Who’s Afraid of Conspiracy Theory?

‘Conspiracy theory’ is frequently used as a derogatory term, a term of disdain and implicit criticism. An effect of this is to discourage certain kinds of legitimate critical inquiry. But surely, in a world where conspiracies happen, we need good theories of what exactly is happening. The only people who really have anything to worry about from conspiracy theories are conspirators who stand to be exposed by them. For the rest of us, if someone proposes a far-fetched theory, we are instinctively sceptical; if they propose a theory that accounts for some otherwise unaccountable occurrences, they may be helping us learn something.


Of course, people can sometimes be misled by conspiracy theories, but people are misled by the beliefs that conspiracy theories challenge too. This betokens a need for careful scrutiny of controversial contentions quite generally. Obviously, a conspiracy theory is only a theory unless there is also proof. But it is one thing to demand the truth of a theory be proven; it is quite another to pronounce that such a theory can never be accepted as true. Unfortunately, even academic critics fail to observe that clear distinction, with some of them going so far as to condemn conspiracy theories in general, pre-emptively.[1]

Yet what are denigrated as ‘conspiracy theories’ are quite often legitimate lines of inquiry pursued in a spirit of critical citizenship, with the aim of holding to account those who exercise otherwise unaccountable power and influence over our lives, including in ways we are not all always aware of.

My argument, then, is that a kind of inquiry that can be intellectually respectable and socially necessary is far too readily sidelined with the categorisation of it as ‘conspiracy theory’. However, since the name has stuck, I propose we should embrace the designation and push back from the sideline to show how it is possible to engage in conspiracy theory using credible methods of research.

The problem that concerns critics, in fact, is a kind of extravagantly speculative activity that involves believing untested hypotheses. This can appropriately be called conspiracism.[2] Conspiracism designates a fallacious mode of reasoning that reduces questions of explanation to posited conspiracies, without properly investigating the evidence. Conspiracists are prone to see conspiracies everywhere, and to believe what they think they see, without giving sufficient consideration to alternative explanations. What is wrong with conspiracism, though, can be specified by reference to standards of inquiry set by good conspiracy theory. So the two things could hardly be more different.

a-conspiracy-theory-has-surfaced-positing-that-the-cia-assassinated-jfk-over-ufosIt is especially important to be aware of the difference, given how it has been effaced in public discussions. Early ideas about a ‘conspiracist mindset’, from Harold Lasswell and Franz Neumann, informed Richard Hofstadter’s influential study of the political pathologies of the ‘paranoid style’ in the 1960s. This association of conspiracy suspicions with irrationality and paranoia was then actively promoted in the United States, especially, and as Lance deHaven Smith notes, ‘the conspiracy-theory label was popularized as a pejorative term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a propaganda program initiated in 1967.’[3]  The program, created as a response to critical citizens’ questions about the assassination of J F Kennedy, ‘called on media corporations and journalists to criticize “conspiracy theorists” and raise questions about their motives and judgments.’ Its reach has extended greatly since.

Professor Peter Knight of Manchester University, who heads a major international interdisciplinary research network, funded by the European Union, to provide a comprehensive understanding of conspiracy theories, takes it to be a now generally accepted fact that ‘some of the labelling of particular views as “conspiracy theories” is a technique of governmentality.’[4]

So who’s afraid of conspiracy theorists? Is it possible that certain governments want us all to be?

It is interesting to note that Professor Knight thinks that if serious conspiracy theories can sometimes be on the right track, then perhaps what they are finding should not be thought of as conspiracies. For instance, he writes, ‘it is possible that different parts of the labyrinthine U.S. intelligence agencies were involved with some of the 9/11 attackers in contradictory and ambiguous ways that fall short of an actual conspiracy, but which nonetheless undermine the notion of complete American innocence.’ The point is, those contradictions and ambiguities merit study, whatever they are called. Knight’s tantalizing idea of an ‘involvement’ that ‘falls short of an actual conspiracy’ brings me in mind of analogous definitional questions that were raised about Bill Clinton’s descriptions of his  ‘involvement’ with a White House intern. Good sense suggests that what people are interested to know is what happened, not what someone calls it. Ultimately, the serious conspiracy theorist – or theorist of conspiracies, as Knight puts it – wants to know what is going on, and hypotheses about ‘involvements’ of all kinds can figure in the inquiry.[5]

We should bear in mind too, that the very name of this field was bestowed upon it by those who sought to pre-empt its development. Its actual practitioners might think their activities could be more aptly designated in one or more of a number of other, albeit less catchy, ways, such as, for instance, critical civic investigation, intellectual due diligence, investigative journalism, critical social epistemology, or critical social theory.

Which brings me to my main reason for speaking out in defence of the activity: as citizens we find ourselves increasingly struck by anomalies and inconsistencies in official and mainstream accounts of public affairs, not to mention in matters of foreign policy. But whenever we try to share our concerns in a public forum, there seem to be people there ready to harangue us with put-downs about being crazy conspiracy theorists. The reason why they do this is something I shall reflect on another time.[6] My point for now is that we have been drawn to conspiracy theory for reasons that are very far from crazy.



[1] There is a marked tendency in certain literatures to take this generalized approach to conspiracy theories. Several philosophers – including David Coady, Charles Pigden, Kurtis Hagen, and Lee Basham – have commented critically on it, with Matthew Dentith, in particular, criticizing the failure of such approaches to consider the possibility of finding merits in particular conspiracy theories. He provides examples of ‘generalist positions which take the beliefs or behaviours of some conspiracy theorists as being indicative of what belief in conspiracy theories generally entails.’ (Matthew Dentith,  ‘The Problem of Conspiracism’, Argumenta, [forthcoming in 2017]) An example is Douglas and Sutton who state that ‘in the main conspiracy theories are unproven, often rather fanciful alternatives to mainstream accounts’; they also argue that conspiracy theorists are likely to believe conspiracy theories because they are more likely to sympathise with conspirators. (Karen Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, (2011) Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire’, Psychology, 50(3), 2011: 544-552.)

[2] On this, I endorse the recent exposition offered by Matthew Dentith (ibid): ‘recent philosophical work has challenged the view that belief in conspiracy theories should be considered as typically irrational. By performing an intra-group analysis of those people we call “conspiracy theorists”, we find that the problematic traits commonly ascribed to the general group of conspiracy theorists turn out to be merely a set of stereotypical behaviours and thought patterns associated with a purported subset of that group. If we understand that the supposed problem of belief in conspiracy theories is centred on the beliefs of this purported subset – the conspiracists – then we can reconcile the recent philosophical contributions to the wider academic debate on the rationality of belief in conspiracy theories.’  He identifies the challenge I am arguing we need to take on: ‘Typically, when we think of conspiracy theorists we do not think of people who theorised about the existence of some particular conspiracy – and went on to support that theory with evidence – like John Dewey (who helped expose the conspiracy behind the Moscow Trials of the 1930s), or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who uncovered the conspiracy behind who broke in to the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in the 1970s). Instead, we think of the advocates and proponents of weird and wacky conspiracy theories … .’

[3] Lance deHaven Smith, Conspiracy Theory in America, University of Texas Press, 2013: p.21; see also Chapter 4 passim.

[4] Peter Knight, ‘Plotting Future Directions in Conspiracy Theory Research’, in Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski, eds, Conspiracy Theories in the Middle East and the United States, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014: p.347.

[5] ‘Involvements’ amongst people can include any of the typical elements of conspiracy such as collusion, collaboration, conniving, tacitly understanding, secretly agreeing, jointly planning, acquiescing, turning a blind eye, covering up for, bribing, intimidating, blackmailing, misdirecting or silencing, and many other more nuanced kinds of arrangement.

[6] In a third blog of this series I shall be asking ‘Do we face a conspiracy to curtail freedom of expression?’ Meanwhile, the second will be a discussion of ‘Conspiracy theory as civic responsibility’. A full academic paper comprising extended versions of each of these will be available shortly. (And yes, for afficionados who are wondering, there will be a full response to proposals of ‘cognitive infiltration’ to ‘cure’ us. I may even suspend my reputed politeness…)


This entry was posted in bullshit, conspiracy, conspiracy theory, disinformation, inter-media, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized, war. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Who’s Afraid of Conspiracy Theory?

  1. M Kavanagh says:

    thank you TIM, deliciously { – crunchy, tangy – } erudite and thorough clear thinking; beams of light that humans can helpfully follow, without getting lost!

    “If ye’re thinkin’ in ma inner heart
    Braggart’s in ma step,
    Ye’ve never smelt the tangle o’ the isles”

    Salt of the earth.

  2. Loverat says:

    I recall a ‘conspiracy theory’ I researched last year – known as ‘Pizza Gate’ which appeared on the internet. The story goes that there was a chiild abuse ring linked to the White House – implicating Hilary, her aides and others.

    I spent about 8 hours or researching and at the time found there was a lot of circumstantial evidence which collectively would warrant a police investigation – at least.

    Not long after all the online articles disappeared from the internet – the NY Tmes, Washington Post and BBC all dismissed as fact it was untrue and said that the theory had been ‘debunked’ No shred of evidence to address the circumstantial information.

    Deflection and distractiion of MSM mentioning a few innaccuracies in the story followed and led them to conclude the story was ‘fake news’

    Historical child abuse in the UK is a scandal waiting to be revealed. So far they have deflected the attention to DJs and other celebrities from the 70s and 80s who had relations with slightly under age girls. You can’t condone that – but this has to be seen in the context of the culture at the time and allegations against more serious molesters..

    Stories like this and MSM dismissing them with no evidence to refute them is highly suspect. You can bet the child abuse scandals will shock all when they are all revealed – sadly the offenders will all be dead by then – as is the case with the most serious offenders identified so far.

    I’m even wondering if the scandal over the US film director is coming at a time the establishment are aware of another story they would rather bury. Sadly they are all at it.

  3. Lead attorney in the Iran-Contra scandal Daniel Sheehan sent one of his investigators to talk directly to Bill Clinton when Clinton was governor of Arkansas, whereupon the investigator provided evidence of covert drug smuggling by Reagan-Bush operatives, with Mena, Arkansas the prime illegal drug destination. Clinton did absolutely nothing about it, crack cocaine became epidemic in America, but Clinton instead traveled to California to raise money for his presidential campaign.

    Sheehan noted in an interview with Harvey Wasserman on the radio program “Solartopia” on prn.fm (Progressive Radio Network) recently that the new Tom Cruise movie about CIA pilot Barry Seal was “85% accurate”, that the film portrays Seal’s involvement beginning in the 80’s, when in reality Seal was flying for the CIA since the 60’s. He went on to affirm a connection between tremendous cultivation of heroin poppies in Afghanistan and the epidemic, like the crack epidemic in the time of Iran-Contra, of heroin currently devastating lives and communities across America.

    Persons wanting to learn about the heavy duty historical “conspiracy facts” little known to the public will find it worthwhile spending time at Mr. Sheehan’s “Romero Institute” YouTube channel, where dozens of his mind-blowing lectures to students at University of California-Santa Cruz are posted.

  4. Hi Tim, not quite sure where do you aim with this article. I am positive that most of the conspiracy theories have a goal to confuse people or to make them feel powerless to injustice. Conspiracy theory like anything else cannot appear without money support and then they have to follow interests of the donors. Sometimes they may telling the truth but are presented in a way people doubt it and sometimes they present lies in a way people accept it truthfully. Conspirators profit from it and that is what all is about.

  5. Loverat says:

    Hello Tim

    Very interesting talk the other night. It was a thought provoking presentation like last time and your mention of free speech made me think about one other good cause I’ve been involved in the past.

    Between 2008 and 2012 or thereabouts I was involved in the Libel Reform Campaign, A group of people trying to change the unjust claimant friendly laws. Eventually the law was changed because there was enough support in parliament.

    While not a lawyer I had experience of libel cases and had done extensive research on cases and this law – and in particular noted the trend of how it was suddenly evolving more positively in favour of defendants in the courts. I remember I tried in this new climate to present to the leaders in this movement some fresh ideas and strategies on how to deal with early stage libel litigation. There were too many libel defendants settling early because they thought they would never win.

    But the good tried and tested ideas I presented were shot down by the people running the Libel Reform Campaign – mainly consisting of lawyers. They would usually say, I’m not a lawyer so would dismiss me on that basis. When I presented detailed arguments and examples they would just ignore these. From this I suspected at the time that they didn’t like good, well researched ideas because these would somehow undermine their own positions.

    More recently I’ve got involved in helping a trade union get off the ground. Without going into detail of the workplace situation, now is the best time to come up with fresh and imaginative ideas. But among those leading the union there is a lethargy and resistance to simple and common sense ideas. Recalling back to my experience with libel, I feel that perhaps these union leaders are simply there to feather their own nests.

    Which leads me to the subject of mainstream media and Syria – the two main themes of the Frome and London talks. You have a good group of people coming from different perspectives to deliver a compelling message – but to a limited amount of informed people.

    This probably would have been a good question after the talks but I’m not particularly comfortable in asking questions in public. Besides my friend had an equally good question about fake news which she put to Patrick.

    But what advice would you give to ordinary folk who are not necessarily academics or independent journalists with different ideas who think there is a way to affect the distorted narrative over Syria and elsewhere? I do feel that in all walks of life (even among good causes and free thinkers) that obstacles are put up to new common sense ideas. As my experiences suggests, noble causes have their own ‘elites‘ which can be a barrier to progress.

    I appreciate that you have to work at these things to succeed or be heard. One bit of advice from the speakers at the Frome event was for people to set up their own blogs. But given that there are numerous blogs with only a limited and gradual effect on the narrative, do you not think something more bold and drastic is needed to really challenge peoples thinking – before we all end up at war over a false flag for example?

    So I’m questioning whether it is really worth bothering to educate people to become critical thinkers. Perhaps the focus should be to somehow work on a simpler but more imaginative message which people can’t ignore. Too many ordinary people I speak to are confused at the message and from the event literature would dismiss you all as peace activists or right wing conspiracy theorists. I have not detected any ideology whatsoever but when judging, ideology and prejudice is what most people revert to as a basic instinct.

    Thanks for reading

    • timhayward says:

      It’s a very good question and I only wish I had an answer. I do get an impression that there is more mobilisation on the side of truth than we can ever see from media. The active support for Corbyn, for instance, suggests this. As for simple messages, given that we could be at not only a historic turning point but even an ecologically epochal one, humanity faces some stark choices. Either human beings can recapture their own collective power or the system of global privatisation will destroy everything, and very soon. People are capable of seeing through bullshit, and maybe we need to find ways to present this not just as a choice but as a necessity!

      • mato48 says:

        A powerful and well formulated note. Global privatization unfortunately is only one of the looming dangers. The destruction of nature by overpopulation, chemical contamination and climate change, nuclear armageddon are others.

        I would like to thank you for your informative and inspiring blog posts. We do what we can and who knows, it may even help to alleviate the pain.

  6. Loverat says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    Thinking about what I said, perhaps I should revise things slightly. Yes I guess there is a limited number of people at these events – i.e people who are informed but are also prepared to go one step further and attend these events.

    But one thing I have noticed. For example The Middle East comments section of The Independent. I believe there are many people out there who are informed – as 90% of the readers comments there are in line with what is really happening in Syria and elsewhere.

    So, I guess there are large numbers of people out there who will mobilise once there is a better sense of direction on this and possibly when there is a more simple unified (or blunt) message. But ideology still seems to get in the way. Over Syria the ideology and distractions is pet causes such as a belief 7th century Islam is the root cause of Middle East problems and terrorism – and EU policy on refugees. With all the conflicting ideologies and vested interests, critical thinking and truth is lost in the noise.

    Personally I think World War Three is highly likely. .Looking at history and the current paronoia Russia etc (and a letter I received from my MP – Boris Johnson’s Brother over Syria) I think if we avoid this over the next 3 years it’ll be a miracle. I’ve really not ever felt this before – not even remotely during the last Cold War.

    So for me the overidding message should be a rejection of political and religious ideology. I think your event showed this but you need to spell it out and use it as tool when debating with prejudice, one dimensential thinking and ignorance.

  7. steviefinn says:

    I suppose that it is the same for the powers that be as it is for another human being, in the sense that once discovering that you have been lied to, a mistrust develops leading to a general doubt about the veracity of any further information that is received from that source.

    I also suppose that it can then develop into a problem to actually decide in a ‘ Cry Wolf ‘ sort of way, what is actually the truth & what is not, which in turn leads to the necessity to investigate matters that are considered important, especially when there is that gut feeling that something stinks.

    I try my best to apply ‘ Cui Bono ‘ to most cases & be mindful of a tendency to bias born out of my increasing cynicism. The JFK thing from what I have come across is a minefield so I keep an open mind on that & I tend stay clear of 9/11, but building 7 & the hints at a Saudi connection bother me.

    The Tomkin incident was recently exposed for what it really was & of course there is the classic Iraqi WMD’s. Government generally appears to be losing all credibility as does the mainstream media & I believe that the term conspiracy theorist, is as you put it so well, just one of a number of terms that are currently being used to slap down people who dare to question the current shaky narrative(s).

  8. Pingback: Who’s Afraid of Conspiracy Theory? | Desultory Heroics

  9. Pingback: Qui a peur des théories du complot ?

  10. Pingback: Qui a peur des théories du complot ? - AncienProfesseur

  11. Bruce Patin says:

    One of your paragraphs implied that Arabs may have been assisted by rogue elements of US intelligence in 9/11. This itself implies that the official story is largely correct. But it is obvious to most STEM graduates with physics or mechanics in their curriculum and who don’t have worldview blinders on that the buildings came down as controlled demolitions. There is at least one reputable study that proves that assertion. Controlled demolition implies that Arabs in airplanes did not bring down those buildings in their own footprints. Please don’t perpetuate CIA and MOSSAD lies. This is too important a matter to our civilization.

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