Conspiracy Theories

Below you will find a collection of my published writing on the subject of Conspiracy Theories from the perspective of philosophy and the social sciences as well as my podcasts with some of the world’s leading experts on the study of conspiracy theories.

The Bilderberg group and the psychological seduction of meta-conspiracy theories, published by The Huffington Post, 2014.
The Bilderberg Group and the Psychological Seduction of Meta Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theory as Pseudo Theory, in The Skeptic Magazine, published by The Australian Skeptics Incorporation, 2012.
Conspiracy Theory as Pseudo Theory

The Bilderberg Group conspiracy theory is distorted politics writ large, published by The Huffington Post, 2012.
The Bilderberg Group Conspiracy Theory is Distorted Politics Writ Large

Postmodernism is the genesis of contemporary conspiracy theory, published by The Huffington Post, 2011.
Postmodernism is the genesis of Contemporary Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theory as political philosophy and ideology – reflections on a post 911 world, published by The Huffington Post, 2011.
Conspiracy Theory as Political Philosophy and Ideology – Reflections on a post 911 world

In the podcast below I talk to Dr. Tim Stanley about the history and culture of conspiracy theories in The United States of America. Dr. Tim Stanley is a Historian of The United States of America. He is the author of The Crusader: The Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan. His interests in American History include both the political discourses of Liberalism and Conservatism as well as conspiracy theories as a historical and cultural phenomenon. Hi holds a PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge.

In the podcast below I talk to Professor Chris French about psychology and the belief in conspiracy theories in general; and belief and propagation of meta conspiracy theories. Chris French is Director of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmith’s College University of London and one of the UK’s leading experts in psychology, skepticism and the paranormal. He is the Editor of the The Skeptic Magazine.

Robert Brotherton of The Anomalistic Research Unit at Goldsmith’s college, University of London, discuses the definitions and types of Conspiracy Theories with me in the podcast. Rob Brotherton has developed The Generic Conspiracist Belief Scale as a working scale for his research in Psychology.

The schema and ideological belief system of Meta conspiracy theorists

Meta conspiracy theories are a form of ideology. They posit alternative political and social explanations to Governmental and social theory akin to the political philosophy of Liberalism or Socialism for at their very root they postulate an ontological framework for how society, politics and the economy operate. But what is it about this form of political ideology that makes Meta conspiracy theories untenable in the light of other political ideologies. With fantastical claims comes the need for rigorous evidence, which Meta conspiracy theorists dramatically fail to produce. Meta conspiracy theories of secret Governmental world rule function in a haphazard and non systematic manner. They amalgamate disparate sources of information and convolute them in desirable ways to felicitate conspiratorial paradigms. To invoke their conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists pick and choose what they will with regards to information.

However the use of data and inference of evidence and what constitutes “proof” is far more difficult, if not impossible, to assimilate in the social world, due to the unpredictability of social agents and events. For it is men that make their social world and their choices, behavior, and motivations cannot be predicatively pinned down like particles and atoms can be in natural science, for the latter do not posses reflexive cognition. One can look at social phenomena through many lenses, be it Marxism, Liberalism, Anarchism, Postmodernism or Structuralism. The fact that conspiracy theorists play the analytical card of Meta conspiracy theory to explain a range of seemingly unrelated events from the death of JFK, to alien abduction, to the faked moon landings and 911 simply illustrates that they operate with their own schema and belief system.
In this respect we are all the same as cognitive thinking creatures. From the internal position of Meta conspiracy theory, logic and rationale operates in concordance with beliefs that connect the dots and answers conundrums to social phenomena. You have to ascribe to the belief system of Meta conspiracy theory for it to be rationally acceptable and applicably consistent just as religious people play the game of rationality when justifying the belief in a deity – a term often described as “reasonable faith”.

This analysis of belief systems, world views and psychological schemas are the focus of much study in Social Psychology. A schema can be loosely described as a mental structure that represents some aspect of the world. Schemata are an effective tool for understanding the world. Through the use of schemata, most everyday situations do not require effortful thought – automatic thought is all that is required. People can quickly organise new perceptions into schemata and act effectively without strenuous conscious labour. The social world can be understood and represented via internal rationale and self sustaining logic. This produces a disposition to perceive phenomena in a particular way through a particular perspective.

So what can be said about the schema of Meta conspiracy theory? Does the cynical disposition in adhering to Meta conspiracy theory say something psychological about the believer or the social and cultural values of a specific community in anthropological, sociological and social psychological terms? Research conducted at the University of Virginia concluded that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to believe in others. Unsurprisingly there is a good chance that someone who believes the moon landings were faked will also believe that JFK was killed by a second gunman upon that infamous grassy knoll. Dr Karen Douglas at the University of Kent goes one step further. In her article entitled Does it take one to know one? Published in The British Journal of Psychology she explains how belief and endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by a personal willingness to conspire.

How endemic are Meta conspiracy theories and belief in general Conspiracy Theory? Meta Conspiracy theories themselves have a long and distinguished history. This was made evident by books propagating conspiracy theories, with regards to Government, in the nineteenth and twentieth century. One book of notoriety is Nesta Webster’s Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. In it Webster argued that the secret society of the Illuminati were occultists, plotting communist world domination whilst simultaneously using the idea of a Jewish cabal, the Masons and Jesuits as a smokescreen. The 1920’s also saw the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This was a fraudulent anti-Semitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for achieving global domination and naturally propagated by the Nazis and Stalin for political reasons decades later.

Conspiracy theories also have historical veracity in claiming metaphysical and transcendental elements. For instance, in medieval times social randomness, mishaps and unexplained events, both natural and political, were often explained, and accounted for, as being the direct work of the devil. This, in analytical and definitive terms, is a pre-ordained transcendental Meta conspiracy theory. Before the advent of scientific methodology, both social and natural phenomena were explained via supernatural elements and this applied to conspiracy theories as well, with unmarried women often the scapegoat for witch hunters.

Conspiracy theories have been around as long as man has been a social animal. The tenets of psychology, sociology and anthropology academically account for groups or individuals in society adhering to, and depending on, conspiracy theories. A study carried out in 2002 by Bruce Scheiner explored a way of thinking called “major event – major cause” reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging itself. Social structures, intentions, causes and meaning can have greater saliency, in terms of order and purpose, when aligned with conspiratorial explanations than they do when they merely presented as social randomness and ad hoc events. Conspiracy theories give socio phenomena some additional meaning that would otherwise be a product of socio randomness, in terms of actor/situation dynamics and thus eventually meaning and intention. No matter how perverse or fantastical the explanatory conspiracy theory is, for its adherents, it is often more comprehendible than random and spontaneous occurrences. In a dappled and unpredictable social world conspiracy theory is often better than no theory

As well as certain anti-government conspiracy theories having a historical presence and vicissitude themselves, there are also dividing and distinguishing conspiracy theories across the political spectrum – reinforcing the overlap between Meta conspiracy theories and political ideology. This is with regards to conspiracy theories of the State, individual liberty within society, and certain religious and transcendental elements that pertain to conspiracy theory. For instance, with regards to the One World Government conspiracy theories, generally speaking, those on the left on the political spectrum see the conspiracy as a globalist, fascist and authoritative State conspiracy. In this context, the One World Government conspiracy is the antithesis of the natural rights of man as a social being and animal. This is the philosophy of political liberalism expanded to realm of conspiracy theory. Those on the right of the political spectrum perceive the same conspiracy of world domination and authoritative State control as being a threat to America’s Republicanism and constitutional liberties. They often employ dogmatic Christina values in defending their conspiracy theories. This includes the much popularised idea that the Freemasons and Illuminati as devil worshippers. They also see those on the left of the political spectrum as their foes, often believing that that there is a Marxist conspiracy to “rule the world” in the form of totalitarian State control.

These two radically different positions, with regards to the conspiracy to “rule the world”, adds to the confusion regarding this Meta conspiracy theory paradigm. One is left with no clarity as to what the One World Government conspiracy is; and who or what is responsible for it, or how it is draconian to individual liberties and the rights of man as a being. Both schools in the political spectrum are suspicious of one another and blame one another for the One World Government conspiracy. This not only demonstrates the ideology of Meta conspiracy theory but highlights what happens when world views and belief systems collide in the political-conspiratorial realm.

Tony Sobrado, 2011

The subculture of Conspiracy Theory: The logic behind the thinking and its social operation

Conspiracy theory is like any other world view. It takes the ontology of the social-political world, and often metaphysical world, and postulates theories with regards to the world that the theorists themselves live in. It is an alternative philosophical position to espouse that is controversial and radically challenges conventional conceptions of government, society and existence itself.

Conspiracy Theory is a discourse. The key theoretical element behind this discourse is that what appears to be unequivocal categorical phenomena, liable to intellectual and analytical scrutiny from within the social and natural sciences is anything but under the conspiracy schools. Conspiracy Theory provides some distorted and perverted alternative explanations for “goings on” and phenomena observed. The popularity of conspiracy theories, and their penetration of contemporary society, has even produced academic programmes in the subject matter. Jim Marrs, a prominent conspiracy theorist, has even taught classes in the Assassination of Kennedy at the University of Texas.

However Conspiracy Theory, itself, is severely defective as a credible discourse and theoretical discipline. This is with regards to the subject matter it attempts to engage. This is because it is disjointed, contradictory and often illogical. Furthermore it is rendered inept by complete paradoxes. Conspiracy Theory is deprived of annexing unifying principles or arguments. It is incoherent and various conspiracy theories do not, in any way, support other tenets in other conspiracy theories that engage the same subject matter. This problem becomes even more apparent in recognising the analytical difference between historically continuing conspiracy theories, modern conspiracy theories and meta-conspiracy theories.

For a comparison, take quantum physics. As a modern discipline there are radically different positions to adopt in quantum physics. Yet at fundamental levels, there are mathematical principles and theoretical paradigms that are completely adhered to by its scholars. There is variation, but it is variation in one general direction. This also applies to the paradigm of evolutionary theory in the natural and social sciences. This, however, is not the case for Conspiracy Theory regarding the same subject matter whether it is 911, the Kennedy assassination or the Illuminati and freemasons. Here the conspiracy theory regarding one event or orgnaisation is scattered and contradictory. It has no overarching or unified principle. You probably could not get more than three conspiracy theorists to agree on the nature of the particular conspiracy theory in question and what it entails. As where in quantum physics, despite the diversity, scholars adhere to widely accepted theoretical and mathematical principles.

Moreover, the Conspiracy Theory culture is an industry field and genre itself; where people verily disagree and attempt to desecrate one another’s conspiracy theories and principles. Consequently, because of the nature of the subject matter, fellow conspiracy theorists, in their own proposed conspiracy theory, accuse their rival conspiracy theorists of being in collusion with the “powers that be”. This makes both individual conspiracy theories and overarching conspiracy theories, simultaneously, seem untenable and nonsensical. For instance Eric Phelps and others accuse Alex Jones of being a shiel. You would not get a historian or a quantum physicist accusing another fellow scholar, even if in disagreement, of not being a historian or a quantum physicist. However the broad paranoid nature and the theoretical, abstract and subjective fantasy of many conspiracy theories breed these radically accusative philosophical positions.

Conspiracy theorists, however, depend and hide behind circular logic in order to discredit their rival’s opinion in certain fields of Conspiracy Theory. This is because conspiracy theorists start with the presupposition, and thus incipient principle, that what they are observing is a conspiracy. From this schema, it logically follows that every other phenomena and actor must also be part of that particular conspiracy theory. This even includes rival conspiracy theorists that do not agree with their own proposed conspiracy theory.

This again illustrates that Conspiracy Theory is just another world view and philosophy to adopt, with controversial elements of ontology and epistemology. The issue that conspiracy theorists argue amongst themselves, with regards to which conspiracy theory is correct, and accuse each other of being conspirators themselves; is reinforced by the analysing of group formation within social psychology. This is “in groups” and “out groups” and what groups and individuals are perceived as threats to a particular ethos or ideal; regarding a certain philosophy. Conspiracy Theory is a political opinion that is contended in its own circles like any other opinion regarding the social world.
Many academic works have analysed Conspiracy Theory in the format of social phenomena and socio-cultural opinions. In an article by Anita M. Waters, published in 1997 in the Journal of Black Studies, Vol 28 No.1 entitled Conspiracy Theories as Ethosociologies she writes “attributing social maladies to deliberate plots by hostile conspirators is an American tradition dating back to the 1760s, beginning with the rumours of a British plan to remove colonists’ rights and continuing through to the John F. Kennedy assassination theories”.

Undoubtedly, at the turn of the millennium, the Bush Administration, 9/11 and the Iraq war increased the propagations, popularity and success of conspiratorial publications and ideas. One of the biggest successes is the documentary Loose Change, which is internationally acclaimed as was even released as a full length motion picture at cinemas. In light of new evidence and changing social circumstances and phenomena, old conspiracy theories of secret societies and “secret world control” become adapted. As Obama is the first President of the United States that is not fully white and mixed race, new conspiracy theorists have come to involve the black Freemasons: a branch of Freemasons for black successful people. This includes politicians, lawyers and musicians. The first black man in the White House must have been pre planned by some conspirators! Or else conspiracy paradigms begin to fall apart.

Tony Sobrado, 2011