Conspiracy

What We Mean When We Say 'Conspiracy Theory'

The assumptions baked into a familiar phrase

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(This paper was presented at the Conspiracy Theory Conference at the University of Miami on March 13, 2015. The footnotes have been removed from the online version.)

What exactly do we mean by the phrase "conspiracy theory"? The problem is vexing enough in the academic literature, where scholars have made countless attempts to formulate a firm definition, none of which has managed to push its rival definitions off the stage. In everyday usage, the term is even more slippery: Its meaning constantly stretches and narrows, particularly when it is used as a pejorative. What follows is more impressionistic than systematic—not a complete study of the way the words "conspiracy theory" are used, but some observations about the way it bends to include or not include certain stories, and a hypothesis about why that might be so.

Let's begin with the great vaccine debate of February 2015. That month New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest all suggested, to one degree or another, that when it comes to childhood vaccines, public health should be balanced with parental choice. Christie, who we'll focus on here, called vaccinations "an important part of being sure we protect" children's health, but added that "parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well."

Christie's opponents immediately started digging for anything else he might have said on the subject. They found he had a history of courting voters who believe there might be a causal link between vaccines and autism. In 2009, for example, he put his signature on a letter that said:

I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage. Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey's highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.

One prominent liberal site, ThinkProgress, reported this news under the headline "Chris Christie's Long Flirtation With Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories." Another, The Daily Kos, used the title "In 2009, Chris Christie sent letter endorsing anti-vaxxer conspiracy theory." Watching discussions of the story on social media, I repeatedly saw the phrase "conspiracy theory" attached to Christie's claims. Yet none of Christie's comments invoked a conspiracy.

Perhaps the slippage is understandable in this case. After all, many people who believe these discredited claims about vaccines also believe that there is a conspiracy to conceal the shots' supposed ill effects. But the idea of a vaccine/autism connection is not innately conspiratorial, and the attempts I've seen to argue otherwise fall flat. An article in Salon, for instance, claimed that anti-vaxxers "are, at their core, conspiracy theorists" because they must "believe that all major health organizations in the world are colluding to cover up the supposed dangers of vaccines." But of course there's no reason to assume a vaccine skeptic is actually aware of how strong the scientific consensus on the question is. Indeed, when powerful figures like Christie—and, the year before Christie wrote that letter, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton—throw around phrases like "the science right now is inconclusive," that creates the illusion not of a conspiracy but of an open question.

A year before the vaccine debate flared up, the phrase "conspiracy theory" was invoked in an even odder context. At one moment during CNN's heavy coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, host Don Lemon mentioned that some people had suggested the plane had been swallowed by a black hole, an idea he categorized with "all of these conspiracy theories."

As with the supposed vaccination/autism link, there have been conspiracy theories about the missing airplane. But this surely was not one of them, since a black hole is not a secret plot. Yet Lemon wasn't the only person to make that category error. A video at The Daily Beast, for example, claimed to list the "kookiest conspiracy theories" about the plane. It did indeed list a lot of conspiracy theories, but it also included the black hole, along with the idea that the plane had been hit by a meteor—no, not a meteor controlled by a conspiracy—and the notion that it had landed on an isolated island.

Another recent example: In 2014 Technology Review published an article headlined "Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook." This article covered an interesting piece of research from Italy, where a quintet of scholars were observing how a large sample of Facebook users engaged with different sorts of stories. One of the tales the team looked at was a satiric piece claiming the country had passed a bill giving legislators 134 billion Euros "to find a job in case of defeat." Many readers had mistaken this spoof for an actual news report, and thousands of people signed a petition against the imaginary law. The Technology Review article led with this tale, which it used to argue that "Conspiracy theories seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jumps the credulity barrier."

Yet again, we see the term being applied in a strange way. The rumor involved a bill supposedly passed in public by the Italian senate, not a secret plan hatched by an hidden cabal. Nor did the original group of scholars claim it was a conspiracy theory. Their concern was with the transmission of false stories, whether or not they involved secret plotting. (The word "conspiracy" and its variants appear only four times in their study.) But for the Technology Review writer, "false story" and "conspiracy theory" apparently were synonyms.

* * *

So on the one hand there is this habit of using the phrase "conspiracy theory" to describe dubious claims that do not actually include conspiracies. Couple that now with another trend: the tendency not to use the phrase "conspiracy theory" to describe conspiracy stories embraced by the mainstream.

When I say "embraced by the mainstream," I'm not referring to beliefs that are widely held but still somewhat disreputable, like some of the JFK assassination theories. Nor do I mean those events, such as Watergate or Iran-contra, where a conspiracy clearly took place. I mean things like these:

Terrorism. Real terrorist conspiracies obviously do exist, but recent history is also filled with purported plots that failed to materialize. Furthermore, when terror plots do occur, people often assume they're part of a larger organized effort even when the evidence for such centralization is scarce. (In the wake of 9/11, for example, the White House reportedly pushed the FBI to prove that Al Qaeda was responsible for the anthrax mailings.) And where there really is a larger organized effort, there is a tendency to imagine it in ways that have more in common with paranoid pulp fiction than with asymmetric warfare as it's conducted in the real world.

Consider this November 2001 report in The Independent, which purported to describe Osama bin Laden's Tor Bora base:

It has its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydroelectric generator. Its walls and floors in the rooms are smooth and finished and it extends 350 yards beneath a solid mountain. It is so well defended and concealed that—short of poison gas or a tactical nuclear weapon—it is immune to outside attack. And it is filled with heavily armed followers of Osama bin Laden, with a suicidal commitment to their cause and with nothing left to lose.

Yesterday, for the first time, a witness spoke about one of the greatest remaining challenges for the effort to destroy al-Qa'ida—its underground cave complex in the Tora Bora area of the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He described a purpose-built guerrilla lair, in and around which as many as 2,000 Arab and foreign fighters and remnants of the Taliban are reported to be preparing for a guerrilla battle.

The story was picked up by outlets across the U.S., and another British paper, the London Times, ran this imaginative illustration of bin Laden's Bond-villain lair:

London Times

This vision received an official endorsement of sorts when it was mentioned on Meet the Press. Shown the Times' diagram, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that "there's not one of those. There are many of those."

When American forces arrived at Osama's actual base, they found that the Independent report was a fantasy, something better suited for a legend about Hassan i Sabbah than a realistic assessment of bin Laden's methods and capabilities. Yet the incident is rarely raised during discussions of conspiracy thinking.

Gangs. In his 1999 book Random Violence, the sociologist Joel Best explained how criminal gangs are typically imagined in contemporary America: They "are secretive; they are large (and spreading); their business is calculated, deliberate, and structured; dealing in drugs, violence, and other crime, they form great, powerful hierarchies through supergang alliances; and their members have a rich, secretive culture of colors, gang signs, and initiation rites." There are obvious similarities between this image and many traditional conspiracy theories, and indeed Best goes on to explore those parallels. But ordinary discussions of "conspiracy theories" rarely cite such tales of tightly organized supergangs, even though they are surely among the most popular and influential conspiracy stories in the U.S. today.

As with terrorism, there are multiple layers here. First there are the times people see a gang where one doesn't exist. This typically happens when reporters or officials encounter an unfamiliar subculture; a recent example would be the FBI's 2011 decision to include the Juggalos—that is, the fans of the band Insane Clown Posse—in its National Gang Threat Assessment. The second layer comes when a decentralized criminal network is perceived as a centralized criminal hierarchy. (Much of the rhetoric around human trafficking follows this pattern.) And the third layer, again, is the tendency to inflame these stories with imagery out of pulp fiction.

That pulp-fiction imagery is also common with human trafficking—unsurprisingly, given the long tradition of white slavery stories that the storytellers have to draw on. With street gangs, the pulpy notions often kick in with stories that do not come from official sources (though occasionally a policeman or politician will gullibly repeat them) but are passed around as urban legends. This email, for example, circulated online in 2005:

Gang Initiation Weekend. (Please Read Very Important!!!)

Police officers working with the DARE program has issued this warning: If you are driving after dark and see an on-coming car with no headlights on, DO NOT FLASH YOUR LIGHTS AT THEM! This is a common Bloods gang member "initiation game" that goes like this:

The new gang member under initiation drives along with no headlights, and the first car to flash their headlights at him is now his "target". He is now required to turn around and chase that car, then shoot and kill every individual in the vehicle in order to complete his initiation requirements.

Police Depts. across the nation are being warned that September 23rd and 24th is the "Blood" initiation weekend. Their intent is to have all the new bloods nationwide drive around on Friday and Saturday nights with their headlights off. In order to be accepted into the gang, they have to shoot and kill all individuals in the first auto that does a courtesy flash to warn them that their lights are off. Make sure you share this information with all your friends and family who are drivers.

Needless to say, the warning did not actually originate with the DARE program. And needless to say, the weekend came and went without a bloody mass initiation into a secret society. That did not keep the rumor from taking off again a few years later. Indeed, different incarnations of the story have been circulating since the 1980s, if not earlier.

"Cults." There is, of course, a long history of conspiracy theories about new religious movements. The Mormons, to give a prominent example, have inspired nearly two centuries of paranoid folklore. For that matter, there is a long history of conspiracy theories about old religious movements, notably Catholics, Jews, and lately Muslims. Discussions of conspiracy theories frequently include these yarns.

Yet sometimes they don't. It's easy to throw around phrases like "the paranoid style" when looking back at, say, the cult scare of the 1970s, given some of the stories that circulated then: Secretive groups controlled by powerful puppetmasters were said to be recruiting young people through a form of mind control. But while that scare was actually underway, you weren't likely to hear such phrases unless the alleged conspiracy also involved, say, the CIA.

There was a similar lack of self-awareness in the following decade, when those anxieties about real religions helped birth a fear of fictional Satanic conspiracies. In the 1980s and early '90s, countless reporters, prosecutors, and jurors convinced themselves that a network of devil-worshippers was infiltrating day care centers and other institutions, then engaging in the ritual rape and murder of children. (Geraldo Rivera summed up the supposed situation on one of his TV specials: "Satanic cults! Every hour, every day, their ranks are growing. Estimates are there are over one million Satanists in this country. The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secret network….The odds are this is happening in your town.")

At times this was described as a conspiracy theory, particularly after skeptical journalists started to debunk these claims. A 1989 article in Police Chief magazine, for example, complained about the dubious claims the author was hearing at law enforcement seminars devoted to occult crimes; among other things, the author cited stories about "satanic groups involved in organized conspiracies, such as taking over day care centers, infiltrating police departments, and trafficking in human sacrifice victims." Even so, when Americans in the '80s discussed conspiracy theories as a general phenomenon, it's remarkable how rarely the idea of Satanic ritual abuse was included, even though those fears were surely far more widespread than many of the other conspiracy stories under discussion.

* * *

So this is the direction in which our language has been evolving. People started using the phrase "conspiracy theory" to mean "implausible conspiracy theory," then "implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy." Meanwhile, they leave out those implausible theories that have a lot of cultural cachet, such as the aforementioned stories about cults, gangs, and terrorists.

Why has this happened? I can only speculate. It is surely notable, though, that the combined effect is to underline the idea that conspiracy theories are something for those people, way out on the far left or far right. Conspiratorial thinking is perceived not as a widespread human trait but as the province of a peculiar personality type, not as a mass phenomenon but as a fringe phenomenon. "Conspiracy" starts to mean "fringe."

Many people may find that a comforting thought. But it does not have the advantage of being true.

NEXT: WATCH: David Skarbek on How Gangs Control American Prisons

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  1. The result is rhetoric that treats the “conspiracy theory” as something that exists primarily in the nether regions of politics, when in fact the phenomenon appears frequently across the ideological spectrum.

    If I didn’t know better….

    *looks around carefully – then intently at Jesse*

    …I’d say it was a


    CONSPIRACY!!

    *mic drop*

    1. My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do
      http://www.work-mill.com

  2. So Bin laden was Dr Evil in the mountains? Most of these theories take large numbers of people working for a single goal in total secrecy. 911 was very simple,that’s why it worked.They assumed two things,easy access to the pilots and the standard of compliance with the highjackers.Of course that didn’t work on the third plane once the people knew the deal.

    1. Most of these theories take large numbers of people working for a single goal in total secrecy.

      Which is why so many of these theories are a joke. Thousands of workers planting explosives in the WTC, and not one talking about it to anyone? Yeah right.

      1. I used to haunt the randi.org site quite a bit. I’m a proud skeptic. To me, it comes down to evidence. You can have lots of theories about anything, and elaborate explanations for whatever happens. But unless there’s some evidence to back up your theory, I don’t have time to listen to you.

        Just read something a couple weeks ago about skepticism (wish I could remember where!) But it spoke to the paradox of many “skeptics.” That is, some people refuse to believe what’s in the papers, but then they’ll eat up everything Alex Jones spouts.

        1. “To me, it comes down to evidence. ”

          But you are prejudicing the issue right from the start. In a conspiracy, secrecy is the order of the day, and evidence is necessarily going to be hard to come by. To me it comes down to the best theory to explain events. In New York on 9/11 an office tower that hadn’t been struck by aircraft collapsed into its foundations at free-fall speed. Rather than searching for whatever evidence you think there is out there waiting to be found, I prefer to ask myself how best do we account for the facts that are plainly open? Res ipsa loquitur. Does the theory you are ultimately willing to defend, manage to do this? If not, you aren’t a skeptic, proud or not. You’re a dupe.

          1. Why am I not surprised you’re also a troother?

            Well, one more piece of evidence that you’re a complete moron.

            1. “you’re a complete moron”

              If you please, I prefer a ‘skeptical moron.’

              Have anything to offer other than bluster and insult? Why am I not surprised? I guess I hit another nerve. Questioning the government’s version of 9/11.

              1. It’s a bit like explaining to flat earthers that no, the earth is not flat. You won’t accept any evidence I or anyone else offers, so why should I waste my time?

                It was great of you to show us what a complete and utter idiot you are, though. Thanks for that.

                1. “You won’t accept any evidence I or anyone else offers”

                  I’ve got nothing against evidence, except for the notion that there is some bit of evidence out there that’s going to decide the issue. Both you and Libertarian seem to believe this. I don’t. I think the theory is more important. If a theory can’t explain what is clearly obvious, like the collapse of an office tower at free-fall speed into its foundations, an office tower unstruck by aircraft, then that theory has to be rejected. But you don’t want to discuss that, do you. You’d rather continue with the bluster and insults, flat earth and idiocy. 2 posts, 0 surprises.

                    1. A good illustration of the problem with relying on secondary sources. Instead of reading Popular Mechanics’ report on the NIST report, why not go to the NIST report directly. NIST report isn’t so blatantly ideological, it doesn’t deem necessary to mention Rosie or any other Hollywood celebrity, even though it is much longer than Popular Mechanics piece. More importantly the NIST report confirms the fact that the building collapsed at free-fall speed, Popular Mechanics papers this over. Please meditate on the significance of that.

                    2. More importantly the NIST report confirms the fact that the building collapsed at free-fall speed, Popular Mechanics papers this over. Please meditate on the significance of that.

                      It does no such thing.

                    3. “Stage 2 (1.75 to 4.0 seconds): gravitational acceleration (free fall)”

                      That’s a quote from your own NIST link. And the Popular Mechanics doesn’t admit the free fall. They will only go as far as:

                      “WTC 7 rapidly fell in on itself”

                      I can’t say I’m surprised at all the twisting and turning of those who deny free-fall. But it’s plainly stated in the NIST report. Are the writers of that report now conspiracy theorists?

                    4. What did the rest of the section you selectively quoted say liar?

                    5. In the draft WTC 7 report (released Aug. 21, 2008; available at http://wtc.nist.gov/media/NIST…..omment.pdf), NIST stated that the north face of the building descended 18 stories (the portion of the collapse visible in the video) in 5.4 seconds, based on video analysis of the building collapse. This time period is 40 percent longer than the 3.9 seconds this process would have taken if the north face of the building had descended solely under free fall conditions. During the public comment period on the draft report, NIST was asked to confirm this time difference and define the reasons for it in greater detail.

                      There ya go dimwit.

                      BTW, this:

                      into its foundations

                      Also not true.

                    6. I notice that you are not refuting the quote I selected. Do you accept that the building collapsed at free-fall speed for that period? Or perhaps you prefer the Popular Mechanics formulation of the ‘building collapsing rapidly in on itself.’ But apparently you don’t believe this either, as you claim it’s not true that it fell into its foundations, but presumably somewhere else…

                      So now you have issues with both the sources only yesterday you looked upon with so much confidence. Rough day, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to shore up your faith in the official narrative.

                    7. It seems to me you are the one who has a problem with the NIST report.

                      Tell me:

                      What do you think WTC 7 failing “at free fall” proves?

                      Why do you cite the official narrative, only to take issue with the official narrative?

                    8. “What do you think WTC 7 failing “at free fall” proves?”

                      I’m not sure it proves anything. It simply highlights an inconsistency in the theory of progressive or cascading collapse. If a theory is shown to be inconsistent with observed facts, it should be modified if not rejected outright. Otherwise you are engaged in something called question begging,

                      I cite the official narrative because it is the one most find acceptable and authoritative. You are perfectly within your rights to question it. If you want to argue that it is incorrect. Perhaps it’s a typo, for example, and instead of ‘free-fall’ they actually meant to say what Popular Mechanics said, that the collapse was merely ‘rapid.’ I can’t really offer much besides speculation.

                    9. Otherwise you are engaged in something called question begging,

                      So, exactly what you do on a regular basis (including in this instance)?

                    10. “So, exactly what you do…”

                      Enough about this 9/11 thing. Let’s talk about me.

                    11. Enough about this 9/11 thing.

                      The NIST report counters your version of events.

                      Full stop.

                    12. “The NIST report counters your version of events.”

                      Sorry to repeat myself but I’m pointing out an inconsistency in the NIST accounting of the events. If you believe the account to be consistent with the observed facts of the matter, you should stop your tergiversations and state so plainly. You may be right after all. I already conceded the possibilty that there was a typo. Who knows, maybe the video used to analyse the collapse was a fake, a Muslim plant, designed to sow seeds of doubt in rubes like me. The possibilities are endless.

                    13. Sorry to repeat myself but I’m pointing out an inconsistency in the NIST accounting of the events.

                      By citing the NIST report to support that claim???

                      Your position, as usual, makes absolutely no sense.

                    14. “Your position, as usual, makes absolutely no sense.”

                      Well, I’m glad we finally cleared that up. Your position, whatever it is, whenever you get around to telling us what it is, will obviously clear up any lingering questions and inconsistencies. I look forward to hearing more from you on this matter.

          2. Thanks for showing the pathologies of conspiracism. WTC 7 “The Third Tower” didn’t even collapse straight down (it wrecked CCNY Fiterman Hall beyond repair) and it didn’t collapse at “free fall speed”. But let’s look closer at the story and the usual CT response:

            WTC 7 was hit by flaming debris from WTC 1 which started fires. Many surrounding vehicles were also hit and set ablaze.

            CT Response: The fires must have been deliberately set by an arson team to mask the demolition charges in the building which were detonated hours later.

            The fire was unfought due to lack of water pressure. After it had burned for several hours, WTC 7 was observed to be creaking and leaning, and FDNY cleared a safety zone around it for fear it would collapse.

            CT Response: FDNY is part of the conspiracy, the fires were puny, and the reports are false.

            WTC 7 collapsed in the late afternoon from the fire. The insurers paid off right away, no suspicions and no quibbles.

            CT Response: It must have been demolition charges, covered up by the fires. The insurers are part of the conspiracy, too.

            And so it goes….

            1. ” it didn’t collapse at “free fall speed”.”

              Who’s your source for that?
              Those who wrote the NIST report disagree. Have you checked that or were you satisfied by Popular Mechanics?

              1. Who’s your source for that?

                Probably NIST.

                What’s your source?

                1. “What’s your source?”

                  A source you need to read with a little more attention.

            2. That’s just what you would say if you were trying to hide a conspiracy.

              How the crap would a building collapse at free-fall speed even if it were demolished by explosives?

              1. “How the crap would a building collapse at free-fall speed even if it were demolished by explosives?”

                If there were nothing below to hold it up, it would collapse at free-fall speed. That’s the only explanation I can think of, though I’m no expert in collapsing buildings.

        2. Why do people insist on dividing things up into only two categories? Why does it have to be all or nothing with conspiracy theories? Is it possible that some conspiracies are total nonsense and others are based on truth?

          Also, why is the writer so surprised about the nebulous and shifting meaning of the phrase “conspiracy theory”? One of the curses of the human condition is the imprecise use of language and communication breakdown that happens when people adopt different definitions and then communicate with the assumption that the definitions are the same. This happens all the time and almost everyone is guilty of it.

          1. Actually, all or nothing is part and parcel of the conspiracy theory world. A conspiracy theory (as opposed to an actual conspiracy) requires a leap of logic based on a false dichotomy. To wit:

            There are some weird inconsistencies in the testimonies and film about the Kennedy Assassination. Therefore it must have been a coverup from the FBI

            The forced false choice – that there are only two alternatives, a perfectly consistent and clear set of facts, or it must be a conspiracy – is the driver of the conspiracy theory.

            1. And yet you still have not defined “conspiracy” and “conspiracy theory.” If we go by the dictionary definition of “two or more people acting in secret to achieve a goal,” it should be obvious that conspiracies are everywhere.

          2. Also, why is the writer so surprised about the nebulous and shifting meaning of the phrase “conspiracy theory”?

            What makes you think I’m surprised?

      2. But Busssssh!!!

        1. You mean BOOOOSH? Who was simultaneously retarded AND an evil genius puppet master.

          1. The chimp who masterminded 911.

          2. Like Reagan on SNL?

            1. BACK TO WORK!

          3. He was an evil genius… but since he was a moron, everything he was supposed to have done was really done by his “handlers”, but he was to blame anyway. This will make sense some day when the ocean is less wet.

      3. 9/11 was obviously the result of a conspiracy. But, yes, the thermite stuff is just ridiculous.

        1. The notion that terrorists might use explosives to bring down buildings is preposterous, of course.

      4. “Which is why so many of these theories are a joke. Thousands of workers planting explosives in the WTC, and not one talking about it to anyone? Yeah right.”

        So if one of these workers told you, then it would be serious. Yeah right back at you.

    2. “They assumed two things,easy access to the pilots and the standard of compliance with the highjackers.Of course that didn’t work on the third plane once the people knew the deal.”

      Your explanation is simple, I’ll give you that. However, it doesn’t explain the demolition of a third tower in New York on 9/11, a building that wasn’t struck by aircraft. Doesn’t explain the anthrax attacks either.

    3. Precisely why I believe that the TSA was created more to soothe the public than fromany actual need. Clearly the next bunch of armed fanatics who tried to take over a plane full of Americams was going to be found stuffed in the overhead luggage compartment in somewhat used condition.

      1. More to the point, they would be facing a plane full of people who assume from the beginning that they have nothing to lose.

  3. Whoever made that diagram of Bin Laden’s hideout forgot the Balrog.

  4. Hi, guys. Can I crash here on the Reason sofa for a while? I just got through reading some of the 700 comments under Maureen Dowd’s column (re Hillary’s emails) in today’s NYT. Whew! Maybe I’ll go back after a little rest. Thanks.

    Here are some quotes. And these are from comments under “Editor’s Picks”!!

    1. Let’s see the released emails before we judge if we were cut out of the true story, as citizens.
    2. Sure, Hillary has flaws, but to think in this day an age that a US president should be a pure angel, savior of the nation (as the majority of people thought of Barack Obama in 2008), just shows that American naivete and self-defeating wishful thinking will never end. Finding that even the NYT can fall for that puritanical hogwash is saddening.
    3. Hillary is a difficult individual to figure out–she has enormous intellect, a feel for doing the right things, but along the journey to whatever her political destiny is, she does some pretty dump things—as her husband did.

    1. I don’t doubt that she has paid staff that “clean up” on the message boards. They’re actually really easy to spot.

  5. Interesting idea that I’d never noticed before — somehow sociopathic, low-intelligence, low-skill criminals can spontaneously create gangs and networks of super gangs in the face of the well-financed fierce opposition of Top Men (because the best and brightest naturally gravitate towards government work, amirite?), yet well-behaved ordinary people are so incapable of spontaneous self-organization to help each other that those same Top Men must come to the rescue, and in fact expend far more effort punishing victimless crimes than the gang kind.

    1. Top Men are the same as these groups as far as smarts.That’s why they are not in the private sector.

  6. The true conspiracy is why science has yet to catch up with Warty

    1. They did. It was like the basement scene in The Silence of the Lambs, except no one ever came back upstairs.

  7. I have a conspiracy theory for you:

    THIS WHOLE ARTICLE … WAS WRITTEN … TO SELL A BOOK.

    1. I need my tinfoil hat!

  8. The Birthers haven’t given up. They just say Obama is not a “true American” now.

    Truthers are pretty rare these days.

    1. Shorter shreek. “I love Dear Leader so much!!”

    2. No true Scotsman?

      1. Its shreek so it has something to do with the Jews. He was on here last week raving abput Bibbi the Rat. He doesn’t even try to hide it anymore

        1. His loss. Jewish chicks are hot and fun. But it’s too late for him, his dick is all shriveled up from all of the cocaine.

        2. Of course you’re both full of shit.

          I prefer Jewish/liberal people over fundie Christers and Muslims. Never met an Orthodox though.

          1. I prefer people with an ambivalence toward the spirituality of others over venal assholes for whom it’s the overriding concern.

          2. That os why you put out antisemetic slurs like calling the leader of Isreal a rat.

    3. Palin’s Buttplug|3.15.15 @ 11:13AM|#
      “The Birthers haven’t given up”

      Turd never argues honestly. If turd isn’t lying, he’s trying some other dishonesty.

    4. I know people who are simultaneously Truthers, Birthers, and Birchers.

  9. http://thepeoplescube.com/peop…..16030.html

    Behold the forbidden jokes about Dear Leader. Read them quick before Tony and Shreek call the authorities

  10. This whole article was written for the sole purpose of selling Insane Clown Posse albums. Think about it. Reason dot com has on numerous occasions mentioned ICP in articles and videos. I’m certain that Reason dot com and the Reason Foundation are part of the CCPIG (Coalition of Clown Performers International Guild) and they are using their media outlets to further the agenda of the CCPIG, which is to convert everyone to Juggaloism and then brainwash us into collectively fucking a huge bowl of mashed potatoes.

    1. Congratulations. In one post you made more sense than all of shreek’s comments for the last…well, ever.

      1. That’s a pretty low standard you’ve set. While I will graciously accept your congratulations, I feel my victory is hollow because one monkey typing random letters for at least ten solid seconds could achieve this level of sense.

    2. Wrong! It’s the Beastie Boys who want us to stick our dick in the mashed potatoes.

      1. They are a false-flag rap group. They avoid all of the trappings of CCPIG membership, indeed, they aren’t even members of CCPIG! But they put that line out there to lend the impression that the practice of mashed potato fucking is acceptable to the society at large. You fell for their trickery.

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    1. By “freelance on the Internet” she means post comments like the one above all over the fucking place.

  12. “Conspiracy theory” to progressives simply is any position that states that a majority of recognized experts is wrong; the presumption is that if a majority of recognized experts agree, either they are automatically right, or at least we should follow their advice.

    Often, of course, the majority of experts is wrong, because of group effects, political pressures, or biased selection. And even when experts are right on the scientific facts, that doesn’t automatically qualify them to propose policy, since policy involves value judgments and preferences in addition to facts (e.g., whether a species is endangered is a question for biologists, but whether we want to spend the money saving it is a question for voters, not biologists).

  13. “many people who believe these discredited claims about vaccines”

    It’s not clear which claims are being referred to here. The claims in question don’t seem to be included in the article. In my view this phrase falsely gives the impression that _any_ concern about a potential link between vaccines and autism is unjustified.

    Aluminium is a known neurotoxin, and commonly used as an adjuvant in vaccines. There are prima facie reasons to suppose that exposure to this toxin (in the amounts contained in vaccines) could lead to conditions that increase the likelihood of autism, so parental caution in this area is understandable. Studies published in the subject don’t close off this possibility.

    See for instance this study: http://www.meerwetenoverfreek……lished.pdf

    And this one http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12184359 that acknowledges, along with aluminium’s neurotoxicity, that in the first few days after infant vaccination the body burden of aluminium can be higher than ‘the dose which is expected to be safe for human exposure’ (MRL).

  14. I would propose the following working definition of a conspiracy theory;

    An explanation of events that relies of convoluted thinking or motivations and supposed “secret” knowledge when a simpler explanation can easily be arrived at using public knowledge and know motivations and proclivities.

    Thus; the idea that Franklin D. Roosevelt planned to bring about the attack on Pearl Harbor is a conspiracy theory because it relies on “secret” knowledge and convoluted motives, whereas the event is more simply explained by the public (if widely ignored) knowledge that Roosevelt, his administration, and most of the American Military were racists who simply didn’t believe that the Japanese could reach Hawaii with an attack, whereas they expected one on the Philippines.

    1. Good definition, related to the principle of “Occam’s razor”– the best explanation is usually the simplest one that is consistent with the evidence.

      1. In a conspiracy, certain information is kept hidden from you. In this case Occam’s razor, ‘the best explanation,’ will hinder you rather than help.

  15. “Cult” itself is subject to the same pressures. The labelers keep contorting themselves trying to concoct a “definition” (which is usually not even a definition, but a list of traits which the undefined entity supposedly possesses) that will include all the groups they want to condemn while excluding all the groups they want to exonerate….. and then almost always proceed to ignore it anyway.

  16. ” It is surely notable, though, that the combined effect is to underline the idea that conspiracy theories are something for those people, way out on the far left or far right. ”

    Don’t you just love how that is sold to the conspiracy minded consumer. Honestly, I cannot stand it when I hear or read an advertisement that makes the dubious claim ” what ____ doesn’t want you to know .” The list is lengthy, insurance companies, the govt. (well, that might fly) , cosmetic companies etc.. You start to think the entire population is on a fringe of delusional paranoia.

  17. “Conspiracy theory” is a semi-polite euphemism for “k ookery,” which of course reflects the judgement of the speaker. Not all k ookery involves a conspiracy, and sometimes a conspiracy really is behind something.

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  19. I’m always amused, Jesse, about your ability to speak to conspiracy theories for years and yet always avoid the biggest one in the world today, that being, of course, that climate change is all a hoax perpetrated by governments the world over to keep control over people. This one says nearly every climate scientist is on it, every government is in on it, and every single science society is in on it.

    Wow. Can’t get much bigger than that.

    Of course, you avoid it because so many of your readers here subscribe to it. They believe that over 90% of climate scientists are fabricating their studies just so they can get funding. Never mind that these scientists said the same thing when the GOP was in control of funding, never mind that there has never been one shred of proof of a climate scientist purposely fabricating his study for funding, never mind that no one knows where all the money is coming from to buy off every single science society the world over…just never mind facts, I guess.

    Let me know when you are ready to point fingers at fellow Libertarians, then I’ll seriously consider your opinion on conspiracy theories.

    1. Since it is trivially easy to find examples of me taking minority positions on Hit & Run (just look through the archives) and trivially easy to find me describing various libertarians as conspiracy theorists (just look up “libertarians” in the index of my book), you might consider the possibility that there’s a different reason I do not usually mention climate change in this context.

      From the article (you read it before commenting, right?):

      the idea of a vaccine/autism connection is not innately conspiratorial, and the attempts I’ve seen to argue otherwise fall flat. An article in Salon, for instance, claimed that anti-vaxxers “are, at their core, conspiracy theorists” because they must “believe that all major health organizations in the world are colluding to cover up the supposed dangers of vaccines.” But of course there’s no reason to assume a vaccine skeptic is actually aware of how strong the scientific consensus on the question is. Indeed, when powerful figures like Christie?and, the year before Christie wrote that letter, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton?throw around phrases like “the science right now is inconclusive,” that creates the illusion not of a conspiracy but of an open question.

      The same argument applies to your claim that climate change doubters believe the “biggest [conspiracy theory] in the world today.” Sometimes their doubts take a conspiratorial form, but their position isn’t innately conspiratorial.

      1. “But of course there’s no reason to assume a vaccine skeptic is actually aware of how strong the scientific consensus on the question is.”

        a) All people who are publicly ‘vaccine skeptics’ claim to have studied all the data and say there is no consensus, and conversely certainly many people who disagree with AGW state explicitly that they reject the consensus.

        b) People who reject AGW aren’t necessarily a conspiracy because they think the consensus is wrong, they aren’t ignorant of the consensus, like you say some can be conspiratorial when they claim that the governments are intentionally covering things up, but that is not all AGW skeptics.

        c) “Vaccine skeptics’ don’t claim that the science is wrong, they claim that the science is being skewed/covered up in order for big Pharma to sell more vaccines. That is why it is a conspiracy theory. That is totally irrelevant to whether or not they aware of the scientific consensus. In fact, if there is no scientific consensus, or the consensus is that vaccines definitely cause autism, then certainly the fact that vaccines are being pushed would be more of a conspiracy theory.

        1. “Vaccine skeptics’ don’t claim that the science is wrong, they claim that the science is being skewed/covered up in order for big Pharma to sell more vaccines.

          The ones who are conspiracy theorists often say this. But that is not what, say, Chris Christie has claimed.

          1. So basically, your entire problem with the Christie headline was that it said “Chris Christie’s Long Flirtation With Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories” rather than “Chris Christie’s Long Flirtation With Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theorists”?

            Assuming that the person who wrote the article wrote the headline (I assume you write all yours and have never heard of the practice of sub-editors making the headlines,) that’s a pretty flimsy excuse for an article. Sounds more like a ‘left wing paper prints headline that makes GOP’er seem slightly worse than he is’ shocker, rather than a jumping off point for a discussion of what is/isn’t a conspiracy theory.

            1. I attributed the headline to the website, not the reporter. Also, it’s one of three illustrations of how Christie was discussed, which itself is just an illustration of how non-conspiratorial anti-vaxxers and fellow-travelers are discussed.

              1. So far you haven’t given a single example of a non-conspiratorial anti-vaxxer, and as such, the ‘fellow-travellers’ that give their b.s. some creedence are in effect buying into the idea of a conspiracy.

                Just like your example of the ‘black hole’ and the ‘meteor,’ rather than basing your article on ANY examples of the people who hold these theories, you merely base them on mainstream/liberal media descriptions of the conspiracy, rather than going to the source of the people who believe in the ‘black hole’ theory, because if you did, you’d be troubled to find a single believer in that theory who doesn’t believe that the government kows about this and is hushing it up.

                1. Basically, the first part of the article lets down the second part about ‘mainstream conspiracy theories,’ which is quite good.

                2. So far you haven’t given a single example of a non-conspiratorial anti-vaxxer

                  Uh…people I’ve met in real life? It’s not an unusual position. Someone reads some alternative health stuff online, takes it seriously, and doesn’t really ponder any political angle.

                  as such, the ‘fellow-travellers’ that give their b.s. some creedence are in effect buying into the idea of a conspiracy

                  What nonsense. When Obama said “the science right now is inconclusive,” he wasn’t making a conspiratorial claim.

                  1. “. When Obama said “the science right now is inconclusive,” he wasn’t making a conspiratorial claim.”

                    I don’t recall you giving any examples of someone claiming that was a conspiratorial claim. I don’t see any. Have YOU read your article?

                    “Uh…people I’ve met in real life? It’s not an unusual position. Someone reads some alternative health stuff online, takes it seriously, and doesn’t really ponder any political angle.”

                    How on earth would you know? You’ve grilled all these people as to what they think the motives for giving unsafe vaccine to kids would be?

                    OK, give me one reason that an unsafe vaccine would be pushed on children that doesn’t involve a conspiracy. One reason. Just one…

                    1. I don’t recall you giving any examples of someone claiming that was a conspiratorial claim. I don’t see any. Have YOU read your article?

                      You said, right here, that the fellow-travelers “are in effect buying into the idea of a conspiracy”; I gave Obama in his fellow-traveling years as a counterexample.

                      OK, give me one reason that an unsafe vaccine would be pushed on children that doesn’t involve a conspiracy.

                      Scientific error.

                    2. “You said, right here, that the fellow-travelers “are in effect buying into the idea of a conspiracy”; I gave Obama in his fellow-traveling years as a counterexample.”

                      You gave an example of Obama saying “the science right now is inconclusive,”. That’s hardly an example when it doesn’t mention vaccines or autism. I don’t even see how that fragment paints Obama as a fellow traveller. I’d have to see the full sentence in context.

                      “one reason that an unsafe vaccine would be pushed on children that doesn’t involve a conspiracy.”

                      “Scientific error.”

                      So, these people who don’t know what the scientific consensus is are blaming scientific error? How do they determine that there’s an error when they don’t know what the science says?

                    3. I don’t even see how that fragment paints Obama as a fellow traveller. I’d have to see the full sentence in context.

                      Sorry about that; the info you want is in one of the missing footnotes. You can find the context here.

                      So, these people who don’t know what the scientific consensus is are blaming scientific error? How do they determine that there’s an error when they don’t know what the science says?

                      They think that there’s a debate among scientists and that the dominant group is mistaken.

                3. Just like your example of the ‘black hole’ and the ‘meteor,’ rather than basing your article on ANY examples of the people who hold these theories, you merely base them on mainstream/liberal media descriptions of the conspiracy, rather than going to the source of the people who believe in the ‘black hole’ theory, because if you did, you’d be troubled to find a single believer in that theory who doesn’t believe that the government kows about this and is hushing it up.

                  That is not my memory of the social-media discussions last year of the meteor and plane-landing theories. With the black hole, everything I’ve seen refers back to the CNN discussion, so I can’t say what the original believers claimed; my suspicion is that the idea originated with someone getting confused about what “aeronautical black hole” means.

      2. Yeah, I read it and it doesn’t apply at all.

        You see this statement of yours, Jesse?

        “…because they must “believe that all major health organizations in the world are colluding to cover up the supposed dangers of vaccines.”

        That’s what numerous, and by far the majority, of your commenters here believe about climate change. You’ve read their comments, right? They aren’t just “doubters.” They have said time and again (I know, they have said it to me) that because government provides funding for scientific research, all of these climate scientists are just providing the answer government wants…who in the world knows what that would be…but to your readers here its belief in AGW. And why? Who knows, other than their constant railing that all government ever wants to do is enslave people.

        Taking the minority position when it comes to science isn’t conspiratorial. Saying that over 90% of climate scientists are on the take is, and that is their stance.

        I would suggest you read the comments here next time Bailey posts anything at all on climate change. You clearly haven’t yet. And by the way, that conspiracy isn’t limited to just Libertarians, although they are at the forefront, it also includes many Republicans.

        Or have you missed Jim Inhofe saying AGW is a “hoax.” That’s a conspiracy theory, Jesse.

        1. You see this statement of yours, Jesse?

          The statement actually comes from Salon, and I’m criticizing it.

          I would suggest you read the comments here next time Bailey posts anything at all on climate change. You clearly haven’t yet.

          I have. When I do, I see a lot of debates break out. The AGW doubters generally outnumber the AGW believers in those comments, but the believers do show up?and, at any rate, the majority of our readers don’t comment at all.

          Anyway, Ron manages to regularly affirm the existence of man-made global warming without getting run out of town for it. Whether or not it’s a minority position, the idea doesn’t defy the basic premises of our readership the way it would to call for, say, drug laws or gun confiscation.

          Or have you missed Jim Inhofe saying AGW is a “hoax.” That’s a conspiracy theory, Jesse.

          That would be a conspiratorial version of the story, yes.

  20. Jesse:

    I know this is days late but hoping you might still be checking the page: was wondering what reception your paper received at the conference.

    1. The officially designated discussant (a historian at the University of Miami) liked it, as did various people who chatted with me about it. I can’t say how the others felt.

      I’ll be posting an article about the conference later this week.

      1. Excellent – thanks for the response.

  21. “The Mormons, to give a prominent example, have inspired nearly two centuries of paranoid folklore.”

    It’s hard to avoid being the subject of conspiracy theories when you’re running actual conspiracies, isn’t it?

    Look at polygamy. Some Mormons who hadn’t been in on it wouldn’t follow Brigham Young, because they were convinced that Young’s claims (that Joseph Smith was head of an inner circle of polygamists who had just been lying about it to the public to protect themselves) were a slanderous conspiracy theory. Later, some Mormons who had been in on it went underground, because they were convinced that Wilford Woodruff’s declaration ending polygamy was just another lie about it to the public to protect their conspiracy. Could you really blame either group for coming to a false conclusion, considering their circumstances?

    1. The anti-Mormon conspiracy theories can get pretty weird.

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  23. Jesse, just to follow up on my comment, for kicks I searched Reason for climate scientists articles. Here is the first on that came up, THE FIRST ONE:

    https://reason.com/archives/201…..em#comment

    Note the title that Reason elected to put on it: “Did Federal Climate Scientists Fudge Temperature Data to Make It Warmer?” Right, because they are all acting conspiratorially, right?

    So lets review just a sampling of the comments:

    “Well, let’s see. They’re incentivized, both directly and implicitly, to create a story of a dire situation. They won’t share their methods for acquiring their data, and they are hostile to reasonable criticism….I think the answer here is pretty clear.”

    “History is written by the victors . . . . and federally-funded bureaucrats.”

    “why would you ever do this? Stupid inclusive-or dishonest”

    “By Hadley and NASA data, I assume you mean their cooked data?”

    That is the first article and a few comments. You might try reading them more often.

    If you don’t think climate change deniers are fully populated by conspiracy theorists, you have been ignoring not only what occurs daily in the Senate, but also the headlines here at Reason as well as the comments.

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