The Art of the Conspiracy Theory

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.

Metaconspiracy Theories

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).

Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures (pdf). Emphasis in original!

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.

Obstruction

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.

Interestingness

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:

  1. Some unexamined assumption that you didn’t even realize you held
  2. Actually is false in a completely unexpected way, with important consequences.

The basic conspiracy theory move is as follows:

  1. What you previously believed to be the chaotic result of complex interacting processes
  2. 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:

  1. While it was long thought that the earth is an oblate spheroid that revolves around the sun,
  2. Actually it is as flat as it naively appears, and a powerful, secret group has faked all the evidence of it being round.

Recently, as Sam Kriss reports, a novel, bizarre theory has opened up a new territory within the flat earth community. A video maker argues that

  1. While it was long thought that the earth is covered in mountains and forests,
  2. 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.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter

Comments

  1. I will just leave this here for reference.

    Thought occurred to me related to Murray Davis point: undermining an assumption is actually a technique to create, not just destroy or reframe. Euclid’s parallel postulate can be negated but that doesn’t do anything interesting beyond severely limiting the conclusions. It is the step of replacing with a different but consistent postulate that creates interesting new geometries and possibilities like the Riemannian and Banana universes (sometimes called Lobachevsky geometries by conspiracy theorists who want to avoid admitting the possibility that the universe is a banana, which is obviously the case since you can see the yellow exterior in the form of median sun-like stars)

    • Greetings Venkat, I just thought I’d sure a quote from Xavier Zubiri that I think adds to your excellent point:

      “Mathematical objects have their properties de suyo, i.e., they are real. The fact is that the real object made real by being postulated according to concepts has, by being made real, more notes or properties than those defined in its postulation. On account of this and only on account of it are problems posed which may not be solvable with the finite system of axioms and postulates which defined its realization. What is constructed in reality itself is, by being made real or put into action, something more than what was postulated at the outset. This, as I see it, is the thrust of Gödel’s theorem. It does not refer to a limitation intrinsic to affirmations based on axioms and postulates qua affirmations—that is the usual interpretation of the theorem—; rather, it leaves the character of reality of what is constructed according to the axioms and postulates in question to be revealed before the intelligence. It is not, then, the intrinsic inadequacy of a system of postulates, but the radical originality of what is constructed by being real, a reality which is not exhausted in what has been postulated about it.”

  2. Seems like this might be a modern version of the phenomenon of coming up with gods to explain natural events (Zeus throws thunderbolts). The world is complex, there’a a lot of weird shit that happens, life gets simpler if you can blame it on the government or Wall Street or evil conservative talk radio hosts.

    That’s my main personal aesthetic objection to conspiracy theories: they are destructive to the natural beauty of the original phenomenon. On the other hand, I do like reading Greek mythology…

  3. Michael Vassar says:

    As far as I can tell, conspiracy theories are mostly a pathology of excess specificity, but ALL non-PoMo interpretations of the world share this feature. Most notable is the rational inquiry theory where instead of following their diverse incentives and endorsing solve prudent fiction, both ABC and Fox reporters coordinate to ascertain and report a ‘scientific consensus’ on whatever topic is under discussion.

  4. Today’s world is a complex place. Many people lose their faith, not only in their religion, but also in the steadfast truths of their upbringing. Many things that were programmed into their brains as rules in their childhood are not valid anymore. Examples being like: a family is a man, a woman and children. // When you graduate from university you will have a wellpaying job. // When you’re an adult, you buy a house and you own a car and you have a family. // If you keep on learning you will progress and have a better life than your parents. //.

    All these truths have proven invalid for many people. The rules are invalid. This creates an error message in the programming of the brain: a cognitive dissonance as sociologists call it. Cognitive dissonance leads to migrants violence, to racism, to hatecrime. And today many good people also have a cognitive dissonance. Although they have done everything right being honest hardworking people who gave their best, they lost. And there is nobody to blame for that. Not even themselves, if they have been sober, lawabiding citizens with their only fault being a woman, over 40 years old, non-white or disabled. Particularly painful for veterans who gave their limbs for the nation and got nothing in return.

    Rich people read magazines and print newspapers. Poor people read online news. And they read it from tabloids. Many can’t distinguish satire from reality, many will believe that the Onion writes true articles. They read National Enquirer or in German speaking areas “Kopp Verlag” and such conspiracy channels. Or they’ll watch evangelical TV when they turn to God for guidance and find greedy soulmongers instead.

    A conspiracy theory helps to ease the pain. It finds a culprit, a deus ex machina to blame for the own misfortune. It patches together blotchy information to a plausible/implausible big picture. Trump is the king of conspiracy theories. He is the golem that is built out of lies on top of lies in fringe newspapers, haphazard explanations on top of science-fiction esoteric mumbo-jumbo. The Conan who will destroy the Reptilians… Most of todays science sounds like Science Fiction to most of the public, so why not add some spice by introducing reptilian Aliens and mind control? I want to believe the poster in Mulders office said. X-Files introduced us to the tinfoil hat subculture which is now overtaking mainstream culture.

    I had a long private conversation with a CEO who attended Bilderberg on this subject of conspiracy theories (his company being targeted as evil overlords of the world) and he was very sad. He told me that these people need to believe that there is someone out there whom they can blame and that he knows that we’re at a very difficult point in time.

    How desperate would all these people be if they knew that the people leading these companies or nations often are also just as clueless as them. That they cry and that they are afraid too. Afraid from wars, famines, wrecking the whole economy, making millions of people jobless. Drugs help. Therapists help. But the air is very thin on top.

    You realize that nothing is under control. We are 8 Billion people on a rotating ball of dirt in space with nobody else to turn to. There is neither god nor aliens yet who could help us. Nor an AI who is smarter than us to give us guidance. We have reached the summit and our physical and biological limits. Even the smartest of us don’t have a clue and can’t help us with climate change, overpopulation and massive extinction of life. We are dying and we know it.

    Of course conversations happen at Bilderberg also behind closed doors. And people disagree, like Putin and the US administration. But apart from Syria and the whole ISIS thing the world has become a very civilized place compared to the last 2000 years. And even the fight against IS is one which is conducted by global agreement. People may feel obliged to sneer at Putin and Assad, but there still is a global consenus of doing exactly nothing about the bloodshed even though we see absolutely horrible images coming out of Aleppo every day with dead infants and horrible injuries. You don’t have public demonstrations like during the Vietnam war. Sharing on Social Media is not caring enough.

    A new god will be born out of this maelstroem of beliefs, counterbeliefs, hate, love, war, peace, science, faith, leftwing, rightwing, nationalist, internationalist, racist, multiculturalist and a new global consensus, let’s call it a new global faith which defines a new set of rules on a global level: are men and women equal? Are all races equal? Do we care about disabled people? Do we care about the plight of children? Do we care about the extinction of animals? Do we see all humans as equal or do we want a class system?

    Until the rules are globally defined people will fight to the blood to defend the rules they were programmed to. HRC will defend women’s rights, fundamental islam will defend its rules, Women will fight for their rights.

    So what to do? Raise taxes, spend the money on education. Teach the kids statistics, sociology and how to perceive cognitive dissonance, Hawthorne Effect and other tricks that make you believe things which may not really be true or even plausible. Encourage people to become active politically and join a party or create a new democratic party and voice their fears and opinions.

    Direct democracy needs training. Switzerland has a lot of votes every year and people get used to informing themselves and making sound decisions. Politics is discussed at home and in public. If you don’t train the people you get Brexit or Trump.

    • But what if the conspiracy of this election is the framing of Donald Trump. I mean, democracy is democracy, rule of the mob of plurality. The U.S has a two party system. Eventually the plurality of the Republicans have disavowed many of their leadership, and many of their leadership have disavowed them. Why? Populism. What are populist issues to Republicans? Immigration. Ending Crony Capitalism & the Deathmarch of Free Trade (Globalism). Welfare Reform. Federal Reserve Mismanagement. Ending Endless War.

      The Republicans have done nothing on these issues. So what do the people do, they hear the first guy talking about enough of these issues and they raise him up. He’s successful and now he’s their guy. He’s the populist. And yes their’s white nationalists-but we live in an affirmative action, black people only commit crime because of white racism era. But the vast majority of trump supporters aren’t active white nationalists. That is mostly “race realist” intellectuals of any age and a younger audience who has lived in, if you will, a “world conspiring against white men.” And instead of it being a conspiracy, it’s taken as facr by anyone that most of the problems, personal and global, are caused by white men.

      So when a corrupt long time politician, with low approvals to begin with, and has the support of every figurehead that has been calling you the reason for the world’s indignities, is saying “vote for me, that guy said mean things and we need a woman President,” people should just not believe the conspiracy and actively pursue means against believing it because he in fact is a conspiracy of Putin?