According to a recent poll in the German newspaper Die Zeit, one in five Germans believes that the U.S. government may have sponsored the 9-11 attacks. Among those under 30, the proportion is one in three. Conspiracy theories as insane as that one, or worse, currently corrupt the political thinking of the great majority of people in the world, including a substantial and influential minority in the West.
A conspiracy theory is
- an explanation of observed events in current affairs and history … which
- alleges that those events were planned and caused in secret by powerful (or allegedly powerful) conspirators, who thereby…
- benefit at the expense of others, and who therefore…
- lie, and suppress evidence, about their secret actions, and…
- lie about the motives for their public actions.
Conspiracy theories are widely regarded as characteristic of irrational modes of thinking. The very term ‘conspiracy theory’ is usually reserved for irrational explanations meeting the above criteria. For conspiracies do happen. Criminal conspiracies are proved every day in courts. Political conspiracies are discovered from time to time. If we can rationally explain a bank robbery as being the consequence of a conspiracy, why not a war? Or the world economic system? What distinguishes a conspiracy theory (irrational, by definition) from a sane opinion that a particular group of people worked in secret to bring about certain observed events for their own immoral purposes?
Here, the irrefutability of conspiracy theories is usually cited: to a conspiracy theorist, everything that happens, or could possibly happen, constitutes evidence for the conspiracy. If the alleged conspirators seem to benefit, then that is evidence against them. If they do not, then that is just evidence that the media and/or other conspirators are concealing the facts, or that something much more valuable is secretly at stake.
But there is more to it than irrefutability. There is more to it even than the tendency to invent (rather than merely reinterpret) evidence to conform to the conspiracy theory. For it is no coincidence that every (irrational) conspiracy theory is in fact false. Underlying their invalid arguments and mishandling of evidence in judging explanations, there is a pathological mistake in the conspiracy theorists’ conception of what constitutes an explanation in the first place.