The term "conspiracy theories" has been thrown out a great deal in political conversations I've been overhearing. I think the first time the phrase struck me as especially odd was during the Gulf War. There was a report that a certain U.S. diplomat had said things to Hussein that triggered the invasion of Kuwait, followed by speculation that this was deliberate, and counter-accusations of conspiracy theories.
Since then, I've been hearing it more frequently. The most recent presidential election, the attacks on September 11th, and so on.
Here's what I've been thinking:
To believe that human history is controlled by a secret cabal who are the real power behind all governments is, to use precise scientific terminology, to be a whacko nut case.
Okay, fine. But turn it around for a moment: Is there anyone so naive as to believe that a government is going to tell the whole truth to the population at all times? I don't think so. Are deals and arrangements, affecting the lives of many people, made by powerful individuals? Obviously. Every time the board of directors of a corporation has a meeting that results in a factory closing this happens. And certainly government does it--modern government could not do its job otherwise.
It does not take a belief in conspiracies to observe that groups of people have common interests, and will thus tend to favor similar things. To believe that some of these groups are powerful and have greater influence than others requires no stretch. To imagine some elements of them getting together and making plans from time to time doesn't strike me as absurd. Take it a step at time. At some point, you reach the ridiculous; but exactly where you get there is open to debate.
Where ought one to draw the line between whacko conspiracy theories and considering the possibility that certain decisions were made by powerful individuals who did not choose to let it be known they made them? I don't know the answer; I suspect one ought to take it on a case-by-case basis.
Did JFK die by a large conspiracy of the CIA and the Mafia? Hell, I don't know. I think the most significant thing about that is that such a huge proportion of the population of the United States feels that such a conspiracy is possible--that fact tells us a great deal about how Americans feel toward their government, which information is, to me, more fascinating that even knowing what the answer would be.
But here is what bothers me: throwing out the phrase, "conspiracy theory" is to dismiss an idea without giving it consideration. This has been done in cases where it is obviously inappropriate, and the kindest thing one can say about this is that it is intellectually sloppy. Perhaps it is a conspiracy to conceal the truth--no, forget I said that. :-)
I sometimes think that if the Watergate scandal were to break today, it would immediately be labeled a "conspiracy theory" and dismissed out of hand, instead of investigated. There are people who believe the moon landing was faked. These people ought to be answered. The absurdity of this notion should be made clear. The counter-arguments should be presented. The passive voice should be avoided. (Sorry). But it is terrible mistake to just say, "conspiracy theory" and then believe the answer has been given.
Did elements of the U.S. Government have advance knowledge about the attacks on September 11? Which elements? How high did this information go, and how much detail did they have? These are rhetorical questions--please lets not get into that. My point is, these are *reasonable* questions, and to simply say, "conspiracy theory" and toss them aside is unscientific, and does a disservice to anyone whose interest is in discovering truth.