When Is a Conspiracy Theory Not a Theory?

You may have read my post earlier in the week, about what to do as we move forward. In it, I talked about an article I’d read about some of the less credible conspiracy theories that are going on around the world right now. In response, my friend Marian asked me: “Your blog brings up this question for me. How were you able to determine that the conspiracies were false?”

loch ness
Where IS that Loch Ness monster, anyway? Photo by @dancing_on_rainbows_ via Twenty20.
drawing of V Putin
Only free Putin image I found. Image from @dancing_on_rainbows_ via Twenty20

Well, isn’t THAT a good question? Maybe something’s only a conspiracy theory to those who think there’s no way it could be true (based on no firm evidence), and that same thing could be just a theory to people who think it’s plausible (with the same amount of firm evidence). Take, for example, the theory that Vladimir Putin has a series of body doubles who pretend to be him on some occasions. The evidence for it is that he keeps looking younger and younger in photos. The people who discount it point out that one of his nicknames is Man of Botox (or something like that). So, either he’s conspiring to trick people, or he’s just a fan of cosmetic surgery. Who knows?

Of course, there are much darker, scarier and less provable conspiracies, like QAnon (not linking to that!), who killed JFK, whether there are dead aliens in Area 51, if the moon landing was a hoax, etc. Here’s a handy list of some popular ones. Some seem silly, some seem plausible, and some may forever be theories. It’s the “conspiracy” part that concerns me. I’m fine not knowing stuff. I don’t know a lot of stuff, and one of my firmest beliefs is that there are many things we humans haven’t figured out yet that might make confusing things more comprehensible.

area 51
I can’t believe I didn’t drop in when I was in the area. Image by @lovnjeeps via Twenty20.

A conspiracy implies that there are forces out there hiding things from others, or even that certain in-groups are privy to information that is hidden on purpose from everyone else. At least QAnon is nice enough to leave breadcrumbs for their minions, right? Neither the Illuminati nor the Liberal Media Conspiracy have sent me their clues, though, and I am bummed.

Turning back to Marian’s question, I think it’s easier to prove something is a conspiracy than it is to prove the theory’s veracity. I think we’re just not going to know until they trot out that alien, or whatever. That’s fine. People can choose not to believe things they don’t have good evidence for, or they can choose to do so, if it makes them happy.

It may not matter one bit. It’s what people DO.

The important thing is that we differentiate false claims with evidence to prove their falsehood from unproven theories. That seems to be a real issue in the US right now, where you say something enough times that it’s declared true, or lies don’t matter if you say them with enough conviction.

What I’m trying to get at here, as I type as I think, is that conspiracy theories that aren’t harming anyone really aren’t a problem. When enough people believe there are conspiracies going on, even with no evidence, and they take action that harms others…that’s why I’m worried. I’m afraid I see that as a possibility in the near future. Just because you can’t prove a conspiracy theory is right or wrong doesn’t mean it can’t be very dangerous.

We’ll see. Did this make any sense at all? Do you have any comments to steer me toward making more sense? I’m open!

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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