Contested Knowledge:
What Conspiracy Theories Tell Us

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally given as a Paul and Marie Castelfranco Lecture at the University of California, Davis on 21 October 2010. A revision of that lecture was published in 2011 on the World Religions and Spirituality website, and is available as a pdf on this site. This is an update of both previous versions.)

In the year 2002, I published an article entitled “Reconstructing Reality” in the Journal of Popular Culture. In it I described what I called a canon of conspiracy theories about Jonestown. Because the deaths of more than 900 men, women, and children on 18 November 1978 were so horrifying, and the news stories about them were so contradictory, a number of conspiracy theories arose, including several by the end of the first week. Some of these theories argued that Jonestown was a mind control experiment conducted by the CIA, or that American and British troops killed everyone there, or that members of the project were planning to invade the United States to establish a right-wing dictatorship.

What has happened in years since that article came out, however, is the subject of this paper. The reaction to that article, and its re-publication on our website, was completely unexpected. I heard directly from almost all of the writers I mentioned by name. With one exception, they were outraged at being called conspiracy theorists. They were angry that I had called their version of the truth a conspiracy theory. They felt that I had denigrated them and dismissed their writings, by using the C-Word. Although we have published their reactions online, alongside my original article – including an exchange between Ken McCathy and myself – they remain angry and dissatisfied.

In many respects, they have a right to be angry. The phrase “conspiracy theory” is not neutral. It is value-laden and carries with it condemnation, ridicule, and dismissal. It is a lot like the word “cult,” which we use to describe religions we do not like. We don’t call Baptists or Methodists cultists, but we do call Scientologists and Moonies and members of Peoples Temple cultists. In a similar fashion, we don’t refer to official reports about the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 or about the John F. Kennedy assassination as conspiracy theories, but that’s how we identify the alternative explanations of those events.

These areas of contested knowledge raise important questions about history and truth. We have recently seen a number of debates concerning other areas of contested knowledge, such as global warming, evolution, and sexual orientation. Even the familiar understanding of the American past has come under scrutiny, with revisionists winning the battle of the history books in the Texas State school system. In an era of 24-hour cable news and Internet access, ideas and theories that once existed on the margins have gained equal weight and consideration to those vetted by traditional mainstream sources of expertise, whether in the media or in academia. Yet we know—or at least think we know—that some ideas are better than others; and that some assertions are true and others are false because we have enough credible evidence to make that distinction. In a democratic society, however, with its marketplace of ideas, every idea is available, even anti-democratic ones, like totalitarianism. Thus it becomes imperative to see if we can find a way to address issues of contested knowledge on the one hand, and common values and assumptions on the other.

I begin this paper by providing a brief definition of conspiracy and conspiracy theories, followed by a discussion about some contemporary conspiracy theories. I will give a brief background to the deaths in Jonestown and describe some of the conspiracy theories relating to them. And finally, I will consider the problem of “stigmatized knowledge,” before concluding with a discussion of history and truth.

Toward a Definition

The American Heritage Dictionary offers the following definition of a conspiracy theory: “A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.” Kathryn Olmsted, author of the book Real Enemies which analyzes conspiracy theories in America from the first world war to 9/11, provides a similarly measured description when she writes that, “A conspiracy occurs when two or more people collude to abuse power or break the law. A conspiracy theory is a proposal about a conspiracy that may or may not be true; it has not yet been proven.” Dr. Olmsted’s point about abusing power or breaking the law is important to reiterate: people are rarely accused of conspiring to give food baskets to the poor. Secrecy, therefore, is a necessary element of the conspiracy, because the actions are unethical or criminal and must be hidden.

A conspiracy theory purports to present facts in evidence, with the important distinction that these facts have generally been previously hidden or suppressed. David Ray Griffin, a widely-respected scholar in religious studies, and a founder of the 9/11 Truth Movement, attempts to de-stigmatize the term “conspiracy theory” by differentiating between generic, rational, and irrational conspiracy theories. If individuals conspire to rob a bank or to conceal the health risks of smoking, then it is legitimate to call those conspiracies, and our ideas about them, conspiracy theories. There is nothing irrational about holding such a conspiracy theory. According to Griffin, all Americans agree that there was a conspiracy to perpetrate the 9/11 attacks: “People differ only about the identity of the conspirators.”

In everyday usage, a conspiracy theory refers to a hypothesis that challenges what is accepted as common knowledge. It disputes the conventional wisdom and the governing narratives of history and culture. I do not think Griffin will succeed in his attempt to neutralize the negative stigma of being called a conspiracist. But in a sense, he is already aware of that. By calling the conspiracy theories concerning the terrorist attacks the “9/11 Truth Movement,” the problematic language of conspiracism is abolished, at least momentarily.

Certain events and certain types of people lend themselves to conspiracy thinking. For example, planes crashes occur with relative frequency, with the National Transportation and Safety Board reporting an average of 36 incidents per year in the U.S. But when Paul Wellstone, a popular senator from Minnesota and a likely challenger to George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential race, died in a plane crash, that was the result of a conspiracy. For similar reasons, conspiracy theories arose about the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy, but not about the 1980 assassination of rock-and-roll icon John Lennon.

Current conspiracism

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran, was only partially wrong when he told the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 that a majority of Americans think that the U.S. government orchestrated the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is only a majority of  Americans aged 18-34 who believe that. But more than a third of the total population thinks the George W. Bush administration did have advance knowledge and let the raids happen for a number of reasons. And it’s true, one result of the terrorist strikes was to serve as the justification for a range of anti-democratic legislation and programs, beginning with the U.S.A. Patriot Act, and continuing as the excuse for building more fences and walls along the border with Mexico. It’s the effort to link the event with the result that falls into the realm of conspiracy theory.

In some respects, though, 9/11 is really old news. Current conspiracy theories in the U.S. are concentrated on President Obama and the claim that he is a Muslim Kenyan who wants to take away your guns, your money, and your granny. Twenty percent of the nation believe the president is a Muslim. According to a 2010 column in The New York Times, 32 percent of Democrats blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis; 25 percent of African Americans believe the AIDS virus was created in a U.S. government lab. There is even a small segment of American society that believes that the pictures of the repairs of the BP oil leak were from a different oil well, and that the environmental damage caused by the disaster continued for much longer.

Conspiracy Planet, “the alternative news and history network,” gives daily updates on the latest. The last time I checked in preparation for this paper, the lead article was on the debt crisis, and who was really responsible. The time before that, it was an article on gold and silver. While 9/11 is a staple of the site, there are links to the “Bush/Clinton Crime Family,” the “Moon Landing Scam,” “Suppressed Science,” and dozens of other conspiracies. By the way, did you know that cancer is actually a fungus and completely curable?

To counter all of the anti-government conspiracy fears, the U.S. government established the “Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation” website at in August 2010. The timing coincided with the height of birther fantasies which claimed that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., that he is not an American citizen, and that he is constitutionally ineligible from occupying the office of the presidency. The home page of states that, “Conspiracy theories exist in the realm of myth, where imaginations run wild, fears trump facts, and evidence is ignored. As a superpower, the United States is often cast as a villain in these dramas.” The most prominent links on the site are to Urban Legends, and Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories and Controlled Demolition. There is a section on “How to Identify Misinformation,” which notes that controversial issues are ripe for the development of conspiracy theories. When I went to the site, a window popped up asking me to complete an online survey to improve the site. But did they seriously think I’m nuts and going to tell the government anything?

It is practically a cliché to say that the Internet is the vehicle for the viral spread of conspiracy thinking. The noted journalist A. J. Liebling wrote in 1960 that, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Today, everyone owns the twenty-first century equivalent of a press through a Facebook page, a web log, or even just email. In the academic world, the rise of online journals has increased insecurity about promotion and tenure. Is an online journal as scholarly as other peer-reviewed publications, given the fact that anyone can start up such a journal?

Wikipedia, the bane of all professors, is the exemplar of the free flow of unlimited information and misinformation. How are students to know what is credible? What is not credible? In the past we tried several times to correct errors of fact in the Peoples Temple entry on Wikipedia, to no avail. One poor person was killed, resurrected, and then killed again during the correction wars, before we gave up trying to save her. Information is free these days, but knowledge is not, since there seem to be few means for evaluating the information we find.

The kind of peer-review, authentication, or gatekeeping that I am asking for is exactly the problem, as far as the conspiracy theorists are concerned. They would argue that there is not enough information, that it is being withheld, and that the gatekeepers have a vested interest in maintaining their secrets. And they have a point, given all of the documented government conspiracies perpetrated against its own citizens throughout the twentieth century. In 1972 we learned that the U.S. Public Health Service denied medical treatment to four hundred African American males afflicted with syphillis. The Tuskegee Experiment, as it is known, was conducted from 1932 to 1972, and this shameful episode in U.S. history is well-documented. Other beliefs are not, however. Patricia Turner describes the firmly-held conviction of her informants in the black community that the Ku Klux Klan put chemicals in Church’s Chicken and Kentucky Fried Chicken to make black men impotent. Although hard evidence for this claim is lacking, many African Americans still hold onto this belief.

The black community also holds a number of conspiracy theories about Jonestown. This is undoubtedly because more than seventy percent of those who died were African Americans. Members of the Black Panther Party, for example, believed that the deaths were caused by a neutron bomb. The black comedian and activist Dick Gregory said that troops were stationed at the military mortuary in Dover, Delaware to handle the influx of bodies before the deaths even occurred. A community broadcaster based in North Carolina believes that the victims in Jonestown were killed by poison gas. More generally, a number of folks in the San Francisco Bay Area think that African Americans were lured into the Temple and to Jonestown as a way to destroy the most progressive elements of San Francisco politics in the 1970s. With the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk a week after the Jonestown deaths, there seemed to be additional support for the claim.

Conspiracy Theories about Jonestown

One reason that I can relate to beliefs in conspiracy theories, especially about Jonestown, is that in November 1978, when I first heard that a U.S. congressman had been assassinated in Guyana, I immediately thought that the CIA was behind it. In part I was still a product of the times: with some justification, we believed the CIA, the FBI and/or some other clandestine government agency was behind every mysterious death of someone in the progressive community, and here we had nearly a thousand of them. I also admit, I had been influenced by all of the claims made by Peoples Temple members and their leader that a conspiracy against them existed.

When the news came out about the deaths, my sisters and nephew were living in Jonestown. I had just received a letter from my younger sister Annie who wrote:

Mom and Dad have probably shown you the latest about the conspiracy information that Mark Lane, the famous attorney in the ML King case and Don Freed the other famous author in the Kennedy case have come up with regarding activities planned against us—Peoples Temple… A lot of new and interesting things should be coming out soon that will show the different attempts to destroy our group… What’s interesting is that it is all coming out before we are all dead, not the case with JFK, RFK, and MLK…

Within a few weeks of writing that letter, Annie, along with my sister Carolyn, my nephew Kimo, and hundreds of others, were all dead.

Shortly after the deaths, therefore, my husband Fielding McGehee and I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the CIA. When a case officer asked why we thought the CIA might have any information on Peoples Temple, Fielding responded that, yes, we thought the U.S. government might be interested in a group of expatriate Americans, predominantly African American, whose community had some untold millions of dollars, who espoused socialist views, and who appeared to be planning to move to the Soviet Union.

The documents we received from the CIA two years later were heavily edited. But enough was released to make it clear that the CIA had been monitoring the community in Jonestown with both American and Guyanese informants. We could not determine much more than that. The documents raised the possibility of government foreknowledge of the plans to commit mass suicide. They also raised the question of whether or not the government had either provoked the incident with Congressman Ryan, or had allowed it to happen. This is not so very different from some of the 9/11 “truth” theories, which argue that the Bush administration passively allowed the hijackings to occur.

After many years of research, investigation, and reflection, I think we simply made a decision to reject conspiracism. We accepted the fact that parents murdered their children. We accepted the contradictory body counts and the conflicting news stories as evidence of the messiness of history. We accepted the ultimate enigma of friends and families doing the unthinkable. Existentially we were better able to live with the idea of human agency—for good and evil—than with ideas of brainwashing, mind control, and mass murder by secret and malevolent forces. This is not the existential position of the conspiracy-minded.

Article and Reactions to It

When I began this paper I noted that the authors I called conspiracy theorists were very upset with my article on Jonestown conspiracies. Jim Hougan wrote to tell me that he was an investigative journalist, not a conspiracy theorist, and that he took umbrage at being lumped together with a crank called “Peter Beter.” Hougan claimed that Jim Jones was a CIA operative, who met another agent, Dan Mitrione in Indianapolis, and reconnected with him in Brazil. Ken McCarthy, a San Francisco reporter, was outraged to find his name in an article on conspiracy theories. “My web site is nothing more or less than a collection of photographic and documentary evidence that shows that Jim Jones was a well connected member of the political establishment of the City of San Francisco, the place where he operated before moving to Guyana.” I had an email exchange with John Judge, who wrote a frequently-cited article titled “The Black Hole of Guyana.” I invited him to write for our website because he, too, took offense at my article. As the founder of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, Judge says he is working for the recovery of truth in order to protect democracy. I know that Judge is sincere in his beliefs and in his purposes. At the same time, when I see that his group is sponsoring a conference in Dallas, Texas on the John F. Kennedy assassination—with new evidence being presented—I have to wonder why he seems to see conspiracies everywhere. If we visit the websites of Jim Hougan and Ken McCarthy, we will also find clear indications of conspiracy-mindedness.

Stigmatized Knowledge

In an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1964 entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstedter described the mindset which frames all political events as a struggle between good and evil: “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” In his book A Culture of Conspiracy written almost forty years later, author Michael Barkun builds upon this, when he analyzes the sources for a contemporary apocalpyticism that is grounded in a “culture of conspiracy.” He identifies three types of knowledge that help us understand this. He first uses James Webb’s concept of “rejected knowledge,” which Webb introduced to discuss the history of European occultism. This type of knowledge would include recognizing the significance of crystals, magic, energy fields, numerology, and anything typically called the pseudo-sciences. Barkun then considers Colin Campbell’s idea of the “cultic milieu.” This is the supportive social and ideological environment from which a number of unusual or offbeat ideas arise. Beliefs in karma or reincarnation, as well as beliefs in the coming New Age, or anything else that the dominant culture considers deviant, thrive in this milieu.

Barkun combines Webb and Campbell’s ideas of rejected knowledge and cultic milieu to come up with what he calls “stigmatized knowledge.” He states that such knowledge comprises

claims to truth that the claimants regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error—universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like.

Barkun describes five types of knowledge that the academic community has stigmatized. First, forgotten knowledge (like the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis or the little Lemurians who live in the center of the earth); superseded knowledge (like astrology or alchemy); ignored knowledge (like folk medicine and home remedies); rejected knowledge (like UFO abductions); and suppressed knowledge (like the fact the U.S. government introduced AIDS into the black community, and that it was party to the 9/11 attacks).

This last type of stigmatized knowledge—namely suppressed knowledge—forms the basis of current conspiracy theories because of the conviction that powerful individuals are limiting or controlling the free flow of information for nefarious purposes. As Barkun says, “stigmatization itself is taken to be evidence of truth—for why else would a belief be stigmatized if not to suppress the truth?” Those holding stigmatized views disdain the conclusions decided by professional knowledge-holders. They have a love-hate relationship with gatekeepers, which would include those of us who work for educational institutions. We have denied them access to the media, to the public, and to the world by demanding a particular type and level proof.

Despite their failure to live up to normal requirements of scholarship, the conspiracists nonetheless want to appear credible to us. They know that research counts for something, and as a result, their papers and articles are heavily footnoted. They appear to take nothing on faith, but meticulously document every claim. They attempt to cite credible sources whom no one could charge with bias or ulterior motive. They may even use government documents in order to make their case against government conspirators.

David Griffin notes the importance of peer review to the scientific method. “To be accepted as good science,” he writes, “an explanation must be able to pass muster with fellow scientists having no vested interest in the outcome.” He then claims that official reports about 9/11 have not been subject to autonomous review within the government; and that the opinions of independent scientists who have offered countervailing opinions are ignored or dismissed as the “ravings of ‘conspiracy theorists.’” Clearly the quantity of footnotes and citations is not at issue, but rather the quality of the evidence being presented. Who gets to decide?

History and Truth

The state of Washington adopted a new history textbook a few years ago, which explicitly stated that the internment of the Japanese during World War II was wrong. There was debate at the time the textbook was adopted. Some believed that the existence of Japanese spies made it necessary to remove potential enemies from vulnerable areas, and thus relocation was justified. Although the Japanese as well as their non-Japanese supporters argued against internment on moral and constitutional grounds, they lost those arguments in the short run.

In the long run, however, our society came to a different verdict. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill awarding reparations to the Japanese. The first payments were made in 1990. The distance of time allowed for a review of particular actions, and let the nation conclude it had made a terrible mistake. Yet we do not want to wait for 20-20 hindsight in order to make moral judgments today.

Contemporary postmodern and critical theory have paradoxically both undermined and contributed to our ability to reject conspiracism. In a postmodernist world, a conspiracy theory seems to have as much credibility as a well-established historical fact. At the same time, it does not necessarily have any additional credibility. Postmodern theory challenges us to consider many narratives, not just a single, dominant one. I believe this is basically a good thing. Navigators at sea use a process of triangulation to determine their location: they look at multiple points to determine where they are exactly. If they miscalculate the points, they get lost. This is a useful analogy for considering both historical and current events. With multiple perspectives we may be able to determine what an elephant actually looks like, rather than feeling about blindly for its parts.

An example of the importance of including different perspectives is occurring in Israel and Palestine today. Palestinian and Israeli educators have developed a textbook called Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative, which addresses the irreconcilable versions of “official” history. This experimental book places events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict side-by-side on every page so that students can read and understand each others’ stories of “what happened.” By exposing conflicting accounts of history, the writers hope to overcome the polarized attitudes Palestinian and Israeli young people have about themselves and their neighbors.

In a similar way, I think that bringing conspiracy theories to light is preferable to keeping them suppressed or stigmatized. That’s why I am actually glad to see Jesse Ventura’s new television series “Conspiracy Theory.” The former Minnesota governor’s reality program is a bit like “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” for the twenty-first century.

Jesse Ventura and his team of investigators are on a mission to examine some of the most frightening and mysterious conspiracy allegations of our time. They review evidence and meet with experts and eyewitnesses to learn more about such topics as the JFK assassination, Area 51 and a possible plot to kidnap our nation’s water supply.

The fact that the show is running on the Tru-TV network is also encouraging. If you have to call something “true,” then it probably isn’t, in the same way that “fair and balanced” are neither. The 9/11 “Truth Movement” is yet another example of the word “truth” suggesting its opposite. When President Richard Nixon introduced “Operation Candor” to the nation in the 1970s, most Americans assumed there would simply be more lies to cover up the Watergate conspiracy. Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” has nothing whatsoever to do with truth. I do not think we should under-estimate the power of mockery.

Nevertheless, in my opinion it is important to call conspiracy theories by some other more neutral, less derogatory term. I do not think that it would legitimize the theories, but rather, would expose them to the light of reason.  I don’t think Michael Barkun’s “stigmatized knowledge” will ever become a household word. David Griffin’s “alternative theories” might be useful, especially among those advancing the alternative theories. I have proposed “contested knowledge” in the title of this paper, as a way to indicate that a number of official accounts of history are not necessarily accepted by all citizens.

I do not want to give equal weight to conspiracy theories in our reflections on history. At the same time, I do not want to see them fester in the dark corners of the minds of the aggrieved, only to explode, as they did in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The Southern Poverty Law Center uncovers conspiracies against racial and religious minorities all the time. These actual conspiracies need to be brought to light, just as more wide-ranging conspiracy theories and theorists must be exposed, rather than hidden. The verdict in the libel case of Irving vs. Lipstadt was a victory for truth in history. In that instance, Holocaust denial went on trial, and those who believe in a Jewish conspiracy and other anti-Semitic projects lost not just in the court of public opinion, but in a British court of law.

It seems important to note the existence of conspiracy theories, both to observe them and to disarm them. When we teach about the John Kennedy assassination, it is essential to note the historical fact that a large body of conspiracy theories has arisen around that event. The truth or falsity of the theories is one issue; but the fact that 81 percent of Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald conspired with others to kill the president is also significant and worth examining. Thus, teaching about the theories, is not the same as teaching the theories, in the same way that teaching about religious beliefs is not the same as teaching people what to believe.

Our knowledge in the present is always limited and provisional. Frequently it is only far into the future that we learn the whole story. If tomorrow someone were to provide the documents to prove that Jim Jones was a CIA agent, I would undoubtedly believe it. Unanswered questions remain about Jonestown. A friend of ours once said that when she dies, she’ll have two questions to ask St. Peter at the Pearly Gates: first, who killed President Kennedy; and second, what happened in Jonestown.

Yet we must act in the present with the knowledge that we have. If conspiracy theories simply make us fearful, xenophobic, and angry, they serve a malevolent purpose. But if conspiracy theories make us scrutinize government, business, military, or other institutions more closely, then they serve a useful purpose. They might make people and organizations more accountable. And that’s a good thing. Our knowledge should always be contested if we hope to approach the truth.

(Rebecca Moore is a professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has written and published extensively on Peoples Temple and Jonestown (listed here), including her most recent book Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger, 2009), an extensive description on the Temple appears at the World Religions & Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, and numerous articles on this website, of which she is the co-manager. Her other article in this edition of the jonestown report is A Dream Deferred: The Promise and Pathos of Peoples Temple, which is adapted from a presentation given for the Griot Institute of African Studies lecture series entitled Jonestown: 35 Years Later at Bucknell University; her presentation appears on this page (scroll down the videos).)