Friday, 11 April 2014

Conspiracies ain't Conspiracy Theories

One of the latest conspiracy theories seems to be that Mick Jagger murdered L'Wren Scott. For example, one article asked its readers the following question: 'Did Mick Jagger get away with L'Wren Scott's murder?'. Perhaps this website simply raised the possibility of her murder – it's hard to tell with these things. It's also hard to tell if some of these conspiracy websites are pastiches because they're often indistinguishable from the real thing.

One vital piece of suspicion (or evidence), apparently, was expressed by the editor in this way: “HUH? 6'3' gal hung herself from 4' doorknob?” Yes, that's very odd... if true. But, then again, so is murdering someone in that way... but what the hell?
Another victim of Mick Jagger.

Conspiracies & Conspiracy Theories

Often the critics of conspiracy theories are accused of denying the existence of conspiracies. However, conspiracies and conspiracies theories aren't the same thing. Critics of conspiracy theories don't actually need to deny the existence of conspiracies – how on earth could they? What they do have a problem with is is the nature of most - or even all - conspiracy theories.

No one should ever automatically reject a theory just because it's about some kind of conspiracy. People should reject it if it sounds like a typical conspiracy theory: with all the hallmarks these things seem to have.

Conspiracies exist, sure – many of them and they're all over the place.

Theories can be good things too – in and outside of science.

Conspiracy theorists also often cite conspiracy theories which proved, in the end, to be true. The thing is, various conspiracies have been shown to have happened; though not all – or any – of the conspiracy theories about these conspiracies proved to be correct.

In fact what conspiracy theorists often cite to be conspiracy theories which have been shown to be true were not actually conspiracy theories in the first place. They betrayed none of the “paranoid style” of most or all conspiracy theories. These theories often included evidence, argumentation, data and all sorts of collaborative and conformational detail that wasn’t conspiracy-theory-like at all.

Despite all that, what people must note is that just because a theory isn't widely accepted, that doesn’t make it a conspiracy theory (with all the faults of typical conspiracy theories). There was a wide non-acceptance or rejection of the various theories that the earth is not the center of the universe. They were largely scientific theories – not a conspiracy theories. On the whole, they had all the hallmarks of the scientific theories of the time.

Even if a scientific theories aren't widely accepted, which is true of all of them (at least at first), they should still nonetheless be scientific in nature. They should still involve observations, experiments, tests, the use of established laws of nature, successful predictions, explanatory successes and whatnot. In terms of scientists themselves, the majority of them are part of a community. They abide by all sorts of scientific and academic requirements or procedures.

And it's not just scientific theories which are perfectly acceptable: the same can be true of philosophical, journalistic, literary, historical, etc. theories. They too rely on evidence, academic rigor, argumentation, observation, data, past records, research, etc.

There's also a strong interplay between the non-theoretical aspects of theories and the purely theoretical parts. There should always be an interplay between theory and evidence.

With conspiracy theories, on the other hand, the theory side of the equation runs free of evidence and/or logical/philosophical argumentation. The average conspiracy theorist is rarely a scientist of any description (though he's often writer of some description). Indeed many conspiracy theories begin as the work of individuals. Despite that, it is indeed the case that support for – or belief in - the theory widens (sometimes massively) over time. That single individual’s theory later spread like a disease to encompass literally millions of believers. The theory was passed on largely without any scientific or academic scrutiny. That didn’t matter. Once the virus spread, it kept on spreading. And, again unlike scientific theories, that theory probably wasn’t subject to any critical scrutiny by the vast majority of its believers.

We also have to take into account the fact that different conspiracy theories about X or Y mutually contradict each other (e.g., many of the theories about 9/11 do so). This effectively means that there's nothing to decide which theory to accept. What could possibly decide the issue if nearly all the conspiracy theories about X or Y rely almost exclusively on unseen forces or events?
In addition, what Marxists/Leftists conspiracy theorists, for example, tend to do is that if reality (or what is the case) doesn't square with prior Marxist theory, then Marxists will make damn sure that it does so. What you'll usually get, then, are innumerable Marxist “auxiliary hypotheses” which simply explain away the equally innumerable inconvenient facts.

In conclusion, I mentioned journalists a moment ago. You'd think that if all - or some - of these conspiracy theories had so much meat on them, then our super-journalists (or even the lesser ones) would be keen on showing the world that they are true. After all, if these journalists did this, then they'd quickly become both rich and famous. But of course the conspiracy theorists will have yet more neat and tidy conspiracy theories (or auxiliary hypotheses) to explain why this isn't the case. For example, they'll say that journalists (all of them?) are in cahoots with the conspirators. Either than, or the conspirators have warned journalists (all of them?), on pain of death, not to open their mouths. (When has that ever stopped our best journalists?)

Conspiracy Theories ain't Really Theories at All

There are indeed many conspiracies which have actually occurred. Yet the true theories about these conspiracies weren't at all based on spooky unseen forces or events at work behind the scenes. The forces could be seen or known – even if sometimes only in principle - even if governments, businesses, etc. tried to suppress all outside knowledge of them.

There's also a distinction to be made between the conspiracy being uncovered and the conspiracy theories which attempted – or claimed - to do that uncovering.

Sometimes actual/real conspiracies and the conspiracy theories about them have become massively out of sync. In fact many conspiracy theories were never in sync with any real conspiracies in the first place. They are literally made up. Either that or simply the imaginative or paranoid creations of their inventors. This can even be the case when the conspiracy theorist doesn’t even realise he’s making the whole thing up. (Psychologists have done much work on this facet of human nature; so it’s no surprise to anyone, except, perhaps, the conspiracy theorist, that conspiracy theories are so common.)

Two writers on conspiracy theories and theorists, James McConnachie and Robin Tudge (in their excellent Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories), offer their own list of conspiracies (not conspiracy theories) which turned out to have occurred after all. Believing in these governmental - or otherwise - conspiracies doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist. It's often been the case that the theorists or journalists (e.g., Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the case of the Watergate Scandal) offered data and argumentation and, perhaps more importantly, a systematic and critical style of thought which put them at odds with the average not-too-much-thought-please conspiracy theorist.

Anyway, this is what James McConnachie and Robin Tudge said about the real conspiracies (not conspiracy theories) which they argue actually occurred:

“Of course there are a few exceptions… the politically-motivated plots to kill Fidel Castro, the ‘Iran-Contra’ affair, the barely legal rigging of the US presidential elections in 1876 and most heinously, the Nazi conspiracy to murder millions of European Jews.”

The problem here, though, is that the final clause of this passage won’t appeal to many conspiracy theorists. Here again we have that simple distinction between conspiracy and conspiracy theories: the distinction between the National Socialist conspiracy to annihilate every European Jew and the numerous conspiracy theories of denial which followed.

So it’s doubly ironic that the a conspiracy that has literally millions of separate bits of data and evidence to show that it really did occur, is precisely the one that many National Socialist - and other - conspiracy theorists claim didn't happen! It’s almost as if these conspiracy theorists prefer their conspiracies to work solely as unseen forces or events. In the Holocaust example, much of the evidence - most of it! - was seen, catalogued, filmed, recorded, written-down, etc. - and yet many conspiracists still don't believe it. Instead they believe conspiracies about the Jews, or Freemasons, or bankers, or the Illuminati, aliens, etc. that are not seen, written down, filmed, catalogued, recorded, etc. And perhaps this is precisely how many conspiracy theorists like their conspiracies to be. If the conspiracies didn’t or don't happen behind closed doors and perpetually remain behind closed (as it were), then they simply wouldn’t be sexy enough for them.


Notes on Readers' Comments

1) The strange thing about political conspiracy theorists is that they appear to have tapped into a Marxist – or at least quasi-Marxist – view of both history and society/politics. Marx told us that both history and politics aren't essentially about ideas and certainly not about “great leaders”; they are primarily, or even solely, about the spooky unseen forces which are the economic “substructures” and therefore also the class-based underpinnings of society and history. Of course the relations of economic production and exchange can be seen. Nonetheless, what can’t be seen, the Marxist tells us, are how these economic processes or facts causally affect society’s ideas, ideologies and even its religion/s. This is a distinction between what Marxists could and still can see and what the rest of us couldn’t and still can't see. This was, in fact, a rendition of a classic trope in philosophy (though in a new guise): that great distinction between “reality and appearance” so favoured by philosophers as varied as Plato, Descartes and, of course, Marx’s very own Hegel.

Other conspiracy theorists have seemingly dispensed with the Marx’s own particular take on the philosophical reality-appearance paradigm. Instead of economic factors (i.e. capitalism and its “modes of production”) constituting the unseen forces, conspiracy theorists will substitute their own which are at work behind the scenes. Despite that, what some non-Marxist conspiracy theorists see – and we don't - is still often economic and therefore political. They too talk about banking conspiracies (often run by Jews), the power of multinationals (often run by Jews), and how money (often Jewish money) and the (often Jewish) platonic Media affects sociological reality and even what it is we believe.

In fact these conspiracy theory variables are often fused by conspiracy theorists in that Jews, Freemasons, the Illuminati, etc. are often actually deemed to work in union – with the Jews, of course, on the top of the pyramid. Thus this makes the unseen-forces model even neater and easier to digest, intellectually speaking.

In terms of “superstructural” Leftist/Marxist conspiracy theories, they will include stories about bankers conspiring together, or Zionists conspiring together, or oil magnates conspiring together; or, even, as previously, bankers and Zionists and oil magnates all conspiring together.

By distinguishing reality from appearance in these ways, conspiracy theorists appear to be the political duplicates of those sects which, according to the sects themselves, have unique access to reality, truth and much else. And, of course, the only way you can find Reality and say goodbye to Appearance is by joining one of these sects (whether a Marxist, Nazi or a religious sect). Or, alternatively, just read the sect's literature instead.

2) One commentator said that a “theory must agree with the facts, but it can be wrong". However, I don't think that even in science there's a determinate and universally-accepted definition of the word “theory”. But I take his point.

Some people make a distinction between an hypothesis and a theory. An hypothesis, as in Charles S. Peirce's abductive hypothesis, is supposed to be an almost literal stab in the dark used, nevertheless, to explain a given fact or given observation. But what would be the point of a hypothesis which is completely free-standing? It must already have some basis in prior facts, experience, observations, tests, laws, etc. otherwise it would serve no purpose.

3) One reader told me of one of the many conspiracies carried out by Barack Obama. He said:

You didn't address the one issue most often used to label (libel) fans of this site as conspiracy theorists - Obama's birth records.... There is an 80 page affidavit chock full of evidence by a local law enforcement agency, yet it is dismissed by most as a conspiracy theory.”

All can say is just as people’s politics and ideological predispositions can help determine which theories they accept, and even which ones they formulate; so too can people's politics help determine which theories they reject – as in this Obama example. I personally don't know the ins-and-outs of this example. However, if there is a 80 page affidavit, etc., then I wouldn't class this theory as a conspiracy theory. And since I too have seen tons of evidence that Obama is a compulsive liar, I think the theory may well be true.

The commentator went on:

“Identity theft is not rare. The only thing rare about Obama's fraud is his audacity and lack of shame.”

Saying that “identity theft is not rare” is far from being conspiratorial. And I agree about Obama. That's why I didn't include any conspiracies in the article which I personally think occurred because readers would class me as being biased, etc.

Basically, I'm just asking questions about the nature of many conspiracy theories. Surely people have to agree that many of them are just so damn wacky. Either that, or completely politically motivated.

In fact Obama was mentioned again by another reader. He said:

"What is not a conspiracy is that Obama is working against the American people as agent for Iran and Russia..."

That's a conspiracy (I've never heard this Iran-angle) and it's also a theory about a conspiracy. A sceptic about conspiracy theories doesn't deny all conspiracies. He's just sceptical about the mindlessness of most conspiracy theories and I explain why that is so in the article.

One of my points is simple: because there are nth new conspiracy theories before each breakfast, and even two new ones about X, how do conspiracy theorists deal with the conspiracy theories which they themselves think are silly or unfounded? More relevantly, how do they deal with the conspiracy theory which says not-X, when their theory says X? What arguments do they use when almost by definition the "facts are hidden", or "denied by those in power", etc? These rival theorists are saying the same thing as they are about “hidden facts”, “government lies”, etc.; but their theory contradicts the conspiracy theorist's theory.

4) I myself have been accused of being a conspiracy theorist because I've shown a degree of scepticism towards (aspects of) the anthropogenic global warming theory. Nonetheless, my critics have said that when none of what I've have said was really a rejection of the theory (as such).

I think that only fundamental theories (say, in physics) can be true in any absolute sense. And even here the notion of truth is rejected by many scientists. When it comes to a non-basic and new science like climatology, let alone the even newer "science of global warming": what it encompasses is so broad and contains so many variables that it cannot really be classed as either true or false. Only single propositions or statements can be true or false; and even that position can be qualified.

5) I write an article called 'Conspiracies ain't Conspiracy Theories' and I was accused, a few times, of denying that conspiracies exist.

I think that one of the main motivating forces for many conspiracy theories is prior politics. The theories are usually tailor-made to advance or gel with prior ideologies or political belief-systems. Thus whatever conspiracy theory about, say, 9/11 a person believes may well be determined almost entirely by his politics.

There are of course other reasons for believing or concocting conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, I believe that politics, not only psychology, is a strong motivating factor. For example:

i) Many Muslims believe that 9/11 was a Zionist/Mossad plot to gain support for Israel.
ii) Many libertarians believe it was a plot to increase American state power.
iii) Many Leftist believe it was an excuse to go into Afghanistan and steal its oil or at least guarantee an oil pipeline.
iv) David Ike believes it was carry out by alien lizards.
v) Hippies believe it was a means to destabilise cosmic karma and thus create an increased need for the drugs of the Pharmo-Militray-Industrial Complex.

The problem for the conspiracy theorist (as can be seen above) is that for every seemingly legitimate conspiracy he cites, there will be another twenty which will contradict it.

What happens is that a person's prior ideologies or prior political positions will either determine the theories he accepts, or the theories he develops. This will effectively mean that if a "right-winger" believes theory X about, say, 9/11, a Leftist or Muslim will believe theory not-X about 9/11. The theories, in most but not all cases, simply back up the theorist's prior political/ideological world-view. And that's why just about anything goes when it comes to conspiracy theories. There is a conspiracy theory about X to suit every political position.

6) One interesting possible conspiracy is that of the Free Masons here in the UK.

Despite that, the 'power' of the Free Masons isn't 'hidden', is it? There are thousands of articles, books and websites devoted to the power of the Free Masons. I would bet that there are seminars and colloquiums too.

The question is, then, how that massive un-hidden nature of Free Mason activities and schemes squares with their (hidden?) power. Why hasn't all that research and all those blogs and articles had any effect on the supposed power of the Free Masons? Or is this where another theory comes in to explain that massive anomaly between Free Mason power and the fact that just about everybody knows about Free Mason power?

I don't have that much knowledge of English Free Masons. How much power do people think that they have? For example, what about the Old Etonians' Club: do Free Masons have more power than that considering that the Conservative Party is full of Old Etonians? (Unless Old Etonians are also Free Masons.)

So nothing is essentially “paranoid” about believing that secret and not-so-secret clubs exist.

Again, does the vast critical knowledge of the Free Masons have no effect on their continued power? And if that's the case, then what they are doing may only be vaguely powerful or secretive. It's like Arab culture, throughout the Middle East, in which just about everything is determined by which clan or tribe you belong to. But, then again, I don't think any of that is very secretive.

The man who had knowledge of English Free Masons went on to say:

"Any personal experience of such a conspiracy is bound to be 'subjective'. Try and find someone who you know is a mason. Ask them about masonry. Watch them avoid and dissemble, as they are told to do...why are they so reluctant to discuss it all?"

I wouldn't disagree with any of that. Nonetheless, if so many people know about Free Masons, and the fact that they all "dissemble", how do they get away with what they do on such a large scale? Or is it just a small scale?

He continued:

"When I took a solicitor's practice I was invited to become a mason, wholly out of the blue. I just know I would have received a lot more contracts, conveyancing work etc., had I agreed. I sometimes wish I had..."

That doesn't sound very secretive to me. It sounds like every solicitor ( at that firm) is automatically asked to become a Free Mason. That also sounds like a version of the Old Boys' Network. And, I suppose with the Old Boys' Network, or Old Etonians, it's not really that secret either. Having said that, not being secret doesn't lessen the power that these clubs genuinely have.

7) I don't have a foolproof method for distinguishing genuine theories from conspiracy theories. However, because of the multitudes of conspiracy theories which there are on the market, even on a single subject, I think scepticism is a very good thing. What's wrong with suggesting ways to sort the wheat from the chaff?

8) One point I would make is that since many global conspiracies have been occurring since the beginning of the 20th century (if not before), then why haven't all these conspirators (or only some of them) already achieved 'world domination' and complete control? Unless they already have!?

From what I know about human nature, and the nature of political and ideological differences, as well as the inevitable clash of egos, how on earth do all these entities - let alone individuals - manage to cooperate on their schemes of global domination? Even if they are all sharing the cake of global power between themselves, isn't that still a recipe for major conflict within this global conspirators' group/s? How do they pull off so much ideological and political cooperation even if they all do want the same thing? History and psychology shows that such massive cases of global cooperation between seemingly different groups, or even between similar groups, is highly unlikely.

What's even more miraculous is how it's all hushed up. I say hushed up even though the many believers in these global conspiracies do talk about these things a lot. Nonetheless, all that talk appears to have zero impact on the ongoing success rate of these global conspiracies.

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