What is Conspiracy Theory?

A conspiracy is the activity of a group of people acting in concert to accomplish a heinous act. Bad things happen. They always will. Sometimes they come about because of a conspiracy of bad actors to bring them about. Sometimes one person does it alone. Then there is no conspiracy. I am not talking about such a conspiracy.

For example, in the 2016 federal election for president in the United States there was a conspiracy, spear-headed by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and those who worked with him to interfere, illegally and immorally in the American presidential election to discredit Hillary Clinton and favor Donald Trump. They conspired in secret but the evidence is overwhelming. The Mueller inquiry clearly and unequivocally determined this to be the case. A joint non-partisan intelligence report reached the same conclusion.

This is not the type of conspiracy I am talking about. The reason this is not what I am talking about is that the belief in the conspiracy was reasonable and backed up by a mountain of evidence.


The type of conspiracy theory I am talking about now is the paranoid or unreasonable belief in a conspiracy. The key is the lack of reasons to support the belief. In such a case, the evidence does not support the belief in the conspiracy. The belief in the conspiracy is thus not justified. It is a paranoid belief in other words because it is based on an unreasonable fear.

Fears are important. Fears can be bad and they can be good. If a fear is based on evidence it is a justified fear and we should pay attention to it. Reasonable fears should not be ignored. For example, when scientific evidence is overwhelming that the climate will change dramatically unless we change our ways, we should follow the evidence. When 97% of the scientists or more say that irreparable damage to the environment and our society will result from our failure to act, we should pay attention unless we have an even better reason to do otherwise.

Reasonable fears can protect us from harm. Unreasonable fears can cause us harm. We need to know how to distinguish them. That is not always easy to do. For a while, that was hard to do with evidence about climate change. For a long time now the evidence has mounted to such an extent that it is no longer reasonable to ignore. Reasonable fears can lead us out of danger. These are good fears. Unreasonable fears can lead us into danger.

Unreasonable fears should be ditched. The sooner the better. Sometimes that is hard to do. I have an unreasonable fear of heights. That is a called a phobia because it is unreasonable. All of us know that when we are in high places where we might fall down, we must be careful. That is a reasonable fear. Sometimes the fear is above and beyond all the evidence. That is the type I have. That is a phobia. I am not proud of it, but there is nothing I can do about. I know when I am in a glass elevator there is nothing to fear, but I can’t stop being afraid. My fear is not based on reasons. That is why I can’t reason my way out of it. I wish I could. That fear sometimes is debilitating.

Recently Republican supporters had a garden party at the White House to meet and greet the Republican nominated candidate for the Supreme Court. It was held outdoors, but the attendees did not practice social distancing and most of them did not wear masks. A significant number of those in attendance contracted Covid-19 after that event. The event may have been a super spreader event of the Covid-19 virus. That was dangerous and unwise on the part of the reckless attendees. It may have caused president Trump or others to get the coronavirus. A reasonable fear of the disease could have led a number of those in attendance to take reasonable precautions.

A current conspiracy theory is being promulgated by QAnon, and others, that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Tom Hanks, George Soros, and other elite liberals are all part of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that drink the blood of babies. They also believe that Donald Trump is the saviour who will protect the innocent children from this conspiracy. This theory is about as absurd as a theory can get, but many people believe it entirely without evidence. This is the type of conspiracy theory I want to talk about.

When it comes to conspiracies we need to be able to detect the reasonable theories from the unreasonable ones. That means we have to carefully analyze and sift through the evidence in support of theories or that might contradict the theories. To do that we must exercise our critical thinking or reason. That is our best tool for this purpose. Not faith in the promulgator of the theory. We are entitled to take into consideration the reputation of the proponents of a theory, but only to a limited extent. Even experts can be wrong. It is much more important to look at the evidence and the analysis and reach a conclusion. Sometimes we can’t do that. Then we should look at all the evidence we can and consult as many experts as possible and reach a tentative decision about the theory, and be prepared to discard or amend it as soon as the evidence leads us to do so.


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