Defining conspiracy theories – a spam definition

As my regular readers know, I am writing a PhD dissertation on the philosophy of conspiracy theories. In this work (out sometime about June) I go to great lengths to define what conspiracy theories, how they function as explanations, why claims of “Conspiracy!” need not be specific and, well, some other stuff in the 90,000 words that represents the last four years of my life.

It turns out I needn’t have worried; spambots are already promoting what is bound to be the thesis about conspiracy theories, which goes something like this:

A conspiracy theory is a that defies common historical or current understanding of events under the claim that those events are the result of manipulations by two or more individuals or various secretive powers or ..Colloquially a conspiracy theory is any unconventional theory about current or historical events with the connotation that that theory is unfounded outlandish or irrational or in some way unworthy of serious consideration. In this sense the term is sometimes used to refer to events with which no association to an actual conspiracy in the legal sense two or more persons plotting and one overt act related to the plot is claimed. In this sense conspiracy theory is often simply an allegation of action based on little or no solid evidence.

If you write on conspiracy theories, then expect to get comments exactly like that one (indeed, I’ve had five today on various posts from the last three months). Spambots are getting better and better at post comments which seem to fit the content of the post; at the moment some of them are written/generated to the standard we require of a Stage I paper in, say, Engineering. That is pretty impressive, really. I expect, by the end of this decade, that my thesis will be trumped by “barney@sexpills.com” whose contribution to the debate on the warrant of conspiracy theories will be definitive and whose definitional parameters and scope of operation I dare not contemplate lest I lose my cool.

Until then, though, my project must be finished so it can eight to nine years of reigning supreme.

Worky work work work

(I seem to be losing my touch when it comes to post titles…)

So, work. I’ve been at it like a… well, someone working away at a thesis. The last few weeks have seen me editing my sixty-five page chapter 1 (provisionally I call it chapter one; it might be chapter 2, actually) where I go through the terminology in use by philosophers in respect to `Conspiracy Theories’ and draw out the common threads and intuitions they use to define the term. This is going to lead to my definition (which is next week’s work), of which I have a fairly good vague idea of (but actually making it concrete; well, there’s the rub). Which should hopefully justify the following sentence (which occurs on page sixty of this section):

Once my definition is stated (and defended) I will then move on to the question of what kind of explanations are Conspiracy Theories, how they are transmitted (and their relation to other kinds of social transmitted knowledge claims, like Gossip and Rumour) and how we can explain what appears to be a rather peculiar tension on our beliefs about Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories, to whit the fact that we know Conspiracies do occur and yet it seems we have \textit{prima facie}1 warrant to our suspicion of (contemporary) Conspiracy Theories.

Notes

  1. TeX Markup

Sixty pages (one and an half-spaced)

I’ve just collated my TeX files that make up the bulk of the Definitions chapter and I have sixty pages. That doesn’t include the introduction section to the piece nor does it include my attempt at a definition; this is just the discussion on previous definitional attempts. In a few days I’ll finish up my own attempt at a definition and try to write it up not just as a section of the thesis but also as a potential paper.

This is big news. I’ve been hoping to break this camel’s hump for a few weeks now and it’s finally cracking.

Inappropriate analogies over; I’m going to bed.

Thoughts by way of a Definition

A frequent question I get asked, in my capacity as the `Conspiracy Theories’ Theorist, is whether the actions of, say, administrations doing things for something other than a stated principled (and we can use that term lightly, facetiously, et al) reason count as examples of conspiring (and thus making the assumed real reason a Conspiracy Theory).

Let’s look at Kiwiblog, bastion of the Right. David Farrar has been following up the actions of UMR, a polling company that does a lot of work for the Labour Party here in Aotearoa/New Zealand (for avid readers overseas who care not about international politics I can reveal that the Labour Party are the majority party in Government here). A few days ago Farrar revealed that (according to sources) UMR are polling as to what the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, should so should her Foreign Minister be found to have engaged in some suspicious, if not illegal, actions to do with donated monies. Given that polling companies should not work for competing interests Farrar has assumed that the poll was ordered by the Labour Party, something the Prime Minister has denied. Now, in comments on this post someone has suggested that this is a plausible denial by the PM; the poll may have been an omnibus poll with only some of the questions designed by Labour. Farrar, a Polling Man, doesn’t seem to have responded to this suggestion; his latest post assumes that the PM is lying…

So Helen will be reading the results of the UMR poll on how she has handled [Foreign Minister] Winston [Peters] very carefully.

and then argues that should the Foreign Minister be investigated by the Privileges Committee, then the PM will call an early election to curtail such an awkward enquiry. She may well trot out other reasons, Farrar claims, but the real reason will be stopping the enquiry.

Is this a Conspiracy Theory?

On some level, yes. The PM is just one member of the Cabinet and if she calls an election it will be (one would hope) the collected action of the Government with her as spokesperson. Indeed, given that the Labour Party is a well-oiled machine it fits the bill of a possible conspiring cabal with great ease.

So we have a cabal. Do they have a desired goal? According to the conspiratorial reading of Farrar’s theory, yes. They seek to stop an enquiry (and, presumably, increase their chances of getting back into government).

Is it a malign goal? Once again, plausibly yes. If the goal is to stop an enquiry that would be in the Public’s best interest, then the desired goal is malign in character.

So is is a Conspiracy Theory? Note that Farrar doesn’t talk about it being a conspiracy (which doesn’t necessarily make it not a putative Conspiracy Theory; lots of Conspiracy Theorists deny they are putting forward Conspiracy Theories) and that’s because it probably isn’t. For one thing, calling an early election for the reasons of stopping an enquiry might be one of many rationales for calling the election. It may be a significant one or it might not be; an election has to be called soon and there might be other factors motivating calling it early (Farrar does seem to think that his cited reason is going to be a significant one, however:

So if Helen does call a snap or early election, it will not be due to any of the public reasons she will trot out. They will be as ludicrous as her justification for the 2002 snap election – she claimed an extra 12 minutes a day of points or order (about the status of the Alliance) had paralyzed Parliament and made governign impossible.

The reason will be the possible testimony of Owen G Glenn – Labour’s largest donor.

which does kind of make the whole thing swing back towards Conspiracy Theory…). More importantly, however, you could argue that this is just a) normal operating procedure for governments (now) and b) it isn’t particularly secret; the talk about enquiries is happening in the media and everyone is watching how the Government is going to act. Just because they might lie, or distort their real reasons as to why the election might be called early doesn’t make it necessarily conspiratorial, in the same respect that a child lying about why they said someone wanted sugar in their coffee when they did not (true story) doesn’t make the child inherently deceitful.

I haven’t really answered my own question here, I realise, but that’s because this is a vexing issue. Some things look obviously conspiratorial and some things don’t; that still leaves a whole host of things that are possibly conspiratorial, or conspiracy-like, and that’s the kind of definitonal debate I’m working on at the moment.

Should be working on at the moment. I seem to be writing a blog post rather than a thesis chapter right now.

Back to work.