On Conspiracy Theories
Post from June 2, 2015 (↻ June 8, 2021), filed under Everything Else.
This post is partially outdated.
These days, many a serious inquiry into significant events leads to something marked a “conspiracy theory.” The most popular one, perhaps, 9/11—an inside job? Conspiracy theory.
Use of the expression “conspiracy theory” has gone as far as to be used as a blanket dismissal of anything that matches neither the media’s nor the individual disagreer’s views. One is critical of Five Eyes countries because of their engaging in global dragnet surveillance? Conspiracy theory.
How much further this has gone becomes more clear when conspiracy theorists begin to form conspiracy theories over this all too liberal labeling of conspiracy theories. (We must go deeper.) John Coleman, in The Conspirators’ Hierarchy, wrote: “Nor must those who are determined to get at the truth be intimidated ‘conspiracy nuts,’ ‘assassination buffs,’ ‘paranoid theorists,’ and worse. The efforts in this direction are meant to cut off intelligent debate or at the very least, stifle it with ridicule.”
Putting something off as a conspiracy theory is not an argument, and it can serve neither private nor public debate. We might not only stop pulling this rhetoric trick, or accepting it being pulled, but instead do what we need to do as reasonable, thinking beings: take theories seriously, especially when the accusations are grave, and treat them like any hypothesis in need of verification or falsification. Skepticism is fair, but how much does it serve anyone when everything’s discarded as cheaply as through shouting, “conspiracy theory!”
The German economist and activist Andreas Popp, then, had released a formidable video (in German) elaborating what he thinks about conspiracy theories. Defining first conspiracy—two or more people having a private agreement of sort—and then theory—an idea of the state of some affairs—he points out how much in our lives makes for conspiracy theories. You and your spouse talk about a birthday present for a friend? You’re conspiring. The friend suspects you invite them for dinner? Conspiracy theory.
When I first ran into the issue, I jotted down how “a conspiracy theory, like all theories, is a theory that is not proven yet. That doesn’t already prove it wrong. In general, just discarding a conspiracy theory seems naive, as doing so only helps conspirators, never the truth.”
Therefore I wouldn’t be surprised if this charge of the expression “conspiracy theory” was not accidental. (A conspiracy theory!) It helps keeping public debate, and with that public opinion, on a pre-determined track. But pulling this expression is poor argumentation and rhetoric; by definition we all conspire, probably all the time; and it doesn’t serve anyone, especially not the truth in serious matters, if we are so easy.
And so, from my view, it should absolutely be justified to state conspiracy theories; it behooves to listen to them; and if the stakes are high, to take them seriously, and investigate thoroughly. We need conspiracy theories.
Wikipedia has this all filed under “acquired derogatory meaning,” by the way.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead—currently manager for Developer Experience at LivePerson—and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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