A Question


What does "tinfoil hat" mean? I see alla yous calling each other "tinfoil hat" every chance you get. It's a funny name, but I have no idea what it's supposed to signify. Anybody have an etymology?


NEXT: Separated at Birth?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. We are less than three (3) years away from the technology that will allow our mind control beams to circumvent this troublesome aluminum. Its either that or we nuke every Reynolds foil plant in 2008.

  2. It reminds me of my college days in the late 90s. There was a crazy dude who stood by the student center at the University of KY and handed out copies of letters he had written to the local paper about government experiments beaming stuff into his head. I always wanted to walk by and whisper some conspiracy jibberjabber to him, but I was afraid he would freak out too much.

  3. Regarding the mechanical ability to read thoughts, see the following verified scientific report from last year:

    And here’s something about our simian friends, from just three years ago: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1025471.stm.

    Laugh at the tinfoil hat crowd while you can, monkey boy!

  4. OK, so now we know what a tinfoil hat is, and what it’s supposed to signify.

    The more interesting question is this: How the hell did it get into the public lexicon? Like Cavanaugh, I once spent a good stretch of time seeing the term “tinfoil hat” everywhere without really knowing what it meant. This kind of frequent usage signals a presumption among writers that others know what the term means. Was there some high-profile movie, or TV show, or something, that introduced the concept and led to this widespread confidence in the familiarity of the term?

    I read and absorb a lot — as I suspect Cavanaugh does — but “tinfoil hat” rang obscure to me for a long time. So, please, somebody explain: How did the usage become so common? What pop-culture reference did I miss along the way?

  5. I first saw the tinfoil hat in the 2002 movie _Signs_.

  6. I first saw the tinfoil hat in the 2002 movie _Signs_.

    Yes, but at that point it was already in wide usage. Something had clearly happened before well before the release of “Signs” to push it into wide circulation.

    Off-topic: What is this business with the underscores? ( _Signs_ )? Do you have something against quote marks (“Signs”)?

  7. Come on folks, be serious, everyone knows a tinfoil hat is a crude bio-firewall to protect your brain from data miner cookies the gov’t plants in your head when you access and read their propaganda. I have my security set high enough to even prevent brain popups from occuring while reading an Eddie Bauer catalog.

    I am currently fighting a court order from the Department of Justice requiring me to remove it since it is paraphenalia for pot smoking. The DOJ is always finding these loopholes so they can plant their damn cookies in my head!

  8. Tony:

    I would answer your question but you have your head wrapped in tin foil and I can’t get through…

  9. The Navy has an SBIR topic out for measuring head temperature to determine if you a a nutball and/or terrorist. All the topics are at http://www.dodsbir.net They will probably spend $150k on initial research, then $700k on more research. Does tinfoil give an an adequate thermal barrier?

    N04-144 TITLE: Thermal Imaging of the Head for the Sensing and Identification of Concealed Intent

    TECHNOLOGY AREAS: Sensors, Electronics, Battlespace, Human Systems


    OBJECTIVE: Develop imaging devices capable of measuring thermal activity in the head for the purpose of detecting and identifying concealed intent. Of particular interest is imaging of thermal brain activity emanating from the skull over particular cortical regions.

  10. Ask a question, get an answer. Thanks, one and all, for the explanations and examples.

  11. It’s a phrase used to avoid debate on facts.

    “Black helicopter” was the preferred term, but it faded from usage after the black helicopters started to pop up regularly in major metropolitan centers and was no longer a viable “insult.”

    Hope this helps.

  12. Fittingly enough, I first encountered the term here at “Reason”. Even though I’d never seen it before, I knew instantly what it meant.

    It is a particularly evocative metaphor. It immediately conjured up for me an image of Christopher Lloyd with his head wrapped up in an aluminum contraption in order to thwart the influence of the Orbital Mind Control Lasers…..

  13. Anon,

    It is indeed a debate stopper. Without actually engaging anyone in a debate over facts, it manages to imply that anyone who suspects ulterior motives behind any government policy or doubts government veracity is in the same category as Holocaust deniers, or people who believe that the Bavarian Illuminati have been running the world for 200 years.

    Any time someone makes a reference to “neoconservatives,” the TFH gibe inevitably appears (I’ve coined the term “neosecond” for the infinitesimal time lapse), as if it was a word made up by the folks at Lew Rockwell just last year.

    A few years back, the mayor of Lavaca, AR, was discovered to be using city equipment and labor to upgrade private roads on his property. This was before “tinfoil hat” became a widespread term of denunciation, but had it existed I’m sure the local good ol’ boys would have used to ridicule anyone who questioned the local City Council/Chamber of Commerce “official happy news.” After all, it’s just as loony to make the accusation against the local Boss Hogg as it is against Cheney/Halliburton.

    But of course, politicians at the national arena would NEVER be guilty of the venality and mendacity of small-town political hacks.

  14. The Washington Post used the term, submitted by a reader, way back in 1994:

    “You find the tinfoil in your hat no longer deters evil thoughts.”


    It’s the second entry after the index on that page.

  15. Note first of all that interaction between aluminum and the brain is linked to Alzheimer’s Syndrome.

    Also note that it is not politicaly correct to speak of black helicopters. They are correctly identified as African-American helicopters.

  16. Crank: The State is run by corporations and bankers, who are controlled by the reverse vampires who run the world from a cave in Bolivia. And though I don’t believe it because I am tolerent, there are some who also claim to know who is behind THEM .

    Reader: Your Tin-Foil Hat is loose.

    Crank: What, do you believe your school textbook that JFK wasn’t killed by a conspiricy? Do you believe the Government is all sunshine and rainbows?

    Reader: Ummmm….No

    Crank: You are just trying to stop the debate! There are black-helicopters beaming thoughts into my head and the 9-11 attacks were staged by Bush!

  17. All the tinfoil in the world isn’t going to stop them if you haven’t removed your “fillings” as well. Ever notice how your company dental plan only covers “qualified” dentists? The U.N. mandated that. Think its convienent using the speedpass system at McDonalds and Mobil gas stations? Like the faster checkout offered by bar codes and similar electronic systems? Guess what, so does the U.N. Ever see a work crew installing “cable boxes” on the side of the road? Do you think that area really needed to “add capacity”? Have you noticed how the new utility transformers are different than the old “defective” ones they are replacing?

    Go ahead and laugh – Kofi Annan wants you to.

  18. Extrordinary claims require extrodinary evidence.

  19. JFT. “Everybody knows an aluminum colander reflects the mind-beams much more efficiently.”

    Wrong. Everyone knows an inverted colander over the head is a brain wave detection device.

  20. JFT. “Everybody knows an aluminum colander reflects the mind-beams much more efficiently.”

    Wrong. Everyone knows an inverted colander over the head is a brain wave detection device.

  21. >>Everyone knows an inverted colander over the head is a brain wave detection device.

    WRONG. See http://www.lewrockwell.com/colandersarebetter.htm and you will understand that tin foil is used by Reynolds Corp. the same way your dollar bills are tracked by the Federal Reserve!!!!

  22. ” who are controlled by the reverse vampires ”

    Reverse Vampires… They crave the sun! They love it! See the wheels those are the marks. Bring forth the holy water!

  23. Tim, why don’t you tell us where it originated? You’ve got a NEXIS account, so have at it.

  24. I think somebody needs a nap.

  25. The WaPo from ’94 feels right as I recall joking about tinfoil hats — and the closely related radio transmitters in dental work — in the early ’90s in DC, usually with reference to CSPAN callers. The tinfoil meme is an example of something which predates the wide use of the Net that exploded once we all got hooked up, like RTFM.

  26. OK, I dug into this a bit on my own.

    A Nexis search of “tinfoil hat” reveals something interesting. Prior to August 1994, there was but a single hit in all media archived by Nexis (which archives a whole ton of media, going back to the ’70s).

    Then, starting in August 1994, the usage kicked in. That month, both the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News used the term, as jokey references to paranoid anti-government types. By December, it was in Europe, in London’s Daily Mail. And it’s been in regular use ever since.

    I suspect something happened in popular culture in summer 1994 that pushed this into the wider lexicon. A movie, a TV show … something, somewhere, made “tinfoil hat” familiar enough that newspaper columnists suddenly felt comfortable using it for their mainstream audiences.

    Big ’94 films: “Forrest Gump,” “The Lion King,” “True Lies,” “Dumb & Dumber,” “Clear & Present Danger,” “Speed,” “The Mask,” “Pulp Fiction.”

    Anyone? Anyone?

  27. [OT]:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite video games in the last few years, “Deus Ex” — they managed to fit every conspiracy theory they could into the game — you end up being transported via one of the Black Helicopters, and dealing with Men in Black, MJ12, Knights Templar, the Illuminati, the UN, manufactured plagues, Area 51, alien autopsies and so on. Great stuff.

  28. I find if you pee all over yourself it keeps people from not only reading your mind, they won’t even talk to you.

  29. An extensive explanation of “tin-foil hats” appeared in the 1983 romantic comedy Lovesick. Dudley Moore played a psychiatrist summoned to calm one of his violent patients. As I remember it, the patient ranted about aliens reading his mind, so Moore unravelled the tin foil around a sandwich and told the patient it would shield his brain. “What’s that,” asked the patient, pointing to some egg-salad on the foil. “A special ray-blocking gel,” Moore responded.

  30. Anyone? Anyone?

    I think The X-Files debuted in 1994.

  31. Government conspiracies happen. When we eschew conspiracy analysis we give the government and those who benefit from it’s actions a pass. An important question the government conspiracy theorist asks is; “who benefits?”. When tariffs
    are raised against a foreign product, no one is surprised that this happened at the behest of a collusion between the the domestic manufacturers of a compeating product and the labor unions who work for those manufacturers and that all the behind the scenes machinations as well as the visible agitation were a result of this collusion. All the conspiracy theorist does, is to extend that type of analysis to things like our entry into war, creation of cabinet departments, passage of laws, creation of the Fed. etc. (the tariff analogy is from Rothbard)

  32. Anyone? Anyone?

    The tinfoil hat meme appeared in 1994 as the result of a conspiracy against the conspiracy theorists to make them look foolish.

    They were obviously getting too close to the truth.

  33. That’t it. I’m chucking the foil and switching to a stainless steel mixing bowl. I hate being trendy.

  34. The X-Files premiered in 1993 but didn’t hit mainstream audiences until 1994. Then all things alien became cool. I suspect that this is when tinfoil hats entered popular culture. Anyone got any other ideas?

  35. An important question the government conspiracy theorist asks is; “who benefits?”.

    And since such questions are necessarily asked in a vacuum of facts, the tinfoil hat brigades thrive on their willful elision of correlation and causation.

    See also: “Chomsky, Noam”

  36. It refers to extreme paranoiacs wrapping their heads with tinfoil to prevent the government from zapping them / reading their brain waves / etc.

  37. Every conspiracist knows that wearing tinfoil on your head prevents the government mind-control rays from effecting you.

    You can get detailed instructions to create your own “Aluminum Foil Deflector Beanie” at http://zapatopi.net/afdb.html
    No, I don’t know if it’s a satire site or not. Sure hope to hell it is!

  38. It’s a group with some overlap with the black helicopter crowd. By wrapping your head in tin foil, you can subvert the mind control waves being beamed into everyone’s brains by the CIA/E.T.’s/unreformed Marxists/etc.

  39. I think it comes from the belief that a tinfoil hat will protect the wearer from alien transmissions which might control one’s behavior. I also think this gimmick was used in the film Signs (I never saw it.)
    I saw a few folks on the Alien Abduction episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit who walked around with tinfoil beanies.

    What it means in terms of libertarian blogging commentary is unknown to me.

  40. Jeff:
    “What it means in terms of libertarian blogging commentary is unknown to me. ” — it’s used to suggest that the target is a conspiracist looney.

  41. I think it’s a funny way to call someone a paranoid conspiracy theorist and the etymology is that UFO nuts used to believe that the goverment was using alien technology to read and/or influence our minds. Typically, these nuts would wrap their heads in tin foil to thwart the influence.

    There was a reference to the tin foil hat in the recent Mel Gibson movie about crop circles. The little kids wore them to stop the aliens from reading their thoughts. But people have been making jokes about such people since at least the ’70s.

  42. I think it’s a funny way to call someone a paranoid conspiracy theorist

    It used to be a funny way to call someone a paranoid conspiracy theorist. It’s gotten kind of old.

  43. In a Simpsons episode, Bart wears one to keep Major League Baseball from reading his thoughts. Very funny episode. I’m lauging now remembering it.

  44. There’s a brain-wave scanner that can tell what you’re thinking that they tried in airports, but it didn’t work on women.

  45. It’s a fun saying to fuck with paranoid conspiracy theorists.

    Their usual response is to attack the phrase as “old” or something “evil” people say in response to the “truth” — probably because you are probably part of the conspiracy.

  46. What a bunch of loonies. Everybody knows an aluminum colander reflects the mind-beams much more efficiently.

  47. The tinfoil hat phrase is actually older than it’s usuage to refer to conspiracy theorists. I remember hearing it frequently about ten years ago while studying psychology in college. In that case, it refered to paranoid schizophrenics who would put tinfoil in thier hats to keep the voices/mind rays, whatever, out. This is, apparently, a fairly widespread practice. I even saw a videotaped interview in which a mental patient explained in great detail the functioning of his tinfoil hat.

  48. 48 comments about Cavaughes nearly empty jape???? EEEH! Way too much time on your brain guys. G

  49. Besides all that, the use of this kind of headgear smacks of blatant counter-productivity and would have the exact opposite effect. Seems to me that any kind of metal would simply facilitate transmission of radio waves (or radiating waves of any kind) rather than obstruct them.

    If (big if) brain waves could ever be “read” from a distance, wouldn’t a hat made of paper, wood, glass, or some other kind of non-conductive material be more appropriate?

    (Leaden tonfoil would not only prove toxic to the wearer, we’d also be forever picking up from the pavement all those dunces and their top-heavy lead heads.)

  50. A tinfoil hat supposedly would act as a Faraday cage, and would keep electromagnetic waves out of the inside. It’s freshman physics, whihc I gues Birthday Kid didn’t take.

    Ever listen to the radio while driving under a steel bridge, and it gets all staticy until you come out from under it? It’s the same effect.

  51. A faraday cage is grounded at (exactly) one point. A floating metal hat could be an antenna. Almost any metal object, if not earthed, can function as an antenna. (search “pringle can antenna” if interested)

  52. I know that certain electrical appliances sometimes pick up radio waves and people hear them “talking”. I’ve heard that sometimes tooth fillings can cause the same effect. Wouldn’t it be funny if some paranoid individual put on a tinfoil hat and began hearing phantom voices? Not exactly therapeutic:)

  53. If Dennis Kusenish is elected president we can all relax. He wants to pass legislation banning the US Govt. from transmitting mind control beams from outer space. I kid you not.

  54. “And since such questions are necessarily asked in a vacuum of facts”

    On the contrary, facts are what lead to the questions in the first place.

    “…thrive on their willful elision of correlation and causation.

    It’s not the exclusion of both correlation and causation, but rather, i’ts which one of the two that is true, that is an important part of many conspiracy analysis explorations.

  55. You’re right, Gabriel.

    “freshman physics, whihc I gues Birthday Kid didn’t take.”

    I never did take freshman physics. (I went into the Arts instead.) But I did take several English courses, and happen to be one hell of a good speller, unlike some physics minors I sometimes come across.”

    (Thanks for the vindication, Joe2.)

  56. And in case you didn’t pick up on the deliberately misspelled “tonfoil” — that was meant as a pun.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.