Gene Callahan recently wrote on the funny way we use this term in our society, but I want to use Scott Sumner’s recent comments as a springboard. Note, Scott is not unusual in his usage, but I’m using his example because I just saw it today.
In this post, Scott was arguing that he wasn’t a denialist (not sure why he didn’t just use the term “denier”) when it came to monetary policy’s effectiveness. After giving a bunch of arguments and evidence–most or all of which I endorse, by the way–he added at the end: “PPS. I’m not a Holocaust denialist, a global warming denialist, or a monetary policy denialist. But I am a fiscal policy denialist and a conspiracy theory denialist, so I’m not opposed to denialism, per se.”
Now this is surely an odd statement to make, and David R. Henderson questioned Scott in the comments:
But I am a fiscal policy denialist and a conspiracy theory denialist
Isn’t this too broad? To deny conspiracy theories per se, you would have to deny that there have ever been conspiracies. Do you think, for example, that the 19 9/11 murderers didn’t conspire?
To which Scott responded:
“David, I meant “conspiracy theory” in the common everyday use of the term, as for instance those who claim the CIA produced the 9/11 attacks, or was behind the Kennedy assassination. You are absolutely correct that conspiracies do occur.”
So I agree with Scott that he used the term the way Americans “everyday” use it. But in this post, I want us to try to pin down exactly what types of “conspiracy theories” are classified as such.
One obvious answer is to say, “Oh, the layperson uses ‘conspiracy theory’ to mean a theory that’s palpably absurd, which only a paranoid nutjob could believe.”
But that sort of argues in a circle, doesn’t it? You might as well say, “I don’t believe in false theories,” which is great, but doesn’t tell us too much about you.
You might say, “Oh, if someone holds a theory that sinister government forces are at work behind the scenes, directing world events… That type of thing.”
Well no, because in that case all the elite people in the US would turn their noses up at the theory that Vladimir Putin and a bunch of hackers conspired to install Trump as president. And as we’ve seen, this conspiracy theory is perfectly respectable in US discourse.
You might be tempted to say, “Theories that say US government officials were the bad guys in a sinister plot” is what people mean. But no, plenty of people nowadays believe in the tale of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. That’s pretty bad, but yet if someone says, “The white man deliberately invented AIDS to hurt the black community,” most people would dismiss that as a “conspiracy theory.”
I imagine in 100 years people will openly discuss how the Secret Service aided in the assassination of JFK, and this will be regarded as a normal area of historical inquiry. But right now it’s a “conspiracy theory.”
In sum, I think the best definition of the term is, “Theories that, if widely believed, would limit the power of today’s ruling class.” Why, it’s almost like a small group of people deliberately cooked this term up in order to screw the public. I wonder…