Stop Calling Them “Theories.” They’re Not.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

News Headline:

Michael Flynn Spreads Bizarre Conspiracy Theory
About Vaccines in Salad Dressing

Stories in the popular press these days abound with references to “conspiracy theories.” It seems that every time some fringe group or eccentric individual makes some wild, unsubstantiated claim, we have a new “theory.” Actually, we don’t.

I was educated as a physicist and, although I only spent a short while practicing that trade, it has had a permanent effect on my way of thinking. Most Americans know precious little about science and even less about scientific thinking. That’s a shame. Apparently, science class hasn’t been doing much good.

The term “theory” and the concept it represents have a special meaning for scientists and other disciplined thinkers. I object to its “cultural appropriation” by people who want to use it to dignify the absurd. Journalists, news readers, and political commentators do a disservice to the public—and the Republic—when they use the term mindlessly.

Let’s learn—or re-learn— what a theory is, how an idea gets to be a theory, and why “conspiracy theories” are not theories by any stretch of the imagination.

What Is a Theory?

Definition: a theory is a proposed explanation of the way something works, which has been tested and is supported by evidence and observation.

General Flynn’s statement, quoted in the headline above, does not rise to the level of a theory; it doesn’t even come close. It’s just a wild-assed claim; a useless brain-burp that doesn’t add to human knowledge.

Consider the ladder of human knowledge, which rises from none to some:

  1. An Unexplained Phenomenon is something observed that nobody knows how to explain.
  2. A Conjecture is a guess, a speculation, a claim, or a story offered as a potential explanation without any particular evidence to back it up. Declarations like “They say,” “I heard,” “Everybody knows,” and “My  brother-in-law told me” don’t qualify as evidence. Social media memes and rumors are not evidence. A talk-show operator’s rants, no matter how loudly stated, are not evidence. Evidence is evidence.
  3. A Hypothesis is a testable conjecture, which can be evaluated by gathering evidence or making observations under controlled circumstances. Think of it as a would-be theory. A claim that can’t be put to the test of evidence is not a hypothesis.
  4. Theory: a temporarily accepted explanation that has enough factual and evidentiary support that reputable experts consider it worthy of further evaluation.

You Can’t Prove a Theory

Most scientists prefer to think of a theory as a perpetual work in progress. Even after mountains of evidence have been accumulated to support it, they keep it on probation with the possibility that some new evidence might contradict it or some better explanation might come along.

Albert Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity is still being tested by scientists. It has held up very well for many years, but there are still aspects of it that need confirmation. It’s not an easy theory to test.

Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, as it’s popularly known, is very well supported by research and evidence, but it’s still being tested. Interestingly, a recent survey of Americans found that 31 percent of them don’t believe the theory is “true.” Apparently they know something that tens of thousands of scientists don’t.

America Remains a Pre-Scientific Society

On the whole, Americans tend to admire “science” from afar and they tend to appreciate the many benefits and comforts that science and engineering have brought them. But up close, many of them prefer to substitute religious, creationist doctrines, traditional beliefs, hearsay, rumors, and simple ignorance for scientific thinking.

Case in point: six percent of Americans polled don’t believe that astronauts ever landed on the moon. Another 5 percent are undecided. On the other hand, as many as one-third of those polled believe UFOs are alien spacecraft.

Immediately after the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, a large and growing fan club coalesced around various conspiracy claims about who killed him and why. Each proposition had its loyal followers and most of them declared that the US government was covering up the truth. (The cover-up component seems to be an essential part of the mystery.)

A similar fan club formed after the infamous “9-11” suicide-bombing attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on the Pentagon. It was actually “perpetrated by the US government,” some claimed. “No,” said others, “it was done by the Jews, sponsored by Israel.” “No, no, no—it was a ‘false flag’ operation (a favorite term of conspiracists who are in the know), set up to justify the invasion of Iraq.” “It wasn’t an airplane that crashed into the Pentagon—it was a missile.”

More recently, a sizable fan club of Americans (who almost universally describe themselves as Republican voters) has rallied around the claim that the 2020 presidential election was somehow rigged against the Republican candidate and in favor of his Democrat opponent. Despite the fact that the US election system has been known as one of the fairest and most accurate systems in the world for over 200 years, 78 percent of Republican voters were willing to accept the claim. A series of recounts in swing states, partisan “investigations,” and over 50 court cases failed to prove any significant amount of voting fraud, and yet millions of them chose to go on believing.

Would it be possible to educate or re-educate the 25 percent of Americans who can’t seem to tell the difference between science and fiction? That’s a topic for another conversation.

Meanwhile . . .

What Shall We Call Them?

Let’s stop dignifying hare-brained claims with the label of “theory” and give them a new, official, standard name. Hereafter, let’s refer to them as conspirastories.


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