There are conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories

“The reason there are conspiracy theories”, runs an old adage, “is because sometimes people conspire”. They do, which is one reason why the sneering condescension with which people talk about conspiracy theories is, well, unwise. It may make statistical sense (because the majority of conspiracy theories are unfounded), but it’s not good epistemology, because sometimes conspiracy theories are well-founded.

The critical difference is between theories we believe to be well-founded and those we believe to be unfounded or mistaken. To take just one obvious example, the official US explanation of the 9/11 attacks is, in a literal sense, a conspiracy theory: it says that a certain group of Al-Qaeda operatives conspired to launch a daring attack on the United States, an attack that could have been foiled if key government agencies had been more perceptive and acted more decisively. My guess is that most people prefer this explanation to the alternative conspiracy theories for various reasons — the scale of the investigation, the membership of the Presidential Commission, etc. But in the end it comes down to preferring one theory over another.

An example is a conspiracy theory that turned out to be correct was the theory that the British, French and Israeli governments had colluded to invade Egypt in order to overthrow Colonel Nasser and seize back control of the Suez Canal (which Nasser had nationalised).

And this week, another conspiracy theory focussed on the Middle East has turned out to be well-founded. Malcolm Byrne, the director of research at the US National Security Archive has confirmed that the August 1953 coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s populist prime minister, and reinstated the Shah of Persia — an obnoxious puppet of the US and the UK who was to remain in power for another twenty-six years, before fleeing the country in January 1979.

As John Cassidy reported in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Six decades to the day since a pro-Shah mob, led by Iranian agents recruited by the U.S. and the British, marched on Mossadegh’s residence, Byrne published extracts from internal C.I.A. documents that, for the first time, explicitly acknowledge how the agency masterminded the change of government in Tehran”.

Theories about the C.I.A.’s involvement in the coup (which served as a template for subsequent clandestine operations in Guatemala, Cuba, and other countries), have been around for decades, and were often ridiculed by establishment figures. But an internal C.I.A. account of the coup, which was written in the nineteen-seventies and kept secret until Byrne obtained it, now confirms that the conspiracy theorists were right all along. “The military coup that overthrew Mosadeq and his National Front cabinet”, the report states, “was carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”.

The moral? The fact that a particular explanation of an event or a phenomenon is a conspiracy theory doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. It may turn out to be the best explanation in the long run.