Conspiracy theory

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A conspiracy theory is, technically, any theory (formal or informal) which supposes the existence of a conspiracy of some kind. The term has gained a number of implicit connotations, however, which depart from this definition:

  • The term is generally used in contrast to "the official explanation" of any given event, even if the official explanation itself involves a conspiracy (as in 9/11, where the official theory claims a conspiracy of Muslim extremists, but is nonetheless not generally referred to as a "conspiracy theory"); the term is rarely (if ever) used to describe a theory that has official support.
  • There is a derogatory connotation due to the widespread belief that anyone who doubts an official explanation must be a "nutcase". Describing a theory as a "conspiracy" theory carries the implication that the theorist is credulous and the theory lacks credibility.
  • The term is also rarely used except in the case of high-level conspiracy, i.e. a conspiracy of people with significant power, authority, or influence who therefore command significant respect and trust from many people.
    • Although the official theory to explain the events of 9/11 also involves a conspiracy, it is not generally referred to as a "conspiracy theory" because the individuals involved were private citizens with no special authority.
    • A bank robbery involving multiple actors is also a "conspiracy" (one of the crimes would be "conspiracy to commit theft"), but a detective trying to piece together the evidence to determine what happened would never be accused of being a "conspiracy theorist" -- even though s/he literally would be.


This cartoon about global warming says:

A conspiracy theory can be defined as any world view that traces important events to a secretive, nefarious cabal. and whose proponents respond to contrary facts not by modifying their hypotheses but instead by insisting on the existence of ever-widening circles of high-level conspirators who control most or all parts of society.

Positions most often cited as conspiracy theories include:

  • that there is a conspiracy of "evolutionists" to hide the supposed truth of creationism
  • that money-grubbing scientists are conspiring with powerful government interests to promote global warming
  • that the moon landings were faked
  • the idea that the official account of the JFK assassination is inconsistent with known evidence
  • any position questioning the actions of officials and authorities regarding the 9-11 attacks, especially those which argue that the official account is wrong in any significant way


Do slogans like this -- "Not every conspiracy is a theory" -- indicate a growing acceptance that "conspiracy theories" are not necessarily bogus? Or are they just helping to reinforce the idea that such theories are sensationalistic, purely the realm of unrealistic fiction?

There is certainly nothing inherently "wacky" about the idea that powerful people might conspire to defraud the public, yet many hypotheses arguing for specific instances of such events are quickly branded as "conspiracy theories" -- regardless of how sound their arguments may be.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the pejorative sense of the term "conspiracy theory" owes its popularity to its ability to stigmatize the entirely legitimate act of investigating cover-up operations.

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