My girlfriend and I recently had a discussion with friends who believe that some historical events may not have happened, precisely about the Holocaust, as they used negationists theories. I don’t know if talking about conspiracy theories is initially pejorative (if it is, this is not the tone I intend to use in this article) but the term precisely focus on a knowledge ensemble that refutes common thoughts about different subjects. What struck me is the fact that as long as we talked, we couldn’t agree on anything because we were not on the same scale and this is what I would like to explain here. I will argue that believing (and I carefully chose the word here) in conspiracy theories goes further than facts, it involves a different belief system.
(The image belong to its respective owner, that I couldn’t find)
First, let’s talk about the argumentation. Conspiracy intendants will often ask to prove that something really happened or is really the way we commonly see it. Since we rely on what we could call the “common sense”, it can be difficult to really demonstrate the existence of something we have not experienced ourselves. Moreover, they will present with confidence sharp arguments with clear demonstration that a fact is not the way we think it is.
Here are some keys to their arguments:
Technicality: Facts can be demonstrated and they often rely on discoveries that someone made that clearly demonstrate their argument. The demonstration is based on sharp and technical data that we can’t directly refute, except if we search about the individual himself that made the discovery and/or if we have this specific technical knowledge. It is important here to specify that these proofs are not commonly accepted for two reasons: 1-the academic explanation would be that these findings are not made within science’s methodology (both social and natural sciences) and that it invalidates the argument and 2-the tenants of conspiracy theories argue that those findings are automatically rejected by officials (scientists, politicians, etc.) because they contradict the official discourse.
Aggressive deduction: Deductive approach of knowledge normally suppose hypothesis but to make a valid research, the researcher must somehow be detached from it. People presenting such theories are often very involved in their arguments and have strong general assumption that may lead to hasty generalization and/or exaggeration (i.e, if you start your researches with strong personal assumption or even conviction about your object, there is a risk that you lead your results toward these apprehensions).
Hasty generalisation: is a well-known sophism. It happens when you isolate a precise fact and either apply it to every situation or make it the pillar or your argumentation, leaving aside a lot of information. Plot theorists will always focus on a precise fact, sometime a missing, unclear or simply an information they don’t understand from the “official discourse” and turn it into a complete explanation of what they call a conspiracy.
These are the main shortcuts they use in their argumentation. Of course, I present them from my anthropologist point of view and my goal here is not to invalidate this knowledge. I want to understand better why we, as academics who now have the burden of proof, won’t ever be able to convince them they are wrong.
2-Proofs and belief system
After a long discussion with proponents of an alternative vision of history, you finally agree that no agreement is possible. This situation normally happens in debates when you reach a “no man’s land” which is one’s values and beliefs. The interesting aspect here is that debate is supposed to be about facts, detached from personal interests.
Science is effectively a system of belief with its own values, as Thomas Kuhn, Robert K. Merton, Pierre Bourdieu and Yves Gingras shown us in their writings. Being the paradigm of knowledge (i,e, it is socially accepted that we think almost everything in terms of science), it is normal that we turn to the scientific method when we want to know more about the world surrounding us. The problem here is the partial use of science: it is important for plot theorists to demonstrate their thoughts with facts and serious studies of the phenomenon but the data they use in their demonstrations are normally made by self-proclaimed specialists of the subject.
Science is an institution offering a system of evaluation and recognition of scientific contribution. Even if it sometimes suffers some flaws (i.e, it can be difficult to be heard, published or obtain research funding if you do not have the right relations with the right persons), the institution is based on rigorous research criteria that even non-positivists researchers borrows and perpetuate. However, a closer examination of researches that stipulate alternative version of history, intertwined with conspiracy elements, rapidly demonstrate the lack of rigor in their studies. Most of the proofs are based on essays written by crossover writers or academics and Youtube videos. However, the simple affirmation and creation of doubts is not enough to prove anything.
I think this misunderstanding highlights a different conception of the world at large and the way things are. In fact, you can’t find any common ground when it comes to demonstration of facts because conspiracy theorists won’t bring any satisfying proof to the academic subscribing to rigorous research methods, not to say science. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of conspiracy theories but to demonstrate that both belong to different belief systems, like religion is also different from science and stipulate a different conception of life. I am aware that I subscribe to a certain knowledge paradigm and demonstrate my own point of view when I present this knowledge corpus.
The theories often target government and education institutions pretending that they may know the truth but will hide it from the public. They will therefore show a lack of confidence toward official institutions and one will note that they don’t seem to understand how they really work.
Education is accused of not teaching the facts as they really are: “they” prefer to transmit an “official” version of history. Moreover, the theorists will accuse the education system to discredit any dissident version of the facts and even prevent the lucids from sharing their knowledge. Counter argument here would be that science gives space for any rigorous research that is not directed to hurt an individual (or a group of) since it does not respect the ethical conventions. What about the politically incorrect subjects or conclusions? Research will only be declared politically incorrect if it has the goal to offend or can offend person(s) directly by the realisation of the research itself. We are not talking about conclusion here, but premises that must consider existing researches, aspect that existing theories won’t take account of.
The most targeted institution is actually the government. Having a girlfriend who is doing her master thesis on public administration, I can confirm that most conspirators have no idea how government works. It is a really complex institution involving a great number of departments governed by procedures and, most of all, involves thousands of people. I must admit that decision making processes should be more transparent but overall, decisions are made according to a regulated bureaucratic and democratic system. There is no room for a single person or small group of person in the government to take over all the political engine. However, when it happens, it is called corruption or «state capture» (thanks to Sophie 😉 and it is severely condemned. Some politicians may have more influence in their respective sphere but it will never be as conspirator present it: underground and out of the sight of a whole population (especially when a portion of the population works for the government).
I think that this lack of confidence toward institutions is deeper and concern the individuals themselves who defend conspiracy theories. Knowing is an essential part of our lives and we can’t know everything. Bioanthropologists like Bernard Chapais (professor of anthropology at UdeM) even think that the expansion of our brain size lead us to create shortcut explanations of the world surrounding us. On a more personal level, I think that they show a lack of self-confidence so these explanations of the world may empower them. This empowerment comes from the fact that they belong to a small community of individuals who really knows “what is happening or happened”. What is more exciting than finally have the key to explain everything? It makes sense!!!
Guy Lanoue (professor of anthropology at UdeM) thinks that people living in a complex postmodern society lose grasp when it comes to explain the world they live in. They will therefore find alternative explanations that suits them, the goal being to enforce their “self”. They create a world where they can control every aspect and clearly explain them, giving them the confidence that they are the “one who knows”. This may explain why people are ready to trade off the official version of facts for an alternative one they will find on Youtube or a questionable website.
The problem is that individuals promote false explanation and theories that float between what is true and is not; it is not a problem to question what we normally take for granted but a rigorous questioning is thereafter necessary to put things in perspective. The reason is that conspiracy theories proponents promote their arguments as if they were based on scientific facts and explanations but they finally belong to a completely different belief system which makes the contradiction impossible.