May 08, 2006

Says Who?

Taking exception (without actually naming it) to a recent David Brooks column that depreciated the "conspiracy fantasies" of Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, Paul Krugman wrote in his column today:

A conspiracy theory, says Wikipedia, ''attempts to explain the cause of an event as a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert alliance.''

Not a bad definition, but that "says Wikipedia" had me doing a double-take. Time was when the honor of attribution was reserved either for individual authors or for sources that are in a position to speak with an institutional voice, like the Times itself, the Encyclopedia Britannica or the OED (which by the way offers its own rather more precise if wordier definition of conspiracy theory as "the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event"). In this case, sticklers might insist on a more prudent attribution like "say some anonymous self-selected contributors to Wikipedia." But if a PhD columnist at the doyenne of the Old Media can invest Wikipedia with the same metonymic authority used to be reserved for the august institutions of the print world, maybe we should throw in the towel on this one.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at May 8, 2006 11:59 PM