The ethos of think. involves "open-mindedness" and "free-thinking inquiry". We discourage absolutist and either/or thinking. In this spirit, this week we will push the boundaries of sensible agnosticism with a discussion of that thoroughly human phenomenon which has come to be called "conspiracy theory". Personally, I do not consider myself a "conspiracy theorist", and the intent of this meeting is not that of an "affinity group" or conspiratorial thinkers to come together and relish in their shared obsessions. Rather, I see an examination of conspiracy theories as a fantastic (and fun!) way to examine many important issues in philosophy and science. For example: What makes a theory a good theory? What is the nature of "evidence"? How can we go about weighing the likelihood of competing hypotheses? Why are some people "prone" to belief in and obsess over various conspiracies?
I find it frustrating and dangerous to follow the tendency of some "tough minded" folks to lump a certain set of ideas that they do not find likely under a pejorative label ("conspiracy theory" is a "bad word" amongst much company) and close one's mind to it and ridicule those who are willing to consider alternatives. On the other hand, I too think that some "conspiracy theorists" might as well be called "nuts". But the operative word here is "some". Hopefully this discussion might serve to push a few more people into the "maybe" camp, and the "some but not all" camp. Maybe some, but not all, conspiracies are nuts. Maybe some of them are on to something, at least in part.
For example, consider these well established historical occurrences: The Underground Railroad, the FBI's COINTELPRO program, Watergate, the 1993 WTC bombing. To me, these all seem to qualify under most definitions of "conspiracies" and we now "know" that they happened. There seem to be at least some non-contentious occasions of conspiratorial activity. (Not to mention the restricted legal definition that some use, "Conspiracies are nothing more than two or more people acting in concert to bring about an illegal end".)
Given the historical record, it seems highly unlikely that there are no current examples of "behind the scenes" attempts to influence the world. For example, it is widely believed that diamond companies are hoarding excess supply to manipulate the market price of diamonds.
Conspiracy theories run the gamut from the obvious (to me) like the underground railroad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_railroad), to the likely (to me) like the Propaganda 2 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_Due) conspiracy in Italy, to the moderate (to me) like the JFK assassination (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JFK_assassination_conspiracy), to the highly unlikely (to me) like the moon landing hoax (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing_hoax), to the nutty (to me) like David Icke's "lizard people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reptilians)" conspiracy. Given this widely divergent range of happenings or putative happenings all of which could be classified under the term "conspiracy theory"; it seems unwise to accept them all or to ridicule them all. It seems much more sensible to me to withhold complete acceptance or denial and consider "the evidence" with an open mind.
This week we can talk about these sorts of epistemic issues, and we can talk about the merits or demerits of specific conspiracy theories, and we can talk about the psychology of conspiracy theorists; who are these people and why are they "prone" to conspiratorial reasoning?
For the "conspiracy theorists" out there: do not assume you will not be challenged. For the "conspiracy skeptics": do not assume that you will not be challenged either! Let's all come together and push the envelope of credulity. Let us discuss with open minds-- but not so open that our brains fall out!