On conspiracy theories

Arshad Zaman May 27, 2010

Apart from the logic of an argument and the language in which it is expressed, there is — what in 17th century Europe was called — a ‘climate of opinion’ that regulates which arguments will be admissible in polite company and which will simply not be heard. In some circles today it is enough to label some fact or explanation a ‘conspiracy theory’ for it to be discredited in the eyes of all. But what exactly is a conspiracy theory?

The word ‘theory’ is used here in the sense of a speculative explanation, neither as rigorous as a scientific theory, nor proven as fact. While, ‘to conspire’ means literally ‘to breathe together’ (from the Latin conspirare), which lends ‘conspiracy’ its meaning: the act of plotting mischief together secretly. A conspiracy theory, then, is the suggestion that an event – or a set of events – may be explained, fully or partially, by the coordinated action of some people, in secret, aimed at mischief.

Interestingly, by this (the usual) definition, the ‘official’ explanation of what happened on 9/11 in the United States — that an evil, secret organisation (al Qaeda) conspired to visit murder and mayhem on innocent Americans — is as much a conspiracy theory as less accepted competing explanations. (The 9/11 Commission Report holds that: “[the crimes of al Qaeda] were committed by a loose, far-flung,
nebulous conspiracy…” and calls the alleged hijackers “conspirators” and “co-conspirators”). Why isn’t the official version, then, a conspiracy theory?

Because, to the “True Believer” who has uncritical faith in government spokesmen, the evidence they have presented has proved the ‘theory’ to be true, and it is therefore no longer a theory but a ‘fact’. We are asked to distrust conspiracy theories not because they involve a conspiracy, but because the conspiracy alleged has not been proven to exist in fact, to the satisfaction of the critic of conspiracy theories. Yet, there is ample evidence that yesterday’s conspiracy theory has turned out to be today’s fact.

Although they vociferously denied it for a long time, it turned out that the US Defence Department did propose to carry out terrorist acts and blame them on Cuba, in order to justify invading Cuba (Operation Northwoods, 1962). US President Lyndon Johnson did lie about an attack on the USS Maddox on August 4, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin, to seek Congressional authority to launch retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnam (which he got); much as US President George Bush lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction, among other lies, to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, etc.

Naturally, many people remain sceptical. In an August 2004 poll, 49 per cent of New York City residents said they believed that US government officials “knew in advance that attacks were planned on or around September 11, 2001, and that they consciously failed to act.” In a 2006 poll, some 36 per cent of respondents agreed that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Centre or took no action to stop them” and some 16 per cent, that it was either very likely or somewhat likely that “the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.” In September 2006, 22 per cent of Canadians surveyed believed that “the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden and were actually a plot by influential Americans.”

Kautilya’s Arthasástra (ca. 300 BCE) — “compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless,” wrote Max Weber — extolled the virtues of intrigue (mantrasakti) in statecraft. The ideal conspiracy, Kautilya teaches, is one whose victim does not believe that he has been conspired against. At least since then, governments — and other powerful groups — have conspired and then, to cover their tracks, conspired further by seeking to discredit those who try to expose them.

A powerful tool in this today is to spread the belief that conspiracy theories have no place in reasonable discussions. This is nonsense. When asked to accept official conspiracy theories as fact, on faith, without conclusive evidence, we must keep an open mind to competing accounts, and not close our ears the moment some True Believer yells “conspiracy theory!”

The writer is a retired economist who blogs at afpakwar.com (arshad.zaman@tribune.com.pk)

Published in the Express Tribune, May 28th, 2010.