Wilt thou conceal this dark conspiracy? By

Dr Ward of Knox College obviously considers himself a sophisticated fellow. You can tell by the humorous yet statesmanlike tone of his article 'Psst … wanna hear a conspiracy theory?' (ODT 29/6/06). 'It is important', he thinks 'in dialoguing with conspiracy thinking, not just to refute it … but to ask why is it that people are believing this theory?' This apparently 'would create a much healthier dialogue than the shouting past each other that often seems to take place.' In other words, in addition to refuting conspiracy theories (which he takes for granted can usually be done) we should offer diagnoses of the ideological obsessions underlying the conspiracy theorists' errors. I'm not so sure that this procedure would really promote the healthy dialogue that he desires (since conspiracy theorists might find it a little patronizing). But what is really wrong with his article is not his patronizing proposal but the bland assumption on which his article is based that of course conspiracy theories are false or foolish simply because they are conspiracy theories. So far from being the sophisticated view this is one of the most dangerous and idiotic ideas to disgrace our political culture. Strong words, these, so I had better back them up. Let's start with 'idiotic'. A conspiracy is a secret plan to influence events by partly covert action. Conspiracies are not necessarily wrong - there can be conspiracies in the public interest as when Stauffenberg and his associates conspired to murder Hitler or when leading civil servants conspired to leak information to Winston Churchill (then on the back benches) about the looming Nazi threat - but we generally talk of conspiracy when the secret plan in question seems morally questionable, at least to some people. (If nobody disapproved, there would be no need to keep the plan a secret!) A conspiracy theory is a theory which endeavours to explain some set of events by postulating a conspiracy, successful or otherwise..
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