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Be careful what you believe

  • Published at 07:30 pm March 18th, 2020
Photo: Bigstock

How to spot a conspiracy theory when you see one

Anyone who engages critically with the phenomenon of conspiracy theories soon encounters a conundrum. Actual conspiracies occur quite regularly. Political assassinations, scandals and cover-ups, terrorist attacks, and a lot of everyday government activity involves the collusion of multiple people in the attempt to bring about a desired outcome.

This poses a crucial question: How do we differentiate between genuine plots and conspiracies, and those that we usually associate with the term “conspiracy theory”? One approach is to rely on common sense.

A precedent for this was set by the US supreme court judge Potter Stewart when, in 1964, he found himself having to define pornography. Faced with a tricky concept which lacks clearly defined parameters, and whose boundaries are abstract and disputed, Stewart simply said: “I know it when I see it.”

Another approach is to embrace an agnostic position towards all claims of conspiracy. This involves arguing that while some conspiracy theories may currently sound implausible, there is always a chance, no matter how slim, that they could be proved to be true at some point in the future. For that reason, the argument goes, we should treat even the conspiracy theories we don’t believe as unproven rather than untrue.

Neither of these approaches is satisfactory, however.

The first important difference is in the very nature of the alleged conspiracy. Consider the myriad political scandals that have rocked the US over the past half century. What these very real instances of secret collusion have in common is that they involved different actors, with disparate aims and goals, limited to certain locations and time frames.

More importantly, these conspiracies rarely work out according to plan. 

How theories differ from actual conspiracies

Conspiracy theorists, of course, see the world very differently. The premise of their argument is not that conspiracies happen, but that they are the motive force in history. Conspiracy theorists are not even interested in the multitude of conflicting conspiracies. Theirs is the quest for spurious connections between disparate historical actors or events.

Conspiracy theorists are notoriously poor at uncovering actual conspiracies. Throughout history, most revelations of illegal activities and cover-ups came to light as a result of solid journalism, official state-sponsored inquiries, or the actions of whistle-blowers. The driving force behind many revelations about real conspiracies has been freedom of information acts -- a key institution of political transparency. 

Meanwhile, not a single scandal has been brought to light by conspiracy theorists. They are too busy chasing the Illuminati, the New World Order, the “military industrial complex,” or supposed Jewish influence in world affairs.

In fact, conspiracy theorists are inherently ambivalent towards revelations about actual conspiracies. Conspiracy theorists see actual conspiracies as small and inconsequential, useful only as evidence that things are not as they seem and, therefore, as potential proof that a lot of other, much more sinister (albeit less plausible) claims might also be true. 

On the other hand, the way that real cases of collusion are usually brought to light presents a problem for the conspiracy theorist.

Approaches to evidence

This brings us to what is probably the most important difference between conspiracy theories and investigations into actual conspiracies. For those interested in actual conspiracies, the existence of a plot is a testable hypothesis. The approach to evidence demands that sources are checked and claims verified. If there is an absence of proof or if evidence contradicts the hypothesis, this is not automatically considered to be part of a cover-up.

For the conspiracy theorist, the opposite applies. The idea of a plot is not a hypothesis, but a fundamental, unshakeable principle. The possibility that the basic premise of the conspiracy theory may be wrong, or that it might be proven wrong by new evidence, is not even entertained. 

Conspiracy theories are essentially irrefutable: Logical contradictions, evidence showing the opposite, even the complete absence of proof have no bearing on the conspiratorial explanation because they can always be accounted for in terms of the conspiracy.

Awareness of the differences between inquiries into real conspiracies and conspiracy theories is important because contemporary conspiracy culture thrives on the perception that somehow this distinction is fuzzy, or even non-existent. Yet the difference could not be more real -- or socially and politically relevant. 

Conspiracy theorists are traders in illusion. They offer a certain amount of comfort, which is what makes them appealing in the first place. But they invariably lead to a dead end, away from genuine solutions to societal problems, which are more diverse and more complex than any conspiracy theorist cares to imagine.

Jovan Byford is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, The Open University. This article originally appeared on The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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