In the book Voodoo Histories, author David Aaronovitch lays out a convincing argument against many of the conspiracy theories that we find so prevalent today. He also lists the attributes as he sees them of conspiracy theories and gives a definition. I'm using his book as a framework for the discussion I will have on conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theory: the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.
the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another.
Occam's Razor: Other things being equal, one hypothesis is more plausible than another if it involves fewer number of new assumptions
Attributes of a conspiracy theory
1. Historical precedent: Aaronovitch writes, "conspiracists work hard to convince people that conspiracy is everywhere. An individual theory will seem less improbable if an entire history of similar cases can be cited (p. 17)." In my experience, if someone believes in one conspiracy theory, they will cite other conspiracy theories as part of the evidence. It's rare, as far as I can tell, for a conspiracy theorist to believe in just one theory. Rather they like to assume that there is a world full of conspiracies and it happens frequently.
2. Skeptics and sheeple: a conspiracy theory is generally a populist notion, that there is a small power elite exerting its inordinant power over the people. "Belief in the conspiracy theory makes you party of a genuinely heroic elite group who can see past the official version duplicated for the benefit of the lazy or inert mass of people by the powers that be. There will usually be an emphasis on the special quality of thought required to appreciate the existence of the conspiracy...Those who cannot or will not see the truth are variously described as robots, or, laterally, as sheeple...(ibid). This is my favorite one. I see it constantly. I get called all sorts of things when I post on the internets about the claims of 9-11 truthers, eventually resorting to ad hominem attacks calling me a sheep for not believing their version. I sad.
3. Just asking questions: "The theorist is just asking certain disturbing questions because of a desire to seek out truth, and the reader is supposedly left to make up his or her mind. The questions asked, of course, only make sense if the questioner really believes that there is indeed a secret conspiracy" (p. 18). Usually the questions are of the why would this happen if this happened variety.
4. Expert witnesses: "The conspiracists draw upon the endorsement of celebritites and 'experts' to validate their theories, yet a constant feature of modern conspiracy theories is the exaggeration of the status of experts" (ibid). This became especially true with 9-11 conspiracies, a lot of the professors and so-called experts making claims about engineering, thermodynamics, and physics were not in fact professors or experts in that field but rather other fields of academia philosophy, theology, and the like. Another popular feature, according to Aaronovitch is that conspiracists like to quote each other as if they are giving credibility to their argument by quoting the same people.
5. Academic credibility: "The conspiracists work hard to give their written evidence the veneer of scholarship...Often the theory is also supported by non-conspiracist sources that almost invariably turn out to be misleading and selective...Another exampole of this misuse of the mainstream media is the ascripiton of final, almost biblical authority, to immediate and necessarily provisional news reports of an incident if they happen to demonstrate the inconsistencies that the conspiracists are seeking." I love this little trick. Conflicting breaking news reports are ALWAYS quoted. Watch the Sandy Hook video that was popular, notice how many times they talk about conflicting reports for the day, I only sat through about 10 minutes of it before getting angry. But these quotes are almost always shown to conflict the later report once all the facts are actually in. But who cares about facts if it distorts your world view? "A final polish is given to the conspiracists' illusion of authority by what is imagined to be secret service or technical jargon, as though the authors had been in recent communication with spies or scientists. Interesting words phrases include 'psyops' (short for psychological operations), 'false flag', and more recently, 'wet disposal'." I would add a new phrase, "crisis actors." But I love when people casually drop these phrases.
6. ConvenientInconvenient Truths: "Conspiracists are always winners. Their arguments have a determined flexibility, whereby any new and inconvenient truth can be acoomodated within the theory itself." If you start stating facts, all of a sudden these facts are accomodated into a new hybrid theory or just dismissed as if these facts are irrelevant, since they're almost always planted. Aaronovitch quoted Korey Rowe, the producer of Loose Change "we know there are errors in the documentary, and we've actually left them in there so that people discredit us and do the research themselves." Amazing, really.
7. Under surveillance: "Conspiracists are inclined to suggest that those involved in spreading the theory are, even in the 'safest' of countries, somehow endangered" (p. 20). This one is fun , too. After conspiracy theories are beginning to spread, they like to suggest that they are in danger. After the election, Republicans on Facebook began to complain about Obama getting re-elected and saying I don't care if it's deleted. Why would it be? But more ominously, people like to keep track of people who were killed by the government's regime. These include those who still think Bill Clinton killed people in order to maintain his presidency and cover up scandals. Apparently, people who are spreading theories about President Obama wanting to take their guns are dying of mysterious accidents like car crashes and heart attacks. As a side note, Bill Clinton would much rather seduce you with his saxophone and allow you to blow him instead of killing you. He's seductive.
But next time you read about a conspiracy theory, I imagine you'll start seeing these attributes if you weren't aware of them already.