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OnWords: Conspiracy


Conspiracy theories have been around a long time—from speculations about what happened to the children of the Russian royal family after the revolution to the fate of the Lindbergh baby to more contemporary concerns about what’s actually in the contrails airplanes make as they fly.

Our capacity for language helps create this phenomenon. Even the most direct words, nouns and verbs mostly, remove us one step from what they are referencing: the word train is not a train, and even if the word “train” disappeared tomorrow, linked cars on tracks would still trundle across the plains.

The capacity for language means we can make experiences portable, creating complex stories about where to hunt for food or how to ford a river.

But stories become hard to link to facts: the same ability to tell stories about a very real war allows us to tell a made up story about foreign people with two heads and necks like giraffes.

And so the fact that contrails are water vapor exists on the same level as the lie that Paul McCartney died in 1966.

The operative word in “conspiracy theory” is “theory” which is to say we use these theories to try to make sense of the world, a world that is confusing at best, often confounding, seeming to some beyond belief, with its moon-landings, mind-control experiments, and human-trafficking rings.

A world in which it’s little consolation that the walrus was Paul.