This week Zac, Ethan, the time-travelling ghost of Nigel Havers and me talked about the Olympics, UFOs and euphemisms. There was no talk about how I don’t like sport and that the only thing I actually know about the Olympics is that Bolivia is not doing well (is that even true now?).
I think I should expand a little on the unfalsifiable nature of the “Fake UFO Invasion’ conspiracy theory, because conspiracy theories are often, I think wrongly, construed as being prima facie unfalsifiable. This is, I think, just not obviously true; some conspiracy theories are unfalsifiable but so are lots of other non-conspiracy theories; as I go to quite some lengths in my thesis to show, a lot of the problems we associate with conspiracy theories are just part and parcel of the general worries we have about explanations in general.
That being said, the “Fake UFO Invasion’ conspiracy theory (details here) clearly is unfalsifiable, in that no matter what happens, the proponents of the theory can claim they were right. If there is a faked UFO landing and the secret world government uses it to cement their control of humanity, then these particular conspiracy theorists will be vindicated. If, however, the fake UFO invasion is not staged, then these conspiracy theorists are also going to claim victory because, well, they warned the world at large and so the NWO/the Illuminati/Jethro Tull/the Reptilians, who are forever listening in, will have called the whole thing off to make the conspiracy theorists look bad.
So, no matter what happens next week, whether it’s an alien battlefleet warping into view over the Olympic stadium or a spectacular, but alien-free, closing ceremony to the Games, a certain class of conspiracy theorist will be saying adamant in saying that they were right.
This kind of move, putting forward a theory which really can’t be tested, occurs all the time and everywhere. Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis, as Popper rightly pointed out, ends up being unfalsifiable in the same way as the UFO hoax theory is, as do some construals of String Theory (such as the string theorists who, when a test fails to validate their claims, simply say “We’ll just have to build a bigger collider, then”). There’s nothing about conspiracy theories per se that says they are more or less likely to suffer from problems of not being able to be falsified1.
But this particular Olympic theory does make predictions and these predictions can be had either way, which is most unsatisfactory.
Just like the Olympics in general, really. Ho hum.
Due to an error on my part comments on posts older that 180 days were closed and no longer visible (I don’t quite understand why WordPress would do this; I would have thought “closed” meant “can no longer comment rather than “no longer see or comment”). So, having told you about the “exciting” debate between Aspen and meself over in this post, I then denied you the ability to go and have a look for yourself. I apologise. Comments are back online. Enjoy2.
- And then there is the attendant issue of what kinds of theories fall under the rubric of falsifiability, anyway. Popper used it as a demarcating feature between scientific and non-scientific theories. It’s not clear it’s meant to apply to all theories. For example, most historical theories are non-falsifiable but that doesn’t make them bad theories.↩
- This does mean I will start to get more spam, but hopefully the spam filters are up to the task.↩