"Conspiracy Theories" … Aren't Theories

The late Underground Grammarian once wrote:

Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all tissues of thought.
Sobering stuff, even more so for those of us who occasionally write things other people might accidentally read.

That was brought to mind while reading the introduction to The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin, which I mentioned I was reading a few days back. Smolin talks about the nature of a "theory":

In science, for a theory to be believed, it must make a new prediction — different from those made by previous theories — for an experiment not yet done. For the experiment to be meaningful, we must be able to get an answer that disagrees with that prediction. When this is the case, we say that a theory is falsifiable — vulnerable to being shown false. The theory also has to be confirmable; it must be possible to verify a new prediction that only this theory makes. Only when a theory has been tested and the results agree with the theory do we advance the theory to the ranks of true theories.
And, of course, I've been reading and writing a bit over the past few weeks about (so-called) "conspiracy theories" and "conspiracy theorists." Reading Smolin's clear thinking made me realize how that usage contributes, in a small but significant way, to the inanity field that surrounds the topic.

Because (so-called) "conspiracy theories" fail all tests Smolin specifies. They do not cohere well enough to make predictions that lie outside the range of more conventional explanations. They aren't falsifiable; when was the last time you heard of a "conspiracy theorist" who was disabused by mere contrary facts? And (hence) they aren't confirmable.

In short, to call these things "theories," and to call the people that make them "theorists" gives them (both "theories" and "theorists") much more respect than they deserve.

I've quoted Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" before, but it's worth doing so again:

I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. . [T]he idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

So I'm going to try to stop using the terms 'conspiracy theor(y|ist)' in this blog. For now, some variation on the word "fantasy" seem more appropriate, and tossing in references to paranoia now and then wouldn't be out of line. I'm hoping this will keep me on the side of the angels, and the Underground Grammarian.


[Amazon Link] [1.5
stars] [IMDb Link]

Sometimes you get lucky not believing the critics. You look (for example) at a director who's done excellent stuff before (like Wolfgang Petersen) or an perennially underrated actor (Kurt Russell), or just someone you like that you haven't seen in awhile (Richard Dreyfuss). And sometimes you get to see a pretty decent movie.

But this is not one of those times. If anything, the critics were overkind.

Everybody is just goin' through the motions here. You know the plot: big wave tips over big ship, most people die, but a plucky bunch of adventurers defy the odds to get to the bottom of the upside-down wreck. Well, some of them do; many of them wind up dead too. It doesn't make much difference, because we don't have any reason to care about any of them, it's all arbitrary and meaningless, waaaaah!

The special effects are cheesy. A big supposed-to-be-awesome opening shot of the ship is especially obvious CGI. I halfway expected to see Shrek jogging around the deck.

I was going to give it one star, which is the worst I usually give any movie I don't absolutely despise. But then I realized (a) hey, at least it was relatively short, only 98 minutes; (b) they didn't blame the big capsizing wave on global warming. So I'll add on a half star for that.

Last Modified 2012-10-22 6:28 AM EDT