79 Uses and abuses of conspiracy theories

Posted on March 25, 2012 by

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When too many unknowns chase too few equations one gets the “over-determination problem”: too many possible explanations for the same phenomenon. One has no way of choosing among them objectively. Conspiracy theories are analogous: too many unknowns for the few facts we observe.

In a recent piece Ahmed BADAWI[1] defends the use of “conspiracy theories” in political analysis by lowering the standard from “true” to “plausible”:

The objective of political analysis is not to judge, as in a court of law, but to understand and put forward a plausible explanation. One therefore could, and should, worry less about the stuff of tabloid curiosity, the identity of the acting subject, and focus more on identifying plausible mechanisms and on understanding outcomes: who wins, who loses, and what are the implications of any political event for the equilibrium of power among the various players.

It is here that the assumption of conspiracy is most useful. When information is imperfect, it helps to complete the picture and to join the dots. It is a device, a method of explanation.

Lowering the standard, I’d argue, does not help much – ir simply yields illusions.

  • In a complex social system the set of possible causes and their immediate inter-connections and sequences – let alone the emergent properties – are never fully known. The search for original “truth” (causa causans) is a distraction.
  • One need not know “the truth” or even “plausible truth” in order to understand implications of an event. We need not invent antecedents in order to hypothesize consequents[2]. Precursors are only interesting should they imply inevitabilities (like planetary motion). In historical processes this is never the case.

Old-fashioned Marxism understood this: it did not bother with intent or personal responsibility, for individuals according to its “scientific” theory were embedded in broad social forces that transcend individual agency. The “subjective” role was of no import. Enemies of the people were liquidated on class-action grounds.

We have gone the other extreme and scramble backward in search of original and “true” individual intent. We believe in agency and personal responsibility. In practice we end up with agents who are inherently “evil” – Carl SCHMITT and his (close to Manichean) school reflects this view. We liquidate enemies on tautological grounds.

I’m not sure that this is superior to Marxism. I’d rather be “evil” as part of a group than be a social-Darwinist reject.

When truth no longer can be established plausibility is the compromise – says BADAWI – some would call it populist slander.

A better middle way might be to search for and understand factors involved – necessary conditions all – but stopping short of establishing sufficient causation. This may not be enough for prophecies, but one can build thoughtful scenarios on it.

History appears when, among infinite possible future trajectories, contingence chooses just one. We’ll always be surprised by the eventual choice, but we may be somewhat prepared for it if we know the range of possibilities.


[1]           Ahmed BADAWI (2012): in defence of conspiracy as a method. http://www.opendemocracy.net/ahmed-badawi/making-sense-of-egypt-part-one-in-defence-of-conspiracy-as-method

[2]           See Jorge Louis BORGES (1999): Kafka and his precurors. In: Selected non-fictions. Ed. E. Weinberger. Pp.364-65.