Every so often people ask me questions about my views on conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy theory theories via e-mail. I’ve decided to start collating those questions and answers here.

In general

In your opinion what makes conspiracy theories so interesting?

Like any responsible citizen, I want to know if members of the government, corporations, and the like are involved in conspiracies. That seems like the kind of thing we should be interested in finding out about. We can’t just assume they aren’t involved in conspiracies, because history (recent and not so recent) has shown us that conspiracies are more common than many of us typically think; the revelations of the NSA’s mass surveillance programme by Edward Snowden is a notable example. As such, we need to treat claims of conspiracy seriously, just so we can check to see that our open and transparent governments are, in fact, operating in a transparent and open fashion.

That’s the serious answer, but there’s another reason I’m interested in conspiracy theories; some are often fun, sometimes bizarre stories, and I like reading about them (as do a great many people). You don’t have to believe in the conspiracies to be interested in learning more about conspiracy theories.

What got you interested in the study of conspiracy theories?

A little place called “North Head.” I grew up in a small town in Auckland which has its own conspiracy theory, the mystery of the North Head tunnels. It was quite a major story in the Eighties and as my father grew up in Devonport about the time most of the stories about the hidden tunnel complex were said to have first appeared, I learnt a lot about the story from my mostly skeptical father. When I got to uni and did my undergraduate degree in Archaeology I ended up reading the dig reports about the Head and came to the conclusion that as there was no good evidence for the existence of hidden tunnels in the Head, the conspiracy theory seemed unwarranted. I was, thus, puzzled as to why it continued to persist and this, to a large extent, motivated my PhD.

How long have you been studying conspiracy theories?

Since 2007.

On definitions

How do you define a conspiracy theory?

I define a conspiracy theory as any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a salient cause. So, if your explanation makes reference to a conspiracy, then your explanation just happens to be a conspiracy theory.

Is your definition of a conspiracy theory non-standard?

Yes, and no. My definition is minimal and perfectly general non-pejorative definition. I think surprise parties (which are organised in secret by a group of people who desire some end) qualify as examples of conspiracies and thus theories about them would be conspiracy theories (if said theory is used to explain why some party occurred or failed to occur). This also means that I don’t think there is any contradiction in the term “conspiracies of goodness.”

As such, my definition might be taken to be non-standard, I think it is a useful definition to bring into play because it allows us to talk about the wider class of conspiratorial explanations and check to see whether the issues we associate with conspiracy theories in the pejorative sense also apply to the wider set.

What kinds of things do you think people are referring to when they talk about these things we call “conspiracy theories?”

  • Perfectly general definitions like mine.
  • A sub-set of 1 about sinister political forces which:
    • builds in that explanations fitting that description are controversial and we should take a dim view of them or:
    • does not necessitate that such explanations are necessarily suspicious but it turns out most are when investigated.
  • A definition which suggests the expresser of such a theory believes in a conspiracy-theoretic worldview were (almost) everything is the result of a conspiracy.

The latter two options are, loosely-speaking, what I take to be pejorative definitions.

Did the CIA invent the term “conspiracy theory”?

“No”. The term “conspiracy theory” is attested to – even as a pejorative – as far back as 1909 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the 1870s according to other researchers, and even those early uses hint towards the term being well known to the audiences of such pieces. Talk of conspiracies is certainly much older, and such discussions range from serious contemplation of Ancien Regime politics to the inane narratives certain Ancient Roman politicians entertained.

On conspiracy theories

What do the majority of conspiracy theories target? Is it higher authority/power in society?

Many conspiracy theories focus on what people in power are up to. So, it’s fair to say that many conspiracy theories are about authority figures. However, it’s not just political power that these theories focus on. Many conspiracy theories are about business practices, for example, or the actions of wealthy private interests.

Most people think conspiracy theories are a relatively new phenomenon; is that correct?

There are two ways to answer that question: The first is to say that we’ve been talking about conspiracy theories for at least a hundred years. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first citable reference to a conspiracy theory in 1908, and it’s clear that the way that author used the term that his readers would know what kind of theory he was referring to.

However, on the other hand, when we talk about conspiracy theories we tend to talk about theories we know aren’t true, and some have argued that the idea that conspiracy theories are suspicious is a modern idea. After all, during the French Revolution people on both sides claimed their enemies were conspiring against them, and these claims were treated seriously. That was because conspiracies were a known way to conduct politics. However now we believe we live in more open and transparent societies, and so we think conspiracies are just less likely. That’s why people tend to think conspiracy theories are suspicious; people just don’t think conspiracies are all that common.

On belief in conspiracy theories

Is belief in conspiracy theories irrational?

I take it that belief in conspiracy theories is not automatically irrational. Rather, we need to judge individual conspiracy theories on their merits. So, the claim the world is controlled by alien, shape-shifting reptiles is likely false (because of the lack of evidence), but when Woodward and Bernstein alleged a cover-up by the White House about the break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters, that was a theory about a conspiracy which turns out to based on good evidence.

Because belief in conspiracy theories can be rational I also take it that there’s nothing inherently suspicious about being a conspiracy theorist. Indeed, most of us – if we are historically or politically literate – conspiracy theorists of some stripe because most of us will know of at least one conspiracy theory which turns out to be true. As such, my work has mostly focused on trying to work out when it’s rational to be a conspiracy theorist about some event, and in what demarcates a “good” conspiracy theory from a “bad” one.

What is the psychological motive for believing in conspiracy theories?

Well, speaking as a philosopher and not a psychologist, I would say that as long as there is good evidence which points out that conspiracies continue to occur in our societies, then it seems rational to at least consider conspiracy theories seriously enough, and to expect that someone will take the time to investigate them. Psychologically speaking, it might be the case that some people believe conspiracy theories for no good reason, or are primed to believe them on what others might consider unsatisfactory evidence, but the existence of such people (if they even exist) is no reason to think we can explain away all belief in conspiracy theories as people being ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, or paranoid. If we accept that conspiracies can and do occur, and we accept that any theory about one of those conspiracies is a conspiracy theory, then we should take talk of conspiracy theories seriously and investigate them to see if their is any truth to their claims.

How can you show that a conspiracy theory is the best explanation/warranted?

First, we need to satisfy all three of conditions that show a conspiracy exists (or existed):

  • There existed a set of agents who
  • Desired some end and
  • Worked in secret.

In order for a conspiracy theory to be warranted we need to show that it is the best explanation, so the claim of conspiracy must be tightly connected to the event in question such that it is the salient cause. As such, we need to assess it with respect to the other candidate explanations of the event, which requires us to look at the conspiracy theory’s prior, posterior and relative likeliness/probability.

The evidence for an event can raise the posterior probability that the event was caused by a conspiracy. In the same respect, certain types of events are much more likely to be conspiratorial in nature, which affects the prior probability of a conspiracy being a salient cause of some event. Finally, when we compare candidate explanations we might find that one explanation is just more likely compared to its rivals, which can allow that, relatively-speaking, might be the best explanation of a bunch.

On conspiring

Why might someone want to be involved in a conspiracy?

Well, if we assume conspiracies are always sinister or malevolent, that’s a good question. Why would someone want to be involved in something they know is bad? Now, people do bad things and cover-up bad things. Sometimes people want something so strongly, that they do something unspeakable to achieve it; some cases of premeditated murder are like this, for example. Sometimes people aren’t aware that something bad happened, but will cover it up anyway. So, sometimes people do bad things, and cover them up, leading to them being involved in a conspiracy.

However, if we ditch the idea that conspiracies are necessarily evil or sinister, and, instead, claim that they are everyday occurrences, then it seems perfectly normal that people would get involved in conspiracies. That surprise party you and your friends organise is a conspiracy, that time you and your friends lied to your parents as to whose house you were all staying at is a conspiracy, and so on. You can imagine, then, people in positions of power thinking ‘We need this thing to get done, but if we tell people about it they’ll mistakenly think it’s a bad idea, so let’s keep it from them until it’s complete.’ That sounds like a conspiracy, and one where the conspirators think they are – at the very least – not doing anything which is outright bad.

What factors are involved when conspiring?

Well, to conspire requires two or more people to work in secret to try and achieve some end. So, there are three factors: a group of conspirators; acting in secret; and having an end in mind.

The number of conspirators is a given; conspiracies require two or more people. Some people think the more conspirators who are involved, the more likely the conspiracy will be discovered. This is because the more people who are involved, the more likely someone will slip up and reveal the secret.

The secrecy condition just means that the conspirators need to try and keep their activities secret from whoever they think should not know what it is they are up to. So, if you are conspiring to cover-up a political scandal, you want to make sure the public don’t find out. If you are covering up a murder, you want to make sure the police do not find out what you did, and if you are conspiring to hide whose house you were staying at last night, you really only need to keep that secret from your parents. You might fail to keep that secret, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t conspiring. It just means you didn’t conspire successfully.

The end or goal condition just requires that there is something you want to achieve (in secret, typically). You might fail to achieve that end, or you might achieve something unexpected, but as long as you have an end in mind, that is all that counts.

On conspiracy theorists

Is there a particular personality type that is drawn to conspiracy theories?

I distinguish between conspiracy theorists, who are people who believe in particular conspiracy theories, and conspiracists; people who believe in conspiracy theories without adequate reasons. My position is that it turns out most people are conspiracy theorists because if you are historically or politically literate, then you accept at least one conspiracy theory. Whether it’s the story of Watergate, the assassination of Julius Caesar two thousand years ago, or what happened in the Moscow Trials, these are all well-accepted theories about conspiracies that actually happened.

However, there are people who seem to believe conspiracy theories for reasons which don’t seem based upon arguments and evidence. These conspiracists might be psychologically-primed to see conspiracies where there are none, or just bad critical thinkers. That being said, I think most people can come up with detailed stories as to why they believe some conspiracy theory (so I don’t think there are many, if any, conspiracists), and so the interesting angle (for me at least) is working out whether they are right or wrong, and why.

In your experience, have you found that purveyors of conspiracy theories are “true believers” or are they more interested in 15 minutes of fame as opposed to exposing some supposed wrong or injustice?

I think most people believe or advocate for some conspiracy theory because they think something terrible has happened and it needs to be exposed. So, most conspiracy theorists are sincere (and sometimes even correct).

However, there are people who look like they might endorse conspiracy theories because for reasons other than because they are a “true believer”. I’m thinking of people like David Icke, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and the like. These are people who make quite a lot of money out of presenting conspiracy theories to a sub-section of the public, and it’s possible that sometimes they endorse certain conspiracy theories they themselves don’t quite believe but they know their paying audience will. That’s not to say that Jones and Beck, for example, don’t believe their own conspiracy theories; rather, sometimes I think they give airtime to conspiracy theories they don’t quite believe for reasons more to do with keeping their audience than anything else.

Do you consider myself a conspiracy theorist?

In some sense, yes, in that I accept that some conspiracy theories are warranted, like the explanation of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, the explanation of the verdicts of the Moscow Trials of the 1930s and so forth.

On politics

Does the political status of an era influence the conspiracy theories made?

According to Joe Uscinski and Joe Parents (at the University of Miami) ‘conspiracy theories are for losers’. That is to say, people who are not in power (i.e. the losers of an election) tend to come up with conspiracy theories about those who are in power. In their book ‘American Conspiracy Theories’ they argue that – roughly – when the Democrats are in control of the government, Republicans accuse them of conspiracy, and when the Republicans are in control, the reverse happens.

Is there a particular political philosophy that is most likely to provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories?

I don’t think so; I think people from all over the map, politically-speaking, end up believing in different kinds of conspiracy theories. There might be a tendency for people who are on the margins of a political movement to be more likely to endorse certain conspiracy theories about why they aren’t being listened to; but I think that’s more a problem of both marginalisation and the fact that we often condescendingly call people who question mainstream views conspiracy theorists. After all, sometimes people are on the margins because of real and systemic injustices being perpetuated against them.

Is there any country that has more conspiracy theories than others

That’s probably a question best asked of a sociologist, or an anthropologist. The US is often taken to be the ‘homeland’ of conspiracy theories, because the US has so many of them, and many of them are about plots by either elements of the Left or Right trying to secretly take control of the Federal Government. Yet that idea – that the US is the homeland of conspiracy theories – might just be because the US is both a superpower, and also an exporter (if you will) of a lot of its culture (by way of books, TV, films, and the like). Those of us outside the US know more about US culture and history than the average American knows about, say, the history of New Zealand. We know about US conspiracy theories because we know a fair bit about your culture. That might make the US look like its swamped with conspiracy theories, but that might just be because its easier to find out about US conspiracy theories than it is, say, the conspiracy theories of Latvia.

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