Why I Hate the Term Conspiracy Theory

by JoHarrington

History is written by the winners, which doesn't mean to say that there are not other perspectives on the story. I would rather hear the evidence and make up my own mind.

Too often those with an alternative take on an old, familiar tale are dismissed out of hand. The usual way of doing so is to label their version a 'conspiracy theory'.

It doesn't even have to involve a conspiracy anymore. It merely has to be something which goes against the grain of the official narrative; and therefore be something that the listener does not want to hear.

I hate the term 'conspiracy theory' because it presupposes falsehood. To my mind, the evidence should be examined to establish the truth.

What is a Conspiracy Theory?

Originally, it was the notion that a group or community are secretly manipulating events. Now it seems solely to be a stop word.

People have been referring to conspiracy theories since the end of the 19th century, but it's only been the last couple of decades that it's taken off as a common term.

Shows like The X-Files and real life events like the Watergate Scandal have popularized the notion, to the point where nothing can happen without someone somewhere deciding that dark forces are behind it.

In its purest form, the conspiracy theory runs like this:  a secret society of high ranking officials (governmental personnel, religious figures, police chiefs and the like) get together to form a plan. They then put it into operation, causing incidents, events or a long-running operation.

Presidents are shot. Astronauts appear to land on the moon.  The World Trade Center collapses.  Pagan, Catholic or Zionist rituals permeate world government.  Reptilian aliens shape-shift into world leaders.

The trouble is that some of these things could well be true. The President of the United States really was at the heart of the Watergate Conspiracy.  But when such truths are thrown into the same category as the more outlandish ideas, then it tends to reduce the whole to pulp, tabloid fiction.

Books about Conspiracy Theories

Not sure what gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory? Buy these books to uncover the facts behind some of history's alternative interpretations.

Conspiracy Number One

A group of religious fanatics sought to reduce a national landmark into burning rubble, with a massive loss of life.

At least one foreign world leader had some prior knowledge about it, even if collusion was later denied.

After the event, torture was used to extract information from one of the members of the terrorist cell. This was sanctioned at the highest level. 

Government officials went in search of other terrorists, across the country.  Prominent leaders were shot down and killed before they could ever be brought to trial. 

Politicians used public panic over the event as an excuse to pass hardline legislation, designed to increase national security, and to initiate an invasion of another country.

Conspiracy Number Two

A group of religious fanatics sought to reduce a national landmark into burning rubble, with a massive loss of life.

It was suggested the government had prior knowledge, but collusion or letting it happen was later denied.

After the event, torture and rendition were used to extract information from members of the terrorist cell. This was sanctioned at the highest level. 

Government officials went in search of other terrorists, across the world.  Prominent leaders were shot down and killed before they could ever be brought to trial. 

Politicians used public panic over the event as an excuse to pass hardline legislation, designed to increase national security, and to initiate a war.

Why Dismiss Conspiracy Theories When They Look Like the Truth?

The two examples above describe two different events. One is commonly taught in classrooms as truth. The other is disdained as utterly unrealistic.

Have you worked out yet which of the two narratives is 'real history' and which is 'just a conspiracy theory'?

It's this narrow line which makes me really detest the term 'conspiracy theory'. It's thrown at anything which somebody doesn't want anyone else to look at too closely. 

Negative connotations like 'not feasible', 'living in a dream world' and 'unrealistic' get bandied around, when none may be appropriate.

What happened to the old Socratic philosophy of questioning everything?  Particularly anything to do with government. 

Bad things do happen.  Conspiracies are hatched. Governments may act in self-interest.  History, and particularly political history, rarely looks like a Disney film; and the heroes and villains may all be the same people.

Those who need to be told what to believe aren't asking the right questions. They are the ones still clinging to the infant's belief that people in power have their best interests at heart, 100% of the time.

They may well do, but not 100% of the time; and only when your personal interests converge with that of the rest of the nation, as perceived by those in charge.

Personally, when faced with something dismissed outright as a conspiracy theory, I approach it as I do generally accepted fact.  I ask for the primary sources.  I read, I listen and I determine the most probable version of events.  I look at the context and what happened next.  I follow the money to see who gained.

And sometimes even all of that doesn't point to one major interpretation; and sometimes it does. Whether the tale is disdained as a 'conspiracy theory' or labelled 'historical fact' shouldn't really come into it.

What the evidence suggests is the most important aspect of all.

Answers:  Conspiracy One:  The Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  Conspiracy Two:  The World Trade Center Attacks of 2001.

Famous 'Conspiracy Theories' Which May be True

At least the popular view appears at odds with the officially sanctioned telling of events. Discover more about them.

The Conspiracy Theory Label is Used to Shut People Up

I hate stop words in every form that they take. Information should speak for itself and discussion should ensue. We should not be told what to think.

My main gripe with the term 'conspiracy theory' is in how it is used. 

Official history may be examined from every possible avenue and angle.  Libraries full of history books on the same subject are testimony to that.  Conspiracy theories are meant to be instantly put aside, never to be considered again.

No, that is not how historians work.  If history is written by the winners (who aren't always those who thought that they won at the time), then there is practically a duty to investigate what stories were left untold.

The term 'conspiracy theory' tends to be injected into the debate in the same way as other stop words, like 'un-American', 'paedophilia' or 'Nazi'.  They are words or phrases which you can't argue beyond without appearing somehow ridiculous, naive, criminally insane or traitorous. It's a personal attack to divert attention away from what you're actually saying.

At the very least, that's bad debating skills.  At worse, it's forcing conformity into a single point of view.

Moreover, by using the word 'theory', it implies that no evidence has been produced at all; or that nothing is proven by that which is on the table.  How many people, with just a casual or passing interest in the story, actively evaluate the facts for themselves?  There's an assumption that the person dismissing the case has already done that and found the evidence lacking.

Am I saying that every version of events labelled a 'conspiracy theory' is actually true?  No, I'm not.  But I am arguing that we'll never know, unless we afford them all the same scrutiny as we do the commonly accepted versions.

Under the strong spotlight of the evidence, many will wither away as unsupported paranoia.  But others may not.  As Mulder, in The X-Files, put it so succinctly, the truth is out there.

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Updated: 01/22/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 12/01/2012

Thank you. :)

JohnTannahill on 12/01/2012

Absolutely perfectly put.

JoHarrington on 11/24/2012

Thank you very much.

kate on 11/24/2012

excellent argument.

JoHarrington on 11/24/2012

Until about the '70s, conspiracy theory was quite a neutral term. It was neither good nor bad. It simply meant a theory that there had been a conspiracy.

It's only as these stories started to feed on the paranoia of the Cold War, Watergate et al., that they became popular. You then have the twin declamations of REALLY ludicrous conspiracy stories interlinking several others, as the investigator saw their own version affecting everything; plus the government (who was usually being defamed in these stories) disdaining them in the media.

Next thing you know 'conspiracy theory' comes to mean anything which isn't officially sanctioned, and probably ridiculous and paranoid in the extreme. It's this classification which really annoys me. Each one on its merits, please!

I've also heard the meat one. Being a vegetarian and not a scientist, I vaguely thought that it sounded legit. But I've never looked into it, thus never passed it on. Thanks for putting me right!

Ember on 11/24/2012

I came in to tell you that I know a lot of people I'd call conspiracy theorists, and then I read this and you've proved a good point! I think I use the term less with people who believe alternate ideas on historical events and more with things people believe that are just totally inaccurate so I guess I'm not even using the word properly.

The most common bizarre thing I've come across lately is how many people believe a story about cloned meat. I guess people believe that beef cattle and chickens are cloned to save money. Actually I was pretty drunk the first time someone explained this to me, and I was blown away. Sort of like...WAIT. WAIT. WAT? So I actually had the guts to turn around and explain in complete detail how cloning is nothing like it is in science fiction, and how it actually works, thus showing him how cloning would save neither time nor money in the meat industry, and would really be a pointless thing for them to do, and then I provided lots of other reasons why he wouldn't want to eat meat (that weren't totally inaccurate >.>) to make him happy. It's come up so many times now though, that I've just given up. "You should only buy organic chicken," advises random fellow shopper in the store, "that chicken you've got there was probably cloned." I looked at it for a moment, and then replied "Wow, that explains why this is so pricey!" ...Yup!

Nice article :D

JoHarrington on 11/23/2012

Oh! I remember that. George W. Bush? That was a horrible period for black and white thinking.

frugalrvers on 11/23/2012

One of the most disturbing quotes ever uttered in the USA, in my opinion, was "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" - talk about black/white.

JoHarrington on 11/23/2012

It's something which is force fed to us by the media too. Everything always has to be black or white, one side or the other. Real life is much more multi-faceted than that.

Sometimes people can get too lazy with the information that they receive. They want a two second soundbite from someone who looks respectable. Then they know everything. This is how marketing works too.

Question everything! That's me, you and Socrates who are conspiracy theorists now.

Tiggered on 11/23/2012

Funny, I've recently had an interesting discussion concerning exactly the same matters... Mocking people who ask inconvenient questions is a good trick, from the politicians' point of view, after all the weaker ones might succumb to bullying and simply stop asking.
I don't believe it is possible to be truly informed about contemporary political matters - too much crucial information is deemed 'confidential' and withheld. General public is fed high sounding slogans and basically told to pay taxes and shut up.
Now, am I a conspiracy theorist??


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