12. Conspiracy Theories
“Just because you’re paranoid
doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
— Joseph Heller, Catch-22
At some level, people who believe in conspiracy theories are being paradigmatically rational. They are seeking out evidence for a claim, they are providing explanations grounded in reports and observations, and they construct a theory that is consistent and makes sense of the relevant data. And sometimes, of course, there really are conspiracies in which the conspirators successfully (for a time) manage to hide what they are doing or what they have done (Watergate is one such example). But the term “conspiracy theory” is normally used to refer to theories that are extremely implausible and even irrational. So, what has gone wrong? How does it happen that people with such praiseworthy epistemological virtues end up promoting implausible, irrational theories?
As we will see, a conspiracy theory emerges when someone accepts a claim as incontrovertibly true and then employs their rational abilities to reinterpret what they read or see so as to support that claim. So, there is a great degree of rationality employed in any conspiracy theory; it’s just that it is in the service of an implausible end.