On conspiracy theories

Published: May 27, 2010
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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 ([email protected])

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

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Muhammad Ziad
    May 28, 2010 - 3:01AM

    Salute you for being the first one here having a realist stance. Nevertheless , the example regarding the 9/11 attacks is from no where justified as a conspiracy theory no matter how many People take the polls.

    It has been claimed by Al-Quaida. The theory whether such an organization exist is also backed by factual evidences. If it really mattered the Us government then Alex Jones would not be doing an all out conspiracy war against the US. The 638+ assassination attempts on Castro is enough to enlighten this point. Omar-Al-Baghdadi a few years ago was just a figment of imagination for some.

    Still, Conspiracy theories are not fairy tales. In the world where every one is at war against all , everything is possible. Recommend

  • faraz
    May 28, 2010 - 3:06AM

    Cuba was a staunch ally of USSR, Iraq had oil, Vietnam war was linked to Domino theory; but this resourceless barren land of Afghanistan needed no justification for invasion. Minor incidents were planned to justify invasion of Vietnam etc, but 911 resulted in death of 3000 civilians and huge economic loss. Afghanistan is neither a nation, nor a state; its a hopeless collection of warring tribes. Taliban come to power through a civil war; non pushtoons who are 53% of population just hated taliban and few pushtoons shared their medieval thought. Taliban Government was recognized by only 3 countries who are all pro US. It was the same country which Americans abandoned when the Cold War ended; if Afghanistan had such a crucial geostrategic importance then did the US forgot to support their own proxies?

    If US had planned the 911 attacks, then was it necessary for the towers to collapse to justify an invasion. Many hundreds had died before the collapse of twin towers; wasnt that enough to attack afghanistan. Why did Laden accept responsibility of 911 attacks? If Laden is a CIA agent, then so is Mullah Omer who refused to hand him over to US.

    In global power politics, Afghanistan and Pakistan hold little value. If Americans did kill their own 3000 civilians, then their end is near; such dumb nations cant survive for long.Recommend

  • rehan
    May 28, 2010 - 12:29PM

    Well done Arshad,nice work!Why would Bush be holding a book upside down in a school class when jets were being rammed into the twin towers?Mistake?So the US President cares hoots you mean when presenting himself before a class who adores their President? . . and our Mush(Visionary!..Arshad please apprise our readers the meaning of this word too) towed his line for good 8 years.Recommend

  • Imran
    May 28, 2010 - 9:00PM

    Oh, good grief. This is ridiculous. Bush was holding the book upside down because he was reading to children, so showing the book. What is upside down to him is correct when held down to show children. Yes, sometimes there are conspiracies obviously. But this attitude that the only correct answer is one that is so ridiculous as to be laughable is ruining the possibility to have a rational discussion about anything and making us all look like fools. 49 per cent of New York City residents said they believed that US government knew about 9/11 in advance. Based on what reason? 49 per cent of New York City residents might believe that Pakistanis are Arabs, but that does not make it true. The belief that al Qaeda did the 9/11 attack is a theory based on evidences (including even the words of Osama!). Idea that is was the secret plan of US government using some secret explosives is based on no evidence at all. This is why one ‘theory’ is treated different and the other ‘theory’ is treated with less trust. Stop making excuses for conspiracy theorists and start thinking for yourself.Recommend

  • May 29, 2010 - 5:14PM

    I am grateful to you all — Muhammad Ziad, Faraz, Rehan, and Imran — for your comments. My intent in this article was to make a plea for intellectual tolerance, but I can see how my use of the “9/11” example may have shifted the attention of my readers from the main theme to the illustration.

    In any event, by way of a parting comment, here’s a story from the Guardian that reports that the CIA made, but did not release, a video “of a fake Osama bin Laden sitting around a camp fire, drinking booze and boasting of his own gay conquests”! I would keep this in mind when the next video of Osama bin Ladin claiming responsibility for global warming pops up.Recommend

  • Muhammad Ziad
    May 29, 2010 - 8:16PM

    Mr Arshad,

    There are accounts from the taliban fighters of Osama. There are also accounts from his family and friends. Osama is as real as Chuck Norris in his prime.

    There might be some fake videos lurking around, perhaps if we are to believe that 9/11 was just a conspiracy then the US attack on Afghanistan is not. Had Afghanistan been a part of conspiracy then Us would not be planning for an exit from this forsaken place where thousands of its soldiers have lost their lifes . Where there is no gold ,oil or water (there might be some).

    The conspiracy can be that Us knew about the 9/11 in advance and would have let Osama hit the planes but certainly Osama Bin Laden is involved and he is no fake, he very much exist. Recommend

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