New York Times racism - conspiracy theories

I Had a Dream About Conspiracy Theories

5 October 2022

3.5 MINS

Who gets to decide what constitutes a “conspiracy theory”? What are conspiracy theories, and in the daily deluge of information, how do we discern what is the truth?

I stumbled across this paper on the internet, Advances in Political Psychology, Vol. 40, Suppl. 1, 2019, entitled:

Understanding Conspiracy Theories by:

Karen M. Douglas University of Kent; Joseph E. Uscinski University of Miami; Robbie M. Sutton University of Kent; Aleksandra Cichocka University of Kent; Turkay Nefes Oxford University; Chee Siang Ang University of Kent; Farzin Deravi University of Kent.

Their opening paragraph reads, with my emphasis:

Conspiracy theories are abundant in social and political discourse, yet a coordinated research agenda to grapple with their causes and consequences has only developed in the last decade. It is imperative that scholars better understand conspiracy theories for many important reasons.

Across history they have been closely linked to prejudice, witch hunts, revolutions, and genocide. Many perpetrators of terrorist attacks were known to be keen supporters of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories have also driven people to reject mainstream medicine to the point where once-cured diseases are now making a comeback in some parts of the world. Also, conspiracy theories drive people to reject scientific consensuses, most notably the consensus around anthropogenic climate change.

Well, for starters, it does not define a ‘conspiracy theory’. It simply assumes everyone knows what conspiracy theories are. What it does do, however, right from the start, is to paint conspiracy theories in a bad light, as a negative phenomenon in society to be grappled with and better understood.

What is a Conspiracy Theory?

First of all, ‘a theory’. I don’t think anyone would raise a question about the word ‘theory’. We all make up theories every day. We develop a theory in our minds as to why our friend said what they did or why that driver in front of us did what they did. I think we are all born theory makers just as we are all born problem solvers. A theory is always the precursor to a problem solved.

Now let’s look at the word ‘conspiracy’. We conjure up a ‘conspiracy’ in our mind that there was an ulterior motive behind why our friend said what they said, or we surmise a dastardly plan behind the driver’s actions in cutting us up and forcing us to apply the brakes ever so slightly.

Either way, we have made a huge assumption, an irrational, unfounded assumption, that the other person’s motives were not pure or honourable. In essence, we made ‘a value judgment’ about them without any foundation in fact.

Who Labels Theories as Conspiracies?

The challenge in my dream was, ‘who is labelling a theory as a conspiracy’? The scientific method was designed to test a theory, but who tests a ‘conspiracy theory’?

When there is a new theory out there, people from all over the world are invited and encouraged to invest their valuable expertise and resources into ‘testing the new theory’.

But no one tests a conspiracy theory; rather, people mount a coordinated research agenda to grapple with the causes and consequences of the latest wave of conspiracy theories, sidestepping the theory in the ‘conspiracy’ altogether.

Adding the word ‘conspiracy’ in front of a theory immediately labels it not worth considering as a serious theory or question to be explored by people with open minds. In fact, you are ridiculed, derided or cancelled if you look into a conspiracy theory.

It seems to me that if someone can add the word ‘conspiracy’ to a theory and the mainstream media immediately echo the same perspective, never challenging their assumption or their right to add the label, a new conspiracy theory is born. So, it’s not the developer of the theory that does this labelling — rather, the person or parties most likely to suffer if the new theory is proven correct.

The labelling of a theory as a conspiracy is in fact a spineless, scared response from someone with a lot to lose. It can be a really cheap response to a genuine challenge from someone seeking a balanced honest open debate about the facts.

Challenge the Consensus

I was blessed to grow up as a teenager in the 1960s. There were many challenges in those days, but there was one thing that was brilliant: a culture of ‘let’s challenge everything’. There was the challenge to the Vietnam War (1954–75), the marches in support of the Ban the (Atomic) Bomb Movement and the investigation into Watergate Scandal (1968-74) to name but a few.

Today, most media don’t challenge the consensus; in fact, I suggest, they are instrumental in ‘creating the consensus’. The main traditional political parties in most western nations, both left and right, support the consensus, they generate the consensus. Any challenge to the consensus is labelled, by the establishment, a conspiracy. Who will challenge the consensus? It must be us!

I believe we must be so careful when we ‘consume’ the media and political narratives. Are they protected by a firewall of impenetrable ‘conspiracy theories’? It is so hard today to be sure we are being objective and impartial in our thinking, it takes so much more effort than it did for me back in the 1960s, but I believe it is imperative that we try. We must!

Once upon a time, the consensus was that the earth was flat. That theory was eventually disproved. Let’s be open today to the possibility that some beliefs of the establishment’s ‘consensus’ may well be wrong, only protected and perpetuated by the defence of a so-called ‘conspiracy theory’.


Photo by Mali Maeder.

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  1. Warwick Marsh 5 October 2022 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Very adroit article!

  2. vivienne williams 5 October 2022 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Nailed it!

    • Kaylene Emery 5 October 2022 at 11:32 pm - Reply

      Woman of many words…..

  3. Dr Jim Twelves 6 October 2022 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your comments,;I am thrilled you have read my ‘conspiracy theory, theory’!
    I have reflected, as you will understand, on how we have come to this place, where the ‘label’ of conspiracy so effectively shuts down ‘discussion’ and the honest application of the ‘scientific method’.
    Perhaps, I am not so concerned with the people who label an idea a conspiracy, but society that no longer seems willing to ‘question the consensus’ and therefor they are happy to dismiss an alternative view as a conspiracy.
    I used to think that most people are too busy and didn’t have the time to study up on a topic. Now, I am wondering whether, the biggest problem is that so many of us are now brainwashed and ‘conditioned’, not to ‘question’. How have we come to this state of affairs?

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