When people speak of a “conspiracy theory,” the first things that often come to mind are “grassy knolls,” The X-Files, the Illuminati and faked moon landings. However, the phrase “conspiracy theory” denotes only an explanation for an event that invokes people, literally, “breathing together.” Such things do happen, for there are people behind bars convicted of criminal conspiracy. History is replete with well-documented conspiracies — Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandals and Enron Summer among the better known. So, given that there are conspiracies, what’s the difference between a theory about a conspiracy and a “conspiracy theory”?
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The difference is that the latter is a term of derision, intimating something false, kind of crazy and sometimes quite offensive. To call someone a “conspiracy theorist” — the deficient type of person that would advance a conspiracy theory — is to dismiss them from reasoned debate. Treated as expressions of the same underlying phenomena — false claims advanced by paranoid people — “conspiracy theory” is an epithet often used to discredit people concerned about the misuse of power.
Our recent study analyzed articles in The New York Times since 2005 with two ends in mind. First, we looked at the way the pejorative is deployed in characterizing “conspiracy theories” and “conspiracy theorists.” Second, we examined the ways in which the charge is employed in order to dismiss public opinion in Muslim-majority nations (often described as the attitudes of the “Arab street”) in the context of the “War on Terror.” We found that the phrase “conspiracy theory” is used rather consistently to tar people — and often entire groups of people — as incapable of rational thought and as incapable of weighing evidence objectively.
If we examine news media we can see how the term plays out. As if there was any doubt in their readers’ minds about the connotations of the term, journalists and columnists at The New York Times attach “conspiracy theory” to phrases like “made up of whole cloth,” “entirely specious and unjustified,” “far-fetched,” and “wildly counterintuitive.” Conspiracy theories are to be “debunked” and in the end must always “confront the corroborating truth.” “Conspiracy theorists” themselves are “wild-eyed,” characterized by “frenzied paranoia,” their utterances “ramblings.” The subject of an interview with J. David Goodman and Vivian Yee reportedly “rattled off personal grievances and a bizarre conspiracy theory,” while others, according to Trymaine Lee, offer theories “tinged with anger.”
Some of these people are crazy but harmless — “accident buffs” and “connoisseurs of conspiracy theories.” There is also the dark side of course, as when Benedict Carey writes that a subject of his article was a “seemingly normal boy [who] experimented with drugs and… conspiracy theories.” These connotations should seem familiar, and the discursive work the label performs in dismissing facts, explanations or perspectives isn’t hard to demonstrate. Every time someone says, “I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but…” they reaffirm the way this phrase works by trying to inoculate themselves against the expected insult.
This research was presented at the Conspiracy Theory Conference, hosted by the Political Science Department at the University of Miami. The authors would like to thank all of the participants at that conference for their comments and insights. In particular, conversations with Lee Basham, Jack Bratich, Matthew Dentith and James Tracy have served to sharpen these arguments.
There is a profound philosophical problem with this use of the term, in that there is never a cause to reject a claim out of hand. Dismissing an argument without examining its logic or the evidence is indefensible, regardless of how absurd that claim might seem at first glance. Theories have to be tested, and it is only by doing so that what were once absurd notions have come to be established fact. We know there have been conspiracies in the past, and it seems reasonable that there might be more in the future. How else are you going to explain an actual conspiracy with something other than a conspiracy theory? More important, is there really a category of explanation that is categorically false?
In our research, we are finding that this use of the epithet is nowhere more evident than in the attribution of this deficiency to the relatively powerless. In such cases, not only are the claims of individuals treated as beyond the consideration of reasonable people, but the innate propensities of entire groups are said to be at the root of their claims. Muslims, for example, have been reified, racialized and vilified, long before 9/11. Given this conflation of nations and ethnic groups, the attitudes of what is often called the “Arab Street” (i.e., public opinion in majority-Muslim nations, whether Arab or not) are often portrayed as grounded in unwarranted “conspiracy theories.”
Although seemingly reasonable in light of ongoing revelations, too numerous to detail, regarding the conduct of the “War on Terror” (the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on Torture being only one example), Muslims are reputedly unduly suspicious, for some reason, of the motives of the North Atlantic powers (some of which were not so long ago their colonial masters, per the Sykes-Picot agreement). But since they are “conspiracy theorists,” their concerns can be dismissed without debate.
Over the last decade, The New York Times has found it easy to characterize 1.6 billion people as deficient in this way. Columnist Thomas Friedman offers a perfect example of how the term is used to racialize and dismiss a group. He writes that “the more these societies become monocultures, the less they spark new ideas and the more susceptible they are to diseased conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies.” Throughout the Muslim world, we are told that “conspiracy theories abound,” “run rampant,” “run rife” and are a “national sport.” Declan Walsh quotes noted “terrorism expert” Peter Bergen on Pakistanis’ “strange conspiracies… indicative of a broader culture of conspiracy theories,” whatever that means. We are told by Stephen Farrell, quoting a British military officer, that Iraqis suffer from “the conspiracy mindset.”
But, given Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and “collateral damage,” are “conspiracy theories about the Americans’ intentions” or “about Western meddling” easily dismissed? Given sanctions, the bombing of infrastructure and the destabilization of governments, why is it a surprise to journalists like Sabrina Tavernise that Pakistanis blame the U.S. when the water stops running and have concerns about shadowy, beltway “think tanks?” That U.S. foreign policy has led on occasion to the interruption of public utilities is impossible to refute. English Professor Shaista Sirajuddin, in Pakistan, told The New York Times, for a Quotation of the Day, that “when the water stops running from the tap, people blame America”?
One might ask, still, aren’t there wacky conspiracy theories? Of course there are, but it is the “wacky” part that’s the problem. If you examine the logic and look at the evidence, most would agree, for example, that we can safely reject BBC sportscaster David Icke’s claim that shape-shifting reptiles control human affairs. But in order to reject any claim, you do need to consider the arguments and weigh the evidence first. If we go around rejecting some “type” of claim as inherently false, and some “type” of claimant as unreasonable (especially if we prejudicially attribute this to the characteristics of a group), then we will be certain to miss the next Watergate, the next Iran-Contra scandal or the next Enron Summer.
Not every “conspiracy theory” is true, to be sure, and the exercise of power is generally more complex than it is made out to be. However, people have conspired often enough that it is clear that the powerful warrant close scrutiny. Rather than dismiss “conspiracy theories,” our news media — especially the “newspaper of record” — should always investigate before they denigrate.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.