The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Conspiracy Central

published December 2014
Who believes in conspiracy theories—and why
magazine cover

President Barack Obama has been a busy man while in office: he concocted a fake birth certificate to hide his true identity as a foreigner, created “death panels” to determine who would live and who would die under his health care plan, conspired to destroy religious liberty by mandating contraceptives for religious institutions, blew up the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig to garner support for his environmental agenda, masterminded Syrian gas attacks as a pretext to war, orchestrated the shooting of a tsa agent to strengthen that agency’s powers, ordered the Sandy Hook school massacre to push through gun-control legislation, and built concentration camps in which to place Americans who resist.

Do people really believe such conspiracy theories? They do, and in disturbingly high numbers, according to recent empirical research collected by University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent and presented in their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford University Press). About a third of Americans, for example, believe the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama is a foreigner. About as many believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration.

The idea that such beliefs are held only by a bunch of nerdy white guys living in their parents’ basements is a myth. Surveys by Uscinski and Parent show that believers in conspiracies “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” People on both the political left and right, for example, believe in conspiracies roughly equally, although each finds different cabals. Liberals are more likely to suspect that media sources and political parties are pawns of rich capitalists and corporations, whereas conservatives tend to believe that academics and liberal elites control these same institutions. GMO conspiracy theories are embraced primarily by those on the left (who accuse, for example, Monsanto of conspiring to destroy small farmers), whereas climate change conspiracy theories are endorsed primarily by those on the right (who inculpate, for example, academic climate scientists for manipulating data to destroy the American economy).

Group identity is also a factor. African-Americans are more likely to believe that the cia planted crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. White Americans are more likely to believe that the government is conspiring to tax the rich to support welfare queens and turn the country into a socialist utopia.

Encouragingly, Uscinski and Parent found that education makes a difference in reducing conspiratorial thinking: 42 percent of those without a high school diploma are high in conspiratorial predispositions, compared with 23 percent with postgraduate degrees. Even so, that means more than one in five Americans with postgraduate degrees show a high predisposition for conspiratorial belief. As an educator, I find this disturbing.

Other factors are at work in creating a conspiratorial mind. Uscinski and Parent note that in laboratory experiments “researchers have found that inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see nonexistent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations” and that in the real world “there is evidence that disasters (e.g., earthquakes) and other high-stress situations (e.g., job uncertainty) prompt people to concoct, embrace, and repeat conspiracy theories.”

A conspiracy theory, Uscinski and Parent explain, is defined by four characteristics: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.” A content analysis of more than 100,000 letters to the New York Times in 121 years turned up three pages’ worth of such conspirators, from Adolf Hitler and the African National Congress to the World Health Organization and Zionist villagers, catalogued into eight types: Left, Right, Communist, Capitalist, Government, Media, Foreign and Other (Freemasons, the AMA and even scientists). The common theme throughout is power—who has it and who wants it—and so the authors conclude their inquiry with an observation translated by Parent from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (a conspiracy manual of sorts), for “the strong desire to rule, and the weak desire not to be ruled.”

To those who so conspire, recall the motto of revolutionaries everywhere: sic semper tyrannis —thus always to tyrants.

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30 Comments to “Conspiracy Central”

  1. Clive Varejes Says:

    Just a small disagreement with Niccolò Machiavelli and his comment ““the strong desire to rule, and the weak desire not to be ruled.”
    I honestly believe that the weak not only desire to be ruled, but actually look for a strong ruler.
    A la Marx, Gobbels (ok maybe not a acceptable example )and etc
    Your thoughts?

  2. Bob Birchett Says:

    wonder how IQ affects belief in conspiracies?

  3. Joe Says:

    Mr. Shermer it is long past time for you to find another topic to mindlessly beat to death, as your writing about conspiracy was tired, repetitive, lacking in insight or honesty, and essentially incoherent from the very beginning. By now it is only ever and always more of the same.

    What are we to make of the four characteristics you cite from Uscinski and Parent which make up conspiracies (not theories)? Should we now believe that no (1) cohort of PNACers in the Bush Administration (2) without knowledge of much of Congress and the American people (3) cherry-picked and forged evidence of WMD’s in Iraq in order to invade that country (4) at the massive expense of Iraqi & American lives and treasure? Are we to believe that no (1) members of the world’s cycling elite (2) while lying under oath and employing various deceits to mask the performance enhancing drugs they were taking (3) in order to win races for fame and lucrative endorsement deals (4) at the expense of fairness and sportsmanship (assuming you believe such to make up the common good)?

    Your continually asking readers not to acknowledge what Machiavelli (not the first) witnessed and reported centuries ago has, as I said, grown tired and ridiculous.

    And do you really miss entirely the sad irony of your closing Latin quote: Sic Semper Tyrannis? Have you forgotten that those words were also spoken by J.W. Booth after the assassination of Lincoln, a conspiracy which even you acknowledge.

    Please, write about Bigfoot or UFO’s or other non-important matters and give the conspiracy columns a rest.

  4. Alan B Says:

    Joe’s comment is somewhat incoherent and appears to be irrelevant. Dr. Sherman was introducing a book which presents a very sad overview and as such it is of considerable value and this does not appear to have fully registered with Joe.

    Perhaps Joe should read the book and then get back to us all?

  5. Brian Nassar Says:

    Me. Shermer,
    I often ask myself why you are so dogmatic in your views toward conspiracies. All it takes for a conspiracy is a group of people planning something together for a purpose.
    You might want to take your own advise that you used to put out in your earlier books.

  6. Stuart Says:

    The previous poster makes the mistake of conflating the Bush governments lies about WMD with 9/11 conspiracy (controlled demolition and all that rubbish). Hey if 9/11 was a government conspiracy to get us into a war with Iraq, why were the hijackers from Saudi Arabia? That would have saved Rumsfeld and Cheney from making false WMD claims, they could have just pointed to the identity of the hijackers.

  7. Ricky Love Says:

    Conspiricy theories only exist in order to keep conspiracy theroists busy & happy.

    “Our cause is a secret within a secret, this secret that only another secret can explain; it is a secreet about a secret veiled by a secret”.

    old sufi secret, attributed to Ja ‘far as-Sadiq (702 –765 CE)

    Suf”ism” was once a cause without a name, now, a name without a cause.

  8. jim willmot Says:

    I agree with most of what Michael says but his example of a conspiracy to put crack in black neighborhoods has some basis in fact. Does Iran/Contra ring a bell? Letting south and central American drug cartels smuggle coke into the US so they could raise funds for and deliver arms to the Nicaraguan(sp) contras actually happened.

  9. Toby Says:

    While I think the first poster brings up a good point, that some conspiracies are real, I did not agree with him that this topic isn’t worth discussing more. We need to evaluate further the mechanisms involved with how individuals evaluate “evidence.” We all suffer from faulty logic and the bad part is we are mostly unaware of our own bad reasoning. I would like to learn more about how people erroneously come to accept a false (based on evidence) conspiracy theory as being true. Where or when are we most susceptible to make false leaps in logic? Why aren’t we good at calculating the probability of a theory being true. For example, we generally don’t say, “This may or may not be true so I’m withholding judgement.”

  10. Alex Says:

    I kind of agree with Joe above (especially the irony behind the J.W. Booth quote). “Conspiracy” is a LEGAL term, officially recognized and used by US courts to prosecute criminals. Shouldn’t be such a big spooky deal. On the other hand, some people believe in ghosts… but that shouldn’t justify denying multi-person crimes and secrets altogether. A famous (and quite sinister) example that’s in the news again: the well documented and now accepted case of Michael Schwerner… (hope this catches the author’s attention) as in the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner civil rights murders of 1964 by the KKK and Mississippi police. Michael Shermer: do you deny the existence of ALL conspiracies, in the legal sense of the term? Because the answer isn’t clear at all from the tone (mocking and dismissive) of your writings on this matter, nor generally from people who write about the topic in the press. I think what’s desperately missing from this national conversation is a good filter, a way to methodically differentiate (1) true cases (tried and convicted), from (2) false ones (perhaps reasonable doubt, but not enough evidence to convict), from (3) the completely crazy-goofy-ridiculous-magic ones (not worth anyone’s time). And that’s what the SCIENTIFIC method and reasoning should help us do. I don’t get why the debate has be SO misleading: from UFOs, ghosts and lizard-people on the one side to isolated-asocial criminals on the other. It’s intellectually dishonest. Would be nice to see a more rigorous and nuanced thinking on these matters (as they tend to be complex), and I’d hope the skeptic magazine and skeptic society could contribute to that, using proper scientific and legal reasoning, less ideology and derision.

  11. Leo Stummer Says:

    Yes, it is nice to make fun of those (the other) conspirationists. However, just because you are paranoid, that does not mean you are not being watched – and it’s a similar thing with conspirations. Luckily, it is obvious that there is no intelligent plan for anything, due to the general lack of intelligence.

  12. Remo "Uzi" Gwaldabi Says:

    I think that people are just stupid and money and education doesn’t preclude that. You simply can’t tell people they are stupid and expect them to realize it. Critical thinking and examination of empirical evidence from several independent sources can expose reality from fiction but to instill that ability can’t be imposed from without. It has to come from within. Being stupid however is not simple. It is extremely complex to ascertain how someone can fool themselves and allow others who are delusional to manipulate them too. Manifold variables conspire (pun intended) to create a false narrative in ones mind. More research should be performed to decipher how to overcome those factors. I suspect it would have to be customized for each individual.

  13. Peter Burkard Says:

    I generally respect and agree with Shermer but as I read his above listing of “conspiracies” that those of us on the left tend to believe, I found myself thinking that there is plenty of solid evidence of corporate and mega-rich people controlling America’s political system, especially the Republicans. I’d prefer to think of it as the way of the world in a corrupt system that desperately needs fixing, rather than a conspiracy. There is also massive evidence of Monsanto’s war on small farmers, of which I am one. This is not really a conspiracy either but simply their way of doing (nasty) business. I do not, however, ascribe to the alternative theories about 9-11.

  14. Michelle Says:

    I think that as long as a pattern persists and has the potential to harm us as individuals or as a species it is important to bring continued conscious awareness to it as Michael does here.

    I also think that the examples regarding the types of conspiracies that people of certain backgrounds seem to be drawn to is supported by data and not the opinion of the author. Nor, as far as i can see, is the author suggesting that all those in those categories think this way or that Monsanto isn’t problematic towards small farmers.

    the brain is a powerful tool and if we do not hold ourselves accountable to be mindful of where ours goes and to ensure that the ideas we allow ourselves to run with have been vetted by solid data and critical thinking we run the risk of being influenced, as indicated above, by our anxiety and stress levels. Our brain has a tendency to believe what we first assume – what our initial assessment and emotional reaction tells us is true. If you’ve ever taken the time to reflect about something that has upset you in the past, you likely discovered that your brain had made some assumptions that weren’t entirely accurate but that had an impact on your emotions and your behaviour at that time, perhaps with negative consequences.

    The more awareness authors like this can bring to the inner workings of the brain and how our thoughts influence and are influenced by our emotions, the more conscious we as individuals can be of our actions. This can only lead to more self-respect, respect for others, and more functional choices as individuals and as a society in time.

  15. Tim M Says:

    I like this article. I have one friend in particular who hates Obama for most of the “reasons” cited in the first paragraph…with no basis for ANY of it, as he doesn’t watch news on TV or read news online…it’s all from his friends (and likely his church)…and it’s all B.S.! People believe these things despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

    I personally believe that there is an elite-driven, long-term plan to control the masses planet-wide…there is abundant physical evidence to support this. But I also believe that “we the people” can change that course with social media! It’s already happening, just not as fast as I and others would like to see change.

  16. Linda Rosa Says:

    In regards to fluoridation, the book authors only refer to a conspiracy theory of the 1950s, as if this amazing public health measure is no longer plagued by such nonsense.

    Fluoridation is still rich territory for conspiracy theories. While it’s no longer a Commie plot, it is now used to pacify populations (just as the Nazis used fluoride to pacify Jews). It’s also a cheap way to dispose of industrial waste.

    My favorite: Fluoridation is used along with “chemtrails” and vaccinations by some unnamed “elite” to kill off most of the world’s population in advance work for the Second Coming or some such. These things are often hard to follow. (See the “documentary” on YouTube called “The Great Culling.”)

  17. thetentman Says:

    I was going to tell all of you the truth about this but…. THEY won’t let me and they are knocking (loudly) on my door. Gotta go before THEY get me…

  18. AJPreston Says:

    I can’t remember agreeing with you about almost any single conspiracy. JFK, Moon landing ( 1960’s Technology can’t get to the Moon – 2000’s technology still can’t) Clearly Oswald’s old rifle can’t kill Kennedy alone. Why do you constantly pander to the establishment? Here’s an idea- Why don’t The Skeptics take on Big Medi/Pharma and debunk some of the rubbish postulated as fact. For example Vaccines! Not a conspiracy? HPV vaccine forced onto teenagers! AIDS not a conspiracy? Thousands of Doctors and Scientists hysterically rail against the AIDS Juggernaut ” Deconstructing The AIDS Myth” features at least 20 highly qualified Scientists including 2 Nobel Laureates. This particular Doco categorically calls the AIDS Movement A Conspiracy but not a word of support from The Skeptics. I suppose The Sketics fervently support the Low fat diets forced on us by Big Food. No hint of resistance from you Shermer, is there? Never mind that it’s ” A big Fat Lie” Guess What? Butter is good, Margarine is poison! No comment from The Skeptics is there. Instead you love to dribble on about peripheral non issues which drag in cash and don’t offend Corporate America. You couldn’t be more pathetic!

  19. Dave Leigh Says:

    Q: “Mr. Owl, how many replies will it take for a conspiracy theorist to weigh in defending his theories?”

    A: “I don’t know… let’s find out. One, Two, THREE…. Three.”

  20. Ken Says:


    Nobody said there were no true conspiracies at all, just that there are a lot of unsupportable theories about certain ones. You seem a little defensive.


    Lots of different groups have influence in government, but that doesn’t mean they control it. Yes, there are breaks for corporations, in the hope they will in turn benefit the economy. There are also breaks for farmers. You could argue for or against either of those. But it’s out in the open, publicly debatable. Not a secret or a conspiracy.

    And a company that tries to make a profit is “making war” on its customers? I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But it’s not my way.

  21. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    One thing that those who scoff at “conspiracy theories” often fail to acknowledge is many, many conspiracies do, actually exist.

    According to the definitions above, the many secret pacts between European nations which lead to WWI were conspiracies.

    Additionally, Steve Jobs’ communications with CEO’s of other silicon valley corporations to forge agreements about hiring engineers who work at other corporations constitute a conspiracy.

    I could go on and on – as could every reader – but this raises a question. One that no one has ever answered to my satisfaction: what is the difference between a ‘conspiracy’ and a ‘conspiracy theory’? (I mean aside from the fact that a ‘conspiracy’ really happened and a ‘conspiracy theory’ didn’t).

    I think that there would be tremendous value to be able to articulate that difference – especially if we could use it to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to real conspiracies vs conspiracy theories.

  22. Pat Miller Says:

    Sadly, the conspiracy I see is the one to keep people off balance and in a state of fear in order that they will respond and vote not with logic, but with emotion and in fact, panic. The Ebola crisis disappeared from the front pages after the election. So many ” hot button” topics – gun control, election fraud, abortion – are shadow play to obscure actual issues, chelating the religious right into voting as a block to protect liberties never endangered. it is a power grab of stunning breadth and consequence.

  23. Bill Morgan Says:

    Looks like eSkeptic does not tolerate posts that show actual conspiracies, false flag operations, government lies and cover-ups as my post was not allowed to be posted. So what is eSkeptic afraid of? Perhaps the truth.

  24. tpaine Says:

    You want the truth?
    You can’t handle the truth

  25. Alex Says:

    I agree with with many of the above comments. “Conspiracy” is a LEGAL term, officially recognized and used by US courts to prosecute criminals. Shouldn’t be such a big spooky deal. A famous (and quite sinister) example that’s in the news again: the well documented and now accepted case of Michael Schwerner… (hope this catches the author’s attention) as in the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner civil rights murders of 1964 by the KKK and Mississippi police. Does Michael Shermer deny the existence of ALL conspiracies, in the legal sense of the term? Would be nice to clarify. I think what’s desperately missing from this national conversation is a good filter, a way to methodically differentiate (1) true cases (tried and convicted), from (2) false ones (perhaps a doubt, but not enough evidence to convict), from (3) the completely crazy-goofy-ridiculous-magic ones (not worth anyone’s time). And that’s what the SCIENTIFIC method and reasoning should help us do. So,would be nice to see more rigorous and nuanced thinking on these matters (as they tend to be complex), and I’d hope the skeptic magazine and skeptic society could contribute to that, using proper scientific and legal reasoning, less ideology and derision.

  26. Bill Morgan Says:

    Here are some Conspiracies That Turned Out To Be True:

    Operation Mockingbird
    The Tuskegee Syphilis Study
    Operation Northwoods
    COINTELPRO Program
    The Iran-Contra Affair
    The BCCI Scandal
    CIA Drug Running
    Gulf of Tonkin Incident
    Operation Ajax
    Operation Snow White
    Operation Gladio
    Church Committee Documentation of CIA Assassinations
    Operation Paperclip

    I thought Skeptics believed there are no Conspiracies. How do Skeptics explain these?

  27. Bill Benson Says:

    Wow, Michael
    has certainly brought the conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. That pretty much validates the thesis of his article.

  28. Oscar Alfaro Says:

    I think the article about conspiracy theorists was a bait to bring about some of the most entertaining comments.

  29. King Dave Says:

    Many Americans believe the Islamic State is really not that bad, and/or a Republican myth. I understand their political reasons for believing such rubbish, but not their morality.

  30. Sam Spade Says:

    My problem is that I’ve become a skeptic’s skeptic. I’m skeptical of the skeptics — especially when I detect a mocking and dismissive tone (thanks, Alex — comment above) throughout any “science” presentation.

    I mean, is the “federal reserve” merely a natural outcropping of accepted government business practice? How about wars — are they normal and natural — or do they occur due to the egregious nature of every politician NOT “on our side”??? (Praise-the-lord-and-pass-the-ammunition). Is it possible that all wars in all of history have always been founded upon a host of gigantic and grievous conspiracies? And how did politicians on both sides get the hordes of warrior/slaves (death is still the ultimate punishment for those who decide to turn around and go back home) to murder the hordes of individuals on the “other side” — and think of them as “enemies”??? I’m an old draftee — I’ve spent many hours of contemplation as to how they managed to force me into the situations I faced in the “Far East” those many years ago.

    How about the “practice” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) of politics in general. Could a normally educated individual (whatever “normal” might mean to you) come to believe that all pressure to bring about central political “authority” is (or perhaps is not) conspiratorial in nature? That is, without s/he who might so suspect being a wild-eyed fanatical lunatic???

    I never trust a writer who uses “science” as the subject of a sentence. My 5 year-old granddaughter thoroughly follows each and every step of the scientific method I ever taught in science class. And when she communicates her findings (“Grandpa! Your breath stinks!”) I can be certain that action on my part is indicated.

    Incidentally, the man usually credited as being “the father of the scientific method” was a highly religious individual. Read this:

    First of all, I like to know where the money to conduct the “science” is coming from. Amazing how loud and convincing “scientific proclamations” can be when funding time looms.

    I’m skeptical of any science writer who prefaces his or her declarations with “we know”. No, “we” don’t know — how the world do you know I know??? I’m willing to do research and attempt to find out — I might even take your word for it if I trust your background — but “we” don’t know. I do quite a bit of reading, and I might agree with what you’re telling me. “We know” is scientific piffle.

    Uneasy rides the head of the skeptical skeptic. Sam

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