The Conspiracy Theory of Ignorance

I’ve spoken, at least once, about Karl Popper and his notion of the conspiracy theory of society but the conspiracy theory of ignorance material is a) not something I’ve touched upon and b) is not something that I’ve seen much commentary on.

Popper’s conspiracy theory of society is the basis for a lot of modern critique of the philosophical investigation of Conspiracy Theories (so I have found) and I have spent a little time recently looking over Popper in a little more depth. Whilst I think the study of Conspiracy Theories has moved on from Popper’s declarations in ‘The Open Society’ it is clear that this may not be as common a view as I had hoped. So now I have reread the appropriate parts of ‘The Open Society’ and ‘Conjectures and Refutations’ and I have two things to say.

1) Did you know that Popper often uses ‘Rationalist’ in a pejorative sense? I think he would find it amusing that the (so-called) ‘Rationalists and Humanists’ call their publication ‘The Open Society…’

2) Why does no one talk about his other conspiracy theory, the conspiracy theory of ignorance?

To quote:

[T]he conspiracy theory of ignorance which interprets ignorance not as a mere lack of knowledge but as the work of some sinister power, the source of impure and evil influences which pervert and poison our minds and instil in us the habit of resistance to knowledge. (Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Kegan, London, 4th Edition, p. 3)

The conspiracy theory of ignorance is the claim that there are people out there who want to keep us from knowing the ‘truth.’ These days, in modern Conspiracy Theory talk, such purveyors of ignorance are called Disinformation Agents but Popper is, in essence, talking about exactly the same thing and applying exactly the same kind of critique that people like Mark Fenster and co. apply to such an idea.

Popper gives some examples of such Ignorance-spreading Conspiracies; the Marxian idea of a capitalist press the perverts and suppresses truth, the eighteenth centruy parish priest who deliberately keeps his people in the dark. He does not deny outright that such conspiracies do not, or have not occurred (which fits in with his general view on the conspiracy theory of society1 and all) but he does say that such a belief is irrational because it rests upon the implausible assumption that ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’ (Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge and Kegan, London, 4th Edition, p. 8).

He’s right, of course. Merely revealing the truth (if there is such a thing, and Popper indicates here that truth is relative) often means nothing; who here remembers watching the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’ or ‘Soylent Green’ and going ‘So, now what happens?’, frustrated that the filmmaker(s) seems to think that once the dirty secret is out, or the bad guy defeated, that decency, democracy, et al, will resume shortly?

The Truth may not set you free at all. Refer to your operations manual.

Yet, strangely enough, people seem to wholeheartedly believe such a proposition. In Conspiracy Theory circles, like the (so-called) ‘9/11 Truth Scholars’ and those arguing that Obama is a secret socialist, or Muslim, or something else, it just seems to be a given that if people knew what was really happening that such things would stop a-happening and normalcy would resume. Shortly.

Disinformation, the act of spreading of such disinformation and peoples reaction to such disinformation is a big topic in Politics and Conspiracy Theories (if the latter can be speciated out). Popper’s contribution seems to be a little lost. I may try to change that a little.

Although… Ignorance is bliss.


  1. Which is that such conspiracies may well occur, but not often and that they do not achieve their intended goals.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.


  1. I know that quoting Terry Pratchett in support of ideas is not a particularly valid scholarly move, but I am about to start teaching his novel The Truth which includes, of course, the famous typing error “The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret”.

    1. I know how you feel. I just spent an entire hour lecturing people on the value of understanding how to dissect analogical arguments whilst explaining why I hated the movie of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’

  2. I believe the NZARH decided to change the name of its journal from the New Zealand Rationalist and Humanist to the Open Society because the new name reflected the ethos of Humanism. On Page 5 of his history of the NZARH, Heathen in Godzone, Dr Cooke quotes Popper describing Rationalism as “an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience” (Vol 2, p224 of the 1963 RKP edition of THE Open Society and its Enemies, apparently). No mention of the renaming of the journal is given in Cooke’s book.

    Make of that what you will.

    1. Popper seems to use ‘rationalist’ to sometimes mean ‘a person who has replaced god with the dogmatic belief that humans cause trouble instead.’ If I was at my computer I would give you the page reference in ‘Conjectures and Refutations’ to back that up.

  3. Although avowedly anti-PoMo, Dr Cooke is adept at appropriation. Popper has been claimed for Rationalism and Humanism, regardless of anything he might have had to say about the matter.

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