These terms (conspiracy theory) are essentially junk. They are used as emotional weapons, injunctions designed to stop critical thought.
The utterance of these terms generally marks precisely where thinking ends. This is their purpose and use – had you noticed? “Nothing to see here; it would be stupid to think seriously about this.” They work on minds that are not free – and they work really well on too many people. Amongst the common folk they are the playthings for petty, arrogant, childish attitudes that like to mock and denigrate others, but in the interests of the powerful they are anything but toys: they are weapons in the war against free and independent critical thinking, make no mistake. They are a tool of (attempted) control of the information marketplace by the information lordlings (as per the new framing I’ve borrowed from James Lindsay’s ‘Enlightenment 2.0’).
They are utilized almost entirely in a pejorative sense – as an expression of contempt or de facto claim of invalidity – to dismiss serious inquiry or thought in an undesired area or direction. They are effective due to the deep and strong drive to fit in, to avoid being ostracized or even exiled from the Tribe. Most people do not have a sense of self strong and clear enough to withstand this peer pressure. Most people bend more than they are aware or would admit to the force of “othering”, the mocking ostracization that this term threatens upon them if they don’t fall into line with the groupthink. The implicit threat: “If you don’t agree with the Consensus Truth(tm) we all agree upon (we’re the only Good Guys), you will be exiled from our Tribe (people will think you’re a Bad Guy and a Dummy).” (word to the wise: you’re better off not being in that particular tribe). These are not the only factors at play, but I believe this is a significant dynamic in most cases.
Let’s look at this, seriously: what is the utility of calling something a “conspiracy theory”? Naught but to dismiss it, and them; to use another set of words to say “That is incorrect, invalid, untrue”. It functionally unites both the ad hominem and strawman fallacies, as only a “conspiracy theorist” posits “conspiracy theories”. What people really mean by these terms, almost all the time, is “Stupid, wrong, crackpot theory” (and the implication: “stupid, wrong, crackpot person”). It’s much easier to be right if you dismiss anything that conflicts with your views out of hand. It is often used with the fallacies of bandwagon, wisdom of the crowd, blind loyalty, othering, argument from incredulity, and numerous others. By its nature it cannot engage on a serious, earnest intellectual level with the claim in question; for what is contemptible and dismissed out of hand is obviously on a lower level. This dynamic and attitude is another example of why I insist that humility, curiosity, goodfaith, compassion and a drive to make things better form the basis for serious learning, intelligence and intellectualism about the realities of the world.
Whatever inherent explanatory value they could have in the common parlance are utterly eclipsed by their weaponization against independent thinking and heterodox questions or conclusions.
It is deeply ironic in that the phrase’s weaponization as a thought-stopping injunction has been engineered by the same forces of propaganda about which “conspiracy theories” are generally applicable; for whom widespread serious questioning would be a real threat. Yes, the term was in fact weaponized by the CIA in relation to the JFK assassination at least, as revealed by declassified government documents. And yes, the “fact checker” claim that the term was not coined by them is correct in fact, but misleading and therefore false in implication. It is an exercise in strawman and equivocation. The term did indeed exist in the language; but also, it was and is weaponized and mobilized by deliberate strategy in specific political and historical contexts. Both are true, but only one of these facts has wide-reaching implications.
Also, another angle to look at: Who uses these terms? Attackers, straight up. Occasionally people will self-label with this for various reasons, but the vast majority of usage is in labeling others – in “othering” and implicitly devaluing people, and therefore what those people say. Certainly, for my ideas and thinking about what is going on in the world, and my findings on certain historical events and developments, many of that type would label me a “conspiracy theorist”; and it would be, indeed, an attempt to invalidate and dismiss my thinking by fiat, by declaration. But what do I call what I do?
I call it “thinking”. And underlying that – Caring. Giving a damn. Caring enough about the injustices and deceptions of the world, and the outcomes of policies and systems and actions – no matter their purported or real motive or intention or values – I care enough to think seriously about these things, even though nasty, petty people are only too happy to mock and denigrate my goodfaith and earnest efforts to make the world a better place by accurately analyzing problems and formulating possible solutions. People who take glee in contempt, and even often to the extent of dehumanization. And ironically, often the same people who most strongly believe and signal themselves as virtuous members of the Good Tribe of Compassion, Tolerance and Inclusion.
Labeling people, ideas, claims and lines of inquiry “conspiracy” is anti-science and anti-intellectual, for science is all about asking questions, and good science is earnestly and sincerely intellectual. Rational humility is the recognition of the reality of our fallibility and limitations of knowledge; it is the basis of earnest intellectualism and scientific curiosity. Contempt, inherent within the use of “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative, is opposed to this humility and earnestness.
These terms are essentially anti-truth and anti-reality in numerous ways – anti-history, anti-psychology, anti-human nature: for the study of all of these shows clearly that conspiracies – defined most generally and simply as the pursuit by some number of individuals of their own interests above the interests of others – are ubiquitous throughout history. “Conspiracies”, as the overbroad term in question, simply refer to the manifestation and outcomes of a universal (or at least, masculine) drive for power, profit, and fulfillment of ideological goals throughout all known history. And we are not post-history; history is happening all around us. And by the way, evil exists, and holds great power in our world.
Beyond the oft-caricatured but also oft-real uses of subterfuge, deception and propaganda there are the almost-always-overlooked complex factors of group psychology and systemic pressures, which are instrumental in any agenda affecting a large number of people over a long period of time. The ridiculous strawman argument is, for example, “How could a million people keep a secret this big?” As if the implementation of a multi-year or multi-generational agenda that unites billionaires interests across nations, holding powerful controlling interests in international business, politics, philanthropic, scientific, media, and other influential organizations – as if that requires an explicit memo to every person at every level of every organization stating some specific goal and operational plan, and a command of secrecy. I mean, frankly, it’s ironic and a pathetic caricature of complex reality, and should be embarrassing to the people who use this level of rationalization, as they position themselves as standard-bearers for critical thinking and scientific rationalism. Dismissing claims or lines of questioning out of hand is the essence of ignorance, not science or reason.
To credit the one major kernel of truth in the attack-vector of “conspiracy theory” labeling: Yes, there are claims, conclusions, and lines of reasoning that are incorrect. Oh. My. God; Wow. How shocking.
Come on. Anyone who has ever done any serious thinking knows that all people are wrong sometimes, about something. Does that mean we give up? What a ridiculous idea. No, of course not: with the humility that takes constant renewal, we self-correct, we rethink, we learn more, and we thereby raise the tide of humanity’s knowledge; we ever-so-slightly reduce our collective stupidity and ignorance. And should we mock those who are wrong, or who we believe to be wrong? No! Especially not if they are operating in good faith, making their best effort at figuring things out, understanding, solving problems. To make it an issue and cause for derision that people are wrong sometimes is ridiculous, and counter to the kind of culture we should be building: when we shame people for being wrong, we just retard the population by stifling their willingness to reveal their ignorance by asking questions, which is an unequivocal requirement for learning. In other words, a culture of contempt towards ignorance stops learning and reinforces systemic wrongness.
In my personal experience this dynamic has become glaringly obvious across the years and across domains: fitness, yoga, snowboarding; music, art, craft, technology; intellectualism and philosophy; relationships, health, biology. People have to be free to be beginners – to be ignorant, as is the natural state we are born into – in order to engage with beginner material and learn progressively. We start from ignorance; there is no shame in that. There is, however, shame in choosing a willful ignorance due to a fear of judgment. That is an issue for the moral conscience and spirit of each individual; but as I said, we can help this by cultivating a culture of mutually-supported learning, rather than derision and contempt.
That people are wrong is a fact of life that will never change; and reliance on authority (the “expert caste” and “gated institutional narrative”) only outsources responsibility for our own thinking (hard work, that) and discernment. But I would far rather have our commons include people who are sincerely exploring Flat Earth Theory (which I think is nonsense) then I would to have them censored or denigrated. Questioning is a sacred human right, the mechanism of science and intelligence, and the road to learning and self-correcting.
One of the 20th century’s most eminent scientific teachers and thinkers, Richard Feynman, cautions us:
“Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question – to doubt – to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.”
He is right. The use of these terms are antithetical to the pursuit of truth and practice of scientific and engineering-type systems analysis; and what do so-called “conspiracy theories” most often address? Large-scale, complex systems, with serious problems that cause vast harms. In other words, problems worth taking seriously and doing serious thinking about, that should not be caricatured, trivialized, or dismissed out of hand.
There is no individual, and no field of expertise immune from error; and any error can be grievous. This is no less true in the orthodoxy, the sanctum of academic science: peer review. The frequency of errors here may be fewer than in the shit-talk on a factory line or tree-planting crew or college campus; but the consequences and scope of the errors likely more than compensate for the discrepancy. Humility is warranted all around.
Some might respond, “C’mon man. Peer-reviewed, published science is the gold standard. It’s rarely wrong. Where’s your PhD? What are your credentials to make such weighty criticisms?” Well, just consider these few select quotes:
“The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. (…) Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivized to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivized to be productive and innovative.” – Richard Horton, Editor-In-Chief of The Lancet (2015)
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.” – Dr. Marcia Angell, longtime editor of the NEJM
“There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims. However, this should not be surprising. It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false.” – John Ioannidis
I’ll tell you that I’ve discovered this for myself already, in the study of several significant areas of scientific literature. I’ve found corruption and stupidity of staggering import; for just one example, when I went to college for massage therapy and began my study of nutrition & fitness + diabetes + obesity + heart attacks, I found errors and corruption that are directly implicated in many millions of needless deaths, and untold chronic illnesses and suffering. I found scientific studies that strongly supported a non-orthodox conclusion on endocrine metabolism going back nearly a century but ignored in the mainstream; I found study authors in the ’60’s, contributing to false narratives that harmed millions, stating study conclusions that were directly opposite their own data (in this case, the data clearly showed that carbohydrate intake drove insulin and thereby obesity and type II diabetes, yet they stated the opposite in conclusion – and the sugar lobby won marketing awards for this outcome).
After all that is said, is there any value at all in the common use of the term, “conspiracy theory”?
Honestly, I think the best use of the term may be simply as a self-identifying signalling mechanism to show who has been entranced and captured by propaganda and bad attitudes towards learning and solving global problems. Really. You do yourself no credit if you use this term unironically. This is no contribution to the collective discourse, it is a degradation.
I urge everyone to pay attention to every use of these terms. Just look and reflect. What is it that is so dangerous about the lines of thought and questioning that these terms are utilized to stigmatize? Are you brave enough, and do you believe enough in your own intellectual ability and discernment, to look where they say “Don’t look here! Only stupids look here”? Can you stand against the threat – explicit of implicit – that you will be ejected from society for breaking from the dogmas of orthodoxy?
I have good news for you: there is a huge and thriving body of people who think for themselves and don’t give a rat’s ass about the social-status threats of the hive mind (social credit scores and a punitive, apartheid society with internment camps is another thing). We’re already free; and we’ve worked hard for it. The instinct to comply, to agree, to fit in, is ancient and deep-seated. It requires a degree of mastery of Self; that ancient freedom posited by the ancient philosophers: freedom from the grips of our passions, freedom from our baser animal nature by the cultivation, training and employment of our higher faculties, by Reason, by our higher selves.
I belong to, and am the beneficiary of, a long, ancient and venerable lineage of free thinkers who did not bow to an apparent consensus – who recognized that the vast majority of people are just getting by and fitting in, and the vast majority of ideas are simply passed along, unexamined, untested – like a virus.
I’ll share again some words passed on by other thinkers who can help shine a light on the way forward:
“The belief in the ignorance of the experts is the essence of science.” – paraphrased, Richard Feynman
“Disconfirming evidence — evidence that proves your existing ideas wrong — is exponentially more valuable than confirming evidence. Scientists throughout history have realized this. Science grows by what is proven wrong, not what is proven right.” – Michael Simmons
“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” – Galileo Galilei
This is yours, too. Free thought is the legacy of all humanity, and through the miraculous technology of the internet, much of the best thinking of all the ages is available to us all, now, today. Do your own research. Be a more serious intellectual. I’ve learned across numerous domains that we can learn anything we put our minds to: one step at a time. One question at a time, one fact at a time – one correction at a time. I believe intelligence is like fitness: we can exercise it and strengthen it. I believe we have the tools available; I believe it is a duty for responsible citizens, parents, and fellows of humanity; and I think it’s really fun and fascinating and fulfilling to keep learning and understanding the world better.
Don’t let “conspiracy theories” stop your mind from its natural inclination to ask questions, to seek answers, to solve problems, to learn. In fact, where the orthodoxy says “Don’t look, don’t listen, don’t ask” is often the most fruitful place to look, to listen, to ask.
Don’t let childish or adolescent-level gossip and social stigma stop the exercise of your divine, sacred, brilliant mind.
Let’s stop giving those tired, abused old phrases, “conspiracy theory”, any power over us, or over the collective conversations and inquiries that need to happen.
Note: Again, this was not my (Roy)’s article, but I borrowed it from someone named Mike Peiman. Well done Mike!