The Conspiracy Theory of Society, the Paranoid Style and Conspiracy Theories
In invoking the term “conspiracy theory” to describe a central concern of this project, we are in actual fact latching onto what has simply become the most popular label for designating this phenomenon. In the twentieth century, scholars, in most cases working more or less independently of each other, came up with many other terms for “conspiracy theory.” Coming at a distant second in the popularity stakes is, for example, a term coined by Richard Hofstadter in 1963, namely the “paranoid style.” It is worthwhile to consider how the two terms both converge and diverge in treating the phenomenon in question. Thus, both terms do not merely name the phenomenon in question. They also describe it, but in doing so, their descriptions pull in opposite directions. The opposition might be expressed in this way: “Conspiracy theory” with its appeal to the scientific concept of a “theory” rationalizes – and maybe over-rationalizes – the “paranoid style.” “Paranoid style”, by contrast, with its psychological allusions, tends to irrationalize – and maybe over-irrationalize – “conspiracy theories.” Indeed, Hofstadter was aware of this in his seminal essay, and tried to qualify his term by observing that the paranoid style is, “if not wholly rational, at least intensely rationalistic.”
There are interesting and suggestive implications here: does excessive rationality practised by those who formulate conspiracy theories keel over at a certain point into irrationality? Does the irrationality evident among those afflicted by the paranoid style manifest itself in an obsessive rationality intolerant of all the coincidences and peculiarities which the rest of us simply ascribe to the general quirkiness of life? Can we reconcile the two terminologies in this manner? I’ll leave such questions for those of a more philosophical bent to muse over. My attempt to broker some kind of reconciliation between the two terminologies is far simpler, and maybe even somewhat banal. It rests on the observation that the terminologies exist on different levels, allowing us to formulate the statement: the “paranoid style” manifests itself in the form of “conspiracy theories.” Whatever misgivings one might have about each of the terms individually, I don’t think there would be too many objections in linking them in that manner. In other words, the paranoid style is something we cannot observe directly but whose presence we can infer from an articulation or advocacy of conspiracy theories.
Confusion arises when this distinction is not observed. Thus, Karl Popper is seen to have had an important role in formulating the term “conspiracy theory.” This is correct. But his own argument and the subsequent discussion have been bedevilled by false equivalences and these arise at least in part when levels are conflated. Popper’s “conspiracy theory of society”, as he called it in full, was not just a theory in the loose sense of a supposition, but in the stricter sense of an abstract statement about how society worked. It was as if someone enthralled to the “paranoid style,” to use the phrase later coined by Hofstadter, had become sociologically articulate. This means that a “conspiracy theory”, as the term is most often understood today, is actually a manifestation, or perhaps more accurately, an application of the “conspiracy theory of society”.
Of course, this demonstrates how artificial the “conspiracy theory of society” is as a construct. The forgers of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Society, whoever they might have been, were obviously not applying a theory in pursuing their strategy to malign the Jews. But Popper was not really interested in the detailed history of this manifestation of the “conspiracy theory of society,” or indeed of any other such manifestation. He was rather setting up a doctrine which could serve as a foil to his understanding of what really constitutes the logic of social science. To point out the possibility of “true” conspiracy theories does not therefore really invalidate Popper’s claim that the “conspiracy theory of society” is untenable. Such an argument, as made for example by Charles Pidgin, rests on a false equivalence. There is, after all, only one abstract “conspiracy theory of society”, which Popper believed was on principle false, but myriad, non-abstract conspiracy theories, some of which might conceivably be true. In other words, an abstract (and, indeed, artificially abstract) doctrine about how society works in line with a “conspiracy”, would not become more tenable even if evidence comes to light demonstrating the involvement of, let’s say, the Mafia in JFK’s assassination.
Now all this sounds somewhat abstruse, but there is a real issue here: what is the most appropriate level on which we can approach and grapple with the phenomenon in question? Should we talk on a meta-level of sorts by construing some kind of notion equivalent to the “paranoid style” or the “conspiracy theory of society”? Or should we be more positivist and empirical in our approach and adopt a terminology which avoid the postulate of a broader, over-arching phenomenon and simply looks at those individuated specimens which we most generally call “conspiracy theories”? In some ways, setting this up as an “either-or” situation might be false, for there are advantages in incorporating both levels into the research framework. My preference is to call the higher-level phenomenon: “conspiracism”. Even if Hofstadter was at pains to qualify the psychological implications of his notion of the “paranoid style,” the term is too obviously suggestive of a psychological state to which an individual subject is enthralled. And Popper’s “conspiracy theory of society” is liable to give rise to the confusion addressed above. There is nothing overly bold or brilliant about the concept of “conspiracism,” but this in turn means that it is sufficiently open-ended to allow further discussion about its actual nature. As for the manifestations of conspiracism, I believe there is nothing wrong with continuing to use the term “conspiracy theory.” Yes, it is in many contexts a loaded term, and its use acts prejudicially against the credibility of the representation of reality to which it is applied. But I believe it can be salvaged as a neutral term of objective analysis. After all, the use of the term “fascist” in the punk scene as a way of execrating all forms of authority does not impose upon academic research the need to search for an alternative term in describing the phenomenon of fascism in the twentieth century.
It might be possible to have a “conspiracy theory” which is not indebted in any way to conspiracism – this might be one of those “true” conspiracy theories which Pigden invokes. But whether an accurate factual account of a conspiracy really constitutes a “conspiracy theory” might be questionable – as some in our team have rightly pointed out, “conspiracy theories” stake out their position by adopting an antagonistic relationship towards a standard version of how things happened. This inherent suspicion of the standard version or the conventional wisdom is one of the marks of conspiracism, and recent research has provided a glimpse of its presences: “Our results identify conspiracist ideation as a personality factor or a cognitive style, as numerous conspiracy theories are captured by a single latent construct.” The formulation is rather boffin-esque, but it sums up the findings of a team of empirical psychologists working at the University of Western Australia (Lewandowsky, Oberauer, Gignac, “NASA Faked the Moon Landing – Therefore, (Climate) Science is a Hoax,” Psychological Science, March 2013). They found that a propensity to believe in a manipulation of date about the climate correlates with a propensity to suspect other kinds of scientific facts as ruses employed to push a particular agenda. The subjects were “self-selected denizens of climate blogs.” As such, I believe that they qualify as conspiracy theorists – they expend not a little energy mental energy in translating the generalized suspicion characterizing conspiracism into specific conspiracy theories.
Another study conducted in Kent in 2012 (Wood, Douglas, Sutton, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, January 2012) indicates that the conspiracism is perceivable even among those less inclined to actively formulate or adhere to conspiracy theories. This highlights a further advantage of a two-tiered terminology which distinguishes between conspiracism and conspiracy theories. The participants in the Kent study were psychology students. When questioned about possible counter-narratives to the official standard version of recent events, some signalled a willingness to belief, for example, in both the notion that Princess Di had faked her own death and in the notion that the she had been killed by British secret service agents. This willingness to entertain contradictory beliefs indicates on the one hand the potency of the conspiracism – the allegiance to the generalized suspicion of authority overrides a commitment to a coherent world-view. On the other hand, it also indicates a somewhat more casual relationship towards conspiracy theories. The conspiracism is not so strong to compel its adherents to invest the time in the cognitive “house-keeping” necessary to produce a coherent view of reality.
Of course, it is irrational to believe in two mutually contradictory statements. But this irrationality is not necessarily something intrinsic to conspiracism. Rather it is simply an irrationality which people can afford to indulge in because it has no real immediate adverse consequences for their lives. As my colleague Alfred put it: “they have no skin in the game.” I somehow doubt that genuine conspiracy theorists could abide such contradictions. Their level of commitment to their world-view elevates its coherence to, if not always a matter of life-and-death, then something that demands attention, clarification and some kind of resolution. By contrast, there is a large segment of the population for whom conspiracism seems to be a casual and somewhat mischievous indulgence. Reminding ourselves of this might be useful when we confront statistics which (most often with regard to the United States) seek to demonstrate a shockingly high prevalence of conspiracism.