One of the most common pejoratives used these days is “conspiracy theory.” Media pundits often apply it as a term of derision to conveniently dismiss a person or view they don’t like, and this almost always goes unchallenged. Even otherwise nuanced intellectuals often categorically impugn conspiracy theories as foolish. Novelist Oliver Markus Malloy has said that “conspiracy theories are popular among the ignorant, because they offer simplistic answers to difficult questions” (Inside the Mind of an Introvert). And neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar insists, “all conspiracy theories are the product of the subconscious attempt of an ignorant yet creative mind to counteract the fear of the unknown with tales of fantasy” (Mucize Insan: When The World is Family). While perhaps satisfying to the uncurious, superficial observer, such claims are remarkable for their dogmatic assumptions not only that all conspiracy theories are irrational but also that the root psychological cause of conspiracy theories is the same in every case. If for no other reason, such quick and haughty reproaches should give us serious pause to consider the possibility that they protest too much.
Like most cultural memes, the term “conspiracy theory” is rarely carefully defined. The Oxford Dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as “a belief that some secret but influential organization is responsible for an event or phenomenon.” Some examples of obviously absurd conspiracy theories include the claim that the U.S. moon landings were hoaxes, staged in a Hollywood backlot and that the 9-11 attacks were orchestrated by U.S. or Israeli operatives or didn’t happen at all, in which case it is claimed that bombs destroyed those buildings, not commercial jets. While it might be appropriate to say that such claims should not be dignified by a critical response, it should be with the understanding that a truly critical response can overwhelmingly demonstrate the ludicrousness of these theories.
But are conspiracy theories always without merit? And should we automatically condemn as irrational anyone who espouses a conspiracy theory? In fact, there are many significant historical events which are widely recognized to have involved conspiracies. The assassination of Julius Caesar was certainly conspiratorial in nature. The Watergate burglary involved a conspiracy of at least five people, probably many more than this, and the later cover-up expanded the circle of conspiracy even further. And numerous Mafia organizations have been exposed over the years, all of which constitute conspiracies of some kind, whether or not those infiltrated high echelons of government. It is an uncontestable historical fact, then, that some conspiracy theories have turned out to be correct. Moreover, many of these seemed absurd to most people at the time, until evidence eventually proved them to be true. The simple lesson, then, is that such theories should never be dismissed tout court. Each should be assessed on its own merits. And failure to do so, as is so typical these days, especially on the American left and in mainstream media, is manifestly a fallacy of faulty generalization.
So it seems that not all conspiracy theories are equal and that some are actually quite rational. Therefore, it is for good reason that certain conspiracy theories are accepted by those open-minded enough to carefully examine the evidence. Ironically, then, Oliver Markus Malloy’s condemnation of all conspiracy theories as problematic because “they offer simplistic answers to difficult questions” actually applies to his own categorical dismissal of conspiracy theories, as his is, indeed, a simplistic answer to a difficult question. Similarly, media pundits and cultural commentators who hastily apply the phrase as a convenient pejorative reveal their own failure to think critically even while accusing others of the same.
So why have such categorial dismissals of conspiracy theories become common parlance these days? Perhaps, at least in part, it is because of the widespread irresponsible appeal to conspiracies, due in turn to the fact that they are entertaining and more likely to draw “clicks,” “likes,” and website traffic. Perhaps also because of cognitive laziness and an impatience with the process of critical inquiry and the sometimes painstaking evidential scrutiny this entails. More likely, it is because dismissing all such theories is an easy way to further one’s own narrative and hamstring competing views. After all, a sweeping demonizing of all conspiracy theories is a very efficient way to rule out any such theory that threatens one’s political perspective. The problem is that this approach also effectively poisons the well against the discovery of actual conspiracies, however rare these might be.
So, setting aside the more obviously absurd conspiracy claims about flat earth, hoaxed moon landings, and the like, are there any diabolical conspiracies associated with, say, the World Economic Forum, the 2020 presidential election, a Chinese takeover of U.S. businesses, Covid-19 vaccine mandates, or recent U.S. riots? With regard to any of these things, might there be powerful people and organizations working behind the scenes to expand their power or bring about their preferred political aims? We will only know one way or another through critical inquiry. Rejecting all such theories from the outset not only closed-mindedly rules out the discovery of possible truths but also places us in greater danger of being victimized if one of these theories turns out to be true.
History has shown that sometimes evil people band together in secretive ways to do sinister things. And in many cases those who had veridical suspicions about these plots were ignored, ridiculed, or denounced as loony for the accusations they made. Might some of today’s “conspiracy theorists” be correct as well? Time will tell. But dismissing all of them as equally ignorant or psychologically twisted will only slow our progress toward the discovery of truth in each case, and to do so is no more rational than uncritical acceptance of flat earth theory or a moon landing hoax.