HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
© copyright by Rob Ager Dec 2010
IS THERE ANY TRUTH TO CONSPIRACY THEORIES?
Using the aforementioned six dictionary definitions, a “conspiracy theory” can occur in many different contexts. Here is a selection of hypothetical examples:
I‘ve intentionally given examples that range from common social phenomena to exotic ideas lacking evidence. The point I’m making is that the term “conspiracy theory”, by its dictionary definitions, applies to many contexts of human perception, regardless of whether the theories are true or not. However, there is a great deal of literature and study on the topic of “conspiracy theories” that doesn’t follow the dictionary definitions.
The Wikipedia page on “conspiracy theory”, at the time of my writing this article, describes in its first paragraph that the term “has become largely pejorative and used almost exclusively to refer to any fringe theory which explains a historical or current event as the result of a secret plot by conspirators of almost superhuman power and cunning.” The source referenced for this is the book A Culture of Conspiracy by Michael Barkun. The Amazon.com description of Barkun’s book, ironically, presents the author’s “conspiracy theory” about “conspiracy theories” – a theory about “the replacement of democracy by conspiracy as the dominant paradigm of political action in the public mind.”
The Wikipedia page goes on to claim that “conspiracy theories” are “rarely supported by any conclusive evidence”. Two sources are offered to support this – a repeat link to the Michael Barkun book and a link to a page on a US government website – www.america.gov, which contains a series of short rebuttals of “popular conspiracy theories”. The page claims “Conspiracy theories exist in the realm of myth, where imaginations run wild, fears trump facts, and evidence is ignored. As a superpower, the United States is often cast as a villain in these dramas.” That’s a very different description to the six dictionary definitions we explored earlier. Although we could consider this an authoritative source on the meaning of “conspiracy theories”, the fact that the US government is implicated in several of the allegations it is attempting to refute renders it a biased source. To put this into context, it would be entirely inappropriate to allow the accused in a court trial to reinvent the meanings of key legal phrases in their own defence.
The remainder of the Wikipedia page is written almost exclusively around the notion that conspiracy theories are held only by individuals and groups of citizens. It doesn’t explore conspiracy theories that are believed in by corporations or governmental organisations. For example:
These are just a few of many historical examples in which governments have believed in, and disseminated to the public, their own conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are present at all levels of our society – socially, commercially and politically. Every day individuals, corporations and governments face off against each other in court rooms across the globe, often accusing each other of complex conspiracies:
These are just a few of the conspiracy theory categories that are debated and settled in court rooms. Sometimes the accused are found guilty, sometimes they’re found innocent. Appropriately, the defence can’t win over a jury in a case by simply calling the prosecution "conspiracy theorists".
Conspiracy theories are a normal part of social, legal and political life, but many writers, including some of those who have posted the Wikipedia articles on the subject, and many journalists assert that conspiracy theories are universally false. The truth of the matter is that some conspiracy theories are true and some are false.
There are some contexts in which the public are forced to choose between two or more conspiracy theories, with no middle ground alternative. For example, the alternative to the conspiracy theory of holocaust denial is to believe in the conspiracy theory of Nazi concentration camps and mass extermination. They’re both conspiracy theories. On September 11th 2001, a pre-planned plane hi-jack occurred in New York, which caused mass death and destruction. Whether you believe that attack was carried out by Islamist extremists, the CIA, UFOs or Zionists … whichever view you take, you are choosing to believe in a conspiracy theory. It is near enough impossible for any adult not to be a conspiracy theorist because conspiracies do happen on both the small and large scale, and every conspiracy theory must be judged on its own merit rather than a blanket assumption of “true” or “false” being applied to all conspiracy theories.
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