conspiracy theory

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conspiracy theory (plural conspiracy theories)

  1. (originally law) Used other than figuratively or idiomatically: see conspiracy,‎ theory. A hypothesis alleging that the members of a coordinated group are, and/or were, secretly working together to commit illegal or wrongful actions, including attempting to hide the existence of the group and its activities.
    • 1863 January 11, Charles Astor Bristed, “English Insincerity on the Slavery Question. [Letter to the Editor]”, in The New York Times, page 3:
      England has had quite enough to do in Europe and Asia, without going out of her way to meddle with America. It was a physical and moral impossibility that she could be carrying on a gigantic conspiracy against us. But our masses, having only a rough general knowledge of foreign affairs, and not unnaturally somewhat exaggerating the space which we occupy in the world's eye, do not appreciate the complications which rendered such a conspiracy impossible. They only look at the sudden right-about-face movement of the English Press and public, which is most readily accounted for on the conspiracy theory.
    • 1923, American and British Claims Arbitration: The Rio Grande Claim. Answer of the United States, Press of Byron S. Adams, The Conspiracy Theory, page 28:
      It is impossible, within the limits set for this Answer, to deal in any detail with the conspiracy theory which Dr. Boyd has put forward with such virulence for so many years and which apparently has been adopted by His Majesty's Government, at least in part.
    • 2007, Charles R. Pigden, “Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom”, in Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, volume 4, number 2, Edinburgh University Press, →DOI, page 222:
      (A) conspiracy theory is simply a theory that posits a conspiracy – a secret plan on the part of some group to influence events by partly secret means.
    • 2020, Maj Dr. Ebenezer Kwakye Agyemang (Rtd), DECODING 2019 NOVEL CORONAVIRUS: Outbreak: Conspiracies: Impact, page 153:
      The main problem with any particular conspiracy theory is not that it's wrong, but that it's inarguable; not that it's false, but that it is unfalsifiable.
  2. (dismissive, derogatory) Hypothetical speculation that is commonly considered untrue or outlandish.
    • 2007, Rick Huffman, Baxter Peanut, Xlibris Corporation, →ISBN, page 153:
      “So, like I’m Rock Hudson? I’m not sure that’s the answer.”
      “Ah,” Lola smiles knowingly, “that’s all just a conspiracy theory. He enjoyed the ladies too.”
    • 2018 September 12, Abby Ohlheiser, “Reddit bans r/greatawakening, the main subreddit for QAnon conspiracy theorists”, in The Washington Post[1]:
      QAnon, whose supporters also call it “The Storm" or “Great Awakening,” is a wide-ranging conspiracy theory that burst into greater visibility this summer, after supporters at a Trump rally wearing Q shirts prompted a rush of national media coverage about it.
    • 2021 April 29, Sabrina Tavernise, “Vaccine Skepticism Was Viewed as a Knowledge Problem. It’s Actually About Gut Beliefs.”, in The New York Times[2], →ISSN:
      Conspiracy theories can be comforting, a way to get one’s bearings during rapid change in the culture or the economy, by providing narratives that bring order.

Usage notes[edit]

  • The phrase conspiracy theory is sometimes used in an attempt to imply that hypothetical speculation is not worthy of serious consideration, usually with phrasing indicative of dismissal (e.g., "just a conspiracy theory"). However, any particular instance of use is not necessarily pejorative. Some consider it inappropriate to use the phrase "conspiracy theory" in an attempt to dismissively discredit hypothetical speculation in any form.

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