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When to believe in conspiracy theories and when to change your mind

By Steve Clarke - posted Wednesday, 11 February 2004

Was Princess Di’s death really an accident? Did George W. Bush have advance warning of the events of September the 11th? Did Elvis fake his own death? There are plenty of people out there who would answer one or more of these questions with a resounding "yes!". There are also plenty of people who sneer at those who accept such conspiracy theories. Those are mere conspiracy theories, they say, and conspiracy theories are for yokels – simple stories that captivate the imagination but don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

But conspiracy theories, as a class, can not and should not be so easily dismissed. This is because many conspiracy theories are actually very plausible. Here are three conspiracy theories that I find to be particularly plausible: [1] Richard Nixon conspired to cover up his involvement in the Watergate scandal. [2] Al Qa'ida operatives conspired to hijack planes and fly them into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. [3] The wrestling is fake. Devoted fans of The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin may be upset to hear this, but WWE wrestling is really just entertainment dressed up to look like a competitive sport, an elaborate hoax involving all of the wrestlers and assorted hangers-on.

I believe in the above three conspiracy theories and so do most Australians. But these theories aren’t ordinarily called "conspiracy theories", because conspiracy theories are usually thought of as theories that are developed as alternatives to "the received view". Nevertheless, they are conspiracy theories. They are all theories that centrally involve conspiracies, and what else is there to being a conspiracy theory?


So those who sneer at conspiracy theories have some explaining to do. Are they really against all theories that centrally involve conspiracies, or are they only against a certain class of conspiracy theories? If the former, then we need to be convinced that the wrestling is actually real and so on. If the latter, then we need to be told how to separate the conspiratorial sheep from the conspiratorial goats.

On pain of having to defend the reality of wrestling, most opponents of conspiracy theories will want to take the latter of the two options and will say that they are not opposed to sensible conspiracy theories, only wacky ones. But it’s very hard to say why some theories are wacky and some aren’t. Wacky, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. To a staunch American Republican the claim that Richard Nixon was involved in the Watergate scandal would have seemed wacky, until shortly before his resignation. To some residents of the Middle East the claim that Osama Bin Laden runs a clandestine organisation called Al Qa'ida that orchestrated the events of September 11, 2001 still seems wacky.

What counts as wacky is relative to one’s background beliefs and people have very different background beliefs. I find it incredible that many people believe that they have been abducted by aliens, prodded and poked with strange metallic devices and released unmarked back into the community. But to the many people who believe that the US Government has conspired to keep evidence of contact with aliens out of the public domain, the frequency of such reports of alien abductions (particularly in America) may seem quite unremarkable.

Rather than pointing the finger at some conspiracy theories, I think we should be looking at the relationship between conspiracy theorists and their pet theories. Sensible behaviour, regarding belief in theories, is to accept particular theories on the basis of relevant evidence but be willing to give up such beliefs in light of subsequent evidence. It is plausible to believe that Al Qa'ida conspired to bring about the events of September 11th 2001, in virtue of the evidence that has accumulated regarding both the continuing existence of this organisation, its motivations and its capabilities. Were things to have panned out differently (as has the case for the existence of WMD in Iraq), it might now be irrational to continue to adhere to this theory.

By contrast, consider the case for believing that Elvis Presley faked his own death. Gail Brewer-Giorgio, the author of Is Elvis Alive? identifies a number of discrepancies in the official account of Elvis’ death. For example, according to her, his name is mis-spelled on his tombstone. And she has lots of other examples. Twenty-five years ago it might have been rational (or at least not obviously crazy), given acceptance of certain background beliefs, such as the belief that celebrities hardly ever have their names misspelled on their tombstone if they are in fact dead, to have believed that Elvis was still alive. But if Elvis was still alive then it would be reasonable to expect some reliable evidence to have come to light regarding his whereabouts, over the last quarter of a century ("sightings" of Elvis in elaborate disguises in supermarkets are not reliable evidence).

All the evidence – or rather absence of evidence – that we now have, points to the conclusion that Elvis is not alive. Someone who, in 1977, suspected that Elvis faked his own death might be regarded as somewhat eccentric but, given the evidence then available, their views should not have been dismissed out of hand. Someone who continues to believe that Elvis is alive – in the face of a quarter century worth of lack of confirmation – is someone who doesn’t know when to give up. To maintain that Elvis is still alive now we need to explain why there has been no reliable sighting of him and why none of his alleged co-conspirators have confessed or provided any evidence whatsoever in favour of the hypothesis that he remains alive.


And that’s the problem with many conspiracy theorists. They often don’t seem to be willing to give up their favoured theories under any circumstances. Instead of being willing to abandon their pet theories, they simply elaborate on those theories so as to protect them from the effects of countervailing evidence. We aren’t entitled to dismiss conspiracy theories as a class, but we are entitled to dismiss those conspiracy theorists who don’t know when enough is enough.

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About the Author

Steve Clarke is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Canberra as well as a James Martin Research Fellow in the Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, Oxford University, UK.

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