It is unfortunate that a phenomenon that is so destructive to ordinary human cognition should be composed of two such harmless and often useful words as “conspiracy theory.” For instance, I have been accused of not believing in conspiracies (whether the accuser does so naively or disingenuously is academic) because I so frequently speak out against conspiracy theories. Of course I know conspiracies occur. It’s why we have laws against them, against the time when conspiracies are employed to contemplate a criminal act.
The word theory is doubly misunderstood. It is often misused to deride and dismiss science in general and Darwin in specific. “Evolution is only a theory,” suggests that there’s something tentative or inaccurate or even wrong about it. I doubt the user of that expression would be so smugly quick to dismiss gravity as “only a theory” from atop a thirty story building. But “theory” (when employed correctly) is an honorable word all the same, and suggests a model that is open to change and modification as new facts come in. And it’s part of its strength (most emphatically not its weakness) that science is ever ready to abandon a theory in favor of a new one should the new one prove better.
The trouble starts when the two words are brought together to form the phrase “conspiracy theory.” When I use that phrase I specifically mean a collection of proposals intended to provide answers to a mystery using explanations without adequate evidence, when a simpler and more obvious explanation will do as well, or even better. A conspiracy theory is not a model that is open to change and modification as new facts come in, despite what its believers may claim.
The crux here are the words “without adequate evidence.” I don’t disbelieve that some jaw-droppingly evil conspiracies are behind some perfectly ordinary appearing mysteries. I just require adequate evidence. Speculation is not evidence. Someone standing to gain is not evidence. More than that, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” to use a great quote from Carl Sagan that cannot be used enough. If you have evidence it had better be good. An endless series of “facts” that have been carefully strung together and manipulated for maximum wow-factor while ignoring all contradicting explanations is not evidence, it’s just spin, and the breathless purveyor of that spin is just an unwitting dupe, nothing more.
If you’re in doubt that such nonsense goes on all the time just examine your messenger inbox. You will see many — or in my case hundreds — of hare-brained conspiracy theories and preposterous claims of cures, hacks and 28th amendments that are a mere thirty-two-seconds-with-google away from refutation. A prominent feature of the avid conspiracy theorist is an unwillingness to examine contradictory evidence — ever. Don’t believe me? Ask a moon hoax theorist or a “chemtrail” theorist or an anti-vaxxer to google a single thing they claim. Just one.
Yet these same people, so quick to pass off nonsense as truth, are outraged when Donald Trump proposes, without evidence, that “millions of votes” have been fraudulently submitted by mail, and that is the reason that we cannot allow vote by mail. They are shocked — SHOCKED! — when he uses such specious reasoning, and he does so with such easy-to-refute claims. Except, of course, when the listener is a trump supporter. Then it all sounds perfectly reasonable— to them.
You see the problem. Turnabout is fair play. Be careful what you wish for. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. I’m out of cliches. But the point is, we would all be bulletproof (or closer to the ideal, at least) against such nonsense if we weren’t such avid practitioners of the same nonsense in the first place. We need to raise our standards of evidence and stop being such willing fools. You can’t accept any crap that comes down the pike as true then suddenly cry “foul” when the crap in question is something you don’t like. At least, we can’t continue to do that and maintain anything remotely like consistent credibility.
If we lose this election in November, and there is every chance we could, the biggest reason will be because we, as a collective social organism, have such lousy standards of evidence, and we practice and reinforce those lousy standards of evidence every single day. The notion that “Biden is just as bad as Trump” and “only Bernie would have beaten Trump” is an example of how appalling our standards of evidence have become. Such nonsense wouldn’t be proposed in the first place if everyone knew how to think, if everyone understood that wild speculation or claims without responsible authentication is not the same thing as evidence.
Notice I never use the word “proof.” I don’t use it because it’s a standard beyond the reach of ordinary human capacity. It should never be used outside of mathematics, or in the legal sense in a court of law. Instead we should say, “evidence sufficient to convince a reasonable person.” We should all become reasonable people. Speculation is not a conclusion, it is not something to be jumped to, it is something that should be weighed judiciously and considered with wisdom in the light of evidence, and only deemed worthy if it’s strong and withstands rigorous and earnest attempts to refute it, and rejected if it does not. Nature has given us lots of time to think. Let’s use that time. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.