The Conspiracy Theory

conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.

Usage :

The term “conspiracy theory” is used to indicate a narrative genre that includes a broad selection of (not necessarily related) arguments for the existence of grand conspiracies. The term is frequently used by scholars and in popular culture to identify secret military, banking, or political actions aimed at “stealing” powermoney, or freedom, from “the people”. Conspiracy theories are based on the notion that complex plots are put into motion by powerful hidden forces. Less illustrious uses refer to folklore and urban legend and a variety of explanatory narratives which are constructed with methodological flaws or biases.Originally a neutral term, since the mid-1960s it has acquired a somewhat derogatory meaning, implying a paranoid tendency to see the influence of some malign covert agency in events. The term is sometimes used to automatically dismiss claims that are deemed ridiculous, misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish or irrational. A proven conspiracy theory, such as the notion that United States President Richard Nixon and his aides were behind the Watergate break-in and cover-up, is usually referred to as something else, such as investigative journalism or historical analysis.

The political scientist Michael Barkun discussing the usage of this term in contemporary American culture holds that a conspiracy theory is a belief which explains an event as the result of a secret plot by exceptionally powerful and cunning conspirators to achieve a malevolent end. According to Barkun, the appeal of conspiracism is threefold: First, conspiracy theories claim to explain what institutional analysis cannot. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. Second, they do so in an appealingly simple way, by dividing the world sharply between the forces of light, and the forces of darkness. They trace all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents. Third, conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others. For conspiracy theorists, the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracy theorists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters’ deceptions.

Some scholars argue that conspiracy theories once limited to fringe audiences have become commonplace in mass media, contributing to conspiracism emerging as a cultural phenomenon in the United States of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and the possible replacement of democracy by conspiracy as the dominant paradigm of political action in the public mind.According to anthropologists Todd Sanders and Harry G. West, evidence suggests that a broad cross section of Americans today gives credence to at least some conspiracy theories.Belief in conspiracy theories has therefore become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore.

In an essay on conspiracy theories originating in the Middle East, Daniel Pipes notes that “[f]ive assumptions distinguish the conspiracy theorist from more conventional patterns of thought: appearances deceive; conspiracies drive history; nothing is haphazard; the enemy always gains; power, fame, money, and sex account for all.” According to West and Sanders, when talking about conspiracies in the Vietnam War era, Pipes includes within the fringe element anyone who entertains the thought that conspiracies played a role in the major political scandals and assassinations that rocked American politics in the Vietnam era. “He sees the paranoid style in almost any critical historical or social-scientific analysis of oppression.”

Noam Chomsky, linguist and scholar, contrasts conspiracy theory as more or less the opposite of institutional analysis, which focuses mostly on the public, long-term behaviour of publicly known institutions, as recorded in, for example, scholarly documents or mainstream media reports, rather than secretive coalitions of individuals.

Usage history :

The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the phrase “conspiracy theory” to a 1909 article in The American Historical Review.Other sources predate this use by nearly four decades to at least 1871, where it is used in The Journal of Mental Science reporting on a conference of the Fifth Quarterly Meeting of the Medico-Psychological Association (now the Royal College of Psychiatrists), held on Thursday, January 27, 1870:

“The theory of Dr. Sankey as to the manner in which these injuries to the chest occurred in asylums deserved our careful attention. It was at least more plausible that the conspiracy theory of Mr. Charles Beade, …”

On conspiracism

Academic work in conspiracy theories and conspiracism (a world view that places conspiracy theories centrally in the unfolding of history) presents a range of hypotheses as a basis of studying the genre. According to Berlet and Lyons, “Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm”.

The historian Richard Hofstadter addressed the role of paranoia and conspiracism throughout American history in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published in 1964. Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) notes that a similar phenomenon could be found in America during the time preceding theAmerican Revolution. Conspiracism labels people’s attitudes as well as the type of conspiracy theories that are more global and historical in proportion.

The term “conspiracism” was popularized by academic Frank P. Mintz in the 1980s.According to Mintz, conspiracism denotes “belief in the primacy of conspiracies in the unfolding of history”: 

“Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power. As such, conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology”.

Throughout human history, political and economic leaders genuinely have been the cause of enormous amounts of death and misery, and they sometimes have engaged in conspiracies while at the same time promoting conspiracy theories about their targets. Hitler and Stalin would be merely the 20th century’s most prominent examples; there have been numerous others. In some cases there have been claims dismissed as conspiracy theories that later proved to be true. The idea that history itself is controlled by large long-standing conspiracies is rejected by historian Bruce Cumings:

“But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with ‘conspiracy theory.’ History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities.”

Justin Fox of Time Magazine gives a pragmatic justification of conspiracism. He says that Wall Street traders are among the most conspiracy-minded group of people, and ascribes this to the reality of some financial market conspiracies, and to the ability of conspiracy theories to provide necessary orientation in the market’s day-to-day movements. Most good investigative reporters are also conspiracy theorists, according to Fox, and some of their theories turn out to be at least partly true.

Belief in conspiracy theories has become a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore since at least the 1960s, when the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy eventually provoked an unprecedented public response directed against the official version of the case as expounded in the Report of the Warren Commission.

Types :

Barkun has categorized, in ascending order of breadth, the types of conspiracy theories as follows:

  • Event conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is held to be responsible for a limited, discrete event or set of events. The conspiratorial forces are alleged to have focused their energies on a limited, well-defined objective. The best-known example in the recent past is the Kennedy assassination conspiracy literature, though similar material exists concerning the September 11 attacks, the crash of TWA Flight 800, and the spread of AIDS in the black community.
  • Systemic conspiracy theories. The conspiracy is believed to have broad goals, usually conceived as securing control of a country, a region, or even the entire world. While the goals are sweeping, the conspiratorial machinery is generally simple: a single, evil organization implements a plan to infiltrate and subvert existing institutions. This is a common scenario in conspiracy theories that focus on the alleged machinations of JewsFreemasons, or the Catholic Church, as well as theories centered on Communism or international capitalists.
  • Superconspiracy theories. Conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically. Event and systemic are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested together. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but powerful force manipulating lesser conspiratorial factors. Superconspiracy theories have enjoyed particular growth since the 1980s, in the work of authors such as David Icke and Milton William Cooper.

Popular knowledge

Clare Birchall at the University of Kent describes conspiracy theory as a form of popular knowledge. By giving it the title ‘knowledge’, conspiracy theory is considered alongside more ‘legitimate’ modes of knowing. The relationship between legitimate and illegitimate knowledges, Birchall claims, is far closer than common dismissals of conspiracy theory would have us believe. Other popular knowledges might include alien abduction narratives, gossip, some new age philosophies and astrology.

Psychological origins

According to some psychologists, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory tends to believe in others; a person who does not believe in one conspiracy theory tends not to believe another.

Psychologists believe that the search for meaning is common in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories, and may be powerful enough alone to lead to the first formulation of the idea. Once cognized, confirmation bias and avoidance of cognitive dissonance may reinforce the belief. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement may equally play a part. Some research carried out at the University of Kent, UK suggests people may be influenced by conspiracy theories without being aware that their attitudes have changed. After reading popular conspiracy theories about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, participants in this study correctly estimated how much their peers’ attitudes had changed, but significantly underestimated how much their own attitudes had changed to become more in favor of the conspiracy theories. The authors conclude that conspiracy theories may therefore have a ‘hidden power’ to influence people’s beliefs.

A study published in 2012 also found that conspiracy theorists frequently believe in multiple conspiracies, even when one conspiracy contradicts the other. For example, the study found that people who believe Osama Bin Laden was captured alive by Americans are also likely to believe that Bin Laden was actually killed prior to the 2011 raid.

Humanistic psychologists argue that even if the cabal behind the conspiracy is almost always perceived as hostile, there is often still an element of reassurance in it for conspiracy theorists. This is due, in part, because it is more consoling to think that complications and upheavals in human affairs are created by human beings rather than factors beyond human control. Belief in such a cabal is a device for reassuring oneself that certain occurrences are not random, but ordered by a human intelligence. This renders such occurrences comprehensible and potentially controllable. If a cabal can be implicated in a sequence of events, there is always the hope, however tenuous, of being able to break the cabal’s power – or joining it and exercising some of that power oneself. Finally, belief in the power of such a cabal is an implicit assertion of human dignity – an often unconscious but necessary affirmation that man is not totally helpless, but is responsible, at least in some measure, for his own destiny.

Proven conspiracies and conspiracy theories :

Katherine K. Young states “(t)he fact remains, however, that not all conspiracies are imagined by paranoids. Historians show that every real conspiracy has had at least four characteristic features: groups, not isolated individuals; illegal or sinister aims, not ones that would benefit society as a whole; orchestrated acts, not a series of spontaneous and haphazard ones; and secret planning, not public discussion.”

“Some historians have put forward the idea that more recently the United States has become the home of conspiracy theories because so many high-level prominent conspiracies have been undertaken and uncovered since the 1960s.”The existence of such real conspiracies helps feed the belief in conspiracy theories.

In the criminal justice system, actual conspiracies and conspiracy theories can also be distinguished by scale, as actual conspiracies are usually small in scale and involve “a single event or issue.”


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