This is Wikipedia's definition of conspiracy theory:

A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes an unwarranted conspiracy generally one involving an illegal or harmful act carried out by government or other powerful actors. Conspiracy theories often produce hypotheses that contradict the prevailing understanding of history or simple facts. The term is a derogatory one.

What kind of fallacy does this qualify as? Or is it not a fallacy at all but some other kind of mind game?

There could actually be two or three fallacies at work here. The key word in the first sentence is unwarranted, while the key word in the second sentence is often. Finally, we're told that "conspiracy theory" is a dirty word (derogatory).

EDITED to put this in better perspective. Here's Merriam-Webster's definition of conspiracy:

a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators

It's simple and to the point. There's no obfuscation or name calling involved. Wikipedia clearly jumps through several hoops in trashing that definition. Yet no one here can identify the fallacies involved?

  • My impression is that a fallacy is a single invalid argument, while a Conspiracy Theory is a complex aggregate of several arguments, some of which at least will be fallacious. Which ones, and which kind of fallacies they will be, it would depend of the precise Conspiracy Theory we are discussing. Probably at some point they will include some argument to the effect that no thing can happen without a final cause. Oct 9 '17 at 0:42
  • I'm not really interested in analyzing conspiracy theory(ies) here so much as the DEFINITION of the term "conspiracy theory" given by Wikipedia. Saying "some of which at least will be fallacious" sounds like a repetition of WIkipedia's definition. A particular conspiracy theory MAY include some fallacious arguments, or it might include none at all. Oct 9 '17 at 1:48
  • 2
    Why do you think that "fallacy" is relevent ? Fallacy are about arguments: i.e. "logical errors". Not every error or falsity is a fallacy. Oct 9 '17 at 7:25
  • Human thinking is plenty of "fallacious" explanations: see Molière's virtus dormitiva: we do not know how to account foe a fact and we imaguine an hidden cause. Oct 9 '17 at 7:28
  • This pattern of explanation (highly criticized in early modern science) seem still widely used regarding "historical" facts: how to account for e.g. financial crisis ? With a big conspiracy from "hidden powers" in order to harm the middle class. Maybe... maye not. Historical facts must be assessed, as every other kind of fact. Oct 9 '17 at 7:32

Wikipedia commits the following logical fallacies in the quoted paragraph:

  • Cherrypicking. The definition comes from a single source, John Ayto's "Twentieth century words" published by Oxford University Press.

  • Unverifiable source. Since books.google.com does not have electronic text for this book, I was unable to confirm the entire definition actually comes from the book.

  • Contradicts better established source by same publisher. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/conspiracy_theory defines conspiracy theory in its entirety as "A belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event." There is no mention of the term being derogatory. The online dictionary is maintained by the Oxford University Press, the same organization that publishes "Twentieth century words". However, the site is intended to be an actual dictionary, where as "Twentieth century words" is intended to be a work of entertainment.

  • Contradicts respected dictionaries. Webster's dictionary defines conspiracy theory as "a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators" (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conspiracy%20theory) with no mention of it being derogatory.

  • Contradicts other wikimedia sources. Wiktionary gives two definitions of conspiracy theory: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/conspiracy_theory -- the primary definition is "A hypothesis alleging that the members of a coordinated group are, and/or were, secretly working together to commit illegal or wrongful actions including attempting to hide the existence of the group and its activities. In notable cases the hypothesis contradicts the mainstream explanation for historical or current events". It is only the second definition that states "Hypothetical speculation that is commonly considered untrue or outlandish". Usage notes also clarifies that the term is not derogatory: "The phrase conspiracy theory is sometimes used in an attempt to imply that hypothetical speculation is not worthy of serious consideration, usually with phrasing indicative of dismissal (e.g., "just a conspiracy theory"). However, any particular instance of use is not necessarily pejorative. Some consider it inappropriate to use the phrase "conspiracy theory" in an attempt to dismissively discredit hypothetical speculation in any form."

  • Edit history suggests active censorship. While it's hard to tell with Wikipedia, the edit history https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conspiracy_theory&action=history's comments and content indicate consistent censorship. Examples:

    • "Mixing up verified conspiracies with conspiracy theory is misleading"

    • In https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conspiracy_theory&diff=804439748&oldid=795751074, a user uses the Webster's dictionary definition verbatim, noting "I have changed your EXTREMELY biased definition to the WEBSTER dictionary CORRECT definition. Seeing as you guys just let this be completely biased, which is beyond disgusting". The edit is reverted in less than 30 minutes.

    • Every edit that validates conspiracy theories with actual proven conspiracies is reverted.

Because anyone can edit wikipedia, this doesn't necessarily mean there's a conspiracy re editing the conspiracy theory page, despite my joke in the comments. However, the page is clearly being edited/reverted by people who want to discredit conspiracy theories.

  • 1
    These are not logical fallacies. This is an effort to criticize Wikipedia or its editors on non-logical grounds. Oct 10 '17 at 0:27
  • I agree with your first sentence, but the criticism of Wikipedia is very logical. In fact, I could add to it, except that it does veer off topic. I up voted because it helps make the case that Wikipedia's definition of "conspiracy theory" is flawed. Oct 10 '17 at 0:40
  • @ChristopherE You're right, I could've written this answer better. The logical fallacies are cherrypicking (use of less reliable source supporting your position), appeal to authority (writer of entertainment book can not define words), and self-contradiction (if you accept wikimedia is a single entity).
    – user935
    Oct 10 '17 at 0:50
  • Team, this doesn’t answer the question, though. You’re writing about the entry, not the quoted text. The quoted text doesn’t make an argument, so by definition it contains no logical fallacies. Answering this with criticism of the page is, sorry, off topic for this site, as I understand it. Oct 10 '17 at 0:52
  • The premise is that Wikipedia's definition of "conspiracy theory" is accurate. I'm showing that Wikipedia's support for this premise is faulty.
    – user935
    Oct 10 '17 at 1:39

I would say a conspiracy theory results from a mix of two families of fallacies: one family relating to irrelevance (in particular, Ignoratio Elenchi or Red Herring) and the other family relating to illicit presumptions (in particular, begging the question or suppressed evidence).

Ignoratio Elenchi (= ignorance of a refutational argument) happens when an arguer misses the point of the premises and draws an irrelevant conclusion. Laws and public policies produce unforeseen (harmful) side effects as well as intended (good) goals. A conspiracy theorist mistakes the side effect as the goal and draws a conclusion that was not the intention of the law. This is why the interpretations of historical events by the theorist tend to contradict the prevailing understanding of history. If the conspiracy theorist uses distractive material (e.g., the governing body was composed of slave owners) as evidence for the conclusion, so as for his audience to lose track of the topic and to get astrayed, he employs the Red Herring fallacy.

Often a conspiracy theorist cannot help seeing the world in the way he sees it. Thus, the theory is immune from falsification. If conspiracy is his world view, then any evidence is already colored by his conspiracy presupposition and his conclusion of conspiracy is already embedded in the premise. Thus, the theory commits the fallacy of begging the question. If the conspiracy theorist purposefully do not disclose some pieces of evidence that outweigh (or contradict) his own evidence for conspiracy, then he is committing the fallacy of suppressed evidence.

  • Interesting answer, but one of the problems is this line: "Laws and public policies produce unforeseen (harmful) side effects as well as intended (good) goals." You're portraying government as a GOOD institution that inadvertently causes some bad side effects. However, the vanishing middle class, environmental ruin and endless war are not casual side effects. Anyone who truly understands the U.S. government is going to suspect not just an occasional conspiracy but ongoing conspiracy, and the evidence of such conspiracies is all around us. Oct 9 '17 at 22:00

There's nothing intrinsically fallacious about defining a term as pejorative or derogatory --that just indicates how people typically use it. And for most people, the descriptor "conspiracy theory" is not used either neutrally or positively.

I think what you're actually describing is an argument of the form:

X is a conspiracy theory
Therefore X is untrue (ridiculous, etcetera).

This can be question begging, if no independent support has been provided for the idea that X is a conspiracy theory. Alternately, it might be a hasty generalization if you want to argue that things can legitimately meet a commonly accepted definition (for instance, the Merriam-Webster definition) of a conspiracy theory, yet not be necessarily untrue (or "unwarranted"). One cannot diagnose either fallacy, however, short of the context of an actual argument about an actual, putative conspiracy theory.


While many different conspiracy theories use many fallacies, the main issue is that they usually start with a false premise. Take for instance the very ridiculous and very debunked Pizzagate scandal. This theory claims that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria. Now there isn't necessarily a logical contradiction in that basic claim, but the pizzeria in question doesn't even have a basement. The picture that was supposed to support the claim that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria had a child sex ring in its basement was taken in a different basement altogether. All of the claims can be traced back to completely false sources.

So TL;DR the reason conspiracy theories are illogical is because they come from false premises that are almost always demonstrably false. Believing a logical argument holds up despite false premises is the illogical reasoning.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user2953
    Oct 9 '17 at 6:26

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