A piece of excised thesis: Speculating about conspiracy theories

The notion of what a conspiracy is, I think, not a particularly problematic concept to disentangle, but when it comes to talk of theories, I think we run into problems.

A theory can be:

  1. Mere speculation,
  2. An hypothesis,
  3. A system of rules or principles or
  4. An explanation

We are not always clear by what we mean when we say “x is a theory” or “It’s a kind of y theory.” For example, we do not (usually) say “That’s just a theory!” when we talk about, say, Gravitational Theory; if I were express such a sentiment in an exchange, then I would, I think it is fair to say, be accusing you of presenting a theory of Gravity rather than the theory of Gravity. I would be singling out your talk of a theory of Gravity as being something other that the received view.

Whilst I think it is clear the notion of “theory” in use when we talk about conspiracy theories is theory-qua-explanation, I think it would be worthwhile to look at the speculative sense of “theory.”

Not all conspiracy theories are offered as the explanation of an event but rather as an hypothetical explanation, one which expresses the possibility, rather than asserts, that a conspiracy was a or the cause of some event. In this sense a conspiracy theory is presented as \textit{an} explanation which could also be the explanation.

As a conspiracy theory theorist who is interested in conspiracy theories I will often speculate that an event could have come about due to the actions of a cabal of co-conspirators, but the fact of such speculation does not entail on my part (nor suggest, really) that I believe that the conspiracy theory I am expressing is anything more than an intellectual fancy. To merely speculate about the existence of some conspiracy is not something which we should be concerned about; indeed, it is likely that not being willing to speculate about the existence of conspiracies is, in itself, an intellectual vice ((Indeed, Charles Pigden in “Complots of Mischief” presents an argument for this, claiming that as we know that conspiracies have occurred and been influential in history we should, at least, entertain the possibility that they might occur again (p. 165-6).)).

That being said, I think most people, when they cite a conspiracy theory, are not just speculating about some conspiracy theory but rather they are asserting what they take is the credible explanation of the event.

[Whilst I think there is something interesting to say about what the “theory” in “conspiracy theory” refers to, it doesn’t suit the flow of the introduction to my thesis at this stage. I might resurrect this discussion in chapter two.]