What Should We Make of Conspiracy Theories?

Thinking About Conspiracy Messages, Part 1.

by Patricia Engler on March 31, 2021
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Are “conspiracy theories” technically even theories? How can we tell if they’re true? Let’s begin investigating how to think critically about conspiracy messages, as discerning between real and imagined scenarios is becoming ever more relevant in today’s culture.

“Patricia!” the staff member came jogging over, her eyes wide.

Uh oh...

Evening shifts were usually quiet at the greenhouse where I worked between university semesters. But by the looks of things, trouble had come knocking tonight.

“I just spent half an hour—no, forty-five minutes—with a customer who wouldn’t let me get away because he was talking about—conspiracy theories! He says tech companies are planning to take over the world—and there are people living on Venus—and cell phones are going to destroy us all—and aliens have infiltrated human society—”

Oh. Well then.

It’s not always easy knowing how to respond to conspiracy theories, even in a quiet greenhouse—much less in today’s climate of societal upheaval, division, and uncertainty. Researchers suggest that conspiracy theories can become especially attractive in such climates.1 Besides offering the alluring promise of inside knowledge, conspiracy theories allow people to seek meaning behind events, find patterns amidst chaos, and reclaim a sense of control over unpredictable environments. Conspiracy theories may also prompt a fear response, inviting us to react based on emotion rather than logic.

Of course, the fact that a conspiracy message may be psychologically appealing doesn’t tell us whether the message is true or false. How can we discern between real and imagined conspiracy scenarios to walk wisely in today’s culture, where conspiracy theories abound?

The Need for Biblical Discernment

Proverbs 22:3 (ESV) states, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” So, where there are real causes for concern, we want to be informed about them to respond biblically and logically. However, Proverbs 14:15 also observes, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” So, we don’t want to be gullible in believing and spreading everything we hear. This is especially true because, if we develop a reputation for buying into alarming—but unsubstantiated—explanations, we may lose credibility for calling out substantiated concerns, as happened in the story of the boy who cried wolf.

All these factors highlight our need to exercise biblical, critical thinking in response to conspiracy theories. To start, we’d better define what a conspiracy theory is.

Not Technically “Theories”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a conspiracy theory is “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.”2 But what do we mean by “theory?” In science, a theory is considered a broad explanation that has been shown to be consistent with tons of experimental data or other observable facts. (Incidentally, the story of evolutionary origins is inconsistent with much observational data, so should not be called a “theory,” as this article discusses.) But when it comes to conspiracy theories, we usually mean “theory” in the sense of what the Merriam-Webster Dictionary calls “an unproved assumption” or “conjecture.”3 So, when we say, “conspiracy theory,” we often mean “conspiracy conjecture.”

Conjectures vs. Data

This distinction will be important to keep in mind when sorting through what’s real and what’s imaginary, as Part 2 of this article will unpack. For now, it’s enough to hint that a major key lies in discerning the difference between “conspiracy conjectures” and “conspiracy data.”

Genuine conspiracies, underhanded plots, or other unsavory agendas do unfold in our sin-broken world, as history’s records of revolutions, assassinations, and political cover-ups illustrate. If data amass that are consistent with such an agenda occurring, then we do not want to ignore it.

On the flip side, if there aren’t much hard data, including observable facts, reliable eyewitness testimony, or documentation from original sources consistent with a conspiracy explanation, then we don’t have much reason to believe that explanation. And if the explanation is inconsistent with many observable facts, that’s good reason not to believe it.

Considering Other Explanations

Even if some limited facts are consistent with a “conspiracy theory,” the “conspiracy theory” is likely only one interpretation of those facts. So, it’s useful to consider whether there may be other explanations for those facts that make at least as much sense. For example, I once heard someone tell me that a certain individual was involved in organized crime. When I asked how they knew this, they answered that the person was “well to do” and worked on business the family didn’t know about.

Involvement in organized crime is one way to explain those observations, but it’s not the only way. So, always ask what’s data, what’s conjecture, and whether there are other ways to explain any data that make at least as much sense. (If these steps sound suspiciously like the ones required for Critical Thinking Check #6, Check the Interpretations, that’s because they are the same.)

A Critical Response

In summary, the pervasiveness of “conspiracy theories” in every imaginable realm of society—from social media to tranquil greenhouses—demands that we think biblically and critically in response. We need to be informed about genuine causes for concern in order to walk wisely in our fallen world. But we also must not fall for the psychological sway of “conspiracy theories,” which persuade without using sound logic. This is especially true because “conspiracy theories” aren’t typically theories in the scientific sense but rather unproven conjectures. Discerning data from conjecture is the first key to sorting through conspiracy messages. However, fully responding to such messages will take a little more critical thinking. Stay tuned for Part 2!

Further reading:

Fact Checking Snopes: Creationism Not a Conspiracy

There Is No Darwin Conspiracy

Did We Really Land on the Moon?

Is the Earth Flat?

Bloodline: A Documentary Follow-up to The Da Vinci Code

Footnotes

  1. Karen Douglas, Robbie Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka, "The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 26, no. 6 (2017): 538–542.
  2. “Conspiracy theory,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conspiracy%20theory, accessed February 11, 2021.
  3. “Theory,” Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theory, accessed February 11, 2021.

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