Conspiracy theories have a bad rep. Why is it that the phrase seems to immediately conjure up a sinister image of misinformed misfits, crackpots, weirdos, and loonies?
Examine, if you will, the term itself. Conspiracy simply implies more than one person, or entity, is involved. Theory merely means, well, a theory, such as the theory of relativity or the theory of evolution. One of these theories, based on empirical “science,” is seen by most folks as “fact.” The other is seen by many as fiction.
But theory, by definition, is not the same as fact…though theories may become facts, aka scientific or proven facts or common knowledge. In the latter sense, theories can be converted to facts, if you will, if democratically accepted as sufficiently believable even in the absence of immediate empirical evidence. And how, pray tell, can one fault democracy (even if it results in the majority electing a corrupt dictator or president?) But, and there's the rub, what if the majority of voters are misinformed about the facts? Is it still democratic? Or is it a — conspiracy? See what I’m getting at?
Some theories cost proponents their lives. Take the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages. The theory that the world was round, not flat; that the earth revolved around the sun, these theories were dangerous because the (conspiratorial?) powers that be considered them a threat and/or blasphemy.
Which leads us to religion. Folks who would never consider the notion of extraterrestrial life may nonetheless believe that Jesus rose from the dead, had the power to revive others from the dead at will, was born to a virgin via, um, extraterrestrial means, and turned water into wine, among other unverifiable phenomena. Millions of folks believe that when they take the consecrated host they are ingesting the body and blood of Christ. Is this theory or fact? Depends on whom you ask. One man’s theory is another man’s blasphemy. And vice versa.
Facts can also be defined by language, available information, and subjective reasoning. If Middle Eastern internet sites tell millions of individuals that non-Muslims are the Devil incarnate and the Holocaust never happened, does this make it a fact? It does to millions of people. If some believe, in the face of all available evidence, that our current president was not born in this country, does it make it a fact? It does, to some people. If our government chose to invade a country where the "evidence showed" that our arch enemy was hiding there, amassing weapons of mass destruction, was that a fact? For many, it was a fact until later evidence proved it somewhat dubious.
Our current political climate is lousy with conspiracy theories on both sides of the spectrum. There is nothing secretive about many of them, especially since the media now has the wherewithal to overturn every political or societal rock to reveal the ugly underbelly beneath. But what if the rocks uncovered are selected with a certain bias? What if certain rocks, if overturned, result in a loss of advertising revenue due to the disapproval or disgust of our democracy of media consumers — or a loss of votes for a favored party?
Could naming something a conspiracy theory automatically serve to reduce it to something not worth examining?
To paraphrase Jesus, let he who is without conspiracy theories lift the first slimy stone.