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Uses and abuses of conspiracy theory

Published on 26 March 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

When too many unknowns chase too few equations one gets the “over-determination problem”: too many possible explanations for the same phenomenon. One has no way of choosing among them objectively. Conspiracy theories are analogous: too many unknowns for the few facts we observe.

Uses and abuses of conspiracy theory

In a recent piece Ahmed BADAWI[1] defends the use of “conspiracy theories” in political analysis by lowering the standard from “true” to “plausible”:

The objective of political analysis is not to judge, as in a court of law, but to understand and put forward a plausible explanation. One therefore could, and should, worry less about the stuff of tabloid curiosity, the identity of the acting subject, and focus more on identifying plausible mechanisms and on understanding outcomes: who wins, who loses, and what are the implications of any political event for the equilibrium of power among the various players.

It is here that the assumption of conspiracy is most useful. When information is imperfect, it helps to complete the picture and to join the dots. It is a device, a method of explanation.

Lowering the standard, I’d argue, does not help much – ir simply yields illusions.

  • In a complex social system the set of possible causes and their immediate inter-connections and sequences – let alone the emergent properties – are never fully known. The search for original “truth” (causa causans) is a distraction.
  • One need not know “the truth” or even “plausible truth” in order to understand implications of an event. We need not invent antecedents in order to hypothesize consequents[2]. Precursors are only interesting should they imply inevitabilities (like planetary motion). In historical processes this is never the case.

Old-fashioned Marxism understood this: it did not bother with intent or personal responsibility, for individuals according to its “scientific” theory were embedded in broad social forces that transcend individual agency. The “subjective” role was of no import. Enemies of the people were liquidated on class-action grounds.

We have gone the other extreme and scramble backward in search of original and “true” individual intent. We believe in agency and personal responsibility. In practice we end up with agents who are inherently “evil” – Carl SCHMITT and his (close to Manichean) school reflects this view. We liquidate enemies on tautological grounds.

I’m not sure that this is superior to Marxism. I’d rather be “evil” as part of a group than be a social-Darwinist reject.

When truth no longer can be established plausibility is the compromise – says BADAWI – some would call it populist slander.

A better middle way might be to search for and understand factors involved – necessary conditions all – but stopping short of establishing sufficient causation. This may not be enough for prophecies, but one can build thoughtful scenarios on it.

History appears when, among infinite possible future trajectories, contingence chooses just one. We’ll always be surprised by the eventual choice, but we may be somewhat prepared for it if we know the range of possibilities.

[1]           Ahmed BADAWI (2012): in defence of conspiracy as a method. https://www.opendemocracy.net/ahmed-badawi/making-sense-of-egypt-part-one-in-defence-of-conspiracy-as-method

[2]           See Jorge Louis BORGES (1999): Kafka and his precurors. In: Selected non-fictions. Ed. E. Weinberger. Pp.364-65.

Original post at DeepDip.

3 replies
  1. blahblah
    blahblah says:

    I have a book in my library
    I have a book in my library about Salt as factor in the American Civil War. Apparently, the South did not have access to salt, and was greatly handicapped by this. As you know, states have emerged around salt – a sorely neglected aspect of early history. The author whines: “If only we had had salt… it would have been different, and the South would not have lost the Civil War.

    Three aspects:

    (a) the choice of counterfact is not innocent. Its import is crucial, but not overwhelmingly so. Example: At Arcole Napoleon’s life was saved by a general who took the bullet instead. What if Napoleon had died young? There are so many possible evolutions – it is a rhetorical device to underline Napoleon’s personality, not an analytical device.

    (b) Arbitrarily, onde decides that nothing else changes. Well, if you wind up the tape of life, and let it out again (Stephen J. Gould), one should allow EVERYTHING to change. There is an implicit bias that favours the role of factor X over all others.

    (c) Beware of romanticism. Counterfactual historys tends to be redolent of nostalgia, and other emotional c..p. It is “dreaming the impossible dream”, and give the lost cause a “quasi life”. Assume the South had succeeded in Secession. What about the slave issue? That would not have gone away, and there was no concept in the US South about addressing it.

  2. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    Very nice piece, Aldo. But
    Very nice piece, Aldo. But let me challenge you on one aspect: I think the distinction Badawi introduces between “true” and “plausible” is an important one. One need not be a pure philosophical idealist who would assume that world and mind are the same to acknowledge that “true” is unattainable. Hence, I agree with your point on the search for original truth being a distraction. However, I don’t agree that the call for the “plausible” should be equated with a lowering of standards. Depending on your philosophical leanings, the search for any cause (necessary or sufficient) can be seen as the search for plausability. Ultimately, from a pragmatist perspective it is the search for a plausible narrative of events. It is the stories we tell about the world. We can’t compare these stories with “the real”. We can only judge them in terms of plausability. A distinction between condition and cause does not change this.

  3. Jovan Kurbalija
    Jovan Kurbalija says:

    The counter-factual history
    The counter-factual history (what if) could help us to see that there are always possibilities for many possible futures. Starting from historical ones… what if Cleopatra’s nose was different… up to recent ones… what if the US did not attack Iraq, etc. It is true that history unfolds in one real way, but sheer possibility of different histories is of the essence for those who think about future.


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