For the movie, see Conspiracy Theory (movie)

A conspiracy theory is the belief that historical or current events are the result of manipulations by one or more secretive powers or conspiracies. A conspiracy theory alleges that some particular event -- such as an assassination, a revolution, or even the failure of a product -- resulted not solely from the visible action of overt political or market forces, but rather from covert manipulation. Because conspiracy theories rely on allegations of covert action, they are frequently difficult to support with evidence. For this reason, the expression conspiracy theory is often used pejoratively to refer to allegations that the speaker considers unproven, unlikely, or false.

Table of contents
1 Real conspiracy versus conspiracy theory
2 Falsifiability
3 Subjects of conspiracy theory
4 Conspiracy theory and urban legends
5 Conspiracy theory in fiction
6 Real life imitates conspiracy theory
7 The Bible and conspiracy theories
8 List of further conspiracy theories
9 Related articles
10 External links

Real conspiracy versus conspiracy theory

The word conspiracy comes from the Latin "conspirare," ("to breathe together"), and in contemporary usage it is a situation where two or more people agree to perform an illegal or immoral act. The essential components are the involvement of a group of people, secrecy and malicious intent. The existence of countless thousands of such conspiracies is well known and includes organized crime and gangs as well as cartels in restraint of trade, organized political bribery, and so forth. At any given time, hundreds or thousands of conspiracies in this sense are afoot. For a discussion of this sort of conspiracy, see the article conspiracy.

While the term conspiracy theory could refer to any theory positing the existence of a conspiracy (but as yet unproven), it is usually used by people as a disparaging rhetorical device to refer ideas that, in their opinion, are:

  • Unproven theories that are generally considered false
  • Impossible to prove true, or to falsify
  • Paranoid or baseless

Historians generally use the term conspiracy to refer to conspiracies that are considered to be real, proven, or at least seriously plausible and with some element of support.

The waters are muddied by the fact that powerful groups or individuals may have an interest in trying to discredit those who accuse them of real or imagined crimes. The label of "conspiracy theory" has been used to mock or denigrate social and political dissent, for instance when a powerful public figure is accused of corruption.

The term conspiracists is again usually used disparagingly to refer to people who are likely to believe in conspiracy theories; psychologists note that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are usually believers in some or many other conspiracy theories as well. The acceptance of conspiracy theories as true seems not to be correlated to the proof available, but functions as a kind of religious belief system.

Ridicule, and even the diagnosis of schizophrenia has been used as a means of silencing political dissent, for example in the Soviet Union (see anti-psychiatry).

In justifying the classification of a theory as a conspiracy theory, detractors tend to level several accusations. That the theory is:

  1. Not backed up by sufficient evidence.
  2. Phrased in such a way as to be unfalsifiable.
  3. Improbably complex.

Defenders point out in response that:
  1. Those powerful people involved in the conspiracy hide, destroy, or obfuscate evidence.
  2. Skeptics are not (in their opinion) prepared to keep an open mind.
  3. Skeptics may be politically motivated and have an interest in the status quo.

Note: The term conspiracy theory is sometimes also used refer to sociological attempts to study the phenomenon of conspiracy. For more information, see conspiracy.


Karl Popper claimed that true science is basically defined as a set of falsifiable theories. Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes argue that many of them are not falsifiable. This accusation is often accurate, and is a result of the logical structure of certain kinds of conspiracy theories. These take the form of uncircumscribed existential statements, alleging the existence of some action or object without specifying the place or time at which it can be observed. Failure to observe the phenomenon can then always be the result of looking in the wrong place or looking at the wrong time -- being duped by the conspiracy. This renders it impossible to demonstrate that the conspiracy does not exist. Falsificationists might also claim that this makes such theories unscientific.

For example, consider how one would show that a conspiracy to hide the fact that we have been visited by aliens does not exist. Since the theory does not specify when or where or how the visits or the conspiracy occurred, it is not possible to show it to be false. Even if, for example, we were given the run of the Pentagon archives, the possibility always exists that there is an archive somewhere detailing the conspiracy, to which we do not have access

Jerry Bowyer, referring to allegations that the 2003 War in Iraq was the result of George W. Bush doing the bidding of oil companies, said that "I like this conspiracy theory better than the rest because it is one of the few that actually permits empirical disconfirmation". He considered that the declining share prices of oil companies was empirical evidence against this theory. [1] (In opposition to this, one may point out that the subsequent loot of Iraq's oil fields to major American oil companies is empirical evidence supporting the theory.)

In response to this objection to conspiracy theory, some argue that no political or historical theory is scientific by Popper's criteria because none reliably generate unambiguous, non-trivial, testable, and correct predictions. In fact, Popper himself rejected the claims of Marxism and psychoanalysis to scientific status on precisely this basis. (Most scientists today dispute the idea that Marxism is science at all; similarly, most neurobiologists and many psychiatrists now agree that classic forms of psychoanalysis have no scientific basis.) This does not necessarily mean that conspiracy theory, Marxism, and psychoanalysis are baseless, irrational, or false; only that they are not science by Popper's criteria. Such arguments have raised a debate on whether Popper's criteria should be applied in the social sciences as strictly as in natural sciences. Popper's criteria have been crticised for slowing down scientific progress due to their restrictiveness. A debate between Popper and his former student Paul Feyerabend became quite famous.

In regards to the specific theory of an oil industry motivation for the 2003 Iraq war, conspiracy theorists respond that one of the first acts of the American-installed government was to call for the escalation of Iraqi oil production, undermining the OPEC oil cartel, which serves oil company interests. The fact that some data seem to falsify and other data to verify the conspiratorial view may indicate that a falsifiability standard is difficult or impossible to apply to situations where variables cannot be isolated. This problem is not specific to conspiracy theories, but crops up in fields of science which deal with complex processes outside of controlled laboratory conditions, such as ecology.

Some people distinguish between falsifiable accusations of conspiracy and unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, though, in light of the above, it is not clear that this distinction is justified.

Subjects of conspiracy theory


Assassinations are a classic subject of conspiracy theories. The assassination of a prominent figure is a singular event which can dramatically change the course of public affairs. Those drawn to conspiracy theory are led to ask, in the aftermath of an assassination, Who benefited from this death? Though many assassinations are committed by lone individuals, and many others by aboveboard governments (such as that of Leon Trotsky) there have been several assassinations whose purposes remain mysterious in the public eye -- and suspicious to the conspiracy theorist.

Best-known among assassination conspiracy theories in the United States are those dealing with a rash of seemingly politically motivated deaths in the 1960s, notably those of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr An individual acting alone, who was himself assassinated before standing trial, is generally considered to have assassinated President Kennedy. Criticism of this account has entered the mainstream with movies such as Oliver Stone's JFK. In the other two cases, a lone assassin was convicted.

Similar theories have risen around the assassination of Beatle John Lennon and the attempted assassination of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Secret societies and fraternities

Secret societies and fraternal societies have aroused nervousness from some non-members since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. A secret society is a club or organization whose members do not disclose their membership, and may be sworn to hold it secret. However, the term is also used in conspiracy theory to refer to fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons who do not conceal membership, but are thought to harbor secret beliefs or political agendas.

Conspiracy theory about the Freemasons goes back at least to the late 18th century. The Masons were accused of plotting the American and French Revolutions, the downfall of religion, and of dominating republican politics. In fact, the historian Georges Lefebvre, generally considered an authoritative source on the subject, concedes that the Masons had a role in organizing the revolution in the city, but says it is unclear how important their role was. Worry about Masonic conspiracy grew to such an extent in the early United States as to spawn a political party, the Anti-Masonic Party. The Bavarian Illuminati, a German secret society related to Masonry, also figures into conspiracy theories of that time. Rosicrucianism is a popular topic of conspiracists.

All the Catholic Popes in the last three centuries are subjects of conspiracy theories. Some people believe that Freemasonry was condemned by the Church primarily because of its view that all religions are equal; this view was diametrically opposed to the Catholic belief that it is the only true religion. Since many Catholics and some Protestants now agree with the Masonic principles condemned by the Church, new theories about the Masons have emerged, such as that they are devil worshipers. Others hold that these theories about the origins of Masonic conspiracies theories are themselves conspiracy theories.

Many Rastafarians believe that a white racist patriarchy ("Babylon") controls the world in order to oppress the black race. They believe that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia did not die when it was reported in 1975, and that the racist, white media (again, "Babylon") propagated that rumor in order to squash Rastafarianism and its message of overthrowing Babylon.

In the United States of America, during the 1980s there was an upsurge in the old belief of Satanic ritual abuse. Hundreds of thousands of Protestant Chrisitans became convinced that American was filled with child-sacrificing satanists. Church sermons, newletters and websites, and soon letters to newspapers and magazines, were filled with grotesque claims of tens of thousands of American children being kidnapped and murdered by supposed Satanists. These ideas soon made their way into the mainstream American media, where they initially were reported uncritically. This led to a wave of arrests against hundreds of innocent American citizens, whose neighbors suddenly began accusing them of kidnapping, child abuse or murder. Hundreds of these people were accused of being witches or satanists, and incredibly, they were convicted by a jury. Only in the mid 1990s did the wave of witch hunts subside; since then the reports of tens of thousands of missing children have been proven totally false; there was no massive increase in kidnapping, abuse or murder. Most of the convicted "witches" or "satanists" have since been released from jail. The entire phenomenon is now considered by historians and psychologists to be an episode of mass delusion, and witch hunts, augmented by the pseudo-scientific "repressed memory syndrome" idea, which has also now been discredited.

The Skull and Bones society is a popular topic among conspiracists.

Suppressed technologies

Suppressed inventions take conspiracy theory into the realm of business rather than politics. A typical suppressed-invention story is that of the incredibly efficient automobile carburetor, whose inventor was supposedly killed or hounded into obscurity by petroleum companies desirous to protect their business from an engine that would make their product obsolete. The subject of suppressed-invention conspiracy also touches on the realm of medical quackery: proponents of more unlikely forms of alternative medicine are known to allege conspiracy by mainstream doctors to suppress their cures, particularly when faced with charges of medical fraud. On the other hand, Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, who advocate the extensive use of supplements and drugs for life extension, contrary to FDA recommendations, won a court case arguing that the FDA was preventing them from making medical assertions that were, in fact, well-supported. In 1924 there actually was the european PHOEBUS cartell, that guaranteed for electric light bulbs would burn out after 750 hours, though more is feasible and desirable for consumers in this billion dollar market. The ELSBETT diesel engine running on plant oil had to put up against unfair competition practices as well.

Espionage agencies

Many governments use intelligence agencies to promote national policies in secretive ways -- in several cases including the use of sabotage, propaganda, and assassination. Intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, KGB, MI6, and Mossad, are a common element of political conspiracy theories precisely because they are known to participate in some activities similar to those described in conspiracy theories.

Surveillance technologies

Particular technologies of surveillance and control arouse concern that has bordered upon, or crossed over into, conspiracy theory. These are technologies being developed by governments which are intended to intrude into the privacy or harm the persons of citizens, particularly dissenters. Conspiracy theories of this sort cast government agencies as pursuing vast technical powers in order to spy on people, control their minds, or otherwise suppress an alienated populace. Conspiracy theories of this sort include many about mind control and about unusual technical projects such as HAARP.

Diseases and epidemics

There are conspiracy theories based on the notion that AIDS was a man-made disease (i.e. created by scientists in a laboratory). Some of these theories allege that HIV was created by a conspiratorial group or by a secret agency as a tool of genocide. Other theories suggest that the virus escaped into the population at large by accident, or may have been deliberately unleashed as a means of population control or as an experiment in biological and/or psychological warfare. See: AIDS conspiracy theories.

Some who believe that HIV was a government creation see a precedent for it in the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which government-funded researchers deceptively denied treatment to black patients infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

Anti-Semitic belief systems

Antisemitism has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories. Almost all of the anti-semitic conspiracy theories and indeed anti-semitism itself are tied to the practice of charging interest on loans (usury). It is claimed that since the Old Testament seems to ban interest on loans only to one's brothers, the Jews have historically made loans and charged interest to non-Jews, increasing their money and power. This is by far the most widespread conspiracy theory, found everywhere from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, to Nazi ideology, to mainline Catholic thought during the beginning of the 20th century (see Fr. Denis Fahey).


A sector of conspiracy theory with a particularly detailed mythology has become the basis for numerous pieces of popular entertainment: the Area 51/Grey Aliens conspiracy. Simply put, this is the allegation that the United States government conspires with extraterrestrials involved in the abduction and manipulation of citizens. A variant tells that particular technologies -- notably the transistor -- were given to American industry in exchange for alien dominance. The enforcers of the clandestine association of human leaders and aliens are the Men in Black, who silence those who speak out on UFO sightings. This conspiracy theory has been the basis of numerous books, as well as the popular television show The X-Files and the movies Men in Black and Men in Black II.

The X-Files based the plots of many of its episodes around urban legends and conspiracy theories, and had a framing plot which postulated a set of interlocking conspiracies controlling all recent human history.

Religious prophecies

Apocalyptic prophecies, especially Christian apocalyptic and eschatalogical claims about the end times, the Last Judgment, and the end of the world contain many features of conspiracy theory. Most typically affirm that an Antichrist is already living among us, or soon to be born. International peace organizations such as the United Nations are supposed to be paving the way for a "one world government" that the Antichrist will rule, and a "one world monetary system" that will issue the sinister Mark of the Beast. Speculation that various political celebrities might be the Antichrist is a frequent feature of these speculations. Believers seek an explanation for turmoil, especially in the Middle East, as having been foreordained by these prophecies, and seek to align nations and leaders with the allegorical images of Biblical prophecy.

Conspiracy theory and urban legends

The nexus between conspiracy theory and the urban legend is considerable: one need only consult American supermarket tabloids such as the Weekly World News to see foremost examples of both. Many urban legends, particularly those which touch on governments and businesses, have some but not all of the attributes of conspiracy theory.

For instance, during the 1980s the story that the Procter and Gamble company was affiliated with Satanism was a common urban legend in some circles. Is this tale, too, a conspiracy theory? It does allege secretive and presumably harmful action (support of Satanism) on the part of a group (Procter & Gamble, or its leadership). However, it does not have the expansiveness or attempt at explanation of historical events which earmark a conspiracy theory. It is too simple.

Conspiracy theory in fiction

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

Particularly since the 1960s, conspiracy theory has been a popular subject of fiction. A common theme in such works is that characters discovering a secretive conspiracy may be unable to tell what is true about the conspiracy, or even what is real: rumors, lies, propaganda, and counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what is coincidence becomes an unmanageable question.

One of the more literarily-acclaimed novels that draws on conspiracy themes is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, in which the staff of a publishing firm intending to create a series of popular occult books invent their own occult conspiracy, over which they lose control as it begins to be believed. Another is Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, whose background includes a secretive conflict between cartels dating back to the Middle Ages.

Illuminatus, a trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is regarded by many as the definitive work of 20th-century conspiracy fiction. Set in the late '60s, it is a psychedelic tale which fuses mystery, science fiction, horror, and comedy in its exhibition (and mourning, and mocking) of one of the more paranoid periods of recent history. The popular, humorous trading card game Illuminati New World Order is based in part on Shea and Wilson's fantasy.

Other authors who have dealt with conspiracy themes include Philip K. Dick and Robert Ludlum. Some might also categorize several of the Cthulhu Mythos stories of H. P. Lovecraft and others as conspiracy-related, though they might be more closely described as occult horror.

(Something about Oliver Stone and JFK (movie) here -- I haven't seen it)

The 1997 movie Wag the Dog involves a pre-election attempt in the US by a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who join forces to fabricate a war in a Balkan in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal. Interestingly, it was made before the Clinton / Lewinski scandal and the US led Kosovo intervention.

Real life imitates conspiracy theory

A number of actual government organizations or plans have been described as resembling the stuff of particularly paranoid conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, these are fully acknowledged by their respective governments, or by a broad consensus of mainstream experts, as being, or having been, real:

Note: Please only add things to this category if their existence is non-controversial.

  • The United States Department of Defense Information Awareness Office (IAO) has many similarities to conspiracy theories. First, its avowed purpose is to gather and correlate information on ordinary citizens for the purpose of predicting terrorism and other crime. Second, its logo depicts the eye in the pyramid, a symbol associated with Illuminati and Masonic representations of power or divinity, casting a beam over the globe of the Earth. Lastly, the name "Iao" is a Gnostic word for God, used in the Golden Dawn and Thelema among others. [1]
  • From the 1950s to the 1970s, the CIA and the U.S. Army operated a research program into mind control, codenamed MKULTRA. In this program, CIA agents gave LSD and other drugs to unwitting and unconsenting victims, in an effort to devise a working "truth serum" and/or mind-control drug. MKULTRA was uncovered by Presidential and Congressional research committees in 1975, and discontinued at that time. Many prominent writers and drug figures were first exposed to LSD under this program, including Ken Kesey of the Merry Pranksters, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert). An excellent source on this is the book "Acid Dreams" by Bruce Shalin and Martin A. Lee.
  • ECHELON is a communications interception network operated by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is designed to capture telephone calls, fax and e-mail messages. New Zealand has openly admitted the existence of Echelon, and the European Union commissioned a report on the system.
  • In the 2003 Iraq War, Iraqi resistance was strong at first and then collapsed suddenly. A conspiracy theory emerged in Iraq and elsewhere that there had been a "safqua" - a secret deal - between the US and the Iraqi military elite, wherein the elite were bribed to stand down. This conspiracy theory was ignored or ridiculed in the US media.
    In late May, 2003, General Tommy Franks, who had been the head of the US forces in the conflict, confirmed in an interview with Defense News that the US government had paid off high-level Iraqi military officials and that they had stated that "I am working for you now". How important this was to the course of the conflict was not entirely clear at the time of this writing (May 24, 2003).
  • Operation Northwoods (q.v.), before its declassification, was long considered by most to be a conspiracy theory.
  • The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. For a period of 50 years, the US Government used the black population of a town in Alabama as unwitting human guinea pigs in a covert experiment.
  • The US Federal Reserve lends money to the government at interest. This scheme had been predicted by conspiracy theories prior to its implementation in 1913.
  • The Bin Laden - Saddam Hussein connection: According to opinion polls large parts of US population believed in this link. However, it was never explicitely confirmed by the US government. Colin Powell presented a tape during the Iraq war that was said to show a 'link' between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. This turned out to be misleading.

The Bible and conspiracy theories

Main article:
Bible conspiracy theories

An entire literature has arisen that concerns conspiracy theories related to the Bible.

List of further conspiracy theories

Main article: List of alleged conspiracy theories

Another article exists which lists and describes a vast array of conspiracy articles, including a series of global conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories peculiar to the United States of America, conspiracy theories peculiar to Canada, and conspiracy theories peculiar to the Arab and Muslim world. This includes a discussion of Zionist conspiracy theories regarding the September 11th 2001 Terrorist Attacks.

Related articles

Elements of conspiracy theories

AIDS and HIV | Alternative 3 | Anti-Christian calendar theory | Atlantis | Council on Foreign Relations | Elvis sightings | Fnord | Freemasonry | Government Warehouses | Holocaust revisionism | Jesuits | Knights Templar | Men in Black, aka Majestic 12 | Mysticism | New World Order | Oil imperialism | Opus Dei | Pseudosciences | Protosciences | Rennes le Château | UFOs | Unknown Superiors | Zionist conspiracy: Protocols of the Elders of Zion


Mohandas Gandhi | Pope John Paul I | Petra Kelly | John F. Kennedy | Robert F. Kennedy  | Malcolm X | Martin Luther King Jr | Enrico Mattei | Olof Palme | Salvador Allende

Celebrity deaths

(not assassination)

Elvis Presley | Jim Morrison | Princess Diana | Marilyn Monroe | Bob Marley | Peter Tosh | John Lennon | Lee Harvey Oswald | Kurt Cobain | Tupac Shakur | Notorious B.I.G

External links