Why We Need a Better Definition of “Conspiracy Theory”

Irecently pointed out that new conspiracy theories tend to arise around shifts in power and that they often originate from those who have lost power or seen their power threatened. As you worked your way through that article, I wonder if you noticed that I didn’t define “conspiracy theory,” something that, in retrospect, may have been unwise. Nevertheless, I deliberately left it undefined because I wanted to demonstrate that we all have a working definition of the term. Perhaps it would be useful for you to pause for just a moment to consider your own definition. What do you mean when you use the term “conspiracy theory?” Who do you mean when you use the related term “conspiracy theorist?” I suspect that most of these informal definitions share some common themes.

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First, “conspiracy theory” almost always carries negative connotations, so that a conspiracy theory is a position that is in contradiction to the facts. Second, we usually assign negative moral value to “conspiracy theory” so that we look down on people who hold to such a position or feel looked down upon when others use the term of us. Third, we almost always use “conspiracy theory” to describe what other people believe, not what we ourselves believe. Fourth, we usually use “conspiracy theory” to indicate a minority alternative that stands in opposition to a mainstream or widely-accepted position.

The accumulation of these themes, along with its negative portrayal in pop culture, makes “conspiracy theory” a loaded term that, in popular usage, usually means something like “naïvely believing in a conspiracy that never happened.” In fact, one of the most prominent writers on the subject defines the term as “the nonexistent version of a conspiracy.” In this way it is an accusation of ignorance, naïveté, or even malice and indicates by its very definition that the charge of conspiracy is false and that no further examination of the issue is warranted.

But this raises a concern. We all know that some conspiracies do exist. Powerful people do at times conspire together to commit evil deeds. Some mainstream explanations are, in fact, part of the cover-up for that very conspiracy. Some established accounts do, indeed, warrant reexamination. So how can we account for the undeniable existence of conspiracies? And how can we theorize that a conspiracy may actually be a legitimate explanation for a particular event or circumstance? In answer to these questions I think we need a better definition of “conspiracy theory.” This superior definition must maintain neutrality so it allows a conspiracy theory to be a provisional suggestion or accusation that awaits further evidence or further interpretation of existing evidence.

So let’s work toward a definition by carefully defining some terms.

A conspiracy is “a small group of powerful individuals who act in secret for their own benefit and against the common good.” The word “small” should be treated relatively, so that a conspiracy that unfolds within, say, Liechtenstein (population 40,000), may have far fewer conspirators than a conspiracy that unfolds within America (population 330,000,000). Both will be small according to the relative size of the affected population. This small group of people conspires in an attempt to “inhibit rights, alter bedrock institutions, or commit fraud” in a way that will harm many people. A conspiracy elevates the interests of a powerful minority above the interests of the hapless majority by planning and executing a secret plot. We all acknowledge that such conspiracies have existed in the past and undoubtedly exist today.

A theory is an idea that is offered as an explanation of an outcome. It is conjecture or hypothesis, a provisional explanation that is awaiting definitive proof for or against it.

With those two terms in mind, a conspiracy theory “is an explanation of past, present, or future events or circumstances that cites, as the primary cause, a conspiracy.” It is a provisional explanation that a small group of powerful individuals has planned and executed a secret plot that has been the primary cause of a particular event or circumstance. This defines the term in such a way that it does not, within its definition, judge whether that conspiracy is factual or counterfactual. Rather, it theorizes the existence of a conspiracy and awaits further evidence (or further analysis of existing evidence) that will prove or disprove it. When there is no official or mainstream explanation for an event or circumstance, a conspiracy theory posits that a conspiracy has been the primary cause; when there is an official or mainstream explanation for an event or circumstance, a conspiracy theory counters it by, again, positing a conspiracy as the primary cause.

Let’s apply this definition to a few historical events and circumstances. The Watergate scandal is a conspiracy (not a conspiracy theory). It has been authoritatively proven that powerful people, including the President of the United States of America, conspired together to abuse power and obstruct justice. Pearl Harbor revisionism, which suggests that American authorities knew the Japanese would attack their base and welcomed it as a convenient means of entering the Second World War, could perhaps best be considered a conspiracy theory—a theory that lacks sufficient evidence to elevate it to the place of an established conspiracy. Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an early twentieth-century document explaining how Jews and Freemasons had made joint plans to disrupt Western civilization, is so provenly fraudulent and so overwhelmingly discredited that we cannot, in good conscience, consider its contents a credible conspiracy theory. It should, rather, be discarded altogether.

And that brings us to this question: How should we respond to conspiracy theories? I have already hinted at it: Some should be discarded, some should be accepted, and some should be kept pending. When an event unfolds and there arises an accusation of conspiracy, we should consider this a “conspiracy theory” and withhold belief in it until the facts have become established. It is, after all, a hypothesis or provisional explanation. If the conspiracy theory is proven false, we should discard it (even if we want it to be true); if it is proven true, we should no longer refer to it as a “conspiracy theory” but as a “conspiracy” and believe it (even if we want it to be false); if the facts remain ambiguous, we should continue to consider it a “conspiracy theory” and persist in withholding belief in it until further evidence or analysis comes to light.

This definition releases some of the tension around the term “conspiracy theory” by removing the implication that the theory is necessarily false and its proponents necessarily naïve or malicious. In this way the term is longer pejorative but suggestive—a hypothesis that an event or circumstance is best explained by the existence of a conspiracy. Because we are offering a hypothesis we are admitting that we need to gather evidence and then carefully analyze that evidence before we can definitively determine whether this suggestion of a conspiracy will be proven or disproven. And only when it is definitively proven will be fully believe in it.

Of course, it is rarely so simple, is it? Evidence is often insufficient, eyewitness accounts are often contradictory, facts are often disputed. One man’s proof is another man’s disproof. Two people can look at the very same evidence and the very same explanation of that evidence and come to very different conclusions about it. Two renowned experts in white lab coats with a host of degrees on the wall behind them can interpret evidence in precisely opposite ways. Thus, it is not enough to say merely that a theory must be proven or disproven; we must also consider how a theory can be proven or disproven and who has the most authority to make that determination. But, to be frank, that area is so fraught with disagreements, I’m not sure there’s much hope of settling it. We may need to settle for more limited gains and content ourselves with determining whether a given theory is less plausible or more plausible, less worthy of belief or more worthy of belief. But that may be a subject for a different time.

In the meantime, I hope this definition of “conspiracy theory” can prove helpful.

The definitions I’ve used here are drawn substantially from Joseph Uscinski and his book Conspiracy Theories: A Primer which, in my assessment, is the best book on the subject.