol, the body was rushed to New York Downtown Hospital and from there to the medical examiner’s office before any photos were taken of the death scene. The overnight guards who were supposed to be checking the cell every 30 minutes had instead taken a snooze and then faked their log books. And the two cameras with the best views of the cell didn’t work.
This was more than enough to get the conspiracy machine rolling. No, it wasn’t that the prison was badly managed. Obviously, there was something afoot here. The guards were paid off. The cameras were disabled on purpose. The first responders made sure no photographic evidence existed. Even trivial details of the scene were fodder for speculation, such as bottles left standing upright on the upper bunk which, supposedly, would have been overturned by the hanging (but not, one must assume, by the forced strangulation of the occupant of the lower bunk). Epstein’s family and attorneys insisted that he hadn’t appeared depressed immediately prior to his death (although many people who kill themselves show no outward signs of depression or suicidal thoughts leading up to their suicide).
This alternative explanation of events was much more elaborate, and infinitely less probable, but it removed that nagging feeling that the story hadn’t ended as it should, and filled the “holes” and connected the “coincidences” that left the official story so itchingly unsatisfying. Yet the conspiracy theories themselves could only be supported by massive doses of blinkering. Nobody appeared (or appears) able to identify anyone who could enforce the hyper-collusion between all the disparate parties needed to pull off the murder and its cover-up. Or explain why the guards would agree to cooperate in a scheme bound to wreck their careers and incur charges of falsifying state records, as inevitably happened. Or where the supposed hush money had gone. Or how the murderer managed to physically manifest in front of the cell and vanish again after the killing without being seen making his way to and fro on any of the surrounding cameras. Or why Epstein’s body showed no sign of a struggle, and the neighboring inmates who testified to hearing CPR being performed on the body had not heard anyone strangling an unwilling victim to death the night before.
The official autopsy and the Federal Bureau of Prisons investigation both arrived at the same unsurprising conclusion — Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself inside a badly run prison when he saw the chance. Charges of complicit experts rang out against each finding, only compounding the alleged hyper-collusion.
In this particular case, there was relatively little factoidism, especially compared to the extensive (and typically spurious) engineering minutiae mustered by 9/11 “truthers” and the sheer walls of charts, graphs, and tables often posted by climate change deniers. One of the few exceptions was the close attention paid to the breaking of Epstein’s hyoid bone, which is more common in strangulation than in hanging, but also more likely when an older person is hanged compared to a youth. And a statement in a 60 Minutes interview by a pathologist hired by Epstein’s brother who reviewed photos of forensic evidence, saying it “looks like” there was no blood on the strip of orange bedsheet used in the hanging, got elevated on Wikipedia to an assertion that “although there was blood on Epstein’s neck, it was absent on the bed-sheet ligature”.
The power of certainty
While doubt may drive people into conspiracy theories, the satisfaction of certainty keeps them there. Conspiracy theorists often refer to those who accept the official story as “sheeple”, reflecting their view that anyone who fails to believe isn’t thinking for themselves, is being led around by the nose, controlled by higher powers.
And therein lies the true lure of conspiracy thinking. Your average individual may not have any real power against governments, banks, global corporations, billionaires, law enforcement, or the military, but if you’re onto their game, if you’ve got them sussed out, at least you’re not being fooled. And not being fooled allows us to think of ourselves as wise guys of a sort, insiders who know the score. We may not hold all the cards, but at least we know who’s running the game, and we’re not about to get fleeced.
Once that satisfying pattern has settled into our brains, it’s extremely difficult to knock our neurons into a different configuration. Especially when doing so means admitting that, far from being the wise guy, we’ve been the patsy all along. Which is why firmly entrenched false beliefs develop a kind of immunity to evidence, to the point that factual counter-evidence can even strengthen belief in the misinformation while increasing distrust against those who think otherwise.
So how do we defend ourselves against falling into the conspiracy theory trap? How do we fight against that nagging subconscious urge to ignore the preposterous conclusions that the Epstein murder hypothesis, for example, demands we accept, and live instead with the random and deeply unsatisfying injustice of his suicide and the seeming coincidences which allowed it to happen?
One of the best guards against conspiracy thinking is simply to demand an actual theory, a complete and coherent story. Conspiracy theories tend to break down quickly when we stop “just asking questions” — to quote a 9/11 “truther” mantra — and actually try to construct a complete, coherent scenario from all the bits and pieces. Stop and examine the alleged motives. Do they really make sense? Does Bill Gates really need to make more money, now that he’s actively giving so much of it away? Think about the claims being made and if they add up. If Antifa and BLM are responsible for the Capitol attack, how come nobody spotted them as outsiders at the time, but somehow people are able to do so after the fact, and why haven’t any of these infiltrators been arrested and identified as such?
Another strategy is to tease out the consequences of the claims. Just ask, “If that were true, then what?” For example, if the US moon landing were faked, wouldn’t some other country, especially America’s enemies and its rivals in the space race, point out that no launch or splashdown had been observed? If the Holocaust never happened, wouldn’t at least some Nazis use that fact as a defense when their very lives were on the line at trial? If climate scientists are lying about climate change to get grant money, wouldn’t at least a few among them choose to sabotage their competition and get more grant money for themselves by exposing the fraud?
Another red flag is being asked to reject actual experts in favor of non-experts. Which goes hand in hand with being highly suspicious of scenarios requiring hyper-collusion. Could a school shooting actually be faked without anyone investigating the crime figuring that out? Could the engineers analyzing the collapse of the World Trade Center towers have realistically made mistakes so obvious that random Internet users can spot them? Could nanochips actually be slipped into our vaccines without anyone involved in their development, manufacture, transportation, and insertion into the doses noticing what’s going on, and without anyone detecting the money trail or paper trail, or for that matter detecting the transmission signals that would be necessary for such devices to be useful once injected?
It’s also worthwhile to question whether the supposed “unlikely coincidences” in the official story actually are coincidences. In the Epstein case, for example, the notion that his death was surrounded by inexplicable “coincidences” depends on viewing the event backwards, as though it had to happen, and to happen when it did, and so the conditions surrounding it are somehow “too convenient”. Once we realize that it didn’t have to happen in the first place, we can see that the circumstances themselves triggered the event. Epstein feigned a positive mental attitude to get out of suicide watch. When his cellmate was released and he was left alone, he seized the opportunity to attempt suicide a second time. The same mismanagement in the prison which failed to have a new cellmate immediately assigned and allowed guards to sleep through their shifts also led to security hardware lingering in disrepair and first responders breaching protocol by removing him from his cell. The conditions surrounding Epstein’s suicide aren’t coincidences, but causes. One might just as well be suspicious that a hurricane arises when the temperature, air pressure, humidity, and winds are so “conveniently” aligned for it to form.
As psychologically satisfying as it may be to believe that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered, stepping back and attempting to outline a complete and coherent narrative yields a story that is not only preposterous in its motivations and utterly implausible in its premises, but also logistically impossible to carry out. That’s why there is no actual conspiracy theory to be found, no story of who did what when and where. When you look directly at it, the phantom of an actual theory vanishes like a magician’s smokescreen.
And yet, on some deep psychological level, it can still feel so much more satisfying to turn our heads and believe the illusion is real.