If it seems that conspiracy theories have grown–indeed, erupted–over the past several years, a recent book on the history of those theories disabuses us. Evidently, humans have always embraced these “explanations” of the world.

The Guardian has reviewed the book. 

US congressional hearings can be dry affairs but not of late. First there was Robert Kennedy Jr, purveyor of disinformation about vaccines and much else, testifying about big tech censorship. Then David Grusch, a former intelligence officer, claiming that the government knows more than it admits about UFOs: “Non-human biologics had been recovered at crash sites.”

The fact that both captured the public imagination is not so surprising. In a new book, Under the Eye of Power, cultural historian Colin Dickey argues that our hunger for conspiracy theories is less fringe and more mainstream than we like to admit. Fearmongering about secret groups pulling levers of power behind the scenes, “conspiring to pervert the will of the people and the rule of law”, is older than America itself.

The author harkens back to the 1692 Salem witch trials, to the many Americans who were convinced that the Revolution was a conspiracy organized by the French, and to many others–from the Illuminati to QAnon. He argues against the temptation to dismiss these eruptions as some sort of aberration that resonates “with a small and marginal segment of the population.” Instead, Dickey argues that they are  “hardwired into how many people process democracy.” As he delved into the research, he says

I began to see a pattern emerge whereby there’s almost a template for fears of secret societies, of this invisible, undetectable group that is nonetheless doing terrible things behind the scenes.

“It happens again and again; the names change. Sometimes it’s the Catholics, sometimes it’s the Jews, sometimes it’s the satanists, sometimes it’s the socialists or the anarchists. But it recurs with enough frequency that I began to see it as something that gets deployed almost on cue when certain moments arise in American history.”

Dickey points to the evolution of Freemasonry from its origin as a social philanthropic fraternal organization to one seen as a parallel shadow government that had infiltrated the country, and to attacks on Catholics that were driven by a conviction among Protestants that they were being controlled by a foreign pope. As the author notes, other anti-Catholic accusations were

very structurally similar to the contemporary conspiracy theory around Pizzagate or the movie that just came out, Sound of Freedom [popular with QAnon followers]. This idea of the cabal of sexual abusers, which was being used against Catholics in the 1830s, with just a few of the key details changed but more or less the same narrative.

One thing that has changed is the suspected nationality of the nefarious actors. Until the 20th Century, the “bad guys” were almost always foreign. Today, they’re domestic.

After world war two and the sixties, that gradually but irrevocably changes to the point where now most Americans take it on an article of faith that the government is out to do them harm on some level or another.

The Internet is obviously implicated, but Dickey says it just exacerbates some of our latent tendencies.

What does seem new is that QAnon is this weird hybrid of a very dangerous, quite racist and homo- and transphobic conspiracy theory mixed with an online multilevel marketing scheme and also a community forum for puzzle solvers.

Dickey notes that conspiracy theories like QAnon and the Great Replacement theory tend to flare up when “there is significant demographic change or previously marginalized groups push for visibility and equality.” Rather than recognize that America is always changing, they insist that demographic and social changes are being caused by “secret elites who are working behind the scenes to undermine what ‘America’ actually is.”

The review is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety. The book tries to explain the trajectory that often begins with reasonable questions (are there side-effects to this vaccine?) and ends up with crazed, evidence-free answers (the vaccines are inserting chips in us; the vaccines are killing people…)

The basic problem seems to be the very human need to reject chaos and randomness–to believe that something is in control. Perhaps the messy  and threatening reality you don’t understand is part of God’s plan, or maybe it is the result of dark forces–the illuminati, the Jews, the government….

Unfortunately, as Dickey concludes, rebuttals with facts and evidence will simply be attributed to the conspiracy. Because belief in that conspiracy addresses an existential or emotional need, to be effective, any response must also address that need.

Unfortunately, Dickey doesn’t tell us how to do that…..


  1. Even though I have not seen the movie sounds of freedom yet I believe everybody should see it regardless of the conspiracy theories people are putting upon the man who made it, or its connections to QAnon. The liberal media seized upon conspiracy, theories and subjugated a movie that was written well before QAnon was even around. CNN is also being sued for his conspiracy theories, because the man who freeze children is being supported through corporations, define children that are being abused by sex traffickers. Of course, CNN, for some reason appears to be for sex trafficking by beating up on this man and saying that he is extorting companies instead so good for him as he sues CNN for defamation. we need to be very careful to not use conspiracy theories or keep us from investigating people because of conspiracy theories have been trumped up in the past. As a society, we should be loving, caring and kind in all manner and critically thinking. Remember 1/2 of our society has an IQ that is lower than 100 so they’re more likely to , listen to these things listen to bad news journalism make bad financial decisions. On another note, we see the poor are continually being taken advantage of because banks like Chase, or adding on new fees for ATMs and other services like overdraft fees right now or economy is been downgraded as Fitch is now. Apparently unhappy with a Bank operations and has downgraded them to a plus from AA minus. We have seen the way other companies have lost their finances and we need to understand what history will play out with this country if we continue on blowing up the national debt when a box of Ritz crackers cost more than four dollars and a bottle of salad dressing is almost 6 dollars, and yes I took pictures of this and I have them in my phone. I get very concerned for the poor hoot or trying to make it by we have a president. He says he lowered the national debt by $1.7 trillion yet in the last 2 1/2 years, our national debt has gone up by $5 trillion , no conspiracy theories about him being a poor leader

  2. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragically sad that so many humans gobble up the B.S. as an easy explanation for things they don’t understand. As a former science educator, I got those questions all the time from students. The underlying theme of their conspiracy theories was what they heard in church. No wonder that 69% of Americans still believe in angels.

    I chalk this up to intellectual sloth and the avoidance of critical thinking. Imagine that. Oh, in 2014, the Texas Republican party offered up one of its planks that teaching critical thinking skills in classrooms should be banned. I wish I were making that up, but you can look it up.

    So, conspiracy theories build on one another until the blathering masses have NO idea what’s going on for real. The scientific method of thought is our gift from a very complex, sentient brain that allows us to dispel these idiotic “theories” and actually think rationally. The people who believe in little green men, simply fear the unknown because they’ve chosen to not learn about the things they don’t understand.

    And then there are those who float theories for profit and mind control. You know, like egregious con men exemplified by Joel Osteen, the billionaire fantasy teller.

  3. RFK Jr. was correct about the vaccines (read his well-referenced book) and Big Tech censorship. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have also testified, and Elon even let the journalist, Matt Taibbi, see the emails from our intelligence agencies to the former execs of Twitter. Censorship has been ongoing in this country – see Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

    Therefore, this is a quasi-‘hit piece’ that the DNC surely appreciates. I’d post the video compilation of all the left-wing media claims about the vaccine, which later proved false, but posters will call me a “troublemaker” again. LOL

    Also, the internet is just a medium and is neither positive nor negative—the same as a gun or car.

    I won’t waste my time with the rest of the article or the book. If you don’t think cabals are running the USA in secret, then you’re either naive or part of the problem. Maybe a useful idiot wanting access to these cabals. 😉

  4. Todd, talk about useful idiot!
    People seem to have a need for easy to understand, simple, explanations: “Oh has there been no rain for weeks, then the god of the volcano MUST be angry!” “Oh, has the rain not let up for days, then the god of the volcano MUST be angry.” Vernon’s comments t about the students getting their conspiracy ideas from their churches, is a virtual double proof that fairy tales work well.
    Giuliani and Trump are spin merchants, nothing less.

  5. It doesn’t help that conspiracies often have the Nostradamus effect – IE, if you throw enough at the wall eventually something will be right. And, once you accidentally end up right about one thing, it’s easy to think you’re right about everything.

    Conspiracies also tend to suffer from “yes, but” or, as the good professor says “it depends and it’s complicated”. This column’s quoted section even has a bit of that. It mentions the conspiracies about Catholic churches abusing children, turns out that one is spot on. BUT, it turns out that kind of abuse is pretty rampant in every large, powerful organization. So, it’s true but it isn’t a useful fact. They just happened to be right about one thing. Multinational corporations aren’t your friend and do lots of harm around the world? True! They harvest magic from children to stay young forever? Well, now you’ve wandered off the reservation into crazy town.

    It’s easy to fall into. I think Todd has tripped headfirst into a lot of those kinds of nuance issues.

  6. WAPO 8/16/23 reports in an article titled, “Boston University hires disinformation scholar.” This is a BU tenure-track position. Joan Donovan will teach in the BU journalism department and division of emerging media studies. Donovan was previously dismissed as a Harvard University research director.

    “…the internet is just a medium and is neither positive nor negative—the same as a gun or car.” — TES

    It seems this BU position has arisen to aid unknowing journalism students in separating “positive” from “negative” news. Cited topics in which Donovan has developed a track record are medical information, social media, Jan. 6, 2021 Capital riot, QAnon and conspiracy theories.

  7. John S:

    ever look at the profit margins on said items, them look at the wall street ticker symbol that
    is attached to said products? seems the gouging is man made by wall streets greed. the likes
    of Sen.Bernie Sanders has many times sought to curb that windfall of profits into taxes back onto
    Americas main street,only to be pushed aside. try looking at the greed of this countries
    rich and its power to take control of a whole party in congress. Bidens mess isnt a mess,and look at the economic numbers in his favor. .all this greed is from
    decades of ruthless political spears. and we elected this whole mess..

  8. It’s hard for me to unravel cause and effect on the explosive growth of conspiracy theories. Is political advertising on pervasive screen media indistinguishable among entertainment, news, social candy, and propaganda the cause or just taking advantage of something caused by others changes?

  9. Conspiracy theories, propaganda, and indoctrination are all over the place. If your lucky, you have the high intelligence and good heart to cipher out the garbage and try and be decent to people and teach those values to your children even when it’s very difficult. And trust me, with some it’s very difficult to remain civil when you feel they are inciting people to be intolerant, irrational, and violent. Add in all this crazy modern technology capable of doing some very bad things and that only adds to the pile of fear and paranoia going on.

  10. I suppose Dwight Eisenhower was a whack job for pointing out the Deep State called the MIC.

    If Assange was just a looney, why lock him up?

    I don’t think these “nuances” eliminate anything from reality.

    As for the DNC using slander against their own, watch the RFK Jr story unfold. It’s a repeat of 2016.

  11. The conspiracy theory that elephants are hiding in trees,
    yet none are found there,
    is mute testimony to how good they are at hiding:
    “That is the nature of conspiracy theories.
    They are immune to evidence.
    Any evidence against the conspiracy is simply part of the conspiracy. Any missing evidence for the conspiracy is covered up. Everything is a false flag, a deception. This means that you can construct and maintain a conspiracy narrative out of anything – any facts that happen to exist. Conspiracy theories are compatible with any reality, because they just make up ad-hoc explanations for everything within the conspiracy narrative.”
    ~ Dr, Steven Novella –

  12. In regards to the voucher system discusuion, 2 families describing themselves as black that I did business with were going to put their kids into the charter school or religious school not because of the better education they would receive. They do not approve of the sexualization of children, especially their kindergartners.
    The professional teacher is losing to the charter school due to those pushing an ideology.

  13. Let’s give a round of applause to Critical Thinking… better known in parts of the world as… Thinking.
    ‘nuf said! Your thoughts?

  14. John S. Two comments about your posts.
    1. You claim “everybody should see” a movie that you yourself haven’t yet seen. How would you know it is worth my time to see it?
    2. Based on your conversations with 2 families, you make the claim that “the professional teacher is losing to the charter school due to those pushing an ideology.”
    People teaching in charter schools ARE professional teachers and 2 examples do not reveal anything significant about school systems in general.
    Don’t you think you are being too quick to draw conclusions based on insufficient evidence?

  15. Sharon Miller, no conclusion made about these families, except there appeared to be fear of a public system that wasnt apparent before in any manner I had seen. Only an observation that the Brookings institute didnt appear to understand why segregation is happening as kids are pulled out of public schools. The two charter schools that I volunteered in were largely made of hispanic and black children. The pay wasn’t as good for teachers but plenty of innovative teaching. But it takes more than normalcy in education to flip a school. You need fantastic leadership.

  16. The Italian writer, Umberto Eco wrote about conspiracy theories in his book “Serendipities: language and lunacy.”

    Among other things, he noted that false tales are tales, and tales, like myths are always persuasive. That causes a real problem, he wrote, because most of the time, the problem does not consist of proving that something is false, but in proving that the authentic version is true.

  17. I don’t know – the “Government” is now the “Evil One”, but who is the “Government”?

    The usual supects – “The Blacks” (BLM), “The Jews” (Soros), “The Catholics” – I could go on, but I think the. verbiage is all that has changed. Conspiracies, and the “Evil One” have staying power.

    Anti-Vaxxers have been around since Jenner.

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