A piece of excised thesis: Steve Clarke and conspiracy theories as research programmes

Clarke, in his 2007 paper “Conspiracy Theories and the Internet: Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development,” presents his own definition of a conspiracy theory which phrases them with respect to degenerating research programmes.

A particular conspiracy theory needs at least to involve the identification of a specific conspiratorial group and to involve the specification at least one motive to explain that group’s conspiratorial activities before the research programme formed around that theory can be assessed as progressive or degenerative.” (p. 170])

The language Clarke chooses to use here does seem to suggest that the conspiracy theory might get ad hoc modifications to protect the theory from criticism. Now, it could be argued that I am being unfair here, treating Clarke’s words in an uncharitable sense; perhaps he merely means that conspiracy theories, as rival explanations, set themselves up to be able to withstand criticism from the received account.

Indeed, he goes on to say:

A conspiracy theorist typically begins by identifying anomalies in a received view. This motivates further investigation, which can lead to the discovery of further anomalies and may prompt the suspicion that the received view is a cover story that has been promoted by a group of conspirators, in order to prevent the general public from finding out the truth. The last step in this developmental sequence is that an alternative explanation is postulated. It is only when an alternative explanatory theory has been postulated that we are in a position to begin assessing whether that alternative explanatory theory is at the core of a progressive or a degenerating research programme. (p. 171)

This would suggest that Clarke thinks conspiracy theories could be progressive research programmes after all, but I think he he rules this possibility out. Conspiracy theory, for Clarke, is a pejorative term; any theory of an event’s occurrence that cites a conspiracy as its cause which turns out to be the explanation will come to be considered to be some kind of official theory rather than a conspiracy theory. Clarke once again uses the example of Watergate; Woodward and Bernstein’s research into the Watergate scandal was an example of a progressive research programme and their proposed account was about conspiratorial activity, but as the research programme turned out to be progressive rather than degenerating it became an official theory (p. 168).

Clarke seems to be suggesting, in this instance, that conspiracy theories can be part of a progressive research programme, just not progressive research programmes themselves. Watergate may be a good example of this; whilst the Watergate scandal usually centres around the lies and cover-ups of Richard Nixon, which are taken to indicate the kind of thing we expect from someone involved in a conspiracy theory, the investigation of the events of June 17th, 1972 was not so much an investigation into a conspiracy theories but rather an investigation into what happened at the Watergate Hotel. The discovery of a conspiracy was but one part of the larger story. Watergate, the official theory, has what might be considered a conspiracy theory as a part of it, but the conspiracy theory is not an essential part of the story; had President Nixon admitted to his part in the affair the official theory would still have been newsworthy.

[I do deal with Clarke’s notion of conspiracy theories as being examples of degenerating research programmes, but much later in the thesis.]