I was teasing one of the commenters here by deliberately misinterpreting a comment of his referring to intelligent design and replying that I didn’t consider intelligent design a conspiracy theory. However, I really do.
Intelligent design is the proposition that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”
Writers on conspiracy theories delineate two general ways to explain the world: The Forrest Gump theory ([stuff] happens) and the conspiracist explanation (nothing happens without a reason). The former believe that there is chaos in the world and that chaos, coupled with natural processes and people following their own interests, explain what happens. The latter see deep underlying structure in things, connections between events and the hand of conspirators pulling the strings from behind the stage. Writers on the psychology of conspiracy theory suggest that those in the former camp are less prone to see patterns in random events and that they are more comfortable with uncertainty compared to the latter.
At this point in the story, the reader should have figured out where I’m going. “Undirected process” is the Gump theory and “intelligent cause” is the approach of the conspiracy minded.
Writer Michael Barkun, in his book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, delineates three types of conspiracy theory: Event conspiracies1, those linked to particular discrete events, such as (to use my example) Barack Obama’s birth; Systemic conspiracies that involve grand plots to influence major events over time; and Superconspiracies – conspiracies that manipulate and control the lesser conspiracies, and literally explain everything. For Barkun an example of a superconspiracy is the alien reptoid masters of the Earth put forth by British conspiracy theorist David Icke. However, what could be more pervasive than an “intelligent cause,” an alien that controls evolution itself?
If indeed the genesis of conspiracy theories includes intolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, what could be less ambiguous and less uncertain than a benevolent Hand guiding everything. What grander conspiracy could be imagined?
There are dark places in the world, whether an evolutionary step a billion years old, or the kindergarten records of the President of the United States. Some attempt to fill in the gaps with an intelligent agency, perhaps working to keep us in the dark. Some feel comfortable waiting for things to work out over time, or even to remain unresolved in their lifetime. The first group are conspiracy theorists.
1I think the concept of event conspiracies is particularly useful in answering the central question of this site: is birtherism a conspiracy theory? While birtherism differs from many classic conspiracy theories, it is like those theories that touch particular events, such as the burning of black churches in the 1990, the genesis of AIDS and the Japan tsunami.