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Friday, April 19, 2013

A Theory is Not Invalid Because It Is a Conspiracy Theory, Part 1

Say a government official, Mr. X, gets assassinated.  The official government investigation determines the murder was committed by crazed individual in a temporary moment of insanity.  However, eyewitnesses come forward and claim their testimony was ignored by the investigators and left out of the final report.  These witnesses tell other journalists they saw multiple people firing guns. A grainy video of the shooting emerges seeming to show gun shots fired from several locations.  Two of these five eyewitnesses suddenly die in separate car accidents within a week.  The government won't release an autopsy of Mr. X and it is learned that the body was cremated 24 hours after the murder.  Oddly enough, the person who took over for the murdered politician, Mr. Z, has a history of having his political rivals die under mysterious circumstances.  Furthermore, several aides to Mr. Z claim they witnessed him meeting with people in the days leading up to the event that are later identified as possible shooters in the video.  A theory emerges (theory #1) that Mr. Z conspired to murder his rival and cover up his guilt.    

At the same time, another "theory" of these events emerges on the internet (theory #2).  A website claims that pink lizard creatures from Jupiter have carried out the assassination as a prelude to an alien takeover of the earth.  No evidence is provided for this theory, but the author assures you that anyone who denies the story is part of the alien conspiracy.

Those concerned with these events push journalists to continue to investigate the story.  Others in the media dismiss these concerns as the ravings of "conspiracy theorists."  Press agents for the politician ridicule all of these conspiracy theories as the mad speculations of tinfoil hat wearing kooks on the internet.  After all, the government performed an investigation and determined the truth.

Note that both theory #1 and theory #2 are "conspiracy" theories in that they postulate that individuals (or aliens) secretly plotted and carried out a covert criminal act and then engaged in a cover up of the crime. But are theory #1 and theory #2 equally valid? Should we be equally suspicious of both theories because they are so-called conspiracy theories?  

Of course, theory #1 is a valid theory.  Although there is no "smoking gun" such as a confession from the perpetrator, actual evidence has been put forward that casts doubt on the official story that would lead any reasonable person to question the official narrative and at least be cause for further investigation.  Theory #2 is not a valid theory.  No evidence is put forward at all to substantiate the claims, the basic premise is at odds with known scientific facts, and the theory fails to account for the actual known facts of the case in any substantive way.  It should be dismissed.  

I have created this rather obvious example to demonstrate the point that conspiracy theories should not be disregarded merely because they are conspiracy theories.  They should be disregarded if they are bad theories or not a theory at all.  Of course, in reality, there is a spectrum of credibility as it relates to conspiracy theories ranging from very plausible to outright insane, but I believe there is a trend towards discrediting those who postulate alternative explanations of events merely because they postulate alternative explanations.  To many, the concept of a conspiracy theory has now become almost equivalent to "crazy idea" regardless of the merits of the proposed theory.

To maintain the integrity of government in a free society, serious violations of the law by government officials must be exposed and those involved brought to justice. If  legitimate theories about conspiracies are automatically dismissed because they are considered part of some class of automatically invalidated knowledge ("those crazy conspiracy theories") it creates a dangerous climate where anyone who questions the government is regarded as a nut or worse (as we shall see in Part 2). Conversely, if every theory, regardless of its merits, is considered something worth investigating, it not only results in a waste of time, but it tends to decrease the enthusiasm and support for legitimate investigations.

In Part 2, I will analyze a paper written by our old nemesis, Cass Sunstein, on the topic of conspiracy theories.  Sunstein as usual has some subtly scary ideas about what to do with all of these conspiracy theorists.

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