Over the years I’ve seen people from many different backgrounds take a swing at conspiracy theories. Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style to take a shot at Goldwater. Daniel Pipes complained that left-wing conspiracy theories don’t get the abuse that right-wing theories do. Gregory Camp tried to get his fellow Christians to stop fretting about the Federal Reserve.
Now, thanks to Svend White, I find anarchist and historian Peter Staudenmaier on the Against the Grain podcast talking about what makes a conspiracy theory. Staudenmaier acknowledges that as an anarchist he’s been on both sides of the theories, and he feels the anarchist community needs to stop going in for conspiracism.
Staudenmaier defines conspiracy theories as a “tendency to hold specific and identifiable social groups responsible for what seem to be inexplicable aspects of the social world.” He sees conspiracy theories as a flattening of history, or a reducing of a complex institutional problem down to a simple problem of evil people.
The core of Staudenmaier’s talk is his list of ten (or so) common tropes found in conspiratorial thinking. He’s not very precise, but I’ve tried to pull them out here. Some theories will have some of these indicators, others will have other indicators, likely none will have all.
- Rejection of contingency. In the realm of their chosen conspiracy, conspiracists believe that “everything happens for a reason” …
- False dichotomy between coincidence and conspiracy
… and that reason is almost always tied back to the conspirators.
- Misunderstanding of the intentionality. “Intention gap”
Conspiracism does not account for fallibility. It assumes that powerful will always get what they want, which implies that what they get is what they wanted to begin with.
- Mistaking elaborateness for complexity
Conspiracism lacks a third dimension. Think of the standard Glenn Beck blackboard, with its names and arrows. In reality, that board would need hundreds more arrows, dotted lines, loops and squiggles to make sense of the connections that drive events.
- Plausibility /= probability
Common in all pseudo-disciplines. Conspiracists often make the unconscious jump from believing something is merely possible to believing that something actually occurred. There are an infinite number of events that could happen, but that doesn’t mean they actually will.
- Argumentation from insinuation
Conspiracists will often argue elliptically, leaving it to the reader to fill in their accusation. This allows the avoid stating their claims, which frequently are unsupported and appear ridiculous when stated baldly.
Related to the above, conspiracists often throw out facts that don’t really support their argument, but sound impressive.
- Arguments from prejudice
Conspiracists will sometimes class groups of people together and use common prejudices against that group as part of their argument. The obvious examples are the Jews, but Muslims, Arabs, government employees and socialists are also popular.
- False Concreteness
There are things going on in social reality that are big and hard to grasp. A conspiracy theory acts as a handle, blaming some group for some diffuse complicated problem. This gives you a target to focus your ire.
- Telling detail or errant data
Pseudo-disciplines often focus on the details that don’t seem to fit with the establishment narrative. Sometimes these details are real anomalies, and sometimes they are artifacts of the conspirator’s ignorance.