illegitimately and inappropriately
A conspiracy theory attempts to explain the ultimate cause of an event or chain of events (usually political, social, or historical events) as a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert alliance of powerful or influential people or organizations. Many conspiracy theories claim that major events in history have been dominated by conspirators who manipulate political happenings from behind the scenes.
The first recorded use of the phrase "conspiracy theory" dates back to an economics article in the 1920s, but it was only in the 1960s that it entered popular usage. It entered the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary as late as 1997. 
The term "conspiracy theory" is used by mainstream scholars and in popular culture to identify a type of folklore similar to an urban legend, especially an explanatory narrative which is constructed with methodological flaws. The term is also used pejoratively to dismiss claims that are alleged by critics to be misconceived, paranoid, unfounded, outlandish, irrational, or otherwise unworthy of serious consideration. For example "Conspiracy nut" and "conspiracy theorist" are used as pejorative terms. Some whose theories or speculations are labeled a "conspiracy theory" reject the term as prejudicial.
The term "conspiracy theory" may be a neutral descriptor for any conspiracy claim. However, conspiracy theory is also used to indicate a narrative genre that includes a broad selection of (not necessarily related) arguments for the existence of grand conspiracies, any of which might have far-reaching social and political implications if true.
Whether or not a particular conspiracy allegation may be impartially or neutrally labelled a conspiracy theory is subject to some controversy. Conspiracy theory has become a highly charged political term, and the broad critique of 'conspiracy theorists' by academics, politicians, psychologists, and the media cuts across traditional left-right political lines.
* 1 Examples of common conspiracy theories
* 2 Conspiracism
* 3 General arguments against conspiracism
o 3.1 Psychological origins
+ 3.1.1 Projection
+ 3.1.2 Epistemic bias?
+ 3.1.3 Clinical psychology
o 3.2 Socio-political origins
+ 3.2.1 Disillusionment
+ 3.2.2 Media tropes
* 4 Controversies
o 4.1 Usage
o 4.2 Testing the validity of conspiracy theories
+ 4.2.1 Real conspiracies
* 5 Popper's use of the term, "conspiracy theory"
o 5.1 Falsifiability
* 6 Conspiracy theories in fiction
* 7 Notes
* 8 References
* 9 Further reading
o 9.1 Conspiracist literature
* 10 See also
o 10.1 Concepts
o 10.2 Repeat sources of conspiracy allegations
* 11 External links
o 11.1 Links critical of conspiracism
 Examples of common conspiracy theories
Main article: List of conspiracy theories
* 9/11 conspiracy theories, usually relating the September 11, 2001 attacks to US government officials and their plans for expansion of militarism and the police state.
* The New World Order, a conspiracy theory in which a powerful and secretive group plans to or does in fact rule the world through a one-world government.
* John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, claiming the direct involvement of the US government in the assassination.
* Jewish or Zionist global domination conspiracy theories, perhaps the oldest common type of conspiracy theories, most notable of which is the Elders of Zion anti-Semitic conspiracy theory (which was based on a fabricated document).
* Area 51, a tract of land in southern Nevada commonly associated with UFO conspiracy theories
Because most conspiracy theories lack readily verifiable evidence, few are taken seriously. They raise the question of what mechanisms might exist in popular culture that lead to their invention and subsequent uptake. In pursuit of answers to that question, conspiracy theory has been a topic of interest for sociologists, psychologists and experts in folklore since at least the 1960s, when the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy eventually provoked an unprecedented public response directed against the official version of the case as expounded in the Report of the Warren Commission.
A world view that centrally places conspiracy theories in the unfolding of history is sometimes termed conspiracism. The historian Richard Hofstadter addressed the role of paranoia and conspiracism throughout American history in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published in 1964. The term conspiracism was popularized by academic Frank P. Mintz in the 1980s. Academic interest in conspiracy theories and conspiracism has presented a range of hypotheses on the basis of studying the genre. Among the leading scholars of conspiracism are: Hofstadter, Popper, Barkun, Goldberg, Pipes, Fenster, Mintz, Sagan, Johnson, and Posner.
According to Mintz, conspiracism denotes: "belief in the primacy of conspiracies in the unfolding of history":
"Conspiracism serves the needs of diverse political and social groups in America and elsewhere. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power. As such, conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology".
Throughout human history, political and economic leaders genuinely have been the cause of enormous amounts of death and misery, and they sometimes have engaged in conspiracies while at the same time promoting conspiracy theories about their targets. Hitler and Stalin would be merely the most prominent examples; there have been numerous others. In some cases there have been claims dismissed as conspiracy theories that later proved to have some basis in facts. But the idea that history itself is controlled by grandiose or long-standing conspiracies is dubious. As historian Bruce Cumings has put it:
"But if conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of a logic outside the control of their authors: and this is what is wrong with 'conspiracy theory.' History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectivities."
The term has also been used by other authors including Michael Kelly, Chip Berlet, and Matthew N. Lyons, among others.
According to Berlet and Lyons, "Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm".
 General arguments against conspiracism
Humans naturally respond to events or situations which have had an emotional impact upon them by trying to make sense of those events, typically in spiritual, moral, political, or scientific terms.
Events which seem to resist such interpretation—for example, because they are, in fact, unexplainable—may provoke the inquirer to look harder for a meaning, until one is reached that is capable of offering the inquirer the required emotional satisfaction. As sociological historian Holger Herwig found in studying German explanations for the origins of World War I:
Those events that are most important are hardest to understand, because they attract the greatest attention from mythmakers and charlatans.
This normal process could be diverted by a number of influences. At the level of the individual, pressing psychological needs may influence the process, and certain of our universal mental tools may impose epistemic 'blind spots'. At the group or sociological level, historic factors may make the process of assigning satisfactory meanings more or less problematic.
Alternatively, conspiracy theories may arise when evidence available in the public record does not correspond with the common or official version of events. In this regard, conspiracy theories may sometimes serve to highlight 'blind spots' in the common or official interpretations of events.(Fenster, 1999)
 Psychological origins
According to some psychologists, a person who believes in one conspiracy theory is often a believer in other conspiracy theories and conversely for a person who does not believe in one conspiracy theory there is a lower probability that he, or she, will believe in another one. This may be attributable to differences in the information upon which parties rely in formulating their conclusions. Thus, a person who believes in a particular conspiracy theory may do so because of awareness of information which is not shared by those that disbelieve the conspiracy theory. In turn, awareness of such information may be correlated with awareness of other information which increases the likelihood that one will believe in other conspiracy theories. Conversely, the lack of awareness of such information may be correlated with the lack of awareness of other information which decreases the likelihood that one will believe in other conspiracy theories.
Psychologists believe that the search for meaningfulness features largely in conspiracism and the development of conspiracy theories. That desire alone may be powerful enough to lead to the initial formulation of the idea. Once cognized, confirmation bias and avoidance of cognitive dissonance may reinforce the belief. In a context where a conspiracy theory has become popular within a social group, communal reinforcement may equally play a part.
Evolutionary psychology may also play a significant role. Paranoid tendencies are associated with an animal's ability to recognize danger. Higher animals attempt to construct mental models of the thought processes of both rivals and predators in order to read their hidden intentions and to predict their future behavior. Such an ability is extremely valuable in sensing and avoiding danger in an animal community. If this danger-sensing ability should begin making false predictions, or be triggered by benign evidence, or otherwise become pathological, the result is paranoid delusions.
Some historians have pointed out the element of psychological projection in conspiracism; that is, the attribution to the supposed "conspirators" of undesirable characteristics of the self. Richard Hofstadter, in his essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, stated that:
...it is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship... the Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist "crusades" openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
Hofstadter also noted that "sexual freedom" is a vice frequently attributed to the conspiracist's target group, noting that "very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments."
 Epistemic bias?
It is possible that certain basic human epistemic biases are projected onto the material under scrutiny. According to one study humans apply a 'rule of thumb' by which we expect a significant event to have a significant cause. The study offered subjects four versions of events, in which a foreign president was (a) successfully assassinated, (b) wounded but survived, (c) survived with wounds but died of a heart attack at a later date, and (d) was unharmed. Subjects were significantly more likely to suspect conspiracy in the case of the 'major events'—in which the president died—than in the other cases, despite all other evidence available to them being equal.
Another epistemic 'rule of thumb' that can be misapplied to a mystery involving other humans is cui bono? (who stands to gain?). This sensitivity to the hidden motives of other people might be either an evolved or an encultured feature of human consciousness, but either way it appears to be universal. If the inquirer lacks access to the relevant facts of the case, or if there are structural interests rather than personal motives involved, this method of inquiry will tend to produce a falsely conspiratorial account of an impersonal event. The direct corollary of this epistemic bias in pre-scientific cultures is the tendency to imagine the world in terms of animism. Inanimate objects or substances of significance to humans are fetishised and supposed to harbor benign or malignant spirits.
 Clinical psychology
For relatively rare individuals, an obsessive compulsion to believe, prove or re-tell a conspiracy theory may indicate one or more of several well-understood psychological conditions, and other hypothetical ones: paranoia, denial, schizophrenia, mean world syndrome.
 Socio-political origins
Christopher Hitchens represents conspiracy theories as the 'exhaust fumes of democracy', the unavoidable result of a large amount of information circulating among a large number of people. Other social commentators and sociologists argue that conspiracy theories are produced according to variables that may change within a democratic (or other type of) society.
Conspiratorial accounts can be emotionally satisfying when they place events in a readily-understandable, moral context. The subscriber to the theory is able to assign moral responsibility for an emotionally troubling event or situation to a clearly-conceived group of individuals. Crucially, that group does not include the believer. The believer may then feel excused of any moral or political responsibility for remedying whatever institutional or societal flaw might be the actual source of the dissonance.
Where responsible behavior is prevented by social conditions, or is simply beyond the ability of an individual, the conspiracy theory facilitates the emotional discharge or closure that such emotional challenges (after Erving Goffman) require. Like moral panics, conspiracy theories thus occur more frequently within communities that are experiencing social isolation or political dis-empowerment.
Mark Fenster argues that "just because overarching conspiracy theories are wrong does not mean they are not on to something. Specifically, they ideologically address real structural inequities, and constitute a response to a withering civil society and the concentration of the ownership of the means of production, which together leave the political subject without the ability to be recognized or to signify in the public realm" (1999: 67).
For example, the modern form of anti-Semitism is identified in Britannica 1911 as a conspiracy theory serving the self-understanding of the European aristocracy, whose social power waned with the rise of bourgeois society.
In the late 20th century, falling election participation and declines in other key metrics of social engagement were noted by several observers. For a prominent example, see Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone thesis. Those who were most influenced by this period, the so-called "Generation X," are characterized by their cynicism towards traditional institutions and authorities, offering a case example of the context of political dis-empowerment detailed above.
In that context, a typical individual will tend to be more isolated from the kinds of peer networks that grant access to broad sources of information, and may instinctively distrust any statement or claim made by certain people, media, and other authority-bearing institutions. For some individuals, the consequence may be a tendency to attribute anything bad that happens to the distrusted authority. For example, some people attribute the September 11, 2001 attacks to a conspiracy involving the U.S. government (or disfavored politicians) instead of or along with Islamic terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda (see 9/11 conspiracy theories.) Such charges may also be colored with political motivation. Similar charges (in some circles) were made that the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration was in some way culpable for the Attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
 Media tropes
Media commentators regularly note a tendency in news media and wider culture to understand events through the prism of individual agents, as opposed to more complex structural or institutional accounts. If this is a true observation, it may be expected that the audience which both demands and consumes this emphasis itself is more receptive to personalized, dramatic accounts of social phenomena.
A second, perhaps related, media trope is the effort to allocate individual responsibility for negative events. The media have a tendency to start to seek culprits if an event occurs that is of such significance that it does not drop off the news agenda within a few days. Of this trend, it has been said that the concept of a pure accident is no longer permitted in a news item . Again, if this is a true observation, it may reflect a real change in how the media consumer perceives negative events.
The neutrality and factual accuracy of this section are disputed.
Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page.
Aside from controversies over the merits of particular conspiracy claims (see catalog below), and the various differing academic opinions (above), the general category of conspiracy theory is itself a matter of some public contestation.
The term "conspiracy theory" is considered by different observers to be a neutral description for a conspiracy claim, a pejorative term used to dismiss such a claim, and a term that can be positively embraced by proponents of such a claim. The term may be used by some for arguments they might not wholly believe but consider radical and exciting. The most widely accepted sense of the term is that which popular culture and academic usage share, certainly having negative implications for a narrative's probable truth value.
Given this popular understanding of the term, it is conceivable that the term might be used illegitimately and inappropriately, as a means to dismiss what are in fact substantial and well-evidenced accusations. The legitimacy of each such usage will therefore be a matter of some controversy. Disinterested observers will compare an allegation's features with those of the category listed above, in order to determine whether a given usage is legitimate or prejudicial.
Certain proponents of conspiracy claims and their supporters argue that the term is entirely illegitimate, and should be considered just as politically manipulative as the Soviet practice of treating political dissidents as clinically insane.
The term conspiracy theory is itself the object of a type of conspiracy theory, which argues that those using the term are manipulating their audience to disregard the topic under discussion, either in a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth, or as dupes of more deliberate conspirators.
When conspiracy theories are offered as official claims (e.g. originating from a governmental authority, such as an intelligence agency) they are not usually considered as conspiracy theories. For example, certain activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee may be considered to have been an official attempt to promote a conspiracy theory, yet its claims are seldom referred to as such.
 Testing the validity of conspiracy theories
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of a conspiracy theory is the problem of settling a particular theory's truth to the satisfaction of both its proponents and its opponents. Particular accusations of conspiracy vary widely in their plausibility, but some common standards for assessing their likely truth value may be applied in each case:
* Occam's razor - is the alternative story more, or less, probable than the mainstream story? Rules of thumb here include the multiplication of entities test.
* Methodology - are the "proofs" offered for the argument well constructed, i.e., using sound methodology? Is there any clear standard to determine what evidence would prove or disprove the theory?
* Whistleblowers - how many people—and what kind—have to be loyal conspirators?
Each of these tests can have its downsides as well. For instance, overeager application of "Occam's razor" can lead to acceptance of oversimplified views of history.
 Real conspiracies
On some occasions particular conspiracy allegations turn out to be readily verifiable, as in the French government's attempted cover-up following Emile Zola's accusations in the Dreyfus Affair, or in the efforts by the Tsar's secret police to foment anti-Semitism by presenting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an authentic text. Where such success is due to sound investigative methodology, it is clear that it would not exhibit many of the compromising features identified as characteristic of conspiracy theory, and would thus not commonly be considered a 'Conspiracy theory'. In the case of the 1971 revelation of the FBI's COINTELPRO counter-intelligence work against domestic political activists, it is not clear to what extent a 'conspiracy theory' involving government agents was either proposed or dismissed prior to the programme's factual exposure.
Some argue that the reality of such conspiracies should caution against any casual dismissal of conspiracy theory. Many "conspiracy theory" authors and publishers, such as Robert Anton Wilson and Disinfo, use proven conspiracies as evidence of what a secret plot can accomplish. In doing so, they attempt to rebut the assumption that conspiracies don't exist, or that any "conspiracy theory" is necessarily false. A number of true or possibly true conspiracies are cited in making this case; the Mafia, the Business Plot, MKULTRA, various CIA involvements in overseas coups d'état, Operation Northwoods, the 1991 Testimony of Nayirah before the US Congress, the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy and the Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge debate, among others.
The argument is often advanced that the non-existence of any given conspiracy is shown by the lack of leakers or whistleblowers. Given the success of the British government in getting thousands of people to keep the ULTRA secret -- and thereby ensuring that no reliable history of World War II could be published until the 1970s -- it is apparent that this is not necessarily a reliable indicator.
Machiavelli, stated in The Discourses on Livy that conspiracies rarely achieve their objectives.
 Popper's use of the term, "conspiracy theory"
In his two volume work, The Open Society & Its Enemies, 1938–1943 Popper used the term "conspiracy theory" to criticize the ideologies driving fascism, Nazism and communism. Popper argued that totalitarianism was founded on "conspiracy theories" which drew on imaginary plots driven by paranoid scenarios predicated on tribalism, racism or classism. Popper did not argue against the existence of everyday conspiracies (as incorrectly suggested in much of the later literature). Popper even uses the term "conspiracy" to describe ordinary political activity in the classical Athens of Plato (who was the principal target of his attack in The Open Society & Its Enemies).
In his critique of Marx and the twentieth century totalitarians, Popper wrote, "I do not wish to imply that conspiracies never happen. On the contrary, they are typical social phenomena."
He reiterated his point, "Conspiracies occur, it must be admitted. But the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproved the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy." 
Philosopher Karl Popper proposed the term, "the conspiracy theory of society" to criticize the methodology of Marx, Hitler and others whom he deemed to be deluded by "historicism" - the reduction of history to an overt and naive distortion via a crude formulaic analysis usually predicated on an agenda replete with unsound presuppositions.
Karl Popper argued that science is written as a set of falsifiable hypotheses; metaphysical or unscientific theories and claims are those which do not admit any possibility for falsification. Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes argue that many of them are not falsifiable and so cannot be scientific. This accusation is often accurate, and is a necessary consequence 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 — that is, having been duped by the conspiracy. This makes impossible any demonstration that the conspiracy does not exist.
In response to this objection to conspiracy theories, some argue that no political or historical theory can be scientific by Popper's criterion because none reliably generate testable predictions. In fact, Popper himself rejected the claims of Marxism and psychoanalysis to scientific status on precisely this basis. This does not necessarily mean that either conspiracy theory, Marxism, or psychoanalysis are baseless, irrational, and false; it does suggest that if they are false there is no way to prove it.
Falsifiability has been criticised for misrepresenting the actual process of scientific discovery by a number of scholars, notably paradigm theorists and Popper's former students Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Imre Lakatos. Within epistemological circles, falsifiability is not now considered a tenable criterion for determining scientific status, although it remains popular. Most philosophers of science continue to maintain that there are some rationaly justifiable methodological premises, in terms of which some theories can be criticized, while they reject the idea that falsifiability alone is a sufficient criterion.
 Conspiracy theories in fiction
Main article: Conspiracy theories (fictional)
Because of their dramatic potential, conspiracies are a popular theme in thrillers and science fiction. Complex history is recast as a morality play in which bad people cause bad events, and good people identify and defeat them. Fictional conspiracy theories offer neat, intuitive narratives, in which the conspirators' plot fits closely the dramatic needs of the story's plot. As mentioned above, the cui bono? aspect of conspiracy theories resembles one element of mystery stories: the search for a possibly hidden motive.
Conspiracy Theory is a 1997 thriller about a taxi driver (played by Mel Gibson) who publishes a newsletter in which he discusses what he suspects are government conspiracies, and it turns out that one of them is true.
The X-Files was a popular television show during the 1990s, which followed the investigations of two intrepid FBI agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who were sometimes helped by a group of conspiracy theorists known as The Lone Gunmen. Many of the episodes dealt with a plot for alien invasion overseen by elements of the U.S. government, led by an individual known only as the Cigarette Smoking Man and an even more mysterious international "Syndicate". The famous tag line of the series, "The Truth Is Out There", can be interpreted as reference to the meaning-seeking nature of the genre discussed above.
Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum is a broad satire on conspiracism in which the characters attempt to construct an all-embracing conspiracy theory starting with the Templars and including the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, hollow Earth enthusiasts, the Cathars, and even the Jesuits. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown explores a similar theme, without the satire and with religion as its focus: a conspiracy by the Catholic Church has attempted to cover up the "true" story of Jesus.
In a scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Mike Toreno is seen reading a book called "Conspiracy Theory" and commenting on how accurate past history is. He claims, "This history, it's all lies. It says Hitler killed himself and we nuked Japan..."