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The trouble with conspiracy theories

People who think the U.S. government was complicit in 9/11 or in the JFK assassination sometimes complain that those who dismiss them as “conspiracy theorists” are guilty of inconsistency. For don’t the defenders of the “official story” behind 9/11 themselves believe in a conspiracy, namely one masterminded by Osama bin Laden? Don’t they acknowledge the existence of conspiracies like Watergate, as well as everyday garden variety criminal conspiracies?

The objection is superficial. Critics of the best known “conspiracy theories” don’t deny the possibility of conspiracies per se. Rather they deny the possibility, or at least the plausibility, of conspiracies of the scale of those posited by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics. One reason for this has to do with considerations about the nature of modern bureaucracies, especially governmental ones. They are notoriously sclerotic and risk-averse, structurally incapable of implementing any decision without reams of paperwork and committee oversight, and dominated by ass-covering careerists concerned above all with job security. The personnel who comprise them largely preexist and outlast the particular administrations that are voted in and out every few years, and have interests and attitudes that often conflict with those of the politicians they temporarily serve. Like the rest of society, they are staffed by individuals with wildly divergent worldviews that are difficult to harmonize. The lack of market incentives and the power of public employee unions make them extremely inefficient. And so forth. All of this makes the chances of organizing diverse reaches of the bureaucracy (just the right set of people spread across the Army, the Air Force, the FBI, the CIA, the FAA, etc. – not to mention within private firms having their own bureaucracies and diversity of corporate and individual interests) in a short period of time (e.g. the months between Bush’s inauguration and 9/11) to carry out a plot and cover-up of such staggering complexity, close to nil.

Another reason has to do with the nature of liberal democratic societies, and the way in which they differ from totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, whose leaders did conspire to do great evil. The point is not that the leaders of liberal democratic societies are not capable of great evil. Of course they are. But they do not, and cannot, commit evils in the same way that totalitarian leaders do. There are both structural and sociological reasons for this. The structural reasons have to do with the adversarial, checks-and-balances nature of liberal democratic polities, which make it extremely difficult for any faction or interest to impose its agenda by force on the others. In the American context, the courts, the legislature, and the executive branch are all jealous of their power, even when controlled by the same party. The Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, CIA, FBI, etc. are all also notoriously often at odds with one another, as are the various departments within the executive branch. The same is true of private interests – the press, corporations, universities, and the like. All must work through public legal channels, and when they try to do otherwise they risk exposure from competing interests. Unlike traditional societies, in which the various elements of society agree (if only because they’ve never known any alternative) to subordinate their interests to a common end (e.g. a religious end), and totalitarian societies, which openly and brutally force every element to subordinate their interests to a common end (e.g. a utopian or dystopian political end), liberal democratic societies eschew any common end in the interests of allowing each individual and faction to pursue their own often conflicting ends as far as possible.

Now I do not claim that liberal democratic societies in fact perfectly realize this ideal of eschewing any common end. Far from it. The liberal democratic ethos inevitably becomes an end in itself, and all factions that refuse to incorporate it are ultimately pushed to the margins or even persecuted. (John Rawls’s so-called “political liberalism” is nothing more and nothing less than an attempt to rationalize this “soft totalitarianism.”) But that does not affect my point. The imposition of the liberal ethos may involve an occasional bold power grab on the part of one faction (as Roe v. Wade did in the case of the Supreme Court). It may involve attempts culturally to marginalize the opposition (as in the universities and entertainment industry). But the other factions know about these efforts – they are hardly carried out unobserved in smoke-filled rooms – and never roll over and play dead, as they would in a totalitarian society. Liberal ideologues must work through the very adversarial institutions that their ideology calls for, which is why these alleged arch-democrats are constantly complaining about the choices their fellow citizens democratically make (electing Bush, voting for Prop 8, opposing gun control, supporting capital punishment, etc.). For them to impose their egalitarian ethos on everyone else through force of law takes generations, and a series of public battles, before the other side is gradually ground down. The evil that results is typically the result of a slowly and gradually evolving public consensus to do, or at least to give in to, evil – not a sudden and secret conspiratorial act.

So, structurally, there is just no plausible way for an “inside job” conspiracy of the JFK assassination or 9/11 type to work. There is simply not enough harmony between the different institutions that would have to be involved, either of a natural sort or the type imposed by force. And this brings me to the sociological point that the liberal ethos itself, precisely because it tends so deeply to permeate the thinking even of the professedly conservative elements of liberal democratic societies, makes a conspiracy of the sort in question impossible to carry out. “Freedom,” “tolerance,” “democracy,” “majority rule,” and the like are as much the watchwords of contemporary American conservatives as they are of American liberals. Indeed, contemporary conservatives tend to defend their own positions precisely in these terms, and are uncomfortable with any suggestion that there might be something in conservatism inconsistent with them. The good side of this is that contemporary American conservatives will have absolutely no truck with the likes of Tim McVeigh, and will condemn right-wing political violence as loudly as any liberal would. The bad side is that some of them also seem willing to tolerate almost any evil as long as there is a consensus in favor of it and it is done legally. (Same-sex marriage? Well, the courts imposed it without voter approval. But what if the voters do someday approve it? Will conservatives then decide that it’s OK after all? Some of them already have.)

The point, in any event, is that just as the structure of a liberal democratic society differs from that of totalitarian states, so too does the ethos of its leaders. They generally like to do their evil in legal and political ways, through demagoguery, getting evil laws passed, destroying reputations, and other generally bloodless means. Occasionally they’ll resort also to ballot-box stuffing, and maybe the odd piece of union thuggery or police brutality. But outright murder is extremely rare, and usually folded into some legitimate context so as to make it seem justifiable (e.g. My Lai or the firebombing of Dresden, atrocities committed in the course of otherwise just wars). Do ideologically motivated sociopaths like General Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove fame sometimes exist even in liberal democratic societies? Sure. But hundreds or even just dozens of Jack D. Rippers, occupying just the right positions at just the right times in the executive branch, the FBI, the FAA, the NYPD, the FDNY, the Air Force, American Airlines, United Airlines, Larry Silverstein’s office, CNN, NBC, Fox News, The New York Times, etc. etc., never accidentally tipping off hostile co-workers or fatally screwing up in other ways? All happily risking their careers and reputations, indeed maybe even their lives, in the interests of the Zionist cause, or Big Oil, or whatever? Not a chance. Indeed, the very idea is ludicrous.

Of course, some conspiracy theorists will insist that the adversarial, checks-and-balances nature of liberal democracies and their tolerant ethos are themselves just part of the illusion created by the conspirators. Somehow, even the fact that conspiracy theorists are perfectly free to publish their books, organize rallies, etc. in a way they would not for a moment be able to do in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia is nevertheless just part of a more subtle and diabolical form of police state.

Here we’ve gone through the looking glass indeed, and come to a third and more philosophically interesting problem with conspiracy theories, one that can be understood on the basis of an analogy with philosophical skepticism and its differences from ordinary skepticism. Doubting whether you really saw your cousin walking across the bridge, or just a lookalike, can be perfectly reasonable. Doubting whether cousins or bridges really exist in the first place – maybe you’re only dreaming they exist, or maybe there’s a Cartesian demon deceiving you, or maybe you’re trapped in The Matrix – is not reasonable. It only seems reasonable when one is beholden to a misguided theory of knowledge, a theory that effectively undermines the possibility of any knowledge whatsoever. The difference here is sometimes described as a difference between "local" doubt and "global" doubt. Local doubts arise on the basis of other beliefs taken to be secure. You know that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty, so you doubt whether you really saw your cousin. Global doubts have a tendency to undermine all beliefs, or at least all beliefs within a certain domain. You know that your senses have sometimes deceived you about some things, and being a philosopher you start to wonder whether they are always deceiving you about everything.

Notice that unlike local doubt, global doubt tends to undermine even the evidence that led to the doubt in the first place. Doubting that you really saw your cousin doesn’t lead you to think that your belief that you are nearsighted or that your glasses are dirty might also be false. But suppose your belief that you sometimes have been fooled by visual illusions leads you to doubt your senses in general. You came to believe that your perceptual experience of a bent stick in the water was illusory because you also believed that your experience of seeing the stick as straight when removed from the water was not illusory. But you end up with the view that maybe that experience, and all experience, is illusory after all. You came to believe that you might be dreaming right now because in the past you’ve had vivid dreams from which you woke up. You end up with the view that maybe even the experience of waking up was itself a dream, so that you’ve never really been awake at all. Again, the doubt tends to swallow up even the evidence that led to the doubt. (Philosophers like J. L. Austin have suggested that this shows that philosophical skepticism is not even conceptually coherent, but we needn’t commit ourselves to that claim to make the point that it does at least tend to undermine the very evidence that leads to it.)

I suggest that the distinction between ordinary, everyday conspiracies (among mobsters, or Watergate conspirators, or whatever) and vast conspiracies of the sort alleged by 9/11 and JFK assassination skeptics, parallels the scenarios described by commonsense or “local” forms of doubt and philosophical or “global” forms of doubt, respectively. We know that the former sorts of conspiracies occur because we trust the sources that tell us about them – news accounts, history books, reports issued by government commissions, eyewitnesses, and so forth. And there is nothing in the nature of those conspiracies that would lead us to doubt these sources. But conspiracies of the latter sort, if they were real, would undermine all such sources. And yet it is only through such sources that conspiracy theorists defend their theories in the first place. They point to isolated statements from this or that history book or government document (the Warren Report, say), to this or that allegedly anomalous claim made in a newspaper story or by an eyewitness, and build their case on a collection of such sources. But the conspiracy they posit is one so vast that they end up claiming that all such sources are suspect wherever they conflict with the conspiracy theory. Indeed, even some sources apparently supportive of the conspiracy theory are sometimes suspected of being plants subtly insinuated by the conspirators themselves, so that they might later be discredited, thereby discrediting conspiracy theorists generally. Overall, the history books, news sources, government commissions, and eyewitnesses are all taken to be in some way subject to the power of the conspirators (out of sympathy, or because of threats, or because the sources are themselves being lied to). Nothing is certain. But in that case the grounds for believing in the conspiracy in the first place are themselves uncertain. At the very least, the decision to accept some source claims and not others inevitably becomes arbitrary and question-begging, driven by belief in the conspiracy rather than providing independent support for believing in it.

Now, while “global” forms of skepticism might be fun to think about and pose interesting philosophical puzzles, it would hardly be rational to think for a moment that they might be true. Seriously to wonder whether one is a “brain in a vat,” or trapped in The Matrix, or always asleep and dreaming – not as a fantasy, not in the course of a late-night dorm room bull session, but as a live option – would be lunacy. Certainly it would make almost any further rational thought nearly impossible, because it would strip almost any inference of any rational foundation. But something similar seems to be true of conspiracy theories of the sort in question. The reason their adherents often seem to others to be paranoid and delusional is because they are committed to an epistemological position which inherently tends toward paranoia and delusion, just as a serious belief in Cartesian demons or omnipotent matrix-building mad scientists or supercomputers would. Their skepticism about the social order is so radical that it precludes the possibility of coming to any stable or justified beliefs about the social order.

Am I saying that news organizations, government commissions, and the like never lie? Of course not. I am saying that it is at the very least improbable in the extreme that they do lie or even could lie on the vast scale and in the manner in which conspiracy theorists say they do, and that it is hard to see how the belief that they do so could ever be rationally justified. But what about government agencies and news sources in totalitarian countries? Doesn’t the fact of their existence refute this claim of mine? Not at all. For citizens in totalitarian countries generally do not trust these sources in the first place. Indeed, they often treat them as something of a joke, and though they might believe some of what they are told by these sources, they are also constantly seeking out more reliable alternative sources from outside. Moreover, these citizens already know full well that their governments are doing horrible things, and many of these things are done openly anyway. Hence, we don’t have in this case anything close to a parallel to what conspiracy theorists claim happens in liberal democracies: evil things done by governments on a massive scale, of which the general population has no inkling because they generally trust the news sources and government agencies from which they get their information, and where these sources and agencies purport to be, and are generally perceived to be, independent.

On such general epistemological and social-scientific grounds, then, I maintain that conspiracy theories of the sort in question are so a priori improbable that they are not worth taking seriously. That does not mean that the specific empirical claims made by conspiracy theorists are never significant. In my college days I read a great deal about the JFK assassination case, and was even convinced for a time that there was a conspiracy involving the government. While I no longer believe that – I believe that Oswald killed Kennedy, and acted alone – I concede that there are certain pieces of evidence (e.g. the backward movement of Kennedy’s head, Ruby’s assassination of Oswald) that might lead a reasonable person who hasn’t investigated the case very deeply to doubt the “official story.” (I’ve also examined a fair amount of the 9/11 conspiracy theory material, though I must say that in this case this has only made the whole idea seem to me even more preposterous than it did initially, if that is possible. They don’t make conspiracy theorists like they used to.) But in my judgment, in the vast majority of cases the alleged “evidence” of falsehood in the “official story” is nothing of the kind, and where it is it can easily and most plausibly be accounted for in terms of the sort of bureaucratic ass-covering, incompetence, or just honest error that is common to investigations in general (whether by police, insurance companies, or whatever).

If one is going to claim more than this, then just as in these other sorts of investigations, one needs to provide some plausible alternative explanation. The “I’m just raising questions” shtick is not intellectually or morally serious, certainly not when you’re accusing people of mass murder. And given the considerations raised above, it is hard to see how conspiracy theories of the sort in question could ever be plausible alternatives.

Why, then, do people fall for these theories? Largely out of simple intellectual error. But what makes someone susceptible of this particular kind of error? That is a question I have addressed before, in a TCS Daily article which suggested that the answer has something to do with the (false) post-Enlightenment notion that science and critical thinking are of their nature in the business of unmasking received ideas, popular opinion, and common sense in general. Some readers of that article asked a good question: How does this suggestion account for the existence of conspiracy theories on the Right, which generally sees itself as upholding received ideas and common sense?

I would make two points in response. First, consider some standard examples of such right-wing conspiracy theories, such as those involving Freemasons or Communists. These can be understood in two ways. On one interpretation, the idea would be that Freemasons, Communists, or whomever, given their ideological commitments, have actively sought to get themselves and their sympathizers into positions of power and influence so as to promote and implement their ideas, and that they have done so subtly and by using duplicity. But there is nothing in this idea that conflicts with anything I’ve been saying. In particular, there is nothing in it that entails that any single massively complex event was engineered in detail by a small elite manipulating, with precision, dozens or hundreds of actors across a bewildering variety of conflicting institutions and agencies in the context of a society that is to all appearances reasonably open, all the while skillfully covering their tracks to hide their actions to all but the most devoted conspiracy theory adepts. Rather, it just involves like-minded people working systematically and deviously to further their common interests in a general way over the course of a long period of time – a phenomenon that is well-known from everyday life, and does not require belief in any radical gap between appearance and reality in the social and political worlds. In short, it does not involve belief in any “conspiracy theory” of the specific sort I’ve been criticizing.

The alternative interpretation would be that Freemasons, Communists, and the like have done more than this, that they have indeed conspired to produce individual events of the sort in question, in just the manner in question – that they conspired across national boundaries and bureaucracies to engineer World War I, say, or various stock market crashes, or whatever. Here the right-wing sort of conspiracy theory does indeed run into the problems I have been identifying, and is as a consequence just as irrational as its left-wing counterparts. And this brings me to my second point. As I said earlier, given the hegemony of liberal, post-Enlightenment ideas in modern Western society, even many conservatives can find themselves taking some of them for granted. Ironically, this sometimes includes even those conservatives most self-consciously hostile to liberal and Enlightenment ideas, namely paleoconservatives (the sort, not coincidentally, who are most likely to be drawn to conspiracy theories). And it does so, even more ironically, precisely because of their awareness of this hegemony. Because they quite understandably feel besieged on all sides by modernity, and utterly shut out of its ruling institutions, they are tempted by at least one modern, post-Enlightenment, left-wing illusion, and the most beguiling one at that: that all authority is a manifestation of a smothering, omnipotent malevolence. Like the Marxist or anarchist, they find themselves shaking their fist at the entire social order as nothing more than a mask for hidden forces of evil, and even the most absurd conspiracy theories come to seem to them to be a priori plausible.

The overall result is something eerily like the old Gnostic heresy, on which the apparently benign world of our experience is really the creation of an evil demiurge, and where this dark and hidden truth is known only to those few insiders acquainted with a special gnosis. (Into the bargain, the demiurge was often identified by the Gnostics with the God of the Jews.) For “world” read modern Western society, for “demiurge” read Freemasons, Communists, or Zionists, and for “gnosis” read the vast labyrinth of conspiracy theory literature. Alternatively, it is like the Cartesian fantasy of a malin genie who deceives us with a world of appearances that masks a hidden reality. Certainly these similarities should give any traditionalist pause; and the conspiracy theory mindset is in any event a very odd thing to try to combine with the traditional Christian anti-Gnostic emphasis on the public and open nature of truth, and the Aristotelian-Thomistic rejection of any radical Cartesian appearance/reality distinction in favor of moderation and common sense.

Anyway, if the question is how, given that (as I argue in the TCS Daily article) conspiracy theories are essentially an artifact of certain key modern, post-Enlightenment attitudes and assumptions, right-wingers could ever accept them, the answer is that here, as elsewhere, conservatives and traditionalists are too often not conservative and traditional enough.


Comments (25)

Yeah sure, that sounds good...but that's just what they want you to think.

Professor Feser,

Awesome essay and I'm glad I took the time to go through it carefully. I did notice one error (I think), in the 10th paragraph. You say: "But conspiracies of the former sort, if they were real, would undermine all such sources." I think you meant to say "conspiracies of the later sort."

I also really like your ending in which you point out that "the traditional Christian anti-Gnostic emphasis" is "on the public and open nature of truth." This comports nicely with the fact that Christ's miracles were public and open and therefore, his life and Resurrection are not simply a matter of one culture's "relative truth", but rather a public and open Truth, available to all.

Ah, that reminds me of a bit from the X-files' The Unusual Suspects

FROHIKE: Now, I'm sorry, you're telling me that the US government, the same government that gave us Amtrak...

LANGLY: Not to mention the Susan B. Anthony dollar.

FROHIKE: ... is behind some of the darkest, most far-reaching conspiracies on the planet?! That's just crazy!

Of course incredulity transformed to mission upon their examination of the listening device planted by Dr. Suzanne Modeski's dentist, in her filling. Thus, the Lone Gunmen were born...

Dr Feser,

This post seems to have been written for a world in which people fear to use the phrase "conspiracy theory" to decry actually lunatic conspiracy theories, for fear that they will be attacked with the "superficial" argument you decry in para 2.

But don't we, in fact, live in a world where the phrase "conspiracy theory" is hurled pretty promiscuously at arguments which significantly challenge conventional wisdom and official accounts or allege conspiracies? It seems that the phrase "conspiracy theory," as it is actually used, is usually an equivocation between "lunatic conspiracy theory" and something else --- an effort to tar an idea by categorizing it with 9/11 Truthers' arguments. The "superficial" argument is not superficial and wrong but superficial and right in such a context. And since this is the usual context, it's hard to see why the points being made in the post are useful.

It would help a lot if you could categorize some well-known right-wing conspiracy theories according to whether they are lunatic enough to involve global doubts. Are people who think there was a John Doe #2 in the OK city bombing global doubters? People who think TWA 800 was shot down? People who are skeptical of the standard account of Vince Foster's death? People who think the Mafia killed Kennedy? People who think the Freemasons are a conspiracy against the Church? People who think the CFR/UN/Trilateral Commission/Davos/Bilderbergers/Maurice Strong are in favor of and working towards one world government? People who thought the European Coal and Steel Community was a stalking horse for the United States of Europe? I don't think any of these qualify for your stringent definition. All of them are routinely called conspiracy theories in an obviously pejorative and dismissive way. They run the gamut from pretty implausible to likely true.

I think a better question is whether the phrase "conspiracy theory" has any value at all. It's much easier to demonstrate that an idea is wrong or wildly implausible that that it is to demonstrate that it is the particular kind of wildly implausible that would qualify it a conspiracy theory, on your (idiosyncratic?) account of that phrase's meaning. Why bother with this extra work? Just demonstrate that the idea is wrong. The phrase is commonly used to avoid such a demonstration, however.

If one is going to claim more than this, then just as in these other sorts of investigations, one needs to provide some plausible alternative explanation. The “I’m just raising questions” shtick is not intellectually or morally serious, certainly not when you’re accusing people of mass murder. And given the considerations raised above, it is hard to see how conspiracy theories of the sort in question could ever be plausible alternatives.

Consider the following conversation:

A: The government has provided the account X.
B: X contains internal contradictions and also external contradictions with sources of evidence I find strong. These contradictions are serious enough 1) that they threaten X's conclusions and 2) that it is implausible that the authors of X missed them. Therefore I provisionally conclude that X is wrong, that its authors know it is wrong, and that there is something fishy going on.
A: Are you saying that there is a conspiracy?!
B: No, I don't know what fishy thing is going on, I'm just saying that there are some serious problems which rise beyond simple and irrelevant mistakes.

Dialogues of this form are common. What the quoted para seems to say is that B in this dialogue is not intellectually or morally serious. However, A in this dialogue is a demagogue, and B is blameless.

Even if B is selling a lunatic conspiracy theory (and is therefore possibly not blameless), A is a demagogue. Only by leaning hard on the assumption that B is selling a lunatic conspiracy theory can you make out that B is doing something wrong. And the definition of lunatic conspiracy theory in this post is so narrow that it rarely applies to actual cases, at least on my reading of that definition.

"Conspiracy theory" is an attempt to stop the conversation and accuse your interlocutor of being a nutcase. There are more polite ways of avoiding tiresome conversations, and calling someone a nut is pretty rarely a knowledge-advancing activity.


Thanks, I've corrected the error.


Part of my aim ws to try to capture precisely what it is that people who use the term "conspiracy theory" in a pejorative way rightly consider irrational and paranoid. And it does seem that the features I identifed cover a lot of ground. So the term does name a real phenomenon, even if it is loose enough that it is also often applied to ideas that aren't necessarily irrational or paranoid.

Re: the examples you cite, I think the answer is implicit in what I wrote toward the end re: right-wing "conspiracy theories." E.g. have Freemasons conspired against the Church? Yes, in the first sense I identified, no in the second sense. Do the CFR/UN/Trilateral Commission etc. work for one world government? Yes in the first sense, no in the second. And so forth.

Part of the problem here is with conspiracy theorists themselves, though, rather than the way their critics use the label. The theorists will point to some Masonic text or CFR document and rightly conclude that it is evidence that these groups have such-and-such an agenda, but then mix this fact together with all sorts of nonsense about how "therefore" these groups must have orchestrated such-and-such an event which to all appearances they had nothing to do with.


In response to your second comment: The trouble is that the specific "questions" people like B raise only ever seem to point in one direction (e.g. toward Bush administration complicity in 9/11). That's why people like A quite rightly respond "Are you suggesting such-and-such? Here's why that can't be right." It's at that point that B retreats into "just raising questions without offering answers" mode -- disingenuously, as a face-saving rhetorical technique. Or do you think it's a sheer accident that "Truthers" are more or less all Bush haters too, rather than being neutral vis-a-vis Bush?

One more thing, Bill. Compare:

A: Jones has accounted for his whereabouts the night Smith was murdered.
B: But Jones hated Smith, Smith's death benefited Jones, the knife used was consistent with one Jones owned, maybe Jones is lying about his whereabouts and manufactured false evidence to place him elsewhere, etc.
A: Are you suggesting Jones did it?
B: Hey, I'm just raising questions! Don't put words in my mouth, you demagogue!

I don't mind conspiracy theories as long as I get to fly the black helicopters.

But seriously, the division of "conspiracy theory" in to first sense/second sense (or "agenda/conspiracy") is a pretty useful division. There are all sorts of real agendas out there - say media or academic bias - which don't require a conspiracy in order to produce the kind of general, dominant lies and misdirection which they in fact produce. Partisans to these agendas cry "conspiracy theory" as fallacious defense often enough, which is really just the flip side of 9-11 trutherism.

Mightn't one make a case for more of a continuum between local and global conspiracy theories? Consider the various levels of government: It's far more plausible that a given sheriff and his corrupt cronies might commit and/or cover up a particular murder of one person in their own sparsely populated county (where they more or less are the law) than that, say, the federal government would murder _thousands_ of people and then be able to get away with covering it up. But between these two there are all sorts of levels. City, county, and state, just to name even the levels of government. And corruption and deliberate turning a blind eye is not unknown even at the state government level. There was, for example, a reason that Bill Clinton got away with so much sexual harassment of women for such a long time.

I only bring this up because I'm not sure even all of the different claims Bill lists above can be easily sorted into the local or global category. The "TWA 800 was shot down" claim seems "more global" than the "something fishy about Vince Foster's death" claim but less global than the 9/11 conspiracy claim, and so forth.

Or at least I think so.

That seems more or less right to me, Lydia, at least with respect to the first two of the three problems I raised, namely the "bureaucracy" and "adversarial system" problems. And even the third problem -- the "we can't trust the sources" problem -- might in some cases admit of degrees, at least if it is allowed that there are at least some sources that can be trusted. But when conspiracy theories posit a conspiracy so vast that the entire media, government commissions, eyewitnesses, etc. are all in principle subject to manipulation by the conspirators, then it seems we have crossed a clear line, and that this sort of theory differs not only in degree, but in kind, from the others, because it seems to make it conceptually impossible, and not just improbable, to justify the theory in an objective way. (Though even theories that don't quite cross this line often get so close to it that for practical purposes their use of the sources is arbitrary and question-begging.)

Dr. Feser,
The single bullet theory is, excuse the pun, full of holes. The number of discrepancies, ignored testimonies, revisionist autopsy statements, and so on are about a mile long.

Regarding paleo-conspiracies, there was one at Taki's when they still had comments that scarred me for life. It concerned a white nationalist group that had suspiciously been infiltrated by Zionists. There are so many levels of paranoia involved in that one I wonder if the poor guy is medicated.

Nah, I used to think so too, Step2, but the "single bullet theory" is airtight. Certainly none of the famous "obvious" problems with it really holds up under scrutiny. Read Gerald Posner or (better) Vincent Bugliosi on the subject.

Re: your other point, if there's anything more deranged than the typical conspiracy theorist, it's the sort of conspiracy theorist who "publishes" his work in blog comments sections...

I've heard excellent things about Posner's Case Closed, but never got around to reading it myself.

Case Closed is very good, Zach. In fact, it was the book that convinced me that the "offical story" was basically correct. I went into it thinking that there was no way the guy could convince me, but by the end of it he had.

Like any book it has its flaws, and conspiracy theorists always trumpet them as if they discredit Posner generally. Ridiculous, of course, and typical of the conspiracy theory mindset: Glaring errors of fact and leaps of logic in a pro-conspiracy theory work (e.g. the ridiculous Loose Change) are treated as if they cannot cast doubt on the basic soundness of the theory, while trivial flaws in the "official story" or in some work by its defenders are taken decisively to falsify it, and to be devastating evidence of incompetence or deceit.

Anyway, Bugliosi's book goes light years even beyond Posner, and would settle the matter once and for all if sanity was in greater supply.

Stripped of the religious reference points necessary for navigating existence and any genuine influence in the corridors of power, modern man wanders through the post-Christian desert looking at mirages. Rootless, highly mobile, faithless and often friendless, he is especially vulnerable to depression and a host of mental illnesses.

Conspiracy theories are forms of consolation that attempt to explain his pawn-like impotence in the face of the distant, impersonal and unaccountable economic and political forces that shape his life. The theories complement the docility and gullibility that greet official narratives and sustain the incredibly narrow confines of acceptable debate and discussion.

The psychological imbalance of the theorists is often less dangerous and easier to diffuse than the madness that passes as "mainstream" opinion.

Dr Feser,

To your first response, I don't disagree significantly with what you are claiming, either in that response or in the OP. Rather, my problem is that you are drawing up a justification for the pejorative use of the phrase "conspiracy theory" by imagining circumstances in which that use would be justified, when actual cases of the use of that phrase are rarely justified, and when, in cases where it is justified, there are better options. It's kind of like a Catholic saying that the manufacture and sale of condoms is justified because they could be, in theory, and have been, occaisionaly in practice, used by soldiers in a just war to protect the barrels of their rifles from filling with mud and water when traveling in swamps.

I agree, by the way, that Truthers are nuts and that their theories are utterly bizarre and very likely a manifestation of a disturbingly intense hatred of President Bush. But the stick you seem to want to justify wielding has not usually been and will not usually be used to hit Truthers with.

To your second response, A is not a demagogue in your example, because, unlike in my skeleton dialogue, he does not ask B whether he endorses some lunatic conspiracy theory. You don't have to be a nutcase to entertain the theory that Jones manufactured evidence, do you? And such a theory does not require a continent and century spanning, highly disciplined, secret conspiracy, right? If A had answered "Are you saying that the Knights Templar ordered Jones to kill Smith and then covered it up by threatening Police Chief Miller with the salacious information they had collected on him via secret NSA intercepts," then the flesh would fit the skeleton. Or if A just said "Are you a conspiracy theorist," which means the same thing.

I like the global/local distinction and the continuum Lydia introduces. It would be great to replace the phrase "conspiracy theory" with the phrase "lunatic conspiracy theory" or "global conspiracy theory," since that would focus conversation on "lunatic or not" or "global or not," which is where it belongs. "Conspiracy theory" simpliciter leads (properly!) to the "superficial" argument decried in para 2 of the OP.

Dr Feser,

May I stretch your patience a little more?

Among our elite, a reputation for conspiracy theories is bad for you and bad for your ideas. In those circles, saying "Maurice Strong and his buddies are actively working to bring about a one world government" is a good way to get such a reputation. But that statement is just true.

The pejorative "conspiracy theory" is a weapon of the powerful. Conservatives temperamentally wish to apologize for the institutions of a well-ordered society. We wish to apologize for the elitism bolstering a worthwhile elite. Are our institutions now well-ordered and our elite worthwhile?

Desiring to vanquish barbarians, we pick up the weapons of the powerful. Having cleaned, sharpened, and polished, we see them, in barbarian hands, cleaving friends.

Hi Bill,

My aim was not to present an apologia for the general use of the term "conspiracy theory" as a term of abuse. My aim was to explain why certain paradigm cases of conspiracy theories -- I mentioned the JFK assassination and 9/11 specifically, because those are surely the two "biggies" these days -- are rightly considered a priori highly improbable. If you want to argue that the term is problematic or that it shouldn't be applied to certain other theories, fine, but that's a different topic.

Re: my A and B dialogue, you missed my point. Obviously A and B in my example weren't discussing a conspiracy theory of any sort. The point was that B's questions were obviously leading in a certain specific direction -- he wasn't "just raising questions" but obviously also trying to imply that Jones is guilty, and is disingenuous in pretending otherwise. Similarly, many proponents of conspiracy theories of the sort I was criticizing, though they pretend they are "just raising questions" and don't have any specific explanation to push, are also being disingenuous. The main examples are 9/11 "Truthers," who, far from "just raising questions," obviously want to accuse the U.S. government specifically of being complicit either actively or passively. (E.g. if they were "just raising questions" without a specific agenda in mind, then they wouldn't dismiss appeals to incompetence, honest error, or bureaucratic ass-covering as quickly and contemptuously as they do.)

many proponents of conspiracy theories of the sort I was criticizing, though they pretend they are "just raising questions" and don't have any specific explanation to push, are also being disingenuous.

You're right. It never occurred to me that you were making this point. People have said things like "I'm just asking questions" to me many times. Rarely have I interpreted them to mean "I'm just asking questions." I take them to mean something like "Stop being an ass: ignore my alleged motives, where you think my argument might be leading, etc. and address my argument." I take that kind of thing as my interlocutor trying to police the norms of reasonable discussion, without directly calling me on a violation. One man's disingenuousness is another's politeness, I guess.

ignore my alleged motives, where you think my argument might be leading, etc. and address my argument

To point out where the argument leads IS to address the argument. If someone says P and I point out that P leads to Q and that there are such-and-such problems with Q, so that P must be faulty as well, it is no good for him to say "I never said Q, I only said P, so just address P." Part of the way we evaluate claims is by determining whether their consequences are plausible.

...it is no good for him to say "I never said Q, I only said P, so just address P."
Very true. On the other hand, he might say "P doesn't imply Q" or "you haven't shown that P implies Q", so it is important, for the sake of polite and rational discourse, to distinguish between what someone actually says and what we assert it to imply. In Internet debates I see both syndromes all the time: that is, both refusal to address the real consequences of one's view, on the one hand, and attempts to tar a person's arguments with implications which do not in fact follow, on the other.

Obviously, here we're talking about non-deductive arguments, so "imply" is perhaps not even the best term. But one could unpack it: "You are saying that such-and-such is a 'question' regarding what happened on 9/11, yet you reject non-conspiracy explanations such as chance, error, or bureaucratic self-protection. You apparently therefore believe that there is some more sinister explanation. If you believed that there were an innocent explanation, you would not reject all the innocent explanations raised, and you would not so insistently bring up these questions."

...yet you reject non-conspiracy explanations such as chance, error, or bureaucratic self-protection. You apparently therefore believe that there is some more sinister explanation.

I would say that bureaucratic self-protection is considered to be the primary motive of the cover-up. By advancing the official story the people in charge of the investigation dismiss or ignore contrary evidence and otherwise try to form the facts to fit the case. So in effect, the bureaucrats enable the conspiracy by rejecting the possibility of one.

Is it possible that Gov. Connally suffered two broken bones and a lacerated lung and maintained his composure and grip on his hat (with a broken wrist) for at least a second after he was hit according to the Zapruder film? Unlikely. Is it possible that same bullet could have the velocity to do that damage to Connally and cause only a minimal exit wound from Kennedy and maintain a nearly pristine shape and weight? Never. Here is a short list of things the Warren Commission had to dismiss to reach the single bullet theory: the final reports from both the FBI and Secret Service (because they ignored the missed shot that hit the curb), the location of the entry point according to the death certificate signed by the President's physician, the diagram made during the autopsy showing the location of the entry point, the testimony of Gov. Connally and his wife, the original statements from the Dallas doctors about the throat wound, nearly twenty witness statements saying they heard a gunshot from in front of the motorcade.

I also really like your ending in which you point out that "the traditional Christian anti-Gnostic emphasis" is "on the public and open nature of truth." This comports nicely with the fact that Christ's miracles were public and open and therefore, his life and Resurrection

I've been known to engage in the occasional internet-blogging prank myself (in fact I just did at the cross-posting on Fesser's own blog), but YOU Mr. Singer are GOOD! How did you manage to close the comment without giving in to the temptation to laugh and fess up. I can never get that far! I'll go back to the thread now to see if you eventually did start giggling or whether you managed to pull an L. Run Hubbard for fame and profit (and pedophilia but that's neither here nor there).

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