The number of conspiracy like theories is growing exponentially.


Here are the most famous.

How many of these have achieved any tangible success against the "enemy", bar I guess consciousness raising? Of course, nil.

It seems that if I am to believe that a conspiracy theory is any use, there must be examples of similar theories that ended up as something other than a talking point.

  • 9
    A "conspiracy" by definition involves any plan involving two or more people. The government's own 9/11 story is a conspiracy, involving 19 Arab hijackers. 19 is greater than 1 so it's a conspiracy. Can you provide a more precise definition of conspiracy? Julius Caesar was murdered by a conspiracy and so was Lincoln. The US government hanged several people for conspiracy to kill Lincoln. The word is meaningless the way you're using it. I just gave three conspiracy theories regarded as absolutely true by historians and by conventional wisdom.
    – user4894
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 19:55
  • ps -- Law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh makes the exact same point by naming his blog The Volokh Conspiracy. He's pointing out that a "conspiracy" is any endeavor involving the collaboration of two or more people. That is all the word means. washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy
    – user4894
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 20:03
  • 3
    @NickR But that's exactly my point. OP is using the word in a vague way. The very definition of a conspiracy is any action planned by more than one person. The common everyday meaning has morphed into something like "Any opinion that differs from the mainstream opinion." But that is not the actual meaning of the word. So I'm asking the OP to clarify what they mean. The government claims that 19 hijackers did this and that. By definition, that is a conspiracy. Otherwise, all you're doing is trying to marginalize dissent and even questioning of the official narrative.
    – user4894
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 20:38
  • 2
    @user3293056 Ok how about this? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Northwoods Or how about LBJ lying the country in to the Vietnam war with the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident. Or how about this? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment There are so many true, confirmed instances of the US government secretly doing evil things that there are too many to list. I still do not understand the nature of your question. What is it you want to know? Yes, powerful people DO collude to do evil stuff. Read your history. Reichstag fire. Google "false flag."
    – user4894
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 21:06
  • 4
    @user3293056 I think user4984's main point is that by restricting conspiracy theory to exclude examples of conspiracy that are commonly accepted as true, you're effectively asking "Are any unsuccessful conspiracy theories successful?", and if you don't exclude them your question "Are any conspiracy theories successful?" has the trivial answer "Yes." Either way you get a very simple answer to either question that doesn't mean a great deal.
    – AndrewC
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 10:46

9 Answers 9


In Peter Sloterdijk's 1983 book, Critique of Cynical Reason, he explored the rationale of cynicism which I find useful starting point. I don't think my brief answer can explain the contradiction between radical opinions and enlightenment, but it may help to avoid the trap, "How can anyone justify...", presupposing they're bonkers.

1) Social Discontent - People are unhappy with their lives and believe the structures of society do not serve their needs.

"The discontent in our culture has assumed a new quality: It appears as a universal, diffuse cynicism." (p. 3)

2) Self-preservation - Its hard to imagine a stronger reason to hold onto a belief.

"Instinctively, [Modern cynics] no longer understand their way of existing as something that has to do with being evil, but as participation in a collective, realistically attuned way of seeing things. It is the universally widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers. There even seems to be something healthy in this attitude, which, after all, the will to self-preservation generally supports." (p. 4)

3) Enlightened false consciousness - Simply, Sloterdijk argues the the underlying bedrock of reason for the modern cynic is 'enlightened false consciousness'. He describes a continuum of false consciousness:

"The formal sequence of false consciousness up to now--lies, errors, ideology--is incomplete; the current mentality requires the addition of a fourth structure: the phenomenon of cynicism." (p. 3)

If you think about it, its very difficult to argue with someone intent on lying to you. Take that a step further. Its an order of magnitude more difficult to find agreement with someone who has a false belief (a witness to an event who has a false belief because of a unconscious bias). An ideologist, in the simplest of terms, has a belief in how the world works, and as Mel Brooks joked in History of the World, "Torquemada--you can't Torquemada anything". Finally, the cynic 'sees the naked truth' despite the machinery of ideology (and science) intent on convincing him otherwise. For the radical loner the cynical approach is the safest position--a fortress--of self-preservation against a hostile world.

  • ah. one thing to add: i have friends who are always trying to expose cancer treatment, and 'green' alternatives. perhaps the sense of enlightenment outweighs the chance of them getting cancer and having to back down
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 20:29
  • "sense of enlightenment outweighs the chance" I think if you worked on this you might have the answer you seek. In my formulation there is a tangible payoff if you feel safer having your opinion, than without it.
    – xtian
    Commented Sep 1, 2014 at 22:56
  • It seems like the safest thing is to hold no opinions and take no positions.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 13, 2022 at 14:06

A conspiracy theory, by definition, is the implication that an event or set of events is caused by the intentional, coordinated action of a group of people. Intention and coordination are essential; they are what constitute a conspiracy rather than mere happenstance. Actual conspiracies do exist, and there have been conspiracy theories that have panned out as being true (consider that Watergate was just the 'theory' of a couple of journalists until it proved to be real). But the problem with conspiracy theories as a rule is that — given enough credulity — it is possible to defend any theoretical position whatsoever by assuming a sufficiently malevolent, intelligent, and determined set of conspirators.

All conspiracy theories invoke (at some level) some moral equivalent of the Illuminati: people with a mystical (if not overtly magical) ability to manipulate the course of human events for their own agenda. Conspiracy theories do not become credible until this core concept is brought down to earth and embodied in some actual, fallible, normal group of people.

Conspiratorial thinking serves a human purpose, of course. Targeting a particular group of people as 'conspirators' gives a sense of knowledge and control over circumstances that might otherwise be inexplicable. It is much easier (for instance) to focus on Jeffrey Epstein and an ostensible small band of highly-placed co-conspirators, than to reflect on the fact that sex abuse is pervasive in our culture, or that prisoners sometimes commit suicide for their own reasons. The first is clear, specific, and a proper focus for outrage; the latter are nebulous, unsatisfying, and in certain senses frightening. But a theory whose main selling point is that it satisfies our emotional needs for clarity and closure is not really a theory we should embrace.


Throughout, I use the word conspiracy in the sense you have intended, not in a dictionary sense of the word.

I believe this may be a valid example.

In the early days of the Watergate scandal, before the facts were known to the general public, it could be said that the Washington Post started a conspiracy to bring down Nixon. If the patriot and reactionary public were to get wind of the fact that a bunch of punk journalists were trying to bring down our beloved president, then I believe they would refer to these activities as a "conspiracy".

If you accept that this is a valid use of the word "conspiracy" in the sense you have intended in your question, then you would have to say that once the facts were known by the public the label "conspiracy" would need to be rejected.


One way to understand conspiracy theories - for it is a fact that they exist though their explanations may not be factually correct; is to investigate why they occur, persist or buildup.

One could assert with a certain degree of plausibility that they are a form of modern day myths; and myths have been interpreted for example Freud and the Oedipus & Electra Complex.

The question then is not to justify but to explain; but the difference between the two notions here is less than one might suppose; to explain is in a sense to justify.

They can also be linked upto older myths; for example Northern Europe had many tales of child abductions by spirits or fairies; Yeats wrote a poem on it drawing on Celtic imagery:

Come away, O human child!

To the waters and the wild

With a faery hand in hand,

For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

And one could perhaps link this to stories in America of alien abductions; the same myth but with newer symbols; this kind of linkage points towards the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss; applied to to Amazonian tribes - so called primitive societies; but to the urban civilisation of the North America (one tends not to hear of UFO abductions in Canada - are there any?); this would then be social anthropology.

But none of this appears to be philosophy, at least academically construed; but is this right? Your question hints at one which is justification. To begin this one must start with the right questions; given our current epistemological commitments Aliens visting the Earth in UFOs can be ruled out; so Alien abductions are factually incorrect; but as explained above this is the wrong question - the question should be why has this myth arisen and persisted; and this might lead onto the more general question why do myths arise at all; why not be satisfied with the facts of the world?

  • Because, as the Buddha said, "Life is unsatisfactory."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 13, 2022 at 14:10

Prime example: the theory that the Bush administration was lying about the Iraqi WMD in order to gain public support for a war with a hidden agenda was a textbook conspiracy theory, until it was revealed to be entirely true by the Bush administration itself.

Spinoza in his political treatise had a word about what we would call now "conspiracy theories", and blamed it mostly on the secrecy people in power like to have around their deliberations and actions (more often than not, because they are unavowable). Citizens, he argues, are directly subject to the decisions people of power take in their name, so their reason is compelled to try to make sense of it. Meanwhile, the secrecy and lack of proper information prevent them from forming any adequate idea of the reason behind those decisions. Thus the less disciplined thinker (skeptics) among them end up forming inaedequate ideas, delirious interpretation they hold to be true.


Collingwood in "New Leviathan" very clearly argues for what surely is a conspiracy theory of politics. Humanity for him divides up into the “grown ups” (eg St Augustine) and the “children” (eg Pelagius) and he states that the ‘grown ups’ have a duty to lie to the ‘children’. His conclusion looks rather a lot like the stated opinions of both Keynes and Plato. Meanwhile Keynes and Collingwood both opposed Russell. Keynes called Russell's political position “ludicrous” in a context that makes that look a lot like ‘childish'. Hard to deny these folk are philosophers promoting a conspiracy of deception. Oddly Russell was a meanwhile a ring leader in the conspiracy theory of the JFK shooting matter.

More philosophically interesting than that JFK matter is the way Brits like Keynes and Collingwood - who rather directly endorse dishonesty - tended to move in very much in the same circles as Continentals Wittgenstein and Michael Polanyi, who prefer instead to deny the possibility of objective truthfulness.


According to Cambridge Dictionary:

conspiracy noun [ C or U ] uk ​ /kənˈspɪr.ə.si/ us ​ /kənˈspɪr.ə.si/

The activity of secretly planning with other people to do something bad or illegal

This means all premeditated crimes involving more that one person imply a conspiracy. If you suspect of a plot or plan was made to commit a crime between 2 or more people that makes you a "conspiracy theorist". Nevertheless the term has changed its original semantic value nowadays into something that implies that you are some sort of gullible person, tinfoil hat user or Alex Jones fan. This action of intentionally and progressively changing what words mean or mixing information with disinformation to manipulate society was called "Newspeak" in George Orwell novel 1984 which was inspired by the very real nazi propaganda.

"No, not you! You are fake news!" Donald Trump President of the USA to a CNN Reporter

How can you justify "conspiracy theories"? Fist you must understand that philosophers are not great at criminal investigation. Philosophers are not detectives and they don't have great critical thinking skills to solve crimes even though errors in reasoning have been explained by philosophers for centuries.

"A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true." Demosthenes 384-322 BC

There is a common misconception which presumes history as always accurate and correct and presumes truth as something which cannot be hidden for a long time. I guess everything depends on how much you want to know the truth, how much emotionally attached to an outcome you are and how much effort you want to invest on it.

“Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed.” Friedrich Nietzsche “

If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” ― René Descartes

As long as there are reasonable doubts its valid to do some research and each case should be taken separately giving it a certain degree of suspicion or credibility. Keep in mind that sometimes people don't even want to double check the evidence.

You have examples of both cases. Conspiracies turning out being complete nonsense and conspiracies being acknowledged as historical fact ex. "The Gulf of Tonkin Incicent", "Nayirah", "WMDs in Iraq", etc. I am afraid that in the times we are going through in which politicians, mass-media and even science are deeply corrupted if you want truth you need to do your homework. When society is emotionally attached to an outcome truth is told when it is no longer relevant that is to say when it does not cause any hard feelings so won't be surprised that in 2050 CNN will make statements such:

"Of course 9/11 was a total inside job. A domino effect at the speed of free fall and a passport in the rubble??!!..."


As a recovering paranoid schizophrenic, I have found the principle "there are no conspiracies" hugely useful, even-though it isn't really justified. It is pragmatic, and leads to mental health. I find it strange and alluring that some people are willing to sacrifice theirs.

  • 1
    "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you." Perhaps some people place a lower value on their mental health? "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 15, 2022 at 10:59

So how can anyone rationally believe in any of them except as a means to some social event or other?

based on or in accordance with reason or logic.

I think so. For example, one could start with faulty assumptions then rationalize one. Or, given the number of conspiracy theories, it's always possible one is true but not held as truth due to incomplete information.

Let's attempt an argument, just for consideration of conspiracy theory in general.


There are a large number of conspiracy theories.

Already demonstrated.

Moreover, the public has access to imperfect information.

For example, we know of the existence of certain top secret and classified programs. Likewise, there is some uncertainty regarding a few historical claims.

Perhaps it is possible that, given the number of theories and existence of imperfect information, perfect information would shed greater light on an given one of the many conspiracy theories.

That sounds somewhat reasonable I hope.

Moreover, we know that some things we'd rather wish to be conspiracy theories actually aren't, like the CIA deposing of legitimate regimes throughout the developing world during the Cold War.

Also, we know that, in the absence of clear evidence, people will tend to believe what the want to believe. For that reason, unpopular opinion shouldn't be categorically ignored.

Wait! Maybe something that we don't know for sure the CIA did they actually did!

Then we get to the fun part. Certain truths taken as given, such as the legitimacy of our governments, when called into question, even in the slightest, have broad ramifications for interpretation of other information.

Maybe that's why they want Snowden!

Maybe that's why the Supreme Court rigged the 2000 Presidential election!

Maybe that's why the Federal Reserve is... I don't even know. Something.

I bet the cartels are all backed the Bush family!

They must be part of the Illuminati and the Knights Templar.

Which means the whole GOP back to Lincoln must be too.

He was probably a vampire hunter!

That explains how that movie got released! (Hope that wasn't too harsh)

Oh my gosh it's turtles all the way down!

I suppose that isn't an entirely unreasonable argument. I'm guess with enough research and enough bias you could fairly well satisfy the requirements for rationality of any one of the conspiracy theories, but I'd rather not lend any weight to them (in most cases even if they are true) so I'm not going to do that here.


Side note:

The number of conspiracy like theories is exponential.

of or expressed by a mathematical exponent.

All numbers may be expressed exponentially. For example, n may be expressed as n^1.

  • it also means lots.
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 20:41
  • Not according to the dictionary.
    – Calvin
    Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:00
  • oh well it IS sometimes used like that, and likewise, not all numbers are "exponential" - which makes your original comment pretty unhelpful and sarcastic and see this <a href="definition-of.com/exponentially">exponentially</a>
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 26, 2014 at 22:32
  • You're welcome to use a more rigorous community dictionary if you so desire en.wiktionary.org/wiki/exponential. But of course, as that one has legitimacy, it only furthers my point. If you consider correct usage of terminology unhelpful, that is your business, but I couldn't in good consciousness let an opportunity to educate go wasted.
    – Calvin
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 14:41
  • i consider the more complete dictionary the more rigorous actually, tho you are welcome to disagree. i was just pointing out that your sarcasm wasn't helpful. simply - i did not use the term "incorrectly"
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 14:52

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