Conspiracy Theories and Rationality
By David Coady
On Line Opinion
21 June 2007
I have been interviewed by the media several times since my edited collection Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate came out. On each occasion the questions I was asked presupposed that conspiracy theories are invariably false and that the people who believe them (i.e., conspiracy theorists) are irrational. Every interviewer has expressed the hope that I could explain why people persist in this form of irrationality.
In retrospect this should not have been surprising. The expression “conspiracy theory” has strongly negative connotations; it is almost invariably used in a way which implies that the theory in question is not to be taken seriously. However careful consideration of what a conspiracy theory is reveals that this dismissive attitude is not justified.
A “conspiracy” is simply a secret plan on the part of a group of people to bring about some shared goal, and a “conspiracy theory” is simply a theory according to which such a plan has occurred or is occurring. Most people can cite numerous examples of conspiracies from history, current affairs, or their own personal experience. Hence most people are conspiracy theorists.
The problem is that when people think of particular examples of conspiracy theories they tend to think of theories that are clearly irrational.
When asked to cite examples of typical conspiracy theories, many people will refer to theories involving conspirators who are virtually all-powerful or virtually omniscient.
Others will mention theories involving alleged conspiracies that have been going on for so long or which involve so many people, that it implausible to suppose that it could have remained undetected (by anyone other than the conspiracy theorists).
Still others refer to theories involving conspirators who appear to have no motive to conspire (unless perhaps the desire to do evil for its own sake can be thought of as a motive).
Such theories are conspiracy theories and they are irrational, but it does not follow, nor is it true, that they are irrational because they are conspiracy theories. Thinking of such irrational conspiracy theories as paradigms of conspiracy theories is like thinking of numerology as a paradigm of number theory, or astrology as a paradigm of a theory of planetary motion. The subject matter of a theory does not in general determine whether belief in it is rational or not.
People do conspire. Indeed almost everyone conspires some of the time (think of surprise birthday parties) and some people conspire almost all the time (think of CIA agents). Many things (for example, September 11) cannot be explained without reference to a conspiracy. The only question in such cases is “Which conspiracy theory is true?”.
The official version of events (which in this case I accept) is that the conspirators were members of al-Qaida. This explanation is, however, unlikely to attract the label “conspiracy theory”. Why not? Because it is also the “official story”.
Although it is common to contrast conspiracy theories with the official non-conspiratorial version of events, quite often the official version of events is just as conspiratorial as its rivals. When this is the case, it is the rivals to the official version of events that will inevitably be labelled “conspiracy theories” with all the associated negative connotations. So, “conspiracy theory” has become, in effect, a synonym for a belief which conflicts with an official story.
This should make it clear how dangerous the expressions “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” have become. These expressions are regularly used by politicians and other officials, and more generally by defenders of officialdom in the media, as terms of abuse and ridicule.
Yet it is vital to any open society that there are respected sources of information which are independent of official sources of information, and which can contradict them without fear. The widespread view that conspiracy theories are always, or even typically, irrational is not only wrongheaded, it is a threat to our freedom.
Of course, no one should deny that there are people who have an irrational tendency to see conspiracies everywhere, and it would, of course, be possible to restrict the expression “conspiracy theorist” in such a way that it only referred to such people. But if we do this, we should also remember that there is another form of irrationality, namely the failure to see conspiracy, even when one is confronted with clear evidence of it, which is at least as widespread, and which is far more insidious.
We need a name for people who irrationally reject evidence of conspiracy, to give our political discourse some much needed balance.
I think the expression “coincidence theorist”, which has gained a certain currency on the Internet, is a suitable candidate. A coincidence theorist fails to connect the dots, no matter how suggestive of an underlying pattern, they are.
A hardened coincidence theorist may watch a plane crash into the second tower of the World Trade Centre without thinking that there is any connection between this event and the plane which crashed into the other tower of the World Trade Centre less than an hour earlier.
Similarly, a coincidence theorist can observe the current American administration’s policies in oil rich countries from Iraq and Iran to Venezuela, and see no connection between those policies and oil.
A coincidence theorist is just as irrational as a conspiracy theorist (in the sense of someone excessively prone to conspiracy theorising). They are equally prone to error, though their errors are of different and opposing kinds. The errors of the conspiracy theorist, however, are much less dangerous than the errors of the coincidence theorist. The conspiracy theorist usually only harms himself. The coincidence theorist may harm us all by making it easier for conspirators to get away with it.