Today, watching events unfold in the USA, it was clear for all to see that promotion of conspiracy theories and the devotion of their adherents can have real world effects. In spite of dozens of law suits challenging the outcome of the US elections having been withdrawn or dismissed for lack of evidence, thousands of Americans believe so fervently that Donald Trump only lost the election through a vast fraud that they chose to march on the Capitol Building housing the US Congress to protest. This resulted in an invasion of the building, the violent disruption of the proceedings and the deaths of four people.
It may not, however, be so simple. As we look at conspiracy theories, there is a tendency to adopt a simplistic binary approach. We might imagine that we could take the position that one particular story is a ‘real’ conspiracy, and another a ‘false’ conspiracy theory. But somebody in, say, 1960 proposing that Frank Olson was murdered by the US government after unknowingly being fed an experimental mind-control drug would almost certainly be considered delusional. And the Romanian journalist Mirela Neag in the 2020 film ‘Collective’ is quoted as saying, ‘The story is so mind-blowing, I’m afraid we’ll look crazy’: today’s ‘theory’ may be tomorrow’s ‘fact’.
Looked at this way, conspiracies, be they fact or fiction, exist on a spectrum, not in a binary ‘yes/no’ matrix. Abbie Richards, while working on her masters degree in climate science, recently devised an ingenious ‘Conspiracy Chart’ to help non-conspiracy-theorists to assess the various ideas currently in the ether.
In this inverted pyramid, she categorises the various theories into five levels:
- Things that actually happened
- We have questions
- Unequivocally false but mostly harmless
- Dangerous to yourself and others
- World ruled by supreme shadow ‘elites’. Once you believe one, you usually believe most. Get help!
She delineates these as discrete categories separated by specific demarcation lines:
- Speculation line
- Leaving reality
- Science denial
- The anti-Semitic point of no return
If today’s ‘theory’ might indeed become tomorrow’s ‘fact’, however, the boundaries would need to be more blurred, the pyramid need to be more nuanced, and each of us would have our own personal subjective version of the ‘conspiracy spectrum’.
Abbie’s direction of flow is from ‘grounded in reality’ upward to ‘detached from reality’ implying a shared or ‘consensus’ reality as its anchor. Without a long philosophical discussion of social constructionism (about the nature of shared reality and perception), let us suggest that ‘consensus reality’ simply means what a group of people, a society, culture, nation or religion, generally agrees as being ‘real’, although in an era dominated by identity politics and societies which laud individuality, it seems inevitable that ‘consensus reality’ will be harder to achieve. A chart with discrete, universally agreed layers would thus need to be replaced by a blurred, fluid, personally subjective rainbow.