This eminently sensible article, by Floyd Rudmin, a member of the Psychology Department, University of Tromsø, Tromsø, Norway, was first published a few years back by Exterminating Angel Press.
I’m pleased to reprint it here, by permission of the author:
“Conspiracy theory” is usually used as a pejorative label, meaning paranoid, nutty, marginal, and certainly untrue. The power of this pejorative is that it discounts a theory by attacking the motivations and mental competence of those who advocate the theory. By labeling an explanation of events “conspiracy theory,” evidence and argument are dismissed because they come from a mentally or morally deficient personality, not because they have been shown to be incorrect. Calling an explanation of events “conspiracy theory” means, in effect, “We don’t like you, and no one should listen to your explanation.”
In earlier eras other pejorative labels, such as “heresy,” “witchery,” and “communism” also worked like this. The charge of “conspiracy theory” is not so severe as these other labels, but in its way is many times worse. Heresy, witchcraft, and communism at least retain some sense of potency. They designate ideas to be feared. “Conspiracy theory” implies that the ideas and their advocates are simple-minded or insane.
All such labels implicitly define a community of orthodox believers and try to banish or shun people who challenge orthodox beliefs. Members of the community who are sympathetic to new thoughts might shy away from the new thoughts and join in the shunning due to fear of being tainted by the pejorative label.
There is currently a boom in books on conspiracy theory, most of them derogatory, as is evident in some recent titles: Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics; Conspiracy Culture: From the Kennedy Assassination to the X-Files; Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From.
Within popular US culture, there is also now a boom in movies, novels, and web sites that feature conspiracy theories. The apparent popularity of conspiracy theories is often cited as a cause of concern, that our society is breaking down. For example, Canadian journalist Robert Sibley has said that conspiracy theory is “a nihilistic vortex of delusion and superstition that negates reality itself.”
I think that just the reverse is true. There is nothing insane or sinister about conspiracy theory research. It is rather matter of fact. A wide range of ordinary people from many walks of life take an interest in the political and economic events of our era. They think things through on their own, use the library, seek for evidence, articulate a theory, communicate with other people with similar interests. It is heartening that some citizens invest time and effort to unearth and expose some of the conspiracies that damage our society, our economy and our government.
But it certainly does seem that some historians and journalists are quite frightened of conspiracy theory and its wide popularity. Those are the two professions whose job it is to interpret our world for us. When ordinary people take on the task of doing this themselves, it must mean that they don’t believe what the authorities say we should.
Maybe the professionals feel threatened when amateurs think about political events for themselves.
Perhaps we are in the middle of a new Reformation. The high priests are again losing their monopoly, and they see us sliding into cults and chaos. Something similar happened in 1517, when Martin Luther challenged the Church and translated the Bible into German so that ordinary people could think about theology for themselves. When put on trial, Luther said, “I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the Councils, because it is clear as day they have frequently erred and contradicted each other.” That is exactly what a JFK conspiracy theorist would say about the Warren Commission.
People take on the task of explaining things for themselves when the orthodox experts insist on saying nonsense—for example, that Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone killed JFK. A Reformation is a rebellion against arrogance. If historians and journalists want to understand why they are being displaced by conspiracy theory, it would be most reasonable to examine their own failings first.
The correct big-word label for conspiracy theory would be “naive deconstructive history.” It is “history” because it explains events, but only after they have happened. Past-tense. Conspiracy theory, as a political act, is an after-the-fact complaint. To see conspiracies while they are happening would require the resources and powers of police forces and espionage agencies.
Conspiracy theory is “deconstructive history” because it is in rebellion against official explanations and against orthodox journalism and orthodox history. Conspiracy theory is radically empirical: tangible facts are the focus, especially facts that the standard stories try to overlook. There is a ruthless reduction down to what is without doubt real, namely, persons. Conspiracy theory presumes that human events are caused by people acting as people do, including cooperating, planning, cheating, deceiving, and pursuing power. Thus, conspiracy theories do not focus on impersonal forces like geo-politics, market economics, globalization, social evolution and other such abstract explanations of human events.
To call conspiracy theory “naive” does not mean that it is uncritical or stupidly innocent. In fact, that is what conspiracy theorists might say about orthodox explanations of events promoted by government sources, by mainstream journalism, or by schoolbook history. For example, it is naive to believe that the September 11, 1973, coup d’etat against Allende was not orchestrated by the United States. Rather, to here call deconstructive history “naive” means that conspiracy theorists are unaware that they are doing deconstructive history, and they are amateurs, untrained in deconstructive history.
Conspiracy theories arise when dramatic events happen, and the orthodox explanations try to diminish the events and gloss them over. In other words, conspiracy theories begin when someone notices that the explanations do not fit the facts.
Take the case of explaining the past two decades of US “free-trade” schemes among countries in the Americas: FTA, NAFTA, and soon FTAA. These schemes began with two nations, then three, and soon four and more. The first was the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which set the subservient conditions of member nations to US economic dominance. The essence of the FTA is that US corporations get unrestricted commercial rights and resource ownership in Canada, and in exchange, Canada gets to obey US trade laws.
Why would Canadians have agreed to this? Well, we didn’t, but historians would explain it by saying something like, “Globalization made Canadians choose free-trade.” Conspiracy theorists would say, “Don’t be naive. Look at the facts.” In a decade of political opinion polls, and in three consecutive national elections (1984, 1988, 1993), a majority of Canadians had consistently said that they do not want American “free-trade” schemes. How has it happened that such a clear, strong democratic decision by so many millions of Canadians could be overthrown?
In the 1984 and 1993 federal elections in Canada, the successful parties had explicitly campaigned against free-trade, but when elected they reversed themselves. The 1988 vote was also not straight: of the two anti-free-trade parties, the minor one in mid-campaign began to attack the leader of the major one. It is reasonable to see such facts and to surmise that orthodox explanations are not the real explanations.
Let’s look in the library to see what can be found. From 1976 to 1979, more than a decade before the FTA, US Ambassador Thomas Enders was crisscrossing Canada promoting free-trade. Who was Thomas Enders? He was hired by the US government in 1958 as an “intelligence research specialist.” In 1969 he was in Yugoslavia, in 1971 Cambodia. His jobs there were to rig Lon Nol’s election and to use a local intelligence network to pick villages to be bombed by B52s in President Nixon’s secret war. From 1976 to 1979, he was in Canada weaving a web of political and business connections to promote the American version of “free-trade.” In 1981 Enders became President Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, working on the invasion of Grenada and the illegal proxy wars against Nicaragua and El Salvador. One of his jobs was to coordinate operations with Oliver North and Duane Claridge, head of the CIA’s covert operations in Latin America.
Considering these facts, which is more likely—that Enders was in Canada promoting free-trade as some kind of personal hobby, or that he was under orders, promoting free-trade as one more operation in a career of covert operations? At the time, Quebec’s populist premier, Réne Lévesque, said of Enders, “He’s the bum who launched the bombs in Vietnam. He’s a damned spy. He must be working for the CIA” (quoted in Lisée, 1990, p. 207).
The idea of NAFTA first appeared in public in 1979, to everyone’s surprise, as Ronald Reagan’s core policy when he announced his candidacy for President. But, curiously, it was then never again mentioned in his campaign. In 1979, Reagan’s campaign was run by Michael Deaver and Paul Hannaford, who reportedly also ran a public relations firm that represented the right-wing Guatemalan group Amigos del Pais and its leader Roberto Alejos, who had provided the ranch used for CIA training of Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion forces in 1961. In early 1980 William Casey became Reagan’s campaign director. Casey began his career directing OSS espionage operations in Germany and China in the 1940s, and he ended his career as director of the CIA. It is not common for US presidential candidates to be so managed by those so linked to covert operations.
The information in the proceeding two paragraphs comes from library sources. “Free-trade” comes from the dark lower bowels of Washington sometime in the early 1970s. It seems to have been conceived and promoted, in part, by conspiracy rather than by forthright democratic processes.
This exemplifies how conspiracy theory arises: 1) significant political or economic events change power relationships in our society; 2) contradictions are noticed by ordinary citizens in the explanations of these events; 3) concern and curiosity are aroused; 4) further information is sought under the presumption that power is being abused and deception is being deployed. Most of the evidence discovered is circumstantial, as it must be when investigating conspiracies.
“Free-trade” was definitely not the democratic choice of Canadians, and maybe not of Americans or Mexicans either. There is a history waiting to be written about these “free-trade” schemes. Orthodox, school-book historians will probably not write that history, and mainstream journalists will not dig it out. Conspiracy theorists might. (Did anyone notice that the NAFTA treaty was not legally passed by Congress as a treaty?)
Conspiracy theory has a special focus on contradictions, discrepancies, and missing facts. The natural sciences similarly seek to find faulty explanations by focusing on facts that don’t fit the orthodox explanations. If we want more truthful explanations of events, whether of scientific events or of political and historical events, then we must compare competing explanations.
One explanation usually fits the available observations better than the other. By the principle of fit, the explanation that encompasses more of the observations should be preferred. This principle can favor conspiracy theories. For example, one gunman cannot shoot a bolt-action rifle as fast as the shots were fired at JFK. The vast majority of eye-witnesses heard shots coming from different directions.
We can discover mis-explanations and find better ones by focusing on the facts that don’t fit. For example, Galileo concluded that moons around Jupiter are discrepancies to the then-orthodox geocentric theory. Galileo was called a heretic for writing that. Mark Lane’s book, Rush to Judgment, includes hundreds of facts that did not fit the Warren Commission’s conclusion that a lone gunman killed Kennedy. Lane was called a conspiracy theorist for writing that.
The pejorative force of the “conspiracy theory” label comes from its ad hominem attack on the author’s personality. It is true that conspiracy theory authors doubt the orthodox explanations and suspect that there are other explanations for events. Such doubt and suspicion, which is the same kind of doubt and suspicion as motivates many scientific discoveries, gets labeled paranoia.
Think for a moment. Most of the US population believes that a conspiracy, not a lone gunman, killed JFK. A society could not function if that many people were “paranoid.” That word is pure pejorative. Real paranoia includes: 1) fear, 2) of a prominent person, 3) whom you think threatens you personally, 4) using invisible means, like the evil-eye, x-rays, or laser beams. Conspiracy theory entails doubt and suspicion, but that is far from clinical paranoia. For example, I believe the Iran-Contra conspiracy theory, but I have no emotion of fear, certainly no fear that Oliver North is out to get me, using invisible rays of some kind.
However, we should remember that conspiracy theorists are ordinary people and will show ordinary failings of rationality, for example, what is referred to as “confirmation bias.” This means that we are all biased to look for evidence that our ideas are right rather than for evidence that our ideas are wrong. This bias has been demonstrated and replicated in many different contexts and countries. Confirmation bias is a common mistake made by conspiracy theorists, as well as by historians, journalists, and everyone else. David Fischer has catalogued and exemplified over 100 different kinds of faulty reasoning in the research of competent, published historians. These would all apply to conspiracy theorists as well.
Conspiracy theory is more thoughtful than fearful. The motivations behind conspiracy theory research are cognitive and social. It is very much like doing family genealogy. You begin with a few facts. Then you puzzle out the story, make inferences and hypotheses, and seek further facts. With help from other people, with good luck, you discover information that is sometimes difficult to find. A story emerges, suggesting new facts that should be sought. The satisfaction comes from finding the facts, constructing the story, and sharing the process and discoveries with other people.
Conspiracy theorists think they are serving the public good. Often their motivations are patriotic, and with good reason. Democracy is built on distrust of the king and all the king’s men. Democratic safeguards like habeas corpus, jury trial, independent courts, and secret ballots all presume that we should not trust people in positions of power. Because of distrust, opposition parties and an independent press are expected to question and criticize the government, and the government is expected to answer. The free press is called the Fourth Estate, in opposition to the First Estate (the Church), the Second Estate (the aristocracy), and the Third Estate (those who live off capital). Since orthodox journalism has become an instrument of power, investigative journalism is now sometimes called the Fifth Estate. Conspiracy theory is part of the Fifth Estate in this balance of powers. The independent, oppositional thinking that underlies conspiracy theory is not paranoia; it is the very foundation of freedom and democracy.
There probably appear to be more “conspiracy theories” about for three reasons: 1) More people have the skills and resources to look for conspiracies and to make their thinking public; 2) Probably there are more conspiracies to find as political and economic power become ever more concentrated and our democracy declines; 3) Mainstream journalism and schoolbook history now serve the state and corporate interests more than in the past, so now we hear more nonsense.
Conspiracy theory will certainly be a growth industry for the foreseeable future. Conspiracy theory will decrease when conspiracies decrease and when journalists and historians increase their efforts to explain events rather than explain them away.
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