1. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    History of the Term "Conspiracy Theory"

    The term "conspiracy theory" is used to describe any theory that attempts to characterize observed events as the result of some secret conspiracy. The term is often used dismissively, implying that the theory is implausible.

    Although conspiracy theories (particularly aimed at Jews and Bankers) date back hundreds of years, the earliest usage of "conspiracy theory" do not always have this connotation, although the theories are quite often dismissed in other ways. Usually it's simply a way of identifying the theory from other theories - as in "the theory that happens to have a conspiracy"

    The first usage I could find was from 1870, The Journal of mental science: Volume 16 - Page 141

    1890 - Some kind of political conspiracy, mostly ridiculed
    http://books.google.com/books?id=ziIgAQAAMAAJ&dq="conspiracy theory"&pg=PA608-IA7#v=onepage&q="conspiracy theory"&f=false

    Here from a review of theories about the causes of the secession of the South, 1895.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=f9ghAQAAMAAJ&dq="conspiracy theory"&pg=PA394#v=onepage&q="conspiracy theory"&f=false

    Also on the same topic 1895
    http://books.google.com/books?id=GkIxAQAAMAAJ&dq="conspiracy theory"&pg=RA16-PA27#v=onepage&q="conspiracy theory"&f=false

    Given the multiple usages on the subject of succession, 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"

    1899, this is more like it, from an article discussing various conspiracy theories regarding South Africa. And an early debunking:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=cHdNAAAAYAAJ&dq="conspiracy theory"&pg=PA227#v=onepage&q="conspiracy theory"&f=false
    Here it's seeming to move towards its current use with an implied "far-fetched" prepended.

    Some people get a bit upset when you use the term "conspiracy theory", so I think it's good to be clear on what you mean. One might say "I know it when I see it", like say 9/11 no-plane theories, or fake moon-landing theories. I think Aaronovitch has something right here:

    Aaronovitch, David (2010-01-19). Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (pp. 5-6). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
    Regarding the theory that the term was invented by the CIA in 1967, it might be useful to gather examples of usage from the decades before, and the decades after. Also an inflection point might be the JFK assassination itself on NOv 22, 1963.

    One 1962 reference is:
    Walter Wilcox. "The Press of the Radical Right: An Exploratory AnalysisJournalism & Mass Communication Quarterly - Walter Wilcox, 1962." Journals.sagepub.com, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/107769906203900202. Accessed 26 Aug. 2017.

    The referenced 1960 work by Baum seems to only exist in a few libraries.
    It is however referenced by many books on conspiracy theories.

    Looking at this list of dissertation theses:
    http://crws.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/shared/docs/ACADEMIC Theses & Dissertations Biblio 10-10-13.pdf
    there's lots of entries like:
    Common phrases are "The Conspiracy theory of History" and "The Conspiracy Theory of Politics". Both of these terms seem to most commonly refer to a world-wide Jewish conspiracy (theory) They mostly come after 1963 and 1967, but there's:
    This usage of "The conspiracy theory of..." may well date back to Karl Popper in "The Open Society and Its Enemies", 1950. In which he writes:
    It's worth noting the highly influential 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" which, while it does not use the term "conspiracy theory" still uses the word "conspiracy" in the context of this "paranoid style".
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2018
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  2. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    I also like this from Thomas Paine, who Aaronovitch quotes in support of the above

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  3. Oxymoron

    Oxymoron Banned Banned

    There is much confusion about what a conspiracy theory is. It can range from 'the Queen is a reptilian shapeshifter' to 'JFK wasn't assassinated by a lone gunman'.

    Some Conspiracy Theories, (CT's), have greater traction and more support than others.

    The term Conspiracy Theory was allegedly first used by the CIA but that is disputed.

    A conspiracy theory is defined as:

    An example of a conspiracy theory that becomes validated as fact is:

    Conspiracy Theorists are not loony as portrayed and there are many examples of Conspiracy Theories that became Conspiracy Fact
  4. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    "Conspiracy theory" has become a derogatory term because people believe that their theory actually IS conspiracy fact. There would be no problem if they said "it's just a theory", but they don't - they say things like "it's obvious that WTC2 was brought down with explosives".

    They are not really conspiracy theorists, they are conspiracy assertionists.

    Hmm, conspiracy assertionists. I might start using that.
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  5. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Drat, someone beat me to it:

  6. Pete Tar

    Pete Tar Moderator Staff Member

    This seems a clear debunking that the CIA originated the term as a discrediting psyop.
  7. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    The claim is more that they "popularized" it, as a dismissive term.
  8. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    If you read CIA Document 1035-960, Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report, you'll see that there is nothing in there about using the term "Conspiracy Theory" to discredit people. Instead it focuses on addressing the claims directly, and suggesting those making the claims are communists.

    I'm including it in full here, as it's fascinating to compare something 50 years ago with what's happening now. The same old stuff coming up again and again:

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  9. Bill

    Bill Senior Member

    For me the most defining aspect of a conspiracy theory is the inability of its advocates to admit the theory is in error in spite of overwhelming evidence disproving the theory. This is usually accompanied by the constant redefinition of term to restate the same idea and the assertion that "they" are withholding or suppressing the truth.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2013
  10. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Interesting that text is not in the 1950 edition, but is in the fifth edition from 1966. I wonder when it was added:

    Link to 1st edition

    Link to 5th edition:
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2017
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  11. Cyber

    Cyber New Member

    Funny thing is, most people who insist that the Bin Laden conspiracy theory is real have done no research besides watching the news and can offer no evidence besides the word of authorities like politicians. So I guess this makes the Bin Laden conspiracy theory a good example of what you would call "conspiracy assertion".
  12. Bob1990

    Bob1990 New Member

    While it may be reasonably concluded the phrases 'conspiracy theory' and 'conspiracy theorist' were not invented by the CIA, this does not dismiss the fact that in 1967 the CIA issued a Psychological Operations document on how to discredit those questioning the veracity of the Warren Commission Report. Whether they invented the phrases 'conspiracy theory / conspiracy theorist' or not is a diversion.

    They have been entirely successful, as fifty years later it is commonplace for people to dismiss concerns of a conspiracy by attacking the messenger by labelling them 'a conspiracy theorist'. It muddies the waters by 'debunking' that the CIA created these phrase(s), when the real issue is whether they mounted a Psychological Operation to discredit critics they label 'conspiracy theorists', which they did.

    Especially when approaching a complex, significant issue, the choice of exactly what to investigate/debunk is critical to the pursuit of truth.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2018
  13. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    They did neither. The CIA document, quoted in full above, barely uses the term, and there was no increase in the years directly after the document.
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  14. cianlang

    cianlang New Member

    Just a note regarding the term "conspiracy theory". This is a misnomer, resulting from the common confusion between the words "theory" and "hypothesis".

    A hypothesis can be defined as a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A theory, on the other hand, is actually a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.

    As you can see, there is a slight overlap between these concepts when it comes to the area of supposition. A hypothesis is always unproven, while a theory may or may not be considered proven. Theories are often developed from confirmation of a hypothesis or multiple hypotheses by repeated experimentation and observations. They can also be fluid in that future observations could partially or completely disprove the theory, or require that the theory be modified. A good example is Newton's gravitational theory, which was accurate according to the limits of observation in his time but was supplanted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. No serious physicist disputes the General Theory of Relativity, but there are aspects of gravitational theory that are less secure than others and could potentially be disproved or modified at a future time.

    In popular usage, the distinction between the terms hypothesis and theory has become blurred and the words are often used interchangeably. Why is this important? An excellent example is the argument often used by creationists against the Theory of Evolution. A favorite tactic is to claim that evolution is just a theory, hence unproven. They are exploiting the drift in meaning of the word "theory" over time. However, the Theory of Evolution is no less proven than the General Theory of Relativity.

    Therefore, there's really no such concept as a conspiracy theory. One could claim a field of knowledge called conspiracy theory, based on experiments and observations of various conspiracies. However, a claim of a conspiracy behind a specific event such as JFK's assassination could only be accurately called a "conspiracy hypothesis", and its proponents "conspiracy hypothesists".
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  15. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Dictionaries and actual usage disagree with you.

    Word meanings come from usage. In common use “theory” is used as “hypothesis”, so that’s what it means to most people.

    Ignoring common usage is a failure of communication. You can’t force a meaning on people. If anything science communicators need to adapt.
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  16. Latifa

    Latifa New Member

    You appear to be factually incorrect in your assertion without source that there was no increase after the document. Although I'm sure you would like to employ semantics such as: "barely uses" the term, and "directly" after the document.

    Source: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Conspiracy+theory,conspiracy+theorist&year_start=1900&year_end=1980&corpus=17&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1;,Conspiracy theory;,c0;.t1;,conspiracy theorist;,c0
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 21, 2018
  17. deirdre

    deirdre Moderator Staff Member

    if you use a 6 smoothing it actually decreases after 1967

    But perhaps the raw data would be best:
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  18. Latifa

    Latifa New Member

    Fair point, the default appears to be a smoothing of 3 and I didn't change it. How about the separate graphs without worrying about them both being represented relative to each other.

    (I failed at embeding the charts)

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=conspiracy+theory&year_start=1950&year_end=1990&corpus=17&smoothing=0&share=&direct_url=t1;,conspiracy theory;,c0

    https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=conspiracy+theorist&year_start=1950&year_end=1990&corpus=17&smoothing=0&share=&direct_url=t1;,conspiracy theorist;,c0
  19. Latifa

    Latifa New Member

  20. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Escaping The Rabbit Hole. In which I note:
    Basically his claim is debunked by actually reading the CIA document. He offers no real evidence beyond this.

    I also did a more detailed analysis of the usage of the term in newspapers
    01 Usage of the Term Conspricy Theory, Newspapers.
  21. Latifa

    Latifa New Member

    Oh I need to review your Escaping the Rabbit Hole exposition it would seem.

    We can both agree usage of the term as far as quantifiable documentation reflects, increased after the memo then.
  22. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    Well so did the number of televisions per household. But like the use of the term "conspiracy theory" it was something that was already on the rise, and did not detectably change its trajectory at that point in time.

    There's no measurable effect from that memo, and why on Earth would there be? The memo does not encourage the use of the term, it does not discuss the term, it just briefly uses the term in a way that perfectly natural in context.

    The memo suggests a bunch of things. It does not suggest using the term conspiracy theory as a pejorative.
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  23. HitD

    HitD New Member

    None of the analysis provided thus far confronts the original claim, which says: "The CIA invented the term "Conspiracy Theory" in 1967 with memo 1035-960". The confused discussion which has so far transpired did so because of the incoherent manner in which the discussion was initially framed.

    Discussion began with the OP, which initially framed itself as a "History of the Term "Conspiracy Theory"" but then immediately provided a definition of the term which has no attribution or context, historical or otherwise. The next sentence in the post is highly ambiguous and difficult to parse, but it seems to be an immediate contradiction of the prior statement. It seems to be saying that the term 'conspiracy theory' didn't necessarily imply that the theory was implausible, depending on where and when it was used.

    After moving past these contradictory and incoherent statements, the post begins to analyse historical documents, which is welcome considering it intially framed itself as a history. However, I found this analysis to be flawed and misleading.

    According to the examples in the OP, usage of the phrase "conspiracy theory" before the 20th century seems to mean merely "a theory which explains something in terms of a conspiracy". Given that the authors of these examples see fit to analyze and criticize the "conspiracy theories" to which they refer, its clear that the term 'conspiracy theory' is not sufficient to illustrate that the theory is implausible in their mind.

    Mick West comes to a different conclusion regarding the 1899 example, an article about conspiracies regarding the Second Boer War. He states: "Here it's seeming to move towards its current use with an implied "far-fetched" prepended."

    There is no such implied "far-fetched" connotation as far as I can tell. To see why this is true, read the article. The first thing you will see is the article's title: "Conspiracies -- True and False". This seems to imply that a [theory of] conspiracy can be either true or false, just like any other proposition -- nothing about that implies "far-fetched".

    Analyzing the article's content, we see the author is drawing a distinction between two conspiracy theories, one which the author claims is inconsistent with what was currently understood about the situation, the other which he claims is consistent with available knowledge, but was misunderstood by its critics. If there were an implied "far-fetchedness" associated with the term "conspiracy" or "conspiracy theory" for this author, why would they use such terms to describe a theory which they are arguing is true? No explanation is provided by Mick which describes how he came to think that the terms imply an inherent "far-fetchedness". Can you elaborate? Its surprising to me that we arrived at such different interpretations.

    The examples provided which date to the decade or so before the release of the memo seem to ascribe varied meanings to the terms "conspiracy" and "conspiracy theory", one even using the word 'conspiracy' and then asking 'if this is the correct term'. Several of the examples are taken from a body of academic literature which is studying the ideology of the american extreme right, a highly specialized context with no clear relation to the context we are interested in. Another example given is Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies", the context of that text regards methodological considerations in the social sciences. The context of this piece is also highly specialized and doesn't reveal much about the meaning of the term 'conspiracy theory' in popular understanding or in the context of political conspiracies like the JFK assassination.

    However, even if the analysis of these texts had been done correctly, it wouldn't matter, because demonstrating that the phrase "conspiracy theory" was in use (and arguably was used pejoratively) before 1967 does not demonstrate that the modern term "conspiracy theory" could not have been invented by the CIA in 1967, because it does not demonstrate that the meaning of the modern term and the meaning of the previously existing term are identical.

    Terms are words or groups of words which have a specific meaning that depends on context. The two words "conspiracy theory" are nothing more than a symbol. On the other hand, the TERM "conspiracy theory" also includes the meaning which the symbol points toward.

    In other words, if a new meaning (distinct from the other prevailing meanings) of the term did take root in the popular understanding as a result of the 1967 memo, and that meaning was identical to contemporary understanding of the term, then it could be said that the CIA invented the term "conspiracy theory" as we understand it today.

    Thus far Mick West seems to be arguing against the idea that the symbols which read as, "conspiracy theory" had never been written before the CIA memo. That is not the statement the OP claimed to debunk.
  24. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    You seem to be focussing too much on the much older usages, which were simply precursors. A better thing to look at is Wilcox, ""The Press of the Radical Right: An Exploratory Analysis", 1962, and the prior 1960 work "The Conspiracy Theory of Politics of the Radical Right in the United States by William C. Baum".

    I cover this a lot more in my book, Escaping the Rabbit Hole.
    I think it's quite clear that it's being used in pretty much the same sense as today.

    The more popular usage of the term seems to have been given a bit of a boost, not in 1967 (when it simply rose as much as it had the previous year, and then went down), but in 1963-64, directly after the JFK assassination.


    If you search the newspaper archives from 1963 to 1966, you see numerous articles fueled in part by several books alleging a conspiracy, for example:
    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-37-22.

    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-39-24.
    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-39-48.

    This one is from April 21 1965:
    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-43-14.
    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-42-32.

    That last one in particular, from 1965, seems to be very similar to the modern usage. Especially the discussion the section titled "Holds Water"
  25. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member

    And while JFK certainly boosted the usage (for obvious reasons), it was not limited to it. Goldwater was often mentioned as someone who spread conspiracy theories (in much the same way that Trump is discussed now).

    Of particular interest here, not the term "Devil Theory", which is used largely synonymously with "conspiracy theory", and used to be the more common way for referring to these things (theories that ascribe events to the secret conspiring of powerful people)

    Bennington Banner, June 20, 1964
    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-49-46.
    Metabunk 2018-11-12 10-50-10.
  26. Mick West

    Mick West Administrator Staff Member