Conspiracy theories — quickly dismissed in public conversation — are a touchy subject. Engaging with conspiracy theorists only serves to promote their ideas, which can have harmful consequences on society. For example, arguing that vaccines are harmful causes the measles to spread, continuing to question climate change leads to fatal inaction and rejecting the trustworthiness of media and governments turns politics into a circus. So should we dismiss these views as well as the people who hold them?
Before answering, let us grasp the difference between “conspiracies” and “conspiracy theories.” The first are crimes punishable by law. Think of the Tuskegee experiments, MK Ultra or of the Iran Contra scandal. Conspiracies occur when two or more people secretly agree to commit illegal acts in order to achieve some goal. Successful conspiracies involve some amount of deception and cover up, since conspirators obviously do not want to be discovered. Conspiracy theories, instead, are the reason why any conspiracy is brought to justice. Conspiracy theorists are people who suspect that a conspiracy has occurred, investigate aspects of the plot and the cover up, and bring their findings or “theories” to the public’s attention.
Investigative journalists like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who brought the Watergate conspiracy to light in 1972, are professional conspiracy theorists: without people like them, masterfully hidden abuses of power would go unchecked. This is why philosopher David Coady thinks we should not dismiss conspiracy theories and theorists. He encourages us to reflect on their societal function, rather than stigmatize them. Investigating whether conspiracies occur is an important endeavor, but, unfortunately, we cannot always rely on institutional investigators and mainstream news agencies to tell us what is really going on, because they are often part and parcel of efforts to deceive people.
Consider the reporting of Saddam Hussein’s elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Major media outlets worldwide lied in unison about the existence of WMDs in Iraq in order to steer public opinion in favor of the 2003 invasion. Reporters who fought against these lies were largely ignored. It was as early as 1977 that Bernstein reported on how the relationship between hundreds of US journalists and the CIA had and would continue to have an effect on mass opinion. Unfortunately, most people seem to not have paid considerable attention to his effort, and as we have seen, the consequences are lethal. Coady uses the term “coincidence theorists” to refer to those among us who are excessively unwilling to analyze evidence and connect the dots of a contested story: by doing so, they make it easier for criminals to escape justice.
Coincidence theorists, then, can also cause harm to society. Blindly agreeing with mainstream media and institutions who are often both untrustworthy and crippled by conflicts of interest such as corporate funding, military and political pressures, only weaken democratic inquiry. “Coincidence theorizing” arguably makes it more likely that more conspiracies will occur because culprits expect to be scrutinized less and less. Therefore, we must engage in depth with other viewpoints, as improbable as they sound, and beware of the times when authoritative mouthpieces discourage us from doing so. The discrediting of dissenters, after all, should be an expected cover up tactic.
The harmful effects of incorrect beliefs — the spread of diseases, climate change inaction, political nihilism — should be blamed first and foremost on an environment of stifled public dialogue and corrupted information systems, rather than on individuals whose mistrust in authorities is often legitimate, and who try their best to understand the truth by other means. It is up to each and every one of us to transform that unhealthy environment. First, by not stigmatizing conspiracy theorists. Second, by advocating for widespread, structured conspiracy discourse. Third, by listening deeply, and letting the truth emerge from practicing respectful, receptive, rigorous disagreement.