I don’t know very much about pseudo-science, which is the basis of conspiracy theories, but I do know how to define these words. Pseudo (pseudein) is a Greek word that means to lie. Science (scientia) is a Latin word that means knowledge. Conspiracy comes from Latin and means to breathe (spirare) together (con). A conspiracy theory is a shared belief in fake knowledge. It’s really a troubling phenomenon, and it’s nothing new.

There are several reasons why it is hard to investigate conspiracy theories. Two reasons are obvious. One is that there are such things as real conspiracies. Watergate is a thing that really happened in 1972, and it did involve attempted coverups.

The second difficulty is vagueness. What is a conspiracy to one person may not be a conspiracy to another. The Catiline Conspiracy in ancient Rome was a conspiracy in the eyes of wealthy Senators. For the poor, it was good news.

Human Skepticism and Conspiracy Theories

The problem with fake conspiracy theories is that they are usually somewhat believable and rely on common human skepticism. Skepticism is a natural defense mechanism, and depending on our personal histories, we all have good reasons to be skeptical about something. My older brother probably saved my life when I was about six because he was skeptical. I was eager to get into a stranger’s car on the promise that I would be paid some money for doing an errand. My brother was there, and he asked this stranger for identification. The individual immediately drove away. I often wonder what might have happened to me if at that moment my brother had not been skeptical.

While it is natural to believe things that seem initially reasonable, and while it is also natural to share skepticism about various claims, conspiracy theories take these natural inclinations and abuse them.

We might all be skeptical of “big pharma,” but that skepticism is abused if proven lifesaving practices like vaccines are brought into question or denied to certain populations.

In 2010, according to CBS News, California had its worst outbreak of whooping cough in fifty years resulting in over nine thousand infections among children and ten deaths. The cause was traced to a cluster of parents who were mesmerized by the patently false conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism.

One problem, though, when you try to confront a conspiracy theorist with the facts is that skepticism will be hailed. In this case, CBS or another mainline news agency will be called a “big corporation” involved with the “deep state” and part of the conspiracy. Even when a conspiracy is demonstratively false and can cost lives, it can still be impossible to convince people otherwise.

Fake Conspiracy Theories versus Real Conspiracies

One consistent feature of conspiracy theories is the belief that the perpetrators of the supposed conspiracy have an incredibly elaborate, cartoon-like plan that covers all happenstances well in advance. The “cover-up” of the conspiracy deepens and becomes more complex every time a reasonable question is asked. In contrast to a real conspiracy, fake conspiracies cover every contingency. A real conspiracy is not like that. Real coverups always involve fumbling moves and obvious lying that surface under critical light. In fake conspiracy theories, like a stolen election, elaborate reports, easily proven wrong, are nevertheless accepted as true.

President Trump recently highlighted the claim that ballots cast for him were found hidden under a rock. This happened in Arizona, and like a usual conspiracy theory, it is partially true. If we do not know anything about the incident, and if we rely on our natural skepticism, we are inclined to take the matter seriously. An election should be fair. But the facts in this case reveal a different story. The ballots in question were stolen from mailboxes, they were empty ballots, and the people from whom the ballots were stolen were able to vote (only once, not twice or more) for the candidate of their choice. These stolen ballots were never in play and could not have been counted even if they were. Secondly, the incident itself makes little sense. Why steal ballots and put them under a rock? In this example, there was only enough information—selected, partial information—to feed a conspiracy theory and to stoke the emotions of would-be believers.

Recognizing a Fake Conspiracy Theory

There are some guidelines important for recognizing a conspiracy theory and for separating it from a genuine or authentic theory. Because my background is in the philosophy of religion with a healthy dose of biblical studies, I can draw from theology.

One guideline is to ask the question, What is the endgame? The endgame is the final aim or outcome a conspiracy theorist wants. An authentic theory does not have a particular endgame.

Authentic theories are tough to hold because the attitude must be that no matter what is discovered, let the chips fall where they may. Authentic theories are open; they do not claim to know in advance what lies ahead. Even in a theory as solid as the Q Sayings Gospel, which is the theory of a lost gospel called Q reconstructed from the parallels of Matthew and Luke, there is always a chance the theory will be proven wrong. The Q proposal, which is part of the four-source hypothesis, has stood up to criticism for nearly two hundred years. Time and again it has proven to be the best theory we have. Academics keep trying to prove the theory wrong not because they don’t like it but because a theory, to be open, must always be tested over again.

In relation to Q, there are deniers. Q deniers claim that there is no evidence “whatsoever” for Q despite the fact that deniers tend to be biblical literalists and that the evidence for Q is in the Bible. In extreme instances, Q deniers become conspiracy theorists. Q is a leftist plot against Christianity and so-called Christian values.

The endgame of such Q deniers is not religious knowledge. It is a desire to control a cultural agenda.

A second guideline is that conspiracy theorists rely on natural human skepticism to raise suspicion. Q deniers question the integrity of universities and liberal seminars to suggest that there is a secret agenda promoted behind their walls. The appeal to natural skepticism about basic teachings in biblical criticism stirs up the fear of unwanted changes to our usual ways of life. From the inside of such a conspiracy theory, Q denier ideas are presented as if they are enlightenment. The ideas coalesce together. They compose a cohesive endgame picture. Even though the facts are skewed and the information is partial, the Q deniers have a cult-like following. These characteristics of Q denial are what make the denial a delusion.

Conspiracy Theory Lessons

The lessons to be learned from conspiracy theories are important even though the conspiracies themselves are usually nonsense.

The first lesson is to never let skepticism collapse into delusion. Skepticism is a very important part of life, but it cannot serve humanity, let alone ourselves, if its power is diverted from learning to illogical obedience to false information.

The second lesson is about fear. The reason conspiracy theories have endgames is due to the desire to manipulate others and pre-determine outcomes. Fear makes us susceptible to manipulation.

The Unknown

As much as it is hard to admit, authenticity in life includes ignorance. We do not know the future, and part of maturity involves the ability to accept this. Spirituality, we might even say, is the ability to celebrate the unknown that lies ahead. “How happy are the poor” might well be a saying that emphasizes this celebration because the poor have less control over what lies around the corner.

It is hard to write about conspiracy theories and pseudo-science because I’m not a scientist or an epidemiologist or an election official. There are many things I don’t know anything about, but I do know that I don’t know enough to predict an assured outcome.

I think of Socrates and his questioning of people who thought they had the right knowledge or the best answers. When put on trial, Socrates claimed that he was wiser than such people. He was wiser not because he knew more, but because he did not know and did not think he knew.

David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University.

Publications

Academic Credentials

  • Ph.D., McGill University
  • M. Div., Vancouver School of Theology
  • B. A., University of Winnipeg
Jodi Magness