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Conspiracy Theory & Conspiracism

TIP Sheet

You say you believe the government is hiding something at Area 51–captured alien spacecraft, perhaps? The conjectures and rumors surrounding Area 51 comprise a revered conspiracy theory (many theories, actually). Do you believe the aliens among us are the hidden driving force in human history? That top world leaders (and they aren't who most people think they are!) are cooperating for personal gain with the alien "reptile overlords" to bring about the enslavement of our species? You might be a conspiracist.

You might buy into one or more conspiracy theories without being an all-out conspiracist. Conspiracism is a world view that sees history as driven primarily by interwoven webs of secret conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are leaner, more restrained, more limited in scope than conspiracism. A conspiracy theory alleges that a secret conspiracy involving hidden actors is behind particular historical events. Its explanation for events usually runs counter to the official or mainstream account, which is itself seen as an elaborate fabrication.

Test your favorite conspiracy against the following components typical of conspiracism and conspiracy theories:

  1. THEY (the conspirators) are a relatively small group, but powerful and corrupt. They are evil, or at least selfish, acting in their own interest and against the public interest. They have great foresight, patience, and deviousness. Nevertheless, they are not all-powerful or even that smart, really, since WE have figured them out.
  2. WE are a small, dedicated group of freedom fighters and freethinkers. We are soldiers, rebels in the fight for good against evil.
  3. YOU are clueless. Why can't you see what's going on here? (Conspiracy theorists place most people in this group.)
  4. THEY have hidden or destroyed all the evidence that would implicate them and have manufactured false evidence that exculpates them.
  5. YOU are close-minded. In fact, you are probably one of THEM.

The comfort of conspiracy theory is that it provides a well-defined enemy and a sense of control (or at least structure) in the face of upheaval and disempowerment; the tendency to perceive conspiracy is more common in groups experiencing social isolation or political marginalization. The freedom fighters of conspiracy theory need not see themselves as being at the mercy of irresistible, inexplicable, or random natural or social forces, but as soldiers in a just cause. Many, if not most, conspiracy theories probably result from the human tendency to look for pattern in chaos-even if there isn't any.

Conspiracy theories and conspiracism share three problems:

  • Unfalsifiability
  • Fallacy
  • Naivete

The main problem with any particular conspiracy theory is not that it's wrong, but that it's inarguable; not that it's false, but that it is unfalsifiable. Because it is unfalsifiable, a conspiracy theory is not provable or disprovable.

A theory is falsifiable if it is possible to test it against evidence to discover if it is true. To test a scientific theory, for example, a scientist would examine a body of evidence to formulate a general theory, which she, in turn, would test against more evidence to try to determine whether her theory might be true. Conspiracy theory is untestable because it invariably proposes that the evidence has been tampered with. In fact, conspiracy theory does more: it asserts that any evidence against the theory is actually evidence for it, in that it shows the great cunning and power of the conspirators: No evidence? Ah! That proves they destroyed it. Evidence to the contrary? Aha! See how they have forged, bribed, brainwashed, planted false leads....

Most conspiracy theories, then, are to some extent simply an article of faith.

In addition to being unfalsifiable, conspiracy theories fall into a variety of fallacies. For example, the insufficiency of evidence leads to the fallacy of hasty conclusion. The tendency to demonize the conspirators falls into the ad hominem fallacy. Circular reasoning or special pleading emerges when, while the freedom fighters agree in principle that claims should be substantiated by evidence, in the special case of this conspiracy, evidence has been lost/altered/fabricated/destroyed. Non-believers are forced into a false dilemma: to declare themselves with the rebels or be, themselves, suspect. In addition, the links from unlikely co-conspirators (think George W. Bush and Kim Jong Il, perhaps), through their dastardly deeds, to the nefarious results, are improbable and complex. When the chain of cause-and-effect breaks down or becomes absurdly long, the slippery slope or questionable cause fallacies result. (For more, see the TIP Sheet "Fallacies and Propaganda.")

The following summarizes a conspiracy found on a single conspiracy website. Look for hasty generalization, demonization/dehumanization of conspirators, questionable cause, and special pleading:

The aliens ("Reptilians," actually fallen angels; chapter and verse usually cited here) have co-mingled alien and human DNA since ancient times, though over the centuries obvious alien characteristics have disappeared. The latest U.S. president to sign a treaty with the aliens is George W. Bush, who is himself part Reptilian. Members of the House of Rep(resentatives) are Rep(tilians), too. According to the terms of the treaty, a small group of humans receive cool alien technology in return for a U.S. government cover-up, and the aliens are free to abduct random humans for breeding experiments. The aliens are also allowed to eat children. They eat about 200,000 a year-that's where the missing children go. They implant microchips (the "Mark of the Beast") in selected abductees, the better to keep track of the pesky humans when the one-world government finally comes down. GPS technology is also part of the alien tracking plan. The United Nations is a first step toward the aliens' one-world government by which they will subjugate earth. The secret Tri-Lateral Commission exists to advance the aliens' plan, too-you can tell because the Tri-Lateral Commission uses the aliens' spacecraft insignia as its own.... (There's lots more. You can check it out at

What's wrong with the above theory, one might well ask, other than unfalsifiability and fallacy? Philosophy professor Jerry Goodenough at the University of East Anglia, U.K., points out in his article "Critical Thinking About Conspiracy Theories" ( that "believers" often fail to take a sufficiently critical look at the quality of evidence, such as it is. Objective evidence for conspiracy theories is typically sketchy or absent. Eyewitness evidence, then, is the mainstay, even though study after study demonstrates the inaccuracy of most eyewitness accounts. Moreover, conspiracy eyewitnesses are often once- or twice-removed from the speaker, who knows someone who knows someone whose neighbor personally was abducted by the aliens (the "friend of a friend of a friend" syndrome. For more, see the TIP Sheet "Urban Legends.")

Goodenough observes that believers typically make another mistake of naivete: Faced with a choice between a complex, suspicious explanation and a simple, commonplace one, they prefer the complex. This violates the principle of
Occam's Razor, which states that the better explanation is usually the one requiring the fewest unsupported assumptions. In other words, when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.

Also lacking in conspiracy theory is a sense of the proper economy of means to achieve ends, says Goodenough. Why do it the hard way? For any conspiracy theory, ask why conspirators would go to such tortuous lengths. In real life, means are proportionate and usually only as complex as is necessary to accomplish ends. Ordinary people, for example, don't choose the most complicated route to work. To the extent that the means are increasingly, unnecessarily complex, a conspiracy theory is increasingly unlikely.

"Just because you're paranoid..."
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. It would be absurd to deny that conspiracies occur. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a conspiracy (how large a conspiracy is still a matter of debate), as was the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life in 1944. Still unsettled is whether the death of Marilyn Monroe was a conspiracy involving the Mafia and the Kennedy brothers. And new information about covert government actions surfaces with regularity in almost every nation in the world, blurring the line between the plausible and the implausible.

Since real life imitates conspiracy theory, the best we can do is test what we hear. Test for falsifiability, if possible. Test for logical fallacies. Test the veracity of witnesses. Test the quality of testimony. Test for unsupported assumptions. Use common sense. Because the truth is out there...

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