This proposed logo for a US government agency was dropped due to fears that its masonic symbolism would provoke conspiracy theories
A conspiracy theory is a theory that claims an event or series of events is the result of secret manipulations by two or more individuals or an organization, rather than the result of a single perpetrator or natural occurrence. Conspiracy theories often defy an official or dominant understanding of events, and proponents sometimes substitute zeal for logic.
Colloquially, a conspiracy theory is any non-mainstream theory about current or historical events, with the connotation that that theory is unfounded, outlandish, or irrational or in some way unworthy of serious consideration. In this sense, the term is sometimes used to refer to events with which no association to an actual "conspiracy" in the legal sense (two or more persons plotting and one overt act related to the plot) is claimed. In this sense "conspiracy theory" is often presented by its detractors as simply an allegation of clandestine action, based on little or no solid evidence. Thus the expression "conspiracy theory" is often used by opponents of such theories as a term of derision for an allegation that they consider unproven, unlikely, or false.
Conspiracy theories in general allege that some particular event — such as an assassination, a revolution, or even the failure of a product — resulted not solely from the visible action of overt political or market forces, but rather from intentional covert action.
Conspiracy in a legal and historic sense
The word conspiracy comes from the Latin "conspirare", ("to breathe together"), and in contemporary usage it is a situation where two or more people agree to perform an illegal or immoral act. Legally, a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more parties on a definite plan to achieve an unlawful end or to achieve a lawful end by unlawful means. Secrecy is common but not an "essential element" of the crime. New parties can enter an ongoing conspiracy and are also guilty. A further element of the crime, in most jurisdictions is an 'overt act':
- Bob and Bill decide to break all the windows on Main Street, an illegal act. In order to make their plot an actionable crime, another element is necessary, other than merely planning to break windows. If either of the conspirators acts in furtherance of their plot, at that point their conspiracy becomes a crime.
- Bill gathers a sack full of rocks. At this point, regardless of whether windows are broken, both Bill and Bob could now be charged with the crime of conspiracy.
Conspiracy can increase the penalty for a given offense. Conspiring to commit a misdemeanor, for instance, can increase the act to a felony.
The actual existence of countless thousands of such conspiracies is well-known and includes organized crime and gangs as well as cartels in restraint of trade , organized political bribery, and so forth. At any given time, hundreds or thousands of conspiracies are afoot. Such conspiracies are crimes in most nations, and one can be prosecuted on the basis of conspiring to commit an illegal act or being part of a network that was engaged in doing so, or even, sometimes, for knowing about a conspiracy and failing to act to oppose it. (Note: The term "conspiracy theory" is thus sometimes also used to refer to sociological attempts to study the phenomenon of conspiracy.)
Historians generally use the term conspiracy to refer to a conspiracy that is considered (by the dominant authorities in the field) to be real, proven, or at least seriously plausible and with some element of support.
When conspiracy theories combine logical fallacies with lack of evidence, critics refer to them as a form of Conspiracism, a worldview that sees major historic events and trends as primarily the result of secret conspiracies.  According to many psychologists, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory is often a believer in other conspiracy theories as well.
Some people distinguish between falsifiable accusations of conspiracy and unfalsifiable conspiracy theories and argue that when conspiracy theories are proposed, the proponents bear the burden of proof. In justifying the classification of a conspiracy theory as conspiracism, detractors tend to level accusations that the theory is:
- Not backed up by sufficient evidence.
- Phrased in such a way as to be unfalsifiable.
- Improbably complex or lengthy.
Defenders point out in response that:
- Those powerful people involved in the conspiracy hide, destroy, or obfuscate evidence.
Skeptics / apologists are not (in their opinion) prepared to keep an open mind .
- Skeptics / apologists may be politically motivated and have a vested interest in the status quo.
Conspiracy theory and the status quo
The term conspiracist or the phrase "conspiracy theory" can be used disparagingly to refer to a person who is likely to believe that an event can be explained by the workings of a secret conspiracy. Sometimes this becomes a tactic to undermine dissent and defend the status quo. Ridicule, and even the diagnosis of schizophrenia has been used as a means of silencing political dissent, for example in the Soviet Union (see anti-psychiatry).
The waters are further muddied by the fact that powerful groups or individuals may have an interest in trying to discredit those who accuse them of real or imagined crimes. The label of "conspiracy theory" has been used to mock or denigrate social and political dissent, for instance when a powerful public figure is accused of corruption. Claims by leftists in the 1960s that they were under surveillance by government agents were dismissed as "conspiracy theory" until the illegal FBI COINTELPRO program was uncovered.
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).
Some scholars of conspiracism such as Goldberg point out that when governments refuse to disclose information in a timely and transparent manner, it fuels speculation about conspiracies.
Psychology of conspiracy theory
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 values-laden spiritual, moral or political terms, though occasionally in scientific terms. Events which resist such interpretation - for example, because they are, in fact, senseless - can provoke the inquirer to have recourse to ever more extreme speculations, until one is reached that is capable of offering the inquirer the required emotional satisfaction. Once cognized, confirmation bias and avoidance of cognitive dissonance may reinforce the belief. In a context where conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement may equally play a part. As sociological historian Holger Herwig found in studying German explanations of World War I:
- Those events that are most important are hardest to understand, because they attract the greatest attention from mythmakers and charlatans.
It is also possible that certain basic human epistemic biases are projected onto the material under scrutiny. According to one study  humans operate a 'rule of thumb' by which we expect a significant event to indicate a significant cause. The study offered subjects four versions of events, in which a foreign president was (a) successfully assassinated, (b) unsuccessfully wounded, (c) wounded 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 facts available to them being equal.
A further 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, 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 corrollary of this epistemic bias in pre-scientific cultures is the tendency to imagine the world in terms of animism, by which inanimate objects or substances of significance to humans are fetishised, understood to harbor benign or malignant spirits.
Conspiratorial accounts are emotionally satisfying when they place events in a readily-understandable, moral context. The subscriber to the theory is able to situate moral responsibility for an emotionally troubling event or situation onto a clearly-conceived group of individuals. Crucially, that group does not include the believer, with the effect that he or she is excused any moral or political responsibility for remedying whatever institutional or societal flaw might be the true source of the dissonance. Where acting in such a responsible way is taboo or beyond the individual's resources, the conspiracy theory thus permits the emotional discharge or closure such emotional challenges (after Erving Goffman ) demand of us all.
Like moral panics, conspiracy theories thus occur more frequently within communities which are experiencing social isolation or political disempowerment. 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. The apparent growth in the popularity of conspiracy theories since the 1960s might be understood in this light. Any such growth might equally be understood as an expression of 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. 
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:
Conspiracy theory and urban legends
The overlap between conspiracy theory and the urban legend is considerable: one need only consult American supermarket tabloids such as the Weekly World News to see foremost examples of both. Many urban legends, particularly those which touch on governments and businesses, have some but not all of the attributes of conspiracy theory.
For instance, during the 1980s the story that the Procter & Gamble company was affiliated with Satanism was a common urban legend in some circles. Is this tale, too, a conspiracy theory? It does allege secretive and presumably harmful action (support of Satanism) on the part of a group (Procter & Gamble, or its leadership). However, it does not have the expansiveness or attempt at explanation of historical events which earmark a conspiracy theory. It is too simple.
Karl Popper and Falsifiability
Karl Popper claimed that science is essentially defined as a set of falsifiable hypotheses; metaphysical or unscientific theories and claims are those who do not furnish any means 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. Establishing a negative is philosophically problematic, though perhaps especially so in this context. Falsificationists might also claim that this makes such theories unscientific.
For example, consider how one would prove the widely believed UFO conspiracy theory (in which aliens are said to have visited Earth), followed by the official denials (perhaps chiefly because the U.S. Government, or others, is hiding the evidence) that any such thing has happened. Since the theory does not specify when or where or how the visits or the conspiracy occurred, it is not possible to show it to be false. Even if, for example, we were given the run of the Pentagon (or some other government agency's) archives, the possibility always exists that there is an archive somewhere else detailing the conspiracy, to which we do not have access.
Karl Popper used the term "conspiracy theory" in his two volume work, The Open Society & Its Enemies, 1938-1943. Popper used "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 theory, some argue that no political or historical theory can be scientific by Popper's criterion because none reliably generate testable predictions. In fact, Popper himself rejected the claims of Marxism and psychoanalysis to scientific status on precisely this basis. (Many scientists today dispute the idea that Marxism is science at all; similarly, neurobiology and behaviorist psychology claim that classic forms of psychoanalysis have no scientific basis.) This does not necessarily mean that conspiracy theory, Marxism, and psychoanalysis are baseless, irrational, or false; it does mean that if they are false there is no way to show it, because they do not make testable predictions, and so are not science by Popper's criterion. Such arguments have raised a debate on whether Popper's criterion should be applied in the social sciences as strictly as in natural sciences. Falsifiability has been widely criticised for misrepresenting the actual process of scientific discovery by a number of scholars - mainly paradigm theorist and Popper's former student Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Imre Lakatos - and is now not considered a tenable criterion for scientific status in epistemological circles, although it remains popular.
Conspiracy theory in fiction
Main article: Conspiracy theories (fictional)
Conspiracies are a popular theme in several genres of fiction, notably thrillers and science fiction. Conspiracy theory recasts 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.
Bible and conspiracy theories
Main article: Bible conspiracy theory
An entire literature has arisen that concerns conspiracy theories related to the Bible.
Real life imitates conspiracy theory
What provides conspiracy theories with their power is that sometimes real life does imitate conspiracy theory. A number of actual government organizations or plans have been described as resembling the stuff of particularly paranoid conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, these are fully acknowledged by their respective governments, or by a broad consensus of mainstream experts, as being, or having been, real:
- The United States Department of Defense Information Awareness Office (IAO) has many similarities to conspiracy theories. First, its avowed purpose is to gather and correlate information on ordinary citizens for the purpose of predicting terrorism and other crime. Second, its logo depicted the eye in the pyramid, a symbol associated with Illuminati and Masonic representations of power or divinity, casting a beam over the globe of the Earth. This has since been changed. The original logo is still widely available on the internet, however. Lastly, the name "Iao" is a Gnostic word for God, used in the Golden Dawn and Thelema among others. 
- The inner workings of the Mafia were unknown to outsiders until Joe Valachi revealed them in 1963.
- Declassified papers as well as legal inquiries have shown that the CIA was involved in many coups d'état, including the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and Salvador Allende as well as into terrorist action, for instance in Italy by means of Gladio
- From the 1950s to the 1970s, the CIA and the U.S. Army operated a research program into mind control, codenamed MKULTRA. In this program, CIA agents gave LSD and other drugs to unwitting and unconsenting victims, in an effort to devise a working "Truth serum" and/or mind-control drug. MKULTRA was uncovered by Presidential and Congressional research committees in 1975, and discontinued at that time. Many prominent writers and drug figures were first exposed to LSD under this program, including Ken Kesey of the Merry Pranksters, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) and future 'Unabomber' Theodore Kaczynski. A source on this is the book "Acid Dreams" by Bruce Shalin and Martin A. Lee .
ECHELON is a communications interception network operated by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is designed to capture telephone calls, fax and e-mail messages. New Zealand has openly admitted the existence of Echelon, and the European Union commissioned a report on the system.
- In the 2003 Iraq War, Iraqi resistance was strong at first and then collapsed suddenly. A conspiracy theory emerged in Iraq and elsewhere that there had been a safqah—Arabic for "secret deal"—between the US and the Iraqi military elite, wherein the elite were bribed to stand down. This conspiracy theory was ignored or ridiculed in the US media. In late May, 2003, General Tommy Franks, who had been the head of the US forces in the conflict, confirmed in an interview with Defense News that the US government had paid off high-level Iraqi military officials and that they had stated that "I am working for you now". How important this was to the course of the conflict was not entirely clear at the time of this writing (May 24, 2003).
Operation Northwoods, a CIA plot to commit acts of apparent terrorism and blame them on Cuba to encourage support for a war, was long considered to be nothing but a conspiracy theory—until the project's documents were declassified and published. Carol Valentine, whose own unconventional theories about history frequently attack Jews and Israel, has claimed that the "declassified" documents are a hoax. 
- The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. For a period of 50 years, the US Government used some members of the black population of a town in Alabama to observe the effects of untreated syphilis. The participants were not asked to participate and were not told they were being untreated for their syphilis.
Note: There are many instances in which the term "conspiracy theory" has been used in either its pejorative sense, or in its legal/historic sense. In most cases these involve elements of mystery combined with both fact and supposition. Many of these theories remain a subject of controversy and sometimes even heated debate. The links below should be evaluated with this in mind.
Note: the following pages are in the process of being merged into a more coherent and less redundant set of pages.
Regularly produce allegations of conspiracies
David Icke | John Birch Society | Liberty Lobby (defunct) | Lyndon LaRouche |
Conspiracy theories by topic or main figure
AIDS and HIV | Alternative 3 | Anti-Christian calendar theory | Atlantis | Council on Foreign Relations | Elvis sightings | Epsilon Team | Francis E. Dec | Fnord | Freemasonry | Gladio secret army | Government Warehouse | Holocaust revisionism | Illuminati | Jesuits | Knights Templar | Men in Black | Majestic 12 | Moon hoax | Mysticism | New World Order | Oil imperialism | Opus Dei | Polybius | Pseudosciences | Protosciences | Rennes le Château | Round table groups | UFO conspiracy theory | UFOs | Unknown Superiors | Zionist/Jewish world domination conspiracy: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion Anti-globalization and Anti-Semitism
Mohandas Gandhi | Pope John Paul I | Petra Kelly | George Patton | John F. Kennedy | Robert F. Kennedy | Abraham Lincoln | Malcolm X | Martin Luther King Jr. | Enrico Mattei | Olof Palme | Salvador Allende | John Lennon
Celebrity deaths other than assassinations:
Elvis Presley | Jim Morrison | Diana, Princess of Wales | Marilyn Monroe | Bob Marley | Peter Tosh | Lee Harvey Oswald | Kurt Cobain | Tupac Shakur | Notorious B.I.G. Hunter S. Thompson
External links critical of conspiracism
- Michael Barkun. 2003. A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Berkeley: Univ. of California. ISBN 0520238052
- Mark Fenster. 1999. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Robert Alan Goldberg. 2001. Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300090005
- Frank P. Mintz. 1985. The Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race, Conspiracy, and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood. ISBN 031324393X
- Richard Hofstadter. 1965. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0674654617
Last updated: 10-22-2005 18:32:53