There is no RationalWiki without you. We are a small non-profit with no staff – we are hundreds of volunteers who document pseudoscience and crankery around the world every day. We will never allow ads because we must remain independent. We cannot rely on big donors with corresponding big agendas. We are not the largest website around, but we believe we play an important role in defending truth and objectivity.
If everyone who saw this today donated $5, we would meet our goal for 2021.
| Fighting pseudoscience isn't free.|
We are 100% user-supported! Help and donate $5, $20 or whatever you can today with !
| Some dare call it|
|What THEY don't want|
you to know!
“”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|
“”Humans just lead short, boring, insignificant lives, so they make up stories to feel like they're a part of something bigger. They want to blame all the world's problems on some single enemy they can fight, instead of a complex network of interrelated forces beyond anyone's control.
|—Pearl, Steven Universe, "Keep Beach City Weird"|
A conspiracy is a secret plan to achieve some goal, whose members are known as conspirators. A conspiracy theory originally meant
a pre-formed conclusion an idea that an event or phenomenon was the result of conspiracy. However, since the mid-1960s, it has often been used to denote ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish, or irrational speculations theories.
One of the worst things about conspiracy theories is the fact they are almost completely self-sealing. Every debunking or piece of evidence against it will be viewed as an attempt to "misinform the public", and the lack of evidence for it is viewed as a government cover-up, as proof that "THEY" are trying to "conceal the truth." The flood of conspiracy theories results in possibly rational conspiracy theories getting lost in the midst of the noise of newsworthy but disingenuous ideas such as New World Order or the Moon landing hoax. Not everyone involved in a conspiracy necessarily knows all the details; in fact, sometimes none do. Not that this troubles most conspiracy theorists, of course.
For all the cranks shrieking about bread and circuses, widespread conspiratorial thinking actually threatens to become not just a means of winning political office, but also a way to govern through real misdirection of public attention.
- 1 Scope and rationality
- 2 Theory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory
- 3 Classification of conspiracy theories
- 4 Conspiracy theory checklist
- 5 Denial
- 6 Dismissal
- 7 What THEY don't want you to know
- 8 Latching onto tragedy
- 9 Misperception of social systems
- 10 Slippery slope
- 11 The conspiracy mentality
- 12 Defence of conspiracy theories
- 13 In a nutshell
- 14 See also
- 15 External links
- 16 Bibliography
- 17 Notes
- 18 References
Scope and rationality
“”There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It's how I know for sure that [we're not] covering up aliens in New Mexico.
|—CJ Cregg on government|
Many conspiracy theories fall into the self-refuting idea fallacy. Some commentary:
"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 stick up 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...[but] 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)."
"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."
"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 recognize that we are on the bridge when we use the term."
Theory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory
“”Conspiracy theories: They're just fairy tales adults tell each other on YouTube.
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 starting the Reichstag fire, Al Capone being behind the Saint Valentine's Day massacre, or the Dreyfus affair there has been some effort by a few scholars to distinguish those conspiracy theories that are plausible from those that are irrational/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 categories 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 Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, who was a former confidant of J. Edgar Hoover. 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.
Classification 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.
Unified conspiracy theory
|—Milhouse, The Simpsons, "Grandpa vs. Sexual Inadequacy"|
The unified conspiracy theory, popular among crank-magnetism types, posits that reality is controlled by a single evil entity that has it in for them. It can be a political entity, like "The Illuminati", or a metaphysical entity, like
Say-tan Satan, but this entity is responsible for the creation and management of everything bad.
The term 'unified conspiracy theory' is a bit of a misnomer, as it is unified in the same way that a dumpster fire is unified: it's a dumpster, it's full of garbage, and it's inflammatory (in the case of the conspiracy theory, or it's just flaming in the case of the dumpster). Elements of the unified conspiracy theory are often thrown in willy-nilly with, at best, ephemera holding them together. Sometimes, the elements are agglomerated based on the escape hatch fallacy, or because it's another conspiracy theory: why not just throw that one in too?
Michael Barkun coined the term "superconspiracy" to refer the idea that the world is controlled by an interlocking hierarchy of conspiracies. Similarly, Michael Kelly, a neoconservative journalist, coined the term "fusion paranoia" in 1995 to refer to the blending of conspiracy theories of the left with those of the right into a unified conspiratorial worldview.. Also similarly, James McConnachie and Robin Tudge[note 1] have coined the term mega-conspiracy theory to refer to conspiracy theories that do not refer to specific events but are amalgamations of other conspiracy theories or that involve some demonized group that allegedly has a master plan for controlling the world.
Despite the mental hurdles that this type of theory would require one to jump, it's one of the most common types out there[note 2] and is usually religious in nature. One reason for this could be that, when you find your faith dwindling due to the mountain of of scientific evidence against spirituality, vehemently proclaiming that the major scientific entities of the world which are responsible for said discoveries are all the product of Satan is a great way to not only regain, but also to reinforce your faith.
When facts appear to be threatening one's favorite conspiracy theory, creating a superconspiracy can be very useful as a way of dismissing them as 'part of the cover-up'.
It's also worth noting that conspiracies rely on secrecy among the conspirators, so the more people in on the conspiracy the more unlikely that it actually exists. It is akin to Benjamin Franklin's maxim, "Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead."
Conspiracy theory checklist
“”Once you're forced to hypothesize whole new technologies to keep your conspiracy possible, you've stepped into the realm of magic. It demands a deep and abiding faith in things you cannot know.
We don't count on being able to "convert" conspiracy theorists. However, we have some very basic (read: kindergarden-level) questions which any self-respecting conspiracy theorist should really take the time to reflect on. These include:
- How large is the supposed conspiracy?
- 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?
- 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?
For instance, the Nazis pulling off the Reichstag fire only required a handful of men and minimal amount of money, while something like faking the Moon landing would require tens of thousands of co-conspirators and untold sums of money to pull off; the rock samples alone might require a decade to forge.
This is not to say that a massively large project cannot remain secret: the Manhattan Project created a whole multimillion-dollar industrial infrastructure and managed to remain outside of the public eye basically until the people running it decided to go public in the most explosive way imaginable. But even that only had to be kept hidden for four years, required massive resources to keep secret, was amenable to the kind of compartmentalization that makes keeping large things secret comparatively easy (even if you are running a factory with thousands of employees, if they aren't told why they're doing what they're doing, then they can't spill all that much), and in the end wasn't even secret to the people it needed most to be kept secret from (i.e. foreign powers like the Soviets) — to say nothing of the fact that you could probably have pieced together its existence from a number of open sources (e.g. noticing the significant drop in the number of American nuclear physicists who published articles during the period — a sign that they had been reassigned to Manhattan). The Soviets were aware of this, as it happens, and at about the same time their own publications in the field started not to be published in accessible journals — a sign that they knew.
- 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?
Again, the Nazis used the Reichstag fire to scapegoat the communists, it is considered an important factor in their rise to power, and it is hard to imagine that there was an easier way to do it. Conversely, while faking the Moon landing might have been a way to have something to show for the Apollo project, the simpler solution would have been to actually land on the Moon. Also, Richard Nixon is dead, and no one in power has any reason to care about making sure everyone thinks we went to the Moon while he was president.
- How likely is it to remain covered up if it has gone on for a long time?
- If there are thousands of conspirators, and the conspiracy has gone on for decades, why have none of them 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?
- There are many intelligence agencies associated with rival nations, with the ability to expose secrets. If, say, the United States 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?
It should be noted that with government-based conspiracy theories one can have issues with the fact there are things about WWI, 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.
Does belief in this theory require accepting inherently contradictory premises that the conspiring entities are incredibly competent, bone stupid, organized, clever, and hopelessly incompetent — all at the same time?
A notorious 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.
Other examples are "secrets" simultaneously well- and carefully-kept by extremely powerful and aggressive entities, and known to one or (especially) more "bozos on the bus", who know all about it and talk about them openly on the Web and in real life. Apart from chemtrails a common example is the highly organized and thoroughly secret system of concentration camps operated by FEMA, an agency famous for its amazingly chaotic, clumsy, and ineffective handling of rescue and recovery after Katrina. Alternatively, use any other intensely secret program that could be easily discovered and verified by anyone with a common piece of scientific equipment (or Google).
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!"(what exactly some one is supposed to say if they find the idea kooky but also genuinely aren't in on it is usually never discussed.) 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 also be used as a snarl word to dismiss a valid worry that a group is up to something. A good 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. (All sane people knew J. Edgar Hoover would never do anything such as these freaks were claiming!) Then, lo and behold, in 1971 the "FBI Burglars" released documents mentioning COINTELPRO. This in turn led journalists to investigate and expose the program and prove that the radicals were right.
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—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
“”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[note 3]|
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 the price of which derives 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 — 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 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 hatred 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", "you're paid by Big Oil", "you're a NASA shill", 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 on 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 who 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 which 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. One peculiar thing about the classic conspiracy theories is how little difference they actually make in practice. Eve Sedgwick puts it this way:
“”Even suppose we were sure of every element of a conspiracy: that the lives of Africans and African Americans are worthless in the eyes of the United States; that gay men and drug users are held cheap where they aren't actively hated; that the military deliberately researches ways to kill noncombatants whom it sees as enemies; that people in power look calmly on the likelihood of catastrophic environmental and population changes. Supposing we were ever so sure of all those things — what would we know then that we don’t already know?
|—Eve Sedgwick, "You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You".|
The appeal of conspiracy theories is their suggestion of surprising explanations for what everybody already knows. The explanations do not replace the standard narratives of consensus history. Rather, they add a layer that "explains" everything as being under the control of a great and secret power. They reassure you: at least somebody's in charge, even if it's lizard people from outer space. The possibility that no one is in charge, and that the wheels of government and society got this befouled without anyone intending or controlling it, is even more frightening than any of the standard model conspiracy theories. On the other hand, if a divine plan exists (say, a Judeo-Christian one), one can usefully analyze its components as part of a fairly long-running conspiracy.
Likewise, most conspiracy theories are vague on what to do about them. Suppose that the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission or the Lizardfolk are really pulling all the strings of history, how does this translate into a plan of action to effectively resist them? Roll up to Buckingham Palace in the Mystery Machine and unmask the Queen of England as a lizardwoman? What would that do? For the conspiracy theorist, exposure seems to be enough; once enough people know about the conspiracy, things will just sort themselves out.
Latching onto tragedy
“”Unimpeded, conspiracy theories distort truth and erase history. They dehumanize victims. They manipulate the public. People like [James H.] Fetzer who hide behind their computer screen and terrorize people grappling with the most unimagined grief were put on notice today. Social media companies that allow their platforms to be weaponized were put on notice today. We will continue to stand up for our rights to be free of your attempts to use our tragedy and our pain to line your pockets or gain internet "likes."
|—Lenny Pozner, father of Sandy Hook victim Noah Pozner|
An unfortunate and sometimes callous tendency of a diehard conspiracy buff is to instantly claim that a tragedy, be it a shooting, bombing, suicide, or stubbing their toe in the morning, is in some way fabricated by or the fault of the government. This is often done as a form of confirmation bias, motivated primarily by the earnest fervor and outrage that typically dominates a conspiracy theorist's life. Sometimes, such claims are also made cynically, either for political or financial profit. Even when the initial motivation was not for profit, social media platforms have been profiting from enabling the dissemination of conspiracy theories.
An even more unfortunate corollary of this is that any attempts at alternative explanations or deviations from orthodoxy are easily smeared as "conspiracy theories", and an overwhelming sentiment thus obtains where tragedies such as mass shootings, bombings, or suicides are "sacred" or "forbidden", and any discussion, whether in good faith or not, is fundamentally disrespectful. This line of reasoning is much more often used cynically by political figures to stifle discussion which could potentially reveal their incompetence, malfeasance, or general scumminess.
“”Many of our lives are filled with more convenience and comfort than ever before — America is more likely to be heard singing in 12-car-deep Chick-fil-A drive-thru lines these days than at the cobbler’s table or behind the plow — yet there is great angst about our 240-year-old republic. It might be that Americans fear the institutions we built, governmental and societal, have grown too large, too out of their lane of ordained responsibility. We wonder: "Are analysts reading our text messages through the cloud? Are newsmen swilling martinis poolside with politicians, colluding over what they think the best course for the plebs might be?" Only 32 percent of Americans say they trust the media; 19 percent say they trust the federal government to do what is right. 2016’s “rigged” paranoia might be some side effect of this niggling sense that we are not quite in control, our institutions grown too sprawling to be accountable to us. All of a sudden, the comfort has a terrifying tinge to it.
Social systems do exhibit complex forms of order and integration which emerge from the non-intentional consequences of intentional action; these emergent orders can be mistaken for conspiracies by people who have no real concept of social structure and therefore believe that every aspect of society must be the product of someone's will. For instance, "free" capitalist markets tend to generate oligarchies or even monopolies wherever economies of scale grant competitive advantages and/or where there is a high transaction cost for consumers who switch suppliers. For an observer who naively believes that a free market really always is a level playing field, the formation of oligopolies seems like an anomaly, which the conspiracy theory explains.
A variation on this is found when practices that are common in one context are not generally known to the wider public. For instance, the intelligence agencies of the US and USSR during the Cold War routinely shared information which was kept secret from the citizens of both countries. In business, certain levels of collusion among competitors, especially in oligopolistic markets, are fairly common. Such practices look conspiratorial to outsiders and may even be conspiratorial in a broad sense of the term but have little in common with the fantastic conspiracies postulated by crackpots.
A third form of this misperception occurs when conspiracy theorists assume, on the basis of ignorance and/or stereotyped thinking, that the group who is ostensibly responsible for something could not possibly have done that thing. For instance, conspiracy theories postulating that examples of ancient monumental architecture (the Egyptian or Mayan pyramids, Stonehenge, the Easter Island statues) must have been the product of aliens or whatever, usually depend on a serious underestimation of the engineering skills and technological know-how of the actual human beings on the scene.
The 9/11 attacks provide an example of all three forms of this misperception. Many powerful American individuals and institutions benefited from the attacks, including the Bush regime itself and its allies in the military-industrial complex. However, this is in no way an indication that the attacks were an American conspiracy; this is just how global geopolitics works: when something major and unexpected happens, one interest group or another will find a way to benefit from it. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, 9/11 conspiracy theories actually get in the way of a realistic understanding of global geopolitics and the often amoral rules by which it is played. Likewise, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks the Bush regime acted quickly to return to Saudi Arabia high-ranking Saudi officials and members of the Bin Laden family who were in the US at the time; this might seem conspiratorial to the average American but is consistent with standard diplomatic practice. Third, as Immanuel Wallerstein has observed, 9/11 truthers under-estimate the actual organizational capacity of al-Qaida.
Overall, conspiracy theories tend to depend on the fallacious belief that everything that happens in society must have been intended to happen by some specific agent, when in actuality many important (and also many everyday) events are the unintended or unforeseen consequences of intentional action.
One common theme in conspiracy theories is that if one conspiracy theory is real, then all the others have to be as well. If 9/11 is an inside job, then the Illuminati are real. If Michael Jackson/Tupac/(Insert Celeb here) is alive, then NASA is concealing evidence of intelligent extraterrestrials.
There are, however, a group of conspiracy theorists who group all conspiracy theories into one big one. Every tragedy was caused to distract from the real problems. War was caused to further the plans (or two Illuminati bloodlines wanted to duke it out), a world event was staged to distract us, and a celebrity death was designed to hide their whistleblowing along with every secret society being created to further their plans.
The conspiracy mentality
“”Conspiracy theories are dangerous for many reasons. Among other things, they provide a way to reduce mental distress by changing our perception of a problem without actually doing anything to solve the problem. They're the mental equivalent of a pacifier.
Daniel Pipes, in an early essay "adapted from a study prepared for the CIA", attempted to define which beliefs distinguish 'the conspiracy mentality' from 'more conventional patterns of thought'. He defined them as: appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains power, fame, money, and sex. The Enemy, whoever they are in the view of a specific conspiracy theory, is always winning or on the brink of winning, lending urgency and a sense of mission and purpose to theories that otherwise wouldn't be very exciting.
Evidence suggests that conspiracist-minded people tend to think that they are both "too special to be duped" and that they desire "uniqueness" provided by belief in conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories can make people with boring, insignificant lives feel like they really matter, and people who have no accomplishments to set them apart from anyone can feel like they've done/become a part of something that counts. Simply put, people tend to buy into this stuff if they're the type that feels some need to. Conspiracy theorists are not all necessarily mediocrities or losers, but a lot of them are. People who are truly exceptional, successful and accomplished tend not to even have the time for this stuff, let alone any inclination towards it.
Beyond the above, the conspiracy mentality is one of total, eternal paranoia. Someone- most popularly The Government- is out there controlling everything, hiding this, lying about that, working to unfold some vast plan involving tens of thousands of people working in flawless unison. Which government do they mean? Doesn't matter. Usually it's at the multinational level, with the United Nations and European Union being popular targets. But it could just as easily be any other multinational entity, any national government, or any regional or local government, or even all governments, everywhere at the same time. Conspiracy theorists may not even know themselves which government they're talking about right this second, because The Government is a vast, omniscent octopus, you see, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, perpetually on the brink of completing schemes that will Ensure Total Control, yet somehow never quite getting there.
Defence of conspiracy theories
While conspiracy theories often show scant regard for evidence or plausibility, and may incorporate racist or other unacceptable mindsets, there is a minority current of opinion that says the label "conspiracy theory" is used by those in power to stifle legitimate criticism and to smear opponents. Anthropologist Erica Lagalisse has suggested that the label, together with the stereotype of the conspiracy theorist as an uneducated basement dweller, manifests a form of class discrimination with privileged wealthy elites attacking poor (and hence basement-dwelling) people whose conspiracy theories typically represent in a confused way the real forces controlling their lives. Lagalisse has suggested that automatically condemning and mocking those who come up with conspiracy theories is an example of how those in positions of power systematically marginalize and delegitimize criticism from outside the establishment.
It has also been credibly suggested that the CIA promoted the concept of the paranoid conspiracy theory mindset to discredit genuine criticisms of real conspiratorial behavior by the US government. Political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith uncovered information that in the 1960s with a growing suspicion of the government's involvement in the John F Kennedy assassination and other events, CIA field offices were tasked with a public relations campaign to ridicule critics as irrational conspiracy theorists, promoting the impression that anyone suggesting secret government conspiracies was crazy. deHaven-Smith has argued that the appropriate response to conspiracy theories is not to crack down on them or decry the thought processes that seek hidden explanations, but to ensure that suspicious events are investigated in a transparent, independent, and objective way.
Further evidence for an attempt to stigmatise conspiracy theorists can be seen in the contrasting fortunes of Charles A. Beard, a once-hugely influential historian who sought to explain American history through economic self-interest of elites but who fell out of favor in the Cold War, and one of his chief critics, Richard Hofstadter who popularised an attack on the "paranoid style" of conspiracy theorising and became one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the 1960s. What name could be more perfect for a crazy conspiracy theorist than Beard, unless it was Neck-Beard?
In a nutshell
- List of conspiracy theories
- 9/11 conspiracy theories
- Crank magnetism
- Fun:Conspiracy theorist Bingo
- New World Order
- Obama citizenship denial
- Persecution complex
People notable for peddling conspiracy theories
Not so notable conspiracy theorists
Want to read this in another language?
- Centre for Conspiracy Culture at the University of Winchester
- 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.
- Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy?
- Flowchart guide to the grand conspiracy
- And another
- An even more absurd (and non-Poe) example
- Are conspiracy theories destroying democracy?
- 7 Insane Conspiracies That Actually Happened
- Jade Helm ends with no takeover -- and these 6 nutters hope you forget their idiotic fear mongering
- “Two million dead on the side of the patriots”: How Alex Jones’s “Jade Helm” conspiracy theory got very dangerous very fast
- XKCD Jet Fuel
- 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
- 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; pg 2, 140
- Balaban, Oded (2005) Interpreting conflict: Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at Camp David II and Beyond, Peter Lang pg 66.
- "Bad Moon Rising," The West Wing (2001)
- 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.
- 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.
- Zernike, Kate (April 30, 2011). The Persistence of Conspiracy Theories, The New York Times
- 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, pg 109-126
- See also this interview with Barkun on C-Span
- A diagram of what a super-conspiracy theory looks like
- Michael Kelly: The Road to Paranoia, The New Yorker, June 19, 1995
- The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories by James McConnachie & Robin Tudge (2013) Rough Guides. ISBN 9781409362456.
- Poor Richard's Almanack (1735)
- Vocal Minority Insists It Was All Smoke and Mirrors, The New York Times
- In Touching Feeling (Duke, 2003), p. 123
- See the Wikipedia article on God's Plan.
- HONR Network (archived from July 9, 2019).
- First, they lost their children. Then the conspiracy theories started. Now, the parents of Newtown are fighting back. by Susan Svrluga (July 8, 2019 at 4:57 PM) The Washington Post.
- Conspiracy theories are dangerous for many reasons. Among other things, they provide a way to reduce mental distress by changing our perception of a problem without actually doing anything to solve the problem. They're the mental equivalent of a pacifier. 1/ by Caroline O. (2:34 PM - 31 Mar 2018) Twitter.
- Daniel Pipes, in Orbis, Winter, 1992: "Dealing with Middle Eastern Conspiracy Theories".
- Imhoff, R.; Lamberty, P. K. (2017). "Too special to be duped: Need for uniqueness motivates conspiracy beliefs". European Journal of Social Psychology 47 (6): 724–734. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2265.
- Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples, Erica Lagalisse, PM Press, 2018
- How the CIA Invented and Promoted ‘Conspiracy Theories’ to Discredit Controversial Views, Ron Unz, Unz Review/Alternet, Sep 6, 2016
- Conspiracy Theory in America, Lance deHaven-Smith, University of Texas Press, 2013
- Conspiracy Theory Reconsidered: Responding to Mass Suspicions of Political Criminality in High Office, Lance deHaven-Smith and Matthew T. Witt, Administration & Society, Vol 45, Issue 3, 2013, first published October 11, 2012
- See the Wikipedia article on Richard Hofstadter.