On Conspiracy Theories

Ezra’s worried that disparagement of “conspiracy theories” is becoming a problem:

I adore my dog-eared Hofstadter books as much as the next self-important pundit, but I’m done worrying about the paranoid style in American politics. More pernicious, I’m starting to think, is anti-paranoid punditry in American politics, in which scary-but-plausible theories are dismissed simply by calling them conspiratorial.

Personally, I hate dog-eared books. Fortunately, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is available online, as a classic text should be. That said, what they taught me in the philosophy department was “when in doubt, draw a distinction.” So here we go. One might have a “conspiracy theory” in the sense that your theory posits the existence of a conspiracy between some number of people to do some malign act. There’s nothing wrong with putting forward conspiracy theories in that sense. People conspire all the time. The “official” story about 9/11 is, itself, a story about a conspiracy organized by Osama bin Laden under the auspices of al-Qaeda.

The kind of conspiracy theory that gets pernicious is the kind that starts using the existence of the conspiracy to explain away all the theory’s evidentiary problems. How come this piece of theory-undermining evidence exists? Well, the conspiracy planted it. And how come there’s no forensic evidence? Well, the conspiracy destroyed it. That kind of thing. Theories that are problematic in this way needn’t actually involve conspiracies. Young-earth creationists sometimes say that radiocarbon dating appears to indicate that the world is extremely old because God created the earth complete with misleading radiocarbon data. It’s these kind of accounts that rightly deserve our aspersions, their tenets are catechisms of faith not real empirical propositions about the world. Ezra’s correct, however, that we shouldn’t let pundits (normally of a right-wing or establishmentarian bent) simply use the word “conspiracy theory” to discredit each and every account positing that powerful individuals sometimes (often, even!) work together in ways that are detrimental to the public interest.