The term conspiracy theory, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, originated in 1909. The full entry is here:
mid-14c., from Anglo-French conspiracie, Old French conspiracie "conspiracy, plot," from Latin conspirationem (nominative conspiratio) "agreement, union, unanimity," noun of action from conspirare (see conspire); earlier in same sense was conspiration (early 14c.), from French conspiration (13c.), from Latin conspirationem. An Old English word for it was facengecwis. As a term in law, from 1863. Conspiracy theory is from 1909.Combined with the meaning of theory, I stand accused of investigating "conjectures of agreement." To that, I plead guilty. It is rather a badge of honor, really. It means, with all clarity, that I engage in open-minded research into the origins and purposes of 'groups who agree.' Why and how this term came to have such power over the minds of so many people is itself a conspiracy theory.
A recent experience with a friend of mine brought this issue back to my mind. I had posted an article by Zero Hedge concerning some topic I've forgotten now. This friend twisted off on me, saying that Zero Hedge was written by people using pseudonyms and spouting conspiracy theories. I assume this was an attempt to discredit the source and myself. I replied that Mark Twain used a pseudonym and Julius Caesar's assassination is a conspiracy theory, and both are taught in institutions of higher learning. There was no reply.
The fact of the matter is that all groups who engage in unified action where outsiders can only speculate as to the reasons and methods behind said action is, by definition, a conspiracy theory. In effect, everything the US Congress does leads to conspiracy theories, since no one seems to have a clue as to why they do what they do - quite possibly even the members themselves.
Arthur Schopenhauer famously observed that, "All truth passes through three phases. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." This succinctly describes the evolution of conspiracy theories.
Case in point, another friend, who for many years has, at times ridiculed, and at other times angrily castigated me for stating that I left the mass media/news industry because it was full of 'spooks' (CIA operatives). Recently, I shared an article offering proof that the CIA had, for many years, manipulated the arts and media as a means of engaging in psychological warfare. This friend laughed it off saying that everyone knew that. I just sat back in my chair and stared at the screen for a time.
A great many years ago, I and a lot of other people were going off about the use of black helicopters in domestic covert operations without public knowledge. I had personally seen them and was rabidly trying to tell folks (this was back when I actually thought I could wake people up), but the resistance was formidable.
A dear friend of mine, who happens to be both a lawyer and a pilot, finally threw down the gauntlet and said he was going to talk to his buddy who "pushed tin" for a living. His contention was that no aircraft, even military, could operate in the US without an N-number/tail number.
About a week later, I got an email from him - the tone was rather subdued - that yes, indeed, there were black helicopters operating within the US and that the N-numbers and other identifying meaks were painted on in infrared paint, so they could only be viewed with night-vision instruments.
Nowadays, everyone knows there are black helicopters.
It is so Orwellian that it spooks me sometimes. Recall that Winston Smith made the point that Oceania had not always been at war with Eastasia, but that at some point in the past, had been at war with Eurasia, yet everyone among his associates didn't seem to remember that Oceania's mortal enemy changed over time.
So it is with conspiracy theories. When one tries to discuss them in rational conversations as a means of understanding the motivations behind the news headlines, one is met with angry walls of disregard. Yet, later when the "authorities" decide to acknowledge these conspiracies, suddenly people don't remember ever having been violently opposed to such "obvious" facts.
Keep in mind that the people I mention here are reasonably intelligent and educated. They know how to formulate an argument and debate. Yet, when it comes to things that are commonly labelled "conspiracy theories," their normal mental processes and educational backgrounds seemingly shut down. Their natural curiosity and inquisitiveness appears to short-circuit and they react, not with reason, but with emotion.
It's rather scary, really.
In the scientific method, one speculates that two events are related by some unknown cause and effect. The method then proceeds to hypothesis, where a specific set of circumstances creates the supposed relationship. The hypothesis is tested to establish whether the two events can be recreated using the surmised circumstances. Eventually, the theory is dismissed or accepted, and if accepted, may proceed to the tautology stage.
In all things, even with tautologies, we must be careful and mentally rigorous. As the physician William James rightly noted, "If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, it is enough if you prove that one single crow is white."
It is important for both sides of the conspiracy theory argument to keep in mind that established beliefs can be upset with a single fact, and we mustn't close our minds to new information if we truly seek truth. On the other side, we mustn't be so willing to dismiss accepted information that we overlook the obvious.
The term 'conspiracy theory' is too broad and meaningless to be useful in most things. It is so glib and generalized that it tempts even developed minds to dismiss new information because it seems too fantastic or falls outside our realm of acceptable reality. The intelligent person must purge themselves of this installed trip wire in order to maintain an open mind.
On the other hand, those who investigate such things must not be too eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the immortal words of Sigmund Freud, "A cigar is sometimes just a cigar." In the rush to ascribe nefarious motives to everything in our socio-political world can be a dangerous road, as well.
Many of us are too busy or intellectually slack to follow up the seemingly steady stream of messages coming to us from both sides. One side wants us to dismiss everything and fall in line with the Standard Model of Life, the Universe and Everything. The other side wants us to toss it all in favor of a seething, roiling darkness to be found under every stone turned. Both extremes are most likely wrong, and somewhere in the middle is the correct path - the Golden Mean.
Conspiracy theories do present an opportunity for the intellectually curious, though. Since so many people dismiss these types of things out of hand, one can add significantly to the conversation, even on a hobbyist basis. The amateur sleuth can provide valuable information to support or refute conspiracy claims by just using time constructively, rather than turning on the teevee, and so so without emotional outbursts and paranoid rantings.
It is important to distinguish between "believing," "thinking" and "knowing.". To believe in a conspiracy means that one is acting on faith without proof. To think a conspiracy exists is to admit a preponderance of evidence. To know something is to be in possession of clear evidence in fact.
Make it a game. The next time you hear or read something that you want to file under 'conspiracy theory,' instead make a note to go look it up and put a little time into understanding the reference. This little game has the potential to completely change your view of the world - your weltanschauung.
But perhaps that is why people are afraid of conspiracy theories.