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Monday, 8 April 2013

"But some conspiracy theories turn out to be true!" (1)

It's not conspiracies people should question – it’s conspiracy theories. In fact, it may not be all conspiracy theories that we should question – just most of them.

Conspiracy theorists often cite conspiracy theories which proved, in the end, to be true. The thing is, various conspiracies have proved to be the case – but not all the conspiracy theories about these same conspiracies proved to be true.

In fact, what conspiracy theorists often cite to be conspiracy theories which have been proved to be true were not conspiracy theories in the first place. They betrayed none of the “paranoid style” of most conspiracy theories. That is, they often included evidence, argumentation, data and all sorts of collaborative and conformational detail that wasn’t conspiracy-theory-like at all.

What people must note is that just because a theory is not widely accepted, that doesn’t make it a conspiracy theory - with all the faults of typical conspiracy theories. A wide non-acceptance happened to the theory that the earth is not flat. That was largely a scientific theory – not a conspiracy theory. It had all the hallmarks of a scientific theory of the time. It didn’t have wide acceptance at first; but that’s true of very many scientific theories – in fact, all of them! Nonetheless, good scientific theories share nothing with the average mind-deadening conspiracy theory. For example, even if a scientific theory isn’t widely accepted, which is true about all of them at first, they are still scientific. They still involve observations, experiment, the use of established laws of nature, successful prediction, explanatory success and whatnot. A scientific theory can have all these virtues and still not be widely accepted – even by the wider scientific community. However, because of its particular scientific credentials, it will in no way be correct to class it as conspiratorial or a “conspiracy theory”. A theory, yes; but not a conspiracy theory.

I’m mainly talking about physics here and possibly other hard sciences. However, the same can be said of the “soft sciences” such as sociology and psychology. Unlike physics, these may be theories about society, the behaviours of social groups and even of states. Even here, the sociologist or psychologist, if he’s a good one, will not be a conspiracy theorist primarily because of the evidential requirements of his scientific discipline. He too, like the physicist, will be expected to include observations, data, use of established generalisations, argument, prediction (loosely taken), explanatory success and even experiment (loosely taken).

More importantly, sociologists or psychologists are part of a community – as all scientists are. They abide by all sorts of other academic and even social requirements and procedures. Not so with the average conspiracy theorists who is rarely a scientist of any description (though they are often writers of some description). Indeed many conspiracy theories begin as the work of individuals or small groups even if the support of the theory widens (sometimes massively) over time. For example, one conspiracy theory (there are loads!) about J.F.K not being shot by by that Palestinian, was begun by a single person. That single individual’s theory was later spread like a meme to encompass literally millions of believers. The theory was passed on largely without any scientific scrutiny. That didn’t matter. Once the meme was spread, then it kept on spreading – as memes do. And, again unlike scientific theories, that theory wasn’t subject to critical scrutiny by the vast majority of its believers – though some of its believers no doubt did scrutinise and yet still hold on to it.

Conspiracy Theories & Conspiracies are not the Same

There are indeed a few, or even many, conspiracies that proved to be the case. In addition, the true theories about these conspiracies were not based at all on Unseen Forces at work behind the scenes. The forces could be seen or known even if governments, etc. tried to suppress our knowledge of them.

There is also a distinction to be made between the conspiracy being uncovered and the conspiracy theory that attempts to - or claims to - do that uncovering. Thus of course conspiracies happen all the time in all walks of life. It’s probably part of human nature to some extent.

Conspiracies and conspiracies theories are two completely different things. Or, more correctly, conspiracies and the conspiracy theorists who uncover – or claim to uncover – conspiracies are two very different things. Sometimes actual/real conspiracies and conspiracy theories go drastically out of sync. In fact many conspiracy theories were never in sync with any real conspiracies in the first place! They are literally made up - or they are simply the artistic or imaginative creations of their inventors. This can even be the case when the conspiracy theorist doesn’t even realise he’s making the whole thing up because sometimes the mind can work in such a complex way that conspiracists mistake the ghosts or fantasies they see – or imagine – for some kind of reality. Psychologists have done vast amounts of work on this facet of human nature; so it’s no surprise to anyone (except, perhaps, the conspiracy theorist).

Two writers on conspiracy theorists and theories, James McConnachie and Robin Tudge, offer their own list of conspiracies which turned out to be the case after all. It’s just a shame that they didn’t make the distinction between these conspiracies and conspiracy theories about them. The examples they cite, no doubt, are indeed examples of conspiracy. However, believing them didn’t make you a conspiracy theorist because the believers offered data and argumentation, and even a systematic and critical style of thought, which put them at odds with the average non-too-much-thought-please conspiracy theorist.

Anyway, this is what they say about certain true “conspiracy theories”:

“Of course there are a few exceptions… the politically-motivated plots to kill Fidel Castro, the ‘Iran-Contra’ affair, the barely legal rigging of the US presidential elections in 1876…”

The problem here, though, is that the final sentence of this passage won’t appeal to National Socialist conspiracy theorists and even to some leftist ones. The writers finish off their list of conspiracy theories by saying that the last one was, “most heinously, the Nazi conspiracy to murder millions of European Jews”. Here we have again the simple distinction between conspiracy and conspiracy theory. The distinction between the National Socialist conspiracy to annihilate every European Jew and the forthcoming theories about what happened.

So it’s doubly ironic that the one conspiracy that has literally millions of separate bits of data and evidence to show that it really did happen; is precisely the one that National Socialist conspiracy theorists don’t believe! Incredible! It’s almost as if the Nazi conspiracy theorists prefer their conspiracies to work as Unseen Forces. In the Holocaust example, much of the evidence - most of it! - was seen, catalogued, filmed, recorded, written-down, etc. - and yet National Socialists still don’t believe it. Instead they believe conspiracies about the Jews, or Freemasons, or bankers, or the Illuminati, etc. that are not seen, written down, filmed, catalogued, recorded, etc. Rather, what happens with bankers, Jews, Freemasons, the Illuminati, etc. is Unseen – which is precisely how many conspiracy theorists like their conspiracies. If they didn’t happen behind closed doors, as it were, then these conspiracies just wouldn’t be that sexy to them. 

Seen, rather than Unseen, conspiracies wouldn’t appeal to the already-conspiratorial (paranoid) mind of the conspiracy theorist. That often means that what comes first is the conspiracy theorist's conspiratorial (or paranoid) mind. And only then does he embrace, and sometimes even invent, various – or many! – conspiracy theories to assuage his already-conspiratorial mind.

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