Where conspiracy theory is concerned, my chief complaint is the way the word "theory" itself has become denigrated in our culture to a degree that is unconscionable in a supposedly intelligent society. Why is it that gravity and relativity are accepted as reality, yet evolution and the greenhouse effect are a source of controversy? All four concepts are scientific theories. It seems to me that the more deeply a theory threatens the way certain powerful institutions in society operate (think Galileo and the Catholic Church), the more controversial that theory is made to appear within society by those same powerful institutions. As it goes for scientific theories, it goes to an even greater degree for conspiracy theories. After all, the academic study of conspiracy theory hasn't exactly been embraced by institutions of higher learning to the same degree the study of scientific theory has. If anyone offers a Doctorate in Political Conspiracy Theory, I'm not aware of it. Lacking that legitimacy, it is a field of study that is easy to debase because so many practitioners fail to apply the same rigorous standards that a scientist does when testing a hypothesis.
So without the same rigorous standards that scientists apply, how do you differentiate a conspiracy theory from a conspiracy hypothesis? Make sure the practitioner has actually tested their hypothesis against the larger pattern of facts to substantiate their claim. I'll take the most recent example by examining the case of Jared Lee Loughner. When I first heard about this tragedy last weekend, there had been initial reports that Loughner may have had an accomplice that accompanied him to the Safeway supermarket in Tucson, Arizona where six people were murdered and thirteen injured, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who remains hospitalized in serious condition with a gunshot wound to the head, and Judge John Roll, who died of his wounds. While Judge Roll had been a target of death threats in the past after ruling that a group of illegal immigrants could go forward with a multi-million dollar civil rights lawsuit against a state rancher, it was reportedly Congresswoman Giffords that Loughner was obsessed with and it was her event in the Safeway parking lot that Loughner targeted her.
So right from the beginning, an immediate hypothesis for conspiracy was established:
Shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner had an accomplice in a conspiracy to assassinate Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
Taking into account prior death threats, there was another conspiracy hypothesis:
Shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner's accomplice conspired to assassinate Judge John Roll
It seemed as if both hypotheses could be invalidated the day after the shooting. The police had questioned the man whose picture had been published as a person of interest and discovered that he was only the taxi driver that Loughner had called for a ride to the Safeway. With his alibi verified by his employer, the police were no longer interested after questioning. This would invalidate the taxi driver as an accomplice if he were the only other person of interest detained by the police. The problem is, according to the Huffington Post, he wasn't:
"Police arrest man near Thornydale and Magee Roads who is suspected of being connected to the shooting of Giffords and others. A third man is being sought."”
However, as was originally pointed out by pepsified thinker at Rigorous Intuition, the Tucson Citizen citation by Oligarch at Huffington Post no longer contains any information about this arrest. Clearly the arrest is not in reference to the taxi driver; he was never arrested or apprehended on Thornydale and Magee on the day of the shooting. The driver, John Marino, was questioned by the FBI and Pima County sheriff's officers at the taxi company where he worked on Sunday morning, January 9, but was not taken into custody and had no idea he had dropped off the alleged shooter at Safeway the previous day.
So who was the man arrested "near Thornydale and Magee Roads who is suspected of being connected to the shooting of Giffords and others"? Clearly it was not the taxi driver and it couldn't have been Loughner either. Originally, I thought the Safeway that the shooting occurred at was located at 9705 North Thornydale Road in Tucson, which would be 2.14 miles north of where the arrest occurred. Later, I found out it was located at 7100 North Oracle Road, 5.19 miles away from the arrest. Either way, it's not Loughner, who was arrested in the Safeway parking lot. There has been no word from the Tucson Citizen regarding why any mention of this report was scrubbed from their website. So the identity of the arrested man remains a mystery.
What about the assassination of Judge John Roll? While I agree with Cenk Uygur from The Young Turks that there can be no debate that the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords was an intended political assassination ("Was Jared Loughner's act in shooting Rep. Giffords political? Apparently this is what's being debated with a straight face now. Is this a joke? He shot a politician in the head. He called it an "assassination." What part of that was unclear?"), the murder of Judge Roll is less clear. There is no evidence that Loughner had any prior hatred toward Roll in his writings as there is with Giffords. Was he aware that Roll would be stopping by to see Giffords at the event? No evidence has been found that he was aware. Who was it that told Roll over the phone an hour before, according to Homeland Security who found out from his wife, that he was invited to attend? (Thanks for the link, surfaceskimmer!)If someone else told him to come there, who was it? There could be a connection to Loughner or it could be an unfortunate coincidence. The questions need answers for verification one way or another.
Does all this add up to conspiracy theory? Maybe, maybe not. The possibility that Loughner may have an accomplice is still a working hypothesis that has not been invalidated. But for this hypothesis to move out of the realm of possibility into probability, more questions need to be answered regarding who, what, when, where and most importantly: why? There were early reports that Loughner was connected to a racist organization American Renaissance, later denied by Homeland Security, that if confirmed might have given a clue as to motive. Loughner's alleged professed motive, deducted from his internet ramblings, seems to be rooted in a belief that the government is engaged in a practice of mind control through grammar. While the grammar aspect is new, government involvement in mind control is not. Was Loughner's mind "programming" self-inflicted or brought about by another controller?
At this point, gathering all the loose ends hasn't clarified that picture. But that's why I think that the theoretical research of conspiracy is a valid academic endeavor: it ties up the loose ends, if done thoroughly, and gives a more complete picture of the whole truth. I'd like to thank everyone at Rigorous Intuition for their participation in this pursuit. Hopefully with the passage of time and the diligence of focused research, we will paint a more complete picture to separate the plausible from the possible. We'll see if either of my conspiracy hypotheses will eventually be deemed a conspiracy theory.