“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”

Some would purport it does, and yet others may claim that an army of mythical tree elves sprint out from their oak and pine homes to catch the tree before it lands, and gently place it on the ground with such supernatural care that not a single decibel is emitted. While the former theory is certainly more believable, who is to say that the latter is not true?

When posed with questions such as these, one tends to rely on a notion of “likelihood” to guide speculation. The laws of physics maintain that a fallen tree will impact the earth with a force equal to the acceleration of gravity multiplied by the mass of the tree itself, and that that force will be accompanied by an emission of sound proportional in magnitude. But it also is entirely possible that tiny creatures with hands like Jerry Rice catch fallen trees in the absence of onlookers. Without observational proof, it cannot be said with complete certainty that either situation occurs. “Probably” does not mean “definitely.”

The term “probably” does not carry much weight at all. It attributes fractional levels of truth to events, which are categorically false—as they are unestablished, unproven or, in the case of the mythical tree elves, unobserved—for the simple sake of satisfying a human desire to dichotomize. We are made uncomfortable by that which is unknown, and so we unjustifiably and artificially give it truth. However, in our efforts to refute the Socratic Paradox, we distance ourselves further from the truth we seek to discover.

At halftime of the most recent Super Bowl, fans nation-wide turned off their televisions because the Atlanta Falcons were “probably” going to win.  On Election Day, voters across the country stayed home because Hillary Clinton was “probably” going to win. Last week, most did not bother to read the released JFK Files because there was “probably” nothing there.

The Falcons blew a 25-point lead. Hillary Clinton lost to Donald J. Trump. Then-FBI Director Richard Helms suspected at the time that Lee Harvey Oswald may have been a CIA agent—the answer to which is omitted in the documents.  In each of these cases, dissenters—who wished not apply truth where it does not belong—were castigated. And as the uncomfortableness of the less likely result increases, so, too, does the vigor with which we castigate. “Dopes” bet Tom Brady would come back in Houston, “crazy” people thought Trump would defeat Clinton, and “conspiracy theorists” believe that the American government was involved in the assassination of JFK.  

While challenging the outcome of a sporting event may elicit a more mild condemnation—but a condemnation nonetheless—challenges to more consequential events, like elections, and the integrity of the U.S. government inherit a stronger response.

The strength of condemnation, however, does not make the challenge less valid, nor does it nullify the possibility of the challenge being correct. One must wonder if the reason why society has such a negative response to challenge results from a desire to shield ourselves from the potential of discovering less convenient truths.

The world is ripe with “conspiracy” theories, but it does not mean that they do not deserve to be investigated. However uncomfortable they make us feel—and however improbable they may seem—, there is still a possibility that they are the truth.

The JFK Files—as the set of documents released this past month regarding JFK’s assassination have come to be known—are actually an addition upon a set of previously released documents. The larger set includes revelations about Operation Northwoods—a false flag terrorist attack against American civilians and military targets that actually had been considered by the CIA. While the attack never came to fruition, it certainly suggests that the U.S. government has the capacity to commit and has committed such actions before, thus giving credence to a whole host of conspiracy theories, including the most popular one surrounding JFK.

Similarly, it was once thought crazy that the American electoral process could be rigged, and anyone who believed in such a notion was labeled a “conspiracy theorist.” However, excerpts from Donna Brazile’s soon-to-be-published Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House add credibility to the notion that such was the case in the Democratic primaries. Statements in Brazile’s book give weight to a host of conspiracy theories surrounding the Democratic National Convention. Likewise, there may be another conspiracy brewing on the other side of the aisle, as allegations surrounding Russian interference in the elections to assist Donald Trump are supplemented by mysterious and related circumstances.

Conspiracies meriting consideration also surround notably lighter affairs, such as technology and sports. Many claim that new iOS updates are intentionally designed to slow down older iPhones when released in an effort to spur sales. The absence of official studies makes this theory difficult to corroborate; however, personal testimonies—including that of the author of this piece himself—would add accreditation. In the realm of sports, the nature of professional leagues profit-driven entities has contributed to conspiracy theories surrounding events such as the NBA Draft famously in 1985, but also in recent years, as well as the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

Conspiracies theories certainly do sound ridiculous; however, the world would be foolish not to at the very least entertain them, especially given how credible they may actually be. The term “conspiracy theory” connotes falsehood, half-bakedness and a following of eccentric wack-jobs or paranoid basement-dwellers, but the connotation is not necessarily deserved. As the JFK Files, Hacks, and founded doubts surrounding the activities of technology companies and sporting organizations show, conspiracy theories may often carry weight, and deserve to be considered with gravity. After all, if it sounds to crazy to be true, it “probably” is (true).

So let’s go look for mythical tree elves.

Jacob Weiss is a Trinity senior. His column, "not jumping to any conclusions," runs on alternate Fridays.