Wednesday, December 04, 2013

What is a "conspiracy theory"?

No, I'm not going to quote Alex Jones here. And I'm one of those 10 people who thinks that Lee Harvey Oswald actually was a lone gunman.

It's Robert Perry who gives a careful perspective on distinguishing actual conspiracies from "conspiracy theories" in Contra-Cocaine Was a Real Conspiracy Consortium News 12/02/2013. He's referring to a political crime story, but it's a good perspective for skeptics looking at pseudoscience, quack medicine or UFO reports:

In my view, a "conspiracy theory" is a case of fanciful, usually fact-free speculation positing some alternative explanation for an event. Typically, a “conspiracy theory” not only lacks any real evidence but often ignores compelling evidence that goes in other directions. For instance, the current conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama being born in Kenya despite birth certificates and birth notices of his birth in Hawaii.

By contrast, a real conspiracy can be defined as a collaboration among individuals to engage in criminal or scandalous behavior usually in a secretive manner. There are many such examples involving high government officials, including Richard Nixon’s Watergate and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair.

The difference between a “conspiracy theory” and a real conspiracy is that the latter is supported by substantial evidence and the former is reliant on someone simply thinking something up, often with partisan or ideological motivation.

There is, of course, much gray area between those two poles. There are cases in which some evidence exists indicating a conspiracy but it’s short of conclusive proof. In such cases of legitimate doubt, aggressive investigations are warranted – and the U.S. news media should welcome, not punish, these lines of inquiry.

Instead, the role of the mainstream press often has been to ridicule journalists and other investigators who venture into these murky waters. Often, that ridicule leads to serious cases of journalistic malfeasance as occurred with the mistreatment of Gary Webb and the Contra-cocaine story. ...

... each case is unique and should be treated as such. Each set of facts should be examined carefully.

Just because one conspiracy can be proven doesn’t substantiate every claim of conspiracy. And the opposite is also true, just because one fact-free conspiracy theory is nutty doesn’t mean all suspected conspiracies deserve ridicule. [my emphasis]

1 comment:

Keith Moon said...

Hurrah! I'm not alone - it looks like we are two of those 10 people who think that Lee Harvey Oswald actually was a lone gunman.

You draw attention to an important point here, that despite the crazies there are in fact some real conspiracies out there and it behooves us to know how to spot the differences.

I spend so much time at my day job in swatting down assorted cranks and crackpots that my BS detector is set to trigger at quite a low potential.

As a good Bayesian I have to accept the likelihood that I have been rude to one or two good hearted folks who actually had a sincere question to ask.

But as they say, God is not always on the side of the big battalions - but that is the way to bet.

Thanks again.