16 Jan 2017

Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy 33 Comments

Gene Callahan recently wrote on the funny way we use this term in our society, but I want to use Scott Sumner’s recent comments as a springboard. Note, Scott is not unusual in his usage, but I’m using his example because I just saw it today.

In this post, Scott was arguing that he wasn’t a denialist (not sure why he didn’t just use the term “denier”) when it came to monetary policy’s effectiveness. After giving a bunch of arguments and evidence–most or all of which I endorse, by the way–he added at the end: “PPS. I’m not a Holocaust denialist, a global warming denialist, or a monetary policy denialist. But I am a fiscal policy denialist and a conspiracy theory denialist, so I’m not opposed to denialism, per se.”

Now this is surely an odd statement to make, and David R. Henderson questioned Scott in the comments:

@Scott Sumner,
But I am a fiscal policy denialist and a conspiracy theory denialist
Isn’t this too broad? To deny conspiracy theories per se, you would have to deny that there have ever been conspiracies. Do you think, for example, that the 19 9/11 murderers didn’t conspire?

To which Scott responded:

“David, I meant “conspiracy theory” in the common everyday use of the term, as for instance those who claim the CIA produced the 9/11 attacks, or was behind the Kennedy assassination. You are absolutely correct that conspiracies do occur.”

So I agree with Scott that he used the term the way Americans “everyday” use it. But in this post, I want us to try to pin down exactly what types of “conspiracy theories” are classified as such.

One obvious answer is to say, “Oh, the layperson uses ‘conspiracy theory’ to mean a theory that’s palpably absurd, which only a paranoid nutjob could believe.”

But that sort of argues in a circle, doesn’t it? You might as well say, “I don’t believe in false theories,” which is great, but doesn’t tell us too much about you.

You might say, “Oh, if someone holds a theory that sinister government forces are at work behind the scenes, directing world events… That type of thing.”

Well no, because in that case all the elite people in the US would turn their noses up at the theory that Vladimir Putin and a bunch of hackers conspired to install Trump as president. And as we’ve seen, this conspiracy theory is perfectly respectable in US discourse.

You might be tempted to say, “Theories that say US government officials were the bad guys in a sinister plot” is what people mean. But no, plenty of people nowadays believe in the tale of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. That’s pretty bad, but yet if someone says, “The white man deliberately invented AIDS to hurt the black community,” most people would dismiss that as a “conspiracy theory.”

I imagine in 100 years people will openly discuss how the Secret Service aided in the assassination of JFK, and this will be regarded as a normal area of historical inquiry. But right now it’s a “conspiracy theory.”

In sum, I think the best definition of the term is, “Theories that, if widely believed, would limit the power of today’s ruling class.” Why, it’s almost like a small group of people deliberately cooked this term up in order to screw the public. I wonder…

33 Responses to “Conspiracy Theory”

  1. ruben says:

    I love that you bring this up in a blog post. Indeed, who decides what is a “just an absurd conspiracy theory” and what is a serious analysis of the backgrounds of a matter? The problems inherent with the simple use of “conspiracy theory” are usually not accounted for by my friends and other people around me.

    I can offer my way of parting good theories from bad theories. (The bad theories being “conspiracy theories” in the negative sense of the world)

    It’s easily explained with an example:

    – “Look those chemtrails. They let chemicals rain on us to turn us into obedient followers.”
    – “Aren’t that just contrails?”
    – “Oh my god, the chemistry already turned you into one of those mindless zombies believing every government lie.”

    So some of the theories really use fallacious arguments like this ones:
    * If you disagree with me, you’re one of them.
    * I know more than most people. If you knew all I know, you would follow my argument.
    * I’m a critical thinker, most other people (i.e. those who disagree) are not
    * Question everything! (Except my alternative explanation that follows now)
    * People who don’t know the truth, are a potential thread to me, thus I don’t listen to their arguments

    • Tel says:

      If you disagree with me, you’re one of them.

      That’s pretty much all of Progressive politics, and a good chunk of the Conservative side as well.

  2. Ken P says:

    Bob, I think you’re missing a common argument that conspiracies require secrecy and that is impossible with a large number of actors. I have problems with that argument since our intelligence agencies are quite large and seem to maintain secrecy. I think it’s safe to say that most considered the activities revealed by Snowden to be conspiracy theories before they were revealed.

    I think the determination is often a matter of personal Bayesian judgement. When something lies too far outside your probabilistic worldview it is a conspiracy theory.

    • Johnny doh says:

      “that is impossible with a large number of actors” Do you have a security clearance? You do know that they regularly “test” you – and that you MUST rat on anyone you have knowledge violated. Also lie detectors. The CIA has it’s detractors – but they are damned good at keeping secrets – at least the ones they want to keep.

    • Chuck says:

      Operation Overlord involved millions yet somehow the Allies kept the Germans from determining the landing zones.

  3. Darien says:

    I have friends who don’t like baseball. Whenever I’ve asked them why, the response I get — invariably, by rote — is that baseball is boring.

    Now, in a non-trivial sense, that’s putting the pony in back of the chariot. If one is not interested in something, watching that thing for a few hours is likely to be boring, yes? It doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way.

    Complaints about “conspiracy theory” are just the same way, and are often flailed about in the same fashion; “how can you watch baseball even though it’s so boring” becomes “how can you believe that when it’s a conspiracy theory?”

    It’s basically a ready-to-serve straw man, too. Late last year, I had a few blog posts saying that the polls showing a huge Clinton lead were fraudulent, and explaining the methodological tweaks that had been done to them to manufacture the desired result. I was immediately denounced as a “conspiracy theorist” who was claiming that Hillary Clinton was a shadowy puppet master who controlled all the world’s media and major events — a claim in no way similar to any that I made. I explicitly disclaimed holding that view, and my interlocutor *refused to believe my denial.* Such is the power of the conspiracy theory strawman on the minds of its victims. Even the subsequent release of Podesta e-mails confirming everything I said and the following Clinton non-victory were not enough to demonstrate that maybe I was talking sense and not “conspiracy theory.”

    • Tel says:

      If you believe this guy, then what you are describing was by design.


      Mind you, Douglas Adams came very close with his “Somebody Else’s Business Field” which is kind of hilarious and a bit chilling at the same time. Every historical atrocity has been accompanied by quite a lot of people looking the other way, because it’s just not worth it to get involved. This kind of self delusion keeps people alive.

      • Josiah says:

        The idea that the CIA popularized the term “conspiracy theory” to undermine JFK assassination conspiracy theories is itself a (false) conspiracy theory.

        • God says:

          oh wow, he proved that the CIA didn’t use the term first. A very well developed strawman.

        • Tel says:

          Strawman arguments presented there. The key question is which year the term (1) came into popular usage, (2) automatically presumed a negative connotation, and (3) got trotted out to dismiss anyone asking questions or in any way sceptical about mainstream news.

          OK, he found some handful of old examples where the phrase was used, but the fact that he had to search so hard tells you it wasn’t used very often.

          The phrase has certainly become much more commonly used in recent decades, but this could potentially be just a natural shift in usage. The only way to decide would be access to historical government records and that’s fairly difficult when you consider the way emails can get accidentally deleted and archives can get lost.

      • Silas Barta says:

        ROFL! “The CIA invented the conspiracy-theory label” has got to be the awesomest conspiracy theory ever (whether true or false) 🙂

  4. skylien says:

    Well, I think if you encounter any new argument/(conspiracy) theory you should have the decency to take it seriously even if it sounds super freakish. So honestly think about it, check a few facts, and ask some questions, if the results are:
    – Huge logical mistakes in the theory
    – Chery picked artificial explenations/interpretations of actual events
    – Facts claimed to be there are not there at all or even the opposite
    – The answers to your questions are usually of the cop out nature (you must be one of them, some unprovable thing is the answer etc)

    Then it is quite safe to assume to be a mere “conspiracy theory”. I actually think you don’t really need to invoke any probability argument usually. I also think with the probability argument you fall to easy prey to your own bias. That is we could come up with many proven conspiracies that people would have thought to be impossible probability wise before they were proven. (WMDs in Iraq?, Watergate? etc..).

    I actually took the flat earthers serious and checked out what they are actually saying (There must be a flat earther boom on Youtube…), never would have thought that so many people would think that. The outcome was that all red flags above mentioned flashed brightly red. I don’t even need to invoke the argument that it would be too many people involved to keep up the lie of a spherical earth..

    Also there is the tendency that the bigger the lie, the easier it is believed. Also how many people actually have access to the truth. Not all people playing along actually are knowing what happens or could check the actual truth, and that is harder to estimate than you might think in many cases, but has a huge effect on the probability argument.

    • David Leeman says:

      The argument that if too many people are involved in a conspiracy. it can’t be kept secret is less powerful when the consequences for revealing the secret are severe. Suppose the theory that 9-11 was done by people in the US gov’t is true. Anyone involved in that operation would easily be guilty of treason and suffer the death penalty. That makes it very easy for conspirators to keep it secret.

  5. skylien says:

    As an additional note. Why do you think the US harasses their whistleblowers so harshly? Manning? Snowden? It is not like people whistleblowing wouldn’t have to fear consequences.. People who know are sometimes paid off and always scared off.

  6. Andrew_FL says:

    I’d just be happy if people would cease using the term “conspiracy theory” for notions which don’t, you know, involve any multiple number of people, you know, conspiring.

    • Craw says:

      Conspiracy theories aren’t nutty because they assume evil intent. They are nutty when they assume vast numbers of people co-ordinating secret actions and keeping it secret.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        I agree that the plausibility of any theory regarding a conspiracy will tend to be inversely proportional to the number of people the theory requires to be “in on it” or more precisely the number of people with potentially conflicting motives it would require to be actively collaborating with each other.

        But I think even a conspiracy theory involving a relatively small alleged group of conspirators can be nutty.

  7. Andrew_FL says:

    But actually let’s ask Murray Rothbard.

    “There are, of course, good conspiracy analysts and bad conspiracy analysts, just as there are good and bad historians or practitioners of any discipline. The bad conspiracy analyst tends to make two kinds of mistakes, which indeed leave him open to the Establishment charge of “paranoia.” First, he stops with the cui bono; if measure A benefits X and Y, he simply concludes that therefore X and Y were responsible. He fails to realize that this is just a hypothesis, and must be verified by finding out whether or not X and Y really did so. (Perhaps the wackiest example of this was the British journalist Douglas Reed who, seeing that the result of Hitler’s policies was the destruction of Germany, concluded, without further evidence, that therefore Hitler was a conscious agent of external forces who deliberately set out to ruin Germany.) Secondly, the bad conspiracy analyst seems to have a compulsion to wrap up all the conspiracies, all the bad guy power blocs, into one giant conspiracy. Instead of seeing that there are several power blocs trying to gain control of government, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in alliance, he has to assume — again without evidence — that a small group of men controls them all, and only seems to send them into conflict.”

  8. Daniel Kuehn says:

    After we finish the minimum wage paper you and me are going to tackle the JFK assassination, Bob.

    I assume you’re a useless sheeple on Roswell.

  9. Dan says:

    The info Snowden laid out is a perfect example. How much of the information he got out was dismissed as conspiracy theory prior to him? Then when his info was released you were seeing tons of people saying “This is old news.” They didn’t even miss a beat.

  10. Anti-Federalist says:

    It is common for judges and juries to hear a prosecutors conspiracy theorizing in court. If it is used in a court of law to describe the actions of underclass criminals, why should it not be used to describe the actions of the elite?

  11. Chuck says:

    So basically conspiracy theory = politically incorrect theory.

  12. Bob_NH says:

    Conspiracy theories are mostly citizen cross examinations of government reports, usually of major crime events where the case never makes it to court because the accused is dead – 9/11 – JFK. In such cases, the state makes a report from an “independent” commission that presents the evidence which would have had to be presented in court had there been a trial.

    Cross examination of government reports is perfectly valid and I would say, quite necessary in free country. Every citizen has the right to challenge any government report whether it’s about a crime or the state of the roads. Naturally it’s better when handled by people with relevant competencies.

  13. Ben says:

    “And now it’s ‘conspiracy.’ See? They’ve made that something that should not be even entertained for a minute – that powerful people might get together and have a plan.” –George Carlin

  14. Dutch says:

    One thing about most conspiracy theories is that they are often as plausible as the accepted theory. On the flip side theories like the Earth rotating the sun, germ theory or space exploration were not even plausible until they were proven true. So the term and its usage are irrelevant. Science is the best tool we have for determining truth. And in science nothing is true until it’s proven while that which can be proven is truth like it or not. So regardless of your thoughts about the term itself, it represents little more than our own ignorance to the truth and how we determine it. It is not an argument for or against anything. The truth is what the facts show. For example, all the facts show that bullets don’t serpentine mid air in 3 dimensions with intent to find all available targets. So it’s clear to me that the Kennedy assassination theory is bunk. Calling me a conspiracy theorist for that does nothing but assert your own willful ignorance to the facts and the honest pursuit of them. It’s the equivalent of calling yourself stupid. After all it only refers to your own beliefs when you use it. While asserting that your beliefs were not arrived at by any serious vetting of the facts. So by all means fire at will if you’re so inclined. But as I see it it’s a useless term with no merit or bearing on reality. Just a universal cop out that immediately brands you a willing ignoramus. When the facts are on your side you don’t need some universal, contrived dismissive term to make your case for you. It’s only useful for those who have no case nor the mental capacity to make one.

  15. Jeffrey S. says:

    Bob and gang,

    You all might enjoy this discussion of conspiracy theories by my favorite philosopher:



    • Dutch says:

      Methinks you need to find a new “favorite philosopher”. Don’t let this community college philosopher-hack reflect negatively on your own intellect. The post you link that denies so many conspiracies has been proven wrong nearly point for point in the years since. Did you miss that part?

      Snowden leaks
      Podesta emails
      Wiener emails
      Secret Clinton server
      Fast and furious
      28 missing pages from the 9\11 report

      Ever hear of any of these from inside the bubble you’ve apparently been in for a decade? No conspiracies huh? Priceless. Why do I think YOU are Feser himself still trying to save face?

  16. Jeffrey S. says:

    Two more by Ed as companion pieces:

    1) http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/02/brin-on-conspiracy-theories.html

    2) http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/05/epstein-on-conspiracies.html

    The second piece is quite good and there are some amusing comments that follow.

  17. Aisling says:

    I wonder if you have ever sought to read anything written from the perspective of someone trying to wreak havoc?

    As Sun Tzu says, “Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”(1)

    Towards the purpose of knowing your enemy, if you have enough of an iron stomach to at least skim it a little, I suggest The Psychopath’s Bible.(2) Just a few samples of what to expect from this guy, “Even the normal man knows, at some level, that all of this is meaningless and empty. Some even respond to this condition by having a nervous breakdown. The cure, however, is fascinating: few psychologists or psychiatrists would propose that the patient climb Mt. Everest, sail across an ocean, quit his job, divorce his wife or abandon his children. Instead almost all of them will provide the drug-of-the-moment and help the poor schnook return to the very routines which drove him mad to begin with,” and, “Help others get what they want. This is the most insidious form of destroying them. It makes them instantly terminal and, in most cases, useless.”

    1. Tzu, Sun. Translated by Giles, Lionel. The Art of War. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html (accessed January 13, 2017).
    2. Hyatt, Christopher et al. The Psychopath’s Bible: For the Extreme Individual. 1994. Reprint, Tempe: New Falcon Publications, 2000. https://www.scribd.com/doc/11554313/The-Psychopath-s-Bible (accessed January 19, 2017).

  18. Mr. Tin Foyle Hatz says:

    My religion is not a theory or conspiracy, they just say that to discredit us! You’re saying we infiltrated the government and nobody found out? I guess they did, so I guess it’s not a theory anymore, oh well. 🙂

    Operation Snow White

    Operation Snow White was the Church of Scientology’s internal name for a major criminal conspiracy during the 1970s to purge unfavorable records about Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. This project included a series of infiltrations and thefts from 136 government agencies, foreign embassies and consulates, as well as private organizations critical of Scientology, carried out by Church members in more than 30 countries. It was one of the largest infiltrations of the United States government in history, with up to 5,000 covert agents. This operation also exposed the Scientology plot ‘Operation Freakout’, because Operation Snow White was the case that initiated the US government investigation of the Church.


  19. Mark Landsbaum says:

    I don’t know if you know and were just playing coy, but the term “conspiracy theory” was coined in the ’60s by US intelligence agencies expressly to discredit those raising legitimate questions about the Kennedy assassination. You can read about it here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CBVSLR0/ref=oh_aui_search_detailpage?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    By the way, I already believe the Secret Service was in on it. You can get a good explanation why at http://acoupincamelot.com/

  20. Benjamin Cole says:

    “In sum, I think the best definition of the term is, “Theories that, if widely believed, would limit the power of today’s ruling class.” Why, it’s almost like a small group of people deliberately cooked this term up in order to screw the public. I wonder…”—Bob Murphy,

    Not sure I go as far as Bob Murphy but….put it this way: Housing costs are high the U.S., due to ubiquitous property zoning. Also, property zoning limits free enterprise, thus is a structural impediment, and one could argue that property zoning violates property rights.

    So, naturally, property zoning is never an issue. Huh?

    About 80% of commercial bank lending in on property, and that means zoned property.

    In short, the “ruling class,” or influential people, are satisfied with property zoning, so it is not an issue.

    This is not a conspiracy. But what I have outlined above is an accurate description.

    Similarly, with $30 trillion to $40 trillion in offshore, tax-avoiding bank accounts, maybe that should be a topic to be addressed. If we rely on income taxes to run government, then this is a serious issue. (I prefer we go to consumption taxes, but that is another topic).

    In contract, the minimum wage is always a topic.

    And the routine criminalization of push-cart, or truck vending is never, ever, never a topic

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