I have been doing a lot of thinking and writing about conspiracy theory, and it’s all Carl Trueman’s fault. I got an advance copy of his forthcoming book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and enjoyed it so much that I decided to go back and read some of his other books. Next on my list was Histories and Fallacies, which concerns historical method. His thoughts on Holocast Denial sparked some questions about conspiracy theory, and from there I was off to the races. A couple of weeks later I had read 7 or 8 books on conspiracy theory and various related topics. It made for a fascinating study.
What follows is essentially a brief assessment of each of these books—a kind of “lay of the land” when it comes to contemporary writing on conspiracy theory. The majority of them are written from the perspective of secular classic liberalism. This reveals, I think, that the Christian market could use a really good book on the subject—a challenge I hope a publisher will take up. (Had I the authority, I’d nominate Trueman to write it!)
Conspiracy Theories by Joseph Uscinski. This is my top pick for a number of reasons. First, I think Uscinski offers the most helpful definition of “conspiracy theory.” He defines the term neutrally, such that a conspiracy theory is simply a theory that a particular circumstance has, as its primary cause, a conspiracy—a group of people acting together for their own benefit and against the common good. This allows individuals to posit a theory while they await evidence that will prove or disprove it. Second, while most authors acknowledge that conspiracy theory is not associated more with the right than the left, most still tend to emphasize the ones that arise on the right (which likely reflects their own left-leaning). Uscinski, though, is an equal-opportunity offender. Third, the book is up to date, so includes even the most modern conspiracy theories.
Suspicious Minds by Rob Brotherton. Brotherton’s concern is less to define conspiracy theory and more to explore why human minds seem especially prone to believe it. “It’s about conspiracy thinking—about what psychology can reveal about how we decide what is reasonable and what is ridiculous, and why some people believe things that, to other people, seem completely unbelievable.” As with many authors, he offers a definition of “conspiracy theory” that is based around a list of attributes of such a theory: it is an unanswered question; it assumes nothing is as it seems; it portrays the conspirators as preternaturally competent; and as unusually evil; it is founded on anomaly hunting; and it is ultimately irrefutable. Brotherton’s exploration of the human mind and how it unwittingly contributes to conspiracy thinking is interesting and, frankly, alarming. He aptly highlights the “bugs” in our thinking that make us prone to not only believe what is false, but to be convinced we are capable of believing only what is true.
The Nature of Conspiracy Theories by Michael Butter. Butter’s book was published in October of 2020, so includes plenty of contemporary examples. He makes a lot of excellent points about the nature of conspiracy theories, but, because he seems to be so heavily influenced by evolutionary psychology, they require some thought and adaptation to the Christian mind. Still, Butter does a masterful job of assessing the marks of the average conspiracy theory and the reasons they are so attractive, and for those reasons his book is well worth a read. Of special interest is his understanding that conspiracy theories are sometimes mainstream and sometimes opposed to the mainstream and, therefore, conspiracy theorists are sometimes considered respectable and other times considered renegades. He also helpfully distinguishes between conspiracy theories and conspiracy rumors.
Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch. Aaronovitch’s burden is to explore a number of the most common conspiracy theories and to show their implausibility. The word “implausible” is important because his definition of “conspiracy theory” is effectively the assumption of conspiracy where other explanations are more plausible. As he explores the different conspiracy theories—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Soviet-era show trials, Pearl Harbor revisionism, and so on—, he draws out certain common markers of such theories. So, for example, when discussing JFK and the “magic bullet,” he writes about the concept of a “deal breaker:” an “impossible fact that [to adherents of a conspiracy theory] proves that the official version must be wrong and that some other, more ostensibly improbable or unspecified truth must be right.” Through theories about 9/11 he writes about the “historian’s fallacy,” an anachronistic fallacy through which people forget that while conspirators may have known their intentions, they could not have known outcomes in advance. Of all the books I’ve read, this is the one that focuses most on various conspiracy theories instead of the general topic of conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam. Cassam posits that conspiracy theory is primarily political. Distinguishing between “conspiracy theories” (events based on factual conspiracies) and “Conspiracy Theories” (events based on imagined or fabricated conspiracies), he insists that “Conspiracy Theories are first and foremost forms of political propaganda. They are political gambits whose real function is to promote a political agenda.” That’s not to say their adherents are all necessarily consciously political, but that they advance explanations for events that, though unlikely to be true, are likely to advance a particular political agenda. Of some interest is his evaluation of what makes such Theories so attractive. He suggests it is because they are story-based, “as intriguing and captivating as a good detective novel,” which contrasts sharply with the mundane nature of so much truth; they are morality tales with powerful, capable villains taking advantage of their naive victims; and they offer meaning or significance to events that are otherwise merely tragic or even meaningless. Of additional interest are his perspectives on the personal, social, intellectual, and political damage that is done by advancing as fact what is, at best, only speculative.
The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. Nichols’s book is not about conspiracy theory per se, but is certainly thematically-related. Nichols is concerned about the rise of amateurs and amateurism in place of experts and expertise such that ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is now treated as a virtue. He believes a democratic nation cannot sustain itself in such a culture. He defines “experts” as those who combine education, talent, experience, and peer affirmation.” Though he acknowledges that experts do not know everything and have often been wrong, he is insistent that they know more than the rest of us and will be wrong less often than the rest of us, and for those reasons are worthy of our trust. His concern with conspiracy theories is that they often depend upon the testimony or expert witness of people whose expertise is not the field in question (e.g. physics for a plane crash, medicine for vaccinations, etc) but in conspiracy theory itself.
Histories and Fallacies by Carl Trueman. This book is not really about conspiracy theory at all though, strangely, it set me on this journey. Rather, it is about historical method and how we can reliably construct an account of past events. Trueman takes Holocaust Denial as one of his test cases, saying that if we cannot prove the “standard” account of the Holocaust in the face of those who deny it altogether or deny its severity, we really cannot prove anything in history. The very existence of Holocaust deniers “challenges the mainstream historical profession: do our methods and approaches offer us any means of dismantling their arguments?” It is here that he intersects not only with this particular conspiracy theory, but with others, for if disputing eyewitness testimony is a necessary strategy for Holocaust denial, so it is for many other theories; if Holocaust denial depends upon the use and overuse of methods that have the appearance but not the substance of legitimate scholarship, so too do other theories. (Trueman relies substantially upon Richard J. Evans’s Lying About Hitler which covers similar territory and is well worth a read.)
Conspiracy Theory by Douglas Van Dorn. This is the only book I know of by a Christian author that deals exclusively with conspiracy theory. I did not find it particularly illuminating and found that perhaps Van Dorn’s interest and advocacy of conspiracy theories at times overwhelmed and at times displaced his consideration of the wider subject of conspiracy theory.
A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell is about societal cynicism based on a breakdown in trust of our major institutions. A couple of the middle chapters overlap with conspiracy theory and provide a number of insights.
A Way with Words by Daniel Darling has a chapter on conspiracy theory in which he draws a fair bit from The Death of Expertise.