The Conspiracy Theory Fallacy
A consequence alone is not enough to determine the reason it happened.
Suppose these facts are true:
Columbia University, located in Morningside Heights, closes its dining halls for an indefinite period of time because of renovations.
Students who would otherwise eat at the dining halls eat at nearby restaurants instead.
The restaurant industry in Morningside Heights experiences a boom because of students dining out more.
From these facts alone, could you conclude that Columbia University renovated its dining halls to prop up the restaurant industry in Morningside Heights? Probably not.
Columbia University administrators could have renovated the dining halls for any number of reasons. Perhaps they wanted to increase the desirability of the institution, attract better undergraduates, and move up in the rankings. Perhaps a wealthy donor funded the renovations so the dining hall would be named after them. Perhaps President Bollinger owed a favor to a contractor. Who knows?
A consequence alone is not enough to determine the reason it happened, or that it was even intentional. We do not know whether the boom in the restaurant industry came from collusion or coincidence. To assume collusion, we would need to believe that Columbia is in the pocket of Big Restaurant. But we cannot make this claim based on the consequence alone.
According to Jon Elster, functional analysis is the idea that “each apparent evil has good consequences in the larger view, and is to be explained by these consequences.”1 He describes three paradigms that fall under functional analysis; I will focus on one of them.
Strong functional paradigm: “All institutions or behavioral patterns have a function that explains their presence”
In other words: suppose b is an institution or behavioral pattern. Then b presupposes a, a function for which a -> b.
Elster uses the strong functional paradigm to illustrate a common fallacy in Marx’s works. The existence of labor exploitation is necessary for capitalism. Therefore, it has explanatory power. Labor exploitation is b, so there must be a function a that explains the subjugation of the proletariat.
Strong functional paradigm is a fancy way of saying conspiracy theory. This bad thing happened, which means someone intended for it to happen this way for a specific purpose.
Let’s apply a functional paradigm to the restaurant example. Fact 3 says the restaurant industry in Morningside Heights experiences a boom (b). This consequence is sufficient to presuppose some function (a) that explains the restaurant boom. The function must be that Columbia University colluded with the Morningside Heights restaurants lobby to encourage students to dine at local restaurants.
Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist or Hegel, you can tell that functional analysis is often fallacious, Yet, these conspiracy theory fallacies are everywhere. Here are two examples.
In an Instagram Live broadcast, AOC recalled the trauma she endured during the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th. She stated that she feared for her life and urged Republicans to hold the insurrectionists accountable for their crimes.
Some people questioned whether she actually experienced trauma, or was using the insurrection as a political opportunity. They accused her of emotionally manipulating the public.
I have yet to see a poll comparing how AOC’s popularity changed as a result of her Instagram broadcast. But I imagine it helped build sympathy among people who already like her, or at least share her ideologies.
Let’s assume she gained political capital from sharing her experience. Does this fact necessitate that she exaggerated or fabricated her trauma for her own self-interest?
Perhaps a very jaded person would answer “yes.” But it seems reasonable that someone would fear for their life when a group of armed extremists stormed into their workplace. It can also be true that AOC knew sharing her story would help gain sympathy from her constituents. That, however, does not prove she lied about her trauma for the express purpose of political gain.
The organization Teach For America (TFA) recruits fresh college graduates to teach at Title I schools for two years.2 According to its critics, TFA does not adequately prepare corps members for the classroom, which hurts the low-income students they teach. Many also raise their eyebrows at TFA’s long list of corporate donors, which include Wells Fargo, The Walton Family Foundation, the Dalios, Visa Inc, and many others.
Some combine these criticisms into a causal argument:“Rich people fund TFA. TFA causes poor students to have worse educations, which exacerbates economic inequality. Rich people benefit from economic inequality. Therefore, rich people funded TFA to exacerbate economic inequality.”
Aside from its claims of causality, most of the statements are true. Rich people do benefit from inequality. TFA does match poor students with untrained and inexperienced teachers. But are these consequences enough to show that rich people fund TFA so that poor kids can never climb out of poverty? No, they are not.
We do not know why the Walton Family Foundation funds TFA. Maybe they think that it helps the education system. Or maybe they have nefarious intentions.3 But the consequence itself does not prove that charities fund TFA in order to maintain a “status quo of inequality, breaking unions, and keeping wages low and workers oppressed.”4
Why all this matters
Let’s say we buy the conspiracy theories. AOC is a master manipulator. TFA and its donors want to destroy upward mobility.
In the first case, we risk underestimating the danger of the January 6th Capitol riot. We would ignore AOC’s call to action for punishing the perpetrators. We would assume that she was lying for political gain. The criminals would face minor consequences and feel emboldened to attack again. This time, maybe not all the lawmakers in the building survive.
In the second case, we would falsely attribute every consequence of TFA to the intentions of its donors. We would believe that the Walton Family Foundation purposefully placed incompetent teachers in under-resourced classrooms so that these children would never rise out of poverty and threaten the status of elites. We would demand that non-profits turn away every cent they receive from large foundations, even if these non-profits accomplish meaningful work and desperately need funding.
It’s important to criticize powerful institutions. But it’s unhelpful to criticize them using fallacies and far-fetched hypotheses. Conspiracy theories do not help us check power; they only lead us to punish the wrong actors for collateral damage and unintentional mistakes.
Elster, Jon. “The Case for Methodological Individualism.” Theory and Society, vol. 11, no. 4, 1982, pp. 453–482. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/657101. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
I am a first year Teach For America corps member. I have my own qualms about organization, but I also don’t believe it’s evil.
There is evidence that the Walton Family Foundation’s contribution to TFA incentivizes them to place more corps members at charter schools. Many TFA alums also go on to work at or lead charter schools. Again, this doesn’t prove nefarious intentions. Charter schools are controversial and the evidence on their effectiveness is mixed.