Many people condemn them. Most people have no idea what they are.
Put it this way.... define "conspiracy."
Try. For many people, it's equivalent to any uncertain theory that seems too convoluted and implausible to be true. Much scientific work would fall under the definition most people hold for "conspiracy."
That is, for most people, if a speculation or conjecture conflicts with their established notions and isn't simple-mindedly self-evident or absolutely proven with "smoking gun" in-your-face evidence, then it may be dismissed out-of-hand and labeled a "conspiracy theory" to avoid further thought. A form of the fallacy of the "argument from incredulity" (my lack of imagination means I can dismiss you), which is a form of the argument from ignorance (the premise is false because you can't prove it ). (See also this or this.)
Here I would like to discuss the form of argumentum ad ignorantiam which I will label argumentum ex coniuratio theoria -- the argument from conspiracy theory.
This method -- the method of first checking to see if something sounds like a conspiracy theory -- is primarily a means of shutting down legitimate conjecture and rational examination. I emphasize "sounds like."
Speculation qualifies as a true conspiracy theory when at least one of two factors is present:
1.) There is either no evidence whatsoever for the speculation, which consists of arbitrary mental constructs; and
2.) When there is known evidence which openly contradicts the speculation and which is being consciously evaded by the person(s) doing the speculation.
Technically, I might note, a conspiracy theory isn't a theory at all, since a legitimate theory doesn't contain the elements of (1) or (2) above.
There is also "Occam's Razor," -- the principle of using the least complex hypothesis to explain the known facts -- but too often this is used incorrectly to justify a form of evasion, since by ignoring enough facts and other complexity you can conveniently show that your simpler explanation for things must be the right one. Religious arguments come to mind.
The legitimate application of Occam's Razor is different. It lies in using the Razor to prioritize hypotheses being investigated -- and every hypothesis must try to explain the same body of facts -- that is, all the facts that are known. You start by investigating the least complex hypothesis first; if it fails to explain all the known facts, you dump it and move on to a different hypothesis, choosing the simplest of those other hypothesis. Loop and repeat. (When a hypothesis becomes proven, Occam's Razor no longer applies, because a proven hypothesis is the only one that can explain all the known facts.)
To my observation, people who like to condemn others as conspiracy theorists do it for a number of reasons. The honest ones want to advocate a rational method. The dishonest ones like the moral authority it grants them, and from that, a sense of intellectual superiority and power over others, which they attain by being smarter, wiser. "Keep your conspiracies to yourself" would summarize how the latter approach such things.
I will note: honest anti-conspirialists don't rush to condemn wild-eyed notions; they simply point out the facts that contradict a wild-eyed notion.
"We never make assertions, Miss Taggart," said Hugh Akston. "That is the moral crime peculiar to our enemies. We do not tell--we show. We do not claim--we prove. It is not your obedience that we seek to win, but your rational conviction. You have seen all the elements of our secret. The conclusion is now yours to draw--we can help you to name it, but not to accept it--the sight, the knowledge and the acceptance must be yours." (in Atlas Shrugged)There is a larger issue which most people miss: the logical fallacy of "jumping to conclusions" (hasty generalization, dicto simpliciter) often applies to both sides.
Sometimes there is insufficient evidence to formulate any theory at all. More precisely, when the possible explanations for the known facts are too great, the certainty of any speculation or hypothesis is too low to assert it. It becomes ridiculous to claim anything as an explanation without more facts.
A good example comes from medicine: you feel some stomach discomfort, accompanied by blurred vision, let's say. You go to an online medical database and conclude you've got one of 1000 possible conditions. Which is it? No way to know without more facts, and you pick the most dire one, brain cancer. It could be lack of sleep, but you choose the worst one to worry about.
This erroneous method of cognition is common even in the sciences. (For instance, in the "science" of global warming.)
The same fallacy often applies to many of the people who condemn conspiracy theorists. Even the more honest practitioners of the creed of Anti-Conspirializing often slip into the faux moral indignation of sneering at what they think is an unlikely "theory," hypothesis or speculation by resting on the laurels of mental laziness or social conformity or appeals to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam).
Typically, the anti-conspirialists live in their own unadmitted cloistered world of assumptions and prejudices -- limiting context, knowledge, facts or logical analysis to justify their assertions that "X" or "Y" is a conspiracy theory, they will exclude germane facts to defend their opinions. In some circles, this is known as the method of a self-licking ice cream cone.
For instance -- many people would consider it absurd "conspiracy theorizing" to suggest that Obama is deliberately trying to destroy the United States -- but that would be ignoring (deliberately and willfully) a massive body of context-- not merely his background, but that such destruction is the explicit ideology of Marx. (Thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis in Marxian theory means to tear everything down at the "anti-thesis" level of historical determinism; but for more evidence, you need simply read what all Marxists openly assert they intend to do.)
You point out Obama's Marxist roots, associates, ad infinitum, and they will claim he's not a communist, because no one could be that bad, so he must be a socialist. Or, he's not a socialist, because no American politician could be that bad, so he must be "pragmatic" with a concern for the poor. Whatever.
You point out that all his friends and family and associates are communists, and they'll say communism has never been practiced before, because the failures of the Soviet Union, Mao, Castro, Khmer Rouge prove it wasn't communism, because by definition communism is successful. (These last are the least honest -- this is how communists will answer you before condemning your conspiracy theories.)
Among the more honest who condemn conspiracy theorists (which is more interesting) a social standard is often at work. "It can't be true because most people don't hold that." (On facebook, most often in the form, "it can't be true because Snopes says it's not true.") "It can't be true because I haven't read it yet in a reputable forum or newspaper." "It can't be true because I haven't heard it from an authority or expert." (Global warming advocates love this approach, and explicitly manipulate it.)
Sometimes the standard isn't social but psychological: "It can't be true because it would upset my world-view."
An example of that last one would be: "Voter fraud can't be rampant in the United States because I want to believe we have an honest system of democratic government." But it might also be relevant to a belief in God, or the idea that the government is here to help.
Sometimes the standard isn't social or psychological, but motivational: "It can't be true because it would require a hell of a lot of work on my part to prove it's not true."
These cases of "more honest" people are typically about people who are mentally lazy or evading at a deeper level of psychology -- hence my scare quotes around the phrase "more honest."
Not all speculation is a conspiracy theory, and speculation is not a dirty word -- it's a word that exists for a reason: it's the starting point for explaining anything. It's one of the starting points for any reasoning process that is about forming propositions to explain some body of facts. Not the ending point, the starting point.
An honest person sees facts that have no explanation, and formulates an idea, a speculation about the cause. A rational person keeps his mind open to facts that would disprove or support an unproven speculation, and amends his speculations to account for them -- but especially to facts that might disprove his hypothesis, at least in the early stages of validation, because disproof by the law of non-contradiction is much easier than proving something.
At some point, there may accumulate a sufficient body of evidence to raise a speculation to the level of a formal, precise hypothesis, but the search for new facts continues as before. There is no change in the method, only in the degree of precision of the hypothesis.
As long as (1) or (2) aren't violated, at no time does an unproven hypothesis qualify as a conspiracy theory. It's -- a hypothesis. There's a reason this word exists. It describes a stage in the formulation of any proposition along the path from speculation to tentative hypothesis to unproven theory to fully proven theory.
A note on history: Some people try to claim that there never has been a conspiracy in history that was proven. They cherry-pick their "evidence" (to the extent they have any at all), and show there are no conspiracies to manipulate the price of commodities, or of aliens, or of whatever -- always easy cases to make, or cases that are too complex to easily disprove.
But conspiracies do exist -- there is a reason the word exists.
I return to my first question: what is a "conspiracy"? Definitions vary, but generally, it's a secret plan by a group of people to accomplish some end which is often unlawful or harmful, or to advance their interests.
Would a corporate marketing strategy qualify? Most corporations conceal their plans from competitors. It's done by a group of people in secret. You might say it's lawful -- so it's not a conspiracy. Borderline case.
Would a mass movement like global warming apply? That is, a movement to impose strict sanctions on the use of oil and coal and other hydrocarbons? It's done out in the open -- but it distorts facts and many of the leading proponents conceal their ultimate ends, including the destruction of industrial civilization. It's legal -- but I think it qualifies as a conspiracy because of the concealment and the destructive ends.
Would the spread of Islamic theology and jihad apply? Definitely: the spread of shariah and the methods employed, however explicitly layed-out in the Koran and Hadith, are still secret to most gullible Westerners who know nothing of the methods of Islam (and who don't want to know) -- the proponents count on that. (All you have to do is watch Memri TV to see how news is manipulated in the Islamic world, depending on whether you listen in English or in Arabic.)
Would the intelligence operations of any nation qualify? Well, it's outside the law (being the action of one nation against others), but I think it might qualify as a conspiracy because of the secretiveness, but especially when there is a destructive aspect, as it did with the old Soviet Union.
The Soviets were masters of conspiracies (see, for instance, this blog post of mine), and so were their willing puppets, the communist internationale writ large. The Soviets, according to many defectors, ex-pats and citizens of the former Easter Bloc, had all sorts of conspiracies to manipulate, direct and take over entire governments in Europe or the world over. (The U.S., maybe?) But of course we know of the many spies they did put in place around the world.
Conspiracies exist -- it's a fact. Some ends can't be accomplished except in secret. Some enemies can't be conquered -- except by concealing means and ends.
But the historical part is this: the term "conspiracy theory" didn't become widely used till after the Congressional hearings in the late forties to expose communists in the United States, during the HUAC hearings. In response, the communists concocted a brilliant conspiracy to counter future hearings -- they demonized anyone who suspected their conspiracies... by calling them conspiracy theorists. I note that it follows a method condemned by Ayn Rand:
"There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure... [It] consists of threatening to impeach an opponent’s character by means of his argument, thus impeaching the argument without debate. Example: “Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X’s argument is false.” . . . The falsehood of his argument is asserted arbitrarily and offered as proof of his immorality.
"In today’s epistemological jungle, that second method is used more frequently than any other type of irrational argument. It should be classified as a logical fallacy and may be designated as The Argument from Intimidation:
The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: “Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.”
...The tone is usually one of scornful or belligerent incredulity. “Surely you are not an advocate of capitalism, are you?” And if this does not intimidate the prospective victim—who answers, properly: “I am,”—the ensuing dialogue goes something like this: “Oh, you couldn’t be! Not really!” “Really.” “But everybody knows that capitalism is outdated!” “I don’t.” “Oh, come now!” “Since I don’t know it, will you please tell me the reasons for thinking that capitalism is outdated?” “Oh, don’t be ridiculous!” “Will you tell me the reasons?” “Well, really, if you don’t know, I couldn’t possibly tell you!”
All this is accompanied by raised eyebrows, wide-eyed stares, shrugs, grunts, snickers and the entire arsenal of nonverbal signals communicating ominous innuendoes and emotional vibrations of a single kind: disapproval.
If those vibrations fail, if such debaters are challenged, one finds that they have no arguments, no evidence, no proof, no reasons, no ground to stand on—that their noisy aggressiveness serves to hide a vacuum—that the Argument from Intimidation is a confession of intellectual impotence.
...Let me emphasize that the Argument from Intimidation does not consist of introducing moral judgment into intellectual issues, but of substituting moral judgment for intellectual argument. Moral evaluations are implicit in most intellectual issues; it is not merely permissible, but mandatory to pass moral judgment when and where appropriate; to suppress such judgment is an act of moral cowardice. But a moral judgment must always follow, not precede (or supersede), the reasons on which it is based.
(In her collection of essays, The Virtue of Selfishness)In the case of rushing to condemn someone as a conspiracy theorist -- without factual evidence or logical arguments -- the same method serves to make someone look smarter, wiser, more knowledgable, less gullible, less wild-eyed in a simple stroke -- hence the appeal of the term to many people. It's an excuse not to think too hard to refute someone, and to distance themselves quickly from someone who might destroy one's social standing as a keeper of the faith -- any faith. Faith in God, faith in Democracy, faith in "accepted" scientific theories, you name it.
That is the legacy we have today -- a term and a method of fallacious argumentation that preserves the canons of the norm and the gospel of the gullible while destroying anyone else's capacity to speculate about new ideas or potential dangers (and any new idea is a potential danger to the advocates of the status quo) -- while the obscurantists, Marxists, environmentalists, Islamists and irrationalists destroy the remnants of our way of life. But hey, that's all just a conspiracy theory.