Yep, “Conspiracy Theory” Used to be Neutral – It’s Your Confirmation Bias That’s Wrong


This August 8, Robert Blaskiewicz wrote an article in the Skeptical Inquirer proclaiming that the term “conspiracy theory” had always been used disparagingly.[1] This effort to counter the heretical idea that in the mid 1960’s the CIA initiated a propaganda campaign to turn the meaning of the term from neutral to one of disparagement. The CIA allegedly did this in order to discredit skeptics of the Warren Commission report. Recent academic support for this allegation comes from Lance deHaven-Smith in his book “Conspiracy Theory in America”.[2] Although Blaskiewicz does reference deHaven-Smith, he neglects to mention John Ayto’s 1999 book “20th Century Words” which presented strong evidence that the term “conspiracy theory” did in fact change from neutral to negative in the mid 60s.[3]

Blaskiewicz starts off by poisoning the well with the false argument that the term “conspiracy theory” was invented in the 1960’s. To be fair this argument was recently used by Kevin Barrett in his article “New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane; government dupes crazy, hostile”.[4] Blaskiewicz is simply capitalizing on it to associate guilt to legitimate questioners.

Blaskiewicz then makes three separate entirely unsupported pronouncements:

An infuriating feature of conspiracy theory is its propensity to take the standard of evidence that skeptics value so highly and turn it on its head: extraordinary claims no longer require extraordinary evidence; rather an extraordinary lack of evidence is thought to validate the extraordinariness of the conspiracy.

…disconfirming evidence becomes evidence in favor of the conspiracy.

…the mere fact that so many people recognize that conspiracy theorizing is a futile and intellectually unproductive exercise is only more proof to the conspiracy theorists that they are really onto something.

He presents no evidence at all that most “conspiracy theorists” actually think this way. He simply proclaims this belief expecting his readers to take it as a fact. This despite proclaiming in the same paragraph that skeptics value a high standard of evidence. Such arbitrary dogmatic statements are a form of logical fallacy referred to as the bare assertion fallacy.

Strangely Blaskiewicz then actually references CIA Document 1035-960: “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report” which outlines a strategy of using propaganda techniques to neutralize critics of the Warren Report.[5] This report among other things documents how to weaponize the term “conspiracy theory”. This document is central to deHaven-Smith’s book. So Blaskiewicz seemingly unwittingly presents very strong evidence against his belief that the term “conspiracy theory” was not propagandized by the CIA.

Blaskiewicz next frantically grasps at straws to uncover evidence that supports his belief that the term “conspiracy theory” was always used disparagingly. His first attempt comes from a 1909 article from the American Historical Review. Bizarrely the reference actually supports the idea that the term is being used neutrally. The quoted text merely stated that no new evidence has been found to support the conspiracy theory but what evidence did exist was carefully recorded in the journal. How on Earth is that disparaging? The next examples from the 1880’s are also used neutrally. The alleged Blavatsky reference merely correctly refers as a conspiracy theory, the claim that an elaborate system of informants was used to discredit Blavatsky.[6] No indication is given that the allegation was dismissed merely because it involved a conspiracy rather than due to a lack of evidence. The Rhodes Journal reference merely states that there was no need for a conspiracy theory as the facts spoke for themselves.[7] The final example involving injured mental patients is also neutral. The Journal of Mental Science testimony merely stated that the evidence did not favor the conspiracy theory. None of the examples show that conspiracy theories tended to be suspect merely because they involved a conspiracy. Whenever a conspiracy theory was considered suspect was when evidence seemed lacking. So any negativity is directed towards lack of evidence not the notion of a conspiracy. Clearly Blaskiewicz is suffering from strong confirmation bias in order to support his imaginary conditioned belief that conspiracy theories are usually false.



1. “Nope, It Was Always Already Wrong”, Robert Blaskiewicz, Skeptical Inquirer, (August 8, 2013)

2. “Conspiracy Theory in America”, Lance deHaven-Smith, University of Texas Press (April 15, 2013)

3. “20th Century Words”, John Ayto, Oxford University Press (December 2, 1999)

4. “New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane; government dupes crazy, hostile,” Kevin Barrett,

5. “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report”,

6. This text is not referenced correctly in the article. Searching the 1889 volume of “The Path” turns up no mention of the term “conspiracy theory”.



  1. Well, I’m going through my article to fact-check myself. Confirmation bias is always a possibility.

    Well, I didn’t proclaim anything. I saw a claim of fact and used it as an opportunity to explore an idea, that the CIA weaponized a term, making it derogatory. But you are imagining that I have gone on to take that to demonize other people who participate in conspiracy culture. Not my intent. Just getting to the facts of the matter. And I don’t deny that the CIA used the word in their documents, I’m suggesting that a meaning was already there that made it consonant with their goals. I’d probably also disagree with you regarding the relevance of that propagandizing to the use of the word today, but that’s not the point of that article.

    Ayoto’s book is outdated. While he was (maybe still is) a lexicographer with the OED when he wrote that, he did not have access to Google Books, which was still half a decade off. I simply had more resources than he did.

    As I was not primarily criticizing dH-Smith, I didn’t dwell on the assumptions and context of the CIA memo, but I may do that in the future.

    In the case of my assertions about conspiracy thinking, I stand by them. I’ve seen them a thousand times. Lack of evidence is seen as evidence of a cover up. All. The. Time. 🙂 That the magnitude of a conspiracist claims is inversely proportional to the amount of evidence is clearest in people who believe we never went to the moon. The collected records of one of the most followed news stories of the 20th century, one that transformed history, technology–as well as the attendant record trail that it produced–have been simply dismissed by “look at these shadows I don’t understand.”

    I appreciate the heads up about the Blavatsky reference. The article I was referring to was in fact in May 1890s edition of The Path. Good catch. It’s a wonder the people at Skeptical Inquirer didn’t notice that. My interpretation remains the same, however. I’d say in all the cases I looked at, the term conspiracy theory was applied to an idea that the authors were hostile towards, and on that basis I suspect that the term has not been one applied neutrally.

    1. Yes you proclaimed this:

      ‘What is clear is that “conspiracy theory” has always been a disparaging term.’

      The whole point of my critique was to show that the evidence you presented to support this belief was non-existent. You don’t deal with my arguments preferring instead to simply pronounce that you were right.

      You have the gall to dismiss Ayto’s book as “outdated” and to proclaim that you had more resources available than he did. We’re dealing with a topic of history here. How odd that you would classify a historical analysis as “outdated”. How is it that you had access to more books that Ayto? If anything the number of pre-1963 books would have declined not increased. What you had access to was technology that provided far faster results not more resources.

      Your unsupported pronouncements about the characteristics of conspiracy theorists are hasty generalizations. You cherry pick a few examples of conspiracies theories that fit your prejudiced beliefs and them proclaim that all conspiracies have the exact same characteristics. You are supporting not refuting my characterization of your work as confirmation biased pseudo-skepticism.

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