We should stop using the term ‘conspiracy theory’

Stephanie Keith
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I don’t generally talk to our television, but every now and then I direct a comment at the television even though I know that it can’t hear me. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were watching a news program, and the anchorperson did a whole segment about some cockamamy “conspiracy theory.” In the middle of the segment, I suddenly blurted out, “It’s not a theory.”

I dislike the term conspiracy theory because it is premised on a misuse of the word theory. According to my well-used copy of The Merriam Webster Dictionary, a theory is “a plausible or scientifically accepted general principle offered to explain observed facts.” Theories are grounded in reality and are often revised when new evidence becomes available. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, has been refined over the hundred years since Einstein first wrote about it in order to take into account new evidence that is now available to astrophysicists as a result of technological advances, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.

Not all theories are tied to the natural sciences. In the 1930s, the British economist John Maynard Keynes developed a macroeconomic theory in response to the global financial collapse that came to be known as the Great Depression. Keynes based his theory on the economic realities facing the world at that time.

Regardless of whether theories relate to the natural sciences or the social realm, all legitimate theories are tied to reality. Actual theories are not just made up out of thin air. Actual theories do not gloss over observable evidence. Actual theories explain facts; they don’t ignore or contradict facts.

A more appropriate term for the so-called conspiracy theories that one hears about on the news these days might be fantasies or perhaps delusions. I don’t have anything against fantasies per se. Some of my favorite works of literature are often classified as fantasy or science fiction. In the hands of a talented writer, a fantasy story can comment on real-world situations. For example, Octavia Butler’s 1993 science fiction novel, Parable of the Sower, speaks in a profound and prophetic way to our current climate-change problems. Fantasy stories can comment on reality, but they don’t replace reality. Delusions are another matter. My dictionary defines a delusion as “a persistent false psychotic belief.” Delusions are detached from reality, and as such, they can cause people who believe in them to engage in questionable and, in some cases, even dangerous decision making.

When the word theory is associated with outright fabrications, it implies that these fantasies or delusions have some credence in the real world. We all know that conspiracies exist in the real world, and most of us are familiar with terms such as the theory of relativity or the theory of evolution, so when the words conspiracy and theory are joined together, it sounds like it is referring to something that might be plausible.

I am not saying that news programs should ignore the stories that generally fall under the category of conspiracy theories, for these stories are having an impact on current events. Real people are basing their behavior on their belief in such notions, and in some case, their actions are newsworthy. I just wish that the news programs would not use the word theory when covering these stories.

As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “Words have meaning.” I often disagreed with his legal opinions and decisions, but I share his view that we should respect the meaning of words. Perhaps because I am an English professor, I care a great deal about words and their proper usage. In my book, the word theory is used to describe a concept that’s based on careful analytical and scientific reasoning. It should not be applied to spurious political fabrications.

Mark I. West is the Bonnie E. Cone Professor in Civic Engagement at UNC-Charlotte.