Whether you believe in conspiracy theories or not, we can all agree that the use of the term has exploded in media and in conversation. The question is, why? Are we now using the term “Conspiracy Theory” more indiscriminately and on more platforms than previously? Are we, as a society, simply becoming unhinged and absurd? Are seemingly nonsensical stories, for some unknown reason, starting to resonate with people? Or are some conventional narratives getting challenged because some of these “alternative” explanations are in fact accurate, despite the fact that conventional sources refuse to acknowledge them as even potentially valid? Notice that the last two possibilities are different sides of the same coin. If you think “conspiracy theorists” are unhinged, it is highly likely that they are suspicious of your sanity as well. Both sides insist that they are right and that the other has been hoodwinked. Note that if you choose to not pick a side, you are, by default, allowing the conventional narrative to perpetuate. That is how convention works.
Merriam-Webster defines the term conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or situation as the result of a secret plan by usually powerful people or groups”. The key elements of this definition remain consistent across all authoritative lexicons: the group responsible for an event must be powerful and covert. However, if we refer to the Wikipedia definition as of 11/2018 a new element emerges: “A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy—generally one involving an illegal or harmful act supposedly carried out by government or other powerful actors—without credible evidence.”
When an explanation is labeled a “Conspiracy Theory,” by today’s definition, it has no evidence to support it. An explanation with no supporting evidence is a hypothesis, not a “theory.” “Conspiracy Theory,” as it is used today, is thus an oxymoron. These “Conspiracy Theories” we seem to hear about everyday should really be called “Conspiracy Hypotheses.” More concerning is that the “Conspiracy Theory” label identifies an explanation as inherently baseless. Given this linguistic construct, where is there room for a conspiracy that is in fact true?
There is also something troubling about using the term “credible” in the definition of conspiracy theory. Legally, evidence that is credible is that which a reasonable person would consider to be true in light of the surrounding circumstances. If evidence suggests an explanation that seems at the surface to be unreasonable, how does a reasonable person avoid automatically labeling the evidence not credible? If we are not careful, the credibility of the explanation and resultant conclusions would then determine the credibility of the evidence that supports it. Is this really so important? Perhaps you are quick to see that with this approach, our understanding of what is true and real can never evolve. If any evidence arose that radically disproved our understanding or eroded our faith in trusted institutions we would automatically discard it as “not credible” and remain entrenched in our accepted paradigm. “Credible” evidence cannot be a necessary requirement of a theory that challenges what is credible to begin with.
To better illustrate this, let us consider an old but very real “conspiracy theory.” About 400 years ago, European civilization was emerging from centuries of scientific and philosophical stagnation known as the dark ages. What more befitting a place for such a renaissance to occur than the center of the universe? You see, the idea that the Earth was one of eight planets revolving around a star that is orbiting the center of one of hundreds of billions of galaxies would have been absurd in Europe in the sixteenth century. Any sane person could see that the Sun and the Moon and every celestial body rises in the East and sets in the West. At that time, if someone went about proposing the idea that everything rises and falls because the Earth was spinning, they would have been laughed out of the tavern. Would that person be a conspiracy theorist? They are not proposing that “powerful actors are carrying out a harmful act,” they are merely suggesting an alternative explanation for what is observed. However, the implication of their suggestion seems to incriminate the authority on such matters as ignorant of the truth or, possibly, the perpetrators of a lie. The possibility of a conspiracy has now been introduced.
Now, let us say that this person claims to have proof of their absurd theory. Would you have taken the time to examine the evidence or would you have been more likely to dismiss them without further consideration? The very idea that they could be right would have been not just silly or heretical, but inconceivable to many, if not all. How could the evidence be credible if it implied something inconceivable? Dismissing their idea would have seemingly been the most logical and, therefore, the smartest thing to do.
When Galileo Galilei appeared in 1610 armed with a rudimentary “telescope,” few would peer into it. He claimed that the refractive properties of the pair of “lenses” would allow you to see things at great distances very clearly. With it one could see Jupiter and its moons revolving around the giant planet just as our moon revolves around Earth. How enchanting! The difficulty would arise when you put the telescope down: your feet would no longer be planted on the previously immovable center of creation. Would you have looked into his telescope? What would have been the harm in taking a peek? Certainly the fear of being proven more gullible than most would have been on your mind. What about the fear that he might be right?
Imagine what must have been going through Galileo’s mind after his monumental discovery. He saw irrefutably that the entire model of the universe had been completely misconceived. One just has to look. Most did not. I can only imagine how hard he must have tried to convince anyone to simply stop, look and listen to what he had discovered. At the time, Galileo was the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua and had previously held the same post at the University of Pisa. Despite his bonafides and reputation as a solid contributor to the Italian renaissance, his discovery would likely have died in obscurity if it weren’t for the support of an influential family, the Medicis, who offered Galileo a platform from which he could spread his theory. It was only through allying himself with political power that he was able to slowly generate interest in his heliocentric model of the solar system. His proposition eventually caught the attention of the Catholic church, who initially warned him to desist. Eventually, he was brought to trial in the Roman Inquisition 23 years after his discovery. At the age of 70, the intrepid mathematician and astronomer was allowed to return home if he agreed to recant his story. Instead Galileo chose to spend the rest of his years in prison because he believed that that would be the only way to get people to open their eyes.
Did it work? It did not. Galileo died incarcerated while Europe continued to slumber under stars that moved around them. By today’s standards, Galileo would have been labeled a Conspiracy Theorist from the day he announced his findings until he was proven right fifty years after his death. When the Principle of Gravitational Attraction eventually became widely accepted as true, the church had to retract their position because the motions of the stars and planets could not be explained under Newton’s laws.
On the other hand, Galileo is credited with being the father of not only observational astronomy, but of the scientific method as well. The scientific method demands that one tests an explanation without bias towards an outcome. All data is considered before deductions are made. When all other explanations have been proven wrong, the only explanation remaining becomes a theory. The theory persists as long as all subsequent experiments continue to uphold it. This is how we ultimately know what we know and have an inkling of what we don’t. If I had to choose a posthumous title for myself, “The Father of the Scientific Method” is one I could die with. Galileo is credited with this honorific not only because he valued it more than his freedom, but because he had the discipline to regard evidence objectively despite how unimaginable the implications were. This is how a body of knowledge expands. By considering the validity of the evidence first, we then can accept what was previously unimaginable, otherwise what we know tomorrow will be no different than what we know today.
All conspiracy theorists are not Galileos. Neither are all conspiracy theories true. However, can we be certain that all of them are false? At their very core, all conspiracy theories directly or indirectly point at a central authority acting covertly and simultaneously at the media for either missing it or looking the other way. This, of course, is unimaginable, as we all know the government can make mistakes but would never do anything intentionally harmful to its citizens and then hide it. Even if they did, somebody would come forward and the media would let us know about it. This is why such a deception could never occur. The idea that your lover could be in bed with your best friend is inconceivable. Evidence of such a thing would not be credible. Dismissing all conspiracy theories seems logical and therefore seems like the smartest thing to do.
In “Sapiens”, Yuval Harari proposes an explanation for why our species, Sapiens, out fought, out thought and out survived all other Homo species on the planet. He suggests that it was our unique ability to describe and communicate situations and events that had no basis in reality which set us apart. In other words, we could tell stories and they could not. By uniting under a common idea, story or even myth, thousands (and now thousands of millions) of Sapiens could come together with a shared purpose, identity or belief system to disband our cousins who were as individuals more sturdy and just as cunning but not nearly as good at cooperating as we were. This advantage, Harari proposes, has not only led our species to eventual supremacy over all others, but has also allowed us to form communities, governments and global alliances.
Siding with the majority has served us well–until it hasn’t. One only needs to revisit the history of Galileo and basic astronomy to understand this. In actuality, the first observant minds woke up to the fact that the Earth went around the sun and not the other way round nineteen centuries before Galileo did. The Greek mathematician, Aristarcus, is thought to be the first Western person to place the Sun in the middle of a “solar system” in 270 BC. A human being traveled to the moon just 360 years after Galileo “discovered” what Aristarcus had shown nearly two millennia before. How many centuries was this journey delayed because an alternative explanation in ancient Greece became a “conspiracy theory” against authority and convention?
This poses an intriguing question. Is there something hardwired in our behavioral patterns that push us towards conformist narratives and away from alternative ones at a precognitive level? Is it this tendency that gave rise to our enhanced ability to unite that keeps us in “group-think” more than we should be? How do we know we are looking at the world objectively and rejecting alternative belief systems from a purely rational basis? How does one know whether one is biased or not?
One way is to apply the scientific method. The scientific method demands that every possibility, no matter how outlandish, is tested for its veracity and dismissed only when it can be proven wrong. Without this objective pursuit of truth, misconceptions can persist indefinitely, just as the geocentric model of the universe did. Interestingly, Aristarcus was allowed to retain his theory because he lived at a time and place where philosophers, mathematicians and scientists were revered, protected and free to pursue their notions. The freedom ancient Greek society afforded its scientists only endured for a few centuries after Aristarcus lived. In Galileo’s day, the Roman Catholic church had been presiding over such things as facts for well over a thousand years. His incontrovertible proof was suppressed by the power that had the most to lose.
These days, establishing the facts of the matter may not be as easy as we presume. Conspiracy theorists claim to have proof just like the debunkers do. How do we know that the proof offered on either side is valid? Who has the time to apply the scientific method? It certainly seems safer to go with the conventional narrative because surely there are more rational minds in a larger group. Though it seems a reasonable approach, it may be in fact where we misstep. By deferring to others, we assume the majority will arrive at the truth eventually. The problem is that those in the majority who are trained to examine evidence objectively often must take a potentially career-ending risk to even investigate an alternative explanation. Why would an organization be willing to invest the resources to redirect their scientific staff to chase down and evaluate evidence that will likely endanger their reputation with the public without any upside? Thus, conventional narratives survive for another day, or in the case of an Earth-centered universe, for a couple of thousand years.
Whether or not you are not a “conspiracy theorist” we can all agree that there is a possibility, however slight, that some conventional narratives could be wrong. How would we know? Is there a source that we can trust 100%? Must we rely on our own wits? A short inquiry into this question can be disquieting. Most of us must admit that our understanding of history, science and geopolitics are merely stories that we have been told by people, institutions or media that we trust explicitly or implicitly. Because most of us are not authorities on anything, it would be impossible to overturn any conventional narrative with an evidentiary argument. Challenging these paradigms is necessarily left to others. Generally speaking, there is no real reason to argue with convention if everything is seemingly unfolding acceptably. But what if you wanted to know for yourself ? Is there any way to ever really know the truth without having to have faith in someone or something else?
There may not be. However, it is also naive to believe that if someone, scientist or not, was in possession of evidence that challenged our deepest held beliefs that it would take root in the ethos on its own. Galileo enjoyed unsurpassed credibility as one of Italy’s foremost mathematicians. He also possessed irrefutable, verifiable and reproducible evidence for his revolutionary theory, yet the convention he was challenging did not crumble through his discoveries. History has shown us that it makes no difference how valid a point is; truth emerges only when someone is listening.
So, rather than seeking to independently validate or refute what we are being told, it becomes more productive to ask a different question: How biased is our society by historical standards? How does our society regard alternative theories? Do we let them co-exist with convention as the ancient Greeks did? Do we collectively invest resources to investigate them openly? Or do we dismiss, attack and vilify them as was done in the papal states in Galileo’s time? Which kind of society is more likely to get it right? Which runs the greater risk of being hoodwinked in the long run? Which is more free?