Theorizing Conspiracy Theory

On this week’s Real Politik our guest is New Zealand-based philosopher and conspiracy theory researcher Matthew R. X. Dentith. He is a self-described “conspiracy theory theorist” who wrote his doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theories.

In addition to teachdentithing courses in political philosophy and critical thinking, Matthew is the author of the book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). He also hosts his own podcast, The Podcaster’s Guide to the Conspiracy, and blogs at

Interview Highlights

Matthew’s scholarly approach breaks from the commonplace disparagement of “conspiriacism” and “conspiracy theorists.” Instead, he argues that engaging with and thinking seriously about political conspiracies would likely contribute to a much more vibrant political discourse than what is observable today. “If you go back historically you get people like philosopher Karl Popper and political scientist Richard Hofstadter,” he notes.

They’re really concerned about belief in conspiracy theories because they worry about the social consequences about belief in particular theories. I approach it from a completely different aspect. I say, “Well, look. What exactly is a conspiracy theory?” It seems to be a theory about a conspiracy, where the conspiracy plays the salient cause for some event within the world–it’s a kind of explanation. And when we look at conspiratorial explanations as a larger class there seem to be lots of really good conspiratorial explanations out there.

So why is it that we create a subset of these conspiratorial explanations, call them ‘conspiracy theories,’ and then slap on a pejorative label; “Oh, that’s just a conspiracy theory. You don’t want to believe that.” I find that to be a really fascinating way that the discourse seems to have run.


Along these lines, frequently opinion leaders, such as politicians, scholars and journalists, are perhaps most heavily influenced for fear of being labeled a conspiracy theorist.

I do think there’s a social consequence for being someone who looks at conspiracy theories either in a neutral way or even in a positive way. So I think it’s very true that if you’re in the political sphere, the notion that you even toy with conspiracy theories can be a kind of death knell to you political career.

I think within the journalistic field it becomes really quite tricky because lots of journalists go around routinely uncovering criminal conspiracies, for example, but there seems to be a kind of backing off when it comes to talking about political conspiracies. They’re much more concerned with making claims that members of our government or even our local councils are engaging in conspiratorial malfeasance.

Academically I’m not entirely sure what’s going on there. You would think within the academic realm, one would be able to have kind of a neutral gloss on what a conspiracy theory is, and simply have conversations about our beliefs in these things, particularly good or bad. Can we warrant individual theories? Are conspiracy theorists actually irrational? And yet for some reason–and I’ve yet to actually work out why this is–there seems to be a kind of conservatism to talk in academic circles. If conspiracy theories are bad, we have to explain why that is.

Matthew initially began to study the orientation toward conspiracy theories through a personal uncertainty of their overall merits. “I am an epistemologist by training. My particular interest is in how we generate knowledge about the world. I sort of came to the discussion about conspiracy theories as a bit of a conspiracy theory skeptic, truth be told. I was teaching a critical thinking course at University of Auckland. We were looking at common fallacious moves people make in argumentation. And my colleague and I said, ‘Lots of people infer to any old explanation rather than the best one, and a really good example of that seems to be conspiracy theories. People believe in conspiracy theories. They often end up being not particularly good explanations of events. So let’s investigate that further.’ And the more time I spent looking at the epistemology of conspiracy theories–whether they can be warranted, whether they’re rational and such like–it turned out that actually often there are good grounds to believe conspiracy theories. So it’s actually quite fascinating that there’s a kind of deep-seated resentment towards discussion, both in public discourse and in academic discourse.”

In fact, revelations from sources like Wikileaks and Edward Snowden suggest that conspiracies are a common occurrence, and information that emerges. “It’s quite clear that when you actually look at the Snowden trove there are conspiracies going on within various world governments all around. We’ve had our Snowden trove revelations in New Zealand. It turns out that the GCSB, which is our external spy agency, has been engaging along with the NSA, mass collecting data throughout the Pacific. Most New Zealand citizens didn’t think we were complicit in this. Thus we are understandably outraged that our government has been complicit in that type of mass collection. And so it shows that these organizations engage in sinister activity. But not just that. They routinely lie to the public about the fact they’re doing it, and that’s where the conspiracy comes in.”

The conversation further encompasses conspiracy theories on Jade Helm 15, the influence of journalistic work and public suspicion on New Zealand politics, the premature denial of Stalin’s many crimes as “groundless,” in addition to consideration of the roles played by established political commentators/”conspiracy theorists” such as Alex Jones and David Icke.

21 thoughts on “Theorizing Conspiracy Theory”

  1. Well! All Dentith has to do is publish a F$$K$$G book that people can afford to purchase!!


    1. My understanding is that the author’s desire is not to have such a highly-priced book, and that future editions will be more affordable. Such are the drawbacks of academic book publishing.

    2. Palgrave Macmillan is an international publisher. This book, and other niche books, tend to have limited audiences, as evidenced by its low Amazon ranking. Neither the publisher nor the author is getting rich here, rather, in my opinion, both are investing in a bold and costly venture, and, lending a credible voice to all conspiracy researchers.

  2. It’s good to get this into the realm of epistemology – the philosophy which asks what the steps are that we took to saying we know something is true or that it happened. We can also falsify something by saying that something does not rest on true premises, and could not have happened as it has been told to us.

    What tends to muddy the argument and can be a conspiracy in itself if launched to obscure the real critique, is to take too many leaps away from what we are told to produce an alternate fiction. That is what some who are uneasy with this epistemological quest tend to pin on anyone doubting the official story of something – that not only do they deny something they have been told, but they also swallow a host of other impossibilities and are thus magical in their thinking, like little children. It is less fashionable today to use the word “paranoid” but more common to talk about “tinfoil hats”. The effect is basically dismissive of all conversation about doubt, and it tends to reinforce belief by ostracism.

    Thus, many rational considerations about an event are dismissed, sometimes with elaborate dodges to accept the official story at whatever cost to even simple observation. After all, new theories always begin with small observations. As that leads to new hypotheses that challenge a dominant theory (which is the official story), even the small observations are dangerous and considered off-limits.

    Cross-checking with what you know about life and about how things happen normally is also frowned on.

    When you have watched people with some claim to scientific expertise participating in the reinforcing activities around some staged event (your theory being that it was staged, because it simply does not meet normal standards for how such an event would occur in all the other known instances), then you know there is real power behind the deception and the desperate need to keep its historical status untouched by critique. Having high status people in your pocket is essential to officials.

    Taking the long view, and seeing the actions that proceed from accepting the premises of some event, one can measure the degree of power exerted to keep it unchallenged. In this society, we see that there is just as much of it as we once accused totalitarian systems of exerting.

    It is one thing to hide one’s guilty actions as a politician. It is quite another to create theater to achieve guilty and illegal ends in the world at large. But since the public must be driven in their consent to do something like attack another country or assassinate individuals abroad (or say you are doing it to instill fear), then these theatrical events allow them to applaud the leader who carries out their manufactured need for revenge, a need generated by an event.

    It has happened in the past, and somehow, it happens today at a very fast rate in many small events. I am reminded of the rapid burst of fireworks at the end of the Fourth of July display, where they use up everything they can before everyone goes home in silence and darkness. But that is only a metaphor, and may not apply to whether our society is on the brink of collapse, though some have thought it is.

    Once one has constructed a theory about how something happened, comes the ultimate conclusion of “why”, but unfortunately that is hazardous because one’s own prejudices inevitably come into it and one must confront them before carefully assigning guilt.

    In rendering judgment one puts oneself out to be tarred by the same brush as people with far baser motives, who do not care about the facts and never examined them. That may be why so many people simply ignore the possibilities inherent in demolishing the official story, which might clear the political landscape of corrupt officials and allow the society to make new choices. Instead, one puts up and shuts up, often simply to live in relative peace at home and at work. One shuts out the simple observations which could change everything, in favor of getting on with the aspects of the agenda to which one has been assigned. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”

  3. US Government blaming “ISIS” for Amtrak (Philly) derailment in 3, 2, 1……

    Remember when CIA sent McCain to Syria to broker the creation of “ISIS?” The meeting was broadcast on CNN, for pete’s sake.

    Train derailment (by “ISIS”) may be used to lock down rail stations with TSA (similar to airports).

    Goal = Restricting Travel; Martial Law. Because restricting travel makes it difficult for folks to come together and throw crooks/traitors out of political office.

    1. Oh no, say it isn’t so! I was looking at this as a straight tragedy, where a train took a curve too fast. But two things jumped out – a young woman sitting in some triage situation, with what looked like a smoke blackened face- not bruises but make-up. I said – oh no! Then saw some crazy-looking squiggly tracks like steel making like wax – which looked like a prop. This was even in the midst of what looked like a frantic rescue scene. Then to hear that a politician from Pennsylvania and at least two news personalities were on board – okay – were they the only VIP’s or are there going to be more of them?

      Of course Amtrak is a money loser and the talk is of high speed Japanese or Chinese rails, so it occurred to me that this would be a demonstration of why we should spend billions on a new system. But tired old terrorism? Cue Pamela Geller standing on the rubble with a bullhorn. Barforama.

      1. Steel tracks will do amazing things when the proper forces are applied. There are however strange anomalies in the train wreck photos, especially considering the speed at which it was supposed to have happened. One car appears to have been t-boned by something, track curvature from the ground photos looks much more extreme than from the air which is normal, but not that extreme, cars in different places in different pictures, and the big one… the engineer is a gay activist.

        1. Oh, and one last thing. They show pictures of the engineer when he was a conductor. I always recalled engineers on Amtrak being a little more seasoned, coming from the ranks of freight railroads that work on those particular tracks , not being pulled from the Amtrak conductor ranks. They could do it that way now, but it doesn’t seem correct.

    2. “US Government blaming “ISIS” for Amtrak (Philly) derailment in 3, 2, 1……”-OR maybe the engineer was a suicidal manic depressive a la Lubitz…..

  4. Very good interview, as usual, Dr. Tracy. However, this guy comes across as a typical pompous academic, IMO. He’s obviously a leftist, which is his right, but as most academics, it seems he finds it hard to keep his personal politics out of his research. Mocking Chuck Norris because he’s an actor and speaks out on issues – really? Does he also mock Bono and all the other left-wing Hollywood types who constantly give us their opinions? My political philosophy leans towards conservatism. However, this doesn’t stop me from understanding the evil workings of the Bush family, Cheney and all the other neocons, as well as recognizing the BS that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity spew on a daily basis. Mr. Dentith seems to rate “conspiracy theories” based on his own personal political beliefs. This attitude is exactly what got us in this sorry state.

  5. “Not another conspiracy theory” was my reaction to the assertion that 911 was an inside job back in 2007. When I said that, the hackles raised up on Ben like when you grab a squirming – freshly caught yellow perch to unhook him. Ben became irate that I rejected his claim with extreme derision. Ben just happened to be a cab driver like Jerry played by Mel Gibson in the movie ‘Conspiracy Theory’. Go back and watch it, it’s pretty damn good. What is it about cab drivers and conspiracy theories? I went home on a mission to humiliate Ben as I embarked on a research mission. I wanted to find all the evidence that helped prove that 19 hijackers with box cutters could take out massive high value targets with a 75% success rate while defeating the planet’s most elaborate air defense system. Just think about that last statement. It’s a bold claim on face value. It’s almost a retooling of the David and Goliath parable… that a small weak adversary can defeat an enormously powerful giant with the right cunning. And because of it, we have to fear five foot three inch dark skinned males with beards like they are hell bent of killing us because “we love freedom” and they can’t idly sit by and watch us “bask in the glow of freedom’s reign”. That’s basically what we are told to think about the War on Terror.
    The only research I did the first time was to go back and watch what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, The Mayor of New York said in news conferences. It took me about ten minutes for the chills to come up the spine that Ben was not only right, he was just digging at the surface. The deeper I looked, the more reality diverged from the official story. And remember my purpose when I started looking at it? To humiliate Ben for being a devout Conspiracy Theorist. I think that’s a far different approach from people who merely wanted to know the truth. There’s a big difference in motivation. I was dying to throw it in his face. I never did run into Ben again, I wish I do one day so I can eat more words!

  6. An automatic dismissal of anyone’s investigation of the “official story” by calling it a “conspiracy theory” is what is called “Contempt prior to Investigation”,and it is a mighty poor method of research. Thanks to Dr. Matthew Dentith for his research.

  7. Thank you Dr. Dentith for a most intellectually stimulating interview on MHB. If you could indulge me, what are your thoughts on the use of disinformation front groups by the intelligence agencies to hide their, often illicit, covert and clandestine activities?

    A good example of this was the infiltration of UFO researchers (including academics) by the C.I.A., and, their subsequent use as “useful idiots” by the C.I.A. in furthering its own agenda. The documentary I have in mind is Mirage Men (2013):

  8. Pink Vest Lady of the Boston Bombing is finally unveiled ….. surprise surprise she is a rabid zionist. I can’t make this stuff up.

  9. Epistemology is at the center of false flags and similar staged events in Plato’s worldwide cave. The first and foremost challenge of a false flag’s Master conspirators is to make the general public acquire false beliefs instead of correct information. A good conspiracy theory is also largely a matter of epistemology, as is unravels the official version’s crippled epistemology–thanks Sunstein for this catchy phrase–and explains how false beliefs prevailed over reality.

    Taking as an example 9/11, which is arguably the most formidable false flag in history, its essential fundamental teaching is epistemological, as shown at'%20censorship.htm, with the caveat that I authored it: “we the people of the world have been masterfully conned.”


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