Conspiracy theories with political consequences swirl through the public arena, as they always have. In decades past they were the fodder of gossipy tabloids sold at super market checkouts, and followed by small posses of the easily deceived who rarely admitted it. The internet and social media changed all that. Together with talk radio and hyper-partisan “news” media, they’ve provided undeserved credibility for conspiracy theories that influence a large, publicly vocal audience.
It’s hard to know how to respond to conspiracy believers because rational appeals to facts simply reinforce their conviction that fact mongers are a part of the conspiracy. Just the same, I was reminded by a helpful comment I read not long ago that conspiracy theories are not theories at all; they’re just stories, conspiracy stories, and it might help all of us to review what conspiracy theories really are, and how they differ from real theories.
Conspiracy theories, stories actually, are based on unlikely strings of events believed to be coordinated through complicated mechanisms controlled by cabals operating behind veils of secrecy. No decent conspiracy story is complete without the secret cabal being revealed, yet the mystery is always deepened and the secrecy remains. Only the enlightened who have been able to peek behind the veil know the truth. Those who spread the story invite their hearers to be among the enlightened, urging them to participate in spreading it to as many others as possible. Incredibly, the more publicity it gets, the more secrecy the conspiracy is able to maintain. It’s like everybody knows George Soros is the secret financier manipulating all things liberal, yet for as public as it is, he can still be secretly doing it. The schtick is loosely related to: cable tv commercials promising exclusive offers on secret new products available in limited supply to those who call in the next five minutes; penny stocks letting only the few in on the ground floor of extravagant riches; and the amazing way to lose weight and build muscle, all without exercise.
Theories on the other hand, have a different definition. Theories are evidence based proposals of truths shown to be consistent with all available observations. They begin with hypotheses: educated intuitions about how something works based on limited examinations of evidence that bear promise and need a closer look. As with Einstein’s work on relativity, they can shake the very foundations of received knowledge, and be subject to harsh examination. Which is exactly the point. Nascent theories are subject to public review, not hidden behind veils of secrecy. When hypotheses have been tested against enough verifiable evidence, they form a theory subject to further public examination, and always amenable to modification by new knowledge. Their validity is judged by how well they explain observed behaviors in the world about us.
Moreover, the public examination to which they’re subject is not a matter for opinion polling. It’s a matter for those who have competency in the field. The lack of competency has never stopped us from having opinions about various theories, the theory of evolution being a big one, but opinions of those with little or no competency in the field, no matter how strongly held, are not valid arguments in the examination of any theory.
We are a little too free with our collective use of the word theory. Announcing that one has a theory about this or that is often no more than a way of offering an opinion about what is true based on one’s prejudices and whatever casual information one has chosen to pick up. It may not even measure up to a decent hypothesis. If the so called theory is firmly attached to core social or religious values, it may be emotionally well defended against any serious examination. Or it may be just a flippant comment thrown out over coffee or cocktails. “I have a theory about that,” is something I’ve been know to say when what I really meant was, “I have an idea about something, and you should know about it because it’s really great.”
The frivolous freedom with which we use the word is a big part of what allows conspiracy theories to gain traction. We attach it to all kinds of ideas, opinions, guesses, and things we were superficially taught in school. It’s so loosey-goosey that when a juicy conspiracy theory comes along, it can look a lot like a real theory by the way it’s presented, seducing us down a rabbit hole of non sequiturs. The right wing seems to be most susceptible to falling for them, and that could be due to several decades of right wing talk radio broadcasting them day and night. Yet, just the other day one of my more leftish friends had a “theory” about the five corporate masters of all mainline media conspiring to manipulate polling data in Trump’s favor. I wondered. Are there really only five? Do they form a cabal of tightly coordinated control? Can they really keep a secret? Since polling organizations are abundant, mostly independent, often associated with universities or nonpartisan think tanks, each accessible by anyone who wants to look at their data, is it possible to manipulate them all? Conspiracy stories can be made up to say so, but they’re not theories because they fall apart under any serious examination.
Be careful my friends. Sometime there really is a conspiracy. But there has never been one kept secret for long, nor one able to control the targets of its own conspiracy.