We should stop using the term “conspiracy theory”



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A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally in October in New York City.  QAnon traffics conspiracy theories.

A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally in October in New York City. QAnon traffics conspiracy theories.

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I don’t usually speak on our TV, but every once in a while I direct a comment to the TV even though I know it can’t hear me. A few weeks ago my wife and I were watching a news show, and the host did a whole segment on a wacky “conspiracy theory”. In the middle of the segment, I suddenly blurted out, “It’s not a theory.”

I don’t like the term conspiracy theory because it is based on an abuse of the word theory. From my well-used copy of The Merriam Webster Dictionary, a theory is “a plausible or scientifically accepted general principle proposed to explain the observed facts”. Theories are grounded in reality and are often revised as new evidence becomes available. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, has been refined in the hundred years since Einstein first wrote about it to take into account the new evidence now available to astrophysicists thanks to technological advances. , such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

Not all theories are related to the natural sciences. In the 1930s, British economist John Maynard Keynes developed a macroeconomic theory in response to the global financial collapse known as the Great Depression. Keynes based his theory on the economic realities the world faced at that time.

Whether the theories relate to the natural sciences or to the social realm, all legitimate theories relate to reality. Real theories aren’t just made from scratch. Real theories do not hide observable evidence. Real theories explain facts; they neither ignore nor contradict the facts.

A more apt term for the so-called conspiracy theories that we hear about on the news these days could be fantasies or maybe delusions. I have nothing against fantasies per se. Some of my favorite literary works are often classified as fantasy or science fiction. In the hands of a talented writer, a fantasy story can comment on real-world situations. For example, the science fiction novel by Octavia Butler in 1993, Parable of the sower, speaks in a deep and prophetic way about our current climate change issues. Fantasy stories may comment on reality, but they are not a substitute for reality. Delusions are another matter. My dictionary defines delirium as “a persistent psychotic false belief”. Delusions are detached from reality and as such can cause people who believe in it to make questionable and in some cases even dangerous decisions.

When the word theory is associated with pure and simple fabrications, it implies that these fantasies or delusions have some credibility in the real world. We all know that conspiracies exist in the real world, and most of us are familiar with terms like the theory of relativity or the theory of evolution, so when the words conspiracy and theory are reunited, it seems to refer to something that might be plausible.

I’m not saying news programs should ignore stories that generally fall under the category of conspiracy theories, because these stories have an impact on the news. Real people base their behavior on their belief in such notions, and in some cases their actions are newsworthy. I just wish news programs didn’t use the word theory when covering these stories.

As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “words have meaning”. I have often disagreed with his legal opinions and rulings, but I share his view that we must respect the meaning of words. Maybe because I am an English teacher I care a lot about words and their proper use. In my book, the word theory is used to describe a concept based on careful analytical and scientific reasoning. It should not be applied to false political fabrications.

Mark I. West is the Bonnie E. Cone Professor of Civic Engagement at UNC-Charlotte.

This story was originally published November 28, 2021 12 a.m.


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