What is a Conspiracy Theory?

Yesterday I posted a meme on my facebook making light of conspiracy theories. Quite to my surprise, this post has caught quite a lot of attention. Much of the discussion has entered on the definition of the term, “conspiracy theory.” I thought that it would be helpful to write a post on the definition of that word, before discussing the possibility that there may in fact be some conspiracy theories about which are worth discussing.

Words Have Meanings

Incredibly, I feel the need to begin this post by defending the statement that “words have meanings.” Every language has words, and these words mean something. While that meaning can shift slightly or change over time, there is a meaning behind particular words. These meanings are found in dictionaries.

The statement, “the words, ‘conspiracy theory’ are just emotionally charged words meant to shame those who have seen the light,” sounds surprisingly like postmodern linguistic relativism. According to this view, words do not have any intrinsic meaning, but exist only as a means of exerting power over another. If we walk far down this road, anything that we say at all will be hopelessly lost in a sea of changing words and perceived power struggles.

I do not agree with this belief. Words have meanings.

A second confusion to set right is the difference between “conspiracy” and “conspiracy theory.”

A conspiracy is a hidden plot or secret alliance.

“Conspiracy theory” is a compound noun, meaning that the two words together form a new meaning. The definition of “conspiracy theory” is different from the definition of the two words separately.

According to Dictionary.com, a “conspiracy theory is:

1. a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot: One popular conspiracy theory accuses environmentalists of sabotage in last year’s mine collapse.

2. a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a covert group: A number of conspiracy theories have already emerged, purporting to explain last week’s disappearance of a commercial flight over international waters.

3. the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of deceptive plots that are largely unknown to the general public: The more I learn about the activities of intelligence agencies, the less far-fetched I find many geopolitical conspiracy theories.

Wikipedia helpfully provides a list of conspiracy theories.

Some of the historic conspiracy theories included the idea that secret societies of Jews ritually drank the blood of Christian children and that Jewish banking families, such as the Rockefeller’s, controlled the world. A conspiracy theory which I have written against extensively is the theory that the events of Jesus’ life were staged by an elaborate conspiracy (as described in the Da Vinci Code) Other conspiracy theories centre around the death of JFK, princess Dianna, a flat earth, and the moon landing.

To help us understand better, I would like us to think of having a discussion with someone fully convinced that the would is flat. How would you convince them otherwise?

“What about space exploration?”

“Faked. It’s part of the conspiracy.”

“What about maps and globes?”

“Faked. It’s part of the conspiracy.”

“What about science?”

“Faked. It’s part of the conspiracy.”

…and on and on. If you don’t believe me, do a google search. There are people right now that believe this. There is no way to disapprove their thinking, because everything is explained away as a part of the conspiracy.

A theory which continues to manufacture elaborate explanations for new facts is called ad hoc arguments. These very elaborate explanations also are warning signs that the theory is false.

Those who wish to defend conspiracy theories usually use a number of arguments.

Black-and-White Thinking

These objections all come back to a form of black and white thinking. Black and white thinking is often wrong because there are usually more than two options. Here is a demonstration of white black and white thinking does not work:

One. All flowers are either red or white.

Two. This flower is not red.

Three. Therefore, this flower is white.

You will notice that this argument makes sense within itself (that is, it is internally consistent) the second premise is correct. The third premise flows logically from the first to premises. The problem lies with the first premise: all flowers are not either red or white. In actual fact, there is a wide diversity of colors. The argument fails because there are more than two options.

Let’s look at some arguments Which rely on black and white thinking:

1. “Since you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, you must believe all science is true.“

This is an example of black and white thinking because it assumes that one either completely rejects everything from main stream science, or else they completely except it. In reality, almost nobody excepts absolutely everything from mainstream science. That is not how science works! The academic community is a complex community of voices which are all pushing towards the best possible explanation for various questions. It is completely reasonable to say, “according to the best science we have today, X drug seems to be the best cure to treat Y disease.“ Journalism is different than science, but it would also be accurate to say, “according to the best information we have today, X theory is the best explanation of Y reality.“

Those who trust science trust it to give the best possible information. They are not expecting perfection, and they still will have to make up their own minds, from a diversity of studies on a topic.

2. Because science is imperfect, it is unreliable

This statement is, unfortunately, promoted by many Christians especially of the 6-day creationist camp. Many of us grew up with literature from speakers such as Ken Ham and Kent Hovind who gave example after example of scientific theories which have been overturned. Their take-away was always, “see? Science is not correct! It has so many mistakes!”

However, is a religious worldview that believes 100% in a certain claim. But science is always about a degree of certainty. Something can be more or less probable. Also, what these speakers conveniently fail to mention is that the whole reason that we know previous theories are incorrect is not because of religious ideas but because they have been disproven by further scientific advancement.

3. The peer review process is corrupt, therefore no science can be relied upon.

It is true that the peer review process is not perfect. Also, there have been some recent cases of abuse of the system – either publishing articles that should not have been published, or refusing to publish articles that should have been published. As well, there is something of a crisis in some fields of academia today, as ideas such as neo Marxism, postmodern linguistic theory, radical feminism, critical race theory, and hyper political correctness threaten to undermine the peer review process.

This is a very concerning trend, which many academics are speaking out about. However, even a corrupt peer review process is better than getting our information from random websites which have no way at all of justifying their validity.

Also, again, we know of the corruption because the peer review process has itself pointed out problem articles. We know of the problem of ideology in the peer review process because people are standing against it and speaking up about it. There is no secret society pulling the strings: these debates are happening very much out in the open, where public discourse should be had.

Before moving on from this point, it is very significant that journal articles, newspaper articles, and the like all have an author’s name, as well as that of the publishing company affixed to them. What this means is that these are people who are staking their career on their words. If they are proven to be a fraud, not only their employment, but their entire contribution as an academic or as a professional may be called into question. They may also discredit their organization, which can be sued for libel if the statements are not backed up with facts. This simple fact of affixing ones name to their words makes information in journalism very high stakes, and pushes people to a certain level of professionalism in writing.

I think that this is worth keeping in mind, as the era of anonymous news is on the rise. How brave is someone, really, if they are prepared to spout ideas, but will not tell us who they are, and will not put their own identity on the line…? Even Snowden was willing to expose himself in order to get the truth out.

4. “ people who believe the narrative are sheep.“

This is a case of using inflammatory language to try to win an argument. It is also an example of black and white thinking. There are some people who absolutely refuse to except anything tied by science or by the main stream media simply because it is popular. Then, there are some people who believe everything that a cult or conspiracy-theory leader tells them. In the middle are most people, who form opinions from a variety of sources and come to their own conclusions based upon their research.

Once again, there are not just two options: conspiracy theory vs. Conformism. There is also a wide middle ground of free-thinking citizens.

6. “Yes, but there are conspiracies out there!”

Believing that there are conspiracies is different than believing in conspiracy theories. Most people are aware that while politicians try to put on a nice face, sex power and greed are all too commonly their true motivations. There are corruption and back room deals. They are very rich and influential people to hold a lot of power behind the scenes. Also, many politicians feel that they are above the law, and engage in all manner of sexually deviant and criminal activities, as well as recently shown in their Epstein investigation.

However, understanding that the world is a complex place with many human and imperfect actors is far different than believing that one clandestine, very powerful and small group of people is running the entire world.

It is rational to believe that corruption exists. It seems irrational to believe that all of the corruption is actually organized by one powerful organization.

Since conspiracy theories are very common, and most of them have been found to be untrue, I believe that it is helpful to ask, “Is it possible that any popular views today could be described as conspiracy theories?”

What is the Appeal of Conspiracy Theories?

The tendency to observe patterns when none exist is called illusory pattern perception. It is similar to the brain’s ability to find recognizable shapes in ordinary objects — for example, a face or an animal in a fallen tree root. You may also notice that when very tired (for example, driving for far too long) this ability begins to heighten: one may begin to think they are seeing shapes everywhere. This is a simple way of reminding ourselves that when we are stressed or tired, our mind is not at its best, and it can start to play tricks on us. Other psychological factors which contribute to a conspiratorial mindset are apophenia, paranoia, and clustering illusion.

How can you Tell if a Conspiracy Theory is Wrong?

One way to prove that a conspiracy theory is likely wrong is that it is disproven by a multitude of separate, independent streams of evidence.

If news sources in the UK, Australia, and from both conservative and mainstream news outlets in the US all agree that a thing happened a certain way, it is likely that this is the best explanation for that event — even if some anonymous writer on the internet says the contrary.

Another way of realizing that one is truly committed to a conspiracy theory is unfalsifiable. Normal beliefs about the world can be falsified, or proven untrue. I may believe that it is raining outside, but when I step outside and observe the sun, I modify my beliefs. However, an unfalsifiable mindset is one which meets every new bit of information with, “That’s what they want you to think!” or “this too is a deception!”

What is the Harm of Conspiracy Theories?

It depends what the conspiracy theory is about. Many people believe that the moon landing was faked: but that does not seem to impact very much. However, when conspiracy theories name people as bad actors, they can cause immeasurable damage to their image and careers. When conspiracy theories radically redefine ones image of the world, it may cause them to behave in an irrational and even dangerous way, such as charging into a pizza parkour with a gun, or parking an armoured car on the Hoover dam.

Conclusioni:

I would like to reiterate that the world is a complex and often dark place. There is almost certainly more than meets the eye in politics, in technology, and in information. We need to be discerning and cautious in our perceptions, as we seek to understand the world.

One extreme reaction might be to simply accept and believe without question everything that one particular news outlet teaches. This would clearly be unhelpful. But another extreme would be to believe that one theory about a clandestine organization or conspiracy really explains all of the discongruent and chaotic elements in the world.

I hope that the reader can take a moment to re-evaluate their own beliefs, to se whether they are reasonable, or whether they have, in fact, fallen victim to a conspiracy-theory mindset.

Some Questions For Reflection 🤔
1) Is there any way that your theory can be proven wrong? (Falsifiability)
2) If I give you new information, will you make up new evidence to explain it away? (Ad hoc)
3) When predictions are false, do you admit you are wrong, or explain that away (ad hoc again)
4) Are there simpler ways to explain things than your theory? (Occham’s razor)
5) Is your theory becoming ridiculously large? (Eg involving ALL of the major news outlets of the world, the academic community, major world leaders, etc. Etc., etc..) (Occham’s razor, again)
6) Does your theory fit in with known facts about the world? (
7) Do the people proposing this theory have the guts to put their name to it? Can they prove their credentials? Or are these anonymous internet folks?