28 May 2020

Why so many conspiracy theories?

Why so many conspiracy theories? by James

Conspiracy theories as a subject are not only complex but also disagreeable. Like most philosophical issues and problems our subject is mainly a language problem. And it is a language problem because conspiracy theories depend on supping the emotions out of people.

By the time a belief or a claim becomes a public conspiracy theory it would be too late to stop it, kill it, or neutralise it. Regarding our question the short answer is that  because today we have the ways and means to distribute such messages. Which means that it is easy for a few people to originate and disseminate conspiracy theories it is also that easy that we, i.e. you and me, we’ll get to hear about them.

So the language problem with conspiracy theories is that there are conspiracies and then there are major singular events: planes crashing into buildings; banks trying to fix the lending rates; princesses dying in car accidents; strange things flying in the sky; stealing the natural resources of a continent; pretending to offer free healthcare to people affected by sexually transmitted disease; viruses that cause a pandemic in  a few days and so on.

There are many scholars and not so scholarly arguing what is and isn’t a conspiracy theory and what the anatomy of a conspiracy looks like. From our perspective we could always start by trying to identify the key necessary and sufficient conditions of a conspiracy theory.

The most important condition for a conspiracy theory is that the “major singular event” has already happened: a conspiracy theory cannot exist for future events or events that haven’t happened yet. In September of 2019 I was not aware of any conspiracy theories about COVID-19 although by January 2020 I was fully aware that there was this virus that was very infectious in China. By mid February COVID-17 was well known as causing a very dangerous epidemic in China and maybe going pandemic. But still no conspiracy theory; only towards mid March that some conspiracy theories started appearing mainly: the virus was a manipulation by governments, a biological weapon developed by China to destroy the United States, it’s all a fiction of the mind, etc.
A second important condition of a conspiracy theory is that the event must be big enough and singular enough that a large percentage of the population, certainly of a country, but preferably of the world to know about it. And added to a lot of people knowing about an event it is also necessary that we personally as a group can directly relate to the event.

When a popular princess died in a car accident in a tunnel anyone who could express an opinion also had a conspiracy theory. Compare this when at a tourist spot we came across a board outside a restaurant offering “Menu del Dia” but when we came to order we were told that the Menu-del-Dia had finished. We, and those around us, knew very well that this was a conspiracy of the heinous kind. In effect for a conspiracy theory to work it must appeal directly to our raw emotions.  I was seriously angry at that restaurant that day but it seems not everyone was!

For a conspiracy theory to make traction it must also be believable: the state of our beliefs is a sufficient condition to create emotional agitation and anger in us. Thus a conspiracy theory is more likely to flourish if it conformed to some rules of logic. We’re more likely to believe an unidentified flying object is something from outer space rather than bubbles from a babble bath or maybe a new research plane from a secret military base.

Another condition for conspiracy theories is that there are enough respectable people who can explain details of the event or argue the logic of the event.  For example at the early stages of digital photography, especially mobile phone photos, all of a sudden many people were seeing many UFOs in their photos, one of the main reasons was the fact that many digital sensors were not stable enough or most probably the processors were not that clever. Thus digital noise, dust, or digital artefacts really looked like UFOs: the technology is much, much, better today.

You remember that I started by distinguishing between conspiracies and major singular events. Major singular events are the breeding grounds of conspiracy theories whilst committee rooms, corridors of power, or oak panelled offices are the breeding grounds of conspiracies.  From the list of events I identified in the third paragraph: banks trying to fix the lending rates, stealing the natural resources of a continent, and pretending to offer free healthcare to people affected by sexually transmitted disease are real conspiracies although there are many more.

“Banks trying to fix the lending rates” is the Libor scandal when major banks tried to fix the bank lending rate thus making borrowing money such as mortgages and load more expense (this is well documented c2008). “Pretending to offer free healthcare to people affected by sexually transmitted disease,” I am referring to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the USA between 1932 and 1972 when officials experimented on Afro-American males on the promise of free health care: they were never given any health care, this now goes on in places like India but that’s another matter. And a case deserving of the hardest of conspiracy theories is the “Stealing the natural resources of a continent.” I am referring to the pillage of Africa which according to The Africa Report* is worth $2.2trillion yet ,”On average, the net wealth per African is $1,900, compared to $27,000 worldwide.”

Hence the other aspect of the language issue is that we are very lazy when we come to language: we tend to take unreasonable shortcuts. Our thinking can sometimes be equivalent of thinking that a black cow and a black horse are the same creature; so why should we think that a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory are the same thing? Conspiracies do happen and investigating them is the legitimate business of scientists, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and most of all philosophers. Why philosopher, because philosophers (especially analytical philosophers) are concerned with the thinking of people, and conspiracies requires a lot of thinking.

Our first task is to distinguish between creating a dead hand of malice and reasonable and rational inquiry for example through Cartesian or Humian scepticism. The first instance is when groups follow a conspiracy theory and reject or endorse the official version of events based on political dogma and not methodological investigation. What is clear is that reasonable inquiry is a must in society, but this does not mean that people who exercise their right of philosophical scepticism are politically malicious.

Usually the exercise of inquiry goes something like this: people asking scientific type of questions and expect the person to give us an honest scientific answer. Unfortunately, this is why conspiracy theories are so obnoxious, this empirical investigation does not work. It does not work because if the event was a conspiracy why should the person tell us the truth? A good conspiracy would have a protection wall of “plausible deniability” for those involved. Just because a person is part of a conspiracy it does not follow that everyone one knows the whole story with details:  most probably what people are engaged in they do not know they are working on a conspiracy.  And most important of all just because we have reason to believe that there is a case of a conspiracy it does not follow that there is one. Thus when an official reply fails to satisfy us it does not follow that that person is hiding something from us.

So one of the enemies of the official explanation is the fact that the relevant officials do not give access to all the information to bona fide people researching the conspiracy theory: remember the redacted WikiLeaks reports, or the 9/11 Report, or the Russian Report in the UK.

The other failure of officials is that in trying to reject the conspiracy theory, or trying to relax people that a major singular event is not the norm is that they address the theory not the science (methodology). Let’s take the COVID-19 conspiracy theory.

So one of the conspiracy theory about the virus is that this virus is a biological weapon by China to dominate the USA; another is that the virus somehow escaped from a virological laboratory in China. At face value the second possible event is more likely than the first: why destroy the USA when Chine holds some $1.1 trillion of US debt. But if you spent these past three months listening to reports from China on the virus you would have noticed that official replies always push the idea that the virus is a natural virus and it came from a wet market.

It is this kind of reply that concerns certain people: whether the virus was natural or not or came from a wet market or not (any wet market) it does not exclude the possibility that a copy of the virus was indeed at a lab and did indeed escape. The fact that the international community is not allowed to investigate does not help the issue. The difference, however, between a conspiracy theorist and a bona fide investigator is that the theorist would conclude the virus escaped from a lab, whereas a bona fide investigator would still be waiting for a methodological investigation and an account of verifiable facts.

It is now our turn to start our own conspiracy theory. A key question in conspiracy theory is who benefits from conspiracy theories. If it is a real conspiracy one can do well by starting to follow the money, as The Africa Report suggests we do. The problem is when things go horribly wrong and instead of a plan or a conspiracy we end up with a cock-up theory. And here is our conspiracy theory although I do not claim to be original since I’ve been reading so much useless stuff on the subject I lost count: what if conspiracy theories are hatched up by those in charge of the major singular event to disseminate in society when their pet responsibility goes horribly wrong?  Thus creating smoke screen and social noise and chatter?

Where Africa’s rich live
By Jeune Afrique
The Africa Report
Posted on Friday, 13 September 2019

 Best and take care

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PhiloMadrid on Skype 6:30pm Sunday 31st May: Why so many conspiracy theories?

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