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An Introduction To Conspiracy Theories Part Two: Conspiracy or Conspiracy Theory?

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Part One can be found here

So What Is A Conspiracy?

The simplest definition, which is available online, is “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.” Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, authors of the 2014 book,  American Conspiracy Theories give us this definition, “A Secret arrangement between two or more actors to usurp political or economic power, violate established rights, hoard vital secrets, or unlawfully alter government institutions.” The second definition is more expansive. But I think they both do a good job of describing what most of us would agree are how we understand conspiracies

So again, conspiracies are real. The break in at the Watergate Hotel was a conspiracy. The assassinations of Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln were the acts of conspiracy. Gavrilo Princip and The Black Hand, the Serbian independence group that he was a member of were responsible for the deaths of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. So, to be clear conspiracies are real and they definitely affect the course of human history.

But Conspiracism (also known as Conspiratorial Thinking or The Paranoid Style) is the belief in or advocacy of conspiracy theories. Oxford defines it as “the belief that major historical and political events are brought about as the result of a conspiracy between interested parties, or are manipulated by or on behalf of an unknown group of influential people.” Seemingly random events aren’t seen as random. The characteristics of conspiracism include thinking that nothing happens by accident, that nothing is irrelevant, that every act by the powerful has a sinister purpose and most frustratingly that scholars and scientists are accused of fraud, or are attacked without evidence. All one need do is go onto YouTube and watch any one of the countless videos. Some even have a serious budget and good production quality. These videos will highlight supposed conspiracies in everyday events. Famous politicians and celebrities are connected to all kinds of grotesque or often fantastical acts. But millions of people believe them. This is unfortunately part of the modern social media discourse. I invite anyone, if they can stomach it  to read the comment section of various controversial news articles.

There are a number of ways to piece together whether or not you’re dealing with a conspiracy theory. On the podcast Skeptoid hosted by Brian Dunning, he gives two requirements that a conspiracy theory must adhere to in order to be considered the type of conspiracy theory that we’ve been discussing.  For one thing,  many of these claims are often unclear and questionable. One can say something like “The government does things we don’t know about,” and then virtually anything can come out in the news and people can claim that they are right. Realistically, we know that the government keeps secrets from the public. This is not a major revelation. For another thing, the world is full of real criminal conspiracies as I’ve highlighted, and people can always point to any one of them and claim “Hey, this is a conspiracy theory that was proven true.” But, I’m not going to let conspiracy theorists off the hook that easily.

Here are some pointers. First, the claim must be specific enough to be falsifiable. Vague claims are not acceptable. In political science evidence should be gathered before extravagant claims are made. This is something that modern politicians have a hard time grasping. You can’t just say “POTUS is up to no good” or “Airplanes spray unknown chemicals.”  Again, these claims are so vague that you could claim you were proven correct the next time Trump inevitably screws up or if a crop duster sprays a field. But if you say, to quote Dunning,  “United Airlines tail number NC13327 is equipped to spray VX nerve gas, and that one right there is spraying it right now,” then that’s a claim that can be easily disproved with a single inspection.  If someone makes a claim that specific and is proven right, then they will earn respect.

Second, the conspiracy must be known to the conspiracy theorist before it’s discovered by the media or law enforcement. This is crucial. Dunning says,  “Repeating someone else’s proper investigation does not constitute developing a theory. The journalists Woodward and Bernstein ran an intense investigation and put together evidence little by little until they had the whole story of the Watergate scandal; they never sat back in their chairs, proposed an elaborate conspiracy, and watched as every detail unfolded exactly as they predicted.” Pizzagate is a perfect example of a conspiracy theory. As is so often the case right-wing media figures and politicians took advantage of the simple minded (and a great deal of intelligent people as well) and spread the idea that the Democratic party elites were molesting children in the basement of said mediocre pizzeria. This stems from the idea that it was unfathomable to conservative hack men that pizza being mentioned in emails just meant pizza.  (Authors note: if your pizzeria doesn’t have an Italian name, sell pizza by the slice or generally come out of the NJ/NYC area, it’s probably going to be crap).

If conspiracy theorists want  to be impressive, and if they want to be taken seriously, they need to get to the information first. Otherwise they’re just claiming credit for watching the news. Conspiracy theorists will promote and buy into these elaborate conspiracies involving complex cover ups or massive groups of individuals working together without falter. They will tie together all of these random events and claim them as evidence. I once deconstructed a terrible article by a hack “writer” claiming that the Boston Marathon bomber was being secretly mind controlled. As usual, he offered no actual evidence, just a bunch of anecdotes.  

How To Test The “Theory”

The website Rationalwiki is a great (tongue-in-cheek) resource with which to gain an understanding of the amount of woo out there. It lightheartedly offers a series of questions in a number of areas in order to determine if a conspiracy theory is true. The first issue it examines is logistics:

  • How was the conspiracy put together?  
  • How large is it supposed to be?
  • How many people are part of this conspiracy?
  • Are there enough of them to carry out the plan?
  • What infrastructure and resources does it need?
  • How much time and money did it take, and where did this money come from?
  • If there are many thousands of conspirators, how are they organized?
  • Where are the secret meetings held?
  • How do they keep track of membership?
  • If they are organized through known channels or entities, how do they keep non-members who work there from uncovering the conspiracy?

For instance, the Watergate break in and cover up required only handful of men and minimal amount of resources, while something like chemtrails or  9/11 being an inside job would end up needing hundreds or possibly thousands of people to pull off.

Another question to ask is who benefits?:

  • What price was paid to pool together all of these resources?
  • Is this the easiest way of gaining it?
  • If not, why was it chosen over the easiest way?
  • If it is an old conspiracy—who gains what from maintaining it?

Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that comic book villains are secretly in control of the world. Moving on we continue:

  • How likely is the supposed conspiracy to remain covered up if it has gone on for a long time?
  • If there are thousands of conspirators involved, and the conspiracy has gone on for decades, why have none of them defected?
  • Why have none of them leaked the story?
  • If many conspirators are dead, why have none of them told the truth on their deathbeds, or in their wills?
  • Why is it when someone does come forward it’s always some questionable individual who again lacks evidence?
  • Also most glaringly, with some of the more outrageous beliefs, why haven’t countries like China, North Korea, Iran or Russia come forward to expose these supposed conspiracies. We are expected, it is implied, to accept that these countries are secretly controlled by the US government.

Some of the more elaborate conspiracy theories will drag you down the rabbit hole and can often contain incredibly contradictory positions. One study found that many people  who think that Queen Elizabeth II had princess Diana killed also believe that princess Diana isn’t really dead.  Another question to ask when confronted with some questionable information is, “Does believing this conspiracy theory require me to accept that at the same time the conspirators  are both incredibly competent yet stupid and organized but also hopelessly incompetent?

One of the most prominent examples of a conspiracy theory that breaks down under scrutiny is that of supposed chemtrails. This is one that some people in my own life believe. Chemtrails however, if they truly were a method of imposing chemically induced mind control, or some other kind of nefarious plot would not be the most effective way to carry out the plan. Lots of money would be spent outfitting countless planes with machinery to dispense the chemicals. Countless pilots, mechanics and administrators would have to be paid off or silenced, then there would be the issue of the chemical being dispensed in the air at an incredibly high altitude. These chemicals would also have to be undetectable by air sampling and other methods. Then there’s the issue of the chemicals being absorbed into the skin.

One of the most glaring examples of the improbability of supposed conspiracies is that the “secrets” that are kept by extremely powerful and aggressive conspirators are also known to a handful of web surfing conspiracy theorists who know all about them and talk about them openly on the web, at conferences and in their personal lives.  

The Relatives of Conspiracy Theories

When looking for or encountering conspiracy theories it is important to be on the lookout for a number of different areas that can often overlap with conspiracy theories.  Conspiracy theories have a number of “relatives”.  Conspiracy theorists often hold one or many of these ideas in conjunction with their “theories”. In fact many of these ideas are a part of some of the more prominent conspiracy theories. They include:

Pseudoscience- a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on the scientific method.  This includes the areas of cryptozoology, astrology, numerology, homeopathy, Flat Earth/Hollow Earth beliefs, intelligent design, the Bermuda Triangle, channeling, antivaccination, dowsing, extra sensory perception, out of body experiences, gay conversion therapy, hypnosis, scientific racism, reiki, etc.

Fake news- a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention. Examples include Pizzagate or Pope Francisco endorsing Trump for POTUS.

UFOlogy- the study of UFO’s (but really extraterrestrials, ultraterrestrials and other supposed paranormal phenomena). Still waiting on evidence and not just hearsay.  Examples include sightings, abductions,  crash site cover ups, intergovernmental cover ups,  Area 51, “men in black”,etc. There is also something called “exopolitics”, which makes me cringe.

Pseudohistory also known as “forbidden history”-covers a variety of theories that do not agree with the view of history that is commonly accepted by mainstream historians, which are often not properly researched, peer reviewed or supported by the usual historiographical methods. Many conspiracy theorists hold these beliefs and believe there is a plot to keep them from the mainstream. The more prominent pseudo historical beliefs include Holocaust denial, ancient aliens, and the great flood.

Now it’s time for a slight but necessary detour. Brian Dunning from the Skeptoid podcast uses the term “standard model” to describe the understood and accepted version of what  has transpired. Our standard model is that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald with three rifle shots from the Dallas School Book Depository. His familiar story of being the troubled loner-tuned-killer is right in the news today.

Be it 9/11, the moon landings or the Boston Marathon bombings, phrases like “the official story” and “the government’s version of events” are used in most conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists almost always abandon the standard model, and all of the evidence that supports them, and instead focus on and reject the idea that an official government investigation came to the same conclusion as everyone else. Once the government, scholars,  scientists or journalists agree on a position, what happened is no longer the standard model supported by all available evidence, it’s now become “the official story” one giant lump that can be tossed out. This is not how research works. We can’t merely ask which version of events is believed by a given party; instead we have to look at the evidence to see where it leads.

One of the worst things about conspiracy theories is the fact they are almost always airtight. Every piece of evidence against the conspiracy will be viewed as an attempt to “misinform the public”, and the lack of evidence for it is viewed as a government cover-up. The lack of evidence is seen as evidence. Those that attack the conspiracy theory are dupes, or agents in the conspiracy.  In the past year I wrote a letter to the editor of a local paper and I received emails and Facebook comments accusing me of being a slave to shadowy party masters.

How then do we tell the difference? The writer Neil Levy devised a standard to evaluate the difference between conspiracies and conspiracy theories. He proposes waiting until what he calls “epistemic authorities” (scholars, journalists, analysts etc.) with expertise in the known fields have gone through the information and evaluated whether it is real or not. If you have a leak, call a plumber. If you don’t like what he has to say, call a second plumber.  But don’t call a tailor and don’t call a circus clown. Listen to the professionals. This doesn’t mean we should have blind faith, but these people took the time to learn their disciplines. They have the tools and the skills. If it’s just some buffoon on Facebook, see what people in the know think first. An unending theme among conspiracy theorists is they like to proclaim that scholars just sit in their ivory towers proclaiming what is and what isn’t true. If they took the time to understand peer review or just went to a conference they’d see that everyone isn’t on the same page.

Conspiracy theorists lack the tools for, and an understanding of scholarship and power.

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