Published January 10, 2022
Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy theory as a “theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.” Well, that sounds interesting.
There are numerous conspiracy theories related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The factualness of Kennedy’s death is (generally) not in dispute—but how it came to be is, according to conspiracy theorists. The London School of Economics reports that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe Kennedy’s assassination was part of some conspiracy.
In my view, Merriam-Webster’s definition is not adequate—at least in terms of how conspiracy theories are used in today’s vernacular. Now, conspiracy theories are also thought to traffic in claims that are generally both bizarre and false (for example, QAnon).
Let me offer an alternative definition: A conspiracy theory is a theory for how an alleged set of bizarre circumstances came to be or how obvious falsehoods gained mass acceptance due to the work of powerful actors. We ought to reject conspiracy theories, like any other truth claim, when they are false or unsustainable. If a claim cannot hold up to investigation, we are obligated to abandon it.
Today, there are a number of conspiracy theories associated with the political right that deserve scorn and rebuke by those peddling them. Conservatism champions the conservation of truth. If it’s not true, it should be exposed as false.
But what about the liberal temptation to conspiracy theories? Take, for example, last week’s headline in The New York Times that read, “Amy Schneider Becomes First Woman to Surpass $1 Million on ‘Jeopardy!’” Amy Schneider is, of course, not a woman. Schneider identifies as a transgender woman, meaning Schneider is without question a biological male. Our newspaper of record merely glosses over this fact and intends for the reader to buy the underlying headline. That’s about as false a premise as might be imagined. We cannot be a society organized around lies.
Andrew T. Walker is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.