An Essay on Understanding Conspiracy Theories
We explain the concept of conspiracy theories, including why people formulate conspiracy theories, using examples of famous conspiracy theories. This long and winding essay is meant to provide thoughts and insights into conspiracy thinking, while also turning the reader on to conspiracy theories and the truths behind them.
What are Conspiracy Theories?
Conspiracy theories are non-scientific theories that revolve around a conspiracy (a secret plot and hidden intention). Conspiracy theories attempt to explain events, and/or the complex relations of groups, by assigning purposeful (and often malicious) intent to groups and individuals in the absence of facts (facts being things we know for sure, not things we are speculating based on guesses or other facts).
What is Conspiracy Thinking?
Conspiracy thinking is the mindset of looking for patterns in and between conspiracy theories, or simply looking for conspiracies.
Examples of Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Thinking
Good examples of a conspiracy theories are the theories surrounding the death of Elvis (the event).
In an made up example of a conspiracy theory, we can infer that X special interest group (the conspirator; ex. “the Mob”) had Elvis murdered in Y way (speculation; ex. by planting drugs in his fried peanut butter and banana sandwich) for Z reason (the conspiracy; ex. because he knew too much about Nixon’s masterplan).
Because we don’t know the specifics of the events leading to Elvis’s death, and instead have inserted “guesses” based on known facts and pattern recognition, we have formulated “a conspiracy theory”. Since we know Elvis loved his PBJ, used drugs, could have known “the Mob” from his travels and fame, and certainly knew Nixon, it almost seems plausible… plausible enough to get people, and even ourselves, to believe it.
We can do the same speculating on Marilyn Monroe, or Kennedy, or even 2Pac, etc. Then we can try to tie these theories together by noting that “it was X special interest involved in each instance” (according to our theories at least).
The attempt to see patterns and conspiracies in the unknown, and the attempt to tie together conspiracies, can be considered “conspiracy thinking”.
Who killed Kennedy? There are so many candidates for the “who killed Kennedy” question that it is near impossible to answer. I’ve heard many reasonable theories, and sifting through youtube for this is entertaining, but the problem is “we don’t know for sure, we don’t have all the facts”. Thus, if I decide it was the solid south, I now have a bias against them for this and will treat them “as if”. This is unfair to them, and a disservice to me. This is “the problem”.
The Problem With Conspiracy Thinking and Theories
The obvious problem here is that, while sometimes conspiracy theories are spot on, they sometimes aren’t… and when we have even just some facts wrong we can see a pretty nasty snowball effect that can confuse our loved ones and hurt real people.
For Example, the Whole Illuminati Thing
For example, if we ignore the history of banking, liberalism, and the west we may be tempting to believe that “the Illuminati are conspiring to create a New World Order, that this is bad (even “satanic”), their intentions are purely wicked, and every bad event in history is directly connected and instigated by a group of expertly coordinated shadowy villains who have allegiance only to the cause”.
Is it just me, or does that not seem overly simple for explaining the history of the worlds problems and the shared intention of every person in power?
While we likely have some facts right (for instance I can’t help but guess that “the enlightenment” and “the Illuminated” and “liberalism” are all connected), it is unlikely that we have correctly understood the many related players, their intentions, and all the general facts needed to formulate a proper non-conspiratorial theory that doesn’t immediately implicate sub-groups of people (like say Hollywood, liberals, Jews, Obama, the Clintons, Planned Parenthood, Unicorns, Social Security, not hating your child because they are gay, etc; ever notice how these things always implicate liberals?… because the guy in the following video sure did.)
The Illuminati Agenda is The LIBERAL Agenda. Wow, um ok. Google “Illuminati and conservatism” and compare that to “Illuminati and liberalism”, now consider the west was built on liberal principles and we have a symbol of the enlightenment on the dollar bill. Consider Jefferson was accused of being a Freemason, consider the Bill of Rights is a liberal document, consider the Founders were essentially a bunch of radical liberals. The Wikipedia page on the Illuminati essentially backs up my “non-conspiratorial guess-based theory” which I formulated by “actually reading history” instead of turning the “dark” up to 11 like many seem to do on the topic. See also New World Order (conspiracy theory) for more actual facts, including the propaganda fake text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which was used to fuel Hitler’s anti-Semitic sentiment in WWII.
What if we have correctly guessed the group, but the goal is peace and not war? What if the goal is ensuring liberal trading republics Monroe Doctrine style instead of perpetuating chaos, persecution, and war (which has been omnipresent throughout history). What if American interests and “New World Order Illuminati” interests are one-in-the-same and that is what the whole dollar bill thing is about, and thus we are only shooting ourselves in the foot painting them a villains?
What if the actual villain is not “the Illuminati, but the anti-Illuminati (“the un-enlightened” lets call them)”, certainly it seems like that from an everyday non-conspiratorial perspective. What if its just all rather mundane and complicated and just involves a dash of opportunism here and some biting of one’s tongue in favor of a long-term vision of the future there (that one may even agree with if it was ever explained in a cogent way).
The problem is, as interesting as speculating on any of this stuff is, there is way too many “what ifs” to act or accuse with certainly and we know for a fact the world is filled with disinformation and misinformation… but, that is of course my exact point here.
Origins of the Illuminati – Where it all began.
TIP: That “eye” on the back of the dollar bill is “the all seeing eye of Horus” it is the eye of truth and a symbol of the enlightenment. See Kant’s “What is Enlightenment”
Do People Actually Conspire With Malicious Intent?
While it is sometimes the case that intent is malicious and actions are well planned and enacted by a “shadowy organization” or “invisible government”, from my studies it seems that events are more often the result of many people acting out of somewhat mundane self-interest (“shared self interest”) rather than events being masterfully planned by a calculating organization of villains. Adam Smith called this invisible force that guides group and individual behavior “the invisible hand“.
For example, many share the interest “make sure this candidate wins and this one doesn’t” or “make sure the stock market doesn’t crash” or “make liberals look like satanists” or “make sure Medicare isn’t defunded” there hardly has to be a backroom meeting of minds for there to be many actors working on roughly the same project.
There are also instances where people do the amoral, for instance when an arms dealer or banker profits off a war. We may be tempted to assign intent or blame, but this isn’t always warranted, and even if it is, it will rarely address the root problem.
Bad or mundane intentions aside, it is also just as likely that the actors of a given story believe they are doing good (like the Freemasons in the French revolution who fought for liberty and against Kings; or say the other enlightenment focused groups whose symbolism is supposedly represented on the dollar bill), yet the needed secrecy and a bit of time creates lots of room for assigning intentions and details in retrospect that weren’t there in practice. A hero in this case, can very quickly become the villain of the story when seen through a slightly different frame of reference. Is Alan Greenspan a hero or a villain? Isn’t this largely a matter of perspective?
Banking With Hitler (Full Length) British. There are many ways to illustrate the fact that much which conspiracy theories seek to explain is better explained by “mundane self-interest and opportunism”, but one that comes to my mind is the story of the international banks and the Axis and Allies of WWI. Its tempting go straight to the Alex Jones version, but hearing the BBC version with interviews of family members presents a much more sober introspective into the actual mentality behind what assume wrongly are “shadowy villains”.
TIP: All this to say, International banks are neutral, but no one likes a NAZI witch hunt. There is a liberal conspiracy, it is called the international left, so like 3.6 billion people (there is also a conservative conspiracy to take power, called the right, the other 3.6 billion). Many of our founders (in the West) were Freemasons, many others were anti-Masons, and hey all founded the great countries and history together. Corporations conspire with investors and price fix. Politicians conspire with Corporations and donors. Sports teams conspire to win. It is human nature; it is Adam Smith’s self interest in motion as Madison predicted. Still, your average person is well intentioned and is hardly part of some grand conspiracy that everyone in their class, creed, or race is in on. Conspiracies do happen, but without knowing all the facts, a reasonable theory cannot be formed. So try not to get to worked up over your assumptions, especially when you have indiscriminately made a class, creed, or ideology your scapegoat. All that plotting could make you the aggressor and conspirator.
Pattern Detection: the Key to Creating Conspiracy Theories and Detecting Actual Conspiracies
The underlying problem is that life and most issues within it are so complex that patterns are bound to arise (including patterns that are actually there, patterns that are partially there, and patterns that aren’t there at all).
The human brain is hardwired to recognize patterns and form complex conclusions, and this can lead to conspiracy thinking.
Sometimes we recognize subtle connections others don’t see, sometimes we see patterns that aren’t actually there, and whatever we see is typically filtered through our own biases. This ability to recognize patterns is especially true for “thinkers” (you’ve heard the old saying about a fine line between genius and madness, that absolutely applies here).
Humans are the world’s best pattern-recognition machines, and that can be a blessing or a curse. Take for example Sir Isaac Newton, who would look for cryptographic codes in old bibles to find secret alchemic messages from our ancestors. Was every clue he found truly a clue, or was he reading into it more than was really there? And even with Newton’s unpublished manuscripts being available today, can we be really sure about what he did or didn’t find? (Learn more about the Secret life of Sir Isaac Newton).
The origin of countless conspiracy theories – PatrickJMT. A look at how patterns will always arise in complex systems.
There are Some Things We Know We Can’t Know
Ultimately, not everything that is true can be proven and thus many theories are destined to remain unproven (regardless of whether they are true, partially true, or completely untrue). The details of some social relationships, their mechanics, and their motives are impossible to know, and especially with complexity considered, it is unlikely that we could piece the puzzle together even when we know large parts of it (as even one unknown opens the door for a partially inaccurate, and sometimes dangerous, theory… again, Hitler, Ford, and the Learned Elder’s of Zion conspiracy theory comes to mind).
Humans are social beings, and we’ve been dissecting social dynamics and group psychology since the Greeks, so while we won’t be able to prove or disprove a certain theory (nor is that the focus of this page), we can shed light on the concept of conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking.
Why conspiracy theories are rational to believe. The effects of special interests can be downright ugly, but the intentions behind them are often mundane. This video explains conspiracy theories in a rational way. We try to mirror that line of thinking. When we overreact we risk playing into another’s hand.
TIP: This page describes conspiracy thinking, the concept of conspiracies, factions and special interests, shadow this and invisible that, and related mechanics and psychology, etc. The goal isn’t to be dismissive of conspiracy thinking, it’s to pull back the veil and show you that there is a deeper and more valid line of thought that needs the brainpower of those who have a mind for it. You can see a list of fact-checked conspiracy theories here.
TIP: Conspiracy theory is typically a misnomer, the correct term is speculative hypothesis (an assumption). Learn more about what a theory is.
“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” – James Madison on political factions and other special interests The Federalist Papers: No. 10
Semantics: “Agent” means person and “agency” refers to assigning intention and personhood to an action.
Why Do People Formulate Conspiracy Theories?
As Wikipedia very correctly puts it, “people formulate conspiracy theories to explain, for example, power relations in social groups and the perceived existence of evil force.” In other words, people form conspiracy theories to explain that which they cannot, or at least do not understand, rather than accepting gaps in their knowledge or the idea that uncoordinated actions sometimes lead to spectacular results.
As noted above, it isn’t that conspiracy never happens, it is that theories surrounding the conspiracies, the players, the meanings, and very importantly the intentions of publicized theories are often off-base (sometimes even leaving out well known and widely accepted facts, and adding in prejudice propaganda, much to the frustration of critics, like the recent flat earth conspiracy theories for example).
Given our propensity as humans to be social and thus create factions and special interest groups, it is not rational to think that people don’t coordinate their actions or group together around ideas, they do. It is only that it is not rational to fill in every unknown with expertly coordinated and villainous intention (especially given our propensity to see patterns that aren’t there).
One of the main problems with judging intentions is that people tend to judge others from their frame of reference (their point of view based on their own bias and ideology), rather than say “from behind a Veil of Ignorance“. This leaves some actually looking for bad intention, rather than scrutinizing the facts. This is not the frame from which good theories are formed, and this can lead to the distrust of groups, agencies, organizations, and even governments, which potentially leads to further confusion.
Another factor at play is a simple matter of human nature. The driving force of humans can be said to be, on some level, self-interest (be it monetary, moral, or power related). Ironically, self-interest can manifest as social benefit under the right conditions, “as if by divine providence” as Adam Smith puts it. Selfish behavior can have unintended positive consequences, and good intentions can, paradoxically, have unintended negative effects.
When people conspire out of self interest (good or bad), it is called special interest, when the mostly uncoordinated actions of people and groups result in something grand, it’s called happenstance. Both phenomena can bare strikingly similar fruit, with good or bad results despite intentions, and in this lies one of the major problems with conspiracy thinking.
How Einstein Used Intellectual Play to Create Our View of Reality. If you can understand the mentality of Einstein and the marketplace of ideas, you’ll have your head in the right place to see the forest through the trees in regards to conspiracy theories.
TIP: The keywords are perceived (not proven), relations (not necessarily the result of specific individuals or specific single groups), and non-scientific theory (an explainer that makes sense from our frame of reference, but lacks scientific proof and thus is likely off-base).
THOUGHT: I like to think of shadow organizations and conspiring like a sound wave. A sound wave is a mechanical pressure wave (not a thing itself), it must travel through something, it is not itself a thing. It exists in the spaces in-between things. Learn about sound waves.
The invisible hand usually refers to ” unintended social benefits resulting from individual actions” in regards to socioeconomic markets, but the general concept of “invisible” or “shadow” entities is generally the same. It describes group social dynamics and decision making as an advent of the human condition and self-interest, not as an advent of purposeful direct manipulation by a single individual.
How the Past Philosophers Have Understood the Root Principles at Play
Almost every conspiracy theory charges that a secret group is acting in secret, the proper name for these groups in practice is “special interests” or factions. It may surprise some conspiracy theorists to know that this has been a broad topic of study throughout the ages, and not a fringe topic at its core.
Adam Smith refers to “the invisible hand” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in Part IV, Chapter 1 and then again in the Wealth of Nations (1776) in reference to how self interest drives markets (how free-market capitalism works in theory). James Madison warns about factions in the Federalist #10 explaining how they are a result of liberty, yet paradoxically threaten the Republic. Edward Bernays called special interest groups “the invisible government” in Propaganda (1929) page 9 when making the reader aware that in the modern age the powers of rhetoric could be utilized by all. Henry Kissinger called the shared interests of western powers who valued democracy and diplomacy “the New World Order” in Diplomacy (1994) Chapter 1. Other terms like shadow government and shadow economy are often used to describe similar “spaces in between” where people operate, loose affiliations based on self-interest, and generally any like group. America calls it “active participation in a democratic mixed-capitalist mixed-Republic” (or to be cheeky, the in-divisible hand; a mix between invisible and invisible), and the back of the dollar bill says “Annuit cœptis… Novus ordo seclorum“. That phrase very roughly translated from Latin can be interpreted as, “Providence has approved of our undertakings (or favor our undertakings)… a New World Order (or new order for the ages)”. The concept being “as if by divine providence, a new order for the ages”, a new land where we can have a free-trade republic and religious freedom, a New World without the same restrictions of the Old World. Thus the pyramid represents a new great empire and the eye represents wisdom and enlightenment. Did the founders all agree on this Freemason take on the ancient wisdom of past cultures Charles Thomson cooked up? Probably not. But is it repersentives of the main point of the United States of America, yes absolutely. Although the conspiratorial anti-Masons scared the Masons out of public existence in early America, the basic concept of Manifest Destiney, Democracy, and Diplomacy is widely embraced by all Americas factions. Not much conspiring is needed in practice.
By any name, the concept is always the same, applied to corporations, governments, economies, etc. we are simply describing the (mostly) unintended social benefits resulting from individual actions, self-interest, and shared intentions”.
Sometimes a special interest group meets on a secret island and draws up plans, sometimes it is uncoordinated malicious action, and sometimes it is just America’s founding fathers risking their lives to secure a free-Republic and the principles of liberalism and republicanism. We can spot the mechanics, but exhaustively collecting the details to form a viable theory is often impossible… and filling in the blanks with half-truths is just downright confusing for everyone!
For conspiracy to happen as it is understood by conspiracy thinking, people would have to agree, and most of the time they simply do not. When we see shared special interest, we can find loose allies or even allies banding together (like with the Founders), but assigning broad intent to a large group of individuals based on sparse data is a slippery slope.
In truth, the works noted above are some of the more populist, moral, and human arguments for Democracy in human history. It would be a conspiracy theory of my own to say “it is for this they are sometimes slandered”, but it is worth considering in the same way this thinking can be applied to events like “the Reign of Terror“.
Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments. Adam Smith is a great introduction to the truth behind group dynamics, he comes at the complex and heavy from the lens of morality, which is a good overtone for such a deep subject.
Individuals and Groups – The Unintended Social Benefits of Self Interest and Social Dynamics
Whether people have good intentions or bad intentions personally is often a side point, the world is complex and cause and effect relationships are often paradoxical.
For instance, Adam Smith points out that self-interest in regards to morality, money, and safety can actually lead to social benefits, but also points out how it can lead to things like monopolies. One doesn’t need good intentions to do good or bad intentions to do bad; one can perform bad acts with good intentions or good or bad acts with mundane intentions.
Some things are clearly evil, but good and evil only seems simple when we have a lack of data or watch cartoons. In real life intentions, motivations, and personalities are complex.
Of course, whether the effects are good or bad is sort of aside the point, the point is that conspiracies are often less a matter of “conspiring with malicious intent” and more about the way humans organize into groups and how group dynamics work. A type of social natural selection, often coordinated not by close friends, but by uncoordinated groups of loose allies driven by self-interest (a natural aspect of the human condition, and thus almost if as, “by divine providence” rather than “intention” or “human conspiracy”).
There are strong players (groups or individuals) behind any idea at any time playing public relations on behalf of an ideology, and groups can never act directly as all action is human action, but ideas exist independently of people and have a life of their own, and thus it isn’t always fair to place a smoking gun in the first hand we see, or to think that punishing one person will quell a deeper problem.
When we try to oversimplify the mechanics of group dynamics and world history, we end up scapegoating and creating negative propaganda steeped in misinformation. Troubling also is that we stop asking questions and stop looking for answers with an open mind, and we seek to demonize our elders and those in positions of power thus dampening our ears to their message. Again I’ll say it in different words, a perceived conspiracy can snowball into a real conspiracy when opportunistic players utilize existing fears as propaganda. This can’t be combated properly with anger and more half-baked theories, it must be combating with fact.
TIP: On could theorize (based on history) that the US specifically was founded on the cornerstone of enlightenment (i.e. the spreading of democracy, intellectual pursuit, freedom of religion, scientific pursuits, generally things we consider good in western society). Largely a response to the different Dark Ages and Golden Ages (which America’s forefathers obviously studied intensely). All likely, although, we shouldn’t assign too much altruistic intention in the place of facts either.
FACT: The Founding Fathers of the American Constitution, explicitly warned against the dangers of party factionalism (political factions based on special interests specifically). Madison, Hamilton, and Washington expressed the belief that factions would create divides that would ultimately dismantle the government. These sentiments can be found in The Federalist Papers, specifically Federalist 10 and 51 written by Madison.
Complex Systems Thinking – Conspiracy Thinking and Complexity Thinking Compared
One key to understanding the concepts on this page is a type of thinking called “complexity thinking“, it is essentially the scientific version of conspiracy thinking (it uses the same techniques, but it demands facts and critical thinking).
In western society we like to think that a system is only its parts. We we want to assign agency and a smoking gun to a single cell, rather than looking at the collective intelligence of all 37 trillion cells in the human body. This is called analysis. This can help us find problem cells, but it won’t always show us the root of the problem (as that can exist as a relation between cells or in a a few single cells and not a whole cell type).
To properly diagnose the problem, we need to look at the spaces in between the cells and look for patterns. What we find is that it takes all 37 trillion cells to make a human, and that human can only be understood through the inter-workings of their parts and their relation to others. Thus, it is so for groups.
If we look only at players, or make broad conclusions about the players, we are bound to miss key points. If we look only at groups, and don’t consider the players, then we miss points as well. The key is looking at all the parts, and practicing active critical thinking. Are you sure the earth is flat and this is a Illuminati conspiracy?… or is it just that even true events like the Holocaust can be hard to prove and easy to turn into hateful propaganda that helps a nation’s political opponents (see the 2016 film Denial)?
If we are too eager to pick sides, we could find ourselves on the front lines of the wrong one. And, isn’t the point of critical thinking (complex or conspiratorial) about finding deeper layers of actual truth in the first place?
Conclusions About Invisible and Shadow Organizations and Conspiracy
Ultimately the key to understand these concepts isn’t an argument over the details of one event in history, it is the realization that “the shadowy organization” isn’t typically a single group, but rather the shared intentions of many groups, and the (mostly) unintended social benefits resulting from individual actions. It isn’t that intentions and players aren’t real, and it isn’t that they don’t coordinate, it is simply that filling in the blank spaces with players with malicious intent is typically a sure-fire way to miss deeper key points and even create a nasty snowball effect.
The many groups that can and will form, and they many actors within who can and will act, belong to the shades of political “left-ness” and “right-ness”, and they belong to higher and lower orders of good and evil, each has unique goals and intentions, and exist throughout the planet and at different times.
We don’t even have the right, in a free society, to crush the group of another with due cause and a case based on the facts. Even if we are sure of the facts we must act through legal means in line with our cherished Democratic and Republican ideals. We have to respect the liberty of others and the groups they form (as is their Constitutional Right per the First Amendment).
When individuals and groups find common ground and don’t send out a press release specifically stated their intentions as fact, we have to be careful not to read into more than is there.
People have tried to explain the spaces in-between groups and factions since the first written documents. This isn’t new, and neither is the misreading of events, and neither is the purposefully placement of propaganda in half-true theories by those with agendas.
No one has ever really stated this all clearly to my knowledge, instead emotionally charged conspiracy theories remain pervasive, while good spirited and open minded debate remains scarce. We can see a general problem, but understanding the specifics of the problem and a solution remains elusive.
Correlation Often Doesn’t Imply Causation
The bottom line on all this: Correlation doesn’t always imply causation (it can, but often doesn’t). In most cases I have found, ideas come to fruition from the shared intentions of many, often without a purposeful chain of causation (rather a chain of uncoordinated shared intentions of reluctant allies of all kinds, although sometimes spurred on by specific outliers). And, when purpose and intent does cause a group to coordinate it is common that their actions, exact players, and intentions are misunderstood.
With special interest groups who have to declare themselves by name it is more clear, we may be able to spot the intention and follow the money, but even in these cases accurately connecting the players and events is a tall order.
Even then, as any conspiracy theorist or many philosophers know all too well, just because we feel we have some truth doesn’t mean people want to hear it.
Final Thoughts on Conspiracy Thinking
Humans are split into factions, factions with individual actions, and from this, it is hard to piece together any cohesive theory that relates an event to all the correct players.
If you look hard enough at spaces in-between many the world’s many powerful individuals and factions you’ll find the shadow groups and visible hands, but you’ll also find a complex web of mechanics and intentions. Imagine being against group A only to realize too late that you were being a useful idiot for group B and fighting against what was in your best intention. When we don’t act or accuse too harshly, we avoid this situation.
We are what we think (plasticity), and how we treat others shapes the world around us. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be cognizant of conspiring, but it is to suggest that the main focus be on spotting solutions (rather than spotting problems).
I’ll end by saying something simple. If you find yourself spreading hateful and fearful messages due to your belief in a specific conspiracy theory, consider the negativity you are contributing to, how is that helping anything? Are you playing into someone else’s hand by spreading propaganda? Are you sure you have all the facts right? The good guys will rarely tell you to hate others, so that is something to keep in mind.
TIP: Fruitful areas of study in which to practice complex thinking systems include: cryptography, collective intelligence, theoretical physics, world history, the social sciences in general, and specifically political science. If you love conspiracy thinking, consider putting your mind to work in one of the aforementioned fields. Feel free to comment below.
- What Is a Conspiracy Theory And Why Do They Tend To Proliferate?
- The Conspiracy Theory Detector
- Pattern recognition (psychology)
- Humans Are the World’s Best Pattern-Recognition Machines, But for How Long?