I recently stumbled across this clip about a particular witness to the JFK assassination, and it made me think about how reputable historians ply their craft. Take a moment to watch it: Josiah Thompson on the Umbrella Man.
Mr. Thompson is getting at something profound here:
If you have any fact, which you think is really sinister … hey, forget it man, you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact.
This strikes at the root of all conspiracy theory, and leads us directly to philosophy.
In philosophical discussion,
the Principle of Charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation.
To boil that down into layman’s terms, when we use this principle in a discussion, we assume that if the other person’s argument doesn’t make sense, it is more likely that we have misunderstood them than it is that they are irrational, or stupid.
This is useful in more than just philosophy – it can be used in literally any situation where people disagree. I propose that the same idea can apply to history, especially where conspiracy theories are concerned. We see in the case of the Umbrella Man that, at first glance the circumstance was misunderstood, rather than being part of a great conspiracy.
This is not to say that historical research should be de-fanged and that historians should just take the first available explanation as the final truth. Rather, that the best starting point is to assume that there is a reasonable, rational, non-sinister interpretation for the event.
So, next time you are tempted to buy in to a conspiracy theory about a historical event, or chalk the pyramids up to “ancient aliens,” consider whether it is more likely that we’ve misunderstood history, or that the correct theory just hasn’t occurred to us yet.