There is a bizarre belief amongst skeptics and other supposed rationalists that there is no such thing as conspiracies and that anyone who believes in conspiracies must be a crackpot. Certainly there are a lot of crackpots who adopt conspiracy theories. There are also a lot of crackpots who talk about physics, but this does not mean physics is all bunk. To make that equation is a use of the genetic fallacy (not that the examples on that page are very good). The merits of conspiracy theories are not to be evaluated by their most crackpot proponents.
Actually there are a number of social, corporate and political conspiracies recognized as real, all of which are matter of public record. Corporations and political entities, and private individuals involved in both, come to agree to perpetrate atrocities under a veil of secrecy all the time. Indeed, they would be rather limited in scope if they didn’t commit atrocities, as they deal largely in establishing and maintaining power imbalances. Neo-liberalism is a vast conspiracy to destroy second and third world economies for Western power elites and their cash flow.
So the question arises, why are people indoctrinated to not think about conspiracies, if conspiracies are such an important part of our political and economic life?
The smartass answer would be that it’s a conspiracy (hah), but I don’t think that’s really the case. I think it’s a natural result of the suppression of conspiracy theorizing by governments and corporations. Skeptics mainly come in after the fact, confirming the “absurdity” of this or that conspiracy theory without really doing any work. In contrast to that lazy attitude, we have activists and researchers, whose job it becomes to uncover and grasp the scope of the conspiracy (Naomi Klein, with her exposé of neo-liberalism in The Shock Doctrine, is a good example).
I imagine skeptics will reply that the things I am talking about are not really conspiracies, that a conspiracy must necessarily be a world-spanning, evidence-all-suppressing shadowy organization of evildoers which organizes smaller groups of evildoers. This is what is called a “superconspiracy theory,” the kind of worldview advocated by people like David Icke (the reptilians are controlling everything!) or antisemites (the Jews are controlling everything!). But most conspiracy theories, including ones that are about actual conspiracies, are much more mundane:
A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.
If we accept that there is a power elite and that this power elite has divergent interests from the rest of us, then conspiracy theories are not extraordinary claims at all. There’s nothing extraordinary about the proposition that people who have power over others and who have divergent interests from them will secretly try to fuck those other people over. For atheists, the concept that religion has motivated people or groups to plot against unbelievers or believers of the “wrong” religion is pretty mundane (just to name two recent examples, the Wedge Document exposed an Intelligent Design conspiracy to take over the education system, and Scientology has been illegally imprisoning some of its top officials in secret prisons).
Skeptics may argue that a conspiracy cannot last, because someone will tattle. But a conspiracy doesn’t have to last forever, it just has to last long enough for its goal to be accomplished. It may even be preferable for a conspiracy to be revealed once it has run its course, as in the case of a coup, to intimidate possible dissenters.
Skeptics may argue that conspiracies are irrational because evidence against a conspiracy can always be reinterpreted as evidence for it (“that’s what THEY want you to think!”). But it’s obvious that there are possible disproofs of a conspiracy. For example, a conspiracy involving Chevron or Scientology is plausible, but a conspiracy involving Reptilians is implausible, since Reptilians do not actually exist, or otherwise their influence is not distinguishable from that of human beings. Conspiracies are still made of people, and they can only do what people can do. People can’t create mythical beings.
As for the crackpot argument, I’ve already refuted it. The fact that crackpots often talk about conspiracy theories is no disproof of conspiracies any more than the fact that crackpots often talk about physics disproves physics.
People complain about 9/11 truthers or global warming deniers, but we need people who keep challenging what we think we know. It is through opposition that we define ourselves; even Christian fundamentalists fulfill that role. Without opposition, we become entrenched in our beliefs and there can be no intellectual progress.
People who reject conspiracy thinking, on the other hand, don’t want their ideas to be challenged. Skeptics, for instance, are pretty mainstream politically, mostly liberals, so they have no interest in challenging the status quo. Not only that, but there are people who use the common antipathy towards conspiracy theories to argue against radicals, even though these radicals are not actually using conspiracy theories. I wrote about this in the case of Anarchism, but it is used in other contexts also. Atheists, for instance, are sometimes accused of believing that religious people are out to get them or to do evil.
Instead of being a skeptic, we need to maintain what radfem Mary Daly calls “positive paranoia”: to be aware of patterns in people’s “seemingly disparate” behavior and try to understand how these patterns arise.
One cannot talk about conspiracies without talking about The Conspiracy. The Conspiracy as understood by the Subgenius is not really a conspiracy as such, as much as the appearance of a conspiracy. Subgeniuses don’t actually believe that every Pink in the world is consciously conspiring to deprive them of slack. But the term “the Conspiracy” to describe the confluence and collusion of all the hierarchies that impose on an individual is just too convenient and descriptive to pass up.