Dispensing With The “Conspiracy Theory” Label

by Bryan Sacks

Approximately 40 years ago, psychologist David Rosenhan conducted a daring experiment.1 He and seven confederates presented themselves for psychiatric evaluation at several psychiatric institutions, with each claiming to hear voices that said “empty,” “hollow,” or “thud.” All eight were subsequently admitted to the hospitals in all but one case with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Once entry was gained, each was instructed to tell hospital staff that he or she felt better, and desired to be discharged.

In reality, of course, neither Rosenhan nor his confederates were hearing voices or having any symptoms of mental illness. None had any psychiatric history whatsoever, in fact.

Rosenhan’s experiment sought to determine just how long it would take for the psychiatric experts in a hospital setting to figure out that the pseudopatients were not mentally ill. The results were alarming. The pseudopatients were not easily detected – in fact they were never detected to be pseudopatients by hospital staff. Each was eventually discharged with a statement that their disorder was “in remission,” after stints as “patients” lasting between seven and 51 days.

The study produced great controversy that lives to this day, with defenders of psychiatry pointing – and not without some merit – to methodological shortcomings in Rosenhan’s study. But those critics have not defused the central question animating Rosenhan’s study. He asked:

Do the salient characteristics that lead to diagnoses reside in the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them?2

His study seemed to offer support for the latter claim, one that was being championed in the anti-psychiatry movement of the time.

Now, almost everyone knows the term “conspiracy theory.” Yet it’s not always clear just what is a conspiracy theory, and what is not. Is it the specific content of an argument that makes a conspiracy theory, or is it something else?

Echoing Rosenhan’s concern, a recent book by a professor of journalism and media studies, Jack Bratich, asks: “Is a conspiracy theory defined primarily by its internal narrative characteristics or by its external discursive position? In other words is it something inherent in the theory itself or is it more about the forums it appears in, its relation to other theories and the legitimation accorded it?”3

The answer matters a great deal, because the term “conspiracy theory” is not a neutral descriptor; it is commonly deployed as a term of disqualification for narratives that may, on their merits, deserve consideration. Further, when attached to a writer or thinker, the label “conspiracy theorist” can carry a stigma similar in kind (if not degree) to that suffered by those designated “mentally ill.”

As will be evident to anyone who takes up the subject, far from denoting all possible conspiracies in the legal sense, the term “conspiracy theory” often, though not always, pertains to suggestions of purposeful wrongdoing on the part of authorities charged with preventing such wrongdoing, or more generally any misconduct by trusted persons that goes directly against either express or reasonable expectations of their behavior. Hypothesizing, for instance, that the police have a hand in the creation of crime is indulging in conspiracy theory, because the express purpose of police behavior is preventing and confronting crime, not cultivating it. With respect to the 9/11 attacks, the hypothesis that US intelligence and/or military officials were complicit in the attacks either by willful negligence or covert participation is a conspiracy theory, because the express purpose of military and intelligence operations is protection of citizens, and to scheme to attack them would be a great perversion of this trust. It can also be a conspiracy theory to simply suggest that a government official would murder an associate, or to suggest that law enforcement is covering up serious crime on the part of high officials.

Helicopter over JonestownWith respect to Jonestown and Peoples Temple, the claim that the CIA was involved in mind-control experiments in Jonestown involving Jones or his top aides would be a conspiracy theory (even though it is a matter of public record that the CIA conducted experiments on unsuspecting US citizens during the MK-ULTRA period, and that a huge cache of psychoactives and tranquilizers were found on site at Jonestown after the suicides and murders). It would also be a conspiracy theory to argue that the US government or any of its intelligence arms entered Jonestown after the deaths for the purpose of covering up aspects of what was discovered there, or for the purpose of manipulating crime scene evidence. And it certainly would be a conspiracy theory to charge that a unit of Green Berets was tasked with a “mopping up” after the horrible events of November 18, 1978, including the rounding up and killing of survivors who may have fled into the jungle.4

In so-called conspiracy theories, then, there is an inversion of socially expected behavior by a trusted institution or group of individuals, undertaken through secrecy or cover.

Yet with respect to their internal structure or content, it’s not clear there are any universal distinguishing features of theories denoted “conspiratorial” (in the pejorative sense of the term). Narratives that bear similarities to those described above can and do escape being so designated, and other narratives lacking in these constitutive features can be nevertheless designated “conspiracy theories.”

This website contains examples of articles in which the designation “conspiracy theory” has proven contentious. For example, in his article Jim Jones and the Conspiracists, contributor Jim Hougan offers the following distinction between his work and the output of “conspiracists”:

an investigative reporter mines the public record for news that has not yet broken, revealing circumstances and events that are at once important and concealed.

A conspiracist does much the same, but his product differs from the investigative reporter’s in a very important way. That is to say, it is unverifiable.5

Hougan was responding to having been designated a “professional conspiracist” by Dr. Rebecca Moore in her essay Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown. Also included in this category was John Judge, who authored The Black Hole of Guyana. Yet Hougan’s response is curious. Virtually everything John Judge posits in his heavily-footnoted article is theoretically verifiable on the basis of evidence. Hougan and Moore seem to agree that Judge’s ideological opposition to US intelligence colors his work, but even if that’s true, it doesn’t show that the specific claims Judge makes aren’t verifiable (or that his ideological assumptions aren’t appropriate).

Judge makes several surprising factual claims on the basis of what he says is years of research. Among the most controversial is the last in this cluster, which concern the immediate aftermath of the disaster in Jonestown:

At least a hundred Guyanese troops were among the first to arrive, and they were ordered to search the jungle for survivors.[24] In the area, at the same time, British Black Watch troops were on “training exercises,” with nearly 600 of their best-trained commandos. Soon, American Green Berets were on site as well.[25] The presence of these soldiers, specially trained in covert killing operations, may explain the increasing numbers of bodies that appeared.6

Judge bases his conclusion on what he regards to be the inadequately-explained revision of the death count in the week following the deaths at Jonestown. He reminds us that in the first reportage, major US newspapers were reporting that hundreds of Jonestown residents had fled into the jungle. Given the seeming disingenuousness of the explanations forwarded for the mushrooming death toll (“Bodies had fallen on top of other bodies?” “No one had walked around to the other side of the pavilion for almost a week, where hundreds of other bodies lay?” “The Guyanese can’t count?”7), it seems reasonable to suspect a cover-up of some sort, no matter what the actual events.

During a recent conversation, Judge told me8 that the claim about the presence of British Black Watch troops originated in a magazine article entitled “Jocks in the Jungle” (I have not been able to track it down as of yet). He also told me that the British Broadcasting Company contacted him about a special it was planning on Jonestown for the 20th anniversary, and that its investigators followed up on the leads Judge supplied and

interviewed some of the Black Watch troops present in Guyana. The troops revealed that they were ordered to shoot to kill anyone attempting to escape the area through the woods, armed or not, and did kill people.

True or not, these claims are in theory verifiable and are open to individual determinations of credibility and explanatory value. It’s hard to see what is the value of labeling them “conspiracy theory” beyond allowing critics to indulge in distancing themselves from the author of the claim.

In further response to Moore, here is Hougan’s own statement of his controversial thesis on the subject of Jim Jones:

What I do believe is that, until 1970, Jim Jones was a government informant, working against black religious organizations such as Father Divine’s. (The evidence for this is laid out in the article I wrote for Lobster. Whether that argument is convincing or not is for the reader to decide. But the footnotes are there. The sources are respectable. And the documents I’ve cited are easily retrieved.)

That said, my belief that Jones was a government informant is probably not the reason that Dr. Moore corrals me in the conspiracists’ ghetto. After all, only a professional idiot would fail to question Jones’ bona fides. Even if we overlook his 201 file at the CIA and his strange association with Dan Mitrione (a notorious spook), it is a matter of blatant fact that our Hoosier’s lifework culminated in the violent deaths of more than 900 men, women and children of the Left. That this catastrophe occurred in what might be called “the age of COINTELPRO” seems to me a circumstance sufficiently out of the ordinary as to merit unusual scrutiny and skepticism.

So… if I don’t allege a conspiracy, why does Dr. Moore include me in the conspiracist’s camp? [my emphasis]9

Although Moore doesn’t say so and despite his denial, Hougan is positing a conspiracy in the sense I outlined above. Why does he think he is not? Not merely, it seems, because his thesis is based on sourced material, but also because he believes his suspicion falls within the confines of reasonable speculation, given the government-sponsored illegal covert activity during “the age of COINTELPRO.” I happen to agree. But why doesn’t Hougan worry that his own ideological loyalties might impinge on his objectivity, in the way he believes Judge’s do? If “the age of COINTELPRO” warrants suspicion of the sort Hougan indulges in, why does it not warrant suspicion of the sort Judge gives voice to with regard to the “mop-up” operation? Judge sources his claims. One can check them as well as Hougan’s. So it’s not clear how the arguments of Hougan and Judge are distinguishable on the “verifiability” criterion.

Moore responded to Hougan’s piece, saying she should not have labeled him a “professional conspiracist,” but also that:

I described Mr. Hougan’s article in Lobster as falling within the genre of conspiracy literature. I stand by that statement, and I believe other readers of the article would agree. Indeed, given Lobster’s self-description as “the Journal of Parapolitics that includes International Intelligence, Conspiracy Theories and Government Abuse,” I believe the editors published Mr. Hougan’s piece because of its conspiracy themes.10

What, one wonders, would be such themes? Moore doesn’t say, but perhaps she believes she knows them when she sees them (as do the editors of Lobster, apparently)? In the absence of a clear determination of what makes the content of Hougan’s article conspiratorial, readers are justified in wondering whether the article’s inclusion in Lobster played some role in Moore’s determination that it “fell within the genre of conspiracy literature.”

Moore does seem sensitive to the deployment of “conspiracy theory” as a term of disqualification or derision. She states:

The word “conspiracy” works much the same way the word “cult” does to discredit advocates of a certain view or persuasion. Historians do not use the word “conspiracy” to describe accurate historical reports. On the contrary, they use it to indicate a lack of veracity and objectivity. I am not using the word “conspiracy” in this derogatory sense, but rather in a descriptive way to mark those views which depart from popular or scholarly explanations of what happened in Jonestown.11

Thus Moore states she is not positing a prescriptive judgment on the factual content of articles like Judge’s, but identifies them as explanations that “depart from popular or scholarly explanations.” Precisely how they depart, of course, has to be shown. From the above, we might suspect that departure includes a favoring of certain themes, the kind absent in scholarly and popular work.

Here is what Moore says about conspiracy theories in general:

The conspiracist begins with the completed puzzle, however, rather than its pieces, or in Timothy Melley’s phrase, “the master narrative” (Melley 8). Although Melley says that conspiracies are “hermetically sealed,” I would assert that conspiracy theories are also hermetically sealed, due to a worldview which abhors both coincidence and ambiguity.12

In the absence of specific proof that the people labeled conspiracists in her article actually have this such a worldview, a statement like this is irresponsible and liable to produce unintended consequences for the author. While Moore’s description is no doubt characteristic of some thinkers, it carries a large burden of proof since it purports knowledge of the mind of another researcher (“begins with the completed puzzle”) and takes the supposed motivation or psychological status of the “conspiracist” as a primary subject of analysis, rather than the status of his claims.

The bigger problem, however, is that none of what Moore says here is necessarily responsive to the issue at hand. To posit the existence of a “conspiracy” in the sense I described earlier does not automatically make one a “conspiracist.” I would contend that what Hougan and Judge have (separately) done is posit an “operational” conspiracy: on the basis of evidence, each claims a series of coordinated events in which state actors conspired covertly in service of illicit goals. This implies no overarching worldview, of course. One need not abhor “both coincidence and ambiguity.” They are not “conspiracists” because they do this, and if other of their writing bears this trait, it does not mean they can’t be right about what they claim in this case.

Now, there are those who forward what may be called “grand” or “world” conspiracy theories that describe, as Daniel Pipes’ formulation puts it:

a powerful, evil and clandestine group that aspires to global hegemony; dupes and agents who extend the group’s influence around the world so that it is on the verge of succeeding; and a valiant but embattled group that urgently needs to stave off catastrophe.13

These “grand” formulations are often wildly speculative and wholly unconvincing. My contention thus far has been to argue that when one is presented with an evidentiary argument that claims the existence an operational conspiracy, resorting to the “conspiracist” charge is a kind of avoidance.

Later, Moore continues the assault on conspiracists, saying that:

Almost by definition, conspiracy theorists exhibit dualistic thinking, the us- versus-them mentality. How could one consider compromising with conspirators? The idea is unthinkable. Those running the conspiracy seek power and fortune at the expense of everyone else. They are inherently evil.14

Again, this is not responsive to the claim of any particular operational conspiracy hypothesis. But when it comes to a discussion preconceived notions, it should be noted that two can play this game. For instance, one might read Moore’s work and speculate that for reasons having to do with the closeness of the tragedy to her, she begins from a “completed puzzle” with respect to the question of whether the majority of the adult deaths at Jonestown were chosen or the product of criminal coercion. Is this fair? Whether or not one believes it to be, conclusions about the motivations of a discussant should not be sufficient to dismiss their claims without hearing the evidence they assemble.

In short, while so-called “conspiracy theorists” may be charged with excessive suspicion in some cases, it is just as easy to find excessive credulity on the part of both government/institutional apologists in their explanation of murky events, as well as establishment critics who like to attempt to set limits on what counts as “respectable” dissent.

We still have the question of the supposed conspiracy “themes” in Hougan’s piece. Are these substantive themes, stylistic themes or themes related to a supposed attitude of beginning from the “completed puzzle”? Is the mere suggestion that US intelligence and/or law enforcement would infiltrate social movements and subvert their stated goals enough to qualify as a “conspiracy theme” for Moore? Whatever one’s ideological stance concerning the supposed “practical necessity” of covert action, it cannot be denied that it is routinely undertaken by US intelligence and law enforcement for purposes that are systematically shielded from public and often flatly denied even when they are exposed.

Moore concludes that:

Conspiracy theories, for all their inherent secrecy and implicit danger, are nonetheless comforting because they eliminate uncertainty and moral ambiguity. It is far more troubling to think that people had practiced suicide and then went through with it, believing that they were doing something noble and right, than it is to think that malign powers did away with them for nefarious purposes. It is far more disturbing to imagine that sane and even idealistic people more or less willingly killed their children, than to imagine that some supra-personal power of darkness killed them. Thus conspiracy theories reassure us that what appears wrong or out-of-kilter in the world has a cause outside of individual or collective human weakness and vulnerability. In other words, the moral order, though jeopardized by conspirators, remains in effect.15

Here, she follows a long-established trend in the social sciences in seeking to provide the socio-psychological motivations for the resort to conspiracy theories. This kind of pseudo-engagement trades on the privilege of established assumptions in the realm of so-called “respectable” discourse, to the detriment of furthering the factual record. Unless a clear distinction is respected, it risks conflating the proponents of highly speculative or plainly nonsensical “world” or “grand” conspiracies with the proponents of specific, evidence-based operational conspiracies. Since nothing necessary or definitional joins them, why should these two different species be referred to by the same coinage?

Bratich’s interesting argument is that “conspiracy theories,” as objects of political concern, have engendered what he calls conspiracy panics: namely, the irrational concern that a particular style of narrative explanation will infiltrate the realm of political rationality and somehow subvert it. This subject is worthy of a much longer treatment than I can give it here, but it is the supposed threat posed by conspiracy narratives to respectable discourse that supposedly justifies their exclusion and their placement on the examination table.

Bratich does give the subject a fuller treatment, connecting conspiracy panics to a strategy of liberal governance which endeavors to bring citizens around to the “reasonable” perspective occupied by the cultural experts who shape public opinion. It’s not just academics who seek to disqualify conspiracy narratives. Other fields, like journalism, have a stake in its disqualification as well. Traceable to its own fluctuating social position, Bratich sees recent efforts within professional journalism to problematize conspiracy theory as stemming from an attempt at institutional resuscitation.16 Both the corporate press and left press participate in this problematization.

Ultimately, Hougan makes the winning point in his response to Moore: follow the evidence, wherever it leads. I would add that when an effort is made to hide the evidence, as it has been at Jonestown, expect a wider band of speculation. Pathologizing that speculation in toto contributes, purposely or not, to an environment of protection for those who have the power to act secretly to great effect, and then to keep the record of their secret action hidden from public view.

In a democratic republic, the presumption should be with the value of full disclosure at all times; the case for classification or secrecy should have to be made in each case in which its requested, with a very high threshold needing to be met. We have strayed so far from that commonsensical approach that when it is suggested on the record that the system of secret classification may be being used to cover up terrible crimes, the claim is likely to be met with rolling eyes and caustic dismissals, as if one has suggested a “reptilian agenda” or something. But perhaps we should not be surprised at this, since the same term – “conspiracy theory”– is used to describe both specific and often credible claims of government crime, as well as claims that the Freemasons have held secret control of world politics for centuries, or that Dick Cheney is a Lizard Person, and many other sorts of lurid nonsense.

Which is why we would do best to dispense with the term “conspiracy theory” altogether.

(Bryan  is an Adjunct Professor, in the Department of English and Philosophy, at Drexel University.  He is also the co-founder of Collateral News, and a contributing author to Elsevier’s The Hidden History of 9/11  (“The Compromised 9-11 Commission”) He may be reached at bksacks@yahoo.com.

(On a related matter, in early 2009, Ken McCarthy of http://www.brasscheck.com/ wrote a letter to this website expressing his dismay about being described as a “conspiracy theorist” – and the very use of the term, “conspiracy theory” – in Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown. McCarthy’s letter appears here. Rebecca Moore’s response to McCarthy appears here. They are also published in the Letters to the Editors section of this report.)


1 See Rosenhan, David L. (1973) “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Science, Vol. 179, 250-258.

2 Rosenhan.

3 See Bratich, Jack Z. (2008). Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture. State University of NY Press, 2008, p. 2.

4 This claim has been made in a number of locations by various authors. See, for instance, John Judge, The Black Hole of Guyana, footnotes #24 and #25, retrieved September 28, 2009. See also David Parker Wise, 25 Years Hiding From a Dead Man.

5 Jim Hougan, Jim Jones and the Conspiracists, retrieved September 28, 2009.

6 Judge, The Black Hole of Guyana (bracketed numbers appear in original and refer to corresponding footnotes in The Black Hole of Guyana.)

8 Email correspondence with John Judge, completed September 27, 2009.

9 Hougan.

10 Rebecca Moore, Response to Jim Hougan, retrieved September 28, 2009.

11 Rebecca Moore, Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown, retrieved September 28, 2009.

13 Pipes, Daniel (1997). Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 22.

16 Bratich, p. 76.

Last modified on May 23rd, 2014.
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