The Scalia Job: Why Wouldn’t It Be a Conspiracy?

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia immediately put conspiracy theorists to work. The San Antonio Express-News cited ten of the most common Scalia conspiracy theories circulating. These included three from a Dallas Observer article that referred to Scalia conspiracy theories as “batshit” but explained how he could have been smothered, poisoned, or gassed without detection. Separate theories have the Bush family, former Vice President Cheney, President Obama, and Bill & Hillary Clinton pulling the strings. According to one theorist, Leonard Nimoy did it. (If you believe Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock was responsible, his death 11 1/2 months earlier apparently does not disqualify him.)

It should not be surprising that people look for patterns in an unexpected death of a famous person. My blog on motivated reasoning explained how we process information (including unconsciously) in a way that fits our existing beliefs, sometimes to support the belief that the world is not a random place where random things happen. We are pattern recognizers, a useful evolutionary tool for spotting causation, but also a cause of apophenia, our tendency for spotting and believing non-existent patterns in random events. Motivated reasoning drives conspiracy theories. And this thinking pattern is so robust that it is actually stronger among people who are better informed and more numerate. Experiments have found the conservatives and liberals with the highest-level analytical abilities are more likely to let their political views get in the way of their reasoning. Our brains are just not built to accept events as just random occurrences.

An unexpected death, a swing vote in the Supreme Court up for grabs, emotionally pitched and divisive Presidential primary campaigns — if you want to connect dots, there are plenty of dots out there. In fact, as long as you aren’t neutral, there are multiple conspiracies to accommodate both liberals and conservatives.

Did Justice Scalia die of natural causes? The types of theories being floated that point to murder seem extremely far-fetched. Perhaps because it was at a hunting resort (Cheney accidentally shot someone while hunting) in Texas (one of the several home states of the Bush family), the theorists are imagining Cheney in the next room with curare darts, or Barbara Bush silently cartwheeling down conveniently empty hallways. Otherwise, these theories involve large numbers of henchmen, making it increasingly impractical that murder is a realistic scenario.

It didn’t help that the Washington Post has a story giving additional credibility to Scalia conspiracy theories. The story presents the possibility of foul play from the perspective of most thoroughly-discredited conspiracies: you can’t prove it didn’t happen. The article focuses on the lack of an autopsy and the opinion of a former D.C. homicide investigator asking hypotheticals like “Did the US Marshals smell his breath for any unusual odor that might suggest poisoning?” These were likely rhetorical questions. The investigator concludes, “My gut tells me there is something fishy going on in Texas.”

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education

Author of Thinking in Bets and How to Decide. Co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education