You’re missing out on the conspiracy

You’re missing out on the conspiracy

Armaan Rashid, Editor-in-Chief

Dear Reader,

There’s a reason for everything that’s torn up in your life, and I’ve figured it out.

It’s THEM. Those guys over there — you know the ones, the Big Bads, the bad ones who did the bad things and are continuing to do the bad things. Radiohead called them the “karma police,” and others call them the “Illuminati,” and others still call them the “New World Order.” Other people call them “immigrants.” Some others call them “heretics.”

But it doesn’t really matter who they are or, really, what it is they did, other than the fact that they’re the reason for everything that’s torn up in your life, and now you can trust that I’m probably right about most things since I figured it out.

I’m only sort of kidding, dear reader, and that’s the scary thing about conspiracy theorizing. It’s everywhere. Intellectuals — particularly liberal intellectuals, though liberals are as susceptible to conspiracy theories as everyone else — routinely dismiss conspiracy theories as anti-intellectual nonsense. And they usually are, but it’s awkward when they turn out to be true.

If you think conspiracies are dumb, which is not necessarily a bad thing to think, you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you the CIA tried to use LSD to develop mind-control technology in the 1960s. But they did. It was called MKUltra. In surveys by the Cornell Research Center, it’s been proven that people who routinely disbelieve common conspiracy theories also disbelieve the ones that have been proven to be true, which itself is like a sort of conspiracy — “look at those conspiracy theorists over there, always unilaterally incorrect.”

The thing is, dear reader, that even though the word “conspiracy theory” is used as a slander, most arguments — especially political arguments — are structured the same way a conspiracy theory is structured. I have certainly made conspiracy-theory-like arguments in this column, to be sure, and it could be argued that many of the same intellectuals who dismiss the practice engage in some light conspiracy theorizing as well. This is why people are so susceptible to the conspiracy theory — because it looks just like all the other arguments they’ve been exposed to.

The pleasure of the conspiracy theory, which is just to say the pleasure of most Western argument, lies in its ability to explain phenomena we don’t fully understand. Usually this explanation comes in the form of an “it was THEM” conceit. Take 9/11 — it was the U.S. government, many a conspiracy theorist would say. Sandy Hook, and all mass shootings thereafter — also the U.S. government. Everything bad that has ever happened — immigrants/Jewish/white people. It depends on the day.

These are all the sorts of things that are said by the so-called “conspiracy theorist,” but turn your attention to the political arena and things are basically the same. Trump supporters attribute bad things — economic devastation — to several Big Bads. Islam, immigrants, the “liberal intellectual.” The liberal intellectual these days has a habit of attributing all the bad things — i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia — to the innate evil of the White Male. (To my mind, blaming white dudes for everything bad in the world honestly gives them far too much credit.) Either way, these arguments rely on the explanation of bad things, Everything That’s Torn Up in Your Life, by assigning responsibility to a conspiring party.

I’m not arguing that either the liberals’ or the conservatives’ arguments are right or wrong, but merely that the structure of the argument looks the same. And it’s not just in the modern day, either; the bones of Western democracy are built, at least in part, on John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and even there you can catch reference to a Big Bad, the “barbarians” (i.e. nonwhite people) who simply necessitate Western imperialism.

We talk 9/11 conspiracy theories, but the Bush administration’s response to the attack is the biggest conspiracy theory of them all — look at them, the TERRORISTS (new Big Bads) and their Weapons of Mass Destruction coming to destroy freedom, liberty and all we stand for. He’s not unequivocally wrong, but I’m just trying to point out how little distance there is between arguments we accept and arguments we slander as “conspiracies.”

So in a landscape of conspiracy theories, how do we figure out what’s true and what’s not? Philosopher Steve Clarke has a theory. He differentiates between valid arguments and bad, untrue “conspiracy theories” by using the criteria of what he calls the “degenerative research programme” — i.e., an untrue conspiracy theory can be detected if the theory itself must keep changing to accommodate new, contradictory information.

This is a good definition, one that’s held up in real life (e.g. MKUltra was theorized about long before it was confirmed, and it kept explaining the new evidence that came out). What’s uproariously funny, though, is that by this definition, all of science is a conspiracy theory.

Science, by nature, modifies its theories to accommodate evidence that contradicts former theories. Does this mean that a scientific theory is just as bad as the everyday Reddit-borne conspiracy theory?

No, of course not. (Evolution is not “just a theory.”) It just means they’re uncomfortably close to each other. One is obviously backed up by mountains of rigorous evidence, but the structure of the theory, and the reasons for which you might believe it, might be the same.

That’s what’s important. Conspiracy theories are just like other, more intellectually rigorous theories, in that they appeal to our desires for certainty. But you (and I) are usually missing out on the fact that that appeal might be stronger than the rigor of the argument itself. I’m not sure whether or not conspiracy theorizing itself is even a bad thing.

But it’s from musician Jonathan Higgs that I can offer perhaps the most sobering reflection I’ve yet seen on the nature of the conspiracy theory, especially those that ultimately boil down to the idea that there is some Big Bad — some lizards at the top of the skyscrapers in New York running the world and ruining your life, when really “the true horror is that they are not evil masterminds — they’re just idiots. That’s much scarier than reptiles.”