Okay, so the title of this post isn’t exactly correct. I’m not going to discuss the marketing of establishment propaganda per se. I am going to discuss one of the methods used to maintain it, however.
Recently, a friend of mine, knowing that I run with an “alternative” crowd sent me a post by author Seth Godin called The Marketing of Conspiracy Theories. Let’s just say that I knew immediately I was being goaded. I think my friend really wanted to give me some material for getting myself moving writing for the blog. So, here it is.
Before this, I had never really heard of Seth Godin and honestly, I still don’t know much about him. He might very well be an earnest individual who, given the pressures of writing a daily blog, fell for some so-called skeptic nonsense. I do like to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when I know next to nothing about them. Also, my friend finds Godin’s business insights to be particularly cogent and I am inclined to trust that view.
That being said, I don’t intend to go easy on Godin, here. It’s nothing personal.
Godin begins his post on The Marketing of Conspiracy Theories with a definition. That’s always good practice. Here it is:
A conspiracy theory is a complex alternative explanation for the truth.
Ugh…. where to begin.
Well, my initial reaction was to read no further and to ask the question: “With this definition, how could you ever come to know the truth if it happened to include a conspiracy?” It’s much worse than that really. But apparently Godin asked himself the very same question because he immediately qualifies by saying that of course there are conspiracies, but those are conspiracy facts.
Now, in fairness to Godin, this is not really his definition. You can probably find variations of it all over the place. It is especially prevalent among professional debunkers and skeptics for obvious reasons. I can’t help but laugh. But let’s look at it.
The biggest problem with this definition is the inclusion of the word truth. After, all, it’s nice to know that Godin knows what it is! The hidden assumption, of course, (the package-deal as Ayn Rand might say) is that the truth is known, but not just known, it’s obvious and certain, too. And the labeler knows what it is, hence he can recognize an alternative to it. That’s rather arrogant. Especially given what Godin talks about next: science.
I love how the word complex always ends up in this definition, as if only the simple is ever true. This is most certainly a mistaken reference to the notion of “Occam’s razor” and it fails to take into account that conspiracies are not scientific issues. No one will be performing any experiments on the motives of a men any time soon. Induction is involved, yes, but the kind of induction one does in a courtroom, not in a lab. Godin does make a good point about science, though. He says that it must be falsifiable. That’s true. We cannot make any positive statements of certainty about knowledge we obtain empirically or through induction. But it is precisely because of this that all knowledge obtained inductively remains on some level open to revision and this is quite the opposite of the assumption of certainty implied by the use of the word truth.
Definitions ought to be useful. Well… let me qualify that, not just useful. They must enlighten people. They must help people to understand something better. Does this definition do that? I don’t think so. In fact, it’s so-called usefulness lies entirely in the other direction. It seems to me that a definition like this is meant to prevent people from investigating an alternative view. It does this by implying that the truth is known and certain. It’s a bit like telling people that if they even investigate this alternative explanation they are simply allowing themselves to be duped. They are wasting precious time. After all, better minds have already determined the truth. By this, I see the purpose of this definition to be simply an elegant way to apply the fallacy of Appeal to Popularity or worse Appeal to Authority. In some cases, the labeling really amounts to Ad Hominem. It’s true purpose is revealed to be an attempt to keep the truth hidden or to at least to quash further debate about what it might be.
It wouldn’t be right to criticize a man’s definition without proposing what I think is a better one. So here we go.
One way to formulate a definition is to start with the common usage. What are the essentials that bind the things most often labeled conspiracy theory? It seems to me that they are things that take into account the meaning of the two parts of the term as they are commonly used separately. So we can start with a theory that includes a conspiracy. Godin takes note of neither of these terms, but he does suggest that the opposite of theory is truth. We talked about that already. Later he goes on to suggest that the opposite of fact is theory. But that’s not right either. The opposite of fact is fiction or falsehood. A theory is not a falsehood hence it’s opposite is not fact. Rather theory, in the common usage, includes the suggestion that it remains open to revision, much more like the science Godin apparently values. But, Godin fails to mention entirely why the word conspiracy is even part of the term, especially given that he acknowledges the existence of conspiracy fact. So the question is not so much why it’s a theory, but why it’s a conspiracy theory.
I think we can get at the answer to that by asking ourselves what kind of explanation specifically does the inclusion of the assumption of falsehood (in Godin’s definition) hope to quash? Well, it seems to me that it is precisely the kind that suggests that the truth may have been covered-up. So here is my definition:
A conspiracy theory is an alternative to the established explanation of events which suggests that the truth may have been covered-up.
There. I think this is a much better definition. First, I think it is much more accurate as a description of what people commonly use the term to express. It also explains why it’s a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy is the cover-up. The theory is what was covered-up and why. But also, this definition does not reference which view is true only that one is established, or popular, and one is not. It leaves YOU to do your own thinking. And in that way it helps you to understand something better.
Now some might say that this just confuses people by making them waste time looking into falsehoods. Godin would be one of those people as he goes on later to say that conspiracy theories “sell doubt.” But again, as we just went over, there is no certainty in science, the empirical, or induction. Doubt is an unfortunate reality and there’s nothing at all wrong with having it. No one said it would be easy. The thinking is for YOU to do. YOU will determine which ideas contain the best evidence. That’s YOUR responsibility. And there will be times when you will tell yourself that you simply don’t know and you will have to wait for more evidence. Humility in these matters can only suit you.
But Godin’s article isn’t just about a definition. I spent quite a bit of time on it for a reason. But what Godin really wants to discuss is the marketing of said conspiracy theories. As I mentioned, he feels that their purpose is to sell doubt. This particularly interesting given two facts. One is that conspiracy theories are by definition (mine) unpopular, and two that the opposite notion is selling a certainty where none can even potentially exist. So what is Godin’s definition of conspiracy theory selling? Trust in the popular or established explanation. After all, why would anyone concern himself with the marketing of the unpopular and not the marketing of the popular but potentially wrong? Which theories won in the marketing game? Certainly not the unpopular ones! If anything their marketing strategies are inferior. No, the much more worrisome marketing technique is the one that has created an established explanation that is so accepted that challenges to it are immediately labeled “false” (as per Godin’s definition) without the advancement of any real argument. Now that’s marketing!
In fact there are two kinds of doubt. There is the healthy kind of doubt that recognizes the uncertainty inherent in life and science. Then there is the unhealthy kind of doubt. The kind that makes you wonder if you are capable of making a reasoned determination. Which of the definitions advance which kind of doubt?
I will let you be the judge.