On the Cock-up Theory

‘Although it often grows surprisingly heated, sooner or later the argument [between which is the better explanation of an historical event, a Conspiracy or Cock-up Theory] descends into a quarrel over the interpretation of details, and it usually ends in a rather unsatisfactory draw. One is then left with the feeling that it wasn’t really so much about all the details, as a conflict between two fundamentally different philosophies, or at least two psychological types who view the world in diametrically opposed ways.’…

‘Is it [the Cock-up Theory] a theory at all? Where the conspiracy theorist sets up more or less verifiable, more or less ridiculous propositions – the cock-up theorist doesn’t really have an awful lot to say for himself. Once you’ve established that accident and incompetence rule, not much remains to be elaborated on. Perhaps it isn’t so much a theory as a slightly pessimistic attitude – which sounds like a profound insight into the futility of our best-laid plans, but never does so without at least a hint of complacency.

‘If the cock-up argument has a weakness it is precisely that somewhere in the background there is that really rather outrageous generalisation. Certainly we’re all bumbling fools, yes there are probably a million cock-ups every day. But if we’re allowed to generalise in that way, it’s equally true to say that human beings also manage to produce intricate patterns and designs – not least in politics -that we also like to plan together, to act in accord – and to conspire. And it shouldn’t come as complete news that we often get away with it.’Gunnar Pettersson, Cock-up or Conspiracy (BBC Radio 3)

Is the Cock-up Theory of History really an explanatory theory? This is the question that vexes me at the moment. The Cock-up Theory could be seen as some sort of shorthand for ‘Look, it’s a really long and complex story as to why X occurred, and it definitely wasn’t due to Conspiracy Y, because…’ but that isn’t the way the Cock-up Theory is usually presented. The Cock-up Theory is most often presented with a wry smile, a sigh-cum-chuckle and the words ‘Some of my colleagues might well think that but really…’ Unlike the Conspiracy Theory, which gives reasons galore (whether they are good or bad) for the event under consideration occurring because of a secret cabal’s plotting, the Cock-up Theory seems theory-less.

Yet we seem to prefer it.

Hmm.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.