FAQ

Every so often people ask me questions about my views on conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy theory theories via e-mail. I’ve decided to start collating those questions and answers here.

In general

Where can I buy your book, “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories”?

Amazon! Or the Book Depository!

Where else can I read things you have written

Check out Academia.edu, ResearchGate, or Philpapers.

In your opinion what makes conspiracy theories so interesting?

I’m interested in conspiracy theories because – like any responsible citizen – I want to know if members of the government, corporations, and the like are involved in conspiracies. That seems like the kind of thing we should be interested in finding out. We can’t assume they aren’t involved in conspiracies, because recent history has shown us that conspiracies are more common than many of us thing; the revelations of the NSA’s mass surveillance programme by Edward Snowden is a notable example. As such, we need to treat claims of conspiracy seriously, just so we can check to see that our open and transparent governments are, in fact, operating in a transparent and open fashion.

That’s the serious answer, but there’s another reason I’m interested in conspiracy theories; they are often fun, sometimes bizarre stories, and I like reading about them (as do a great many people). You don’t have to believe in the conspiracies to be interested in learning more about them.

What got you interested in the study of conspiracy theories?

North Head: I grew up in a small town in Auckland which has its own conspiracy theory, the mystery of the North Head tunnels. It was quite a major story in the Eighties and as my father grew up in Devonport about the time most of the stories about the hidden tunnel complex were said to have first appeared, I learnt a lot about the story from my mostly skeptical father. When I got to uni and did my undergraduate degree in Archaeology I ended up reading the dig reports about the Head and came to the conclusion that as there was no good evidence for the existence of hidden tunnels in the Head, the conspiracy theory seemed unwarranted. I was, thus, puzzled as to why it continued to persist and this, to a large extent, motivated my PhD.

Critical Thinking: I’ve been heavily involved in the teaching of critical thinking skills for seven years now, and my teaching colleague (and former supervisor) Jonathan McKeown-Green and I decided to use North Head as an example in class (as well as take the students there on a field trip). After several years of working up the way in which we covered the North Head example and how we subsequently treated conspiracy theories in class, Jon and I decided that there was a bigger project to pursue on the subject. Thus, the PhD was born.

What attracted you – as an academic – to the study of conspiracy theories?

I grew up in a suburb of Auckland, Devonport, where there were tales of a hidden, underground military installation in a place called “North Head”. It ended up being a matter of national significance, since the conspiracy theory ended being debated in Parliament, and eventually two investigations into the matter were held. I grew curious as to why people in my home town continued to believe the claims that there was a hidden set of tunnels in North Head, so I investigated it and then used it as an example of a conspiracy theory in a course I was teaching. That then led to writing my PhD dissertation on the interesting philosophical issues around conspiracy theories, which in turn led to my first book, “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories”.

How long have you been studying conspiracy theories?

Since 2007.

On definitions

How do you define a conspiracy theory?

I define a conspiracy theory as any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a salient cause. So, if your explanation makes reference to a conspiracy (as described in the answer to question 4), then your explanation just happens to be a conspiracy theory.

Is your definition of a conspiracy theory non-standard?

Yes, and no. I take it that a conspiracy theory is any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a salient cause. This is a perfectly general definition (which is standard across many of my colleagues in Philosophy) but it is also a non-pejorative definition (which puts me at odds with some of the said same colleagues). I think surprise parties (which are organised in secret by a group of people who desire some end) qualify as examples of conspiracies and thus theories about them would be conspiracy theories (if said theory is used to explain why some party occurred or failed to occur). This also means that I don’t think there is any contradiction in the term “conspiracies of goodness.”

Whilst my definition might be taken to be non-standard, I think it is a useful definition to bring into play because it allows us to talk about the wider class of conspiratorial explanations and check to see whether the issues we associate with conspiracy theories in the pejorative sense also apply to the wider set.

What kinds of things do you think people are referring to when they talk about these things we call “conspiracy theories?”

  • Perfectly general definitions like mine.
  • A sub-set of 1 about sinister political forces which:
    • builds in that explanations fitting that description are controversial and we should take a dim view of them or:
    • does not necessitate that such explanations are necessarily suspicious but it turns out most are when investigated.
  • A definition which suggests the expresser of such a theory believes in a conspiracy-theoretic worldview were (almost) everything is the result of a conspiracy.

The latter two options are, loosely-speaking, what I take to be pejorative definitions.

Did the CIA invent the term “conspiracy theory”?

“No”. The term “conspiracy theory” is attested to – even as a pejorative – as far back as 1909 according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the 1870s according to other researchers, and even those early uses hint towards the term being well known to the audiences of such pieces. Talk of conspiracies is certainly much older, and such discussions range from serious contemplation of Ancien Regime politics to the inane narratives certain Ancient Roman politicians entertained.

On conspiracy theories

What are the characteristics of the most popular conspiracy theories?

A: Most conspiracy theories we find notable tend to be about dodgy deals done in secret. What seems to make them popular is the scale of the dodginess: the VW emissions scandal – which is a proven conspiracy – is a biggish story because of just how many cars are involved, and the lengths to which Volkswagen went to hide what they were up to. Other, presumably more outlandish, conspiracy theories, like the claim we never landed on the Moon, or that Area 51 is home to a fleet of UFOs, really amp up the scale of the deception. Some psychologists and sociologists have suggested that, maybe, what draws many people to these theories is the idea that the conspiracy theorist or conspiracist gets some satisfaction about “knowing” something about the world the rest of the population doesn’t. However, most of the people we tend to call “conspiracy theorists” are fairly evangelical about their beliefs; they want the rest of the population to share them as well. So, my suspicion (and as I’m not a psychologist, this is very much me riffing here) is that people are drawn to particular theories because of other things they believe about the world. If you find it weird we never went back to the Moon, then you might go “Did we even go there in the first place?” If you suspect that medical professionals overstate the benefits of vaccines, maybe you’ll become suspicious about the constant push to vaccinate. If you think that it seems improbable that twelve people could really have hijacked planes unaided in the airspace of a superpower, then you might look at the official story of 9/11 with a more critical eye.

What do the majority of conspiracy theories target? Is it higher authority/power in society?

Many conspiracy theories focus on what people in power are up to. So, it’s fair to say that many conspiracy theories are about authority figures. However, it’s not just political power that these theories focus on. Many conspiracy theories are about business practices, for example, or the actions of wealthy private interests.

Most people think conspiracy theories are a relatively new phenomenon, but my impression is that they have always been around. Am I correct?

There are two ways to answer that question: The first is to say that we’ve been talking about conspiracy theories for at least a hundred years. The Oxford English Dictionary finds the first citable reference to a conspiracy theory in 1908, and it’s clear that the way that author used the term that his readers would know what kind of theory he was referring to.

However, on the other hand, when we talk about conspiracy theories we tend to talk about theories we know aren’t true, and some have argued that the idea that conspiracy theories are suspicious is a modern idea. After all, during the French Revolution people on both sides claimed their enemies were conspiring against them, and these claims were treated seriously. That was because conspiracies were a known way to conduct politics. However now we believe we live in more open and transparent societies, and so we think conspiracies are just less likely. That’s why people tend to think conspiracy theories are suspicious; people just don’t think conspiracies are all that common.

What are the elements of a “good” conspiracy theory? In other words, why do some of these theories endure while others fade quickly?

On one hand a good conspiracy theory is a compelling story of everything you know is wrong. So, the medical community is lying to you about the real reason for vaccinating your children. These stories endure because they often hint at real fears people have. Sometimes these fears are based upon not understanding, say, complex scientific information about herd immunity, and the like. But sometimes these fears are based upon past events. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a good example, because it’s a case of people in the medical community wilfully experimenting on human subjects. It’s not surprising that people who hear about that experiment might go “If they did that, what else might they be doing now?”

On the other hand, many well-accepted explanations are conspiracy theories. Take 9/11: no matter what you believe about the how and the why of the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., it’s a conspiracy theory. For example, if you accept the official theory, that’s a theory about a bunch of plotters who acted in secret to commit a terrorist attack. That is a theory about a conspiracy. It just happens to be one that is well-accepted.

Now, a lot of people will say “No, that’s the official theory, and conspiracy theories are never official.” I disagree; a lot of our now accepted history started off with people like Woodward and Bernstein putting forward a conspiracy theory and then showing it was the best explanation. Sometimes conspiracy theories endure because they are true.

On belief in conspiracy theories

Is belief in conspiracy theories irrational?

I take it that belief in conspiracy theories is not automatically irrational. Rather, we need to judge individual conspiracy theories on their merits. So, the claim the world is controlled by alien, shape-shifting reptiles is likely false (because of the lack of evidence), but when Woodward and Bernstein alleged a cover-up by the White House about the break-in to the Democratic National Headquarters, that was a theory about a conspiracy which turns out to based on good evidence.

Because belief in conspiracy theories can be rational I also take it that there’s nothing inherently suspicious about being a conspiracy theorist. Indeed, most of us – if we are historically or politically literate – conspiracy theorists of some stripe because most of us will know of at least one conspiracy theory which turns out to be true. As such, my work has mostly focused on trying to work out when it’s rational to be a conspiracy theorist about some event, and in what demarcates a “good” conspiracy theory from a “bad” one.

What is the psychological motive for believing in conspiracy theories?

Well, speaking as a philosopher and not a psychologist, I would say that as long as there is good evidence which points out that conspiracies continue to occur in our societies, then it seems rational to at least consider conspiracy theories seriously enough, and to expect that someone will take the time to investigate them. Psychologically speaking, it might be the case that some people believe conspiracy theories for no good reason, or are primed to believe them on what others might consider unsatisfactory evidence, but the existence of such people (if they even exist) is no reason to think we can explain away all belief in conspiracy theories as people being ‘crazy’, ‘mad’, or paranoid. If we accept that conspiracies can and do occur, and we accept that any theory about one of those conspiracies is a conspiracy theory, then we should take talk of conspiracy theories seriously and investigate them to see if their is any truth to their claims.

What are the issues you think are common between conspiracy theories and explanations of social phenomena in general?

There is a lot of (sometimes genuine) confusion as to who counts as an appropriate expert when it comes to things like conspiracy theories, but we also find this in political debates and even scientific debates. Expertise in one domain is often mistakenly thought to either transfer to some other (the mistake many experts make when they talk outside their field) or it is taken that if someone is an expert in x, then anything they say about y should be treated with due respect (a mistake many hearers of theories make).

Explanations which appeal to intentional states (such as the desires of agents) are problematic because what counts as evidence of a desire is underdetermined by the total evidence in many cases. Whilst historians are particularly adept at navigating this kind of issue, most non-historians are not, and this is true not just of conspiracy theories, which refer to mysterious conspirators and their hidden agendas, but also discussions about the real reasons behind particular policy platforms and the like.

People often think that the standards we think apply to theories in the Natural Sciences also apply to the theories of the Social Sciences, so people think because conspiracy theories are seemingly in falsifiable, that they are pseudo-theoretic. However, it’s not clear that we should treat theories in the social sciences (like the kinds of theories conspiracy theories turn out to be) by the standards of the natural sciences (and it is also not clear that criteria like falsifiability are desiderata of theories in the natural sciences anyway).

People are insufficiently sensitive to alternative explanations and often go with the explanation of best fit (where best fit is subjective) rather than appraising all the plausible candidate explanations and working out which is the most probable.

Explanations of social phenomena are especially prone to disinformation and the use of selective evidence. Given that it is not obvious that we can trust official sources, in many cases we can only judge the argument for some conspiracy theory based upon the available evidence and what we know about the trustworthiness of our sources.

How can you show that a conspiracy theory is the best explanation/warranted?

First, we need to satisfy all three of conditions that show a conspiracy exists (or existed):

  • There existed a set of agents who
  • Desired some end and
  • Worked in secret.

In order for a conspiracy theory to be warranted we need to show that it is the best explanation, so the claim of conspiracy must be tightly connected to the event in question such that it is the salient cause. As such, we need to assess it with respect to the other candidate explanations of the event, which requires us to look at the conspiracy theory’s prior, posterior and relative likeliness/probability.

The evidence for an event can raise the posterior probability that the event was caused by a conspiracy. In the same respect, certain types of events are much more likely to be conspiratorial in nature, which affects the prior probability of a conspiracy being a salient cause of some event. Finally, when we compare candidate explanations we might find that one explanation is just more likely compared to its rivals, which can allow that, relatively-speaking, might be the best explanation of a bunch.

What conspiracy theories do you think are warranted?

I’d rather not give a direct answer to that, if you don’t mind. My thesis is that conspiracy theories can be warranted; that doesn’t entail that any particular conspiracy is warranted, just that some could be. It’s possible (but unlikely, I think) to believe that we live in a totally unconspired world but even so, if a claim if conspiracy is advanced, we should examine its merits.

That being said, I think that the official story of the Moscow Show Trials is warranted and is a conspiracy theory, as is the well-accepted explanation of the events of 9/11, that it was the result of terrorist activity (which, in this case, was also conspiratorial activity).

Is X a warranted conspiracy theory?

Depends on what “X” is…

On conspiring

Why might someone want to be involved in a conspiracy?

Well, if we assume conspiracies are always sinister or malevolent, that’s a good question. Why would someone want to be involved in something they know is bad? Now, people do bad things and cover-up bad things. Sometimes people want something so strongly, that they do something unspeakable to achieve it; some cases of premeditated murder are like this, for example. Sometimes people aren’t aware that something bad happened, but will cover it up anyway. So, sometimes people do bad things, and cover them up, leading to them being involved in a conspiracy.

However, if we ditch the idea that conspiracies are necessarily evil or sinister, and, instead, claim that they are everyday occurrences, then it seems perfectly normal that people would get involved in conspiracies. That surprise party you and your friends organise is a conspiracy, that time you and your friends lied to your parents as to whose house you were all staying at is a conspiracy, and so on. You can imagine, then, people in positions of power thinking ‘We need this thing to get done, but if we tell people about it they’ll mistakenly think it’s a bad idea, so let’s keep it from them until it’s complete.’ That sounds like a conspiracy, and one where the conspirators think they are – at the very least – not doing anything which is outright bad.

What factors are involved when conspiring?

Well, to conspire requires two or more people to work in secret to try and achieve some end. So, there are three factors: a group of conspirators; acting in secret; and having an end in mind.

The number of conspirators is a given; conspiracies require two or more people. Some people think the more conspirators who are involved, the more likely the conspiracy will be discovered. This is because the more people who are involved, the more likely someone will slip up and reveal the secret.

The secrecy condition just means that the conspirators need to try and keep their activities secret from whoever they think should not know what it is they are up to. So, if you are conspiring to cover-up a political scandal, you want to make sure the public don’t find out. If you are covering up a murder, you want to make sure the police do not find out what you did, and if you are conspiring to hide whose house you were staying at last night, you really only need to keep that secret from your parents. You might fail to keep that secret, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t conspiring. It just means you didn’t conspire successfully.

The end or goal condition just requires that there is something you want to achieve (in secret, typically). You might fail to achieve that end, or you might achieve something unexpected, but as long as you have an end in mind, that is all that counts.

On conspiracy theorists

Is there a profile for a typical person who believes in conspiracy theories? What, in your experience, predisposes someone for believing in them?

As I’m a philosopher, I’ll preface this answer with “I’m not a psychologist, so this is tentative…” I’d say that there are two kinds of people who believe in conspiracy theories: The first are people who, because they are politically or historically literate, know about past cases of conspiracy, and ask – quite reasonably – might there be conspiracies going on now? The second are people who I call “conspiracists”, who just happen to believe in conspiracies, presumably because they have some psychological disposition to believe them, regardless of the evidence. This latter group tend to be the people we pejoratively call “conspiracy theorists”, which is a mistake. We shouldn’t characterise conspiracy theorists merely because of the sins of a few conspiracists. That would be the equivalent of saying “Well, Richard Dawkins is an atheist and an Islamophobe; all atheists are therefore Islamophobes!” Just because some conspiracy theorists – the conspiracists – believe conspiracy theories for any old reason, that doesn’t mean we should cast all belief in conspiracy theories in a bad light. Rather, we should judge particular conspiracy theories on the evidence.

Long story short: I would say that what predisposes people to believe conspiracy theories is a whole bunch of background assumptions about the world in which we live. If you suspect that, say, the U.S. government routinely conspires, then you are likely to suspect said government is conspiring about something here-and-now. If you can show that your conspiratorial assumption is backed up by the evidence – say, by providing a litany of well-evidenced examples – then it seems quite reasonable to be the kind of person who, at the very least, considers claims of conspiracy seriously. But it has to be more than a hunch; there needs to be some reason to start inferring the existence of conspiracies.

In your experience, have you found that purveyors of conspiracy theories are “true believers” or are they more interested in 15 minutes of fame as opposed to exposing some supposed wrong or injustice?

I think most people believe or advocate for some conspiracy theory because they think something terrible has happened and it needs to be exposed. So, most conspiracy theorists are sincere (and sometimes even correct).

However, there are people who look like they might endorse conspiracy theories because for reasons other than because they are a “true believer”. I’m thinking of people like David Icke, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and the like. These are people who make quite a lot of money out of presenting conspiracy theories to a sub-section of the public, and it’s possible that sometimes they endorse certain conspiracy theories they themselves don’t quite believe but they know their paying audience will. That’s not to say that Jones and Beck, for example, don’t believe their own conspiracy theories; rather, sometimes I think they give airtime to conspiracy theories they don’t quite believe for reasons more to do with keeping their audience than anything else.

Is there a particular personality type that is drawn to conspiracy theories?

I distinguish between conspiracy theorists, who are people who believe in particular conspiracy theories, and conspiracists; people who believe in conspiracy theories without adequate reasons. My position is that it turns out most people are conspiracy theorists because if you are historically or politically literate, then you accept at least one conspiracy theory. Whether it’s the story of Watergate, the assassination of Julius Caesar two thousand years ago, or what happened in the Moscow Trials, these are all well-accepted theories about conspiracies that actually happened.

However, there are people who seem to believe conspiracy theories for reasons which don’t seem based upon arguments and evidence. These conspiracists might be psychologically-primed to see conspiracies where there are none, or just bad critical thinkers. That being said, I think most people can come up with detailed stories as to why they believe some conspiracy theory (so I don’t think there are many, if any, conspiracists), and so the interesting angle (for me at least) is working out whether they are right or wrong, and why.

Do you consider myself a conspiracy theorist?

In some sense, yes, in that I accept that some conspiracy theories are warranted, like the explanation of Nixon’s involvement in Watergate, the explanation of the verdicts of the Moscow Trials of the 1930s and so forth.

On sexism and conspiracy theory theories

Why do you think women are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories than men?

Are women less likely to be believe in conspiracy theories, at least in comparison to men? I actually don’t know whether that’s true; it’s quite possible that a lot of the apparent differences between women and men, when it comes to belief in conspiracy theories, might well be an artefact of the pervading sexism in our society. The concerns of women as a whole are, very unfortunately, less likely to be taken seriously, less likely to be noted, and thus less likely to be reported. Women might well be just as conspiratorially-minded as men. After all, if we admit that belief in conspiracy theories can be rational, it would be quite weird to think that – provided the same evidence as their male counterparts – women would not believe in the existence of conspiracies, nor – given the same evidence – not be suspicious about the possibility of conspiracies going on here-and-now.

Are women more likely to be conspiracists, though? I guess I would want to say “No…” I don’t think there is any case for saying women are more likely to believe things for any old reason than their male counterparts. However, I suspect the way in which we talk about conspiracy theorists who just happen to be women reflects the casual sexism in our society, and so we’re probably more likely to lump such women in with the wacky group of conspiracists, rather than take their concerns seriously.

Do you think female conspiracy theorists would be less likely to be believed?

Yes. Women, generally, are less likely to be believed in most cases compared to men; this is one of the many terrible consequences to a long history of sexism in our societies. It makes sense, then, that conspiracy theorists who happen to be women are often a) not taken seriously and b) often viciously portrayed in the media. We don’t even have to have an opinion on whether belief in conspiracy theories is ever rational to condemn this since it’s purely a double-standard. Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy have both expressed anti-vaccination conspiracy theories (sometimes at the same time, and in the same place), but the attacks on McCarthy tend to be gendered and obnoxious, whilst the criticism of Carrey seems nowhere near as harsh.

That might also explain why there is a split between reported numbers of conspiracy theorists when it comes to women and men; given the opprobrium women get when expressing such views, you can understand why many would not want to go public with them.

Do women tend to believe in different types of conspiracies than men? (i.e., In my research, it seems like most female conspiracy theorists are, like, anti-vaxxers or racist or religiously motivated and fewer are into things like UFOs and supernatural forces.)

My suspicion is that if there really is a difference between the kinds of conspiracy theories women believe (in contrast to men), then at least some of this divide is due to the role women play in our societies. Women are still, on average, considered to be “home makers” or are expected to the primary care-giver when it comes to looking children. I think that, to some degree (I suspect a large degree myself) explains any disparity between the conspiracy theories which are take it are believed by women versus those we take it are typically believed by men. Then again, some of this might well be a function of when we might take the concerns of women seriously; maybe women are just as likely to believe in UFO conspiracy theories as men, but their concerns are only taken seriously when it reflects the kind of things men think women should be interested in (like child care, preservation of the community, etc.).

(Which is to say that I think there is whole lot of institutional sexism operating in the academic literature on conspiracy theories, although it seems there is a move to combat this; at the conference on conspiracy theories in Miami earlier this year several of us lamented the lack of diversity in the attendees, and we have started talking about how to change that.)

On politics

Does the political status of an era influence the conspiracy theories made?

According to Joe Uscinski and Joe Parents (at the University of Miami) ‘conspiracy theories are for losers’. That is to say, people who are not in power (i.e. the losers of an election) tend to come up with conspiracy theories about those who are in power. In their book ‘American Conspiracy Theories’ they argue that – roughly – when the Democrats are in control of the government, Republicans accuse them of conspiracy, and when the Republicans are in control, the reverse happens.

Is there a particular political philosophy that is most likely to provide fertile ground for conspiracy theories?

I don’t think so; I think people from all over the map, politically-speaking, end up believing in different kinds of conspiracy theories. There might be a tendency for people who are on the margins of a political movement to be more likely to endorse certain conspiracy theories about why they aren’t being listened to; but I think that’s more a problem of both marginalisation and the fact that we often condescendingly call people who question mainstream views conspiracy theorists. After all, sometimes people are on the margins because of real and systemic injustices being perpetuated against them.

Is socialism involved with conspiracy theories? If so, how?

Well, if we take into account the answer to question 5, then yes it can be, in the same way that Neoliberalism can be involved with conspiracy theories. Whilst there are examples of socialist plots (particularly in European history), there are also many examples of plots and conspiracies by capitalists, neoliberals, and the like. There do not seem to be any particular political philosophies which generate more conspiracy theories than others (although maybe a sociologist or anthropologist might have a more informed opinion on this).

Is there any country that has more conspiracy theories than others

That’s probably a question best asked of a sociologist, or an anthropologist. The US is often taken to be the ‘homeland’ of conspiracy theories, because the US has so many of them, and many of them are about plots by either elements of the Left or Right trying to secretly take control of the Federal Government. Yet that idea – that the US is the homeland of conspiracy theories – might just be because the US is both a superpower, and also an exporter (if you will) of a lot of its culture (by way of books, TV, films, and the like). Those of us outside the US know more about US culture and history than the average American knows about, say, the history of New Zealand. We know about your conspiracy theories because we know a fair bit about your culture. That might make the US look like its swamped with conspiracy theories, but that might just be because its easier to find out about US conspiracy theories than it is, say, the conspiracy theories of Latvia.

Are Americans more likely to embrace conspiracy theories than, say, Europeans or New Zealanders?

I don’t know, actually. Aotearoa/New Zealand has its own share of conspiracy theories, particularly around the last General Election in 2014. It’s hard to measure who embraces them more, because so often they are relative to the society in which you live. I imagine not many Americans worry about whether the Prime Minister of New Zealand knowingly ran a dirty tricks campaign out of his office, in the same respect not many New Zealanders are worried about President Obama’s birth certificate.

Is paranoia a contribution to making conspiracy theories about the United States?

As in, are people worried about the US doing bad things because of paranoia? Presumably that is one reason why some people might be afraid of Americans (to paraphrase David Bowie). However, as I say in the answer to question 10, it’s not obvious all belief in conspiracy theories stems from paranoia. Sometimes (perhaps even most of the time) people have good reason to suspect the existence of conspiracies due to their knowledge of recent history and politics. The US does have a history of interfering in the democratic process of countries in the Middle East and South America, and has secretly induced foreign spy agencies to give up data about foreign nationals and Americans overseas. Some people take this as good evidence that the US has been involved in conspiracies, and thus justifies their suspicion that the US is involved in as-yet-undiscovered conspiracies now.

On the internet

What are your thoughts on the effect of the Internet on conspiracy theories?

It’s been good for researching conspiracy theories, I can tell you that!

Steve Clarke, an Australian philosopher, has the idea that the internet has been bad for conspiracy theories because conspiracy theories have become vaguer. In the old days you published conspiracy theories in books or magazines, and it could take months before your ideas were critiqued. As such, lots of those mid-20th Century conspiracy theories were remarkably precise with the who, the what, and how. These days conspiracy theories published online often get criticised within hours of being posted, and so a great many of them are vaguer (it’s also possible people rush to publish claims of conspiracy, which would also mean they end up being less detailed than if the author had waited for more evidence).

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