How to tell if a conspiracy theory is true or not

Recently there’s been a lot of conspiracy theory going round. Conspiracies about Covid, about Russia, about the 2020 election, etc. Conspiracy theories have also multiplied due to the stretching of its definition, to the point where any question that challenges the official narrative is dismissed as conspiracy theory. In Germany in the spring of 2021 some people expressed concern that Germany’s strict Covid policy would turn to vaccine mandates next, which was dismissed as conspiracy theory by the same lawmakers that proposed the mandates six months later.

So apparently some conspiracy theories do come true. History has seen many conspiracies that seemed too crazy to be true but actually were. The CIA really did flood inner-city LA with crack cocaine in the early eighties. Nayirah’s 1990 testimony about Iraqi soldiers killing babies turned out to be completely made up, but nonetheless kicked off the first Gulf War.

However it might also be that too much conspiracy theory can rip a society apart because there is no more shared consensus of what is true. So if a conspiracy theory is false, we must suppress it. But if it’s true, we must pursue it so that the truth comes to light and those who abuse power come to justice. But how do we know the difference beforehand?

Psychoanalysts have pointed out that conspiracy theorists have a pathological motivation to believe in their theories, that can distort their rational thinking and make them fervent believers in the Lizard People theory for instance. The idea is that in the real world, people in power have no idea what they’re doing most of the time, and there’s nobody that can tell us how the world works or what we should do. Things are complex, confusing and contradictory, and it can become a source of great anxiety. The conspiracy theorist then solves this problem by imagining a Master who secretly controls everything behind the scenes. This Master could be the illuminati, the aliens, or Bill Gates, or… Even though this Master is always malevolent (we call the belief in a benevolent Master religion), it at least gives some meaning to the conspiracy theorist’s personal problems, it gives them someone to blame and fight against, it gives them a purpose. Much better than living in some meaningless chaos where you can’t even make sense of your suffering.

But couldn’t we apply the same logic to the people who oppose conspiracy theories? The people who get angry when you ask if jet fuel can really melt those steel beams. Don’t they also have a pathological investment in a certain figure of the Master, whether that be a faith in competent government, experts, or Science, to have the answers?

And what if real life conspiracies are not meant to secretly control our lives for the sake of some James Bond villainy, but are desperate attempts by people in power to cover up the fact that there is no Master? If Covid really was developed in a lab and let loose upon society deliberately, it was to hide the weird uncomfortable truth that highly financialized capitalism cannot reproduce itself anymore without some crisis to justify enormous quantitative easing. It’s an assertion of control to hide the fact that nobody is really in control.

So to answer my clickbait title, I think any conspiracy theory is truthful insofar as it opens up the space for doubt, for questions, for challenges to the official narrative. Insofar as it pokes holes in the seemingly objective, common-sense wisdom that can only be ideology. Insofar as it exposes the lie of a Master we didn’t even know we believed in or counted on. And we must fight anyone who would use the term “conspiracy theory” as a way to shut down questions and arguments, and force public debate down an ever narrowing path.

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