Over the last two weeks I have written ten thousand words, of which only four thousand have survived (well, that’s not strictly true; they still exist in old file versions) and hopefully the ‘Introduction’ (for want of a better term) will be finished by the end of next week, at which point I can begin work on the lecture my colleague and I are giving at the Skeptics Conference at the end of the month.The Introduction has been a tricky thing to write; it exists in two versions. One is the version that appears at the begiining of the thesis and the other is the version that has to be sent to various committees for approval. The former is written in a way that accepts that there are issues to be solved and posits the general structure of how I plan to come up with those solutions whilst the later has to argue that there are issues in the first place. Having spent so much time reading in the area the issues are so apparent to me that it’s a wee bit odd having to justify them, but justify I must.Also, the justification process has been incredibly useful in that I’m now even more sure that the field of Conspiracy Theory research is in need of careful conceptual analysis resulting in a taxonomy that can, hopefully, become standard. Take, for example, the terms Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory. Depending on who you read these terms can mean either the same thing or different things or, in many cases, both depending on what belief happens to be using that name at the time. There is a great deal of confusion in the literature around the terms Conspiracy and Conspiracy Theory.Firstly, Conspiracy Theory is often taken to be a pejorative term; it applies only to those explanations of events by conspiracy that we think are unwarranted whilst normally the term Conspiracy is taken to simply indicate that the event under consideration came about due to a cabal operating in secret. However, the terms are often used interchangeably. Sometimes the term Conspiracy is used in place of Conspiracy Theory and sometimes the term Conspiracy Theory is used to refer to historically verified Conspiracies.Secondly, the term Conspiracy Theory can sometimes refer to any Conspiracy; the assassination of JFK can be said to have two competing Conspiracy Theories. One is the Official View, the explanation we take to be true of the events under consideration, which was that it was a conspiracy on the part of the KGB and Lee Harvey Oswald whilst the other is the Unofficial View, that the American Government and the CIA conspired to kill President Kennedy.Thirdly, sometimes the term Conspiracy Theory is only used in reference to an explanation that runs contrary to the Official View. The attacks of 911 were of a conspiratorial kind but the explanation of the involvement of Al Qaeda in the attack is not labeled a Conspiracy Theory. The claim that the attacks were perpetuated by the American Government, however, is labeled a Conspiracy Theory as it goes against the Official View.And that doesn’t even begn to cover the event vs. theory distinction that language theorists keep (properly) making, which is the claim that Conspiracy refers to an event (or series of events) and Conspiracy Theory refers to a theory about an event.The study of Conspiracy Theories as a distinct topic is relatively new and the literature is fairly haphazard. Philosophers have really only been interested in Conspiracy Theories for the last thirty years and the number of publications on the matter numbers a divinely perfect twelve. Psychology has been interested slightly longer (probably since the 1960s) but whereas the philosophical literature is grounded in a number of quite distinct critiques the Psychology literature either wants to place Conspiracy Theories as some kind of grounded (or ungrounded) paranoia or as symptons of some other power struggle. The terms, though, well, like sands through an hourglass they fall with reason but look randomly placed. It’s just that everyone seems to have their own hourglass… (Note to self; stop using bad analogies)Philosophers often get a bad rap for their want to codify or create terminology but it’s incredibly useful. If you know what a term means and then someone else starts using it inappropiately then you can see whether they simply misunderstand the term or whether the term needs revision to capture this further meaning no one had thought of. Of course, the issue, for me at least, is not just making sure the the terminology is well-defined but also promoting that this is the way to go about defining it. That, though, is a matter for another time.
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.All posts by Matthew