Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories June 10, 2015

Commenter Bilbo raised an excellent question about what distinguishes a conspiracy from a conspiracy theory. There have been real life conspiracies, and people conspire together for all sorts of reasons on a daily basis. How do we distinguish this mundane phenomenon from the kind of conspiracy theory that is deservedly treated with disdain?

Clearly there is a tipping point, beyond which the extent of the conspiracy, or the kind of information being covered up, becomes implausible. And towards the extremes, categorizing talk of conspiracies as “plausible” or “crackpot” may be relatively easy. But are there any instances which are near the middle of the spectrum, and less easy to categorize?

And clearly (as the meme below emphasizes) the kooky conspiracy theory is typified by hyperskepticism towards mainstream media reporting, government, history, science, etc., but fails to apply even more moderate skepticism towards their own conspiracy hypothesis.

Conspiracy theories of the crackpot kind also posit that information is readily available to everyone, but only they and a handful of others have the wisdom/genius/insight/skepticism/freethought/discernment to spot the pattern in what we all know and thus recognize what is going on behind the scenes.

What are other characteristics that distinguish tinfoil hat kinds of conspiracies from actual conspiracies? What are readers’ thoughts about this topic?

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  • Sven2547

    When people suspect a conspiracy, it almost never really exists.
    When a conspiracy really exists, people almost never suspect it.

    • Jonathan

      The one possible exception being the NSA privacy issues. People have always suspected that. I know plenty of people who normally aren’t conspiracists but still put black tape over their webcams.

      • spinkham

        The NSA actions left behind a trail of discontents, from Joseph Nacchio to Mark Klein to people who built the projects like Blinney and Drake. Those of us who work in related spaces who were paying attention had good reasons to think the NSA had a few of the capabilities to come to light, but some of their capabilities still blew our minds…
        Relatedly, the best indicators of a tin foil hat conspiracy theory are assumed super competence of the conspirators, able to keep everything under wraps for long periods of time, and lack of evidencejust going to show how good those running the conspiracy are.

  • John Thomas

    Trying to be a balanced person in listening to opposing views, I don’t want to dismiss conspiracy theorists completely out of hand. I am still willing to grant that there could still be a grain of truth in what they are trying to say. But in most situations it is exaggerated to an extent that it becomes completely out of touch with reality. For example, I was baptized, brought up and confirmed in various churches run by Jesuits. I had the most wonderful church experience growing up, Sunday school sessions were highly informative and priests were always encouraging to ask skeptical questions about anything regarding Bible or church history and willing to answer it as best as they could. So I was surprised to see youtube videos of how bad Jesuits are or they are actually running the world and or they are actually the illuminati. Granted, Jesuits had a bad history of political interference in early part of their formation, but they completely changed that mode of operation from 18th century onwards. It doesn’t seem to me in any shape or form that they are actually running the world as illuminati.

  • mechanar

    well for one thing americas overall influence in the world is suspicious to say the least.

    I mean i really hope that the Us is all for peace and democracy and puppies, but then when I see that it is one of the biggest arms dealers in the world the feeling that it is nothing but a self serving inhuman empire wont leave me.(Dont no if it is something like that you mean)

  • Christy Grobmeier

    I think a portion of it has to do with control, as well. It seems (at least to me) that many of the proponents of tin foil hat theories are either militant atheists or right-wingers; there doesn’t appear to be a middle ground. That said, let’s take popular American conspiracy theories like The Government (whatever that means), Bohemian Grove, or the Bilderberg Group. These are often blamed for bad things that happen, like the September 11th terrorist acts. It’s very difficult to swallow that “bad people do bad things sometimes”, or that natural disasters and suffering on a large scale have no rhyme or reason. Human beings desperately seek patterns and stasis, things which rarely exist writ large. If believing that your country is being punished for “turning against God” or that the visible heads of state are responsible for these traumatic events, it somehow makes it an easier pill to swallow, I think. Someone somewhere is in control, no matter how nefarious they are, and active hatred of those people is (for some folks) preferable to screaming into the void.

  • mem_somerville

    For me, “conspiracy theory” is a type of thinking that fills in gaps with any kind of unsourced, fictitious materials they need to create their story. And the gap-filling is, of course, done by unnamed actors who must have been involved.

  • Jonathan

    I think some people are conspiracists because of personal insecurities, and appearing to be “in the know” makes them feel better about themselves. It’s a bit of a cruel irony, because they don’t realize that it actually makes people take them less seriously.

  • Paul E.

    Alex Jones will post in this thread.

  • Thanks for answering my question, James. I admit to skepticism about the mainstream media, when there appears to be conflict of interest; and to the government, when there is not transparency; and to history, when it is based largely on non-transparent government and mainstream media that may have a conflict of interest; and to science, when not only is it not demonstrated, but the opposite is.. I think all of these factors were in play regarding 9/11. But I realize that most people think I’m mistaken, so I’ve learned to just wear my tin foil hat in comparative silence. 🙂