You are a conspiracy theorist, and you probably don’t even know it.
You read about conspiracy theories every day in your newspaper. You hear about conspiracy theories every night on the evening news telecast. You gather around office watercoolers, and you talk about conspiracy theories –and most of the time, you believe in them without realizing that you have made a leap of faith to do so. You see, you believe in conspiracy theories in such instances where the conspiracy theory does not make you feel uncomfortable.
Then suddenly, along comes a well-supported, factually based conspiracy theory to make you feel squeamish. A conspiracy theory that challenges your beliefs. A theory that causes you to question your worldview, and perhaps even your identity. A conspiracy theory that would require you to make a paradigm shift just in order to examine it. And it is at this point that you “rationally” decide to denounce conspiracy theories.
It is at this point where cognitive dissonance takes place, and you belittle the entire notion of conspiracy theories altogether (even though you believe in them elsewhere, perhaps unknowingly). It is at this point where you scoff and make references to “tin foil hats” and a living Elvis Presley.
It is only when a non-dominant, progressive, or controversial alternative theory or description of events is set forth, that you choose to backhandedly dismiss conspiracy theories with absolute finality. If a particular conspiracy theory illicits an uncomfortable feeling, beckons self-examination and/or a paradigm shift, more likely than not, you will deem that theory ‘irrebuttably false.’
At the point where a conspiracy theory challenges your world view, you suddenly use the term “conspiracy theory” as a perjorative term.
Oh, the hypocrisy!
A “conspiracy” is defined as “an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime or accomplish a legal purpose through illegal action.”
A “theory” is defined as, “a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.”
Let’s look at a couple examples, shall we?
First we have the following news item reported by Reuters today:
“HARARE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) — President Robert Mugabe’s guards briefly detained the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe after he entered a restricted security zone near the African leader’s residence, state television reported Thursday….[snip]….a calculated disregard of the rules governing relations between states … clearly intended to provoke an unwarranted diplomatic incident.”
In this story, Reuters is reporting that more than one guard calculatedly (e.g. by agreement, either expressed or implied) broke rules governing relations between states. This is a story about an alleged conspiracy– a group of people coming together to break a rule or law.
Now, who would question this story’s veracity? In my estimation, most people would likely accept this story without any extra scrutiny. After all, the story does not cause us any personal discomfort, nor does it provoke us to examine ourselves. The story does not challenge any of our world views. Yet this story is unquestionably a conspiracy theory.
Is the story true? We really do not know for certain, we are left to either trust the media’s description of events or not.
Next, on Aug. 5, 1964, American news media reported that North Vietnamese forces — for the second time in three days — had launched unprovoked (e.g. illegal) attacks on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf. The New York Times claimed that the U.S. government was retaliating “after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.” The Washington Post’s headline stated: “American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression.”
Once again, here we have a conspiracy theory set forth by the news media. Similar to the present-day Zimbabwe story, the Gulf of Tonkin story was, at that time, not too hard to swallow. In fact, the conspiracy theory was so believable when it was reported that, two days later, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress authorizing the president “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
Essentially, the public’s unflinching acceptance of the government and media’s “conspiracy theory” set the stage for America’s entrance into what became known as the Vietnam War. How many Americans even realized, at the time, that they bought into a conspiracy theory?
In the Tonkin case, history now shows us that the government and media presented a false conspiracy theory to the American public. Little did most people know at the time, but the Gulf of Tonkin incident, as theorized in the newspapers, was a lie. Recently released tapes of White House phone conversations indicate the attack probably never happened.
Now consider this. What would have happened if, at that time, another newspaper (or alternative media source) reported that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a lie? What if somebody challenged the mainstream theory with credible evidence? In 1964, how many people would have considered the possibility that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was indeed a lie? In order to believe a “conspiracy theory” like that, one would have to face the uncomfortable possibility that the government or media was fabricating the truth. One would have to face the uncomfortable possibility that their country was capable of lying on a grand scale. Most likely, a person would have to experience a complete paradigm shift just to entertain critical examination of the alternate theory.
Essentailly, we would have two opposing conspiracy theories. Which one should we believe? The easiest theory to digest? The theory with the most evidence? The easiest theory to explain?
You see, this is where most people get a bit squeamish. This is where most people begin to invoke the “be rational” or “commonsense” card. What many people do not realize though, is that they are invoking “rational thinking” and “common sense” not because they have suddenly partaken in critical examination, but merely because they are viscerally repugnant to the alternate theory. In essence, they are not being rational at all. They are being emotional.
Are conspiracy theories ever true? Of course. Generally speaking, preachers don’t tell on preachers; soldiers don’t tell on soldiers; cops don’t tell on cops; doctors don’t tell on doctors; and so on. Politicians will not turn on one another unless there is a greater goal to be gained. Conspiracies, for the most part, develop quite organically. Most of us don’t tell on our friends, and from this, you can understand why we shouldn’t just immediately shut ourselves off to the notion of a conspiracy.
Just look at the run up to the Iraq War. There may have been a conspiracy amongst the Neocons to take this country to war. Shouldn’t we investigate it? Of course we should. We should investigate all colorable conspiracy theories, even the ones that make us feel squeemish. Even the ones that challenge popularly held theories of “facts.”
Are conspiracy theories ever false? Of course. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are false more often than they are not. But, we are not served by dismissing conspiracy altogether, we ARE served by investigating it. And by investigation, I mean critical investigation. The worst thing we could do is simply turn our attention away from conspiracy (or any other quest for knowledge, for that matter). By doing so, we allow them to go unchecked. We deny ourselves potential knowledge, and perhaps even justice.
This is why I laugh when I hear somebody use the term “conspiracy theory” as a perjorative term. I laugh because most people fail to recognize that conspiracy theories are everywhere, and more often than not, most people swallow conspiracy theories without recognizing that they have done so.
What we need is critical examination. What we need is an open mind. We need to examine theories, even when they make us feel sick to our stomach. And we need to dismiss theories only when they are no longer colorable. But so long as they are colorable, we must, at the minimum, keep our minds open to the possibility that they may be true.
As humans, we tend to seek absolute order. We crave answers. Generally speaking, we do not feel comfortable with the inherent insecurity of chaos. But it is from chaos and disorder that we typically and ultimately find knowledge and wisdom, even when we don’t find absolute answers. It is the balance between order and chaos, knowing and not-knowing, believing and not believing, which brings us the greatest fruit. It is the marriage of doubt and faith which illuminates the never-ending path of knowledge.