What Is (And Isn’t) a Conspiracy Theory?

This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.

Tin foil man strikes again

Summary: A conspiracy theory has a precise meaning; it’s not just anything we disagree with, Why conspiracy theories are usually false, and why Yeshua’s disciples should avoid them.

We’re going on almost two years of a global, once-in-a-century pandemic. And in my corner of the religious world, many folks are promoting conspiracy theories about the pandemic, the virus, and its treatments.

Still others feel their views are being wrongfully and unfairly dismissed as conspiracy theories.

Just last week, someone dear to me told me that I wrongfully dismissed her views as a conspiracy theory:

I'm right and everyone else is a conspiracy theorist, or so I'm told

I’ve long advised Yeshua’s disciples to avoid conspiracy theories. Back in 2016, long before the pandemic, I penned 3 reasons to steer clear of conspiracy theories. The year before, I wrote how conspiracy theories promote anti-Semitism and hurt our credibility as Yeshua’s disciples.

My opposition to conspiracy theories isn’t due to some newfound love of medicine or vaccines, but rather, a long-held conviction born out of real world experience of running a Messianic congregation for over a decade, and seeing reasonable people leave the movement because of them.

Given my recent interactions, I thought it’d be helpful to clarify what is a conspiracy theory. In this post, I discuss:

  1. What is a conspiracy theory
  2. What isn’t a conspiracy theory
  3. What epistemic level – what level of truthfulness or validity – we can associate with conspiracy theories
  4. Why conspiracy theories are generally harmful for Yeshua’s disciples

What is a conspiracy theory?

All conspiracy theories, are, well, theories: a theory about a group of people, usually an elite group of experts in some domain.

All conspiracy theories claim that a group of people are conspiring secretly to do something, usually something dark or evil that needs to be hidden from the public.

Consider the flat earth claim:

“NASA scientists are hiding the truth of the shape of the earth from humanity.”

This fits the bill of a conspiracy theory: it theorizes that scientists at NASA have conspired secretly to keep the true shape of the earth from the public.

Let’s pause for a moment and highlight an important detail here: just because something is a conspiracy theory doesn’t mean it’s false

The Watergate scandal of the 1970s was a conspiracy by the Nixon administration to wiretap and burglarize the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Evidence – Oval Office recordings and perpetrator confessions – showed this conspiracy to be true, resulting in Nixon’s resignation.

One could imagine in the months leading up to the revelation, anyone who said, “The Republicans are spying on the Democrats! President Nixon is in on it!” would have been written off as a conspiracy theorist. Yet it turned out to be true.

A more recent example: the conspiracy theory that the COVID virus originated from the virology lab in Wuhan, China. It was first generally agreed by governments and experts that the virus originated in Wuhan, likely through live animal meat markets.

Plausible. But new evidence showed that Communist party leaders ordered the shredding of documents from Wuhan’s virology lab prior to UN inspector’s arrival after the virus began to spread, suggesting either an unintentional lab leak (likely) or a deliberate infection (less likely).

While still not conclusive, major media outlets revised their headlines, changing their tone from “debunked conspiracy theory” to “possible explanation of the virus’ origins.” Even left-wing pundits appeared on late night shows to confess that it’s probably true:

Not all conspiracy theories are false.

However, conspiracy theories overwhelmingly tend to be false for a variety of reasons we’ll discuss shortly.

What isn’t a conspiracy theory

In the charged political climate of our era, people often use the term “conspiracy theory” as a dismissive means to write off all opposition without engaging with their arguments.

“You believe that? Conspiracy theorist! I don’t even have to engage with your ridiculous arguments. You’re wrong by default. Goodbye and blocked!”

Take the COVID treatments debate. While health officials and governments of the world are urging citizens to get vaccinated, others who are either vaccine hesitant, vaccine skeptical, or full on anti-vaxx push for alternatives.

Their claims might be summed up as,

“The best way to combat the COVID pandemic is by exercise, a healthy immune system, and natural supplements. If you get infected, existing anti-viral pharmaceuticals like hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin can treat it.”

Is that a conspiracy theory?

Going back to our definition above, no, this is not a conspiracy theory. There are no claims that a group is conspiring to keep a secret from the public. It could be misinformation – perhaps vitamin D doesn’t help as some think, perhaps ivermectin isn’t effective at curing a COVID infection, etc. Those are separate truth claims. But it is not a conspiracy theory.

If one extends that claim to something like this…

“These natural treatments are suppressed by the CDC and FDA because they want us to get injections to depopulate the earth, take away our freedoms, and pave the way for big government.”

…only then do we have a conspiracy theory, because it theorizes a group is conspiring secretly to do some evil thing.

What epistemic level should we assign to conspiracy theories?

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge with regards to its validity. What is the epistemic level of conspiracy theories?

Put another way, when disciples of Yeshua encounter a genuine conspiracy theory, what level of truth-iness should we ascribe to it?

I am going to argue we should consider them “probably false” by default, unless and until broad and conclusive evidence is shown, keeping in mind conspiracy theorists will overstate the evidence for their claims.

Why? Four reasons I see:

I. Conspiracy theories are cheap: a low evidence bar needed for acceptance

Conspiracy theories are ultimately just accusations. Anyone can create a conspiracy theory with little to no evidence.

Consider the following conspiracy theory; is it true? Is there any truth in there? Read carefully, I may have included both true and false statements.

“There is a deliberate conspiracy on the part of the government and nuclear industry to intentionally poison the public with radioactive food. 9/11 was staged by the US Government. Lord Lucan was smuggled out of the UK by various important people after murdering his nanny and was, briefly, confused with an criminal politician and spy John Stonehouse. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was a false flag operation and was ruled a suicide. Julius Caesar committed suicide as a result of debilitating epilepsy. There’s a secret banking system even more profitable than hedge funds that only the rich have access to, but if you know the right people and pool your assets, you can make massive amounts of cash. The Prophet Muhammad did not exist, and was a later Invention. The COVID virus originated in Wuhan, China, at the behest of Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, who was forced to abdicate because of his Nazi sympathies. Extra volumes of the Dead Sea Scrolls exist– and they’re filled with predictions about the MLK assassination. Guess what? They turned out to be true! However, the Jews have purchased them all, and they’re being hidden in deep vaults under Three Mile Island.”

Does any of that sound plausible? Is it true? Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in there? Maybe you even believe some of those things?

Well, I lied earlier: I didn’t write that. Instead, it was generated by an AI. You, too, can generate your own conspiracy theories.

See the problem?

Conspiracy theories are cheap: anyone can accuse a group with little or no evidence.

And if the accused is not much loved by the public – say, the CDC, the FBI, the Federal Government, the Jews, etc. – people will want to believe it, even if there’s no evidence. Combined, that’s a recipe for trouble. 

Young Muslim extremists want to believe that the state of Israel is genocidal, and that the Jewish-controlled media is covering for them. Even if there is little to no evidence of genocide.

Anti-vaxxers will want to believe conspiracy theories about CDC cover-ups, that vaccines are actually horrible disease-causing injections, and the world’s medical experts are just covering up the truth. Even if there is little to no evidence of common and serious vaccine injury.

Conspiracy theories we want to believe — even sensational ones — are easily embraced without a high evidence bar.

II. Conspiracy theories often require a large number of people to keep a secret

Another question we should ask when considering a conspiracy theory: how many people would need to be in on the conspiracy for it to be true?

Consider that in the Watergate conspiracy, 5 people – paid off in cash – along with Nixon himself and perhaps a few insiders were in on the conspiracy. It was a small group. And even then, the conspiracy was exposed.

The larger a conspiracy needs to be, the more likely it’s false.

Consider again the flat earth conspiracy theory: the entire NASA organization – 17,000 employees today, and tens of thousands more over the course of the several decades since its creation – would need to be in on the conspiracy, all keeping their secret about the shape of the earth.

Not just scientists, mind you, but the video feeds guy, the telescope photos guy, the social media guy, the astronauts, the trainers, the technicians, the software people, and more.

Surely, one of them would take a $10,000,000 payment in exchange for an interview to spill the beans, no?

It gets worse for the flat earthers. 

The US isn’t the only nation to send humans, satellites, cameras and other equipment to space. India, Israel, China, Russia, and many others have done so as well.

So for the flat earth conspiracy theory to be true, tens of millions of people would need to be in on the secret.

Not likely.

This suggests the flat earth conspiracy theory is probably false: it would require a huge number of people to keep a secret that has never been leaked.

Consider another example: the Wuhan lab leak theory. The workers at the lab and some Communist party officials needed to be in on the secret. Not a huge group, but let’s say 100 people knew the that the virus was leaked from Wuhan lab. Even with that relatively small group of people, they still left evidence behind. That evidence is what changed minds and opinions. The size of the group caused its secret to be exposed.

The larger the conspiracy is, the less likely it is to be true. If the conspiracy is true and involves a large group, odds are the truth will come out.

This applies to our pandemic as well. Some anti-vaxx folks have made a conspiracy theory claim,

“The COVID vaccine is doing more harm than good. It is not saving lives, but taking lives. The vaccinated are no better off than the unvaccinated, and the CDC is covering up the truth of this.”

Might some CDC executives cover up embarrassing info, like the vaccine isn’t effective as they claim it is? That’s a fairly reasonable, believable claim, limited in scope.

But upon closer investigation, not only the CDC executives would need to be in on the secret, but also executives from Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson. Indeed, entire hospitals, doctors, nurses, and medical professionals across the nation. 

“Oh, yet another vaccinated guy died of COVID? We can’t report that. Here, I’ll handle it.”

It gets worse for the anti-vaxxers.

The CDC is just the United States’ bureau on disease. France, Germany, Italy, Israel, the UK – several hundred nations who have begun vaccinating their citizens – would also have to be in on the secret. Not just passively, but actively changing statistics, death records, medical charts, disease reports.

And not just those governments, but medical professionals in those nations as well.

For the “the vaccine is doing more harm than good” conspiracy theory, it is very unlikely to be true because it require hundreds of millions of people to be in on the secret.

Indeed, this is the exact belief of some anti-vaxxers. Here’s a conversation I had last week:

The whole world is a conspiracy

Catch that? This anti-vaxxer believes that, yes, every government on earth is lying about the vaccine; literally everyone is in on the conspiracy theory. (Except him, of course! 🤪)

For reasons we’ve already covered, such broad conspiracies are extremely unlikely to be true.

III. Conspiracy theories hinge on a small amount of tenuous evidence

Conspiracy theories often lack strong evidence for their theory. And what evidence they do have often rests on shaky foundations. And usually, there is ample evidence to the contrary of the claims of the conspiracy theory.

Consider the flat earth conspiracy theory. What evidence is there of a flat earth?

Some flat earthers will point to Biblical passages as evidence, hoping to sway believers. Just the other month, a gentleman told me,

“Well, you know Judah, the Bible supports a flat earth model more than anything…”

But specialized interpretation of the Bible is hardly evidence for extraordinary claims. As others have already covered, faithful students of the Bible need not assume a flat earth, even if the ancient Biblical authors did.

Is there other evidence for the flat earth claim? Perhaps, but on shaky foundations.

One woman who became swayed by the flat earth conspiracy theory told me,

“Look at this tennis ball. Now imagine I dunk it in water, then spin it in the air. All the water comes off! This demonstrates that oceans cannot exist on a round earth!”

This is weak evidence because the earth is not a tennis ball, and the laws of physics apply differently to objects with considerable mass. 

Also, understand that this woman was not an expert in the field in which she’s making the conspiracy theory claim. This is another red flag to be aware of: if a layperson contradicts the claims of 99% of experts in the field, the layperson is probably wrong.

In contrast, the evidence that the earth is round is abundant and strong: astronauts who visited space, telescopes showing the shape of other planets, video feeds from space stations, mathematical calculations of the circumference of the planet, the entire field of science behind aviation and space flight, GPS, observable artifacts like ships disappearing over the horizon, to name just a few.

Some flat earthers have tried to deny this weighty evidence, but again, their claims have shaky foundations. Recently, one flat earther flew a weather balloon up high enough to see the shape of the earth. When the video came back showing the curvature of the earth, they concluded someone had swapped the lenses of their camera to a fisheye lens.

It’s a similar story for the “COVID vaccine is harmful” conspiracy theory. 

Their evidence is on shaky foundations: quack doctors who have never treated COVID patients, like Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, “health workers” who aren’t medical experts but rather salespeople for elixirs and all-natural cure-alls. Or even Dr. Malone, once touted as “the inventor of mRNA vaccines”…who later had to clarify that he is not, in fact, an inventor of any vaccine, mRNA or otherwise.

While not all conspiracy theories are false, the ones that might be true tend to have strong evidence behind them.

IV. Conspiracy theories trick our minds by playing to our biases

Conspiracy theories play to our biases. Specifically, if you already don’t like Group X, it’s easy to believe bad things about them. 
The problem is, our readiness to believe Bad Thing About Group X That I Already Hate blinds us to objectivity and gets our emotions involved.
Consider the following two statements and keep a close watch on your own internal reaction:
  1. The FBI tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into committing suicide. The believed that if MLK killed himself, the black rights movement would fizzle out.
     
  2. The CDC covered up the fact that COVID doesn’t exist, and it’s actually just a modified flu virus. They intended to suppress individual freedoms and liberty and pave the way for big government.
How you reacted to those statements are influenced by your biases. For example, if you already dislike the FBI, you’re quick to believe #1. If you dislike MLK or his causes, you’re quick to disbelieve #1. If you dislike the CDC, you’re quick to believe #2. If you dislike big government, you’re quick to believe #2. And so on. Even if you don’t outright believe them, you probably thought, “Hmmm, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was true…” 
(The first statement is true, by the way. And of course the second isn’t.)
See the problem? 
Conspiracy theories play on our biases and get our emotions involved. It muddies critical, rational thinking, making it hard to distinguish what’s true and what’s not. It shifts the focus away from evidence towards subjective personal feelings and opinions.
Conspiracy theories also trick our minds by making us think we’re smarter than we really are.
“I’ve discovered something that millions of experts in the field have missed.”
Or better yet,
“Group X is full of evil liars. I am a bastion of truth in the midst of thick darkness.”

Nice thought, but the reality is that the people you are criticizing are no better than you and me. (And don’t fall into the related trap: “All those other people are evil unbelievers, and I’m here as the persecuted harbinger of righteous truth.”)
Conspiracies trick us into thinking we see a pattern where there is none. Humans are great at pattern matching, but sometimes, we’re just fooling ourselves:

I’ve offered four reasons why our default stance as Yeshua’s disciples should be “probably not true” when considering conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are usually false because…

  1. …they are cheap: easily created and accepted with a low bar of evidence
  2. …they require the unlikely scenario that a large number of people in unison keep a dark secret
  3. …they hinge on a small amount of disputable evidence
  4. …they play to our biases and emotions, rather than our intellectual rationality
A vast majority of conspiracy theories are false, and there are all kinds of wild psychological bombs to avoid when attempting to consider them rationally.

Our truthiness meters should be sounding loud alarms, raising big red flags, and lighting up the “Warning: Very Low chance of Truth” engine light when the theories involve large groups of people, especially those we don’t like.

Why disciples of Yeshua should generally avoid conspiracy theories

For those of us who follow Yeshua and devote our lives and resources to God’s kingdom, we have additional reasons to avoid conspiracy theories.
Firstly, conspiracy theories often blame the Jews. Most conspiracies blame a large group of people for some societal ill, and historically, that group of people has often been the Jewish people.

You’d be surprised at how far ranging this reaches.

One flat earth group claimed that Jewish kabbalists are keeping the truth of the shape of the earth from the public:

A flat earth conspiracy theory group blames Jewish kabbalists

Likewise, a recent anti-vaxx demonstration in Poland saw crowds chanting, “Every Pole can see today that behind the Plandemic are the Jews.”

Even in our own Messianic Jewish movement, some people and ministries are claiming that Israel, by its adoption of the COVID vaccine, is initiating a second Holocaust.

A common theme among many conspiracy theories is that Jews control the world. Businesses, governments, entertainment, law, healthcare. And that Jews conspire to undermine Western civilization through pulling of the strings of the world. Just recently, a Messianic Jewish friend for whom I have a great deal of respect shared this image on his Facebook page:

“All we have to do is stand up and their little game is over”

Little did my friend know that the artist who painted this mural was trying to show that the Jews were controlling the world. This photo went viral when left-wing UK politician Jeremy Corbyn publicly defended the mural. Likewise, the rapper Ice-T also faced backlash after tweeting it out to his followers.

Without question, disciples of the Jewish Messiah ought to have nothing to do with conspiracy theories that pin the blame on Jews.

Conspiracy theories tend to make people obsessed and angry about something they have no control over. At my old congregation where I spent my youth and my 20s, I witnessed several people who were obsessed with conspiracy theories on topics ranging from 9/11 (it’s an inside job), to the large Hadron collider (it’s opening a portal for demons), to President Obama (his wife is a man, he is not a US citizen, and he’s a covert Muslim), to the Pope (he’s baptizing aliens), to sunblock (it causes cancer), to the idea that all medicines are evil and that those who receive medical treatment are practicing Biblical sorcery.

In most cases, these obsessions were merely an embarrassment. I was embarrassed whenever new people visiting our congregation would get bombarded by these obsessed individuals and their crazy theories. I felt bad for them and wanted to steer the new people away from the crazy people.

In some cases, the effect was worse. One gentleman by his constant promotion of conspiracy theories caused a rift in our leadership. His wild obsessions lead to his eventual divorce and the loss of his family.

Conspiracy theories are often slander. You dislike Group X, so you believe with little to no evidence that Group X is conspiring to keep a dark secret from the public. Without evidence, such conspiracy theories are baseless accusations of large swathes of people, Biblical slander multiplied to a large group.

It is slanderous of individuals and indeed whole professions to say that millions of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals are conspiring to keep the truth about vaccines hidden from the public. I’ve experienced this first-hand when people told me Microsoft, my employer, is promoting vaccinations to track people’s whereabouts through 5G chips inside the vaccines. 

Almost invariably, the targets of conspiracy theories are nameless and faceless. When I confront anti-vaxxers with this and say, “Are you claiming our mutual friend Bob, who is a doctor, is in on this conspiracy?” Suddenly they’ll retreat from their original position, and claim it is only a few elites (again, nameless and faceless) who are keeping the secret.

Regardless, it is a form of slander, against which the Bible forbids faithful people from taking part in. When I see posts from believers slandering politicians – even ones I don’t like – or medical professionals, or technologists, or entire professions, I am grieved. Maybe God is too.

Conspiracy theories are a distraction. God commanded us to be known for helping widows, orphans, the oppressed. That we’d be known by our love. And that without these things, our faith is dead.

Conspiracy theories subtract from all that and generate discord among Yeshua’s disciples over disputable matters. Worse if it becomes a cornerstone of who you are. If you are “the conspiracy guy”, I challenge you to change. I challenge you to the higher calling in Yeshua. It will be better for your life, better for your wellbeing, better for your happiness, and better for your eternal destiny, if instead you’re known for doing what Yeshua told us to do.

Conspiracy theories are almost invariably false. Perhaps the biggest reason Yeshua’s disciples ought to avoid them. If we care about truth, if we care about our witness to the world, we will avoid conspiracy theories.

If it turns out some conspiracy theory proves true due to evidence, like it did in Watergate, then we can speak about them. Until then, it’s best we avoid these disputable things, especially in a community like a church or congregation.

Taking hardline stances on disputable matters outside of our faith – or worse, tenuously tying them to our faith – hurts our credibility about God and Yeshua. It puts up a barrier for the unbelieving world; “Why would I listen to them about God when their Facebook page is full of wild conspiratorial rants?

Not only do conspiracy theories alienate unbelievers to the message of the Gospel, they also drive away reasonable people from our movement.

Conclusions

A conspiracy theory is an idea which claims a group of people are conspiring to do something, usually evil, in secret.

Not all conspiracy theories are wrong, but most are.

Yeshua’s disciples should avoid conspiracy theories. They are hard stances on disputable matters that often compromise our integrity, play off our biases, create confusion and dispute within communities, and reduce us to spreading lies and slander.