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So, What Is a Conspiracy? If a conspiracy is defined as two or more people getting together to plot an illegal, secret, or immoral action, then we can all agree that there are plenty of conspiracies. Many criminal acts are the consequences of conspiracies; security agencies whose plans are necessarily confidential are continually conspiring; and companies who seek to preserve commercial confidentiality— while sometimes employing others to infiltrate the confidentiality of others— often act in a conspiratorial fashion. An agreement not to tell your mother that you are sleeping with your boyfriend would qualify. A conspiracy theory, however, is something rather different, and it is the aim of this book to try to characterize what makes it so.
An American scholar and author of two books about conspiracy theories, Daniel Pipes, argues that, in essence, a conspiracy theory is simply a conspiracy that never happened, that it is “the nonexistent version of a conspiracy.” For the U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter, on the other hand, writing in the early 1960s, what distinguished the true “paranoid” conspiracy theory was its scale, not that “its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.”
These two definitions don’t quite work for me. How, for example, can Pipes prove categorically that a conspiracy is “nonexistent”? Obviously, any conspiracy is a theory until it is substantiated; therefore, those supporting a conspiracy theory might be entitled to observe either that their own particular notion was simply awaiting definitive proof or, just as likely, that in their judgment such proof was already available. And I find it hard to accept Hofstadter’s definition of conspiracy, which would, for example, include the idea— given play in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code— that the Church has for two millennia systematically suppressed the truth about the bloodline of Jesus (a truly vast deception), but not the smaller-scale accusation that British (or French) intelligence agencies had Diana, Princess of Wales, brutally done away with in Paris in 1997. It is important not to overlook the smaller theories, since, if believed, it seems to me, they eventually add up to an idea of the world in which the authorities, including those whom we elect, are systematically corrupt and untruthful.
I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be “the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.” And, as a sophistication of this definition, one might add “the attribution of secret action to one party that might far more reasonably be explained as the less covert and less complicated action of another.” So, a conspiracy theory is the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy where other explanations are more probable.
It is, for example, far more likely that men did actually land on the moon in 1969 than that thousands of people were enlisted to fabricate a deception that they did.