There are “Theories” and then there are “Theories”

I have an idea I haven’t heard or read anyone express before: that some of the confusion about science on the one hand, and the legitimacy of crazy, sometimes deliberately fabricated, nonsensical ideas about what’s going on in the world on the other hand, is due to the use of the word “theory” to describe both.

We have “theory” in the scientific sense, which means an explanation of a broad set of facts in such a way as to unify their underlying causes. Thus we can have vast, widely-applicable theories that explain a great deal about the world — such as the “theory” of evolution by natural selection, the most-cited idea that “explains everything” in the John Brockman book mentioned here and discussed here. The “theory” of gravity is another. Ironically, there are “theories” that explain a great deal, such as string theory, despite having no direct evidence to confirm them! Perhaps string theory should be called a “model” or something. The point is that some theories in science are as close to being true and factual as they can possibly be for phenomena that must be observed mostly indirectly (because they happened in the past).

At the other extreme is the prevalence of the term “conspiracy theory,” to describe everything from true conspiracies to defraud or fool people, to commit crimes, and so on — the latest being the conspiracy by Fox News hosts and execs to lie to their audience — to simple accusations, without a shred of evidence, of wrongdoing by people you don’t happen to like.

Michael Shermer makes several interesting points in his recent book Conspiracy, which I just finished reading. One of which is that conspiracy theorists in the old days would take incidents that seemed to have much evidence of obvious villains (like the JFK assassination, and 9/11) yet, dissatisfied for whatever reason, suggest other explanations, pointing out various “anomalies” in the official stories. I.e., they’d point to a piece of evidence, however dubious, to try to discredit the entire narrative and all the unambiguous pieces of evidence that support it.

Modern conspiracy theorists, Shermer points out, don’t bother with evidence. They simply make claims (generally targeting people they don’t like, like liberal elites or the mainstream media) without a shred of evidence. For example, what possible evidence does anyone have for lizard people running the government, or the QAnon notion of a child sex ring being run out of the basement of a pizza parlor (which it turned out has no basement)? And yet — Shermer’s book has results of surveys — some people still believe these things. Part of the problem with these cases, I’ve suggested, is that too many people simply have a fragile grasp upon the facts and processes of the real world. How the world works.

(I have to chime in about those YouTube videos of people on the street asked simple questions like “What’s the capital of the United States?” and “What do you think about the death of President Kennedy here yesterday?” and give clueless answers. One of them had no idea who Biden was. One I saw today asked — these seem to be conducted along Venice Beach — “If you were born 10 years ago, how old would you be today?” (there are a lot of such videos) and respondents stammered and gave nonsensical answers: uh, 5? uh, 11? One of them gave the correct answer but her friend butted in and said No! 5!) Obviously these YouTube videos are selectively edited to show the most absurd responses. But these people are out there, and they, well some of them presumably, vote.)

It occurs to me today that Shermer doesn’t go far enough. These days you have people *deliberately manufacturing* false evidence, and misrepresenting real evidence, to persuade others that nefarious things are going on that really aren’t. Some of these are spoofs; you can fool some of the people all the time, and these are by people out there who get off seeing how many people they can fool. Some just want to cast all possible aspersions on people they don’t like. Because again, you can fool some of the people all the time.

And, for example, how I’m sure a large number of conservatives will continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen, even after Fox News has admitted they were lying about the so-called evidence against Dominion voting machines as a method for changing votes. Never mind evidence; many people, but especially conservatives, just *know* what is true.


With these thoughts in mind, several items today.

Salon, Igor Derysh, 28 Feb 2023: “Stunning proof”: Legal experts say Rupert Murdoch deposition admission is “absolutely devastating”, subtitled “Unsealed deposition shows Fox boss admitted hosts ‘endorsed’ false claims and welcomed conspiracists for profit”

NY Times, 27 Feb 2023, front page of today’s paper: Murdoch Acknowledges Fox News Hosts Endorsed Election Fraud Falsehoods, subtitled “Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul, spoke under oath last month in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems.”

Paul Krugman, NY Times, 27 Feb 2023: Conspiracy Theorizing Goes Off the Rails

Krugman describes the trail derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. Then,

[T]he right is on the attack, claiming that blame for the disaster in Ohio rests on the Biden administration, which it says doesn’t care about or is even actively hostile to white people.

This is vile. It’s also amazing. As far as I can tell, right-wing commentators have just invented a whole new class of conspiracy theory, one that doesn’t even try to explain how the alleged conspiracy is supposed to work.

Krugman makes some essential points about conspiracy theories that echo ideas in Shermer’s book.

Conspiracy theories generally come in two forms: those that involve a small, powerful cabal and those that require that thousands of people collude to hide the truth.

The former are driven by antisemitism, typically; the latter

seems as if it would be easy to disprove, because thousands of people would have to be in on the plot, without a single one breaking ranks. A prime example, still highly influential on the right, is the assertion that climate change is a hoax. To believe that, you have to claim that thousands of scientists are colluding to falsify the evidence. But that hasn’t stopped the belief that climate change isn’t real from being widespread, maybe even dominant, on the U.S. political right.

The way such “theories” are so popular is to me, again, evidence of how many people don’t understand how the world works.

And there’s a new conspiracy theory in town: the claim that the war in Ukraine isn’t really happening, that it’s some kind of fake. Who could possibly believe that all the reporting, all the film footage is concocted? Well, Donald Trump’s first national security adviser is apparently now a Ukraine war truther, and I won’t be surprised if we start to hear this from many people on the right.

(Aside: sadly, advances in AI will make manufacturing film footage easier than ever. There may come a time when you can’t believe anything you see on TV or online. What is the solution to this? Don’t know.) Krugman goes on.

But the conspiracy theorizing about the Ohio derailment takes it to a whole other level. When Tucker Carlson suggests that this happened because East Palestine is a rural white community, with another Fox News host going so far as to say that the Biden administration is “spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people,” how is this even supposed to have worked? How did Biden officials engineer a derailment by a private-sector train company, running on privately owned track, which lobbied against stronger safety regulations?

[ …]

But never mind. Something bad happened to conservative white people, so surely woke progressives must have been responsible.

Circling back to Shermer: He classifies conspiracy “theories,” some as “proxy conspiracism,” some as “tribal conspiracism,” some as “constructive conspiracism.” The key here is that many people don’t exactly believe in something like Biden targeting a white rural town for whatever reason, but they buy into it because it aligns with their worldview, about which side they’re for, and which against.


So, does the confusion about the word “theory,” which is so often applied to fantastical claims with no evidence, explain something like this? I mentioned this in my Feb. 9th post.

Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder, 8 Feb 2023: Montana bill would ban teaching of scientific theories in schools

No. Though perhaps it contributed. As Boing Boing (and Jerry Coyne) noted, this is motivated by animus against science in favor of religion. Tribal solidarity, in favor of acknowledging reality.


Here’s an example just today, of people making stuff up, or altering actual evidence to promote a false narrative.

PolitiFact, 27 Feb 2023: Viral Image: Says Elizabeth Warren said, “Allowing Republicans to vote could threaten the integrity of an election.”

Rated completely False. Read for details. (Aside: judging from posts at PolitiFact, Instagram seems to be the source for most untrue claims. I only look at Instagram to see photos of my son-in-law and wife’s dog.)

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