Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories

Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold

Abstract: This article aims to reinvigorate analytical debates on conspiracy theories. It argues that definitional attempts to set conspiracy theories apart from other theories are flawed. Blinded by the “irrational” reputation of conspiracy theories and deluded by the workings of institutionalized power such approaches fail to recognize that there are no inherent differences between the two categories. We argue that assessments of conspiracy theories should focus not on the epistemological qualities of these theories but on their interactions with the socio-political fields through which they travel. Because “conspiracy theory” is not a neutral term but a powerful label, attention to processes of labeling highlights these larger fields of power, while the theories’ trajectories illuminate the mechanisms by which truth and untruth are created. As such, this article offers a way forward for assessing both the truth and use value of conspiracy theories in the contemporary world. Keywords: conspiracy, labeling, power, theory, transparency

Blinded by power
As the object of conspiracy theories is secrecy, it is in their nature to attract popular attention. This is certainly true of recent times, which has seen an ever-expanding list of popular books and websites devoted to the topic. The general public seems to be particularly enticed or amused by wacky theories, such as the one that barcodes are intended to control people or the one asserting that NASA faked the first moon landings. If such theories are attractive to most because they offer a frivolous diversion (this is not to deny that some people take them very seriously), alternative claims about the 9/11 attacks have not only attracted attention from the general public, but have also been the subject of

mainstream media documentaries and the object of scholarly investigations.1 Such academic attention is a precarious undertaking for the involved scholars, because of the potential to be seen as a conspiracy theorist unworthy of academic status.2 Conspiracy theories may be intriguing to some and a sign of paranoia to others, but in any case the label “conspiracy theory” is a powerful one. The mere mentioning of the term may set off alarm bells, pushing the listener to doubt the credibility of the postulated theory. Given the public fascination with, and suspicion of, conspiracy theories, it is amazing that the most powerful theories of conspiracy—those that have the largest geopolitical impact—are not recognized as such. Over the past several years,

Focaal—Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 59 (2011): 66–80 doi:10.3167/fcl.2011.590105

and mismanagement of secret service agencies. these acts are not usually thought of as conspiracies. and many lower profile theories. beyond doubt. the identity of Wilson’s wife Valerie Plame Wilson as a covert CIA operative was leaked to the media by chief presidential adviser Karl Rove as well as Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. which.” and thereby for legitimizing the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Moreover. show that our present understanding of conspiracy and conspiracy theory requires substantial review. These insights about the ways in which theories of conspiracy are constructed and consumed as well as the potential of actual conspiracies to occur. In response to former US Am- bassador Joseph Wilson’s (2003) op-ed for the New York Times that Iraq had not attempted to acquire ingredients for nuclear weapons from Niger. yet will never obtain the negative label conspiracy theory one may also assume that there are theories of conspiracy that are true. intelligence mistakes. This problem of being “blinded by power” also has its reverse side. Critics have continued to discuss how exactly the theory was the combined result of deliberate government fabrications. and by refuting ideas that cannot be empirically staved. nor the product of a conspiracist mindset. the Bush administration had waged an active campaign of public disinformation and manipulation of key intelligence. The theory unavoidably faded when no WMDs were discovered and substantial ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda turned out to have been nonexistent. Plame Wilson 2007: 142). But they all failed to mention the most powerful conspiracy theory of the last decade. Lewis “Scooter” Libby (McClellan 2008: 2–3. elements within the administration began to seek ways to discredit their opponents (Falk 2005: 49). they proved to be key ingredients for building a “coalition of the willing.Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories | 67 we have asked friends and students to name the most powerful conspiracy theory of the past decades. will we be able to analyze political situations in a manner that is neither politically naïve. The Plame scandal and Libby’s subsequent conviction gives an account of concealed acts that occurred in the highest spheres of American power with the aim of distorting unfavorable evidence and thus undermining public debate on a major military intervention.4 In addition to this campaign of deliberate mystification. They suggest that our analytical faculty to make critical inferences about how political forces may collude is itself thoroughly influenced by asymmetrical power relations and flows. Although severely criticized. Although the assertions were not believed by everyone. In a short commentary. aiming to conceal any underlying motives for war and to discredit dissenting voices. when evidence that undermined the official rationale for war began to emerge. and later infamous. If there are theories of conspiracy that are patently untrue. But most significant for the purpose of this article is that the theory. address to the United Nations Security Council on 23 February 2003. the Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda hypothesis was pushed by a government that was itself conspiring at the very moment that it promoted its theory of conspiracy. The apparent incapability to recognize the most powerful theories of conspiracy as conspiracy theories and the tendency of some reallife conspiracies never to be labeled as such have important analytical implications.3 Even if we may never come to know all the details. This powerful conspiracy theory was dramatically displayed by Colin Powell in his famous. even after it was disproved. Their answers included the theory that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were committed or allowed by the US government. was the theory that Saddam Hussein secretly possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and was conspiring with Al Qaeda to level new attacks on the United States. the idea that Princess Diana was effectively murdered by the British royal family. analysts agree that in its attempt to sell the war. but will never be seen as true due to the negative connotations of their conspiracy theory label. Bayat (2006: 5) sums up the dilemma by stating that “[o]nly by acknowledging that real conspiracies can exist.” Arguing . was never labeled a conspiracy theory. Several authors have reflected on the problematic status of conspiracy theories.

Their comparisons of conspiracy theories to witchcraft. Coady postulates that a middle ground position of “realism” that does not suffer from either is most appropriate. theories. and 3) that their theorists suffer . in its most basic formulation. in other cases they serve the political status quo. the convergence of truth and use value needs to be at the center of analysis. and other occult cosmologies (Sanders and West 2003: 6.6 Given these rather straightforward meanings. Griffin 2007: 8). Acknowledging the difficulties and arguing for realism is only the first step. What distinguishes conspiracy theories from other theories is the precise manner in which such theories are embedded in socio-political fields. several philosophers have tried to isolate the epistemological deficiencies of conspiracy theories. putting the two terms together should be equally uncomplicated. Anthropologists have tended to focus on the former. It neither says anything about the claims of any specific theory. a (political) conspiracy theory is an explanation which postulates that an event is the (at least partly intended) effect of activities that have been secretly planned and carried out by several actors (see Basham 2003: 91. However. A fruitful assessment of conspiracy theories should thus not restrict its analysis to the postulated claims but study the socio-political trajectories or routes of those claims. Aiming to account for this poor performance. there is nothing mysterious about the terms under review: conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories can also be potent tools in discrediting opponents and in rallying supporters. Among these. we argue that in doing so they reveal a lingering functionalism that fails to interrogate systematically the links between power and truth. For many observers the basic definitions outlined above are unsatisfactory. because they do not reveal anything about the theories’ truth-value and their perceived low performance in this regard. As such we offer new insight in how we should go about analyzing a world in which conspiracies occur. Indeed. in which conspiracy theorizing is rampant. Coady 2006b: 116–17. Conspiracy theories as (mischievous) theories On the face of it. the most frequently mentioned are 1) that conspiracy theories rely excessively on errant data. This article emphasizes the second aspect: the need to chart an analytical strategy that is capable of capturing both the truth and use value of theories of conspiracy. the use value of these theories equally requires attention. Usually the term conspiracy denotes activities that are illegal or at least controversial and therefore need to be hidden from public scrutiny. Apart from studying the situational truth-value. If in some cases conspiracy theories serve as commentaries on the world. that is.68 | Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold along similar lines Coady states that “the errors of excessive willingness and excessive unwillingness to believe in conspiracy theory correspond to two epistemic vices. It only means that this explanation has not gained the status yet of “fact”5 and is thus open to falsification. on conspiracy theorizing as subaltern strategies to make sense of impersonal and opaque forces. and in which there is a dire need of dispassionate analysis of conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Silverstein 2002: 647) have rightly drawn attention to the sense-making effects of conspiracy theorizing. nor does it offer a strategy to assess disputed (and undisputed) theories of conspiracy. If we define theories as postulated explanations of phenomena in the world. and conspiracy theories. which I have called ‘paranoia’ and ‘naivety’ respectively” (2006a: 10). in which the label conspiracy theory is a vital political tool. In providing a definition of “conspiracy”— and we restrict ourselves to political conspiracies—we can be equally brief. then to name something a theory does not in itself offer an assessment of its epistemic status. as a conspiracy refers to activities that are planned or carried out in secret by (at least two) political actors. or as interrogations of obscure power mechanisms. shamanism. 2) that conspiracy theories are difficult to falsify because contradictory evidence will be interpreted as affirmation of the existence of a conspiracy.

The central problem is that the authors cited above start with the conclusion—that conspiracy theories are likely to be false—and then work their way backward to see if epistemological differences can be found between (false) conspiracy theories and (true) official accounts. relied almost exclusively on what at the time counted as errant data. Moreover. a 2006 Harris poll found that 50 percent of Americans continued to believe that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Major scientific breakthroughs. This brings us back to the “realist position. these contributions have been more successful in revealing the dispositions of their authors. large amounts of ‘evidence’ are thrown into question” (ibid.: 120).9 We argue that rather than convincingly distilling the “epistemological essences” of conspiracy theorizing. The philosopher Clarke (2002) argues that the fundamental problem with conspiracy theories is that for individuals who become committed to conspiracy theories it is increasingly difficult to overcome the fundamental attribution error.Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories | 69 from the so-called fundamental attribution error. only if we assume that the official account is the correct account. Brian Keeley’s frequently cited text “Of conspiracy theories” argues that the negative status of conspiracy theories is deserved. high profile historical examples of conspiratorial behavior underline that the wholesale dismissal of anything labeled a conspiracy theory is equally out of touch with reality. not least because of the suspect status of conspiracy theories and the negative associations of the label. presumably arguing from a point of view that on the whole such “seemingly unrelated events” really are unrelated. such as Darwin’s theory of evolution or Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. It can be stated that it may be equally difficult for someone committed to non-conspiratorial accounts to accept a rival conspiratorial account. that they will attach disproportional weight to data that is in line with their theory at the expense of data that contradicts the theory. But suggesting that distrust is justified in “most cases” is not a logical but a statistical qualification. and that this is partly due to epistemological deficiencies in conspiracy theorizing. For example. This means that conspiracy theories become immune to falsification. Keeley finds this problematic.” One peculiarity of the attempt to pinpoint the epistemological characteristics of conspir- . despite an extensive formal investigation that found no evidence of such arsenals (Hanley 2006: 1).” which serves to “tie together seemingly unrelated events” (1999: 117). “by invoking a conspiracy hypothesis. Keeley (1999: 126) writes from an essentially conservative standpoint in the sense that he assumes official accounts to be generally true and that therefore general distrust of conspiracy theorizing is warranted. in this case. while “errant data” are given primary explanatory power. This means. He stresses their reliance on “errant data. and the falsification of such new theories will thus require the gathering of even more data. Although there are many examples of fantastical conspiracy theories that contain little evidence of real conspiracies. and instead found new ways to justify their original theory.7 Although the statement is not necessarily incorrect. the attribution error is characteristic of any committed theorist rather than of the committed conspiracy theo- rist per se (see also Coady 2006b). which is hardly helpful in sketching an analytical strategy for assessing the truth value of individual theories of conspiracy. One problem with this reasoning is that data is only errant in relation to a particular perspective. essentially.8 This indicates that individuals committed to the idea that WMDs were the primary reason for the invasion were reluctant to adjust their views in light of contradictory evidence. as evidence against them tends to be used as evidence for the existence of the conspiracy they allege. This strategy has little value if we acknowledge that some theories of conspiracies are true. In that sense one can argue that conspiracy theorists potentially make a valuable contribution to the advancement of knowledge (even if this potential is rarely realized). Another problem is that new theories by definition aim to incorporate data previously unaccounted for.

” but does not offer substantial information about the characteristics of conspiracy theories. This is a valuable definitional addition for two reasons. arguing that “a conspiracy theory is an explanation that is contrary to an explanation that has official status at the time and place in question” (2006a: 3). then what are now seen as conspiracy theories will no longer count as such. we first need to have a clearer picture of the use value that conspiracy theories offer to different actors (their creators. The central problem with Coady’s analysis (in this resembling Clarke and Keeley) is that it assumes that conspiracy theories can be straightforwardly identified and defined. and adversaries). while assumptions about the subaltern status of conspiracy theorizing limit our understanding of the power dimension involved. and prohibits analyzing the ways in which the power dimension impinges on the ways in which theories of conspiracy gain or lose their truth-value.” From Coady’s perspective the theory about Iraq’s possession of WMDs should be defined as a conspiracy theory in Iraq but not in the United States where it was the official account. the distinction between official and unofficial reveals insight in the power relationships that are involved in naming and labeling “theories. Analytic attention should therefore focus on the practice of labeling.” which is problematic in two distinct ways. because the interaction between competing theories defines to what extent data is errant. It clarifies why many conspiracy theories have such a hard time being taken seriously even if they have substantial data at their disposal. their discomfort largely rests . Using the official/non-official distinction as a priori criterion unduly simplifies the power grid. and second because there may be competing notions of what counts as “official. the truth-value of conspiracy theories cannot convincingly be assessed from a purely epistemological perspective. explicitly excluding theories of conspiracy that have official status. First because conspiracies are by definition secretive and concocted by powerful (but not allpowerful) actors who are often able to significantly alter political realities and influence official accounts. The issue of the fundamental attribution error is ultimately about the relation between theory and theorizer—about how data are interpreted and given weight by social actors. To recapitulate. This entails discussing the various scales of theorizing and the contexts in which this theorizing occurs. an aspect that has received surprisingly little attention. It only deals with “subaltern” conspiracy theorizing. And the complaint about “errant data” points at the situational positioning of conspiracy theories. That is. they are less likely to have their truth claims recognized. In his Introduction to Conspiracy Theories: The philosophical Debate. In order to advance. The potency of conspiracy theorizing Although the scholars discussed above focus on the presumed illogical characteristics of conspiracy theories. however. The irony is that once theories have been labeled as conspiracy theories. if in the future US government officials turn out to have been involved in the 9/11 attacks and if this is affirmed by the then acting administration. In doing so it forecloses the possibility to analyze how theories of conspiracy differently mesh with fields of power. First because what counts as “official” today may not be “official” tomorrow. David Coady incorporates this situational positioning into his definition of conspiracy theory. This definitional addition is nevertheless problematic because it restricts analysis to a specific sub-category of theories that deal with conspiracy. Second because it illuminates the political field.70 | Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold acy theorizing is that these presumed epistemological characteristics turn out to be sociological ones when scrutinized. and thus oblivious to the fact that it is the power-infused process of labeling that makes conspiracy theories recognizable as such. consumers. in which conspiracy theories are up against their “official” counterparts whose credibility is primarily derived from the social status and institutionalized power that the holders of these accounts possess. It also fixes the “official. Likewise.

assassinations. and “conspiracies ha[d] become a major part of politics” (Rigi 2004: 145). Confronted with inexplicable fluctuations in political and economic life. Apart from the fact that neither full commitment nor complete rejection of conspiracy theorizing is advisable. That is. Even though no extensive political geographical mapping of conspiracy theorizing has been carried out. instead they require a more dynamic approach that analyzes their sociopolitical locations and routes. conspiracy theories should be considered unwarranted as a category. The important point here is that the credibility of a conspiracy theory is derived from a combination of operational characteristics as well as contextual ones.). Sanders and West’s 2003 valuable suggestion that transparency rhetoric may actually trigger conspiracy theorizing). Such distrust was also a commentary on postSoviet reality. Oushakine 2009: 74. In that context any official account was likely to be approached with distrust. From his point of view. e. Keeley in particular is concerned with the degree of skepticism that conspiracy theories place on public institutions. This information enabled them to make informed guesses about the specific forces influencing political deals. many people were reasonably suspicious that larger and hidden agendas lurked behind the adverse economic changes. Although Silverstein does not use the term. 105). fragmentary ethnographic evidence suggests that the intensity of conspiracy theorizing correlates with the organizational features of societies. even if conspiracies do occur. and coercion.10 In a study of conspiracy theorizing in Algeria in the 1990s. 2002: 645). economic activities. Basham draws on this last point to illustrate the contemporary eruption of conspiracy theorizing in the West. and when there is a palpable discrepancy between political rhetoric and experienced social reality (see. instead accumulating information about the family backgrounds. Conspiracy theorizing flourishes in situations of societal distress produced by conflict or political transformations (Silverstein 2002: 650). one might call this a type of street . Silverstein describes a situation in which “while the death count continues to mount.. and political connections of people involved in major political and economic deals and scandals in order to find out who would have benefited most.Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories | 71 on a normative assessment. The “conspiracy theorists” he describes disregarded official announcements. Instead they blamed the persistent economic crisis on secret deals made between the mafia and the government.g. Anthropologists of the former Soviet Union have argued that the abrupt and disorientating changes that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet empire were matched with an upsurge in conspiracy theorizing (Grant 1999: 243. because a commitment to conspiracy theorizing makes it difficult to believe anything by fundamentally challenging institutional credibility (Keeley 1999: 121ff. one can also turn Keeley’s argument around to infer that the frequency of conspiracy theories is indicative of the opaqueness of the dominant power structures in a given society. These bottom-up theories challenged the fantastical official discourse that the crisis was only a temporary side effect of a transition toward an affluent free market society. As Coady notes: “The extent to which it is rational to be sceptical of conspiracy theories partly depends on the extent to which it is rational to suppose that the official institutions responsible for gathering and disseminating information in one’s society are trustworthy” (2006a: 10). hierarchically organized civilization [and that] on the face of things there is a serious prior probability of global conspiracy” (2003: 92). As such these theories nicely dovetail with Jakob Rigi’s assessment that the post-Soviet fragmentation of power produced a “chaotic mode of domination”: political decisions were often the outcome of the murky confluence of contacts. the war remains shrouded in a haze of uncertainty and dearth of verifiable information” (2001. and high-level crimes. money. This had partly to do with the legacy of an opaque and secretive political system that had espoused many truths that suddenly were unmasked as persistent lies. theories of conspiracy cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. asserting (rather boldly) that “there’s no denying that we live in a remarkably secretive.

but the element that seems to provide the best indication for assessing this issue is the slippage from . groups. which would ultimately lead to a stable free market system that would be beneficial to all. these realistic conspiracy theories tended to mix with more fantastical accounts. “reasonable” suspicion of political involvement was increasingly channeled to the country’s historical and cultural Other. Hellinger terms these “operational conspiracies. Schumann 2007: 840). Residents interpreted these events as having been secretly planned by the son-in-law of the then president Eduard Shevardnadze. The boundaries among the categories—petty. In the case of Georgia. Stories circulated that “the Turks” were selling poisonous consumer goods including cigarettes in a concerted effort to destroy the Georgian people and take advantage of the country’s natural riches (Pelkmans 2006: 186–93). global crises. conspiratorial behavior that seeks to prevent or encourage “a significant shift in power among political actors—individuals. which occur all the time. which supersede the “petty” without extrapolating suspicions to a global scale.14 The boundary between reasonable and unreasonable conspiracy theorizing is porous. Such “everyday conspiracies” are perhaps little more than a reminder that complete transparency is never possible (Comaroff and Comaroff 2003: 288. we may be dealing with “paranoia within reason. In the 1990s most inhabitants of the newly independent Republic of Georgia experienced a severe decline in their living standards while observing that specific groups of people—well-connected businessmen and politicians—were living tremendously wealthy lifestyles. remains of central importance to evaluating the claims of conspiracy theories. However. and when theories of conspiracy slip into the unreasonable and fantastical. By contrast.12 But the most theoretically interesting field of conspiracy is theorizing that addresses conspiracies.). or states” (2003: 209f.11 The question of “how conspiratorial our society is” (Basham 2003: 97). far from solid. However. therefore. is to identify indicators that inform us about when “paranoia” concerning the powers that be is reasonable and potentially revealing. At this point it is useful to highlight that conspiracy theorizing addresses conspiratorial behavior at vastly different scales. however. This asymmetric accumulation of wealth occurred while numerous industries were shut down. then. which was blamed for the downfall of the Georgian economy. Conspiracy theorizing in post-Soviet contexts is a case in point. To borrow the phrase of George Marcus (1999). and persistent inequalities and injustice. operational.”13 and incidentally corresponded with Burawoy and Krotov’s (1992) suggestion that the immediate post-Soviet era saw a rise of mercantile capitalism rather than of a capitalist mode of production. refer to political deals that are made behind the scenes. Such theories were more convincing than the official account that these local industries had “simply gone bankrupt.” that is. the neighboring country of Turkey. and the suspected all-embracive hidden power of the Freemasonry are well-known examples of global conspiracy theories. theories of world conspiracies posit the existence of secretly operating powerful groups that are to be blamed for perennial misery.72 | Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold realpolitik—a rational evaluation of the various potential gains of different actors in the absence of other mechanisms for asserting the reliability of information about political events. who was the major importer of cigarettes from Turkey and thus the main beneficiary of a collapse of the tobacco industry. Petty conspiracies. The government monotonously explained this state of affairs by presenting it as a temporary discomfort on the road to capitalism. and global—are. the supposed secret agenda of the United Nations by many born-again Christians in the US.” An important issue. One of the many examples that residents brought up was the collapse of the local tobacco industry. The alleged existence of a conspiring World Jewry by leaders of Nazi Germany. many citizens realistically suspected that free market rhetoric also served as a guise behind which all kinds of secret and illegal deals were concocted between power-holders. which suspiciously coincided with the occurrence of repeated fires that burned down several local tobacco-processing factories.

see Silverstein 2002: 647f. especially when it feeds on pre-existing dispositions and conceptions. This admirable relativist position grants everyone their own truths and rightly acknowledges that every truth is constructed. Intriguingly. Yet they avoid making statements about the truthfulness of (some) conspiracy theories and in- stead focus on the importance of such theories for those who hold on to them. both Silverstein (2002) and Sanders and West (2003) invoke EvansPritchard’s famous argument that Zande witchcraft serves to make sense of unfortunate events. while simultaneously stressing that “witches.: 16f.: 15).). This can be seen from their invocation of the witchcraft metaphor and their suggestion to see conspiracy . Even if Silverstein as well as Sanders and West deny that they are functionalists. This move allows them to focus on the importance of conspiracy theories to those who hold on to them.16 their explanations still impute stable (sense-making. “The most efficient fiction of Nazi propaganda was the story of a Jewish world conspiracy” that derived its effectiveness from the long-standing myths about Jewish power dating back to the late eighteenth century that were reinforced by the growing prominence of Jews during the Interbellum.Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories | 73 distrust to disgust. cannot exist” (1937: 36).15 It is important to note that scapegoating through conspiracy theorizing is itself a powerful tool.). Sanders and West argue that the creation of conspiracy theories is a tool of social empowerment of the relative powerless in relation to the (false) claims of transparency and accountability that have become the legitimizing tropes of modern political power (ibid. or when they are overwhelmingly used as a means to scapegoat targeted groups. but it unfortunately also sidelines the issue that some conspiracy theories are nonsense while others correctly identify secretly colluding powers. Sanders and West 2003: 13ff. They refrain from dismissing conspiracy theories as fantasies (presumably not wishing to be seen as reductionist positivists) and in a few instances imply that conspiracy theories may reveal more about the world than the transparency stories of those in power (ibid.. As Hannah Arendt (1973: 354) notes. Sanders and West aim to understand conspiracy theorizing from within. emotional. This official theory of conspiracy also had built into it a critical self-replicating mechanism whereby any avoidance of the “Jewish question” served as evidence “that Jews were the true representatives of the powers that be and that the Jewish issue was the symbol of hypocrisy and dishonesty of the whole system” (ibid. Similarly. and they argue that the chapters in their volume show that “conspiracy ideas [are] discourses that construct truths in contradistinction to the (also constructed) truths of discourses of transparency” (2003: 15). This was Evans-Pritchard’s attempt to understand the logic and rationality of witchcraft from within. It also allows them to avoid making statements about the truthfulness of conspiracy theories.).. The issue of use value is also taken up in the volume Transparency and conspiracy edited by anthropologists Harry West and Todd Sanders. Perhaps somewhat typical for anthropologists the authors avoid engaging with the issue of credibility and truth-value of conspiracy theories. suspicion of conspiracy theorizing seems particularly warranted when the theories serve to seal the boundaries around an imagined community. as the Azande conceive them. That is to say. while evading the question of how truth and untruth are produced in asymmetric fields of power. social) functions to conspiracy theorizing. Witchcraft theories do not attempt to offer a general explanation for why trees fall or granaries collapse but rather explain why this particular tree fell or that granary collapsed at the exact moment when specific persons were sitting beneath them (Evans-Pritchard 1937: 69f. in which the authors argue that conspiracy theorizing can be seen as a means to contest the rationales of often corrupt or secretive political institutions that operate “behind an impenetrable façade” (2003: 16). An equally important reason is that the authors (like the philosophers discussed above) start their analysis with too many assumptions about the concept of conspiracy theory. We should not blame this avoidance solely on a residual functionalist tendency in anthropology.

and only later do they become (labeled as) conspiracy theories. After all. even though all three theories alleged conspiracies and both the second and third suggested the secret involvement of national governments in triggering the tragedy.” we are still by and large in the realm of fantasy. The trajectory of a theory depends on its location in a given field of power. But as we argued above.18 And the third one continued to be credible to a significant group of US citizens despite its extremely feeble evidence. right from the start it was predictable in which direction each of these theories would travel. the theories are attributed or withheld value. and even if they refrain from translating Evans-Pritchard’s statement into “clearly. In this process of moving. the truth-axis and the power-axis can be displayed through a heuristic diagram (see Figure 1). this only partially answers some of the questions concerning the use. The contextualization of conspiracy theories is a good step forward. conspiracy theories should not be seen as a category in and of itself.and truth-value of conspiracy theories. meanwhile influencing the landscape through which they travel. which anyway was acknowledged to have been false in 2003. If the claim to truth is strong—for example due to an ability to muster convincing evidence—these theories will be labeled “facts. Nevertheless. The first account was bound to have the strongest claim to truth despite weaknesses in the evidence. notwithstanding some compelling evidence in favor of it. Within the first days of the attack at least three theories were advanced: 1) the attacks were the work of Al Qaeda. Traveling theories and the power of labeling To obtain a good impression of conspiracy theory trajectories it is worthwhile to reiterate the fate of the theories about 9/11. as well as on the strength of its claim to truth. Instead we should conceptualize the relationship between conspiracy theory and context as the theory “moving” through a socio-political landscape.” An ob- . conspiracy theories start their trajectory just like other theories. The reasons for these different trajectories can be found in the political clout that the different theories could attract. The various ways in which theories of conspiracy are perceived as situated along two axes. At best.17 The account that it was an inside job would struggle to be taken seriously. Expectedly.74 | Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold theories as occult cosmologies (Sanders and West 2003: 6). only the second theory would be labeled a conspiracy theory.” If the evidence is debatable this will at most turn the theories into “contested facts. 3) the attacks were the result of collaboration between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Even though Sanders and West suggest that there may be more truth in such cosmologies than we usually assume. and commentaries on. One of the outstanding difficulties is that neither “contexts” nor “conspiracy theories” can be treated as stable objects: theories are not at rest in fixed contexts. The reason for this is that they only pay attention to those conspiracy theories that were constructed by the relative powerless and were already labeled conspiracy theories precisely because they seem fantastical and irrational. 2) the attacks were an inside job and high government officials were complicit in it. In first instance these were all unsubstantiated speculations as no evidence had been brought forward yet.19 What is more. It is only through such a dynamic approach. It allows for making inferences about the relative likelihood that conspiracy theorizing occurs and the usefulness of conspiracy theorizing as indexes of. that we can make inferences about truth and use value in ways that overcome the functionalist biases detected above. In the top-half of the diagram we see how theories of conspiracy that are designed by the relatively powerful will be labeled along the truth-axis. which emphasizes the social interactions in which the status of theories is defined. it was already predictable which theory would be labeled a conspiracy theory. and in the ways in which the theories resonated with popular ideas about the national and international political landscape. the obscurity of dominant power. conspiracies cannot exist.

” is a conspiracy theory based on far weaker evidence than the alternative theories produced by the 9/11 Truth movement (Griffin 2007: 8).Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories | 75 Theories of Conspiracy + Fact Contested Fact Power Fact Mistake Theory Truth + “Conspiracy Theory” Theory – “Conspiracy Theory” – Figure 1 vious example of this scenario are the 9/11 attacks. In fact. to theories that posit full-blown complicity in the events (Meyssan 2002). the events of 9/11 (Griffin 2004). After it had been disproved. these theories continue to be easily dismissed as conspiracy theories. Griffin repeats this claim throughout the book. The . If we move down the power-axis we see a different pattern with regard to theories produced by ordinary citizens. A good example are the efforts of the 9/11 Truth movement.” the apparent unlikelihood of the Iran-Contra scandal required “a certain suspension of belief ” to seriously engage with the issues it raised (Wroe 1991: 223). Instead they will linger on as (unfortunate) mistakes. The subaltern subject has little to gain from trying to label official accounts “conspiracy theories” as the frustrated attempts by David Griffin testify. but minimal control over. but also by most governments of the forty-nine members of the original Coalition of the Willing. A telling example is the unfolding of the Iran-Contra affair. it was still not considered a conspiracy theory. The clandestine operations were eventually exposed not due to the work of the “theorists” per se but rather stemmed from failures in the operations themselves.” He argues that the official account. But if they are disproved then those theories will still not be labeled a conspiracy theory. The clearest contemporary example of this is the theory that alleged the hidden production of WMDs by Saddam Hussein in cooperation with Al Qaeda. The theory was espoused not only by the US government. it matters very little whether a “powerless” theory is true or not. Theories of conspiracy produced by those who are not in power tend to remain “conspiracy theories. developing a range of potential explanations including knowledge of. even if not accepted by everyone. Not all theories of conspiracy produced by the powerful are. As long as Griffin and his associates do not have the political clout to shed the conspiracy theory label that has been glued to them. However. of course. able to uphold their claim to truth. So far we have looked at the possible trajectories from the perspective of the theories. which posits that “the conspirators were Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaeda.21 Although their office protected the members of Congress from being labeled “conspiracy theorists. and it is this repetition that reveals the impossibility of creating a level playing field in which the strength and the weaknesses of competing theories of conspiracy can be publicly assessed. in which even with considerable political power and overwhelming evidence Congress members struggled to reveal the full extent of the conspiracies at hand. Its authors have produced numerous volumes on the faults in the official account. the defenders of “the official conspiracy theory” will hardly feel pressured to answer challenges to their account.20 Only if subaltern theorists are able to claim truth—which demands a vertical shift along the power-axis—can their theories’ status be altered. In his book Debunking 9/11 Debunking Griffin tries to turn the tables on the prevailing assumptions of conspiracy theories by attacking what he calls “the Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory. Equally important is to see how “conspiracy theory” can be molded into a political tool.” no matter their location along the truth-axis. The official version that these have been committed by Al Qaeda has virtually achieved the status of fact.

” But despite the “theorists’” success in exposing much of the original conspiracy. . We can see this clearly in a recent theory of conspiracy in US politics. Conclusion: Conspiracy truth in fields of power Conspiracy theories have a stigma attached to them that on the face of it seems well deserved. As Independent Counsel Lawrence E. efforts to expose the extent of the operations faced determined efforts by high-ranking Reagan administration officials “to deceive congress and the public about their knowledge and support for the operations” (1994: xv).” The message that they aimed to get across was not only that Obama had disreputable friends. whereas theories that are expressed by the relatively powerless will only rarely succeed in shedding the negative associations of the label. then the “conspiracy theory” label may have unpredictable and therefore risky effects. This was obviously not the case in the relation between the two contestants. suspicions largely based on his Muslim-sounding middle name Hussein. arguing that the stigma is deserved is an empty statement. and therefore the label might have backfired. why did Obama not dismiss the unsubstantiated allegations by arguing that this was a conspiracy theory. We have demonstrated that attention should focus instead on the contextualized trajectories of theories of conspiracy as these illuminate both the labeling of specific theories and the fields of power through which they travel. because both White House officials and Congress members enjoy a high political standing.). The Iran-Contra affair thus provides a number of insights into the potential trajectories of theories of conspiracy. Theories of conspiracy that are communicated by the powerful will never be labeled “conspiracy theories” even if they are demonstrably false. but to suggest that Obama’s presidential ticket might be part of a conspiracy to damage US interests.23 Obama certainly sought to diminish the (false) claims launched by his opponents. Walsh proceeds to point out that the strategy was largely successful because most evidence of the cover up was discovered only when it could no longer be used for most persecutions (ibid. This cautiousness was reflected in his handling of Sarah Palin’s numerous gaffes and lack of foreign policy knowledge that were consistently underemphasized by the Obama campaign for these very same political reasons. Nevertheless. This discussion indirectly suggests that when power differentials are relatively small.76 | Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold power differential that this aura of implausibility created between the “official story” and the “theory of conspiracy” was successfully manipulated to the advantage of those who were involved in the illegal operations. But this stigma is assigned to a constructed rather than a natural object. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections John McCain and especially Sarah Palin alleged a potential conspiracy by repeatedly accusing Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists. we also saw that power asymmetries ultimately prevented prosecution of those involved in the cover up. their ability to assert and substantiate truth claims through legal proceedings made it possible to transform conspiracy evidence into “fact. a reflection of a paranoid mind-set? A potential reason is that the label “conspiracy theory” will only stick if the power differentials are large enough. The McCain-Palin team was able to level these attacks because they could tap into suspicions among a substantial part of the American electorate concerning Obama’s background. Because there are no persistent epistemological differences between conspiracy theories and other theories. Walsh asserts in his final report. and his attendance of a Muslim school in Indonesia. First we saw that power differentials between the defenders and challengers of the official story created an uneven playing field that allowed members of the Reagan administration to influence and steer the path of investigations.” Finally. but he also had to be extremely cautious not to appear condescending or arrogant to the American electorate. the challengers of the official account could not be accused of promoting a “conspiracy theory.22 Given our claim that the label conspiracy theory is an extremely powerful one.

Email: rmachold@balsillieschool. 2. He completed his BA in Arts and Science and Political Science at McMaster University in 2008 and finished his MSc in Global Politics at the London School of Economics in 2009. and an obstacle for those challenging the political status quo. But it may also address and thereby challenge real conspiracies. Mod- ernisms. the conspiracy theory label is simultaneously a tool for those in control. and therefore not (or no longer) the object of scrutinizing efforts. He is the author of Defending the Border: Identity. For example the BBC 2007 documentary “9/11: The Conspiracy Files” and the contributions to the Journal of 9/11 Studies. Marx compared religion to the “sigh of the oppressed creature”—without dismissing entirely the “radical potential of religion” ([1844] 2002). Canada. 5. for example. As with other theories we need to be cautious. There are no compelling reasons for why we should embrace conspiracy theorizing just as there are no good reasons to dismiss them out of hand. and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (2006. As suggested. http://www . A century and a half ago. Berghahn Books). The “conspiracy theory” label is a tool for oppression because its irrational connotations will push subaltern theories that allege an official conspiracy to the” but rather to refer to statements about phenomenas in the world that are overwhelmingly held to be true.” 7.pelkmans@lse. Similarly.e. This Janus-faced potential of ideational power—manifest in the case of “conspiracy theories”—can be compared to other systems of ideas. conspiracy theorizing can be seen as a means to render an inexplicable world comprehensible. PhD. We suggest that it is important that anthropologists (and social scientists more generally) focus not only on the sense-making value of conspiracy theorizing. vulnerability to defeat by exposure. and Technologies of Faith in the Former Soviet Union (2010. Falk (2005: 49). but take serious the truth claims and assess these while paying attention to the distorting effects of the fields of power through which theories travel.” then we see the inversion of this principle in the case of conspiracy theorizing. irrespective of how they have been labeled in popular and political discourse. and one or a combination of illegality. Mathijs Pelkmans. Email: m. is lecturer in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Marx hinted at some of these same issues in his critique of religion. We use the term fact here not in an objectivist sense of “truth. betrayal of legitimate purpose of an authorized activity. are retired. For psychologists the fundamental attribution error is a cognitive failure in which humans tend to attribute the cause to dispositional fac- . where it easily becomes the subject of ridicule. 3. and contradiction of generally accepted moral codes of behavior. deception. Rhys Machold is a PhD student in Security and Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo. Religion. 6. 4. misleadingly suggesting that Iraq had played a role in the 9/11 attacks and presenting it as an ally of Al Cornell University Press) and editor of Conversion after Socialism: Disruptions. It is not accidental that the most outspoken academic critics of the official 9/11 account. We use the non-normative term “theories of conspiracy” when talking about any account of conspiratorial behavior. contends that the Bush administration was only able to win popular support for the war by confusing the public. such as David Ray Griffin and Graeme MacQueen. but we should be especially cautious when political theories are dismissed as conspiracy theorizing. If for Marx religion was a tool for oppression because the “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.journalof911studies. Notes theories and their truth trajectories | 77 The key point is that the negative connotation of “conspiracy theory” adds constraints in competitions for truth with official accounts. Hellinger’s (2003: 209) comprehensive definition of conspiracy reads: “group behavior involving three analytically distinct but interrelated characteristics: secrecy.

For example many right-wing pundits argued that a lack of evidence of WMDs was actually evidence that Saddam Hussein had exported them to another country or otherwise found ways to conceal or destroy them. . 12. 15. 10. 21. on dismissing criticisms of the official account as radical conspiracism. There is a hidden irony in this example. 19. or the official (US government) account that a foreign power had been secretly preparing for an attack on their country. therein echoing Hofstadter’s (1964) claim that conspiracy theorizing is “the paranoid style in politics. One might say that these American respondents were caught between two theories with conspiratorial elements: the question was whether they should believe the theory that their own government had deliberately misled them by withholding the “true” motives for invasion. tors. “the Chechen nation. See. Such instances resonate with Silverstein’s (2002) argument about the fetishization of agency. See also Ledeneva (2006) who offers an excellent analysis of the pervasiveness of brokering.” but nevertheless take “global conspiracy theorizing” as the prototype. 14. and people were often able to substantiate these claims with (fragmentary) evidence (Rigi 2009: 54–55). 1973. political wheeling and dealing. thereby underestimating situational factors. 9. Daniel Pipes (1997) adopts this approach to level the sweeping statement that conspiracy theorizing is a pathology. 23. This is not to say they have been completely silent. Rigi (2009) makes a similar observation in his discussion of conspiracy theorizing about the war in Chechnya. but that “The 9/11 Commission Report” as well as “NIST” are able to rely. see Hodges (2007: 17–18) and Krebs and Lobasz (2007: 412–13). such as between rebel leaders and Russian generals. The first of these took place in 1986 when a plane carrying military supplies to the contras was downed by Nicaraguan forces and a surviving crew member revealed his identity as a CIA operative and the second occurred when illegal sales of weapons from the United States to Iran were reported in a Lebanese newspaper later that year. among others. the rhetorical move backfires. Inhabitants were acutely aware of this. the Muslim community. Hodges (2007: 8) cites a 2004 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland showing that at the time 57 percent of Americans continued to believe that Iraq was giving support to Al Qaeda and 20 percent of Americans also continued to believe that Iraq played a direct role in the 9/11 attacks. On the weaknesses of the Al Qaeda hypothesis. These rumors gained new momentum in 2009 as part of the so-called birther hypothesis. 16.” This is not to deny that many industries with roots in the Soviet Union were poorly prepared for functioning in a market economy. A decade later the allegations had greatly expanded in scope with entire groups. aspects to we will return. 20. or the Russian people” being accused of conspiring. 13. often with “the Jew as the master plotter and leader” (ibid. 667n7) but because he does not substantiate his own presumably different position. but to stress that “the market” was often used to hide all kinds of other factors that contributed to the economic crisis. Falk (2004: vii–ix) and Griffin (2007). Silverstein distances himself from functionalism twice in his text (2002: 665. From the Iran-Contra case we might additionally infer that the conspiracy theory label will not generally be applied to actors that wield a high degree of political power. and interpersonal protectionism in Russia’s economy.78 | Mathijs Pelkmans and Rhys Machold 8.: 56). See also Clarke (2002: 144). Silverstein (2002) additionally argues that conspiracy theorizing ultimately fetishizes agency and is characterized by an excess of truth. 18. an effect of a paranoid mind-set. References Arendt. 11. which posits that Obama was not in fact born in America and that a conspiracy to cover up his true roots was necessary in order to (falsely) legitimate his claims to the presidency. 17. at least rhetorically. Hannah. were the root cause of the war. In the mid-1990s theories of conspiracy alleged that secret deals among the elite. 22. but he unduly generalizes this feature to conspiracy theorizing in general. Many academic analyses pay lip service to the reality of “petty conspiracies. The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harvest Books.

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