When I first learned of the death of Jeffrey Epstein, my first thought was that it was probably exactly as reported, a suicide. My second thought was that the news would almost certainly engender a spate of wild conspiracy theories. I was disappointed to learn I was correct about my second thought.
I hasten to add, I am not saying Jeffrey Epstein wasn’t murdered, or whisked out of the country and a body double substituted, or even encouraged to kill himself, or even given the means to kill himself. I am saying those are the least likely of the possible scenarios. The most likely is he killed himself without either passive or active assistance, as advertised.
No, I am not being naive. I’m employing a principal of science that is far too seldom used in popular culture, particularly on social media, called Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor is the notion that “the simplest solution is most likely the right one.” I wish to emphasize that this is not a categorical pronouncement. It is a starting point in assessing a situation in which none of us possess complete information.
The reason Occam’s razor is on the side of Epstein’s suicide is because of a simple fact of life that many conspiracy theorists seem to be completely unaware of, or even completely unable to entertain: the vast majority of human beings are incapable of entering into a conspiracy to commit murder. Conspiracy theorists find it very easy to accuse people of murder without knowing the slightest thing about them. If Jeffrey Epstein was murdered it would require a lot of people to agree to it, and it simply isn’t that easy to find people like that. It just isn’t, not even in an organization as corrupt as the one Donald Trump heads up.
I think I also need to define my terms here. Conspiracy theories are to real conspiracies what CNN is to fake news. That is to say, they look similar but they are not. CNN is an organization of men and women devoted to the highest professional standards of journalism and news reportage. Fake news organizations are interested in the truth only when it supports its own agenda. Fake news promotes sensationalism and has shabby standards of evidence.
Of course real conspiracies go on all the time. But a “conspiracy theory” in the sense I’m defining it here is different. It promotes wild speculation. It reaches conclusions on zero evidence. It is intolerant of detractors or any who disagree. Conspiracy theories are typically promoted by amateurs who know very little about what they are talking about, but quickly acquire the lingo necessary to convince people they are experts.
The conspiracy theories currently circulating, that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered, are unfortunate. I doubt no matter how much evidence emerges that Epstein really did kill himself, up to and including CCTV footage showing him doing it, will not be believed, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because the wild speculation inherent in conspiracy theories and their promotion very much harm our ability to know what is true and what is not, and it corrupts the very process of knowing. We are dismantling the most valuable asset of the species called Homo sapiens, our ability to reason, one brick at a time.
A comment I read in the midst of this wild speculation is an exemplar of how utterly unhinged conspiracy theory fever can render us. The commenter wrote, “This is too much a coincidence and I don’t believe in coincidences.” It’s one of those bland comments that sounds reasonable on the surface but is surprisingly troubling when you examine it. Really? You don’t believe in coincidences? But, isn’t the absence of coincidences in itself a coincidence? So you insist that odd juxtapositions of events or suspicious-looking occurrences cannot ever turn out to be mere ordinary happenstance with nothing sinister behind it? Is that a thing anyone seriously entertains? When you really look at it, isn’t it actually a preposterous thing to suggest?
We live in dangerous times and we need to grow up fast and learn how to think. If there is something suspicious behind the death of Jeffrey Epstein then we will find out soon enough. Murder involving large numbers of conspirators – and this would have to almost certainly be that if it’s true – will usually out. In the meantime we need to demonstrate the very thing that separates us from the fringe groups of Pizzagate and Deep State conspiracy promoters. Leave the sloppy thinking to Donald Trump and his ilk. Let’s be careful and responsible. Sometimes not knowing the truth and having the courage to admit it is the hardest thing of all.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.