I must admit I find conspiracy theories fascinating. They are usually good examples of a lot of psychological aspects that I’m interested in, like obsession, selective reasoning, paranoia, determination to reveal the “truth” which always carries either a savior component, or megalomania. Not to mention they cover the entire cognitive dissonance spectrum. *oh goodie*
While not all conspiracy theories are created equal (and some of them actually turned out to be true), they do have a few traits in common that allow you to recognize them, and even build your own in your fiction.
How to recognize (or build) a conspiracy theory?
1. The most obvious common trait of all conspiracy theories is that they seem to have a monopoly on the truth. The proponents claim (and actually believe) they are the only ones who see beneath the lies, who know what’s really going on and who’s behind it. It’s fairly obvious they cannot be deterred by repetition of the established consensus, since they believe this consensus to be an elaborate lie. Their ideas are only strengthened this way, while the credibility of their opponents is weakened in their perception.
2. The second most important characteristic of a conspiracy theory is the creation of false dilemmas. In order to make extravagant explanations seem plausible, conspiracy theorists must first raise extravagant questions, and they do that best by creating dilemmas or unexplained mysteries where none in fact exist. The quickest way to convince people they’ve spotted a genuine hole in the official version of events, or in the official theory, is to rip things out of context. By removing a piece of evidence from its context and disregarding everything already known to be true around it, it suddenly becomes mystifying and puzzling. Of course the conspiracy theory then comes to the rescue with a plausible explanation, and sees this act as a genuine validation.
3. The third thing every good conspiracy theory does is to use strawman arguments. Theorists take an obviously weak argument or a couple of seemingly contradictory ones (and of course every official theory has those), pretend these are their opposition’s majority view, then use them to show their own arguments’ superiority.
Yeah, but what about evidence?
4. While credible and authentic figures should always be able and willing to point you to the evidence supporting their views, to the research material and information which would allow you to verify all of their claims and retrace their steps, conspiracy theorists have a tendency to cast shadows over their resources, to claim that evidence is withheld by their opponents on purpose, or that it was destroyed. It also helps that they don’t cite clear resources for their materials, or cite obscure and unrecognized sources which themselves fail to prove credible and thus cannot offer credible support. Also fairly common for conspiracy theorists is their absolute trust in an “expert”, who was either an eyewitness, is in possession of an artifact that no authority ever gets their hands on (to verify), or is a self-taught master on the subject. This person’s words (and works) are highly regarded and are repeatedly referred to in the theorists’ circular arguments.
5. Another common technique for conspiracy theorists to circumvent their inability to provide enough credible evidence, is to debunk the evidence supporting the contrary. This is actually common practice even in sensible intellectual and scientific circles, and what’s good for them, is more than good enough for conspiracy theorists. The best tactic to debunk something is to make it sound ridiculous, to only discuss its shortcomings, and to deny it any merit other than the financial or power merit it brings its proponents. This is a trait common to all debunking crusades, regardless on which side they fall.
6. And even when there is plausible evidence available on a topic, conspiracy theorists can always resort to forcing that evidence to fit their theory. Since evidence in itself is only an observation or record of events, it requires meaning for it to become valuable. And any evidence can be interpreted multiple ways with enough imagination and perseverance. Conspiracy theorists’ habit of employing argumentum ad nausea (debating a subject until their opponents give up engaging them) is fairly common, and they use this as proof that their interpretation has, in fact, won the argument.
It’s really not that hard to spot one when you see it, after the initial impact of fascination and curiosity. It’s even easier to build one for your own stories! Just try not to take sides, the readers will sense it and the tension will be smothered. The conflict potential of a conspiracy theory is enormous—no fronts are more fiercely defended than those of opposing ideologies. Even if it’s not the center of your story, adding a little contrast between what your characters believe is really going on behind the scenes can give the entire plot a real boost. 😉
Speaking of conspiracy theories, I must admit I meanwhile have serious doubts about the dedicated proponents of the Electric Universe theory. Particularly about their disturbing obsession with its authority figure Wallace Thornhill and his book (which kinda reminds me of Zecharia Stichin and his “masterpiece”). Also, something just isn’t right about their aggression toward mainstream science (which, I sorrowfully admit even had me riled up at one point). While I don’t doubt these are highly intelligent and dedicated people and that they are raising some serious questions, I’m increasingly skeptical of their methods and general ideology.
You know, I’m an enthusiastic person who is always open to consider alternatives, because I always imagine how I can use them in fiction. That’s all I ever care about. Everything I do and everything I learn is funneled toward writing science-fiction. And I’m open to discuss anything if I’m presented with compelling arguments, if not for my own insatiable curiosity, then because it’s an excellent exercise in switching POV.
So of course I became interested in what the Electric Universe theory had to say. EU’s use of Plasma Cosmology and the accredited theories and experiments of Kristian Birkeland, Hannes Alfven, Halton Arp, Nicola Tesla and many others, offer them the necessary credibility to claim they are a fringe science (which make for awesome science-fiction material), when in fact—and after additional studies on my part—they seem more and more like an ideological cult than a scientific community. So while I continue to respect Plasma Cosmology’s counterarguments to the gravicentric cosmological theory, and its contributions to modern science, I’m taking a distance from its illegitimate offspring, the Electric Universe Theory.
Conspiracy theories have a terrific appeal in fiction. They are most effective when the writer succeeds to create reasonable doubt in the reader, and thus gets him involved in the conflict (much like in real life, no?).
In my WIP, for example, there is a rebel faction opposing the political and economic establishment (as a undercurrent to the story problem). Both parties appeal to the techniques I described above to support their cause in front of the wide public. Of course the establishment has all the resources, but the rebel faction has noble intentions and reasonable doubt on its side. Its supporters have the dedication necessary to live and operate on the fringes of existence.
However, both sides lie, commit atrocities and disregard the interest of the public for their own interests. You could even say there really are no good guys in there, except… the ones who honestly and truly believe their side’s point of view. The genuinely dedicated and kindheartedly supportive (either because they don’t know the other side of the coin, or because they are emotionally invested in some way) are the only ones who are essentially good people, and who eventually suffer the consequences of the conflict.
Have you ever used or created a conspiracy theory in your fiction? What was it about, and how did you present its supporters and opponents?