"Now, I'm not into conspiracy theories, except the ones that are true”. —Michael Moore
In this piece I want to bring some concepts from the philosophy of science into contact with conspiracy thinking. The intention of doing so is to help bring some clarity and discernment into which various conspiracy ideas should be treated with more or less validity—what I’m calling a conspiracy hypothesis versus a conspiracy theory. As conspiracy thinking becomes increasingly mainstream it’ll be important to develop this more nuanced approach to the topic so as not to get caught in the media-distorted binary of either wholesale accepting psychological operations & false conspiracy views or simply to reject outright any and all conspiracy thinking simply because it is conspiratorial by nature.
Don’t be into conspiracy theories, except the ones that are true in other words.
By no means will this be an exhaustive treatment or a fully fleshed out philosophy of science, but rather discussing some central points in that discourse and applying them to conspiracist thought, particularly in relation to how science comes to meaning making.
So to begin the philosophy of science concepts.
The primary distinction here is that between facts (data) and interpretation. Both are fundamentally crucial to science though often in ways not understood either by scientists themselves nor the general public. Data always fit within frames of interpretation. Data do not free float in other words. Interpretations frame the meaning and cohere data into larger narratives and forms of understanding.
In other words it’s not “the facts and nothing but the facts”–that’s the sin of modernist thought. Nor is it “there’s nothing but interpretations and language games”, i.e. the sin of postmodernist thought. Facts and interpretation go together. There are grounded empirical facts and those facts are always within interpretive frames.
To simplify things a bit within scientific discourse there are two main forms of interpretation: hypothesis and theory.* A hypothesis tests a series of data points in an attempt to offer an explanatory framework (postulate) for understanding the causative (or correlative) effects of certain phenomena. A hypothesis is an educated guess or hunch based on empirical observation of data (itself often primed by existing theories).
A theory is a much larger body of hypotheses tested, confirmed, and reconfirmed over a significant period of time acting as a larger frame of reference for understanding and validity.
The value, usage, and meaning of theory in science is radically misunderstood in general discourse, as for example when someone says, “that’s just a theory.” Since a theory, as used in scientific discourse, is a deeply and repeatedly grounded explanatory framework not a mere opinion or untested guess as it’s more common usage suggests.
Quantum mechanics is a theory. Darwin and Wallace’s Theory of Evolution through natural selection is a theory. Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity are theories. Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism is a theory. Theory here does not mean they are “not proven” or “just theories” which may or may not be true. Theory in scientific terminology refers to a deeply validated framework that brings into coherence and understanding a diverse set of facts into a meaningful, empirically validated whole.
With those basic concepts of data vs. interpretation, as well as hypothesis vs. theory in mind I’d like to now apply them to conspiracist thought. When these two modes of thought are brought into connection the first piece that jumps out is the difference between a conspiracy hypothesis versus a conspiracy theory.
When the general public and especially the mainstream media speak of conspiracy theories they do so as a way to immediately dismiss them: “that’s just some conspiracy theory.” Theory here again understood in the conventional, everyday sense of an untested guess/hunch (the exact opposite of what it means in science recall).
With a more scientific outlook however a conspiracy theory would be originally a conspiracy hypothesis (or hypotheses) that have been confirmed and validated as true and whose explanatory framework (the theory proper) incorporate, in a coherent and concise manner, a wide range of phenomena into a meaningful narrative.
A conspiracy theory, in other words, is a conspiracy hypothesis that’s accurate and true. There are many conspiracy theories that accurately detail and describe real, historical, concrete conspiracies.
A conspiracy is simply defined as individuals joining together to effect nefarious ends. Conspiracy literally means to “breathe together”, hence conspiracists are those who plot together to achieve some ill-desired end, typically through subterfuge, deception, and occluded action. The upshot of such a definition of conspiracy is it can take place at many scales: local, regional, national, or transnational.
Conspiracies can involves financial misdeeds, criminal organizations, political propaganda, religious or spiritual oppression, faked attacks, etc.
All conspiracy theories begin life as conspiracy hypotheses. A conspiracy-minded researcher, journalistic muckraker, or whomever observes a series of data points that makes them question whether an actual conspiracy might be in play. These researchers then go about forming a hypothesis that would seek to make sense of the conspiracy and ground it in evidentiary understanding, in essence establishing the case. If the conspiracy hypothesis turns out to be accurate it could be thought of as a conspiracy theory—i.e. as a true explanatory framework for a series of phenomena specifically related to real conspiratorial action in the world.
A failed conspiracy hypothesis would end up being one that is proven to be wrong. Or a conspiracy hypothesis that has not yet been proven (but perhaps not debunked yet either) would exist in an intermediate state awaiting confirmation or disconfirmation. A dis-proven conspiracy hypothesis would be one in which either the proposed conspiracy never existed in the first place or the researcher is actually onto the nature of some actual conspiracy but misidentifies the conspirators and/or misunderstands the precise nature and mechanism of their conspiracy.
A good example of the latter would be the anti-Semitic “Jewish banking conspiracy theory.” Elite banking systems were involved (and still are) in conspiracies. The mistake with this particular view came in identifying all banking power as being held by Jews and all Jews being members of said financial oligarchic elite (both wrong and prejudicial).
When a conspiracy hypothesis is rebutted by evidence and yet individuals still maintain it’s truth, even after it’s been disproven, then that is conspiracy ideology. The anti-Semitic “Jews secretly run the world” fantasy is just such a conspiratorial ideology. It’s been repeatedly dis-proven and yet anti-Semites of all stripes—fascist, Islamist, etc.—still hold to it. It becomes an article of (ideological) belief. Evidence is made to fit that preexisting ideological narrative rather than having evidence guide the formation and testing/examining of hypothesis.
There are however many conspiracy hypotheses that have turned out to be true and therefore graduated to the status of genuine conspiracy theories (theory in the scientific sense). For example, Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance series tracked the CIA’s role in the creation of the crack cocaine epidemic particularly through it’s proxies the Contras (of Iran-Contra infamy). More broadly we have numerous data points of intelligence agencies being deeply intertwined with the international drug trade often through such middlemen (e.g. cartels, mafias, rebel groups). At this point it is a well established fact that fits into a larger conspiracy theory—as fundraising via illegal activity is a conspiracy initiated by individuals within the intelligence communities themselves. That’s a conspiracy theory in the precise scientific sense—a hypothesis of a real, actual concrete historical conspiracy that has been repeatedly validated.
That well developed theory is a lot different than say Joseph Atwill’s debunked conspiracy hypothesis that Jesus is a fabricated Roman psychological operation. Atwill’s argument is flawed on many many levels but the most obvious being that what Christians calls the New Testament is a deep re-write (a “reboot” if you like) of the Testament (later Old Testament). Every page, every chapter, every verse of the New Testament is replete with call backs, allusions, and echoes of the Jewish Pentateuch and the Prophets at levels of complexity and depth and nuance that no non-Jew would ever be able to grasp. In fact much of Christian history is the history of Christians not begin able to read their own scriptures accurately because of their Gentile nature and disconnect from the inexorable Jewishness of Jesus and the early Christian movement. Something that has weirdly come back around in the alliance between Christian evangelicals fundamentalists and Zionists occupiers in the West Bank as I’ve written about elsewhere.
But the main point for our purpose here is that Atwill put forward not a conspiracy theory but rather a conspiracy hypothesis. He amassed his data, argued his thesis, and attempted to ground his assertion in his data. Unfortunately (for him) that thesis has not held up to scrutiny. The conspiracy hypothesis in his case was debunked and invalidated.
Another conspiracy theory that I’ve written about previously that is directly relevant to this discussion is the scientistic takeover of science from alchemy, as evidenced in Neil de Grasse Tyson’s incredibly ideological misreading and misappropriation of the great Hermeticist Giordano Bruno. The purpose of this conspiracy was to wrest science away from the church in order to support the creation of secular states and to place science on a materialistic basis as a means to impoverish the minds of the masses. This was (and still is) an ideological conspiracy going back to at least Auguste de Comte and expounded upon later by Marx as well as the London Royal Society in its attempt to push forward a materialist interpretation of the theory of evolution in the person of Darwin (over co-theorist Alfred Russell Wallace due in no small measure to Wallace’s spiritualism).
Meanwhile the conspiratorial and duplicitous nature of this materialist scientistic takeover is clear when we learn (data) that the shadow state/intelligence apparatus of both the United States and the Soviet Union—one officially secular, the other officially atheist—studied the development of psychic capacities in warfare. Psychic capacities are of course officially disallowed in materialist scientific discourse. And yet, as Dean Radin has repeatedly shown with bulletproof evidence and experimentation, psi phenomena are completely real. Radin used mainstream science to prove that consciousness and intentionality is real and can have effects on material events. So the problem there is not science as such but rather the ideological materialistic philosophical assumptions of mainstream science (“scientism”) which ties back into the larger conspiratorial framework of why materialistic science controls scientific funding and research.
That well grounded and fleshed out conspiracy theory is a world of difference away from say flat earthers—literally and figuratively—another failed conspiracy hypothesis that’s become an ideological article of faith.
It’s these latter failed conspiracy hypotheses turned ideologies that create the view that all conspiracy theories are false, not grounded in evidence and logic, taken on unquestionable faith, unfalsifiable and unprovable, allowing people to dismiss all conspiracy hypothesis as “mere theories”, rather than learning to differentiate between the valid conspiracy hypothesis (become genuine conspiracy theories) and the false ones.
Again as per the Michael Moore quotation at the beginning—the only conspiracy hypotheses (theories) to be interested in are the ones that are actually true. And that of course is the rub, how to discern which conspiracy hypotheses are more grounded and which are mind parasites that adhere to our brains and start eating away logic and rationality. I’ve written about this path as one of a kind of political realization, akin to but distinct from spiritual awakening. It takes time and energy and dedication to sift the conspiratorial wheat from the chaff.
This path is made even more complex because of the ways in which false conspiracy narratives are intentionally implanted by intelligence agencies. The book Mirage Men, for example, details intelligence operations inside Ufology seeking to promote conspiracy narratives within that field to strip the subject matter and its researchers of any credibility in the public sphere. That itself was an actual conspiracy, to tar all UFO researchers with the label of crazed conspiratorial nuts. Why would intelligence agencies be interested in doing that? Probably because there’s something to this whole UFO thing.
Speaking of which, UFOlogy, which is a subject I’ve dedicated a significant number of pieces (here and here and here for starters), is a good example of the topic of this piece. Within UFOlogy we have the data of contact over thousands of years. The Phenomenon is very real and very natural (weirdly natural in fact).
What is not yet clear is the nature of how to understand (interpret) the overwhelming amount of data of contact of a highly strange nature. There are various hypotheses put forward—some more thought through and well developed, others arguably less so—but the key point here is that they are hypothesis.
The Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) is just that, a hypothesis. It is a hypothesis trying to make sense of the incredible intricacy of the data of human contact with the Phenomenon. The ETH argues the cause of this highly strange phenomenon are biological extra-terrestrial entities (ETs) of a corporeal material nature from actual existing other planets (and/or dimensions) flying in concrete material craft in their encounters.
That’s a hypothesis that seeks to become a theory of contact. It’s adherents as well as its critics too often assume that it is the only game in town—that as soon as one begins talking about UFOs then either they “believe” or “don’t believe” in aliens. Assuming alien = UFO which is a false assumption. The ETH is a hypothesis that seeks to make sense of the data of contact. One can easily recognize the data of contact without necessarily agreeing that the ETH is the best hypothesis to explain all (or most) of the contact data.
A subset of the ETH is the ancient astronaut/ancient alien theory. The first problem with ancient alien theory is that it's misnamed as it’s really an ancient alien hypothesis. Neither ETH nor ancient alien are proven as hypotheses—which again does not invalidate the data of contact. The data of contact is irrefutable at this point—even though mainstream science, the media, and government pretend it does not exist (there’s another actual conspiracy for you).
Other hypotheses of contact have been put forward. Michael Masters recent book Identified Flying Objects argues that the UFO phenomenon is a connection with human descendants from the future who have learned time travelling. It’s a well argued hypothesis at this point. Not proven, not disproven but interesting to consider.
Peter Levenda (among others) has speculated on the possibility that the phenomenon is a form of artificial intelligence, perhaps itself from the future, which may or may not originally have been a human creation. That would be the UFO as an AI hypothesis, emphasis on hypothesis.
Whitley Strieber has argued for a long time that the UFO phenomenon, whatever else it is, is inherently related to the realm of the afterlife and the human dead. The FREE Research study by the Edgar Mitchell Society examining contactees argues that the UFO/contact phenomenon is one species of a series of interrelated phenomena that would include remote viewing, psi phenomena (Radin’s research), Near Death Experiences (a la Strieber), psychedelics-entheogens, shamanic initiations, and so on.
Jacques Vallee showed the Phenomenon—whatever it is—has been going on throughout human history with the same underlying structural tendencies and similarities throughout. Vallee also correctly pointed out that whatever else was going on with the Phenomenon, a unique and intrinsic feature of it is that it is both a psychic and physical event simultaneously. (These two points might be considered Laws in UFOlogy, see footnote below on scientific laws). Valle’s hypothesis involved the UFO as a form of regimen or control of consciousness.
These are all hypotheses trying to make sense of the obscure but nevertheless real data of contact in all its various forms: lights in the sky, abductions, military encounters with craft, establishing that the topic is a legitimate mode of scientific inquiry contra mainstream science. It is not a question of belief (or disbelief) in relationship to any of them. The relevant point here that needs to be stated as true (not belief) is that experience of contact is real and what is the nature of that experience is up for debate, hence all these various hypotheses.
Richard Dolan’s work on UFOs has firmly established that the UFO is the hidden hand in the development of the National Security State. It’s a conspiracy theory in that it’s at this point a very well founded point—especially after the Navy has admitted that UFOs are real and the US government acknowledged that it did have a secret UFO study going on after publicly proclaiming years ago in Project Blue Book that they had studied the phenomenon and there was nothing to it. That is a conspiracy—a false lie told to the public in order to create cover for covert investigation and research around a topic. (Dolan for the record is a proponent of the ETH which one does not have to adhere to, as a hypothesis, while still recognizing the value of his work on UFOs and the national security state.)
There are conspiracy hypotheses in relationship to pretty much every topic imaginable. The key is to sift through them and find the ones that have much deeper grounding and coherency. The CIA did perform experiments on unwilling (and unknowing) test subjects in an attempt to learn about how to control the mind. The CIA (and other intelligence agencies) then sought to apply their learning to civilian populations both in the US and around the globe (see Phoenix Program for example).
There is evidence of massive fixing in global sports—see the referees scandals in FIFA and the NBA for example. The NFL knowingly hid damning information concerning the lethal effects of concussions in the sport. Those are conspiracies.
The 2007 financial collapse and subsequent bailouts were a conspiracy (see The Big Short for example). US President George W. Bush and his administration knowingly made up a false narrative—one they knew was false—about supposed al-Qaeda ties to Saddam Hussein in order to get public support for an invasion of Iraq, a war by the way that they had already been planning prior to his taking office (another conspiracy).
All the evidence points to the fact that the Nazis staged a false flag attack on the Reichstag and then blamed it on the Communist Party as a way to bring down the hammer of the state on their political opponents. Real conspiracy.
As David Price’s book details the CIA has weaponized anthropology. The CIA has long been interested in the study of sociology, anthropology, and psychology (again see MK Ultra), as well as the paranormal (Project Stargate + MK Often) as a way to control populations and engineer social change. That’s a conspiracy theory in the best sense of the term—it is a well researched hypothesis of an existing conspiracy that has grown into a full fledged theory that illuminates a coherent narrative of otherwise hidden influences having massive effects on society.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site, in the O.J. Simpson case elements within The Los Angeles Police Department conspired to frame OJ (even though he was already guilty as it turns out). The jurors in O.J.’s trial—as publicly admitted by one of the jurors herself in the Academy Award-winning documentary Made in America—conspired together to acquit O.J. no matter what the evidence might have been, as a way to stick it to the criminal justice system. A counter-conspiracy. These are all data points of various conspiracies.
Richard Nixon used the Drug War as a pretext to militarize the US police force and to crack down on black neighborhoods in America, as well as the anti-war left. People at the time (and the years afterwards) who argued that it was he was really up to were written off as conspiracy nut jobs and cooks. Except now one of Nixon’s top aides admitted publicly what those in the administration all knew in private. That was a conspiracy hypothesis that turned out to be true, hence a conspiracy theory.
I could literally go on like this all day. (I didn’t even mention an ancient conspiracies like the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar.) Here’s a list of some other true conspiracies though again it’s by no means an exhaustive list.
Conspiracy theorists often refer to themselves as constituting a form of alternative research. I find this a particularly problematic term in that it makes it sound as if the research is of an “alternate” nature, i.e. that it’s not up to snuff. The alternate in alternative research meaning shoddy scholarship, poor methodology, and the like (which admittedly is all over the place in this world). The research should not be alternative but rather as cogent, comprehensive, and thorough as of any “mainstream” research. The only alternative piece is the willingness to open up to hidden factors and influences that mainstream media and education ideologically have declared verboten. As major institutions continue their downward slide into irrelevance—religious, financial, governmental, media, educational, etc..—as the veils continue to thin, it is more and more imperative to look clearly behind them and to see what influences and actors are there. That will require treading, in a careful and discerning manner, into the world of conspiracy thought.
Update I: Ezekiel73 has written an important companion piece to this one exploring classic critics of conspiracist thinking, refuting those critiques, and offering an apologia for mature conspiracist thought.
Footnote on Scientific Laws:
Technically we could add a third category to hypothesis and theory and that is scientific law. The relationship between law and theory is a bit complex:
“A scientific law can often be reduced to a mathematical statement, such as E = mc²; it's a specific statement based on empirical data, and its truth is generally confined to a certain set of conditions. For example, in the case of E = mc², c refers to the speed of light in a vacuum. A scientific theory often seeks to synthesize a body of evidence or observations of particular phenomena. It's generally — though by no means always — a grander, testable statement about how nature operates. You can't necessarily reduce a scientific theory to a pithy statement or equation, but it does represent something fundamental about how nature works.”