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A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories

Updated on April 25, 2017
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Darcie is a graduate student who spends her free time writing and learning everything she can about cryptozoology, aliens, and the unusual.

Everyone has probably heard the term "conspiracy theory" before. You've no doubt heard of a few as well. Whether it be the JFK assassination, the Moon landing, or the New World Order, we've all been exposed to a conspiracy theory or two at one time or another.

But where did conspiracy theories originate? Unfortunately, we know far more about why we have conspiracy theories than we do about where exactly they came from.

Who knows what the Illuminati could be plotting at this very moment?
Who knows what the Illuminati could be plotting at this very moment? | Source

Some Brief Background

But before I get into anything and everything about the origins of conspiracy theories, I should probably give a bit of background knowledge and define what I'm actually talking about.

A page on the Butte College website gives a pretty definitive explanation of conspiracy theories and conspiracists. The page states, "You might buy into one or more conspiracy theories without being an all-out conspiracist. Conspiracism is a worldview that sees history as driven primarily by interwoven webs of secret conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are leaner, more restrained, more limited in scope than conspiracism. A conspiracy theory alleges that a secret conspiracy involving hidden actors is behind particular historical events. Its explanation for events usually runs counter to the official or mainstream account, which is itself seen as an elaborate fabrication."

The page also points out that all conspiracy theories share the same three problems: unfalsifiability, fallacy, and naivete.

  • Unfalsifiability refers to the fact that conspiracy theories generally can't be proven or disproven.
  • Fallacy refers to the use of multiple fallacies used in conspiracies, including ones such as hasty conclusion, ad hominem, and circular reasoning.
  • Naivete refers to the blind faith of believers, including how they tend to believe in conspiracy theories on flimsy evidence, such as suspect eyewitness accounts reported by a source twice removed or more.

How I picture conspiracy theorists avoiding anything that contradicts their beliefs.
How I picture conspiracy theorists avoiding anything that contradicts their beliefs. | Source

Though not directly about conspiracy theories, in 1972, sociologist Stanley Cohen described the "moral panic." He said, "A condition, episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians, and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges, or deteriorates and becomes more visible."

An essential piece of this moral panic is the "folk devil." The folk devil is a scapegoat that is generally in no way responsible, such as a Satanic cult, a gang, or a backwoods militia.

Jesse Walker, in an article posted on The Week, gives an example of conspiracy theory and moral panic intersecting. In the early 20th century, there was an anti-prostitution panic. The idea behind this was that there was a white slavery syndicate forcing thousands of girls into sexual slavery. And while coerced prostitution is most definitely something that happens, it was not happening as prevalently or in such an organized way as this conspiracy theory suggested. Nevertheless, it resulted in the Mann Act of 1910 (also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act), which is still in effect to this day, albeit in a modified form.

San Diego University professor Rebecca Moore also has her own definition of conspiracy theories. She has been known to alternate between calling them "stigmatized knowledge" and "suppressed knowledge that are based on a conviction that power individuals are limiting or controlling the free flow of information for nefarious purposes."

And as a final side note, several people have come up with systems to define the the different types of conspiracy theories. These include Walker's five kinds, Barkun's three types, and Rothbard's shallow versus deep.

Satanic cults are a popular scapegoat for conspiracy theorists.
Satanic cults are a popular scapegoat for conspiracy theorists. | Source

Origins of the Term

Conspiracy theories supposedly date back hundreds of years, with the earliest often concerning Jews or bankers (and many times, both as one entity.) However, the earliest uses of the term "conspiracy theory" didn't always have the negative connotation that we typically associate with it today.

Mick West, in a thread on Metabunk.org, claims that the earliest known usage of the term was in 1870, in The Journal of Mental Science, Volume 16.

In this same post, West also quotes an 1895 article concerning a review of theories on the causes of the Southern secession. He theorizes that the Southern secession conspiracy theories are the point at which the term starts to have negative connotation, stating, "Given the multiple usages on the subject of secession, it seems plausible that this is a key point in the evolution of the phrase. It shifts from simple incidental use in language to referring to a specific thing. From 'that theory which has a conspiracy' to 'the theory that we call conspiracy theory'."

The Oxford English Dictionary offers an alternative to West, citing a 1909 article in The American Historical Review as the earliest example of the usage of the term.

In 20th Century Words, John Ayto claims that the term was originally neutral, and that it didn't become a pejorative until the mid 1960s. Lance deHaven-Smith, in his book Conspiracy Theory in America, expands upon this, claiming that during this period of time, the CIA began using this term to discredit JFK conspiracy theorists.

However, Robert Blaskiewicz, a skeptic activist, counters that these kind of claims go back "since at least 1997," but deHaven-Smith is now being cited as an authority on this claim due to his book. Blaskiewicz says that the term has always been used disparagingly, going back all the way to the 1870 usage cited by Mick West.

The Modern Phenomenon

So the history of conspiracy theories, or at least the history of the usage of the term, is unsurprisingly unclear. But we can be relatively certain that the modern day phenomenon of conspiracy theories likely began with the assassination of JFK.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the point at which conspiracy theories shifted from fringe groups to the mainstream. At this point, during the late 20th century, conspiracy theories became common in the mass media, and formed into a cultural phenomenon in the United States. After all, most people are aware that there are other people out there who believe that JFK couldn't have been killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, or that some people believe we didn't go to the Moon in 1969. It's simply common knowledge at this point.

Source

Systemic Conspiracy and Superconspiracy

And now we come to the idea of systemic conspiracy. This is the idea that for conspiracies to remain secret, more and more people need to become involved.

Daniƫl Verhoeven, in a blog post, defines this: "Systemic conspiracy theory claims that these dramatic political events are not what it seems. Behind what appears to be the establishment there is a ruling elite, an organization of individuals who act as puppet masters; the real elite behind the masquerading elite."

These systemic conspiracy theories give way to theories about super secret societies like the Illuminati or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (And as a side note, the Protocols were used by Hitler and his followers as a justification to persecute the Jews, showing that conspiracy is not always just harmless speculation.)

The systemic conspiracy then gave way to the superconspiracy, such as the New World Order conspiracy that first gained popularity in the 1990s among militia movements, and has continued to be perpetuated by people like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck into the modern day.

Verhoeven defines superconspiracies as well: "Superconspiracy theories are conspiratorial constructs in which multiple conspiracies are believed to be linked together hierarchically. Event and systemic are joined in complex ways, so that conspiracies come to be nested together. At the summit of the conspiratorial hierarchy is a distant but powerful force manipulating lesser conspiratorial factors."

On a related note, a physicist named David Robert Grimes published in PLOS ONE some estimations of how many people popular conspiracy theories would need in order for them to viable, as well as how quickly they would fail. In this article, he included such popular conspiracy theories as the Moon landing, climate change, vaccinations, and the suppressed cancer cure.

What Is the Point?

So why is it that we have conspiracy theories in the first place? Well, there's a few reasons. In an article on Our Great American Heritage, Allen Cornwell explains, "Conspiracies are alternative stories about real events. These stories develop because a part of our society refuses to accept the official explanation."

Political scientist Michael Barkun has defined conspiracy theories in such a way that gives another explanation. Barkun says that conspiracy theories rely on the idea that the universe is governed by design, and they have three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.

And finally, anthropologist David Graeber has stated, "It's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war." This idea can be extrapolated and applied to conspiracy theorists to suggest that perhaps they are simply bored. They want to alleviate this boredom by imagining there is a shadowy organization out there planning some catastrophic destruction for the world.

Is this what's supposed to happen when the New World Order achieves its goals?
Is this what's supposed to happen when the New World Order achieves its goals? | Source

But whatever the origins and reasons for conspiracy theories are, that's all they usually are, conspiracy theories.

However, as the saying goes, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 4 months ago from Orange County California

      Conspiracy Theory is much like Political Correctness as both are artificial labels with the goal of silencing any further inquiry into events that were poorly explained, usually by the government.

      PC is used to knock down any opposing ideas with just the use of the words PC. The same is true of Conspiracy Theory as for example the government and the media can take any opposition down, just by saying, it is a conspiracy theory.

      PC has artificially and illogically advanced a foundation for say the lgbt and gay marriage. All one has to do is oppose it, and they have been grounded as being incorrect.

      The Conspiracy Theory has been effectively used by the government to prevent the country from getting them to answer the questions that were not answered in the government reports.

      For example, the 911 commission report was about as factually correct as Genesis in the bible about the creation of the Earth and Universe. Neither one of them has any detailed answers of factual explanations to warrant their being taken as credible.

      For example

      When we have a plane crash the FAA goes out to the site and takes pictures, and makes measurements and basically investigates the entire scene. Then they locate, mark, and gather up all the pieces of the plane that they can find, and they bring it back to a hangar somewhere, and reconstruct the plane to determine what happened to make it crash.

      On 911, we had 3 high rise buildings burn and then collapse in free fall. This has never happened any where in the world from fire. Forget about the conspiracy theory, having high rise building burn and fall to the ground should be a phenomenon that we need to investigate as there are millions of them. Like earthquake damage, we should find the root cause of this failure to prevent future construction of buildings that can similarly fail. WTC 7 wasn't hit by any plane and yet it fell in the same manner as WTC 1 and 2 that were hit by planes.

      The conspiracy theory starts when we try to make a conclusion outside the facts. But even so, without getting to the theories beyond the planes, the 911 commission didn't do even the same kind of the investigation they would do for a plane that crashed. And they really didn't do any recovery of the four planes involved on 911. This should have been done as part of the investigation, but it wasn't.

      Even the 911 commission themselves said they didn't have the time, money or resources to do an adequate investigation.

      What I have said so far doesn't fit as a conspiracy or a theory. It merely says that the investigation was sub standard. Instead of selling the steel from the buildings to China in record time, they needed to analyze it all to make a factual determination of all the evidence. That steel was evidence, evidence that the 911 commission didn't have.

      Anyway, underneath every conspiracy theory there is a government story that just doesn't make sense. And between the event and the government explanation is the first stage of a conspiracy theory. The one that is being offered by the government. The reason is that they didn't do an adequate investigation, and they made conclusions not supported by the facts or the evidence.

      Again, Conspiracy Theories have been artificially created to be used by the government to protect their results that were written in their report on the events. This allows them to hold up the report like it was a cross and the people were vampires.

      Strip away the theories, but ask the government to support their facts. And that is not a conspiracy theory.

      Facts

      WTC 1, 2, 7 all had fires.

      WTC 1,2 hit by flying object

      WTC 7 not hit by anything

      WTC 1,2,7 fell at the speed of gravity

      WTC 1,2 had the same materials and design. But WTC was less than half their size and built differently

      FACTS have to show equality

      WTC 1 = WTC 2 = WTC 7

      FACTS

      These three high rise steel building are the only ones in the world that have collapsed from fire in this manner.

      I answered your question about conspiracy theories using those examples.

      Conspiracy Theories tag any questions about the factual results of government reports, and they do so effectively because of the same way that PC is accepted to make any opposition wrong per se.