The definition of conspiracy theory is systematically poorly handled even among many philosophers. To my mind, approximately the following short definition is appropriate:
Conspiracy theory is a theory explaining some events, assuming that an individual or group of individuals or an organization, institution or state is (or was) conspiring — doing something secretly or hiding something.
Note that the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) lab-leak theory is a conspiracy theory according to the definition given above. This theory posits an unintentional or accidental leak in some bio lab that was afterwards classified by some government authorities.
One typical confusion concerning conspiracy theories originates from the possibility that some conspiracy theories turn out to be true or approximately true. Indeed, it has happened many times. For example, the hypothesis that was contemptuously called as conspiracy theory but was later accepted as true: Watergate Affair.
People are unable to reach an agreement on whether the conspiracy theory that turned out to be true is still a conspiracy theory.
I propose to be logical and call all conspiracy theories as conspiracy theories — independently of whether they are true or false, justified and proven or not.
Furthermore, the absurd attitude that there must be something wrong with the conspiracy theory just because it is a conspiracy theory is widespread, particularly in propaganda. In philosophy, this weird attitude originates probably from Karl Raimund Popper.
First, if all conspiracy theories should be abandoned, then the police work would be impossible. They could not catch the murderers and should classify each death as death by accident or natural reasons.
Second, Western theories spread by mainstream media and leading politicians that Russia poisoned Skripals and Navalny and did it using military nerve agent Novichok — these are conspiracy theories too.
Among philosophers, Matthew Dentith has defended the position that conspiracy theory is not inferior merely because of being a conspiracy theory.
I am of the opinion that it is irrational and methodologically unscientific to:
- reject a theory merely because it is a conspiracy theory;
- to believe any theory, including a conspiracy theory, without sufficient evidence.
These two principles above are consistent. Thus, the initial list of plausible explanations of the event should not a priori exclude conspiracy theories. However, it should not exclude other explanations as well. It is the ABC of decision theory.
It is also remarkable that the label “conspiracy theory” is systematically applied selectively, using a discriminatory policy. It seems as if humankind has not discovered natural numbers yet and uses different numeral systems for different kinds of objects.
Thus, a suspicion arises that the Americans are assuming such a definition of conspiracy theory, according to which only hypotheses concerning Americans themselves (for example, the hypothesis that the virus SARS-CoV-2 escaped from Fort Detrick military bio lab) can be conspiracy theories. — Amazing exceptionalism, comparable to the medieval view that Earth is the centre of the Universe.
Admittedly, the conspiracy theories are indexical in the following sense. Probably, the subject accused of conspiring itself knows whether that conspiracy theory is true or not. Thus, there is a kind of epistemic relativism involved.
But, unfortunately, solipsism reveals itself in the assumption that the other side has to know it too. However, such an assumption would exclude all court cases because the innocent person accused himself or herself probably knows that one is innocent.
Taking into account how widespread and systematic is the selective use of the term “conspiracy theory” in political propaganda, the following definition is far from being a joke:
A conspiracy theorist is a normal person with common sense who is suspicious concerning conspiracy theories spread by governmental agencies.