Conspiracy theories. Hardly a day goes by without the term appearing in the news, and a quick search reveals countless books and websites uncovering alleged conspiracies. And it’s true that conspiracy theories are experiencing a renaissance in terms of their dissemination and impact.
This is being fuelled by two factors: the advent of the internet and the rise of populist movements. In Europe and the US, conspiracy theories are much less influential than in the past, but their impact on politics is once again proving to be highly problematic.
US political scientist Michael Barkun identifies three characteristics of conspiracy theories: they assume that nothing happens by chance, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. So conspiracy theorists believe in the existence of a secret group – the conspirators. They are systematically plotting to take control of an institution, a country or even the whole world, or they have done so in the past and now want to consolidate and expand their power. Therefore, conspiracy theories convey an almost romantic image of today’s world and humankind. They assume that small groups of people can put their intentions into practice over the space of years, decades or even centuries – such as the conspiracy theories about the Illuminati. Since this contradicts the assumptions of modern social sciences that emphasise chaos, contingency, and structural factors, Barkun describes conspiracy theories as ‘stigmatised knowledge’.
Conspiracy theories became increasingly stigmatised and migrated from the centre of society to the fringe. In the terminology of the sociology of knowledge, they moved from being orthodox knowledge to heterodox knowledge and the term “conspiracy theorist” became an insult.
They may have a considerable following, but they are not taken seriously by the scientific discourse and the public at large because they are based on false assumptions. The people who formulate them must expect to be excluded from the scientific community and may even be socially ostracised.
However, this diagnosis only applies to the last few decades and to the Western world. From the 18th century until well into the 20th century, conspiracy theories were both mainstream and elite phenomena in Europe and North America. The scientific debate of the time made it inevitable, as demonstrated by numerous studies.
The mechanistic world view of the 18th century promoted belief in conspiracies and the belief that the moral quality of an action always corresponded to the intention that motivated it. Accordingly, intellectuals and politicians believed that large-scale conspiracies determined the course of history.