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The Conspiracy of Theories
Stephen Brewer stealthily records a dialogue in which Freya argues that conspiracy theories are illogical, but Orin is not so sure.
Scene: An empty room with two chairs and a table. Orin sits at the table feeling somewhat bad-tempered due to a pain in his right leg, and, as advised by his doctor, he is on the second of his alcohol-free days. Enter Freya. She sits at the table holding an open bottle of beer, and looks annoyed.
Freya: Would you believe I’ve just had my ear bent for two hours by my idiot cousin, telling me how 9-11, the global economic crash, climate change and so on, are the actions of an all-powerful elite conspiring to control the world? And when they’ve achieved that they’re going to kill us all off! Nothing I said would make him see reason. How can anyone be so unreasonable?
Orin: I think you’ll find that he’s being entirely reasonable.
Freya: You don’t mean you support him in believing this nonsense based on the unprovable inventions of over-active and paranoid minds?
Orin: I didn’t say that. I’m saying that he can believe it and still be entirely reasonable. If his reasoning process forms a consistent argument, with each component being mutually supportive, then it’s reasonable. It would only be unreasonable if one part of the argument contradicted another part, or contradicted the available evidence; but as I understand it, the theory of a grand conspiracy is totally consistent.
Freya: But how can anyone believe such nonsense?
Orin: People like to have bad events explained by the action of some hidden evil agency. You wouldn’t have a problem if he presented it to you as a story warning about the dangers of a totalitarian state. You might even say it’s a good story because it raises these paranoid emotions in you, thereby making you vigilant against the state or some corporation ruling the world. You see, your problem is not with his reasoning process at all, you just don’t like the story.
Freya: What you’re missing is that this conspiracy stuff is supposed to be not just a story, it’s supposed to be true. They would have us believe that there really are a bunch of people in some secret cell causing all sorts of bad things to happen, who are going to take over the world and kill us all off – except for a few slaves they’re going to keep. And you retirees and us scientists are first on the list, you can be sure of that.
Orin: So what do you think the difference is between a theory that’s supposed to be true and one that’s fictional?
Freya: Well, the truth can be proved true – like a scientific theory, where you can repeat basic experiments. For example, you can roll balls down slopes to reproduce Galileo’s experiment with gravity. Then throw in Newton’s law of motion, and you can use them to put a rocket on the moon.
Orin: But you’re missing out a vital step. Newton’s theories of motion required a leap of imagination beyond the sheer experimental results.
Freya: Well that was one of his great leaps of genius: Newton imagined what would happen if there were no friction to slow things down.
Orin: But this is the point. All theories require leaps of imagination to go beyond the facts and so enter into the world of abstract concepts. And there have been real conspiracies, and there may well be many that we don’t know about. After all, you can “fool all the people some of the time.” Combine this with the fact that people will do anything to hang onto wealth and power, and with a leap of the imagination you can postulate that an elite is conspiring to take over the world. This is no different to inventing the ‘principle of universal gravitation’ when you have never travelled everywhere in the universe to test it.
Freya: So now it gets even worse. You’re saying that all theories are stories, and that as long as they’re consistent, they all have equal validity. But you know that’s not true.
Orin: Aha! Now you’re asking me to evaluate one theory in comparison to another. In terms of enjoyment, I’d go for a good paranoiac story over science and mathematics any time. But that’s just a matter of taste. I know some mathematicians who get highly excited pondering a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Freya: Will you stop that philosophical thing of deliberately missing the point! I mean the good theories are the ones that can be tested, not ones that are untestable.
Orin: I suppose you mean scientific theories.
Freya: Yes. In science we are actively seeking critical experiments that disprove our theories so we can replace them with something better. But the conspiracy theorist just ignores anything that doesn’t fit. We scientists adjust or even drop our theories to incorporate new facts.
Orin: But you scientists do not abandon your theory just because there are a few facts not fitting it. If it helps you deal with the world, you keep using it. Newtonian mechanics are still used for launching navigation satellites into orbit; but then we use Einstein’s theory to correct their atomic clocks. You see, it’s horses for courses. No one needs theories that are absolutely true. Instead, we’re happy to use the ones that do something useful for us.
Freya: In any case, this isn’t about science, is it? 9-11 isn’t a repeatable experiment. We can’t rerun it to re-examine what happened. Conspiracy theories instead involve the type of proof seen in a court of law, with those accused in the dock, and evidence such as emails and witnesses presented, and a jury to find the elite guilty.
Orin: Yes, but note here the legal term, ‘Beyond reasonable doubt’. No one says you have to absolutely prove guilt, do they? The legal judgement of guilt is made by people. Frankly, it’s no different from the test of validity of any scientific theory: those tests are in a laboratory set up by humans with observations confirmed by other humans. You can’t take the judgement of humans out of the equation, can you?
Freya: Anyway, you can’t prosecute the elite, because they’re so powerful, all evidence has been eliminated, and the Judge is one of them! So perhaps all we have to do is to show the error of conspiracy theories by demonstrating that their arguments are circular.
Orin: I’m afraid not, because once you’ve constructed a theory where everything is consistently connected to everything else, anything that’s part of the network will be provable from any starting point in it. If you believe in conspiracy theory, you will always find this conspiring elite.
Freya: So where does that leave us?
Orin: It leaves us with the conclusion that the belief that reason and logic alone allow you to determine that a theory is true, is wrong. But as long as a theory seems logically consistent to you, then in the end, your decision to accept or dismiss it is based on a judgment of its value.
Freya: Well then, on that basis, I guess conspiracy theories do nothing for me personally, except to make me very annoyed and worried about the mental state of those who believe in such things.
Orin: Personally, I reject the elite conspiracy theory idea because it doesn’t fit with what I know about people in positions of power. They crave to be respected, admired, and/or feared. The whole fun of being in power is to have a police escort stopping the traffic for you so that your chauffeur can drive at high speed through red traffic lights! So, what’s the point in being a member of an elite if no-one knows you’re one of them? Where’s the fun in that?! By the way, where did you get that beer?
© Dr Stephen J. Brewer 2016
Steve Brewer is a retired biochemist and the author of The Origins of Self (2015), available for free download from originsofself.com.