| Some dare call it
“”Modern political religions may reject Christianity, but they cannot do without demonology. The Jacobins, the Bolsheviks and the Nazis all believed in vast conspiracies against them, as do radical Islamists today. It is never the flaws of human nature that stand in the way of Utopia. It is the workings of evil forces.
|—John Gray, political philosopher|
“”There’s a similar kind of logic behind all [conspiracy theorist] groups, I think ... They don’t undertake to prove that their view is true [so much as to] find flaws in what the other side is saying.
|—Ted Goertzel, sociology professor|
A conspiracy theory originally meant the "theory" that an event or phenomenon was the result of conspiracy between interested parties; however, from the mid-1960s onward, it is often used to denote ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish or irrational theories. The problem is this results in rational conspiracy theories (like the Nazis themselves setting the Reichstag on fire) getting lost admist the noise of newsworthy but ridiculous, irrational, or outlandish conspiracy theories such as New World Order or the Moon Landing Hoax.
 Scope and rationality
"A conspiracy theory is the idea that someone, or a group of someones, acts secretly, with the goal of achieving power, wealth, influence, or other benefit. It can be as small as two petty thugs conspiring to stickup a liquor store, or as big as a group of revolutionaries conspiring to take over their country's government." 
"Conspiracy theories as a general category are not necessarily wrong. In fact as the cases of Watergate and the Iran-Contra affair illustrate, small groups of powerful individuals do occasionally seek to affect the course of history, and with some non-trivial degree of success. Moreover, the available, competing explanations--both official and otherwise--occasionally represent dueling conspiracy theories, as we will see in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing." 
"A conspiracy theory that has been proven (for example, that President Nixon and his aides plotted to disrupt the course of justice in the Watergate case) is usually called something else—investigative journalism, or just well-researched historical analysis." 
"There is no a priori method for distinguishing warranted conspiracy theories (say, those explaining Watergate) from those which are unwarranted (say, theories about extraterrestrials abducting humans)" 
"Conspiracy theory is thus a bridge term--it links subjugating conceptual strategies (paranoid style, political paranoia, conspiracism) to narratives that investigate conspiracies (conspiratology, conspiracy research, conspiracy account). Conspiracy theory is a condensation of all of the above, a metaconcept signifying the struggles of the meaning of the category. We need to recognized that we are on the bridge when we use the term."
 Theory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory
Because the term conspiracy theory has been used in the media to denote grand conspiracy theories involving hundreds or thousands of people as well as plausible things, such as Nazis themselves started the Reichstag fire, there has been some effort by a few scholars to denote those conspiracy theories that are plausible from those that are irrlational-delusional-paranoid ramblings.
One such effort is to call a plausible conspiracy theory a Theory of Conspiracy while another is to separate the broad concept of conspiracy theory into the broad categorizes of warranted and unwarranted.
Warranted conspiracy theories tend to be small in scope requiring only a small group or be reasonably easy to cover up. A crucial litmus test is whether any of those who must have been involved or in the know, has ever leaked information. It is a repeatable feature of bogus conspiracy theories that they involve very large numbers of people, not one of whom has ever betrayed the conspiracy. Watergate, the classic conspiracy, was busted in part because of Deep Throat. The more people who are or must be in the know, the less likely it is that the conspiracy will remain secret, and the more certain it becomes that the absence of any leak is indicative that the conspiracy does not exist.
Here is a short list of warranted conspiracy theories with the ones that are still open in bold:
- Al-Qaeda or a group of some home grown nuts in the Timothy McVeigh mold were responsible for the 9/11 attacks
- Business Plot (Ie the plot to overthrow the US government in 1933)
- Al Capone was behind the Saint Valentine's Day massacre
- CIA drug trafficking
- The Dreyfus Affair
- General Motors streetcar conspiracy
- Jimmy Hoffa was killed by the Mob and buried in an unknown location
- Iran-Contra Affair
- The Nazis started the Reichstag fire 
- Operation Gladio
- Operation Mockingbird
- Operation Northwoods
- Project MKULTRA
- Sicilian Mafia
- Tuskegee syphilis experiment 
- Watergate 
Unwarranted conspiracy theories on the other hand tend to gravitate to the grandiose to the point that they approach lunacy. The existence of warranted conspiracy theories especially when they are later proven to be true helps fuel a conspiracy mentality that sees conspiracies everywhere and anyone that denies said conspiracy is part of it.
 Questions to ask about a conspiracy theory
Don't count on converting a conspiracy theorist. However, some questions can determine if a conspiracy theory is warranted or not
- How many people are part of this conspiracy? Are there enough of them to carry out the plan? What infrastructure and resources does it need? How much time and money did it take and where did this money come from? (For instance, the idea that the Nazi themselves set the Reichstag fire would only require handful of men and minimal amount of money to pull off while something like the moon landing hoax would require tens of thousands if not more to carry out; the rock samples alone might require a decade to falsify and filming would take an airtight soundstage orders of magnitude larger than any known vacuum chamber).
- Explicitly who gains what from the conspiracy and for what price? Is this the easiest way of gaining it? If not, why was it chosen over the easiest way? If it is an old conspiracy — who gains what from maintaining it?
- How large is the supposed conspiracy and how likely is it to be covered up if has gone on a long time? If there are thousands of conspirators, and the conspiracy has gone on for decades, why have none been defected? Why have none of them leaked the story? If many conspirators are dead, why have none of them told the truth on their deathbeds, or in their wills? (It should be noted that with government-based conspiracy theories one can have issues with the fact there are things about WWI, nearly 100 years ago, that are still classified and therefore unknown to the general public, nullifying these types of questions even with a skeptic - however, these involve what might be termed "rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty" and usually there is significant supporting evidence from other sources).
- If there are many thousands of conspirators, how are they organized? Where are the secret conferences held? How do they keep track of membership? If they are organised through known channels or entities, how do they keep non-members who work there from uncovering the conspiracy?
- There are many intelligence agencies associated with rival nations, with the ability to expose secrets. If, say, the US government is running a global conspiracy, why have the French, Russian, or Chinese intelligence agencies never revealed it, to cause a major scandal in the United States (If all intelligence agencies are involved, see #2)? If they have, when and where did they do so?
- Does belief in this theory require accepting that the conspiring entities are incredibly competent, bone stupid, organized and clever, and hopelessly incompetent -- all at the same time?
- More generally, what if any implausible contradictions does this theory depend upon? A secret well and carefully kept by extremely powerful and aggressive entities, that one or (especially) more "bozos on the bus" happens to know all about, and talk about openly, including on the Web, without being disappeared? A highly organized and thoroughly secret system of concentration camps operated by FEMA, which is famous for its amazingly chaotic, clumsy, and ineffective handling of rescue and recovery after Katrina? An intensely secret program that could be easily discovered and verified by anyone with a common piece of scientific equipment?
“”Because the war in Afghanistan is a FALSE FLAG operation to DISTRACT Wikileaks with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents to go through.
Denial is strongly linked with conspiracies in two senses. In one, the conspiracy theorist is in denial of the "official story", which is more often than not the one supported by facts. However, in the second sense, anyone denying the existence of a conspiracy inadvertently proves that it must exist. Denial of on-going conspiracies can be taken as proof that said employees are "in on" whatever conspiracy they are busily denying. Usually, the more they deny, the more conspiracy theorists will take it as proof - because, well, "they would say that, wouldn't they!". Furthermore, if people do not deny the theory, this can also be taken as proof on the grounds that "it has never been denied". This applies equally to anyone involved in a large, perhaps mysterious, enterprise, such as "scientists", "the Army", "automobile manufacturers", "Big Science/Petroleum/Tobacco/Florists" etc. That this entire line of reasoning is circular hardly needs pointing out.
A conspiracy theory becomes a total crackpot conspiracy theory when all evidence that might disprove the theory instead becomes co-opted as proof of the "cover-up" of said theory; requiring loyalty, resources, and competence on the part of the conspirators far in excess of what any actual conspiracy can muster.
"Conspiracy theory" can be used as a snarl word to dismiss a valid worry that a group is up to something.
“”You know, what I think I might be upset over BushCo more than anything is the fact that talking about what they DID do is so amazingly far-fetched that I have to cast a new eye at the conspiracy people.
See, many, many years ago, I was seeing reports from citizens about a "Black CIA jetplane" that was taking prisoners secretly from the US to other countries for torture.
"Psssh" I said, "As if. We're America, you 'tards. We don't DO that."
A year later, the stories continue, with photos of the planes and tracking the tail numbers.
"Guys, what, photoshop or something? Please. Yeah yeah, the FAA won't talk about what plane that is. Still not true."
Then we find out that, yeah, we are having the CIA send people overseas for "interrogations".Son of a BITCH.
Another example would be the discovery of COINTELPRO. People such as the Black Panthers and Abbie Hoffman suspected that the FBI had a covert program dedicated to tracking, discrediting and destroying them, however they were largely written off as paranoid radicals finding a way to blame THE MAN for their failures. Then, lo and behold, the FBI reveals its COINTELPRO and proves that they were actually correct.
A skeptic must always seek out the truth, even if it does very occasionally end up proving those "nutjobs" right. Considering the sheer number of conspiracies, however, it's inevitable that one or two of them might just be right, but this by no means says that they are generally valid - as the disclaimer above says, once a conspiracy theory has been "proven" it ceases to be a conspiracy theory in this sense and just becomes a conspiracy.
Remember, you're not paranoid if They really are out to get you.
 What They don't want you to know
One of the most successful driving forces behind the spread and uptake of conspiracy theories is the entire concept that they're secret and forbidden pieces of information. This goes far beyond them being merely "juicy" like celebrity gossip but right to the heart of how we place value on information.
Things become valuable for their rarity, and occasionally for their utility, although a very common but highly useful thing is still cheap; contrast iron and wood for construction with gold and silver, which have useful electronic conduction properties or novel chemical applications but their price is derived from their rarity. If it wasn't for this rarity they would be just used rather than being held in high regard for specialist applications. The same applies to information - rarity increases value. And just as we can value useless things because they are rare, we can still value information that is rare regardless of its truth value. This is something that has wider reaching consequences in almost all forms of woo. Fad diets, for example, display this particular trope very well as healthy eating advice is simple, effective and free - but make it some "secret trick" and people will buy into it happily despite a free and effective alternative being available.
Within the realm of conspiracy theories, information is highly valuable - indeed, it is made valuable by becoming part of of the conspiracy. "What They don't want you to know" is a phrase that is heard and seen everywhere in Conspiracy Land. Because if information is suppressed by Them to keep it away from you it must be secret, it must be rare, it must be valuable. It's the same force that drives people to brag about a band that only they have heard of, or say "I know something you don't know", even though this defeats the purpose; nothing is cooler than knowing something someone else doesn't. The problem with conspiracies is that people mistake such hoarding value for truth value, i.e., if information is suppressed by Them to keep it away from you it must be secret, it must be rare, it must be valuable, it must be true. Therefore the trope continues to be used to add value, and the illusion of truth, to information.
There are a few other subtle factors at play to enhance this. The idea of information being suppressed and withheld romanticises the idea of the conspiracy. If knowing something that others don't is a big, fat, multi-layered chocolate cake, then being the underdog and fighting against the people who want to stop you is the rich, orgasm-inducing, triple-chocolate icing that spells your name and shouts "happy birthday" with the load of sparklers that gracefully sits atop it. A figure of hate and mistrust to aim emotions at enhances the experience; the Illuminati, the mainstream media, it really doesn't matter so long as it's something to absorb additional hatred and scorn. Thus the "Them" (always capitalise it-always), reinforces the special nature of the information that the conspiracy theory purports to reveal.
The knowledge suppression aspect (for example, free energy suppression) plays nicely into our thinking about the abhorrence of censorship and the want to do something good in the world. Meanwhile, the "Them" aspect plays nicely into the distrust and hated people hold for corporations, governments or any organisation that exists in the abstract rather than personal. It's easy to demonise an institution, a person less so. When a skeptic wanders into a conspiracy theorist discussion to refute facts, the ad hominem responses of conspiracy advocates tend to be of the type "you work for the Illuminati" or "you're paid by Big Oil" or one of countless other very similar such accusations. It's never "you are the Illuminati" or "you work for David Smales, who lives at 45 9th Avenue with a wife and two children and another on the way, who plays golf at the weekend, likes his pet dog and just happens to be the head of Big Oil". No, They are faceless and easy targets. Even in the circumstances when conspiracy theorists are capable of pointing the finger at a person they can identify outright - such as the pilot in charge of the AC-130 flying over Washington DC during the 9/11 attacks that is accused of dropping wreckage to "fake" the attack on the Pentagon - charges are always accompanied by phrases like "perhaps he didn't know what he was doing or perhaps he was following orders and wasn't aware". Even further, with Bob Lazar, who claimed to work at Area 51, no one seems bothered by who he worked for or with there, it's always faceless government. They are an easy target because They can't be personified.
These factors up the value conspiracy theorists ascribe to information, but unfortunately for them such clichés don't comment on the truth value of such information - in fact, they probably count against such things being true.
 Classification of conspiracy theories
In his book Culture of Conspiracy, Michael Barkun (a political scientist specializing in conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs) defines three types of conspiracy theories:
- Event conspiracy: In which a conspiracy is thought to be responsible for a single event or brief series of events, e.g. JFK assassination conspiracies.
- Systemic conspiracy: A broad conspiracy perpetrated by a specific group in an attempt to subvert government or societal organizations, e.g. Freemasonry.
- Super-conspiracy: Hierarchical conspiracies combining systemic and event conspiracies in which a supremely powerful organization controls numerous conspiratorial actors, e.g. the New World Order or Reptoids controlling a number of interlocking conspiracies.
 See also
- List of conspiracy theories
- 9/11 conspiracy theories
- New World Order
- Obama citizenship denial
- Persecution complex
 Latching to Tragedy
A very, very unfortunate and cruel tendency of a die hard conspiracy buff is to instantly claim that a tragedy, be it a shooting, bombing, suicide, or stubbing their toe in the morning, is by some way fabricated by or the fault of the government. It almost seems as if nothing is sacred or forbidden, no matter how tragic, for a conspiracy theorist to latch onto.
- CP's resident conspiracy theorist
- The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast
- Why I go after the grand conspiracy theorists
- Random conspiracy theory generator
- The Psychology of Crankery, Denialism blog
- Lies, damn lies, and "counter-knowledge", The Telegraph
- The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter, originally printed in Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, pp. 77-86, the basis for a book of the same name.
- Goertzel, Ted. "Conspiracy theories in science." EMBO Reports. 2010, 11(7), 493-499.
- Katel, Peter. "Conspiracy theories: Do they threaten democracy? CQ Researcher 23 Oct. 2009, vol. 19, no. 37
- Brian L. Keeley. Of Conspiracy Theories. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Mar., 1999), pp. 109-126.
Knight, Peter (2003). Conspiracy theories in American history: an encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-812-9.
- ↑ Gray, John. Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, page 35
- ↑ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/science/space/14hoax.html?_r=1&ref=science
- ↑ Also a good description of certain other nutjobs we know...
- ↑ 20th Century Words (1999) John Ayto, Oxford University Press, p. 15.
- ↑ Pigden, Charles R (2007) "Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom" Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology Volume 4, Issue 2, Edinburgh University Press pp. 222 DOI: 10.1353/epi.2007.0017.
- ↑ Coady, David Conspiracy theories: the philosophical debate Ashgate Publishing Page 2, 140
- ↑ Balaban, Oded (2005) 'Interpreting conflict: Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at Camp David II and Beyond Peter Lang Page 66
- ↑ Parish, Jane (2001) The age of anxiety: conspiracy theory and the human sciences Wiley-Blackwell page 94
- ↑ Hodapp, Christopher; Alice Von Kannon (2008) Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies For Dummies Wiley; pg 9
- ↑ Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories" The Journal of Philosophy Columbia University, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Mar., 1999), pp. 109-126.
- ↑ Knight, Peter (2003) Conspiracy theories in American history: an encyclopedia, Volume 1; ABC-CLIO; ISBN 978-1-57607-812-9 pg 17
- ↑ Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories" The Journal of Philosophy Columbia University, Vol. 96, No. 3. (Mar., 1999), pp. 109-126. (abstract)
- ↑ Bratich, Jack Z. (2010) Conspiracy panics: political rationality and popular culture SUNY pg 6
- ↑ Davidson, Eugene (2004) The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler University of Missouri Press pg 457
- ↑ Parish, Jane (Editor), Martin Parker (Editor) (2001) The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences Wiley-Blackwell ISBN: 978-0-631-23168-4
- ↑ Keeley, Brian L. [ "Of Conspiracy Theories" Journal of Philosophy (March, 1999) pg 109-126 reprinted as chapter 4 of David Coady's Conspiracy theories: the philosophical debate
- ↑ Knight pg 625
- ↑ Knight pg 237
- ↑ Zernike, Kate (April 30, 2011) "The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories" New York Times
- ↑ Keeley, Brian L. "Of Conspiracy Theories" Journal of Philosophy (March, 1999) pg 109-126 reprinted as chapter 4 of David Coady's Conspiracy theories: the philosophical debate
- ↑ Knight pg 319
- ↑ Knight pg 349
- ↑ Davidson, Eugene (2004) The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler University of Missouri Press pg 457
- ↑ Knight pg 231
- ↑ Knight pg 486
- ↑ Knight pg 117
- ↑ Knight pg 490
- ↑ Knight pg 451
- ↑ Knight pg 38, 45, 538
- ↑ Knight pg 725)
- ↑ Example: Chemtrails. If the U.S. government wished to use chemicals to have effects at ground level, high-altitude dispersion would be the most expensively, stupidly ineffective approach imaginable (as well as readily detected by, say, spectrographs and air sampling). So this theory would require believing in an entity (the U.S. government) that is well-resourced, competent, clever, well-advised, and at the same time hopelessly stupid.
- ↑ See also this interview with Barkun on C-Span