What if I could make you stop thinking about something by just uttering a magical phrase? Wouldn’t that be an enormous power? That idea could be trivial, or it could be false, or it could be profound and enriching, even life-changing. But with just a phrase I could make you shake your head and dismiss it outright. You’d feel it was not worth considering anymore. You’d feel stupid and ashamed just to have considered it. And when you encountered that idea again, you’d shake your head and dismiss it yourself with that magical phrase, causing the same reaction in other people near by. Could this be so? “No- it’s just a conspiracy theory!”…
Did it work? Did I stop your thought? Did I make you dismiss the entire idea? For you see, this claim of something being a “conspiracy theory” is a surprisingly simple way to manipulate people into outright rejecting an idea without any serious consideration or counter-argument.
For many, the term “conspiracy theory” is equivalent to saying “ridiculous false claim”. It automatically declares that something is false and ridiculous and thus in need of no further argumentation or evidence to be dismissed. It does not simply question the claim, but immediately discredits it. But there is no reason to interpret this term in such a way, and many reasons to view conspiracy theories as perfectly valid claims. Conspiracy theories should be dealt with like any other claim. They should not be stigmatized.
If we analyze the term impartially, it simply means a theory about a conspiracy. By theory it means an idea of how and why something happened, and by conspiracy something nefarious planned in secret by a group of people. Now conspiracies happen all the time. If you look at the news, you’re bound to see reports of people arrested for conspiring to murder someone, or laundering money, or defrauding customers . The list is almost endless and this happens every day. Human beings do bad things, and being social creatures, they often join together to do bad things to others.
So there is nothing outlandish nor unrealistic about claiming that a conspiracy exists. The fact that someone claims a conspiracy, should not be a red flag pertaining to the truth of the claim- that is, claiming a conspiracy is a perfectly reasonable allegation in itself and is not a good reason to dismiss the claim. Now, the actual conspiracy alleged could be reasonable or unreasonable, which is why it should be investigated on a case-by-case basis before being dismissed. But automatically dismissing it because it claims a conspiracy is not a rational response.
As far as theories go- they are attempts at explaining events in the world. In the case of a conspiracy theory, it merely means that the theory involves a conspiracy. Now such a theory may be wrong or right. But that something is a theory does not mean that it is false nor suspect. We have theories about all types of things, from the mundane to the extraordinary. In time, some are proven right and many are proven wrong.
In fact, it would be fair to say that, like most theories, most conspiracy theories are wrong- if only because there are so many of them, and some contradict each other, and truth is one, not many. But many theories are inconclusive, since we never get enough information to prove them conclusively right or wrong. Anytime we form a cohesive idea of what happened somewhere or to something without having directly witnessed it nor been told of it, we have formed a theory. We do this all the time. Indeed, we must do it, to make sense of the world.
There is an article with the headline “The existence of real conspiracies does not justify conspiracy theories.” So, according to this author, we should accept revealed conspiracies, but we cannot theorize about unrevealed conspiracies. Then the article goes on to paint a caricature of those who don’t accept mainstream narratives. Certainly, there are people who don’t check their sources or investigate the evidence. But I see all of that from the mainstream as well, under the guise of authority and science, of course. And it’s certainly not an accurate description of many thinking, well-informed individuals who believe that some conspiracies currently exist based on good arguments and evidence.
Those who disregard conspiracy theories and people who believe them are often very sure of themselves, that they know the truth, that they can distinguish fact from deception while others can’t. They consider their beliefs rational, and others’ beliefs irrational. Yet more often than not, they simply believe the mainstream narrative, without seriously investigating the original source material or arguments made. There is nothing inherently stupid or wrong about thinking through some proposition or another.
If “conspiracy theory” is a term relegated just for the “fake” theories, then what should we call the reasonable theories? No alternative is offered. Perhaps we can call them “conspiracy hypothesis” or “conspiracy claims”? No, those don’t seem to do it either. Instead, let’s take a look at just a few examples of proven conspiracies.
In 1932 there was no treatment for syphilis and, with the help of the prestigious Tuskegee Institute in Macon county, Alabama, the U.S. Public Health Service recruited 600 poor black men to take part in a medical study, with the promise of free medical care. 399 men were diagnosed with syphilis, but they were not told this, nor where they told that the name of the study was the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” and that its purpose was not to test new medical treatments, but to watch how the disease progressed without treatment. The government wanted to see what kind of damage the disease caused and if its effects where different in black men than in white men.
The men were given placebos and ineffective treatments, even when penicillin finally became available and officially recognized in 1947. The agency convinced local doctors and the armed forces not to treat the men and continually attempted to prevent the men from receiving proper treatment. A whistleblower named Peter Buxton leaked the story to the press after failing to stop the program and it was finally shut down in 1972 after the story broke. For forty years the government conspired to keep these men and their families from being cured of this terrible disease.
By that time, 128 men had died either directly from syphilis or from its related complications, all of which could have been prevented with a simple penicillin treatment. But without treatment, syphilis causes blindness and insanity as it progresses to the brain and eventually death. 40 of the men’s wives had also contracted the disease because of lack of treatment and it was passed on to 19 of the men’s children.
Before the story broke and became mainstream, was it reasonable to think that a group of men were being fooled by a prestigious university, the government, local doctors and the armed forces for 40 years in order to study them as they died from a curable disease?
This type of experimentation is not unique to the Tuskegee Experiments. For example, in The Manhattan District Experiments starting in 1945 patients were, unknown to them, injected with radioactive material to observe the effects on the body. Doctors again cooperated with the government to carry out these crimes, although some were not even aware of what they were injecting into patients.
In 1975 it was revealed that from 1953 to 1973 the Central Intelligence Agency had performed secret, non-consensual drug experiments using lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, and other mind-altering drugs, on innocent Americans in order to gauge their potential for information gathering, mind control and psychological torture. They tested these drugs on people at universities, hospitals and prisons. They also used paralytics and electroshock therapy. In some cases, they used prostitutes to lure men and drug them while CIA agents watched via a 2-way mirror.
Could you imagine how you would have been labeled had you said that the government was secretly drugging people to experiment with mind control? Yet, that is exactly what happened. Would it then be so unreasonable to believe that some in government are doing the same today, now with far more advanced technologies?
In 2006, big tobacco companies were found guilty of hiding the fact that they knew smoking caused lung cancer. They had known this since the early 1950s, but only admitted to the fact in the late 1990s. They were able to buy off politicians and influential people with large donations. They increased the level of nicotine and included additives to increase addiction to cigarettes.
The court found that they had mislead the public about the risks of smoking, secondhand smoke, and nicotine addiction, and deceptively advertised cigarettes as “light” and “low tar,” knowing that they were as unhealthy as regular cigarettes. They were also found to be targeting children in with adverting. They were tried under the “Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act”, or RICO, meant to go after criminal organizations.
The case was appealed and upheld, and in 2006 Judge Kessler concluded that:
“As set forth in these Final Proposed Findings of Fact, substantial evidence establishes that Defendants have engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO.”
Was it reasonable to believe that popular mainstream corporations were fooling the public about the safety of their products for 50 years when government officials and medical doctors were endorsing them? Could it be that corporations today are misleading us about the safety of their products?
History shows that big conspiracies do exist and that conspiracy theories are reasonable proposals which should be investigated on a case-by-case basis.