When are conspiracies real? Reply to Ross Douthat, part 1

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Ross Douthat, an influential columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote a fascinating essay titled “A Better Way to Think about Conspiracies.” As it happens, I have always been puzzled by one of the most famous conspiracy theories of all time, the “stab-in-the-back” myth that was popular in Germany during the ill-fated Weimar Republic era (1919 to 1933). How did the Imperial German Army–an army that was said to be “undefeated on the battlefield”–end up losing the First World War (WWI)? According to one popular conspiracy theory at the time, Germany lost WWI because she was “stabbed in the back” by a wide variety of left-wing politicians and intellectuals, who were collectively referred to as “the November Criminals” for agreeing to Germany’s surrender on 11 November 1918. In reality, however, Germany had lost the war because her army lacked sufficient reserves and because the USA had entered the war in full force in mid-1918. So, how did this dangerous myth persist for so long and win over so many hearts and minds?

Now, fast forward to the JFK assassination or, even more recently, to 2020? Did Harvey Lee Oswald act alone? Were the 2020 elections stolen from President Trump? If the JFK plot or Trump’s election fraud claims are just crazy conspiracy theories, why do so many people still believe in them? In short, where do we draw the line between plausible conspiracy theories and far-fetched ones? Here is why Douthat’s conspiracy theory essay is worth reading: he formulates a four-part test for deciding which alleged conspiracies to keep an open mind about, “a tool kit for discriminating among different fringe ideas.” In brief, Douthat’s conspiracy theory test consists of the following four criteria:

  1. “Prefer simple theories to baroque ones.”
  2. “Avoid theories that seem tailored to fit a predetermined conclusion.”
  3. “Take fringe theories more seriously when the mainstream narrative has holes.”
  4. “Just because you start to believe in one fringe theory, you don’t have to believe them all.”

Alas, Douthat’s four-part test is woefully inadequate for several reasons, which I shall discuss in detail in my next few posts. For now, it suffices to say that both the German “stab-in-the-back” myth as well as Trump’s stolen election story–indeed, most of the conspiracy theories mentioned in the chart below–would most likely pass Douthat’s four-part test with flying colors.

Chart: Belief in Conspiracy Theories in the United States | Statista

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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3 Responses to When are conspiracies real? Reply to Ross Douthat, part 1

  1. Interesting! However, he’s missing one in my humble opinion. Boredom. Sometimes the facts are not as interesting as fiction (on some occasions the opposite is true). Especially in the arena of public policy, the inner mechanics could be viewed as opaque, confusing, and dull to the uninitiated.

    It stands to reason that conspiracy theories carry a higher entertainment value than the facts. Hence why folks like Alex Jones resemble the verbal prose of a WWE referee than the polished and sober eloquence of a pundit on C-SPAN. The entertainment aspect of conspiracy theories cannot be understated. I know David Icke and Mr. Jones have profited handsomely has conspiracy peddlers. While their content is complete trash, they are both talented in terms of market and identifying niche markets of the infotainment sphere.

    • Excellent observations! And out mutual “friend” David Hume might agree: the extent reason is the slave of our passions, I can see how the emotional aspect of conspiracy theories plays a key role.

  2. Pingback: Ross Douthat’s Razor | prior probability

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