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A conspiracy theory is the belief that historical or current events are the
result of manipulations by one or more secretive powers or conspiracies. A
conspiracy theory alleges 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 covert manipulation. Because conspiracy theories rely on
allegations of covert action, they are frequently difficult to support with
evidence. For this reason, the expression conspiracy theory is often used
pejoratively to refer to allegations that the speaker considers unproven,
unlikely, or false.
Real conspiracy versus conspiracy theory
The word conspiracy comes from the Latin "conspirare," ("to breath
together"), and in contemporary usage it is a situation where two or more
people agree to perform an illegal or immoral act. The essential components
are the involvement of a group of people, secrecy and malicious intent. The
existence of countless thousands of such conspiracies 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 in this sense are afoot. For a discussion of this
sort of conspiracy, see the article conspiracy. While the term conspiracy
theory could refer to any theory positing the existence of a conspiracy (but
as yet unproven) it is usually used in a disparaging sense to refer to a
theory of conspiracy that the user considers wildly unlikely, lacking
evidence, or even constructed so as to be unfalsifiable.
There will inevitably be heated debate between those proponents of the
theory, who consider it apparent that a conspiracy is afoot, and those
skeptics who claim that stringing together what appear to them to be
isolated and unconnected events to find sinister meaning is irrational. The
waters are 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.
Conspiracy theorists are sometimes accused of being paranoid, at least in a
metaphorical sense, and are sometimes compared to the symptoms of paranoid
schizophrenia. In contrast, it is also true that the diagnosis of
schizophrenia has been used as a means of silencing political dissent, for
example in the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States. (See:
anti-psychiatry; Francis Farmer; lobotomy; Phil Russell, Thomas Szasz).
Whether particular theories of power and causal attribution fall within the
category of conspiracy theories or not depends greatly on one's point of
view, and is also affected by the emergence of evidence to support the
theory. Some theories which, when first presented, appeared to most people
to be wildly improbable, were later adopted as orthodoxy.
In justifying the classification of a theory as a conspiracy theory,
detractors tend to level several accusations. That the theory is:
1. Not backed up by sufficient evidence.
2. Phrased in such a way as to be unfalsifiable.
3. Improbably complex.
Defenders point out that those that:
1. Those powerful people involved in the conspiracy hide, destroy, or
2. Skeptics are not (in their opinion) prepared to keep an open mind.
3. Skeptics may be politically motivated and have an interest in the
Note: The term conspiracy theory is sometimes also used refer to
sociological attempts to study the phenomenon of conspiracy.
Karl Popper claimed that true science is basically defined as a set of
falsifiable theories. Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes argue that
many of them are not falsifiable. This accusation is often accurate, and is
a result 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 --
being duped by the conspiracy. This renders it impossible to demonstrate
that the conspiracy does not exist. Falsificationists might also claim that
this makes such theories unscientific.
For example, consider how one would show that a conspiracy to hide the fact
that we have been visited by aliens does not exist. 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 archives, the possibility always exists that there
is an archive somewhere detailing the conspiracy, to which we do not have access
Jerry Bowyer, referring to allegations that the 2003 War in Iraq was the
result of George W. Bush doing the bidding of oil companies, said that "I
like this conspiracy theory better than the rest because it is one of the
few that actually permits empirical disconfirmation". He considered that the
declining share prices of oil companies was empirical evidence against this
theory. (In opposition to this, one may point out that the subsequent
lot of Iraq's oil fields to major American oil companies is empirical
evidence supporting the theory.)
In response to this objection to conspiracy theory, some argue that no
political or historical theory is scientific by Popper's criteria because
none reliably generate unambiguous, non-trivial, testable, and correct
predictions. In fact, Popper himself rejected the claims of Marxism and
psychoanalysis to scientific status on precisely this basis. (Most
scientists today dispute the idea that Marxism is science at all; similarly,
most neurobiologists and many psychiatrists now agree 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; only that they are not science by Popper's criteria.
In regards to the specific theory of an oil industry motivation for the 2003
Iraq war, conspiracy theorists respond that one of the first acts of the
American-installed government was to call for the escalation of Iraqi oil
production, undermining the OPEC oil cartel, which serves oil company
interests. The fact that some data seem to falsify and other data to verify
the conspiratorial view may indicate that a falsifiability standard is
difficult or impossible to apply to situations where variables cannot be
isolated. This problem is not specific to conspiracy theories, but crops up
in fields of science which deal with complex processes outside of controlled
laboratory conditions, such as ecology.
Some people distinguish between falsifiable accusations of conspiracy and
unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, though, in light of the above, it is not
clear that this distinction is justified.
Subjects of conspiracy theory
Assassinations are a classic subject of conspiracy theories. The
assassination of a prominent figure is a singular event which can
dramatically change the course of public affairs. Those drawn to conspiracy
theory are led to ask, in the aftermath of an assassination, Who benefited
from this death? Though many assassinations are committed by lone
individuals, and many others by aboveboard governments (such as that of Leon
Trotsky) there have been several assassinations whose purposes remain
mysterious in the public eye -- and suspicious to the conspiracy theorist.
Best-known among assassination conspiracy theories in the United States are
those dealing with a rash of seemingly politically motivated deaths in the
1960s, notably those of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. An
individual acting alone, who was himself assassinated before standing trial,
is generally considered to have assassinated President Kennedy. Criticism of
this account has entered the mainstream with movies such as Oliver Stone's
JFK. In the other two cases, a lone assassin was convicted.
Secret societies and fraternities
Secret societies and fraternal societies have aroused nervousness from some
non-members since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. A secret society
is a club or organization whose members do not disclose their membership,
and may be sworn to hold it secret. However, the term is also used in
conspiracy theory to refer to fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons
who do not conceal membership, but are thought to harbor secret beliefs or
Conspiracy theory about the Freemasons goes back at least to the late 18th
century. The Masons were accused of plotting the American and French
Revolutions, the downfall of religion, and of dominating republican
politics. In fact, the historian Georges Lefebvre, generally considered an
authoritative source on the subject, concedes that the Masons had a role in
organizing the revolution in the city, but says it is unclear how important
their role was. Worry about Masonic conspiracy grew to such an extent in the
early United States as to spawn a political party, the Anti-Masonic Party.
The Bavarian Illuminati, a German secret society related to Masonry, also
figures into conspiracy theories of that time.
By some accounts, the Popes in the last 3 centuries are the main
protagonists of these conspiracy theories. This theory holds that
Freemasonry was condemned primarily because of its view that all religions
are equal, diametrically opposed to the Catholic belief that it is the only
true religion. Since most Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals
now agree with the Masonic principles condemned by the Church, new theories
about the Masons have emerged such as that they are devil worshipers. Others
hold that these theories about the origins of Masonic conspiracies theories
are themselves conspiracy theories.
Suppressed inventions take conspiracy theory into the realm of business
rather than politics. A typical suppressed-invention story is that of the
incredibly efficient automobile carburetor, whose inventor was supposedly
killed or hounded into obscurity by petroleum companies desirous to protect
their business from an engine that would make their product obsolete. The
subject of suppressed-invention conspiracy also touches on the realm of
medical quackery: proponents of more unlikely forms of alternative medicine
are known to allege conspiracy by mainstream doctors to suppress their
cures, particularly when faced with charges of medical fraud. On the other
hand, Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, who advocate the extensive use of
supplements and drugs for life extension, contrary to FDA recommendations,
won a court case arguing that the FDA was preventing them from making
medical assertions that were, in fact, well-supported. In 1924 there
actually was the european PHOEBUS cartell, that guaranteed for electric
light bulbs would burn out after 750 hours, though more is feasible and
desirable for consumers in this billion dollar market. The ELSBETT diesel
engine running on plant oil had to put up against unfair competion practices
Many governments use intelligence agencies to promote national policies in
secretive ways -- in several cases including the use of sabotage,
propaganda, and assassination. Intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, KGB,
MI6, and Mossad, are a common element of political conspiracy theories
precisely because they are known to participate in some activities similar
to those described in conspiracy theories.
Particular technologies of surveillance and control arouse concern that has
bordered upon, or crossed over into, conspiracy theory. These are
technologies being developed by governments which are intended to intrude
into the privacy or harm the persons of citizens, particularly dissenters.
Conspiracy theories of this sort cast government agencies as pursuing vast
technical powers in order to spy on people, control their minds, or
otherwise suppress an alienated populace. Conspiracy theories of this sort
include many about mind control and about unusual technical projects such as HAARP.
Diseases and epidemics
There are conspiracy theories based on the notion that AIDS was a man-made
disease (i.e. created by scientists in a laboratory). Some of these theories
allege that HIV was created by a conspiratorial group or by a secret agency
as a tool of genocide. Other theories suggest that the virus escaped into
the population at large by accident, or may have been deliberately unleashed
as a means of population control or as an experiment in biological and/or
psychological warfare. See: AIDS conspiracies.
Anti-Semitic belief systems
Antisemitism has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories. Almost all of the
anti-semitic conspiracy theories and indeed anti-semitism itself are tied to
the practice of charging interest on loans (usury). It is claimed that since
the Old Testament seems to ban interest on loans only to one's brothers, the
Jews have historically made loans and charged interest to non-Jews,
increasing their money and power. This is by far the most widespread
conspiracy theory, found everywhere from the Protocols of the Learned Elders
of Zion, to Nazi ideology, to mainline Catholic thought during the beginning
of the 20th century (see Fr. Denis Fahey).
A sector of conspiracy theory with a particularly detailed mythology has
become the basis for numerous pieces of popular entertainment: the Area
51/Grey Aliens conspiracy. Simply put, this is the allegation that the
United States government conspires with extraterrestrials involved in the
abduction and manipulation of citizens. A variant tells that particular
technologies -- notably the transistor -- were given to American industry in
exchange for alien dominance. The enforcers of the clandestine association
of human leaders and aliens are the Men in Black, who silence those who
speak out on UFO sightings. This conspiracy theory has been the basis of
numerous books, as well as the popular television show The X-Files and the
movies Men in Black and Men in Black II.
The X-Files based the plots of many of its episodes around urban legends and
conspiracy theories, and had a framing plot which postulated a set of
interlocking conspiracies controlling all recent human history.
Apocalyptic prophecies, especially Christian apocalyptic and eschatalogical
claims about the end times, the Last Judgment, and the end of the world
contain many features of conspiracy theory. Most typically affirm that an
Antichrist is already living among us, or soon to be born. International
peace organizations such as the United Nations are supposed to be paving the
way for a "one world government" that the Antichrist will rule, and a "one
world monetary system" that will issue the sinister Mark of the Beast.
Speculation that various political celebrities might be the Antichrist is a
frequent feature of these speculations. Believers seek an explanation for
turmoil, especially in the Middle East, as having been foreordained by these
prophecies, and seek to align nations and leaders with the allegorical
images of Biblical prophecy.
Conspiracy theory and urban legends
The nexus 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 and 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.
Conspiracy theory in fiction
Particularly since the 1960s, conspiracy theory has been a popular subject
of fiction. A common theme in such works is that characters discovering a
secretive conspiracy may be unable to tell what is true about the
conspiracy, or even what is real: rumors, lies, propaganda, and
counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what
is coincidence becomes an unmanageable question.
One of the more literarily-acclaimed novels that draws on conspiracy themes
is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, in which the staff of a publishing
firm intending to create a series of popular occult books invent their own
occult conspiracy, over which they lose control as it begins to be believed.
Another is Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, whose background includes
a secretive conflict between cartels dating back to the Middle Ages.
Illuminatus!, a trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is regarded
by many as the definitive work of 20th-century conspiracy fiction. Set in
the late '60s, it is a psychedelic tale which fuses mystery, science
fiction, horror, and comedy in its exhibition (and mourning, and mocking) of
one of the more paranoid periods of recent history. The popular, humorous
trading card game Illuminati New World Order is based in part on Shea and
Other authors who have dealt with conspiracy themes include Philip K. Dick
and Robert Ludlum. Some might also categorize several of the Cthulhu Mythos
stories of H. P. Lovecraft and others as conspiracy-related, though they
might be more closely described as occult horror.
The 1997 movie Wag the Dog involves a pre-election attempt in the US by a
spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who join forces to fabricate a war in a
Balkan in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal. Interestingly, it
was made before the Clinton / Lewinski scandal and the US led Kosovo
Real life imitates 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
depicts 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. Lastly, the name "Iao" is a Gnostic word for God,
used in the Golden Dawn and Thelema among others.
* 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, and Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert). An
excellent 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 "safqua" - a 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 (q.v.), before its declassification, was long
considered by most to be a conspiracy theory.
* The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. For a
period of 50 years, the US Government used the black population of a
town in Alabama as unwitting human guinea pigs in a covert experiment.
* The Bin Laden - Saddam Hussein connection: According to opinion polls
large parts of US population believed in this link. However, it was
never explicitely confirmed by the US government. Colin Powell
presented a tape during the Iraq war that was said to show a 'link'
between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. This turned out to be misleading.
Just about anything associated with governments, Nazis, communists, ancient
civilizations, or aliens has a conspiracy theory attached. They're very
popular and form the basis of many popular books, movies, and TV shows.
Belief in imaginary conspiracies is also a feature of paranoia, which is a
symptom of several diseases including paranoid schizophrenia.
* Many Rastafarians believe that the white racist patriarchy ("Babylon")
controls the world in order to oppress the black race. Many also
believe that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia did not die when it was
reported in 1975, and that the racist, white media (again, "Babylon")
propagated that rumor in order to squash Rastafarianism and its message
of overthrowing Babylon.
* The Illuminati
* Satanists: in the 1980s there was an upsurge in the old belief of a
secret cult that bred children for sacrifice. The practice has
historically been ascribed by the ancient Romans to early christians,
in medieval Europe to the Jews, and in 1980s America to a group of
rich, powerful satanists who have concealed all the evidence of their
* Skull and Bones