Why conspiracy narratives are not theories

by | Feb 9, 2024

A Super Bowl with Taylor Swift in the stadium: that’s attractive for the NFL. That’s why conspiracy theorists suggest that the NFL orchestrated the pop icon’s relationship with Chiefs pro Travis Kelce in order to attract more viewers to their screens and boost Joe Biden’election chances. Sounds abstruse? If you ask Donald Trump’s supporters, it’s the pure, deep truth. And he knows a thing or two about truth.

Such stories thrive on social media. Reinforced by algorithms and reproduced in filter bubbles, more and more people fall into the maelstrom of conspiracy narratives and end up down the rabbit hole of alternative realities. Just like Alice in Wonderland, who followed a rabbit down the tunnel, only to fall deeper and deeper.

A theory is the opposite of a conspiracy narrative.

But my aim here is not to explain the ways in which people go down the rabbit hole. I want to clarify the term. People often talk about conspiracy theories. But a theory is something different, actually the opposite of a conspiracy narrative.
A theory claims a connection. So does a conspiracy narrative. But: In theory, this connection is considered causal, i.e. it establishes a relationship between cause and effect. The theory provides a possible explanation for why something happens and how another event influences it. Evidence is then gathered to either refute or confirm these assumptions. Theories can be tested using empirical methods. Our knowledge is based on such assumptions.
The assumption of the NFL conspiracy narrative is that the relationship between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce was orchestrated by the NFL.

For it to achieve the status of a theory, it needs evidence. But a conspiracy narrative is not about empirical evidence. It reduces a complex phenomenon to a simple explanation. A basic pattern of such narratives is that powerful groups or individuals control events, but keep the public in the dark about their goals.

The proof of a conspiracy narrative is that there is no proof.

This also describes the core of this narrative pattern: because the groups act so secretly, there is no evidence at all. Yes, one could even caricature the theorising and say: The proof that the narrative is true lies precisely in the fact that there is no evidence. This is because the forces are so deeply hideen that nothing is known about them. So they cannot be proven empirically. Of course, neither has it been disproved – both basic requirements for a theory.

Correlation instead of causality

As a substitute for causality, conspiracy narratives like to rely on correlation. A correlation describes a relationship between two things without establishing a causal link. For example, how the development of the stork population can be linked to the number of births. But this is not relationship in the sense of cause and effect. This is why we should rather speak of conspiracy narratives or conspiracy ideologies.

The calculated flight time from Tokyo, where Swift will perform on the eve of the Super Bowl, to Paradise, Nevada, is 13 hours. If you build the square sum of the 49ers, it is 13, and the Chiefs’ game against the 49ers would be the 13th game. What a coincidence, isn’t it?