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This proposed logo for the US Information Awareness Office was dropped due to fears that its Masonic symbolism would provoke conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy theory attempts to explain the ultimate cause of an event (usually a political, social, or historical event) as a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert alliance of powerful persons (sometimes described as "an unseen power elite") rather than as an overt activity or as natural occurrence.

While history has shown that crimes carried out by a group of people (a "conspiracy") are not uncommon, the term "conspiracy theory" is usually used by scholars and in popular culture to identify a type of folklore similar to an urban legend, having certain regular features, especially an explanatory narrative which is constructed with certain naive methodological flaws. The term is also used pejoratively to dismiss allegedly misconceived, paranoid or outlandish rumors.

Most people who have their theory or speculation labeled a "conspiracy theory" reject the term as prejudicial.

Overview

The term "conspiracy theory" may be a neutral descriptor for a conspiracy claim. However, conspiracy theory is also used to indicate a narrative genre that includes a broad selection of (not necessarily related) arguments for the existence of grand conspiracies, any of which might have far-reaching social and political implications if true.

Many conspiracy theories are false, or lack enough verifiable evidence to be taken seriously, raising the intriguing question of what mechanisms might exist in popular culture that lead to their invention and subsequent uptake. In pursuit of answers to that question, conspiracy theory has been a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore since at least the 1960s, when the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy provoked an unprecedented level of speculation.

When conspiracy theories combine logical fallacies with lack of evidence, the result is a worldview known as conspiracism. Conspiracism is a worldview that sees major historic events and trends as the result of secret conspiracies. Academic interest in conspiracy theories and conspiracism has identified a set of familiar structural features by which membership of the genre may be established, and has presented a range of hypotheses on the basis of studying the genre. Among the leading scholars of conspiracism are Hofstadter, Popper, Barkun, Goldberg, Pipes, Fenster, Mintz, Sagan, Johnson, and Posner; from who the following list is synthesized.

Whether or not a particular conspiracy allegation may be impartially or neutrally labelled a conspiracy theory is subject to some controversy. If legitimate uses of the label are admitted, they work by identifying structural features in the story in question which correspond to those features listed below.

See also Conspiracy criminal law.

Features

Allegations exhibiting several of the following features are candidates for classification as conspiracy theories. Confidence in such classification improves the more such features are exhibited:

  1. Initiated on the basis of limited, partial or circumstantial evidence;
    Conceived in reaction to media reports and images, as opposed to, for example, thorough knowledge of the relevant forensic evidence.
  2. Addresses an event or process that has broad historical or emotional impact;
    Seeks to interpret a phenomenon which has near-universal interest and emotional significance, a story that may thus be of some compelling interest to a wide audience.
  3. Reduces morally complex social phenomena to simple, immoral actions;
    Impersonal, institutional processes, especially errors and oversights, interpreted as malign, consciously intended and designed by immoral individuals.
  4. Personifies complex social phenomena as powerful individual conspirators;
    Related to (3) but distinct from it, deduces the existence of powerful individual conspirators from the 'impossibility' that a chain of events lacked direction by a person.
  5. Allots superhuman talents or resources to conspirators;
    May require conspirators to possess unique discipline, unrepentant resolve, advanced or unknown technology, uncommon psychological insight, historical foresight, unlimited resources, etc.
  6. Key steps in argument rely on inductive, not deductive reasoning;
    Inductive steps are mistaken to bear as much confidence as deductive ones.
  7. Appeals to 'common sense';
    Common sense steps substitute for the more robust, academically respectable methodologies available for investigating sociological and scientific phenomena.
  8. Exhibits well-established logical and methodological fallacies;
    Formal and informal logical fallacies are readily identifiable among the key steps of the argument.
  9. Is produced and circulated by 'outsiders', often anonymous, and generally lacking peer review;
    Story originates with a person who lacks any insider contact or knowledge, and enjoys popularity among persons who lack critical (especially technical) knowledge.
  10. Is upheld by persons with demonstrably false conceptions of relevant science;
    At least some of the story's believers believe it on the basis of a mistaken grasp of elementary scientific facts.
  11. Enjoys zero credibility in expert communities;
    Academics and professionals tend to ignore the story, treating it as too frivolous to invest their time and risk their personal authority in disproving.
  12. Rebuttals provided by experts are ignored or accommodated through elaborate new twists in the narrative;
    When experts do respond to the story with critical new evidence, the conspiracy is elaborated (sometimes to a spectacular degree) to discount the new evidence, often incorporating the rebuttal as a part of the conspiracy.
  13. The conspiracy is claimed to involve just about anybody;
    Conspiracy tales grow in the telling, and can swell to world-spanning proportions. As the adherents struggle to explain counter-arguments, the conspiracy grows even more (see preceding item). Conspiracy theories that have been around for a few decades typically encompass the whole world and huge portions of history.
  14. The conspiracy centers on the "usual suspects";
    Classical conspiracy theories feature people, groups or organsations that are discriminated against in the culture where the story is told. Jews and foreigners are a common target. Likewise, organisations with a bad or colorful reputation feature prominently, such as the templars, the nazis and just about any secret service.

Origins of conspiracy theories

Humans naturally respond to events or situations which have had an emotional impact upon them by trying to make sense of those events, typically in spiritual, moral, political, or scientific terms.

Events which seem to resist such interpretation—for example, because they are, in fact, unexplainable—may provoke the inquirer to look harder for a meaning, until one is reached that is capable of offering the inquirer the required emotional satisfaction. As sociological historian Holger Herwig found in studying German explanations for the origins of World War I:

Those events that are most important are hardest to understand, because they attract the greatest attention from mythmakers and charlatans.

This normal process could be diverted by a number of influences. At the level of the individual, pressing psychological needs may influence the process, and certain of our universal mental tools may impose epistemic 'blind spots'. At the group or sociological level, historic factors may make the process of assigning satisfactory meanings more or less problematic.

Psychological origins

According to many psychologists, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory is often a believer in other conspiracy theories. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Psychologists believe that the search for meaningfulness features largely in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories. That desire alone may be powerful enough to lead to the initial formulation of the idea. Once cognized, confirmation bias and avoidance of cognitive dissonance may reinforce the belief. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement may equally play a part.

Evolutionary psychology may also play a significant role. Paranoid tendencies are associated with an animal's ability to recognize danger. Higher animals attempt to construct mental models of the thought processes of both rivals and predators in order to read their hidden intentions and to predict their future behavior. Such an ability is extremely valuable in sensing and avoiding danger in an animal community. If this danger-sensing ability should begin making false predictions, or be triggered by benign evidence, or otherwise become pathological, the result is paranoid delusions. A conspiracy theorist sees danger everywhere, and may simply be the victim of a malfunction in a valuable and evolutionarily-old natural ability.

Epistemic bias?

It is possible that certain basic human epistemic biases are projected onto the material under scrutiny. According to one study humans apply a 'rule of thumb' by which we expect a significant event to have a significant cause.[1] The study offered subjects four versions of events, in which a foreign president was (a) successfully assassinated, (b) wounded but survived, (c) survived with wounds but died of a heart attack at a later date, and (d) was unharmed. Subjects were significantly more likely to suspect conspiracy in the case of the 'major events'—in which the president died—than in the other cases, despite all other evidence available to them being equal.

Another epistemic 'rule of thumb' that can be misapplied to a mystery involving other humans is cui bono? (who stands to gain?). This sensitivity to the hidden motives of other people might be either an evolved or an encultured feature of human consciousness, but either way it appears to be universal. If the inquirer lacks access to the relevant facts of the case, or if there are structural interests rather than personal motives involved, this method of inquiry will tend to produce a falsely conspiratorial account of an impersonal event. The direct corollary of this epistemic bias in pre-scientific cultures is the tendency to imagine the world in terms of animism. Inanimate objects or substances of significance to humans are fetishised and supposed to harbor benign or malignant spirits.

Clinical psychology

For relatively rare individuals, an obsessive compulsion to believe, prove or re-tell a conspiracy theory may indicate one or more of several well-understood psychological conditions, and other hypothetical ones: paranoia, denial, schizophrenia, Mean world syndrome[2].

Sociopolitical origins

Christopher Hitchens represents conspiracy theories as the 'exhaust fumes of democracy', the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people. Other social commentators and sociologists argue that conspiracy theories are produced according to variables that may change within a democratic (or other type of) society.

Conspiratorial accounts can be emotionally satisfying when they place events in a readily-understandable, moral context. The subscriber to the theory is able to assign moral responsibility for an emotionally troubling event or situation to a clearly-conceived group of individuals. Crucially, that group does not include the believer. The believer may then feel excused of any moral or political responsibility for remedying whatever institutional or societal flaw might be the actual source of the dissonance.

Where responsible behavior is prevented by social conditions, or is simply beyond the ability of an individual, the conspiracy theory facilitates the emotional discharge or closure that such emotional challenges (after Erving Goffman) require. Like moral panics, conspiracy theories thus occur more frequently within communities that are experiencing social isolation or political disempowerment.

Mark Fenster argues that "just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something. Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm" (1999: 67).

For example, the modern form of anti-Semitism is identified in Britannica 1911 as a conspiracy theory serving the self-understanding of the European aristocracy, whose social power waned with the rise of bourgeois society.[3]

Disillusionment

In the late 20th century, Western societies increasingly experienced a process of disengagement, disaffection, or disillusionment with traditional political institutions among their general populations. Falling election participation and declines in other key metrics of social engagement were noted by several observers. For a prominent example, see Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone thesis. Those who were most influenced by this period, the so-called "Generation X," are characterized by their cynicism towards traditional institutions and authorities, offering a case example of the context of political disempowerment detailed above.

In that context, a typical individual will tend to be more isolated from the kinds of peer networks that grant access to broad sources of information, and may instinctively distrust any statement or claim made by certain people, media, and other authority-bearing institutions. For some individuals, the consequence may be a tendency to attribute anything bad that happens to the distrusted authority. For example, some people attribute the September 11, 2001 attacks to a conspiracy involving the U.S. government (or disfavored politicians) instead of to Islamic terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda (see 9/11 conspiracy theories.)

Media tropes

Media commentators regularly note a tendency in news media and wider culture to understand events through the prism of individual agents, as opposed to more complex structural or institutional accounts.[4] If this is a true observation, it may be expected that the audience which both demands and consumes this emphasis itself is more receptive to personalised, dramatic accounts of social phenomena.

A second, perhaps related, media trope is the effort to allocate individual responsibility for negative events. The media have a tendency to start to seek culprits if an event occurs that is of such significance that it does not drop off the news agenda within a few days. Of this trend, it has been said that the concept of a pure accident is no longer permitted in a news item [1]. Again, if this is a true observation, it may reflect a real change in how the media consumer perceives negative events.

A particularly political individual or group may respond skeptically or cynically towards an event or process that does not fit with his or its existing worldview. For example, a neo-Nazi or an anti-Israeli organization such as Hizbollah might promote claims of Jewish involvement in 9/11 in order to incorporate that event into its own political narrative in a manner compatible to meeting its own ends.

Controversies

Aside from controversies over the merits of particular conspiracy claims (see catalog below), and the various differing academic opinions (above), the general category of conspiracy theory is itself a matter of some public contestation.

Usage

The term "conspiracy theory" is considered by different observers to be a neutral description for a conspiracy claim, a pejorative term used to dismiss such a claim, and a term that can be positively embraced by proponents of such a claim. The term may be used by some for arguments they might not wholly believe but consider radical and exciting. The most widely accepted sense of the term is that which popular culture and academic usage share, certainly having negative implications for a narrative's probable truth value.

Given this popular understanding of the term, it is conceivable that the term might be used illegitimately and inappropriately, as a means to dismiss what are in fact substantial and well-evidenced accusations. The legitimacy of each such usage will therefore be a matter of some controversy. Disinterested observers will compare an allegation's features with those of the category listed above, in order to determine whether a given usage is legitimate or prejudicial.

Certain proponents of conspiracy claims and their supporters argue that the term is entirely illegitimate, and should be considered just as politically manipulative as the Soviet practice of treating political dissidents as clinically insane. The term conspiracy theory is itself the object of a type of conspiracy theory, which argues that those using the term are manipulating their audience to disregard the topic under discussion, either in a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth, or as dupes of more deliberate conspirators.

When conspiracy theories are offered as official claims (e.g. originating from a governmental authority, such as an intelligence agency) they are not usually considered as conspiracy theories. For example, certain activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee may be considered to have been an official attempt to promote a conspiracy theory, yet its claims are seldom referred to as such.

The truth of a conspiracy theory

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of a conspiracy theory is the problem of settling a particular theory's truth to the satisfaction of both its proponents and its opponents. Particular accusations of conspiracy vary widely in their plausibility, but some common standards for assessing their likely truth value may be applied in each case:

  • Occam's razor - is the alternative story more, or less, probable than the mainstream story? Rules of thumb here include the multiplication of entities test.
  • Psychology - does the conspiracy accusation satisfy an identifiable psychological need for its proposer?
  • Falsifiability - are the "proofs" offered for the argument well constructed, ie, using sound methodology?
  • Whistleblowers - how many people–and what kind–have to be loyal conspirators?

Real conspiracies

On some occasions particular conspiracy allegations turn out to be real, as in the French government's attempted cover-up following Emile Zola's accusations in the Dreyfus Affair, or in the efforts by the Tsar's secret police to foment anti-semitism by presenting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an authentic text [5]. Where such success is due to sound investigative methodology, it is clear that it would not exhibit many of the compromising features identified as characteristic of conspiracy theory, and would thus not commonly be considered a 'Conspiracy theory'. In the case of the 1971 revelation of the FBI's COINTELPRO counter-intelligence work against domestic political activists, it is not clear to what extent a 'conspiracy theory' involving government agents was either proposed or dismissed prior to the programme's factual exposure.

Some argue that the reality of such conspiracies should caution against any casual dismissal of conspiracy theory. Many "conspiracy theory" authors and publishers, such as Robert Anton Wilson and Disinfo, use proven conspiracies as evidence of what a secret plot can accomplish. In doing so, they attempt to rebut the assumption that conspiracies don't exist, or that any "conspiracy theory" is necessarily false. A number of true or possibly true conspiracies are cited in making this case; the Mafia, the Business Plot, MKULTRA, various CIA involvements in overseas coups d'état, Operation Northwoods, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy and the Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge debate, among others.

Falsifiability

Karl Popper argued that science is written as a set of falsifiable hypotheses; metaphysical or unscientific theories and claims are those which do not admit any possibility for falsification. Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes argue that many of them are not falsifiable and so cannot be scientific. This accusation is often accurate, and is a necessary consequence of the logical structure of certain kinds of conspiracy theories. These take the form of uncircumscribed existential statements, alleging the existence of some action or object without specifying the place or time at which it can be observed. Failure to observe the phenomenon can then always be the result of looking in the wrong place or looking at the wrong time — that is, having been duped by the conspiracy. This makes impossible any demonstration that the conspiracy does not exist.

In his two volume work, The Open Society & Its Enemies, 1938–1943 Popper used the term "conspiracy theory" to criticize the ideologies driving fascism, Nazism and communism. Popper argued that totalitarianism was founded on "conspiracy theories" which drew on imaginary plots driven by paranoid scenarios predicated on tribalism, racism or classism. Popper did not argue against the existence of everyday conspiracies (as incorrectly suggested in much of the later literature). Popper even uses the term "conspiracy" to describe ordinary political activity in the classical Athens of Plato (who was the principal target of his attack in The Open Society & Its Enemies).

In response to this objection to conspiracy theories, some argue that no political or historical theory can be scientific by Popper's criterion because none reliably generate testable predictions.[citation needed] In fact, Popper himself rejected the claims of Marxism and psychoanalysis to scientific status on precisely this basis. This does not necessarily mean that either conspiracy theory, Marxism, or psychoanalysis are baseless, irrational, and false; it does suggest that if they are false there is no way to prove it .

Falsifiability has been widely criticised for misrepresenting the actual process of scientific discovery by a number of scholars, notably paradigm theorists and Popper's former students Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Imre Lakatos. Within epistemological circles, falsifiability is not now considered a tenable criterion for determining scientific status, although it remains popular.

Conspiracy theories in fiction

Main article: Conspiracy theories (fictional)

Conspiracies are a popular theme in several genres of fiction, notably thrillers and science fiction, primarily due to their dramatic potential: recasting complex or meaningless historical events into relatively simple morality plays, in which bad people are the cause of bad events, and good people face the relatively simple task of identifying and defeating them. Compared to the subtlety and complexity of more rigorous sociological or historical accounts of events, conspiracy theory makes for a neat and intuitive narrative. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that the English word "plot" applies to both a story, and the activities of conspirators.

Conspiracy Theory is a 1997 thriller about a taxi driver (played by Mel Gibson) who publishes a newsletter in which he discusses what he suspects are government conspiracies.

The X-Files was a popular television show during the 1990s, which followed the investigations of two intrepid FBI agents, Mulder and Scully. Many of the episodes dealt with conspiracies of many different varieties, most notably a plot for alien invasion overseen by elements of the U.S. government led by the mysterious individual known only as the Cigarette Smoking Man. The famous tagline of the series, "The Truth Is Out There", can be interpreted as reference to the meaning-seeking nature of the genre discussed above.

On the cartoon series King of the Hill the character Dale Gribble represents the stereotypical conspiracy theory-obsessed American. Dale believes just about any and every possible conspiracy theory, from aliens to bigfoot to the JFK assassination to faked moon landings. His behavior, language, and mannerisms are all common cliches of how many people regard believers in conspiracies, namely anti-social, sullen, aggressive, and egotistical.

A recent fiction genre is the conspiracy novel. Efforts here include both the pulpish (for example, James Ellroy's retelling of the Kennedy Assassination in American Tabloid) as well as more serious novels, including Thomas Pynchon's entire oeuvre.

In Umberto Eco's novel, Foucault's Pendulum, his characters attempt to construct an all-embracing conspiracy theory based on a plot by the Templars.


Notes

  1. "Who shot the president?," The British Psychological Society , March 18, 2003 (accessed June 7, 2005).
  2. "Top 5 New Diseases: Media Induced Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (MIPTSD)," The New Disease: A Journal of Narrative Pathology 2 (2004), (accessed June 7, 2005).
  3. "Anti-Semitism," 1911 Online Encyclopedia, (accessed June 7, 2005).
  4. Ivan Emke, "Agents and Structures: Journalists and the Constraints on AIDS Coverage," Canadian Journal of Communication 25, no. 3 (2000), (accessed June 7, 2005).
  5. (2004). Jews and Politics in the Twentieth Century: From the Bund to the Rise of the Nazis. Judaica in the Collections of the Hoover Institution Archives. Hoover Institution, Stanford University. URL accessed on 2006-04-28.

References

  • American Heritage Dictionary, "Conspiracy theory"
  • Barkun, Michael. 2003. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520238052
  • Chase, Alston. 2003. Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0393020029
  • Fenster, Mark. 1999. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 081663243X
  • Goldberg, Robert Alan. 2001. Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300090005
  • Hofstadter, Richard. 1965. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0674654617
  • Johnson, George. 1983. Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc. ISBN 0874772753
  • Melley, Timothy. 1999. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801486068
  • Mintz, Frank P. 1985. The Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race, Conspiracy, and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood. ISBN 031324393X
  • Pipes, Daniel. 1997. Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes from. New York: The Free Press. ISBN 0684871114
  • ---. 1998. The Hidden Hand: Middle East Fears of Conspiracy. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312176880
  • Popper, Karl R. 1945. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691019681
  • Posner, Gerald. 1993. Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. New York: The Random House. ISBN 0385474466
  • Sagan, Carl. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: The Random House. ISBN 039453512X
  • Vankin, Jonathan, and John Whalen. 2004. The 80 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time. New York: Citadel Press. ISBN 0806525312

Further reading

  • Wilson, Robert Anton. 2002. TSOG: The Thing That Ate the Constitution, Tempe, AZ: New Falcon Publications. ISBN 1561841692
  • York, Byron. 2005. The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President - and Why They'll Try Even Harder Next Time, New York, Crown Forum. ISBN 1400082382

Conspiracist literature

See also

Concepts

Repeat Sources of Conspiracy Allegations

Conspiracy theories by topic or main figure

Assassinations

Celebrity deaths

Celebrity deaths other than acknowledged assassinations:

Politics-related deaths

External links

Links critical of conspiracism

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