Mailbag: Conspiracy Theories vs. Real Conspiracies


It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

Steve sent in a comment about his views on a previous article published here at Debunking Denialism called Six Ways to Debunk Any Conspiracy Theory that looked at common flaws and weaknesses in many conspiracy theories: they posit that members of the alleged conspiracy are immune to leaks, have very inconsistent capabilities, have extreme powers of prediction, wildly different methods and goals and the fact that they are typically based on very little evidence and are often constructed to be almost impossible to refute in principle.

Steve did not like the way I used the term “conspiracy theory”:

I think the term conspiracy theory is a bit too broad. For example, anyone who opposed any part of the U.S. government’s narrative regarding the events of 9-11, was labeled a conspiracy theorist. yet the government’s narrative was a conspiracy theory, a conjecture there was a conspiracy without much in the way of proof.

Right away, we notice several major red flags that tells us that we are dealing with a 9/11 truther.

(1) He uses the term “government version” to describe the mainstream scientific account of the events during the 9/11 terror attacks that have been researched and put together by thousands of journalists, scientists, medical doctors and engineers. This is an attempt to marginalize the mainstream scientific position and pretend that it is created by some shadowy establishment that want to hide the truth from people about “what really happened”. He is also wrong to say that anyone who objected to any part of the mainstream explanations was labeled a conspiracy theorists. This is inaccurate because scientists, journalists and engineers continued for many years to debate various details of the events. The people who were labeled as conspiracy theorists were the people who refused to listen to any evidence, make up stuff as they went along and continued to push scientific falsehoods and misinformation even when corrected.

(2) He also conflates “conspiracy theory” with “conspiracy”. These two are not the same. To put it simply, a conspiracy is just a covert plan by some people to do something that hurts people or breaks the law. In contrast, psychological research defines a conspiracy theory is a set of claims about an event that are (i) unverified, (ii) sensationalist, (iii.) less likely to be true than the mainstream explanations, (iv.) assume constant malign intent, (v.) have low standards of evidence and is (vi.) self-insulating.

(3) He claims that the mainstream account of the 9/11 terror attacks are not supported by any evidence. This is, of course entirely false. Evidence for the mainstream version has been discussed at length in the 9/11 Commission Report, several reports from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) and even a special edition of Popular Mechanics.

Steve continues to even attack the very term “conspiracy theory” outright:

Maybe a better term for what you are referring to is “whacko conspiracy theory” or “make believe conspiracy theory.” Most of these things really shouldn’t be called theories as they barely qualify as an hypothesis or conjecture, closer to wild-ass guesses, I should think.

It is certainly true that a scientific theory is a well-supported explanatory model that is supported by evidence. However, context matters. Thus, the term “conspiracy theory” should be viewed as a single term, just like “nail file”. It would be absurd to object to the latter term by pointing out that nail files really do not have anything to do with computer files. It is only fallacious to use the term “theory” when you are trying to label a robust scientific model as merely a guess or inflate a random untestable claim to the same status as a comprehensive scientific model.

The term “conspiracy theory” is both useful and accurate to use, as long as one is clear with what you mean by it.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

2 thoughts on “Mailbag: Conspiracy Theories vs. Real Conspiracies

  • Pingback: Mailbag: Conspiracy Theories vs. Real Conspiracies | Emil Karlsson

  • Emil Karlsson,

    Two big differences between the conspiracies that conspiracy theorists tend to believe in, and real conspiracies, is that real ones tend to be much smaller in scale, and perpetrators tend to get caught once the people who are not supposed to know find out.

    Arguably the plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln was the presidential assassination that turned out to be a conspiracy, but it still included only about a half dozen conspirators at most. Also John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators were delusional if they thought that murdering the president would somehow reignite the Southern cause. Booth was also delusional if he really thought that the masses would consider him a hero rather than a murder.


    Also you could argue that intelligent design proponents were involved in a conspiracy to hide the fact that Intelligent design was really a type of creationism, since they knew that the supreme court had already struck down teaching creationism in public schools. However, one of the things that gave them away was a mistake that someone had made.

    “Cdesign Proponentsists”

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