This exercise is being written in the shadow of an extraordinary event—or rather one that has, alas, become all too ordinary—in which a sitting American president has retweeted an obscure and untrustworthy source accusing a past American president of complicity in the alleged murder of a convicted pedophile in federal custody. By the time you read it, this bizarre episode will have faded into condign oblivion, but rest assured, there will be many other comparable absurdities to illustrate an increasingly troubling sign of our deeply troubled times: the flourishing of the types of far-fetched pseudo-explanations of real events that have come to be called “conspiracy theories.” 1
How to account for the efflorescence of such theories has been difficult, and how to combat them even more challenging. By and large, commentators have sought to explain their origins by focusing on their psychological roots and their burgeoning popularity by the proliferation of new media that have amplified their message. Building on the seminal work done by the historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1960’s on the “paranoid style” in American political history, 2 they often move quickly from the theories themselves to the minds of the theorists who hold them. 3 Noting their frequent inclination to entertain more than one alleged conspiracy—think of exemplary figures like Alex Jones, Lyndon LaRouche, and that sitting American president mentioned above—commentators often stress the toxic mixture of persecution feelings, distrust of authority, projection of anxieties and manifest gullibility that predispose vulnerable individuals to deal with uncertainty and insecurity by seeking simplified answers to complex questions. 4 The mentality that can’t distinguish between superstition and science and takes such occult pseudo-sciences as astrology seriously, so they argue, also easily succumbs to conspiracy theories, especially when sudden and shocking events appear to defy normal explanation (for example, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, or the presidential election of 2016). As coping mechanisms employed to deal with trauma, they provide some reassurance against the collapse of defense mechanisms that normally function to ward off existential dread.
Students of conspiracy theories note as well the compensatory feeling they afford their exponents of superiority to the benighted masses who are being duped by official accounts that hide the truth. By scapegoating imagined plotters who should be held accountable and punished, conspiracy theorists, they also suggest, dodge any responsibility for what may have happened. Pondering the increased popularity of such theories beyond the fringes of society, they often blame the explosion of social media and the breakdown of gate-keeping on line. What had previously been spread by informal rumor-mongering and the vagaries of interpersonal contagion is disseminated with exponential effects through an unregulated internet that compresses the time and collapses the distance it takes for ideas, however unverified and implausible, to gain credence.
Whatever reasons one gives for their origins, dissemination, and functions, the proliferation of such theories has made it increasingly difficult to discriminate between actual “fake news” and fake “fake news,” as purveyors of the former disingenuously attempt to discredit those who were once trusted to make the discrimination. We now live in a time when the putative “leader of the free world” can defend himself against the accusation that he colluded to steal an election in secret with a hostile foreign power by claiming that the charge itself is a product of a “deep state” conspiracy against him. The tu quoque fallacy in which the accused turns around and claims that the accuser is hypocritically guilty of the same crime—a technique carried to perfection by said sitting president—works to muddy the waters still further. Or to mix metaphors, we are in a hall of mirrors in which the conspirator-in-chief turns out to be himself a major conspiracy theorist. However much he has brought it to perfection, it must be acknowledged that arguing fallaciously in this way has, alas, a venerable pedigree in the discourse surrounding conspiracy theories. When, in fact, the term became popular in the wake of the Kennedy assassination to dismiss those who doubted the official account propounded by the Warren Commission, the targets claimed in turn that the CIA itself had deliberately conspired to demonize them by calling them nut cases, thus doing what we would now call “weaponizing” the theory to prevent real investigations of inconvenient truths. 5
All of this has been widely discussed, and I’m not sure I have much to add to what has already been said about the alleged psychopathological roots of conspiracy theory and the means through which it has become so prominent a feature of our current political culture. 6 I want instead to approach it from a different angle: the relationship between conspiracy theory and what normally counts as responsible explanation in the human sciences, in particular in historical narratives. 7 For in so doing, we will perhaps better understand the position of such theories on a spectrum of plausibility. Instead of putting them clearly beyond the pale, viewing them as nothing but manifestations of irrational pathologies, magical thinking, and technologically abetted mass hysteria, we can better appreciate how hard, if not impossible, it will be to eradicate them.
The most obvious connection with what normally counts as a valid explanation is the incontrovertible existence of actual conspiracies in history, secret plots by groups of people who sought, whether successfully or not, to bring about changes they couldn’t achieve in other ways. As the Nixon tapes show, metaphorical guns sometimes do give off incriminating smoke, and we discover that what had been publically denied and seemed on the face of it highly implausible did actually happen. Not only can paranoids have real enemies, but paranoid fantasies sometimes do have a foot in reality. Big Tobacco did really conspire to deny the carcinogenic effects of the products it sold and Big Pharma did really plot to promote opioid addiction. There was always at least a kernel of truth behind the Communist Conspiracy boogeyman so widely feared during the Cold War, although there were plenty of other less dubious explanations for resistance to the capitalist West. Nor is it always the case that actual conspiracies inevitably serve evil ends; think, for example, of Operation Valkyrie, the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, which unfortunately failed to achieve its goal. And American history would be very different if not for the plot of the Sons of Liberty to dress as Indians and toss some tea into Boston harbor. It would therefore be itself a sign of psychological denial—what has been called “conspiracy theory phobia” 8 —to discredit in advance all speculations about actual conspiracies.
Nor is it the case that the political inclinations of the theorists automatically correlate more easily with right-wing than left-wing sympathies, as the Russian collusion accusation against Trump clearly shows. Vice, the recent biopic starring Christian Bale based on the career of Dick Cheney, explicitly assimilates him and his wife Lynne to those quintessential arch-schemers the Macbeths. It has no hesitation in presenting the decision to go to war with Saddam Hussein as a neo-con conspiracy designed to foster the power of the imperial presidency on the basis of a strong “unitary executive theory.” 9 What such cases demonstrate is that the premature dismissal of all improbable explanations based on evidence that initially seems insufficient and reasoning that appears at first glance illogical may not only be a mistake, but also contrary to legitimate political concerns (however one defines the latter). It is hard to know what percentage of explanations that were once taken to be dubious conspiracy theories do pan out, but surely there are enough to resist an a priori stance of absolute skepticism.
There are, however, more fundamental reasons, besides the existence of the occasional real conspiracy, to justify a more nuanced appreciation of conspiracy theories, and it is these that I really want to explore. The phrase “conspiracy theory” itself, it should first be noted, is not purely descriptive, but always contains a negative connotation that distinguishes it from straightforward accounts of actual conspiracies. Although its origin has been traced as far back as the first years of the 20th century, it was not until the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper targeted it in 1945 in his controversial denunciation of totalitarianism, The Open Society and its Enemies, that it attracted widespread attention and became more pejorative than descriptive. 10 Popper’s aim was to defend a model of historical explanation—or rather more widely, one for the social sciences as a whole—that followed the method of the natural sciences, in which plausible conjectures about causes are always open to empirical refutations. He began by identifying conspiracy theories as a secularized version of the pseudo-explanations offered by believers in mythical powers exercised by the Gods on human affairs. Such explanations personify impersonal causes and attribute results to the intentions of those who desire them. Popper did not discount personal intentions, at least those motivating actual humans, but saw them as irrelevant for explaining events in a scientific manner:
in all social situations we have individuals who do things; who want things; who have certain aims. In so far as they act in the way in which they want to act, and realize the aims which they intend to realize, no problem arises for the social sciences (except the problem whether their wants and aims can perhaps be socially explained, for example by certain traditions). The characteristic problems of the social sciences arise only out of our wish to know the unintended consequences, and more especially the unwanted consequences which may arise if we do certain things. 11
Because unwanted consequences far outnumber those that are desired, the role of agency in history, Popper contended, is subordinate to the impersonal structures that inevitably thwart intention. Individuals or even small groups, moreover, should not be the proper focus of social scientific inquiry, which should be to analyze
the existence and the functioning of institutions (such as police forces or insurance companies or schools or governments) and of social collectives (such as states or nations or classes or other social groups). The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as to collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. 12In an accompanying footnote, the defiantly liberal Popper drew on an unexpected ally, Karl Marx, who rejected the claim that capitalists conspire to enslave the masses in favor of a structural analysis of the way in which capital determines the exploitation of one class by another.
Critics were quick to point out flaws in Popper’s argument. 13 The alternative between agency and structure cannot be decided in advance by fiat, with only the latter being called the object of genuinely “scientific” inquiry. Marx may be justifiably cited to support the claim that under capitalism impersonal structural forces largely determine human behavior, indeed that it is one of the indicators of its oppressive nature, but in the struggle to move beyond that system, its victims have to make their own history (as subsequent Marxist theorists like Antonio Gramsci and activists like Lenin clearly understood). Nor, moreover, does the fact that outcomes are often unintended preclude the possibility that conspiracies can play a certain meaningful role in the process. Although the Watergate burglars certainly didn’t intend Richard Nixon’s disgrace and resignation, they were part of a real conspiracy that led to that result. Unintended outcomes are, in fact, no less likely when agents act together in public as when they do in secret, so the thwarting of design is not much of an argument against conspiracy theory in general. In fact, it is only when we take into account intentions, public or private, in our writing of historical narratives that we can write them as ironic stories of unintended consequences. 14
Popper, in short, opted in advance for structure over agency and unintended consequences over the realization of deliberate design as the marks of social scientific and historical explanation (as opposed to mere historical narrative). To put it somewhat differently, he valued causes over reasons in the understanding of historical occurrences. 15 For the modern natural sciences, causation, of course, has supplanted earlier explanatory ways of making sense of the world. Only in certain religious circles can the so-called teleological “argument from design,” in which complexity is attributed to the providential intervention of a divine master craftsman, still compete with evolutionary theories based on random mutations and adaptation to environmental exigencies. Although the anodyne phrase “everything happens for a reason” can still occasionally comfort victims of inexplicable or unjust events that otherwise seem cruelly arbitrary, it has no purchase when it comes to explaining natural occurrences. San Francisco may be destroyed by an earthquake, but it won’t be because God is punishing its citizens for their naughty behavior.
In the case of human affairs, we are less inclined to attribute our actions and their consequences exclusively to the working out of causal processes, however tempted we sometimes are by analogies from natural science. Our dogged faith in the possibility of human freedom, which philosophers like Kant have long insisted is at odds with natural determinism, means that we find it hard to reduce human action to the instinctual behavior of animals or the programming of mechanical automatons. Although social scientists have persuasively shown that there are often collective patterns that transcend individual actions—the stochastic probabilities that make statistics possible—there is always a residue of contingency in even the most intransigent behavioral regularities. To take a classic example, Emile Durkheim was able to show that there were more or less steady percentages of the population as a whole likely to commit suicide, but never able to predict in individual cases who would actually end their lives.
Conspiracy theories, we might say, embrace—if perhaps too eagerly—the difference between natural scientific explanation based entirely on causality, and social scientific interpretation, which insists on paying at least some attention to reasons as well as causes and distinguishes between actions and mere behavior. By insisting on the intentionality that motivates people to act, no matter how much they may be also driven by unconscious needs or eventually thwarted by forces out of their control, such theories pay homage to the meaningfulness of human action and the responsibility, moral as well as practical, for what follows. Although it is highly unlikely, pace certain pop theologians, that “everything happens for a reason,” 16 it is no less problematic to assume that nothing ever does. When people come together—or to stick with the lyrical etymology of “conspire,” when they breathe together—they sometimes do concoct plans for action, which they hope will influence the future.
Conspiracy theorists, moreover, share with many humanist scholars a preference for interpretation over explanation. They distrust the official accounts offered by those in power or the conventional wisdom of public opinion—what in the case of a good literary critic would be scorned as a naïve reading of texts–and seek to uncover latent motives and discern arcane connections. In so doing, they adopt a variant of what Paul Ricoeur famously called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” 17 Treating events as if they were single-authored artefacts rather than overdetermined or merely contingent, they emulate the dogged quest for that elusive “figure in the carpet” sought by the narrator in Henry James’ celebrated short story. Connecting dots whose relations may elude a superficial glance or are masked by the deliberate obfuscation of those responsible for them, they pay tribute to the power of active imagination. Because their imaginations may be, to be sure, a bit hyper-active, they can be accused of seeing dots that may not really exist and then finding excuses to salvage a pattern that is more than the sum of its parts. In so doing, they are open to the charge of excessive projection of their ideas or fantasies on to the world.
We should, however, acknowledge that a certain amount of projection is inevitable in our encounters with the world. In their chapter on the “Elements of Anti-Semitism” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno even suggest that
in a certain sense, all perception is projection. The projection of sense impressions is a legacy of animal prehistory, a mechanism for the purposes of defense and obtaining food, an extension of the readiness for combat with which higher species reacted actively or passively to movements, regardless of the intention of the object. Projection has been automated in man like other forms of offensive or defensive behavior which have become reflexes. 18
Although projection seems to be an outdated defense mechanism, it may well linger in even the most sophisticated cognitive encounters with the world: “The system of things, the fixed universal order of which science is merely an abstract expression is, if Kant’s critique of knowledge is applied anthropologically, the unconscious product of the animal tool in the struggle for existence—it is the automatic projection.” 19 However much one may want to distinguish dubious psychological from defensible epistemological projections, Horkheimer and Adorno suggest the two remain to some extent intertwined: “paranoia is the shadow of cognition.” 20
For this reason, it would be mistaken to posit a stark and undialectical opposition between the “irrational” mentality that gives rise to conspiracy theories and the “rational” one that produces plausible accounts of nature or human history based solely on the sober evaluation of hard evidence. They are better positioned as extreme points on an explanatory/interpretive spectrum, ideal types that rarely do justice to the complexity of our attempts to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theories cluster on the projective or, if you prefer, paranoid end of the scale, spurning the other extreme of passive empiricism and causal explanation. But the important point is that their differences from more plausible accounts nearer an equilibrium point in the middle are ones of degree, not of kind. Or to employ another metaphor, they are understandable in the terms of Plato’s pharmakon, in which the dosage is what differentiates a cure from poison. Speculative imagination is healthy when it imbues discrete “facts” with plausible meaning, which can then serve as a hypothesis for further testing, but is fatal when it builds its castles entirely in the air.
A still better way to conceptualize the relationship is to say that projection, to avoid moving to the purely phantasmatic end of the spectrum, has to be tempered by self-critical reflection. Such reflection is very different from the tu quoque fallacy in which what is seen in the reflection is a mirror image of the looking subject, a simple duplication of the projected self (Trump, the likely colluder, calling the investigation of his crimes a “witch hunt” out to get him). Instead, it is a reflexivity that is skeptical of excessively neat interpretations in which everything is the result of deliberate design rather than fortuitous happenstance, and hidden string-pullers always make puppets dance. It is a reflexivity that extends its hermeneutics of suspicion to its own concoctions and the hidden motives they may themselves express, rather than assuming that critique should be directed only at external targets. It is a reflexivity that pauses before granting agency only to certain subjects chosen in advance and not others (George Soros can’t be blamed for everything!), and refuses to attribute extraordinary powers to subjects too grandiose or implausible ever to be even closely verifiable—the reptilian elite posited by Dan Ickes, the Elders of Zion with their sinister Protocols, the Illuminati and other demonized collective actors who never emerge from the shadows.
But however much we may want to temper excessive projection with sober reflection, there is little chance of purging all of the imaginative inclinations that produce conspiracy theory. Automatically distrusting all authority may be a sign of pathology, but so is blind obedience to whatever powers may be. History is never merely the working out of impersonal, structural forces or the mere effect of random contingency, even if the narratives we fashion to make sense of it can rarely, if ever be reduced to deliberate agency, whether covert or not. But if as Hannah Arendt famously said, power is “acting in concert,” then “breathing together” will be inevitable, and some of it, for good or for ill, will take place outside of the glare of public scrutiny. And so, when incarcerated celebrity pedophiles find a way, despite all apparent precautions, to cheat prosecution and spare their army of covert enablers the embarrassment of disclosure, who, after all, can say with absolute certainty that they died by their own hand?
1. To name only a handful of the most popular in recent times: the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 cover-up, Area 51 and the Aliens, the faking of the moon landing, the CIA and AIDS, the Reptilian elite, Obama and birtherism, the Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism, the “faking” of the Sandy Hill School shooting, and the “murders” of Vincent Foster and Seth Rich. Whether or not these will stand the test of time and join such long-standing exemplars as the Illuminati and the French Revolution or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains to be seen. ↩
2.Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine (November, 1964). The article was soon published in a frequently reissued book, most recently in 2008 in a Vintage edition with an introduction by Sean Wilentz. For recent critiques, see Scott Radnitz and Patrick Underwood, “Is Belief in Conspiracy Theories Pathological? A Survey Experiment on the Cognitive Roots of Extreme Suspicion,” British Journal of Political Science, 47, I (January, 2017), pp. 113-139; and Kurtis Hagen, “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style: Do Conspiracy Theories Posit Implausibly Vast and Evil Conspiracies?,” Social Epistemology, 32, 1 (2017), pp. 24-40. ↩
3. See, for example, Roland Imoff, “About the Kind of People Who Believe in Conspiracy Theories,” Aeon (May 7, 2018). The resort to psychopathology as an explanation of abhorrent political beliefs began before the Second World War in attempts to explain racism and totalitarianism. See Sander L. Gilman and James M. Thomas, Are Racists Crazy? How Prejudice, Racism and Antisemitism Became Markers of Insanity (New York, 2016). ↩
4. See, for example, Ted Goertzel, “Belief in Conspiracy Theories”, Political Psychology, 15, 4 (1994) 731-42; For critiques, see Bradley Franks, Adrian Bangerter, Martin W. Bauer, Matthew Hall and Marc C. Noort, “Beyond ‘Monologicality’? Exploring Conspiracist Worldviews.” Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 861 (2017) and Kurtis Hagen, “Conspiracy Theorists and Monological Belief Systems,” Argumenta, 6 (May, 2018), pp. 303-326. ↩
1. [Insert footnote content]↩
5. See the thread in https://projectunspeakable.com/conspiracy-theory-invention-of-cia/↩
6. See, for example, Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minneapolis, 1999); Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Ithaca, 1999); Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (New Haven, 2001); and Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (Berkeley, 2003). ↩
7. For a selection of ruminations on this theme see, David Coady, ed., Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate (Hampshire, 2006); and Matthew R.X. Dentith, ed., Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously (London, 2018) ↩
8. See Juha Räikkä and Lee Basham, “Conspiracy Theory Phobia,” in Joseph C. Uschinski, ed., Conspiracy Theories and the People who Believe in Them (Oxford, 2018) ↩
9. The claim of absolute executive power with no interference from other branches of government is based on a reading of Article II of the American Constitution, which says:“The executive Power [of the United States] shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”↩
10. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. II (London, 1945), p. 94. Popper developed it in an essay included in Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge , 2nd ed. (New York, 2002).↩
11. Popper, “The Conspiracy Theory of Society,” Conjectures and Refutations , p. 166.↩
12. Ibid., p. 168. ↩
13. See, for example, Charles Pidgen, “Popper Revisited, or What is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 25, 1 (March, 1995). ↩
14. . For a discussion of this issue, see Martin Jay, “Intention and Irony: The Missed Encounter between Quentin Skinner and Hayden White,” History and Theory, 52, 1(2013). ↩
15. The distinction between causes and reasons has not always been made by either theology or philosophy. Leibniz’s “principle of sufficient reason,” which argued that even historical events could be understood as ultimately rational, did not clearly distinguish between the two. It was not perhaps until Schopenhauer’s On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason in 1813 that cause and reason were clearly demarcated. ↩
16. Serious theologians are less inclined to accept this idea. Take, for example, David R. Liefeld, who writes: “The Church also must make clear that the constantly repeated refrain, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ is not Christian faith nor even a suitable basis for it. Such sentiments degenerate into paranoia even more often than they reflect authentic Christian faith in the providence of God.” “God’s Word or Male Words? Postmodern Conspiracy Culture and Feminist Myths of Christian Origins,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 48, 3 (2005), p. 473. He makes his argument in the context of criticizing feminist arguments for the conspiratorial origins of patriarchy.↩
17. . There is, in fact, a lively discussion of the putative overlap between conspiracy theory and the hermeneutics of suspicion. See, for example, https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/41894/whats-the-difference-between-the-hermeneutics-of-suspicion-and-conspiracy-theory ↩
18. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, Ca., 2002), p. 154. ↩
19. .Ibid., p. 154-155.↩
20. .Ibid., p. 161. ↩
MARTIN JAY has been a Salmagundi columnist for more than thirty years and has long been a Professor of History at The University of California-Berkeley. His many books include The Dialectical Imagination, Adorno, Fin de Siecle Socialism, Essays From The Edge and Reason After Its Eclipse.