Conspiracy theories exist because they “create meaning, reduce complexity and uncertainty and emphasize human agency.” That is one of the insights in the book, The Nature of Conspiracy Theories, which was first written in German and has been translated into English. Earlier this week I talked about some of the clues we can use to evaluate news narratives. Although this is an academic book, the author does provide some clues we can use to evaluate conspiracy theories.
Although conspiracy theories have existed for millennia, Karl Popper first developed the idea of “the conspiracy theory of society.” Here are a few clues to distinguish between a conspiracy theory and a real conspiracy.
“Real conspiracies are generally the work of a small group of people, whereas conspiracy theories construct scenarios in which at least dozens, but usually far more people would have to have been involved.” Consider the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was a fake. Think of all the people (astronauts, NASA personnel, scientists) that would all have to conspire to pull off such a hoax.
Time frame is another important clue, since “the overwhelming majority of proven conspiracies are relatively short-term projects with a concrete objective such as an assassination or a coup. By contrast, conspiracy theories nearly always posit a much larger timeframe of conspiratorial action associated with far more ambitious but at the same time vaguer objectives.” Sometimes these scenarios involve several generations of conspirators.
These are just two of a number of clues that should help you distinguish between reality and the latest conspiracy theory. Discernment is key because of the number of conspiracy theories proliferating on the Internet.