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Making sense of a ‘conspiracy theory’

Conspiracy theories promote critical examination of those vested with authority in politics, science and the media

September 03, 2023


he expression, ‘conspiracy theory’, has seamlessly integrated into our political locution. However, it is frequently used in misplaced contexts and connotations. I, therefore, intend to rivet my focus on the theoretical aspect of a conspiracy theory.

A conspiracy theory entails the proposition of an event or circumstance being explained through the alleged machinations of influential and secretive groups, often driven by political motives, even when more plausible explanations exist.

Generally carrying a negative undertone, the term implies that the allure of such theories stems from bias, emotional fervor and inadequate evidentiary support. It is crucial to differentiate between a conspiracy theory and an actual conspiracy; the former refers to a conjecture of a covert plot with distinct attributes. These attributes encompass opposition to the general consensus, especially among qualified evaluators such as scientists and historians.

Conspiracy theories tend to be intentionally resistant to verification and are often fortified by circular reasoning. Instances where evidence contradicts the conspiracy and instances where evidence in support of the theory is lacking are misconstrued as substantiation of its validity. Consequently, the conspiracy evolves from a testable proposition into a matter of conviction, impervious to either affirmation or refutation.

Extensive research has established a correlation between the endorsement of conspiracy theories and sentiments of scepticism towards authority figures and a general disillusionment with politics.

Certain studies propose that embracing conspiracy theories — referred to as conspiracist ideation — may have psychological detriments or pathological implications. This tendency is linked to diminished analytical thinking, lower cognitive capacity, psychological projection, paranoid tendencies and Machiavellian inclinations.

Psychologists often attribute the inclination to embrace conspiracy theories to various psychopathological conditions, such as paranoia, schizotypy, narcissism and insecure attachment. It can also be attributed to a cognitive bias known as “illusory pattern perception.”

The inception of philosophical contemplation regarding conspiracies traces its origins to Niccolo Machiavelli, who acknowledged conspiracies in his seminal work, The Prince, notably in Chapter 19. His comprehensive exploration of this theme, however, emerged more prominently in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, where he dedicates an entire chapter (the sixth of the third book) to a detailed examination of conspiratorial undertakings.

Machiavelli’s objective in dissecting conspiracies lies in furnishing rulers with the means to safeguard themselves against machinations aimed at undermining their authority. Concurrently, he admonishes subjects against involvement in such plots, partially due to his conviction that these endeavours seldom achieve their desired objectives.

While Machiavelli engendered discussions on conspiracies within the realm of politics, it was Karl Raimund Popper who catapulted conspiracy theories into the purview of philosophical discourse. Popper’s initiation of philosophical discourse on conspiracy theories originates from his refutation of what he terms “the conspiracy theory of society.”

This construct represents a misguided approach to expounding social phenomena, endeavouring to elucidate such phenomena by identifying individuals who have orchestrated and conspired to bring about the observed occurrences.

Popper, acknowledging the existence of conspiracies, contends that only a limited number of them attain fruition, as human intentions seldom unfold exactly as actions and occurrences. In Popper’s perspective, the realm in which social science should operate pertains to the unanticipated ramifications arising from deliberate human actions.

Popper’s remarks regarding the conspiracy theory of society occupied a scant few pages. However, their impact on stimulating critical discourse became apparent a few years later. Charles Pigden subjected Popper’s views to critical analysis in 1995. Brian Keeley’s endeavour to delineate “unwarranted conspiracy theories” initiated the philosophical exploration of conspiracy theories.

Central to Keeley’s inquiry was the demarcation predicament concerning conspiracy theories — akin to Popper’s quest to differentiate between science and pseudoscience. Keeley, who sought to distinguish justified from unjustified conspiracy theories, conceded that the task was complex.

purport hidden activities by certain agents, adopting transparent decision-making processes, fostering open channels of communication and ensuring public access to documents emerge as viable responses to conspiracy theories.

Following the contributions of Popper in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and those of Pigden and Keeley in the 1990s, philosophical exploration of conspiracy theories gained momentum in the early 21st Century. Notably influential was the compilation of essays by David Coady, which not only brought the philosophical debate on conspiracy theories to a wider audience but also deepened its discourse within philosophical circles.

A discerning perspective on the history of philosophical engagement with conspiracy theories incorporates a salient categorisation distinguishing philosophers into generalists and particularists. Building on the groundwork laid by Popper, proponents of generalism contend that conspiracy theories, by their very nature, harbour epistemic deficiencies that undermine their credibility.

This strand of thought aligns with the widespread dismissal encapsulated in the phrase, “It’s just a conspiracy theory.” Conversely, particularists like Pigden argue against a blanket assessment, asserting that the merits or demerits of each conspiracy theory necessitate individual evaluation.

Conspiracy theories exhibit a wide-ranging diversity. The application of typologies serves to systematise this diversity, while also directing research towards specific categories of conspiracy theories that hold particular interest or pose distinct challenges.

Political theorist, Juha Räikkä, establishes a notable distinction between political and non-political conspiracy theories. Räikkä classifies the political conspiracy theories as local, global or total, contingent upon the extent of the event under scrutiny.

Amidst this array of potential perspectives, most philosophers have gravitated towards a notably restrained definition that maintains epistemic impartiality. The core constituents of a conspiracy encompass, (a) the presence of a group of conspirators, (b) an element of confidentiality, and (c) a collective objective. Equally pivotal is the segregation of the distinct components constituting a conspiracy theory.

According to Pete Mandik, conspiracy theories posit “(1) explanations of (2) historical events in terms of (3) intentional states of multiple agents (the conspirators) who, among other things, (4) intend the historical events in question to occur and (5) keep their intentions and actions secret.”

He deems these five criteria as prerequisites for classifying a proposition as a conspiracy theory. Yet, Mandik takes a stance of neutrality regarding whether these criteria collectively suffice to comprehensively establish the category of a conspiracy theory.

Contributing to the elucidation of different categories of conspiracy theories, scientific conspiracy theories are distinguished from those devoid of scientific foundation — a classification hinged on whether the theories are situated within the sphere of science. Ideological conspiracy theories are distinguished from neutral ones, the former being marked by a pronounced ideological underpinning.

The distinction between official and anti-institutional conspiracy theories is also posited, with reference to divergences between officially sanctioned narratives and unofficial alternative interpretations concerning events like the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore, they highlight the differentiation between alternative explanations and outright denials — wherein the former provides alternative reasoning for an event while the latter negates the event’s occurrence altogether.

From a favourable vantage point, conspiracy theories can function as instruments for unveiling actual covert schemes. These revelations can extend to misconduct in public institutions, thereby serving as a mechanism to hold these establishments accountable and uncover systemic issues.

Notably, conspiracy theories promote critical examination of those vested with authority in politics, science and the media. This influence is realised by compelling institutions to embrace transparency.

Since conspiracy theories purport hidden activities by certain agents, adopting transparent decision-making processes, fostering open channels of communication and ensuring public access to documents emerge as viable responses to conspiracy theories.

These measures can enhance democratic societies regardless of their effectiveness in persuading the proponents of conspiracy theories — an outcome labelled the paradoxical impact of conspiracy theories; their potential to foster or uphold an open society stands in stark contrast to their foundational negation of such a society.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at theBeaconhouse NationalUniversity, LahoreSince conspiracy theories