What are conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy: where two or more people agree to perform an illegal or immoral act.

by John Jackson © 2004

Conspiracy theories are offered as an alternative outlook on historical events. They are often based on little or no evidence; sometimes on misinterpretation of evidence. Conspiracy theories range from being a valid possible interpretation of events to the truly bizarre beliefs in an alternative reality.

"Conspiracy theorist" is generally a pejorative term used to discredit people for having far-fetched beliefs. In reality, however, conspiracy theory is not just just about zany ideas.

Conspiracies are real

Conspiracies do happen. The gunpowder plot of 1605 where Robert Catesby and his followers attempted to blow up the houses of parliament is an example: the most infamous of the conspirators being Guy Fawkes.

Conspiracies occur in many walks of life: politics; organised crime; cartels; insider dealing; scams; etcetera. It is illegal to conspire, therefore conspiracies are usually cloaked in secrecy. This is the cause of the speculative nature of conspiracy theories; it is also the excuse used to mask the lack of evidence in the more bizarre theories.

Real conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories are legitimately used by historians, for example. A conspiracy theory could be postulated based on incomplete evidence; suggestive facts; probability; or even coincidences.

This type of legitimate conspiracy theory is generally accepted as credible, although not proven, as they have some supporting evidence and are based on sound reasoning. A good example from history is the "Princes in the Tower" where historians have identified several likely suspects that may have been behind the plot to murder the princes. None of the theories is claimed to be the truth: they are merely proposed as being likely given the incomplete evidence; each theory having its own strengths and weaknesses.

Paranoid conspiracy theories

Valid conspiracy theories are those that are considered plausible. There are many conspiracy theories that are extremely implausible however. People who believe that we are being controlled by aliens, secret societies, and other bizarre notions, have been termed "paranoid conspiracy theorists" (PCTs).

Paranoia figures strongly in the theories put forward by PCTs. Whether it's governments colluding with alien powers, the Illuminati plotting the New World Order, drug companies withholding cancer cures so they can keep selling expensive drugs, or governments mind-controlling populations by sending signals from mobile-phone masts, there is a common theme behind the supposed conspiracies: a malevolent intention by some hidden power.

PCTs have found a natural home on the Internet where their beliefs are supported and enhanced by the communal reinforcement offered by like-minded people.

The nature of paranoid conspiracy theories

These conspiracy theories are hard to counter. PCTs do not formulate their theories in a scientific manner, and so applying logic and reason to them is usually futile.

The paranoia behind these theories manifests itself as: the hidden powers that be; the dark forces; the secret societies; the hidden agendas; that are believed to be behind them. It is the almost omnipotent ability, and the undetectable nature of these hidden forces that allows them to fool everyone. Everyone besides PCTs that is!

Some common characteristics of paranoid conspiracy theorists include:

  • They assume that they are right

    PCTs assume that their beliefs are correct and that those who don't see things the way they do have been duped or that they need to open their minds.

    This stance is an argument from ignorance (see: argumentum ad ignorantiam). They place the burden of proof firmly on their opponents; whose position is wrongly assumed to be to disprove the theories. In fact the PCTs' position does not change even if their theories are disproved: there's always a way of reaffirming their position.

    There is usually little or no real evidence to back their theories. Instead, PCTs rely on retrospective analysis: logic and reason don't matter; everything can be twisted to fit the plot. Events are simply interpreted to match the theory.

  • Their theories cannot be challenged

    PCTs do not treat their theories the way a historian or scientist treats theirs, which is to welcome challenges to their theory which will either strengthen it or refute/amend it.

    PCTs vehemently oppose any challenges to their theories. The first line of defence is to issue personal attacks (see: ad hominem) against their opponents. These are generally in the form of ridicule; their opponents not having the ability to see "the real truth".

    The theories of PCTs are often unfalsifiable, such as: UFOs exist but the government is suppressing the evidence. Any counter-argument citing an official source is instantly dismissed, and any real evidence that refutes their claims is classed as contrived or planted by those "powers that be" who are out to fool us.

  • Any evidence will do

    Any evidence that lends credence to their theories will be uncritically accepted as truth. Any evidence that opposes their theories is dismissed out of hand. The quality of evidence is not important as long as it supports the conspiracy theory.

    A recent example (November 2004) is a letter that a certain Kevin Ryan of Underwriters Laboratories, USA (a highly respected company) sent to Frank Gayle of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which has been used by PCTs to add credence to the claim that the twin towers were brought down in controlled explosions by the US government.
    (see: http://www.septembereleventh.org/newsarchive/2004-11-11-ryan.php).

    We contacted Underwriters Laboratories for a comment and received this response:
    UL comments. (PDF 77k - will open in a new window)

    We also received a copy of the NIST statement:
    NIST statement. (PDF 79k - will open in a new window)

    One simple email to the company concerned discredits the source of the letter, yet it will no doubt be used as "evidence" for years to come by PCTs who find no need to check out a source as long as the message fits the theory.

    This willingness to accept any source of information that fits the theory inevitably leads to an abundance of misinformation surrounding events.

Paranoid conspiracy theories are very appealing to the uncritical or unstable mind. Those who are fantasy-prone, irrational thinkers, and those who may have psychological problems: paranoia, delusional disorder for example, can quickly get suckered into a strange world of fantasy and/or fear.

Delusional disorder (grandiose) shows up as: an exaggerated idea of identity; knowledge; power; self-worth and importance; a special relationship to God or someone famous; the belief in having a special mission. Many PCTs exhibit these characteristics.

Once critical thinking is applied, and a search for real evidence is sought, these extreme conspiracy theories are found to lack any credibility: they look like badly written science-fiction. In fact many of the leading proponents of these conspiracy theories, such as David Icke, are prolific authors: their books being classed under science-ficton or religion and spirituality.

Paranoid conspiracy theories are a prime example of irrational thinking.