Conspiracy theories | Reading homework help


You are asked to analyze a conspiracy theory of your choice by using the various analytic tools outlined in Module 2 and applied throughout the course.  The assignment is written as a mini-report, with sub-titles. At least 2-3 references. 

Subject: Apocalypse theory and the ends of the world

 Analysis of Conspiracy Theories

“There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser guards belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.”

– (Robert Graves, To Juan at the Winter Solstice” from Poems 1938-1945 [1946])

“…telling the real conspiracy apart from the imaginary one–or, in the terminology used here, the conspiracy from the conspiracy theory–is a subjective process. Although some analysts think this differentiation is not crucial, truth or falsity do matter. One cannot treat Winston Churchill’s warnings of the Nazi conspiracy in the 1930s on a par with Hitler’s contemporaneous ravings about a Jewish conspiracy. Reader and author alike need markers to distinguish the solid ground of fact from the swamp of fantasy, for it is this insidiousness that permits conspiracism to spread from the extremes to the mainstream.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 38)

To perform thorough analyses on conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists must gather expertise in a variety of analytic disciplines, from documentation, to Semiotics, to history, to Psychology, to media literacy, to popular culture.Any skilled student of conspiracy theories needs to be able to correlate many different kinds of data, from a variety of different fields. It is important also to become a skilled analyst of data, to be able to determine which data are credible and which data are not worthy of consideration.One of your tasks this semester is to write a 750 word (minimum) critical assignment analyzing and critiquing one very specific conspiracy theory (concerning an extraordinarily famous person, war, society, or event). For this assignment, you will be expected to incorporate the full palette of analytic tools discussed here in Week 2’s module.

Daniel Pipes’ analytic tools (we will apply these tools on all CTs, throughout the term) 

  • Common Sense: “Not everything logically possible is sensible. Not every enemy aspires to rule the world; accidents do happen…. This is the principle of simplicity or parsimony: ‘other things being equal, one hypothesis is more plausible than another if it involves fewer number of new assumptions” (Pipes, 1997, p. 38-39).
  • A Knowledge of History: “Familiarity with the past shows that most conspiracies fail. Random occurrences throw them off course, participants renege, furtive moves alert the opponent. In general, the more elaborate a plot is, the less likely it works. Niccolo Machiavelli, a witness to much intrigue, observes that conspiracy ‘always involves countless difficulties and dangers,’ and points to the usual disappointment: ‘There have been many conspiracies, but history has shown that few have succeeded‘.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 39).
  • Distinct Patterns: “…putting specifics aside and looking instead at underlying features, it becomes clear how much conspiracy theories have in common. Two main characteristics make it different from conventional thinking: its standards of evidence and its basic assumptions.”

Evidence (Pipes, 1997)“Distinctive features of its evidence include these…”  

  1. Obscurity: On the assumption that appearances deceive, they reject conventional information and seek out exotic and little-known variants. A taste for the improbable and the occult gives their data a distinct and recognizable quality;
  2. Reluctance to divulge information: Usually, this takes the form of passive verbs and vague pronouns (‘they’), but sometimes it takes more overt forms: ‘To protect the names of those who might be implemented, I have chosen not to disclose my sources at this time’;
  3. Reliance on forgeries: These play an outsized role as evidence.” (eg. the case against the Templars). “The entire case against Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 was based on documents forged by his superior officers. But far and away the most important forged document was the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, cobbled together in France and Russia out of several existing works, some of them overtly fictional;
  4. Inconsistencies: Conspiracy theorists recirculate the same basic assertions, with slight variations and revealing inconsistencies;
  5. Overabundant learned factoids and pedantic references. Conspiracy theorists seem eager to overwhelm the skeptic with a barrage of names, dates, and facts;
  6. Piling on conspiracy theories: the gap in one conspiracy theory is explained by yet another conspiracy theory;
  7. Dismissing contradictory evidence as a sign of a conspiracy. The conspiracy theorist begins with the conclusion and finds reasons to exclude whatever is inconvenient;
  8. Indiscriminately accepting any argument that points to conspiracy;
  9. Oblivious to the passage of time: Generations and centuries go by, but little changes (e.g. The Knights Templar, the Illuminati);
  10. Cavalier attitude toward facts. At times, conspiracy theorists make these up out of whole cloth.” (Pipes, 1997, pp. 40-42)

Note that Pipes is critical of the following ideas….

  • Power is the goal: “All else is illusory. In the conspiracy theorist’s dreary view of mankind, the lust for power muscles lesser motives to the side.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 42)
  • Benefit indicates control: “Whoever gains from an event must have caused it. If you know who gained, you know who conspires.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 43)
  • Conspiracies drive history: “Other forces do not count. Whether the event is as minor as a failed crop or as massive as World War I, the cause lies in the hidden hand. The usual explanations of historical change go out the window. Ideological fervor, economic distress, victory at war–all these are symptoms, not causes. The real force is what Nesta Webster describes as ‘the superb organization and the immense financial resources’ available to conspirators.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 43)
  • Nothing is accidental or foolish: “Chance has no role. For the conspiracy theorist, whatever happens in society, the philosopher Karl Popper explains, ‘is the result of direct design by some powerful individuals or groups.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 44)
  • Appearances deceive: “Life is a staged reality. ‘To be effective, a conspiracy must camouflage itself and its true purpose and pretend to be the opposite of what it truly is.’ Seeming gains are losses; losses are in fact gains. Victims cause their own suffering, while perpetrators are innocent. ‘The ostensible is not the real; and the real is deliberately malign.’ The good family man, honest businessman, and patriot turns out to be a two-timing, scheming traitor. To a reasonable person, the absence of evidence means no conspiracy exists, but to a conspiracy theorist, ‘the best evidence is no evidence at all’.” (Pipes, 1997, p. 45).

~~~~~~~~~~~How to use the ideas of Daniel Pipes

  • As students of conspiracy theories, we critique CTs, whether or not we feel a theory has merit. This means that when we research, we retain a skeptical, scientific approach to the information we review.
  • Always determine how your conspiracy theory might be specious, insubstantial, or over-the-top according to your application of Pipes’ analytic tools .
  • Does your CT stand up to the kind of heavy attacks that Pipes’ tools are capable of launching? Be tough on your CT, assume it is specious, and let Pipes do his damage. If your CT stands up to Pipes’ harsh critique, chances are, you’ve got a keeper.
  • Never use Pipes to support your CT. That is not what Daniel Pipes’ Analytic Tools are for–Pipes is used only to critique, debunk and refute your theory. When he says to use “common sense” or “a knowledge of history” (1997, pp. 38-39) to look hard at your CT, he does NOT mean for you to say that “common sense shows us how, in the past, the CIA have kept many secrets from us, and thus, we should doubt everything that America tells us,” or that “a knowledge of history shows that the CIA has been dishonest in the past, and are likely to do so in the future.”
  • REMEMBER: Daniel Pipes (1997) does NOT really like conspiracy theories. That’s why we’re using him in this course, to provide a hyper-critical, Conservative voice which will help to balance our narratives, and our research in general. I am well aware of Pipes’ political affiliations: he is a right-wing pundit. The purpose in using Pipes is to lend balance and an opposing view to the analysis.   This is challenging: when using Pipes, even if you support a particular CT, pretend for a moment that you do not.
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