There really is a massive conspiracy involving Barack Obama. It started in 2007 and the goal of the conspiracy was no less than a power grab of global proportions. The powerful group behind the conspiracy was called Organizing for America, and their immediate goal was to have Barack Obama elected to the most power office in the world, President of the United States.
It was a conspiracy involving literally millions of people, but it was not a conspiracy theory. There is a big difference between a conspiracy and a conspiracy theory and that’s what I want to talk about here.
In science, a theory is a testable hypothesis. One of the ways to tell a real conspiracy from a conspiracy theory is that it doesn’t explain — it just describes. For example, I can give you a mathematical formula into which you can plug the day number of the year, and it will tell you precisely the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for that day. It is 100% accurate for all of the year 2011. The problem with my formula is that it has no predictive value; it won’t work for tomorrow. The formula is a testable hypothesis, but it doesn’t test well with new data. We observe that while birthers try to explain events according to the birther conspiracy theory, their predictions are abysmally inaccurate: just look at how many times they have said that the people would rise up and kick the usurper out of the White House real soon. What birther could have predicted that Obama would release his long form out of the blue?
This is one of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory, the theorists just make it up as they go along.
The way my Dow Jones predictor formula works is that I add another degree to the polynomial for each new data point I have to accommodate. Similarly, conspiracy theorists have to make the conspiracy bigger to accommodate new evidence. Why did not one member of Congress object to an unconstitutional President? The birthers have to include all of Congress as either willing or coerced members of the conspiracy to explain the event. The alternative explanation, Obama is constitutionally eligible, does not require a vast conspiracy and predicts very well the observed continuation of the government day by day. So rather than the conspiracy theory being stable, it has to be adjusted in scope to explain why more and more information comes forward to contradict it, and now pretty much has expanded to cover the entire government of the United States. In real life, the number of people who know a secret, the more likely that someone will disclose the secret, especially when the secret is “something bad.”
Another hallmark of a conspiracy theory is that it keeps growing in scope to accommodate new information, but no whistle blowers come forward1.
Those historical conspiracies that we all recognize exhibited the characteristic that the evidence grew over time. Things were revealed. There was a process through which the unknown became known. With the birther conspiracy theories, evidence turns out to be all faulty, and the process of belief does not grow over time. Media reporters aren’t launching investigations and saying “maybe there is a story here.”
Another hallmark of a conspiracy theory is who supports it: cranks or serious investigators.
So when anyone tries to slip birtherism in the door under a general argument that come conspiracies are true, on response is to point out that some conspiracies are not, and then ask how to tell the difference.
1Tim Adams, someone who talked like a whistle blower, was never part of the conspiracy, and so didn’t have any inside information to disclose.