To give a denotative definition of the term “conspiracy theory” is profoundly misleading. While in some sense a conspiracy theory is “the belief that a group is secretly coordinating toward criminal or evil ends,” the fundamental content of the term “conspiracy theory” is connotative: conspiracy theories are bad. In most cases, the point of mentioning conspiracy theories is to feel superior to the silly people who hold such embarrassing beliefs. Most research is conducted by a body that might be known as the Institute for the Undermining and Humiliation of the Naughty Outgroup’s Pathological Epistemology (IUHNOPE) (an example).
Readers of Ribbonfarm expect more. Here, we will explore how to feel superior not only to the conspiracy theorists, but also to the people who hate the conspiracy theorists. We will look at the interplay between the “crippled epistemology” of conspiracy theorists and conventional epistemologies. Rather than viewing conspiracy theories as mind viruses that infect passive participants, I will defend the view that the conspiracy theory is an active, creative art form, whose truth claims serve as formal obstructions rather than being the primary point of the endeavor. False conspiracy theories might even help us understand reality.
Imagine you are someone who sometimes reads conspiracy theories on internet message boards, or watches conspiracy theory videos. They give you a delightfully creepy feeling, but you can’t quite believe that the government would conspire against you. Then you read this:
What can the government do about conspiracy theories, and what should it do? (1) Government might ban “conspiracy theories,” somehow defined. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. Our main policy claim here is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4), and (5).
But it’s just some academic with no political pull, right? Then you find out that the lead author of the paper, a Constitutional law professor at Harvard and the most frequently cited legal scholar in America, headed the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for three years.
Whether this ominous-sounding paragraph is the “own goal” it appears to be or operates on a level of irony I can’t comprehend, scholarship like this provides the raw material for what I call metaconspiracy theories: the belief that people are secretly coordinating against conspiracy theorists in particular.
My assertion at the beginning, that the negative connotations of “conspiracy theory” outweigh denotative content such that the word is basically a slur, is a sort of metaconspiracy theory. I don’t propose using a different term; if we started calling them “alternative epistemologies” or “subversion myths” instead, the euphemistic treadmill would soon turn those into slurs as well. So let’s use the scare word, but keep an eye on the fact that it’s a scare word. Let’s see how well it describes things we like, as well as things we don’t like.
Some metaconspiracy theories get more specific. The independent scholar Rob Ager (a producer of beautiful fan theories of films) argues that media institutions preferentially apply the term “conspiracy theory” to the subset of conspiracy theories that accuse a government or powerful institution of corruption, rather than to those conspiracy theories promulgated by governments and powerful institutions.
This coordination might be explicit, but more likely it is the type of implicit coordination identified by Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: institutions appearing to coordinate by acting in their own interests, which happen to coincide with each other against some public interest. Media produce stories friendly to the government, for example, in order to maintain their friendly, behind-the-scenes access to government sources.
This video maker explicitly argues that there is a “conspiracy theory conspiracy.” (Note: I will be citing videos for source identification and completeness, but I don’t necessarily recommend watching every feature-film-length video unless you are particularly interested in the subject matter.) The beginning of the video belabors a very effective tactic: stacking clip after clip of mainstream media figures insulting and mocking conspiracy theorists in order to portray them as an underdog. The more these smug people talk about how much they “loathe” conspiracy theories, the more a contrarian is tempted to defend the reviled outgroup. If the viewer already has sympathies for conspiracy enthusiasts, it is even more effective.
I have tried to motivate some charity toward conspiracy enthusiasts. But by charity, I do not mean supposing that their beliefs are true. I am particularly interested in the aesthetic and social value of blatantly false conspiracy theories.
The movie The Five Obstructions is Lars von Trier’s exposition of the principle that formal obstructions unlock creativity, while unlimited freedom can be enervating. He provides his filmmaker mentor (whom we understand to be depressed and creatively blocked) with a series of conditions and obstructions for remaking a particular film, and despite the ridiculousness and stringency of the obstructions, the result is a firehose of creative energy.
There are two roles here: that of the person making up the obstructions, and that of the creator within the set of formal obstructions. Both of these roles are active and creative.
Can a theory have aesthetic value? Some are more satisfying, more creepy, more interesting, than others. People do seem to consume them for entertainment. It doesn’t seem out of place to call a theory “beautiful.”
A theory unites disparate evidence and attempts to simplify and compress it into a pattern. The space of possible theories is bewilderingly large: all the possible evidence in the world, and all the possible patterns that might organize them. Conspiracy theories can be obstructions in that they provide a specific claim around which theories can be built. If the claim is false, that just makes the obstruction even more challenging.
Genuinely new conspiracy theories are rarely added to the corpus. Most conspiracy video makers are taking the role of creators within an existing set of obstructions, finding evidence for and elaborating (or arguing against) conspiracy theories proposed by others.
A look into the content of contemporary conspiracy theories can give us a better idea of how this works. The beliefs of conspiracy theorists are actually quite diverse: there are fundamentalist Christians, militant atheists, left-wingers, right-wingers, flat earthers, hollow earthers, alien believers and deniers, and simulationists. Some are convinced that the Illuminati have altered the Bible; others argue why that cannot possibly be. But there are some concepts that are shared across belief systems. One concept is predictive programming: the belief that a secret conspiracy broadcasts hints of its future evil plans in film, television, and other media. The predictive programming concept, coupled with any particular event, provides a ready-made template for a conspiracy theory. The video maker’s creative role is to locate and organize themes, clips, and individual frames that appears to predict the terrible event (essentially coincidence detection, which requires a great deal of focused attention), and to present it in a convincing manner.
Conspiracy theories can operate like magical realism in explicit fiction: providing a different set of obstructions from the usual, allowing for surprising solutions.
In a classic paper close to the heart of Ribbonfarm, Murray Davis distills the essence of interestingness. One necessary aspect for a theory to be considered interesting is that it is surprising: that is, it denies some part of the “assumption-ground” of the audience. The most creative theories elucidate previously invisible beliefs, allowing the audience to “see through” some illusion:
All interesting theories, at least all interesting social theories, then, constitute an attack on the taken-for-granted world of their audience. This audience will consider any particular proposition to be “worth saying” only if it denies the truth of some part of their routinely held assumption-ground. If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, they will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth. They will declare that the proposition need not be stated because it is already part of their theoretical scheme: “Of course.” “That’s obvious.” “Everybody knows that.” “It goes without saying.”
Murray Davis, “That’s Interesting: Toward a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology,” 1971. (Emphasis in original.)
I use the word “illusion” to describe the assumption-ground challenged by interesting theories, but interesting theories need not be true, and the assumptions they challenge need not be false. Davis says, “It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” There is aesthetic (and memetic) value in the interesting that is separable, somehow, from truth value – else conspiracy theories, urban legends, false rumors, and ridiculous academic theories would not spread.
The general form of an optimally interesting theory can be expressed in two parts:
- Some unexamined assumption that you didn’t even realize you held
- Actually is false in a completely unexpected way, with important consequences.
The basic conspiracy theory move is as follows:
- What you previously believed to be the chaotic result of complex interacting processes
- Actually was planned and executed by a powerful, secret group.
This only stays interesting and surprising for so long, once a particular sheeple audience wakes up. Luckily, there are endless variations. Every new event can be folded into existing conspiracy theories (e.g., compiling clown references in film and television in order to prove “predictive programming” of the Great Clown Panic of 2016). Occasionally, novel variations open up new territories. The well-known flat earth conspiracy posits that:
- While it was long thought that the earth is an oblate spheroid that revolves around the sun,
- Actually it is as flat as it naively appears, and a powerful, secret group has faked all the evidence of it being round.
- While it was long thought that the earth is covered in mountains and forests,
- Actually our forests are mere bushes, and rocky plateaus and mountains are the stumps and broken trunks of ancient trees that grew hundreds of kilometers tall.
Just as those who oppose conspiracy theories are at their least charming when insulting conspiracy theorists, the video maker here is at his least charming when imagining out loud how devastated his critics will be when confronted with all of his evidence. I find his theory itself charming as well as (obviously) completely implausible. In fact, there are at least two audiences for conspiracy theories, both of whom contribute creatively: those who wish to support the theory in some way, and those who wish to debunk it. Proponents of conspiracy theories frequently cite each other and even include clips from others’ videos within their own. Opponents also remix conspiracy theory videos, and debunking videos (even when they sneer) can be very interesting and funny. (I like this one; I think it might have swears.)
In the conspiracy theory world as well as in academia, most producers of content will not be producing interesting new theories. Instead, they will be elaborating the once-interesting theories of others, gradually ploughing these fresh theories back into the assumption-ground of the field. Herbert Simon says, “[t]here is a constant competition between the elaboration of knowledge and its compression into more parsimonious form by theories” (in The Sciences of the Artificial).
As I have suggested, conspiracy theories might be seen as a similar art form to magical realist fiction, with different conventions and formal obstructions. The same powerful themes and theories are popular across the epistemic range, from explicit fiction to explicit truth claims. For instance, a popular conspiracy theory I wasn’t aware of before my research is the theory that there are a suspiciously large number of disappearances from National Parks under mysterious circumstances, and that the Forest Service (e.g.) is covering it up. In the truth claim realm, people appear to take this very seriously, attending conferences, publishing books, and filing Freedom of Information Act requests. On the explicit fiction side, a very popular post on the Reddit board r/nosleep (a board for fictional horror stories, in which people in the comments are expected to play along and suspend disbelief) elaborates just this conspiracy, with a lovely new motif: mysterious, out-of-place staircases. And in between the two poles, here is a debate over the veracity of the popular staircases in the woods story. One commenter confirms that it is fiction; another adds a new anecdote to the mix.
Conspiracy theories might have aesthetic value, and it might even be hard to draw a clear line between conspiracy theory and fiction. But most conspiracy theories do make truth claims. Should we let them off the hook because of their supposed aesthetic value? And are conspiracy theories a particularly dangerous form of speech?
The Epistemic Value of Conspiracy Theories
There’s something wrong with wrongness. Wrongness irritates us, and can motivate us to have long, stupid arguments. But sometimes a new, interesting, or persuasively-stated wrongness can allow us to come up with effective new theories and arguments. In some sense, wrongness forms the “assumption-ground” that can be mined for interestingness.
Producing an argument for a clearly wrong conclusion can be an impressive stunt or exercise. What kinds of arguments might be found for something so wrong? What might plausibly explain it? And listening to others’ arguments for a wrong proposition is enlightening. What kind of evidence is offered? What tricks are apparent? What epistemic standards are you applying? Do you apply those same standards to beliefs you think are true? What does epistemic immunity feel like from the inside, and look like from the outside?
I jokingly use an infection metaphor for conspiracy theories (immunity). A mortal with limited cognitive resources (and lifespan) needs to be able to reject a lot of claims without examining them that closely. A large amount of knee-jerk judgment is a feature of a well-functioning epistemic agent. It’s good to have an immune system. In the cultural evolution model, a belief or set of beliefs will be selected for if it can defend well against competing beliefs. Having a negative term like “conspiracy theory” helps us avoid wasting our time, despite the problems I mention above, and protects our existing beliefs, many of which are correct.
But contagion is an unsatisfying metaphor, because it implies that anyone who hears a conspiracy theory will passively become “infected” with it. Conspiracy theories may play a different, and much more creative, role in how people understand their social world.
Antonis Sapountzis and Susan Condor (2013) didn’t set out to study conspiracy theories. They started out interviewing a few dozen Greek citizens about political topics in order to investigate “various orientations to nationhood.” But when the subjects were asked about a particularly contentious issue regarding the Macedonian crisis, half of them spontaneously produced a conspiracy theory to explain the events. Fascinated, the authors focused on this aspect of the accounts. While some have suggested that conspiracy theorists are epistemically isolated, poorly-educated basement dwellers, the authors found no evidence of this:
On the contrary, conspiracy narratives were as likely to be used by highly educated respondents as those with few educational qualifications, by people with multi-plex social networks as those whose social interactions were generally more restricted, and by people with professional or managerial occupations as those employed in semi- or unskilled work.
Sapountzis and Condor, “Conspiracy Accounts as Intergroup Theories: Challenging Dominant Understandings of Social Power and Political Legitimacy.”
Conspiracy theories were offered by the left and the right. And the subjects seemed to use conspiracy theories in the manner of “interestingness” above: to reconceptualize and reframe the actions of the Greek government, challenging the “assumption-ground” that this action was a result of hostile Greek nationalism.
Another small study that examines the creative aspect of conspiracy theory is called “Thirty Shades of Truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion.” Previous authors have tended to psychologize conspiracy theorists, just as conspiracy theorists like to psychologize opponents. The typical research method was to give people a questionnaire, and see if the people checking off weird conspiracy beliefs had pathological characteristics (an example). The authors here gave their (German) subjects stacks of cards with little facts about 9/11 written on them – some from the mainstream narrative, some from conspiracy narratives – and asked the subjects to choose from the cards and construct a narrative of what they believe happened on 9/11. Almost all subjects included both mainstream and conspiracy facts in their narrative, any one of which would be considered a conspiracy theory. All of them were different (hence the 30 shades, for 30 subjects, of truth). The authors argue that while conspiracy theories may sometimes be harmful and racist, the “conspiracy theory” mode of arguing is not the problem. They say, “The question should not be: Why does one believe a racist conspiracy theory? Rather, we should ask: Why does one believe a racist conspiracy theory?”
Yet another “metaconspiracy” along these lines is that mainstream and old media hate conspiracy theories because they are so participatory that they decrease the demand for their products and their power as gatekeepers of information.
The Infinite Game
I have argued that conspiracy theories (and I would extend this to even the kind of silly sociological theories highlighted by @RealPeerReview on twitter) can have aesthetic value, are sources of creative engagement, and can even be epistemically beneficial. But they are clearly not the height of human achievement. They are, ideally, playgrounds, or perhaps stepping stones to the creation of new, interesting, true theories about reality.
I think most readers of Ribbonfarm could produce, if motivated, a compelling, original conspiracy theory, supported by a range of evidence from surprising and disparate sources. And every reader of Ribbonfarm has different beliefs, knowledge, and experiences. What can you see (or see through) that no one else can?
Correct epistemology is not a final state of having all the correct beliefs. Rather, it is an infinite game, where part of the point is to keep playing. Wrongness and interestingness generate each other over and over; the attempt to eradicate wrongness is noble, but luckily will never be achieved. If there were no wrongness, nothing could ever be interesting again. Hopefully, we generate fresh, new, sneakier, more interesting wrongness, instead of more of the same old wrongness.