The Necessity of Scepticism Contra Cynicism

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by Neil Godfrey

Mention scholarly research into a matter that someone feels deeply about while holding contrarian or conspiracy theory views, and one is likely to be told that the academies are filled with institutional bias that compels them to ignore or hide or tell untruths about “the real facts” of a matter. Sometimes the criticism can go deeper than certain perceptions of institutional bias and target the scientific method itself:

The scientific method is what is wrong with the world

I mentioned once to Harold, the friend mentioned earlier who falls constantly for quack medical remedies and diagnostic methods, that the scientific method is based on a demand for evidence and that he should think about being a little more scientific (i.e., skeptical) about unverified claims. Harold replied that “the scientific method is what is wrong with the world and with people like you.” I suppose what he was saying is that by being skeptical I am cutting myself off from various mystical and creative aspects of the human experience. That is certainly a possibility, but I think that Harold may have been overreacting to the word “skepticism” (and to my implicit criticism of him) and assuming that I meant something other than what I actually meant.

His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility

I believe that Harold is confusing skepticism with cynicism and thinks that I am saying that one should never believe in anyone or anything. In fact, Harold is probably much more cynical than I am (he sees the evil hand of conspirators everywhere). His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility, in that he champions alternative medicine in part as a way of saying “screw you” to the more mainstream medical establishment. To my mind, a knee-jerk reaction of “no” (the cynical stance) is no more justified than a knee-jerk reaction of “yes” (the gullible stance) and the essence of skepticism is nothing more than saying “I will maintain an open mind but I want to get a better understanding of the truth of the matter before I commit myself.” However, the evidence is often ambiguous and incomplete, and the skeptic is someone who holds out for a higher and more rigorous standard of proof (and of one’s own understanding) than the fact that you like someone or want what he says to be true.

Our author is zeroing in specifically on quack remedies and “spiritual forces” and “mysterious agents” in the world but the same reasoning applies to anyone seeking “confirmation” that governments of the western world have come under the powers of conspiratorial elites who are using the fear of Covid-19 as a pretext to introduce controls that will eventually lead to new totalitarian tyrannies. The result of that kind of thinking is either a complete disengagement from the political processes or attempts to sabotage them: either way, positive action to defend and deepen democratic processes is the loser.

Perhaps what Harold was really saying is “I pity people who do not believe in magic.” Skeptics are people who believe that the laws of nature and probability underlie all phenomena, and are dubious about claims that there are realms of functioning that are immune from such laws. Harold definitely believes in magic (the real, not the conjuring, kind) and his evidence for this belief is likely to take such a form as “I was thinking about an old friend and the next thing I knew I got a phone call from her.” Harold is not likely to be persuaded by the argument that “you thought of 500 other things or people during the same day without such a congruence, but you are focusing on a single congruence that confirms your belief in magic and then holding it up as proof that it couldn’t have been a coincidence.

The passage addresses belief in magic but the same “intellectual laziness” applies to beliefs in conspiracy theories and any other belief that avoids the drier texts based on the scientific methods of research. Conspiracy-theory believers may consider themselves more astute, sceptical and informed than others but in fact the opposite is true.

one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable

Belief in magic is an intellectually lazy stance to take, as one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable. Belief in magic contributes to gullibility as one can be too easily influenced by misleading external realities or superficial explanations. Just as Harold pities me for not being more intuitive, I pity him for not being more rational. People who eschew skepticism are people at the mercy of charlatans, bogus experts, and false claims. Although I generally admire and like people who are trusting more than people who are distrusting, I think trust needs to be tempered with an understanding that it can be misplaced. Blind trust can be a formula for disaster, as countless stories in this book illustrate. One needs to be alert to warning signs of untruth, whether or not it emanates from conscious deception. To refuse to heed those signs, and to refuse to ask for proof when proof is needed, may be to put oneself in harm’s way. 

On reading the above passage I am reminded of little questions that arose along the way of my journey into a religious cult many years ago. Little points of errors in facts seemed to be only minor and unintentional glitches in the literature I was reading. I should have stopped and stood my ground and demanded to find out why and how such “little errors” were there in the first place. It might have led me to discover behind all that glossy, free literature was an institution that was geared towards psychological manipulation.

The following depicts the end result of what I have come to call “ideological” or “principled” thinking. Now there are good ideologies and there are good principles to live by. The problem is when people espouse “ideological” or “principled” ideas that at some level treat those principles as more important than the full lives of real people (either by thinking of most people as stupid or as faceless numbers to be manipulated in a power and control game) then we have the seedbed of vicious totalitarianism.

Trofim Lysenko

An example of how cynicism is compatible with gullibility can be found in the life of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator who ruled the Soviet Union through periodic murder sprees for several decades. In a review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s (2005) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Ian Buruma (2004) described Stalin, and the equally murderous ruler of China, Mao Zedong, as extraordinarily cynical, that is motivated by power rather than Communist ideology, and generally distrusting of everyone, including family members. There was one area, however, in which both Stalin and Mao were overly trusting, and that had to do with agriculture policy. Driven by an emotional commitment to the notion that Marxism–Leninism had made possible a “creative Darwinism,” both men “appear to have been completely taken in by the crackpot science of Trofim Lysenko” (p. 5). Lysenko’s experiments in high-yield wheat proved to be a complete disaster in both countries, “but these failures were blamed on ‘saboteurs’ and ‘bourgeois scientists’, many of whom were killed, even as people were dying of hunger in far greater numbers than ever. Such things might not have happened if Stalin and Mao had been complete skeptics. But they were gullible as well as cynical, and that is why millions had to die” (Buruma, 2004, p. 6).

Greenspan, Stephen. Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. Westport, Conn. : Praeger Publishers, 2009. http://archive.org/details/annalsofgullibil0000gree. pp 181-182


Modern-Day Witchcraft Conspiracy Fears

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s one of the more disturbing results of the Covid pandemic and it’s real. Too many western democracies have been in bad enough shape before the pandemic and the need to roll back the power of global corporations has been pressing enough but Covid has catalyzed a new threat: a new level of anti-government and anti-establishment conspiracy thinking that can only weaken democratic institutions as well as undermine confidence in sound scientific processes that are aimed at general health and well-being.

A survey report commissioned by the New South Wales government has been released by Macquarie University, Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the COVID-19 Pandemic, to help us understand and counter the rise of this growing extremist outlook. The major threat that it singles out is the ability of far-right extremists to mainstream their narrative with the broader community and so increase their audience scope and potential support for anti-social actions.

In this post I single out just one item in one of the sources the report cites:

  • Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2021/oct/26/why-people-believe-covid-conspiracy-theories-could-folklore-hold-the-answer. [Check the waybackmachine archive.org link if the above does not work]
Prof. Tim Tangherlini

Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them. . . . .

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships. . . . 

Gates is a persistent figure in the anti-vaccine stories. “He’s a great villain,” says the folklorist Prof Timothy Tangherlini who collaborated with Roychowdhury on the research. It’s Gates’ world-spanning influence in tech and then health that lodges him at the heart of a lot of conspiracies. . . . 

Folklore isn’t just a model for the AI. Tangherlini, whose specialism is Danish folklore, is interested in how conspiratorial witchcraft folklore took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries and what lessons it has for today.

Whereas in the past, witches were accused of using herbs to create potions that caused miscarriages, today we see stories that Gates is using coronavirus vaccinations to sterilise people. A version of this story that omits Gates but claims the vaccines have caused men’s testicles to swell, making them infertile, was repeated by the American rapper Nicki Minaj.

(bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

I’m sure that not all anti-vaxxers are interested in Bill Gates, especially in Australia. But the conspiratorial responses concerning elites taking over our governments and threatening our freedoms are the same. A “covid-sceptic” might hear a story about Bill Gates but adjust it to what fits his or her version of the conspiracy. To quote from Tangherlini in the article once more:

In folklore, we have this law of self-correction. So if something doesn’t quite fit, you go back to the way you heard it from 15 other people. I might be saying Jeff Bezos. But if three other people are saying Bill Gates, it’s going to be Bill Gates.

From The Copenhagen Post

The Guardian article’s conclusion is worth quoting, too:

Why do people believe things that seem so wrong?

Conspiracy theories often crop up after catastrophic or unusual events and they thrive in environments where there is a lack of trusted information, says Tangherlini.

In 16th and 17th century Denmark, catastrophic events from floods to poisonous algae mixed with the massive change brought by industrialisation. For those isolated on small farms, access to trusted, consistent information was scarce and stories about witches start to take hold.

Today it’s clear that coronavirus has been a catastrophic event that has impacted everyone’s lives. On the face of it, a lack of information is not a problem in wealthy countries. However, the overload of information online can produce the same effect that Danish farmers faced several centuries ago – a lack of trusted information.

This is where conspiratorial storytelling comes in and these stories start to get created. Then, as now, stories are a powerful way of talking about what we fear.

In my other posts about propaganda I have attempted to underscore the point that a glut of information can have the same effect as too little information. Most of us don’t have the time to take in all the information available, let alone analyse or check it all. It can be too easy to not bother even trying to sift wheat from chaff and fall back on simplistic narratives that offer easy to understand answers.

To quote one section from the report with which I opened this post, pp 38-39:

Conspiracy theories provide simplistic answers to complex problems such as the current global health crisis, and present experts and traditional systems of authority and government as malevolent and untrustworthy. Belief in a conspiracy theory is not a reliable indicator of an acceptance of far right extremism, but conspiratorial thinking is prevalent within far right extremist (and many other extremist) movements, and may provide a vulnerability for pathways into these.

While conspiratorial thinking is detrimental and corrosive to liberal democracy, in sum there are three qualities of conspiratorial thinking that make it particularly concerning for social cohesion:

First, conspiracy theories concerning COVID-19 present a global narrative that can be linked to a host of diverse local issues and grievances. This allows far right extremists to exploit local tensions for their broader political agenda by connecting their narratives with world affairs.

Second, conspiracy theories form an alternative reality. This alternative reality serves as a framework under which multiple fringe movements, ideologies, and concerns can be mobilised. This allows far right extremists to mobilise among new social groups not traditionally receptive to their narratives or aims.

Third, by presenting the crisis as caused or exacerbated by the actions of a sinister and malevolent out-group, conspiracy theories justify an implicit solution in neutering or removing the out-group. This can present pathways towards anti-establishment civic dissent and violence.

A positive response to this growing threat to our societies that the report advises is to respect and engage productively with all those with concerns about covid, medical and vaccine advice, and government policies and to be careful not to label them with the far-right extremists who espouse the same views. To fail to do so risks driving them towards those extremists.


Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021

Waldek, Lise, Droogan, Julian, and Ballsun-Stanton, Brian. “Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Government report for Department of Communities and Justice, NSW. Sydney, NSW: Macquarie University, March 22, 2022. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5732611.


Apophenia — perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and more

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by Neil Godfrey


Klaus Conrad (1905-1961)

The German psychologist Klaus Conrad called this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich.

Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.

. . . leading us to….

The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.

. . . . The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control.

Edward Snowden, from Conspiracy Part 2

We talk about conspiracy theories in order to avoid talking about conspiracy practices, which are often too daunting, too threatening, too total. — Conspiracy Part 1


Conspiracy theories — true and false and how to tell the difference

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by Neil Godfrey


Colin Dickey has an excellent article on GEN, How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.

He stresses the importance of recognizing that conspiracies do in fact exist. Don’t come across like a condescending know-it-all and lazily resort to appeals to authority (the mainstream media sources, for example). Acknowledge that the conspiracy theorist may be motivated by a genuine concern for real injustices, so by laughing in the face of a QAnon believer in a vast pedophile ring led by the Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden, you can come across as not caring about child abuse. Colin Dickey proposes better ways to approach that kind of conspiracy theorist.

Here I would like to focus on his explanation of the differences between real and hoax conspiracies:

How Real Conspiracies Become Known

Conspiracies are real. Think of Watergate, the Iran-Contra episode, (I would add COINTELPRO and the conspiracy to lead the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq), the tobacco lobby, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. The more widespread a conspiracy the more effort is required into keeping more people quiet.

When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. . . . What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?

After all, even highly organized conspiracies with limitless government backing and resources can’t stay hidden forever.

Successful conspiracies take hard work to keep them secret. The bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved. Watergate became known through a bookkeeper for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, Judy Hoback Miller, who “felt frustrated” that the “truth was not coming out”.

People like Miller [are] the “so-called ‘minor people” — the secretaries, security guards, and other low-level employees who worked behind the scenes for the big players who were often the first to talk. Such people are rarely ideologues nor are they being paid enough. The complexities of QAnon likewise would require a massive number of such minor people; people who, it stands to reason, have no ideological commitment to such horrors but are nonetheless employed in carrying them out. Such people ought to be easy to get to talk. When no such whistleblowers emerge, it speaks to the thinness of the story.

Compare the exposure of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program in the early days of the war on terror. This was

documented by none other than hobbyist plane spotters, who noted the tail numbers of flights taking off and landing. 

The more wide-reaching a conspiracy — the more victims it has, the more perpetrators involved, the wider geographical distance covered, etc. — the more traces it will leave. A conspiracy theory that is widely hypothesized and yet unproven, in other words, requires a level of human infallibility that we have never heretofore seen.


Hiding 35,000 children

QAnon alleges thousands of victims yet has produced none. Timothy Charles Holmseth, a conspiracist who claims to be part of a (nonexistent) Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, alleged in May that this same task force rescued some 35,000 children from an underground network of prisons beneath New York’s Central Park.. . . . Who are these victims, and where are their families? Where are the obituaries, the memorials, the tearful mothers on the steps of the Capitol holding press conferences, demanding justice? “There’s not one of them out there who said, ‘Yeah, we’re glad our child was rescued from this giant underground war,’” Craig Sawyer, an anti-sex-trafficking activist and critic of Holmseth, told the Daily Beast.


Colin Dickey’s article is worth reading for his insights into the psychology of the conspiracy theorist and for becoming aware of smart ways to approach discussions with those who may be part of something like QAnon. I mentioned above one possible concern: that people really are concerned for some injustice or crime or abuse. Another point he elaborates on is the possibility that for some of us, the idea of a vast and highly successful perfect crime is in one sense reassuring: the world is not so subject to the chaos, the randomness, the lack of controls, – the world is thereby, most ironically, made a more tolerable, safer, place.

Dickey, Colin. “How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist.” GEN, October 8, 2020. https://gen.medium.com/how-to-talk-to-a-conspiracy-theorist-20122a39ac8a.



Telling lies for Jesus mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

[Josephus] was employed to write the official history that we have. The other histories from this period have been destroyed ruthlessly by the Romans. Josephus tells us this in very chilling passages how the Romans exerted complete control of the literature of this period. There were alternative histories of the Jewish war written, while the Romans rounded up the writers of those histories and executed them. They rounded up all the copies of those histories and destroyed them. That is to say they ruthlessly wiped out any alternative history, so that the only history we have is written by Josephus.” — Dr Rod Blackhirst, Lecturer in Religious Studies, La Trobe University

On my shelf I have a book titled Telling Lies for God by I.R. Plimer. I was a bit disappointed in it when I read it because I thought it was itself misrepresenting some of the apologist arguments and could have had more credibility by not sometimes garnishing the facts at hand.

Not long ago I took up a request to engage with a video on youtube, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Christianity. The presentation contains so many exaggerations and falsehoods that it would take me forever to address in detail, but I did tackle some of them here and here. Some of the contributors interviewed, namely Dr Robert and Timothy Freke, did not make any extravagant claims, but others did — namely Joseph Atwill, Rob Blackhirst, John Hudson and D.M. Murdock/Acharya S.

One point I have not yet addressed in depth, however, and that is the claim I placed in the quotation box at the top of this post, the one made near the video’s beginning by Dr Rob Blackhirst. To fast forward to the conclusion, I am astonished that a serious academic employed at a bona fide university could mouth such total fabrication. Not a word of what is quoted is true, but that’s what he claimed for the “benefit” of viewers of the video.

Point #1. Josephus’s history of the Jewish war is not an “official history”. It was Josephus’s personal history that did not have to be submitted for approval to the emperor or his agents.

Point #2. We have no record to substantiate the claim that “other histories from this period [the period of Josephus in the time of Vespasian and Titus] have been destroyed ruthlessly” — or leave off the “ruthlessly” and just say “destroyed”. There is absolutely nothing in the sources that permits Rob Blackhirst to make that claim.

Point #3. Alternative histories were written? Romans rounded up their authors and executed them? These claims are absolute fabrication. There is not a shred of evidence in our records that any such things ever happened.

Not quite. There is another series of false claims from about the 17th minute. We hear the following: Continue reading “Telling lies for Jesus mythicism”


There are two types of Jesus mythicism. Here’s how to tell them apart.

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by Neil Godfrey


Type 1: Scholarly
The authors engage with not only the source documents of early Christianity but they also address the scholarship that has been written about those documents. The arguments are structured around engagement with the scholarship of biblical studies, ancient history (including judaica), the classics and other related fields such as archaeology, religion, anthropology, historiography, mythology. They apply the norms of the scientific method (e.g. evidence-based, falsifiability). e.g. Thomas Brodie, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, Robert Price.

Type 2: Pseudo-Scholarly
The authors engage with the source documents but disregard the bulk of related scholarly discussion and focus primarily on interpreting them tendentiously through a conspiracy theory or other unfalsifiable pseudo-historical theory. That is, their arguments are based on an assumption (that is, there is no unambiguous evidence in support) that there are behind-the-scenes powerful and complex forces and actors manipulating or producing the evidence. The emphasis is on arguing for the “missing link” in explaining Christianity and little to no attention is given to addressing alternative explanations in the scholarship for the evidence used. e.g. Christianity as an invention by Roman imperial powers; a strain of astrotheological beliefs dominated secret mystery religions and morphed into Christianity; Christian teachings began and were preserved in some form though centuries, even millennia, before being re-written in the gospels.

What do you think? Do those two “definitions” cover it? I’m sure the wording can be tidied.



Time to reflect on conspiracy theories, once again

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by Neil Godfrey

Derek Arnold

Twenty years since Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, or is it the anniversary of her murder by British Intelligence acting on behalf of the royal family? The Royal Family certainly had motive enough to want her dead. She was destroying their reputation as a bastion of conventional morality and without that bastion the royal family could not survive. So — arrange for a drunken chauffeur, lots of paparazzi, a narrow tunnel on the route, a pre-positioned strobe-light and alert operator,  and plots to delay ambulances, and the deed is done.

Salon.com alerted me to a Conversation article by Derek Arnold, Why Princess Diana conspiracies refuse to die. Excerpts I find especially pertinent:

I’ve found that belief in conspiracy theories is more about a refusal to accept the randomness of life and tragedy than it is about the existence of evidence (or lack thereof).

Sounds like the same reason “we” believe in God, ghosts, angels, superstitions, fate, diets.

As political scientist Michael Barkun details in his book “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” conspiracy theories usually hinge on three core beliefs:

  • Nothing happens by accident. For this reason, the horrible machinations of “evil” conspirators become more believable than a fluke or an accident.
  • Nothing is as it seems. Successful conspirators hide their identities and actions; we must, therefore, always be wary, even when there’s little reason for suspicion.
  • Dots can always be connected. Though conspirators attempt to hide their actions, patterns exist everywhere.

Another book I would like to read.

Today’s 24-hour news cycle also cultivates an opening for conspiratorial thinking. Among journalists, the race to break a story can lead to gaps or errors in reporting. We also tend to forget that as readers, many stories, especially breaking ones, are a work in progress. It can take months – even years – to ever know the full story.

Oh yes. One really notices the differences among various media here. A few (less popular ones, unfortunately) conspicuously stress how little is known in the early days, and they do not broadcast speculative figures of “numbers dead” or “suspected identities” of perpetrators of atrocities in the first twenty-four hours of an event — which I suppose is why they are too boring for a wider audience.

But perhaps the biggest reason we tend to give credence to conspiracy theories is our own mortality.

Studies have shown that many of us feel that we have little control over our own lives. This leads to something called “anomie,” a type of weariness that makes us view the world as an adversary, with people and systems out to get us.

Return to the similar reasons for believing in god.

To simply think of Princess Diana’s death as a “tragic accident” gives us less control over own fate. No matter how logically messy the details of a conspiracy theory might be, they do, strangely, soothe our own sense of worth and place in our world.

Like asking Jesus or Mary or God, lords of the universe, to take time to interfere with a burst of rain to allow us to get to an important appointment on time.

(I bet the Queen really did order MI6 to get rid of Diana, though.)




Ethics of Conspiracy Theories

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by Neil Godfrey

As a follow on from my recent posts on conspiracy theories here is a discussion from another slant:

The ethics of conspiracy theories

The page includes a link to the full audio interview with philosopher Patrick Stokes.

Previous posts:


The Conspiracist Style

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by Neil Godfrey

suspiciousAustralia’s national radio broadcaster, Radio National (RN), aired an interview with Rob Brotherton, Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, trying to explain to us why conspiracies are generally “all in the mind“. Obviously Brotherton and RN are controlled by the Illuminati and are being used to convince a gullible public that a secret cabal is not manipulating the world economy, the world’s governments, the events in the Middle East and major terrorist attacks in the West.

Sucker that I am I raced out and grabbed a copy of Brotherton’s book, Suspicious minds : why we believe conspiracy theories. I began serious reading at chapter 3, What Is a Conspiracy Theory? Early on I came across this interesting passage:

There’s no denying that the label has less-than-favorable connotations in some intellectual circles, at least. “If you’re down at a bar in the slums, and you say something that people don’t like, they’ll punch you or shriek four-letter words,” Noam Chomsky once said. “If you’re in a faculty club or an editorial office, where you’re more polite— there’s a collection of phrases that can be used which are the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums. One of them is ‘conspiracy theory.’”

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 931-935). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Ah, so that’s why a handful of scholars sometimes toss out “conspiracy theory” at arguments they appear not to have seriously investigated and that for all the world seem to me to have nothing to do with “conspiracy theories” at all.

I just want to isolate and share one thought from chapter 3 in this post. Brotherton rightly points out that defining what we mean by conspiracy theory is problematic given that at some point “one person’s conspiracy theory is the next person’s conspiracy fact. . . . ” so “blithely asserting that conspiracy theories are bullshit doesn’t get us very far.” Instead, Brotherton speaks of a conspiratorial style:

Richard Hofstadter, an influential scholar of conspiracism, talked about conspiracy theories as a “style” of explanation. Much as a historian of art might speak of the motifs that collectively constitute the baroque style, or a music critic might parse the subtle differences between dubstep and grime, our task in distinguishing conspiracy theories from regular old theories about conspiracies is to identify some of the most important rhetorical themes, tropes, and flourishes that collectively constitute the conspiracist style.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 925-929). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Not that these style-points are foolproof rules, either. Think of them more as indicative guides, Brotherton says.

So we’ve laid out six crucial elements of the conspiracist style. Before we take stock and move on, however, a note of caution is required. Coming up with a checklist can give a false impression of objectivity . . . .  

Think of our six characteristics as useful rules of thumb, rather than immutable laws. . . . 

It’s worth reiterating that none of the features we’ve talked about, in and of themselves, distinguish conspiracy fact from conspiracy fiction. Just because a claim meets our six criteria doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1198-1215). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So what are those “six crucial elements”?  Continue reading “The Conspiracist Style”