The Truth About Conspiracy Theories
An interesting article appeared in the Vancouver Sun discussing conspiracy theories - narratives that question the "official" version of events - and the motivations of the people who hold or promote them. The article was focused mainly on 9/11 and who "really" was responsible for the attack on the towers, but it shows why belief in all conspiracy theories such as the ones offered in The Da Vinci Code can become so popular.
The article quotes from philosophy professor Brian Keeley's paper "Of Conspiracy Theories" that appeared in the March 1999 Journal of Philosophy. Keeley's article notes some of the attractive features of a conspiracy theory:
- Conspiracy theories offer a single unified theory that has broader explanatory reach: it explains more phenomena than competing theories.
- Therefore conspiracy theories can explain "errant data" - those facts that we know happened but we don't know why or how they fit into the plan.
However history, much like the rest of real life is messy. People don't always act with a master plan. Sometimes things happen that don't have anything to do with the historical event you may be trying to study, and some events must go unexplained.
Keeley notes that by trying to explain everything, the conspiracy theories show their artificial construct. Keeley writes, "Given the imperfect nature of our human understanding of the world, we should expect that even the best possible theory would not explain all the available data." The conspiracy theorists also place too much emphasis on small sets of data at odds with the official account. In a balanced view, such unexplained data would not be statistically interesting. However, these points become the crux of the theory and take on more strength than they are entitled to hold.
Finally, Keeley notes an interesting phenomenon of conspiracy theories themselves: the more evidence that is set against the theory, the more they use it to their advantage. Keeley writes "The more evidence piled up by authorities in favor for a given theory, the more the conspiracy theorist points out how badly 'They' must want us to believe the official story."
I find it interesting that The Sun closes its article with the idea that conspiracy theorists exist because they want to make sense of a world and the events that happen therein but can't attribute the "big events" to a reasoned cause. The article says "people tend to believe that big effects must be the product of big causes" such as God keeping an ordered universe. "But in the 20th century, such beliefs were dashed, as scientists presented an indeterminist universe, a world without meaning, where many things happen by chance. ...conspiracy theories manage to make sense of senseless acts, and return meaning to the world."