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A conspiracy theory is a theory which attempts to explain historical or current events as the result of a conspiracy (or conspiracies). The alleged conspirators may be accused of anything from manipulating governments, economies, or the legal system, to hiding important information of cultural or scientific significance. Generally, conspiracy theories are, by definition, unprovable.

The term conspiracy theory is sometimes also used refer to sociological attempts to study the phenomenon of conspiracy. For more information, see conspiracy.

There is a good deal of variation in the size of conspiracy theories: they range from small organisations to single governments to world-encompassing conspiracies that are linked to every major world body. Some conspiracy theories have been proved true, some have been proven false, but the majority remain unproven.

Conspiracy theorists are often considered paranoid and conspiracy theories are often associated with paranoid schizophrenia. Indeed, the diagnosis of schizophrenia has been used as a means of silencing political dissent, for example in the Soviet Union. (See: anti-psychiatry). The label of "conspiracy theory" has also been used to mock or denigrate social and political dissent, for instance when a powerful public figure is accused of corruption.

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Karl Popper claimed that true science is basically defined as a set of falsifiable theories. Critics of conspiracy theories sometimes argue that many of them are not falsifiable, and this makes them unscientific. For example, Jerry Bowyer[?], referring to allegations that the 2003 War in Iraq was the result of George W. Bush doing the bidding of oil companies, said that "I like this conspiracy theory better than the rest because it is one of the few that actually permits empirical disconfirmation". He considered that the declining share prices of oil companies was empirical evidence against this theory. [1] (http://www.nationalreview.com/nrof_comment/comment-bowyer103102.asp) One may also add that the subsequent lot of Irak's oil fields to major american oil companies is empirical evidence proving the theory.

In response to this objection to conspiracy theory, some argue that no political or historical theory is scientific by Popper's criteria because none reliably generate unambiguous, non-trivial, testable, and correct predictions. In fact, Popper himself rejected the claims of Marxism and psychoanalysis to scientific status on precisely this basis. (Most scientists today dispute the idea that Marxism is science at all; similarly, most neurobiologists and many psychiatrists now agree that classic forms of psychoanalysis have no scientific basis.) This does not necessarily mean that conspiracy theory, Marxism, and psychoanalysis are baseless, irrational, or false; only that they are not science by Popper's criteria.

In regards to the specific theory of an oil industry motivation for the 2003 Iraq war, conspiracy theorists respond that one of the first acts of the American-installed government was to call for the escalation of Iraqi oil production, undermining the OPEC oil cartel, which serves oil company interests. The fact that some data seem to falsify and other data to verify the conspiratorial view may indicate that a falsifiability standard is difficult or impossible to apply to situations where variables cannot be isolated, a problem not specific to conspiracy theories.

Some people distinguish between falsifiable accusations of conspiracy and unfalsifiable conspiracy theories.

Small scale conspiracies

Many groups of people conspire together all the time: the world is full of committees, clubs, corporations, political parties, standards bodies, and other organizations. Conspiracies have taken place throughout history, and some kinds of conspiracy, such as cartels, are crimes. At any given time, hundreds or thousands of conspiracies in the criminal sense are afoot. This kind of conspiracy is so widespread as to be unremarkable. It is in this sense that conspiracy theory collector Colin Wilson has remarked that conspiracy is "the normal continuation of normal politics by normal means."

Subjects of conspiracy theory

Assassinations are a classic subject of conspiracy theories. The assassination of a prominent figure is a singular event which can dramatically change the course of public affairs. Those drawn to conspiracy theory are led to ask, in the aftermath of an assassination, Who benefited from this death? Though many assassinations are committed by lone individuals, and many others by aboveboard governments (such as that of Leon Trotsky) there have been several assassinations whose purposes remain mysterious in the public eye -- and suspicious to the conspiracy theorist.

Best-known among assassination conspiracy theories in the United States are those dealing with a rash of seemingly politically motivated deaths in the 1960s, notably those of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. An individual acting alone, who was himself assassinated before standing trial, is generally considered to have assassinated President Kennedy. Criticism of this account has seeped into the mainstream with movies such as Oliver Stone's JFK. In the other two cases, a lone assassin was convicted.

Secret societies and fraternal societies have aroused nervousness from some non-members since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. A secret society is a club or organization whose members do not disclose their membership, and may be sworn to hold it secret. However, the term is also used in conspiracy theory to refer to fraternal organizations such as the Freemasons who do not conceal membership, but are thought to harbor secret beliefs or political agendas.

Conspiracy theory about the Freemasons goes back at least to the late 18th century. The Masons were accused of plotting the American and French Revolutions, the downfall of religion, and of dominating republican politics. Worry about Masonic conspiracy grew to such an extent in the early United States as to spawn a political party, the Anti-Masonic Party. The Bavarian Illuminati, a German secret society related to Masonry, also figures into conspiracy theories of that time.

The Popes in the last 3 centuries are the main protaganists of these conspiracy theories. Freemasonry was condemned primarily because of its view that all religions are equal, diametrically opposed to the Catholic belief that it is the only true religion. Since most Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals now agree with the Masonic princples condemned by the Church, new theories about the Masons have emerged such as that they are devil worshipers.

Suppressed inventions take conspiracy theory into the realm of business rather than politics. A typical suppressed-invention story is that of the incredibly efficient automobile carburetor, whose inventor was supposedly killed or hounded into obscurity by petroleum companies desirous to protect their business from an engine that would make their product obsolete. The subject of suppressed-invention conspiracy also touches on the realm of medical quackery: proponents of more unlikely forms of alternative medicine are known to allege conspiracy by mainstream doctors to suppress their cures, particularly when faced with charges of medical fraud.

Many governments use intelligence agencies to promote national policies in secretive ways -- in several cases including the use of sabotage, propaganda, and assassination. Intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, KGB, MI6, and Mossad, are a common element of political conspiracy theories precisely because they are known to participate in some activities similar to those described in conspiracy theories.

Particular technologies of surveillance and control arouse concern that has bordered upon, or crossed over into, conspiracy theory. These are technologies being developed by governments which are intended to intrude into the privacy or harm the persons of citizens, particularly dissenters. Conspiracy theories of this sort cast government agencies as pursuing vast technical powers in order to spy on people, control their minds, or otherwise suppress an alienated populace. Conspiracy theories of this sort include many about mind control and about unusual technical projects such as HAARP.

A class of present-day conspiracy theory with a dramatic effect upon regional politics is AIDS/HIV conspiracy. This divides by and large into two subcategories: allegations that HIV was created by a conspiratorial group or a secret agency as a tool of genocide, and claims that AIDS is not caused by HIV and that the HIV-AIDS connection is the propaganda of a conspiracy. The former allegation has become well-known in parts of the African-American community, usually with the United States government or "the Jews" as the virus's originator. The latter is largely confined to anti-homosexual groups in the West, but has become established in parts of Africa where the disease has had the worst toll.

Antisemitism has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories (which the present author does not feel prepared to describe, though they are an important category). Almost all of the anti-semitic conspiracy theories and indeed anti-semitism itself are tied to the practice of charging interest on loans (usury). It is claimed that since the Old Testament seems to ban interest on loans only to one's brothers, the Jews have historically made loans and charged interest to non-Jews, increasing their money and power. This is by far the most widespread conspiracy theory, found everywhere from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, to Nazi ideology, to mainline Catholic thought during the beginning of the 20th century (see Fr. Denis Fahey). Echoes of this are still widespread today, especially amongst progressive liberals who support Palestine and are against the World Bank.

A sector of conspiracy theory with a particularly detailed mythology has become the basis for numerous pieces of popular entertainment: the Area 51/Grey Aliens conspiracy. Simply put, this is the allegation that the United States government conspires with extraterrestrials involved in the abduction and manipulation of citizens. A variant tells that particular technologies -- notably the transistor -- were given to American industry in exchange for alien dominance. The enforcers of the clandestine association of human leaders and aliens are the Men in Black, who silence those who speak out on UFO sightings. This conspiracy theory has been the basis of numerous books, as well as the popular television show The X-Files and the movies Men in Black and Men in Black II[?].

The X-Files based the plots of many of its episodes around urban legends and conspiracy theories, and had a framing plot which postulated a set of interlocking conspiracies controlling all recent human history.

Conspiracy theory and urban legends The nexus between conspiracy theory and the urban legend is considerable: one need only consult American supermarket tabloids such as the Weekly World News to see foremost examples of both. Many urban legends, particularly those which touch on governments and businesses, have some but not all of the attributes of conspiracy theory.

For instance, during the 1980s the story that the Procter and Gamble company was affiliated with Satanism was a common urban legend in some circles. Is this tale, too, a conspiracy theory? It does allege secretive and presumedly harmful action (support of Satanism) on the part of a group (Procter & Gamble, or its leadership). However, it does not have the expansiveness or attempt at explanation of historical events which earmark a conspiracy theory. It is too simple.

Conspiracy theory in fiction Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

Particularly since the 1960s, conspiracy theory has been a popular subject of fiction. A common theme in such works is that characters discovering a secretive conspiracy may be unable to tell what is true about the conspiracy, or even what is real: rumors, lies, propaganda, and counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what is coincidence becomes an unmanageable question.

One of the more literarily acclaimed novels which draws on conspiracy themes is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, in which the staff of a publishing firm intending to create a series of popular occult books invent their own occult conspiracy, over which they lose control as it begins to be believed. Another is Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, whose background includes a secretive conflict between cartels dating back to the Middle Ages.

Illuminatus!, a trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is regarded by many as the definitive work of 20th-century conspiracy fiction. Set in the late '60s, it is a psychedelic tale which fuses mystery, science fiction, horror, and comedy in its exhibition (and mourning, and mocking) of one of the more paranoid periods of recent history. The popular, humorous trading card game Illuminati New World Order is based in part on Shea and Wilson's fantasy.

Other authors who have dealt with conspiracy themes include Philip K. Dick and Robert Ludlum. Some might also categorize several of the Cthulhu Mythos stories of H. P. Lovecraft and others as conspiracy-related, though they might be more closely described as occult horror.

(Something about Oliver Stone and JFK (movie) here -- I haven't seen it)

Real life imitates conspiracy theory A number of actual government organizations or plans have been described as resembling the stuff of conspiracy theories. Nonetheless, these are fully acknowledged by their respective governments as being, or having been, real:

Note: Please only add things to this category if their existence is non-controversial.

  • The United States Department of Defense Information Awareness Office (IAO) has many similarities to conspiracy theories. First, its avowed purpose is to gather and correlate information on ordinary citizens for the purpose of predicting terrorism and other crime. Second, its logo depicts the eye in the pyramid, a symbol associated with Illuminati and Masonic representations of power or divinity, casting a beam over the globe of the Earth. Lastly, the name "Iao" is a Gnostic word for God, used in the Golden Dawn[?] and Thelema among others. [2] (http://www.darpa.mil/iao/)
  • From the 1950s to the 1970s, the CIA and the U.S. Army operated a research program into mind control, codenamed MKULTRA. In this program, CIA agents gave LSD and other drugs to unwitting and unconsenting victims, in an effort to devise a working "truth serum" and/or mind-control drug. MKULTRA was uncovered by Presidential and Congressional research committees in 1975, and discontinued at that time.
  • Echelon is a communications interception network operated by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is designed to capture telephone calls, fax and e-mail messages. New Zealand has openly admitted the existence of Echelon, and the European Union commissioned a report on the system.
  • In the 2003 Iraq War, Iraqi resistance was strong at first and then collasped suddenly. A conspiracy theory emerged in Iraq and elsewhere that there had been a "safqua" - a secret deal - between the US and the Iraqi military elite, wherein the elite were bribed to stand down. This conspiracy theory was ignored or ridiculed in the US media.
    In late May, 2003, General Tommy Franks, who had been the head of the US forces in the conflict, confirmed in an interview with Defense News that the US government had paid off high-level Iraqi military officials and that they had stated that "I am working for you now". How important this was to the course of the conflict was not entirely clear at the time of this writing (May 24, 2003).

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Needs encyclopediafying

Just about anything associated with governments, Nazis, communists, ancient civilizations, or aliens has a conspiracy theory attached. They're very popular and form the basis of many popular books, movies, and TV shows.

Belief in imaginary conspiracies is also a feature of paranoia, which is a symptom of several diseases including paranoid schizophrenia.

Popular elements of some general theories include:

Global conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories peculiar to the United States of America

Conspiracy theories peculiar to Canada

Conspiracy theories peculiar to the Arab and Muslim world

  • Based on a traditional Islamic belief, a pseudo-academic theory in the Arab world posits that Jews never lived in the land of Israel, and that all archaeological proof to the contrary is part of an international western anti-Arab conspiracy. In this view, no archaeological evidence exists that shows the presence of a Jews in the land of Israel; the Bible's claims are deliberate fictions, and the ancient Jews actually came from Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula. See the entry on Bible conspiracy theories for more details.

Plot to murder Princess Diana (http://www.news-star.com/stories/122697/new_conspire)
  • For some time the Arab press was reporting that that there was a plot by Jews to make Egyptian and Palestinian schoolgirls sexually promiscuous by selling them bubble-gum laced with aphrodisiacs. An example of this conspiracy theory is that written by Mohammad Dalbah:
"Palestinian authorities uncovered Israeli efforts to spread a special kind of gum that contains sexual hormone between Palestinians. The authorities requested laboratory tests on the gum which were conducted in Cairo. Those tests showed that the gum contains progesterone which is responsible for sexual arousal and also and also prevents pregnancies. Palestinian authorities confiscated 200 tonnes of gum in the city of al-Khalil alone. The Washington Post claimed in report that it asked a chemistry professor in the hebrew university to examine the gun. His tests were negative, however the paper also reported that the majority of Palestinians believe the conspiracy. It quoted one Palestinian saying that it was possible to send a space ship to Mars then it is possible to manufacture a 'sexual gum' it is after all a war. In other new, some Jewish and non-ethical Palestinians merchants sold expired flour in the west back and Gaza strip last spring. They also sold large quantities of baby milk when it was actually soya bean derivatives that were expired."
Another example of believer in the anti-Arab bubblegum conspiracy (http://www.al-muslim.org/magazines/al-mjtama-1262)
This story is particularily interesting, as it closely resembles a story of LSD-laced papers or candies which continues to periodically surface in the US. In this case the story is considered to be an urban rumor[?] as opposed to a conspiracy theory, because no group is blamed for the "attacks". Like the Palestinian case, there is no evidence that anything like this has ever happened.
  • On several occasions, Palestinians have claimed that the Israeli government has used nerve gas against them, and then suppressed the evidence of such.
  • September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack/Zionist conspiracy theories
  • Some Arabs, mostly Egyptians, believe that Israelis engineered the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990[?] in 1999, despite strong evidence that the pilot committed suicide. Others insist that the US is covering up for Boeing, the airplane's manufacturer: [3] (http://www-tech.mit.edu/V119/N60/egyptair_60.60w), [4] (http://www.wsws.org/articles/1999/nov1999/air-n24.shtml)
  • Theory that US President Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was part of a Zionist plot to get rid of Bill Clinton.
  • Many in the Arab world believe that Jewish doctors deliberately give Palestinians AIDS. January 1995, Al-Ahram: Examples of Arab conspiracy theories (http://www.adl.org/egyptian_media/old_egyptian_conspiracy)
  • Conspiracy theories in Arab discourse, from "Arab News": [5] (http://www.arabnews.com/Article.asp?ID=9884)
  • Anti-Semitic shuttle conspiracy theories swamp the Internet (http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=264824&contrassID=2&subContrassID=1&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y)
  • Anti-Semitic groups promote Columbia conspiracy theories (http://www.adl.org/Anti_semitism/columbia.asp)

Daniel Pipes has written an essay on the prevalence of conspiracy theories throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Conspiracy theories extend far beyond those biased against Jews. They extend even to the creation of conspiracy theories about the results of sporting events. Analysis of conspiracy theories in the Arab world (http://www.danielpipes.org/books/hiddenchap.shtml)

See also:

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