Conspiracy Theory and the Failure of Certainty


In the culture wars that are being waged to define our communal values, the rhetorical arms race has generated a healthy stockpile of words and phrases that are often deployed in linguistic combat. Amongst this arsenal, few terms weave together so many cultural threads as “Conspiracy Theory.”

From such seemingly disparate threads as the philosophy of language, epistemology, political philosophy, history, journalism, psychology, and sociology, a Gordian tangle emerges that tie all of these subjects together.

This writing will endeavor to briefly:

  • contextualize the epistemological difficulties of attaining certainty
  • examine the tenuous nature of news and history with a focus on its manipulation
  • enumerate a truncated list of historical conspiracies with the purpose of underscoring their unexceptional nature
  • examine the historical and contemporary usage of the term “conspiracy theory”
  • leave the reader with a general approach to sidestepping the pitfalls of rhetorical obfuscation and semantic misunderstanding

I: “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” — Voltaire

The electromagnetic spectrum ranges in wavelength from Gamma rays, which span less than the width of an atom, to extremely low frequency (ELF), the waveforms of which can be tens of thousands of kilometers long [1]. Of this huge continuum, only a small fraction (400-700 nanometers) is visible to the human eye [2]. It is this tiny range of electromagnetic stimulus that informs our visual perceptions of the world “out-there.” The same is true of our other senses that, stitched together, constitute the basis for our observed reality. Beyond this immediate perceptual world that our senses conjure, is the more amorphous, second-hand world of culture. Intellectual and journalist Walter Lippmann said that culture “is very largely the selection, the rearrangement, the tracing of patterns upon, and the stylizing of, what William James called ‘the random irradiations and resettlements of our ideas.’[3] Culture, as Lippmann conceived it, is a sort of intellectual coping mechanism for dealing with a reality beyond our capabilities:

For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it. [3]

II: “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.” — Katharine Graham (former Washington Post publisher)

Lippman’s remarks on the tenuous nature of our collective human grasp on reality should give us pause as we venture beyond our personal experiences and attempt to gain understanding of the wider world. Beyond (some of) humanity’s earnest desire to understand the world are the myriad individuals and institutions that unwittingly distort reality through preconceived misapprehension. And beyond these honest but imperfect attempts at understanding and explaining the world are the realms of disinformation and propaganda. That powerful institutions (from governments, to religious organizations, to private foundations and corporations) rely on propaganda to motivate their constituencies should come as no surprise to the student of history. Governments regularly use propaganda to motivate their populations.

Prior to the United State’s engagement in World War I, the Committee on Public Information (also know as the Creel Committee) developed an unprecedented and diverse array of media designed to convince the American public to enter the war:

Every item of war news they saw—in the country weekly, in magazines, or in the city daily picked up occasionally in the general store—was not merely officially approved information but precisely the same kind that millions of their fellow citizens were getting at the same moment. Every war story had been censored somewhere along the line— at the source, in transit, or in the newspaper offices in accordance with ‘voluntary’ rules established by the CPI. [4]

Following World War II, the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency embarked on a covert propaganda and information-gathering program that came to be colloquially known as Operation Mockingbird. [5] Starting in the early 1950s, The CIA formed relationships of varying formality with people throughout the American media environment including such venerable institutions as CBS, ABC, NBC, the New York Times, the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Time Inc, Newsweek and many others. [6] During the Church Committee hearings (also laboriously titled the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities) in 1975, committee investigator and former CIA officer William Bader said to the senators on the committee, “There is quite an incredible spread of relationships, you don’t need to manipulate Time magazine, for example, because there are Agency people at the management level.” [6]

Whether one supports the CIA’s politics and historical actions, there can be little doubt of the agency’s problematic role in the fourth estate’s pursuit of truth, much less its dubious grasp of journalistic ethics. That its involvement in the press was so common during the Cold War should elicit a certain degree of circumspection in consumption of news from that era.

Despite the public spotlight that Senator Frank Church’s committee focused on these activities in 1975, they continued in various forms.  During the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean was created to disseminate propaganda that encouraged support for the administration’s military campaign in Nicaragua. [7] As an example, Rice University professor John Guilmartin provided an article for the Op-Ed section of the Washington Post entitled “Nicaragua is Armed for Trouble” without disclosing the fact that it had been produced by his close collaboration with the OPD. [8]

On October 10th 1991, a young Kuwaiti girl tearfully described Iraqi Amy atrocities committed during their invasion of her country to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Her accounts of were widely disseminated in the news, repeated by US senators and the President, and provided added justification for the US invasion of Iraq. What was unknown at the time was that the young woman was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, and that her testimony was not only false, but was organized by the Kuwaiti government and an American PR firm as a piece of highly effective atrocity propaganda. [9] [10] [11]

There is also evidence of ongoing collusion between well-heeled reporters and the intelligence community that they are covering. Udo Ulfkotte, who was an editor for the major German daily Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung admitted to planting stories for the CIA, stating “”I ended up publishing articles under my own name written by agents of the CIA and other intelligence services, especially the German secret service.” [12] [13]

In a recent report on The Intercept’s news webpage, documents disclosed by a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request revealed that LA Times Reporter Ken Dilanian, who had covered national security issues for the paper, had a collegial relationship with the CIA, giving them advanced copies of unpublished stories and opportunities to dispute details before those stories went to press. [14] According to those same CIA documents:

 the agency regularly invites journalists to its McLean, Va., headquarters for briefings and other events. Reporters who have addressed the CIA include the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius, the former ombudsmen for the New York Times, NPR, and [the] Washington Post, and Fox News’ Brett Baier, Juan Williams, and Catherine Herridge.

Additionally, the global interconnectivity of the internet has created a situation in which propaganda disseminated in foreign psychological operation (or PYSOPs,) by US military forces can easily find its way back to American viewers. [15][16] A document entitled “Information Operations Roadmap” that was produced by the Pentagon in 2003 stated that “information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and PSYOP, increasingly is consumed by our domestic audience and vice-versa.” [16] As part of a program by United States Central Command entitled Operation Earnest Voice, software is being utilized “that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.” [17] These false personalities, known as “sock-puppets,” are used to disseminate propaganda in chat rooms and on message boards in areas of the world that speak Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto. [17] Other governments such as Russia and China are also involved in activities that steer online discussions, and the corporate sector is increasingly looking to military-style counter-intelligence to advance their goals. [18] [19] [20] [21]

III. “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.” — Harry Truman

As the previous sections indicate, determining the reality of complex events, particularly politically fraught ones is rarely a simple task. Added to that, the historical frequency of conspiracy muddies the waters of understanding even further. With that in mind, a small sampling of historical conspiracies will provide some context before we parse the contemporary meaning of “conspiracy theory.”

In nature, animals use surprise and deception as effective strategies in their fight for survival. They use mimicry to frighten away predators as well as to lure in prey. They use camouflage to surprise a prospective meal as well as to avoid being on the menu.  In the same way, humans throughout history have used various types of subterfuge to attain their goals (conspiracies are often referenced with different terms like deception, subterfuge, covert actions, clandestine operations, etc). The apocryphal Trojan horse, depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid is an archetypical example of the use of conspiracy and deceit to win a war.  In the 5th Century BC, Sun Tzu penned the line “Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline, simulated fear postulates courage, simulated weakness postulates strength.” [22]

Indeed, conspiracy is woven into the fabric of human history as a common and effective tactic used to acquire power, foment wars, and manipulate the political will of the people. In one of the best-known examples of antiquity, Plutarch recalls the assassination of Julius Caesar by a crowd of Roman Senators in 44 BC:

…he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, ‘You too, my child?” All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, until finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home. [23]

Centuries later, Shakespeare immortalized a foiled plot to assassinate Henry V prior to his victory at the famous battle of Agincourt in the summer of 1415 (Shakespeare embellished the historical details, adding French conspirators to the plot). The scheme had centered around an attempt by three nobles to replace Henry with the Earl of March, who promptly turned them in when he learned of the conspiracy, which allowed him to keep his head. [24] [25]

In 1871, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad created the South Improvement Company to serve as a means of fixing railroad freight prices, which had been falling, by allying with John D. Rockefeller and other large oil refiners. The scheme would have undercut and ultimately destroyed smaller refineries, who could not match the prices of refineries involved in the SIC. Muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell, who’s father was one such independent oilman recalled: “Nobody waited to find out his neighbor’s opinion. On every lip there was but one word, and that was ‘conspiracy.’ For weeks the whole body of oil men abandoned regular business and surged from town to town intent on destroying the ‘Monster,’ the ‘Forty Thieves,’ the ‘great Anaconda,’ as they called the mysterious South Improvement Company.” Despite the exposure, and ultimate dissolution of the SIC’s corporate charter, Rockefeller had been quietly buying up his competitors, purchasing 22 of 26 of them in just six week, in what became know as the “Cleveland Massacre.” [26]

In the 20th Century, the conspiratorial act with perhaps the most far-reaching consequences was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Without realizing that this act would accelerate the slide towards general war in Europe (World War I), a pan-Slavic Serbian Nationalist group called the Black Hand sent six assassins to Sarajevo to kill the Archduke with the intention of advancing their goal of breaking off a Slavic portion of Austria-Hungary to form Yugoslavia. [27][28]

While the entire tenure of the Nazi party in Germany was marked by various intrigues, the “Gleiwitz Incident” stands out as a well-known usage of false-flag tactics. [32] On August 22, 1939 Hitler told his generals “I will provide a propagandistic causus belli. Its credibility does not matter.”[29] With that, SS and Abwehr units were sent to points near the German/Polish frontier, where they would masquerade as Polish soldiers and attack German soil as part of Operation Himmler. On the night of August 25/26, SS men dressed as Polish soldiers attacked the radio station at Gleiwitz, broadcast some incitements in Polish, and left behind an executed concentration camp prisoner as ‘proof’ of Polish aggression. On September 1st 1939, the German Wehrmacht went rolling into Poland, and World War II had begun. [30][31]

In another instance of flase-flag tactics, CIA backed Cuban exiles painted several B-26B bomber aircraft to resemble Cuban military aircraft to sow confusion as they undertook a military incursion to oust Castro in the now infamous Bay of Pigs debacle. [33][34]

On May 31st, 1972, a bomb planted in a Fiat 500 exploded outside the small Italian village of Peteano, killing three Carabinieri and wounding one more. An anonymous call to police two days later implicated a Communist terrorist group known as the Red Brigade. In fact the bombing had been carried out by members of the Italian right, under the auspices of Operation Gladio. Gladio was an expansive Cold War-era network of NATO-backed “stay behind’” operatives trained in covert operations including communication, infiltration, sabotage, terrorism, and assassination, in case of Soviet invasion. Italian Judge Felice Casson eventually identified right-winger Vincenzo Vinciguerra as the man who planted the bomb. In a strategy intended to frighten Italy’s population away from Communist and Socialist movements and towards the Italian state, violent attacks were committed by members of this network and then blamed on the left. As Vinciguerra related:

You had to attack civilians, the people, women, children, innocent people, unknown people far removed from any political fame. The reason was quite simple. They were supposed to force these people, the Italian public, to turn to the State to ask for greater security. This is the political logic that lies behind all the massacres and the bombings which remain unpunished, because the State cannot convict itself or declare itself responsible for what happened. [35]

An example of the spectacularly poor usage of covert operations occurred in 1985, which demonstrated how fraught high-stakes conspiracies can be. At the time, the environmentalist group Greenpeace was involved in protesting nuclear weapons testing by the French in the South Pacific. In response the French foreign intelligence agency (DGSE) carried out a terrorist bombing on the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior, which sank the ship where it was moored at a port in Auckland, and killed one of its crew. Most of the operatives involved in the operation escaped or received light sentences, although the incident was a major source of embarrassment for the French government. [36][37]

In 2011 information surfaced that major US and European banks were colluding in a process to manipulate global interest rates of nearly $500 trillion worth of financial instruments, in the so called Libor scandal (The London Interbank Offered Rate is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks in London that the average leading bank would be charged if borrowing from other banks). [38 ][ 39] MIT professor Andrew Lo said the scandal “dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets.” [40]

IV. “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” — Joseph McCarthy

In the previous sections, we attempted to sketch out a rough outline of the difficulties faced in attempting to understand history, from our shared human limitations, as well as from the obfuscating effects of propaganda. We then took a very truncated look at the reality of historical and modern conspiracies. Taken together, these sections form a frame through which we can begin to parse the meaning and importance of the idea of “conspiracy theory” in contemporary discourse.

Conspiracy theories have arguably been present in human culture since before the dawn of recorded history. For example, religious mythologies have sought to reality through the actions of omnipotent and hidden actors pulling the strings to direct world affairs. Closer to the modern era, the first ‘third party’ political organization formed in the fledgling United States, the Anti-Masonic Party, was created in 1828 as a response to the perceived threat that Free Masons posed to the young republic. [41].

American historian Richard Hofstadter conjectured in his well-know essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” “that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population.” (This writer highly recommends this essay.) [42]

While paranoid thinking stretches back beyond antiquity, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and it’s contemporary usage have their roots in the 20th century[43][44]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for an unexplained event,” but there is more to the phrase than this literal definition. [45] Philosopher Karl Popper did much to define our modern usage of ‘conspiracy theory’ when he said in his book The Open Society and its Enemies:

…I shall briefly describe a theory which is widely held but which assumes what I consider the very opposite of the true aim of social sciences; I call it the ‘conspiracy theory of society’. It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed), and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.

This view of the aims of the social sciences arises, of course, from the mistaken theory, that, whatever happens in society – especially happenings such as war, unemployment, poverty, shortages, which people as a rule dislike – is the result of direct design by some powerful individuals and groups. This theory is widely held; it is older even than historicism (which, as shown by its primitive theistic form, is a derivative of the conspiracy theory). In its modern forms it is, like modern historicism, and a certain modern attitude towards ‘natural laws’, a typical result of the secularization of a religious superstition. The belief in the Homeric gods whose conspiracies explain the history of the Trojan War is gone. The gods are abandoned. But their place is filled by powerful men or groups – sinister pressure groups whose wickedness is responsible for all the evils we suffer from – such as the Learned Elders of Zion, or the monopolists, or the capitalists, or the imperialists. [46]

The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was also popularized by its dissemination at the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Agency directed this memo to “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors)” that sought to rebut accruing criticisms of the Warren Commission Report that ascribed sole responsibility for the JFK assassination to Lee Harvey Oswald:

Conspiracy theories have frequently thrown suspicion on our organization, for example by falsely alleging that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for us. The aim of this dispatch is to provide material countering and discrediting the claims of the conspiracy theorists. [47]

It went on to recommend the employment of “propaganda assets to [negate] and refute the attacks of the critics.”

The propagation of this term as a pejorative, associated with a mythologized worldview and shoddy thinking as Popper described it has become a hallmark of its usage. The media is replete with examples of the strange beliefs of conspiracists as well as attempts at discerning some psychological cause for these beliefs. [48] [49] [50] [51] [52] [53][54]

Indeed, in the age of the internet, it is easier than ever to find and propagate such perspectives. And no one expresses what Popper described as the “conspiracy theory of society” better than former footballer and counter-culture gadfly David Icke. Icke states in his book “The Biggest Secret” that a group he refers to as ‘the Babylonian Brotherhood’ have not only shaped society but built it from scratch as a means of control:

The present magnitude of the Brotherhood control did not happen in a few years, even decades or centuries: it can be traced back thousands of years. The structure of today’s institutions in government, banking, business, military and the media have not been infiltrated by this force, they were created by them from the start.  The Brotherhood Agenda is, in truth, the Agenda of many Millennia. It is the unfolding of a plan, piece by piece, for the centralized control of the planet. [55]

As one might imagine, the internet and our larger culture is as equally populated with criticisms of Icke and the subculture he inhabits as it is with conspiracy theories themselves. As absurd as Icke’s views may seem, many take conspiracy theory very seriously, as evidenced by the comments of Cass Sunstein, Obama administration official and law professor, who stated “What can government do about conspiracy theories? …our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories…” [43]

Civil society and academia are also replete with people concerned about the impact that such “viral memes” can have on society [56][57]. The most vigorous refutations of conspiracy theorizing come from self described “skeptics’” who generally consider themselves to be scientific rationalists that are battling the forces of ignorance, superstition, and pernicious beliefs that undermine societal stability. As one philosopher and skeptic states:

So what this all comes down to is this: A conspiracy theory is an irrational, instinctual thought process which puts to the fore the greatest fears in our minds. The conspiracy theorist is deluded into believing that the fear they feel is the fear everyone else feels, and they find avenues of opening up the dark recesses of our minds to the “truth”. The rational skeptic is that person who intellectually approaches a problem, investigates the problem rationally, deduces a conclusion, and affirms or rejects the hypothesis. The skeptic and the conspiracy theorist are, for all intents and purposes, in each others company, but the fine line that separates them is ultimately logic. [58]

To some critics, the term ‘Conspiracy theory’ has become synonymous with pathological “apophenia” (the experience of perceiving patterns or connections in random or meaningless data). Most popular media concerning the subject focus on the psychopathologies of those considered to be afflicted with this disorder. [59] [60] [61]

Professional skeptic Michael Shermer enjoys the archetypal incarnation of this perspective, having penned numerous articles and a book on the subject of irrational conspiratorial thinking. The thesis of his book The Believing Brain states:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. [62]

In an article penned for the LA times Shermer goes on to articulate three psychological causes for ‘conspiracy thinking’, the first of which is “cognitive dissonance”: “discomfort felt when holding two ideas that are not in harmony. We attempt to reduce the dissonance by altering one of the ideas to be in accord with the other.”

A second stated cause is the “monological belief system,” or “a unitary, closed-off worldview in which beliefs come together in a mutually supportive network.”

Shermer’s third stated cause is “”confirmation bias,” or the tendency to look for and find confirming evidence for what you already believe and to ignore disconfirming evidence. [63]

He goes on to describe the potential dark side to these mental tendencies, namely individual disaffection with societal institutions. And of course, Shermer is rightfully critical about such delusional tendencies. They can lead to the belief in a facile reality, not only denuded of complexity and nuance, but underscoring a simplistic fundamentalism in which ‘”Babylonian Brotherhoods” or “reptilian shape shifters” control our vast reality. [63]

What is problematic about Shermer’s perspective is not the public service he and other skeptics provide in teaching about concepts such as scientific rationalism, evolutionary psychology, and the neurological basis of belief (indeed the world would be a better place if more people were aware of such ideas). It is the line he draws between what Gore Vidal famously termed “conspiracy analysis” and “conspiracy theory.” [64]

As an example, Shermer incorrectly includes JFK assassination researchers in the amorphous group of conspiracy theorists beset with the monological belief system that David Icke typifies. Whether or not the reader believes that there is any veracity to alternative theories to JFK’s assassination is secondary to the fact that Shermer is discounting the beliefs of people like philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, attorney and forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, attorney Mark Lane, and many others, that arrived at their beliefs not through confirmation bias, but through careful consideration. Dissident historian Michael Parenti states it thusly:

…the question of whether a conspiracy exists in any particular situation has to be decided by an investigation of evidence, not by patronizing presumptions about the public mind. Investigators who concluded there were conspiracies in the Kennedy and King murders did not fashion “large mysterious causes” but came to their conclusions through painstaking probes of troubling discrepancies, obvious lies, and blatant cover-ups. They have been impelled not by the need to fashion elaborate theories but by the search for particular explanations about some simple and compelling truths. [65]

It is not the fact that the term is used as slur by skeptics that is problematic, nor that its usage as a slur is often warranted, but the troubling fact that there are no clear boundaries on what is to be considered conspiracy theory and what is not. As such, its usage as a pejorative is dangerously fraught with political and cultural bias. A telling example can be found in Noam Chomsky, often considered to be the gold standard of leftist intellectualism, who is derided as a conspiracy theorist in his now classic film “Manufacturing Consent.” Such criticisms are all the more ironic as Chomsky often rebukes conspiracy theory: “The phrase “conspiracy theory” is one of those that’s constantly brought up, and I think it’s effect simply is to discourage institutional analysis.” [66][67]

V. “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation afraid of its people.” — John F. Kennedy

So where does this leave the critical thinker, aware of conspiracy but unwilling to become a conspiracy theorist? If “conspiracy theory” is just one more rhetorical weapon to be used as a barrier to discourse, what can one take away from its deployment?

If anything, the importance of linguistic semantics and the nuanced use of language should be central to one’s approach toward parsing the various layers of confusion and misdirection that can accrete around controversial topics. In addition to a critical approach to semantics, the understanding that ambiguity is also an omnipresent component of all historical events is needed. As such, we should undertake the Sisyphean task of attempting to attain a balance between critical analysis, spurred by curiosity on one hand, and an acceptance of the ultimately unknowable on the other. Such radical agnosticism, while intellectually dissatisfying, is crucial to the study of conspiracy (and conspiracy theory), lest we become ensnared in Mr. Shermer’s “monological world view,” trying to divine coded messages in the cracks in the pavement.


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