Nerdnite talk – We’re all Conspiracy Theorists now! (or, we should be)

Yesterday evening saw me present a short, twenty minute presentation at the 3rd Auckland Nerdnite, entitled “We’re all Conspiracy Theorists now! (or, we should be).” Whilst my talk was well celebrated, I was somewhat (and deservedly) overshadowed by a talk about lasers.

Everyone loves lasers.

Anyway, the slides for the talk can be downloaded/viewed here and the text the talk was based upon is appended below.

We’re all Conspiracy Theorists now! (or, we should be)

Good evening, people.

The following talk you are about to hear is real. The conspiracy theories I will present are believed by people not unlike yourselves. Audience discretion is advised.

Fact: We are all conspiracy theorists.

Well, not “fact” at all. I’m asserting we’re all conspiracy theorists but that doesn’t make it true. Just because I’ve got a fancy PhD on the topic of conspiracy theories, that doesn’t mean you should immediately jump to the same conclusions as I do.

Because I am a philosopher, I’m going to present an argument which, I believe, doesn’t just suggest that we are all conspiracy theorists but, rather, entails it. However, I’m going to state now the easiest way to object to my argument, which is that it relies upon us all accepting a stipulative and non-standard definition of both “conspiracy theorist” and “conspiracy theory.” As such, you can quite happily object to my argument by rejecting my definitions. I’ll even understand if you do.

So, with that said, let’s get on with it.

Many sociologists, psychologists and historians believe we live in an unparalleled age of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorising. People like Noam Chomsky believe that conspiracy theories are a pathology of the political reasoning process which indicates that the hoi polloi don’t really understand the way our public and private institutions work, whilst people like the late Christopher Hitchens quite happily adopted certain conspiracy theories as historical fact (notably, in Hitchen’s case, the October Surprise theory). Some historians are quite happy to say that, say, the Elizabethan age was chock-a-block with conspiracies whilst many sociologists think that conspiracy theorising is pathological but also a reasonable response to the world we live in when we consider the shape and constitution of our societies.

Yet many academics (like the rest of the population) shy away from admitting to being conspiracy theorists themselves. They will often say something like “Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…” where the “but” introduces a conspiracy theory that said academic believes to be plausible. For example, in my old Department of Philosophy I have met 9/11 Truthers, Moon Landing Hoaxers and people who are sure that Lee Harvey Oswald was a patsy (not “pasty,” – a delicious Cornish treat – as I originally claimed in the first draft of this talk) for some shadowy government agency.

So, while people like talking and ruminating about conspiracy theories, they don’t like being labelled “conspiracy theorists.”

A conspiracy theorist is either someone who is evangelical about a conspiracy theory or believes some conspiracy theory.

Note the difference:

One sense of “conspiracy theorist,” means someone who promotes such theories. As examples, well, we have such luminaries as Lyndon LaRouche, David Icke, David Bellamy and John Dewey (who I’ll come back to in a minute). They want (or wanted) to persuade you believe a particular conspiracy theory.

The other sense, however, is, to my mind, the more interesting. I could be a conspiracy theorist about the crowning of Charlemagne, but as I never mention anything about this theory it would be irrational for you to call me a conspiracy theorist because I could respond with “But I’ve never even talked about conspiracy theories!”

In this sense of “believing some conspiracy theory” lots of us will qualify as being conspiracy theorists, because lots of us believe at least one conspiracy theory, whether we like to admit it or not. Such belief might be that we think some conspiracy theory is actually true or we think there is a good case for some conspiracy theory being in the pool of potential explanations for some event. I might not be entirely convinced that there was a shadowy plot by the CIA to assassinate President Kennedy but I might also not be convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

We should not be scared of being called “conspiracy theorists” and, indeed, we should shout it out on the rooftops.

Well, maybe not shout it out. But we shouldn’t be afraid to label our conspiratorial explanations as conspiracy theories.

And there it is, another controversial, stipulative definition (did you spot the first one?). I’ve just said that a conspiratorial explanation of an event qualifies as a conspiracy theory.

So, what is a conspiratorial explanation?

If an explanation is to be considered conspiratorial, then it will be an explanation which cites a conspiracy as being causally responsible for the occurrence of some event.

This is a very general definition, with three features.

The first is that it includes any explanation of conspiratorial activity. This includes the organisation of surprise parties which are planned by groups, undertaken in secret and have a definite end goal in mind; a good time for all.

The second is that conspiratorial explanations are not necessarily about sinister states of affairs. Accordingly, there is no contradiction in the phrase “Conspiracies of Goodness.” Thus surprise parties are still in.

The third is that all of us should be conspiracy theorists of some stripe because we should accept as true at least one conspiratorial explanation of an event, given the aforementioned features (i.e. according to my stipulative definition).

Now, I’m trying to persuade of this third feature, so let’s focus on the first two and see if I can get you onboard with number three.

The first issue: a conspiracy theory can be any explanation of conspiratorial activity, including the organisation of a surprise party.

Anyone with even a smidgen of imagination or historical literacy should be able to point to the existence of a conspiracy which is the best explanation of some event, whether it is an historical explanation of some Elizabethan treachery, the recent actions of a government hiding trade deals with a foreign nation, or a department trying to bamboozle the Minister in charge.

For example:

If you believe that the death of Julius Caesar was due to a secret plot by a group of Roman Senators, then you hold a conspiracy as being the salient cause in the explanation of Caesar’s death.

If you believe that the Moscow Trials of the 1930s were a sham, orchestrated on behalf of Joseph Stalin to legitimise state action against Leon Trotsky, then you hold a conspiracy as being the salient cause in explanation of the verdicts of said trials.

If you believe that the Twin Towers were brought down by a terrorist action, organised in secret, by members of Al-Qaeda to threaten the USA, then you hold a conspiracy as being the salient cause in the explanation of the events of 9/11.

The 9/11 case is interesting because any explanation (except for possibly the spontaneous collapse hypothesis which says the buildings just happened to collapse and it was entirely coincidental that members of Al-Qaeda happened to be flying on those planes that day and happened to be visiting the cockpits at that moment.) it requires that we believe there existed a conspiracy (a group of people, acting in secret, who desired – and achieved – some end). It seems that no matter which explanation we think is the best explanation of the events of 9/11, we’re still committed to accepting a conspiracy as the salient cause of the events of that day, whether it be the “Al Qaeda were responsible!” or the many variants of the Inside Job Hypothesis.

However, more interesting, I think, is the explanation of the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s. Whereas the 9/11 case is an example of rival conspiratorial explanations that were posited basically within moments of the event, the conspiracy theory about the Moscow Trials is a great example of a conspiratorial explanation which was vindicated well after the fact; this is a case where a derided conspiracy theory turned out to be the best explanation after all.

(Very) Long story short. This is a very potted history and I apologise to the history buffs in the audience): In the 1930s Joseph Stalin decided that Leon Trotsky was conspiring to return to the Soviet Union and take control of the Communist Party. When Stalin’s agents found out that Trotsky wasn’t conspiring against Stalin, because Trotsky had largely given up on the Soviet Union and was trying to ignite the Communist Revolution elsewhere in the world, Stalin ordered that evidence should be damned and disinformation should be fabricated to support his particular thesis. So, over the course of a year, several former associates of Trotsky were tortured so they would testify that, yes, Comrade Leon was seeking to depose Stalin and return to Mother Russia.

The Moscow Trials of the 1930s were held in a public court and much of the proceedings were made available to the public. Some people, like the American philosopher John Dewey, were suspicious of the trial outcome, in part because they hated Stalin and wanted an excuse to engage more fully in that hatred, and so a commission of inquiry was formed to investigate the case for the guilty verdicts. The Dewey Commission examined the evidence and found it to be a wash of inconsistencies: Trotsky was in two countries on the same day; his dead son held meetings with people, et cetera. When the commission presented its findings to the British and American governments, said governments went to the Russian authorities and said “What gives?” or words to that effect, and Stalin and his cronies said “These were free and fair trials: Dewey and his mates are just vapid conspiracy theorists.”

Or words to that extent.

The findings of the Dewey Commission were basically dismissed and Dewey and co. were labelled “conspiracy theorists.” However, in 1956, when Nikita Kruschev took over from the (now dead) Stalin, Krushev admitted, in the assembly, that the trials were a sham and the Dewey Commission had, in fact, got it largely right.

The conspiracy theory turned out to be the best explanation after all.

Arguably, if you were what the Soviet government labelled a “conspiracy theorist” about the results of the Moscow Trials, you were still right to think they were a sham, as long as your reasons for believing that they were the result of an elaborate conspiracy was based upon a good argument.

It turns out that quite a number (I’m hesitating to say “a lot”) of conspiracy theories end up getting vindicated and it seems odd, to my mind, that we seem drop to the term “conspiracy theory” as soon as said theory gets the nod. What it looks like to my mind is not so much a distinction between “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative term and, say, “official theory” as a credible explanation but, rather, a difference between a warranted/reasonable to believe conspiracy theory and unwarranted/irrational conspiracy theories.

The second issue: Conspiracy theories, on my definition, need not be about sinister activities or states of affairs.

One of the reasons for thinking conspiracy theories are suspicious beliefs is that a lot of the evidence which is cited in support of them is considered to be data which is contrary to or contradictory with other, rival, explanatory hypotheses and that this data, if it were true, would show the world to be a much more sinister place than we believe it to be.

Certain philosophers have argued that, as such, conspiracy theories engender a radical and extreme skepticism about the nature of our public institutions which, in turn leads to a global skepticism about just how open, and non-conspired our world is.

Now, even if belief in conspiracy theories engendered this kind of radical skepticism, that would not be a good excuse to label belief in particular conspiracy theories as suspicious because as we should always look at the evidence and ask “Is this particular conspiracy theory warranted?” Maybe belief in conspiracy theories does make us more sceptical about the world we live in. The question is, however, is that scepticism actually inappropriate.

Arguably, some scepticism about, say, the openness of our society is warranted. Indeed, given voter suppression tactics in some parts of the world, along with the embedded corruption in other parts, depending on where you live and who you are, wholesale scepticism might be very appropriate indeed. This might be unfortunate: no one wants to live in a conspired world, but this wouldn’t be a reason for dismissing belief in conspiracy theories if said scepticism was rational.

My entire argument about us all being conspiracy theorists is predicated on my definition of “conspiracy theory:” if we accept a perfectly general definition of “conspiracy theory,” one where any conspiratorial explanation counts as a conspiracy theory, then I think it follows that we all (as long as we are historically literate people) hold some conspiracy theory (i.e. a conspiratorial explanation) as true.

Now, some of you will be thinking this is all well and good, but surely part of the problem with the term “conspiracy theory” is that there are so many conspiracy theories out in the wild, most of which aren’t plausible explanations, and that this is (another) reason to be suspicious of terming conspiratorial explanations as “conspiracy theories.” I kind of agree with you here, and maybe my answer won’t be very compelling to those of you who aren’t philosophers: isn’t this a problem for almost all types of explanations? There are a multitude of candidate scientific explanations (i.e. inferences based upon the results of scientific methodology which, if sound, would be an explanation for some phenomenon) which turn out to be implausible; only some of our theories in the Sciences turn out to be adequate explanations, but we don’t derisively refer to such theories in the pejorative sense (well, unless we’re climate change deniers or Creationists). The existence of implausible explanations doesn’t tell us anything about the plausibility of any particular explanation. Once again, if a particular conspiracy theory is any good, it will be based upon a good argument, and if we just go around ignoring arguments then we’re really not engaging with the world at all.

So, what are the potential upshots of admitting we’re all conspiracy theorists?

Well, for one thing, it might remove some of the poison from the political debates we engage in. Most of us (if not all of us) will have been in that awkward position where we’re talking with a friend about politics and said friend advances an argument about the party we both happen to dislike which sounds awfully like a conspiracy theory.

“The Nats pretend to be nice but they just want their rich mates to reap the rewards of wholesale privatisation and deregulation!”

“The Greens real solution to climate change is secretly arguing that humanity should go extinct!”

Often we want to call said friend out on their conspiracy theory but that entails that we label them as being a conspiracy theorist, and apparently that’s just not the done thing. However, if we can cheerfully admit to all being conspiracy theorists we can, hopefully, move on to say “Look, it’s a nice theory, but isn’t it a bit of conspiracy theory?” and then we can discuss whether the theory is warranted, in that is the claim for the existence of a conspiracy justified and is the existence of said conspiracy really the best explanation?

For another thing, it allows us to talk about conspiracies, the evidence for or against them and the likely state of our political world – conspired or unconspired – without the odd discrepancy which accompanies such talk about conspiracy theories: that awful turn of phrase “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…”

Because, like it or not, most of us are conspiracy theorists not just in the sense that we hold some conspiracy theory as true but also in the sense that we often try to persuade people to also believe in our favoured conspiracy theories.

“National is evil and secretly wants to sterilise the poor!”

“The Greens are really the Red Menace: the Green co-leaders are basically just like Stalin!”

“Universities are just a Marxist breeding ground and their one agenda is to make the white man feel guilty!”

Once again, though, few of us appreciate being called conspiracy theorists..

Now, the downside to admitting we’re all conspiracy theorists is that you’re going to have to explain, when you admit you’re a conspiracy theorist, why that doesn’t necessarily mean you now think we didn’t land on the Moon. Tomorrow morning at work could be quite awkward. Even if I’ve persuaded you to use a non-pejorative definition of “conspiracy theorist” you still have to cope with common usage and that might be the best argument against my position. It doesn’t matter if there are upshots to using my stipulative definition: what people mean by “conspiracy theory” is something like “a specious claim about an unlikely conspiracy.”

Bah humbug.

Screw the dictionaries; let common usage be damned! Let’s all turn to one another and say “Hi, I’m a conspiracy theorist. How about you?”


Ben says:

I don’t know about overshadowed, all 3 talks were grand. And much appreciated.

Though I must admit, the ability of Cather’s group to do sub-cellular surgery was pretty awesome, maybe more so for the biologists amongst the crowd.