What is conspiracy theory?

Is this website doing it?

Historical and Investigative Research - 4 October 2005
by Francisco Gil-White

Some imaginable conspiracies have a self-supporting logical structure.

Imagine a conspiracy to make everybody believe that conspiracy theories are always nuts. To what end? So that those who want to look smart will be the first to deny the existence of the conspiracy. Or any other conspiracy. To make, in other words, every conspiracy invisible, by turning its categorical and universal denial into a proud mark of intelligence.

But could the conspiracy to make ‘conspiracy’ sound nuts succeed?

It already has.


I have been asked more than once whether this website is doing ‘conspiracy theory.’ But this is something that each reader must decide on his or her own. Doing so may not be easy, because the expression ‘conspiracy theory’ contains a certain complexity of meaning that people seldom stop to analyze. So what I will do here is briefly explain what ‘conspiracy theory’ means, in all its complexity. Once I do that, you can decide for yourself whether the content of this website bears a sufficient resemblance to what this familiar expression denotes.

But first, a quick word about meaning.

How does meaning work?

The meaning of a word or term can be inferred only from its usage. In other words, whichever way it is that most people use a certain word, that is what it means. Certain institutions have great power when it comes to influencing common word-usage; therefore, these institutions have great power over the meanings of words. For example, The New York Times has circulation figures that seem fantastic: its home delivery fluctuates between 600,000 and more than a million.[1] That’s just home delivery. In addition, The New York Times is bought on the newsstand by lots of people, and NYT content is reproduced in many other news venues. Thus, if The New York Times uses the term ‘conspiracy theory’ a certain way, then a lot of people will be directly influenced to use the term in precisely the same manner, and their usages will influence others (especially if New York Times readers are considered cultural leaders, which I think you will agree that they are).

Dictionary companies produce their definitions by looking systematically at examples of mainstream published writing; the logic is that mainstream published writing is being read by many people, and therefore its uses of words cannot very well be idiosyncratic. So The New York Times has a huge effect on what dictionaries eventually decide is the definition of a term, because The New York Times is the most prestigious English-language mainstream print source. Through this channel, The New York Times again has a sizeable impact on common usage, because when ordinary people are in doubt about a word, they consult dictionaries.

The meanings of words have an effect on your mind, naturally, because most of your thinking is conducted with words. George Orwell once tried to explain this, but very few people really got it. The point is that if
The New York Times has a huge effect on the meanings of English words, and you are an English speaker, then The New York Times is having a huge effect on your mind, whether or not you read the New York Times.

Now, let us move to the meaning of ‘conspiracy theory.’

What is the meaning of 'conspiracy theory'?

One thing about dictionary definitions is that they often leave much important information out. For example, if you go to, it will tell you that ‘conspiracy theory’ means

“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.”

Okay as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell you whether such theories are held to carry a certain connotation, generating a particular attitude towards them. We can certainly glean this missing information, however, by looking at how ‘conspiracy theory’ is used in the pages of The New York Times.

I asked the Lexis-Nexis database, on 3 October 2005, to give me any and all appearances of the terms ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘conspiracy theories’ in The New York Times during the preceding five years (this is a test that anybody with access to this database can repeat). The output is a list of NYT newspaper articles, ordered in chronological order and starting with the last. The list is exceedingly long -- too much data. What to do? I decided to start with the first article in the list, and move backward in time, one by one -- no cherry-picking. I will stop when my point has been made (this will happen quickly).

In this first article, the relevant passage explains that Eamonn Kelly, author of a book called Powerful Times, predicts that,

“ ‘Our world will grow more transparent. Our ability to collect, integrate, interpret and distribute data will increase exponentially.’ But all of that data [being available] means that people will be able to use bits and pieces to build whatever hypotheses they like. As a result, he says, a ‘growing abundance of conspiracy theories and falsehoods will travel the world instantaneously’ and ‘the very tools of connectivity that will enable so much transparency will also serve to enable more sophisticated means of theft and fraud.’ ”[2]

With no more context than this we can see that “conspiracy theories” are associated with nothing but bad things. For one, they are introduced with falsehoods as a phrase: “conspiracy theories and falsehoods.” And they result from ignorance -- from people using only “bits and pieces” of information because this information is too “transparent” and therefore does not have sufficient official controls. Ordinary people, then, lacking any discipline of thought, will just build “whatever hypotheses they like” with this total access to information, producing obviously incorrect “conspiracy theories.” There may even be an implied connection here between “conspiracy theories” and “theft and fraud.”

It is important to note that these are not the connotations of the term “bad conspiracy theories,” for there is no such qualifier in the text above. Conspiracy theories as a class are understood to be incorrect, so that denigrating them with a negative qualifier (as in “absurd conspiracy theories”) would merely be to add redundant emphasis.

I pass to the second article in the list.

This one is talking about an old underground film called “Peep Show,” purporting to be a documentary, and which some attribute to one J.X. Williams. The film, according to The New York Times, “tells a tangled tale of a rigged 1960 election, secret C.I.A. training camps in the Florida outback, sex stings in Mafia hotels and a little-known Mob plot to addict Frank Sinatra to heroin.” So this is a film that alleges the ruling elite does bad things in secret, including the corruption of the democratic process, and it lumps accusations of secret doings by the ruling elite with the activities of organized crime. In other words, this is a ‘conspiracy theory’ film.

The film is a fraud, explains the Times, because it is made out of stock footage from commercial movies, carefully pasted together to simulate a documentary. I am also told that “Roughly 100 gay sex pulp novels were published under the alleged author's byline [J.X. Williams] throughout the 50’s and 60’s,” but they were in fact written by various different authors; the supposed ‘Williams’ -- allegedly in mysterious self-imposed exile -- most likely does not exist.

The New York Times has lots of fun pointing all of this out, but nothing is funnier than the newspaper's remarks concerning Noel Lawrence, whom the Times considers an even bigger clown than the nonexistent ‘Williams.’ This Lawrence calls himself the curator of the Williams oeuvre, the proper attribution of which requires that Lawrence violate copyright law, as currently somebody else’s name is on every one of those films. The New York Times makes savage fun of Noel Lawrence, and closes the piece with a self-evident irony, which is Lawrence’s fallback explanation of Williams’ purpose:

“. . .when pushed on any contradiction. . ., [Lawrence] defaults to a defense of Williams as perhaps the first postmodernist. ‘I think what J.X. [Williams] was trying to do in certain ways -- and maybe this part was prescient,’ he said, ‘was to present a film that was a parody of conspiracy theory. . .’”[3]

In other words, somewhat pathetically, Lawrence here defeats the whole J.X. Williams rebellious mystique (“Peep Show” was supposed to have been suppressed) by defending the alleged filmmaker as someone who merely meant to make fun of ‘conspiracy theory,’ not -- heaven forbid! -- propose, and much less document, one. And this, says Lawrence, was “prescient,” for which my thesaurus spits out “prophetic” and “clairvoyant,” meaning that we are now all making fun of ‘conspiracy theory.’ So J.X. Williams wasn’t a nonexistent radical documenting the crimes of the powerful, he was a nonexistent ironic artist ahead of his time, one of the first to teach that ‘conspiracy theory’ was laughable.

I remind you that my point here is neither to attack nor defend “Peep Show.” I haven't seen the film, and I don't care. The point is merely to document the manner in which the New York Times employs the term ‘conspiracy theory.’ What we find, once again, is that for the New York Times a ‘conspiracy theory’ -- for example, claims of CIA dirty tricks, underworld Mob doings, corruption of democracy by the powerful, and so on -- is most likely a fraud that intelligent people (as opposed to fools such as Noel Lawrence) are expected to laugh at.

The third article that appears in my results concerns the death of Pope John Paul II. The New York Times writes:

“The Vatican has published a meticulous account of Pope John Paul II’s final days, vividly describing his last hours and providing an official chronology of his death.

. . .The Vatican did not provide a similar report for John Paul’s predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who died in 1978, just over a month into his papacy. As a result, conspiracy theories abounded about his death.

George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a papal biographer, said the Vatican’s report on John Paul II should be construed as an effort ‘to clarify the sequence of events.’

‘It is important to have that on the record before the myth makers take over,’ he said in a telephone interview.”[4]

Something else that falls in the category ‘conspiracy theory’ is the idea that a pope may have been murdered by the Vatican. A voice of authority -- George Weigel, a “senior fellow” at something calling itself the “Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington,” and also a “papal biographer” -- explains that official statements by the Vatican are equivalent to “the record,” and they should be construed as efforts to tell the truth, for they are meant “to clarify the sequence of events.” By contrast, the suggestion that a pope may have been assassinated by the Vatican leadership is the sort of thing that “myth makers” will engage in. And notice that, once again, what opens the field to the “myth makers,” as in our first example, is the absence of properly controlled official information: if only the Vatican had not neglected to produce an official report for the death of John Paul I, the undisciplined thinking of ordinary people would not have produced so many “conspiracy theories” which (needless to say) are incorrect.

Three out of three. All usages of ‘conspiracy theory’ so far have been perfectly consistent.

This could go on forever. I’ve made my point. According to how this term is used in The New York Times, ‘conspiracy theories’ will be theories that stipulate that the ruling elite is doing bad things in secret. Such theories are supposed to be laughable, stupid, and wrong, and what makes them flourish is an absence of adequately controlled, official information. My claim is that the way The New York Times uses ‘conspiracy theory’ is how people in general use this term, and to see whether I am right you need only type ‘conspiracy theory’ into an online search engine such as Google, performing your own analysis of common usage. I predict that your conclusions will match mine.

Now you see why this exercise was necessary before you could answer for yourself whether this website is an example of ‘conspiracy theory.’ We may now consider this question.

Is this a 'conspiracy theory' website?

It is certainly the case that articles and books on this website allege that some people in power do bad things out of the public view. You will find, for example, allegations that US Intelligence has engaged in specific acts of criminal behavior, hurting many people, and hurting the interests of ordinary Americans. You will also encounter the claim, repeatedly, that the Western mass media is not the ‘free press’ it may appear to be, and that Western intelligence services regularly interfere with it. However, the ineluctable linkage that The New York Times makes between these kinds of claims and supposedly obvious incorrectness is one that does not follow.

The ruling elite has been caught doing bad things in secret before, so we have an existence proof. One famous example: during the 1980s it came to light that US Intelligence was training a terrorist force in Nicaragua, made up of Anastasio Somoza’s former thugs. Here is how one newspaper summarized Contra activities:

“The Contras have ambushed religious-aid workers, beheading a nun and riddling her body with bullets. They have also eviscerated a pregnant woman, shot campesinos (peasants) and slaughtered their animals, cut down Red Cross workers and bombed towns with their schools and hospitals.”[4a]

They were doing all this on the CIA's instructions, something that was demonstrated when a former Contra (Edgar Chamorro) produced the CIA training manual that taught these thugs to murder innocent people.[5] None of the people responsible did any jail time, which means there is hardly a disincentive to trying this sort of thing again. And many of them are back in office in Bush Jr.’s administration.

The above should make clear that an accusation against the ruling elite that it does bad things in secret is not necessarily laughable, stupid, and wrong. Those who accused the US ruling elite of having created a terrorist force that slaughtered Nicaraguan peasants were right. And the same goes for those who accused that, at the same time, the US ruling elite was arming the Iranian terrorists during the Iran-Iraq war (while claiming to oppose them). Precisely because they were right, the discovery of the double-conspiracy in the mid-1980s was labeled the ‘Iran-Contra scandal.’

Of course, a specific allegation of criminal and secret misdeeds may be false. When such claims do not agree with our best scientific efforts to establish the facts, then we may consider them incorrect. But we certainly should not dismiss such claims as a matter of principle, and neither should we pretend that consulting the official press releases of the institutions presided by the ruling elite will be the way to scientifically investigate such claims.

So is this website an example of ‘conspiracy theory’?

You will be the judge. The articles in this website contain a footnote for every claim. This makes it possible for any interested reader to consult my stated source for that particular claim, and check whether I misquoted it, distorted it, took it out of context, or simply made up the information. You do not have to guess whether “anonymous” or “unnamed” sources, according to whom I state that X is true, really exist. Why? Because I do not use such sources. When, for whatever reason, it is impossible to identify or else reveal a source for a claim, then I do not make that claim. I only make claims that you can check.


For a very simple reason. When there is no mechanism for the reader to identify a fraud, the reader can be lied to with impunity, so why should the reader believe anything? Yes, of course, I know that The New York Times attributes lots of things to “unnamed sources,” never providing a single footnote, and also that many people unquestioningly believe everything they read in The New York Times. The question is whether this is rational. Science requires that others be able to verify what you claim. In other words, scientists do not trust each other to tell the truth, and by not trusting, they create the conditions that allow for the identification of frauds. Only when such conditions exist can a reader have any confidence that there is an incentive to tell the truth. I have gone out of my way to make it possible for my readers to show that I got anything wrong. And to make the process of verification easier, whenever I can provide a web-link to any particular piece of information, I do.

Every individual person can make up his or her own mind whether my hypotheses are plausible -- that is, whether they appear to agree with enough facts that they ought to be considered. If you decide that they ought to be, then this website is not an example of ‘conspiracy theory,’ as commonly understood, because my claims about how the ruling elite does bad things in secret will be neither laughably absurd nor necessarily incorrect.

Final reflections

Here is an interesting question to ponder: In what kind of society will it be easiest for the ruling elite to do bad things in secret, to everybody else’s disadvantage, without people finding out? In my view, in a society where most people believe that claims about the ruling elite doing bad things in secret must be laughably absurd and therefore necessarily incorrect -- you know, ‘conspiracy theories.’

I would submit that this is a law of anthropology: When those in power are watched less, they tend to get away with more.

On the basis of this law, if someone ever asks you the question, ‘Might there not be conspiracies by the ruling elite?’, you can already produce an intelligent guess even without doing any research on any specific allegation of conspiracy. You can ask yourself this: Is it the case that most people automatically believe that conspiracies cannot be happening? The answer is yes, because ‘conspiracy theories’ are supposed to be automatically idiotic. This makes conspiracies much easier to carry out, and with such a tremendous incentive, it would be surprising if the ruling elites were not in fact taking advantage. But in order to find out what exactly the ruling elites are or aren’t doing, of course, scientific research -- i.e. research that other people can verify -- will be necessary, because false accusations of conspiracy are also possible, and publications that allege conspiracies without providing documentation should not be trusted.

I leave you with this question. How to interpret the fact that The New York Times, which is supposed to be keeping an eye on government, tells us that ‘conspiracy theories’ are automatically incorrect?


[2] Four Futures, All Without the Jetsons,  The New York Times, October 2, 2005 Sunday,  Late Edition - Final, Section 3; Column 1; Money and Business/Financial Desk; OFF THE SHELF; Pg. 8, 1069 words, By PAUL B. BROWN

[3] Wrapped in an Enigma, Hidden In a Film Archive,  The New York Times, October 2, 2005 Sunday,  Late Edition - Final, Section 2; Column 5; Arts and Leisure Desk; FILM; Pg. 22, 1180 words, By PAUL CULLUM, LOS ANGELES

[4] Vatican Releases Official Record Of Pope John Paul II's Final Days,  The New York Times, September 19, 2005 Monday,  Late Edition - Final, Section A; Column 1; Foreign Desk; Pg. 10, 498 words, By BRIAN WINGFIELD, ROME, Sept. 18

[4a] Contras cling to their war, The Toronto Star, April 29, 1990, Sunday, SUNDAY SECOND EDITION, NEWS; Pg. H1, 1030 words, By Linda Diebel Toronto Star, MANAGUA

[5] The man who created the Contra terrorist force for the CIA is Vincent Cannistraro, who didn't go to jail and who is pushed these days by the mainstream media Establishment as a "news analyst" you ought to trust on matters of foreign policy and intelligence. In fact he is often introduced as a counter-terrorism expert! To learn more about him, consult the following three HIR investigations:

“The mainstream Western media loves Raymond McGovern and Vincent Cannistraro, former CIA agents and anti-Israeli propagandists”; Historical and Investigative Research, 25 Aug 2005; by Francisco Gil-White

“Should you believe ‘former CIA officials’ such as Raymond McGovern and Vincent Cannistraro?”; Historical and Investigative Research, 25 Aug 2005; by Francisco Gil-White

“How the mass media covers for Vincent Cannistraro, terrorist, and creator of the Nicaraguan Contras”; Historical and Investigative Research, 25 Aug 2005; by Francisco Gil-White

The last piece above discusses Edgar Chamorro, a former Contra who exposed that the CIA was training the Contras to murder civilians.