Walker and the Fiction of Conspiracy Theory as “Fringe”, Lee Basham

Jesse Walker is a prolific and accomplished writer with the Reason Foundation, a group associated with a certain Nozick-like political-economic libertarianism and a general impatience with skepticism about our underlying political and economic systems in the West. It’s encouraging to see him contributing to the discussion of conspiracy theory. With a certain irony, their catchy motto is “Free Minds and Free Markets”.[1]  Reason magazine is their flagship publication, in print for years and also online. Walker is its book editor. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Miki Jourdan via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Basham, Lee. 2023. “Walker and the Fiction of Conspiracy Theory as ‘Fringe’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 40–47. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7YH.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Published originally on 28 July. Professor Basham significantly revised the article found below on 28 July. Reposted on 30 August, the article has been lightly edited to reflect the SERRC’s house style.

This article replies to:

❧ Walker, Jesse. 2023. “When Is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 20–22.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Basham, Lee. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory as Public Intelligence: A Reply to Keeley.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 31–38.

❦ Keeley, Brian L. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 413–422.

Walker’s brief and enjoyably free-form contribution is titled, “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy.”[2] Walker’s main concern is literary stylizations: Sloppy journalists (the emerging norm today) and other pop-writers now often use the word “conspiracy” when they mean “conspiracy theory”. I have seen this for at least a decade. My main concerns are different. I’m not clear what Walker currently thinks a “conspiracy theory” is, and his belief (at least in 2003) that they are “fringe” or popularly thought to be seems unlikely. Perhaps a projection or bubble effect.

In his opening Walker seems to have a skeptical view of conspiracy theories as such, citing “people” who think conspiracy theories are in that implausible. We’ll return to this. But his view is never explicitly stated, so never defended. Instead, he piggybacks on a recent quote of him in Walker’s 2003 paper. Philosopher Brian Keeley mentions it with approval. The surprising remark claims “conspiracy theory” means (at least in in 2003), “fringe”. As for “fringe”, we’ll turn to that shortly. Let’s start with “What is a conspiracy theory?”. In his literary section we might find an answer,

Time published an essay by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen under the headline “We Must Save Democracy From Conspiracies.” … That sounds pretty paranoid: Conspirators are plotting against democracy! The article beneath the headline is filled with similar statements: Baron Cohen declares that “conspiracies threaten to kill democracy as we know it,” that Americans are now “especially vulnerable to … conspiracies,” that “Conspiracies are lethal.” He even calls the blood libel “the world’s oldest conspiracy, dating back to the Middle Ages.” I could imagine those words appearing in an antisemitic tract.

True, but not likely in a piece by an author named Sacha Cohen. Walker then mentions what he takes to be 5G “conspiracies theories”,

Early in the pandemic, Jordan Frith wrote in Slate that “the 5G COVID-19 conspiracies are only the newest in a long line of concerns about wireless infrastructure, and this will not be the last time we see people trying to link a new wireless infrastructure to some kind of deadly disease.[3]

While there are indeed bona fide conspiracy theories about 5G infrastructure, this particular article was focused on broader concerns that 5G could be a health threat—an idea that is not innately conspiratorial, though it is often linked to claims of conspiratorial cover-ups.[4]

He concludes,

So now we’ve gone beyond using “conspiracy theory” to mean “implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy”…[5]

I don’t see how this follows from people merely being skeptical of new technology. The Frith quote does not state this skepticism must involve conspiracy theories, but only that conspiracy theories can take their place in a “long line” of such skepticism, conspiracy theory adorned or not. The idea that the dangers of this technology will be hidden from the public is reasonable, but that is a separate issue. Then we have another statement of what Walker might think conspiracy theory is: By nature implausible. As for “implausible”, does “we’ve” include Walker? Or just the masses of people, unspecified, he is pointing to? We would hope the latter. Charity begs it is only these people, not Walker.

Walker’s literary concern is two-fold. First, some people use “conspiracy” as shorthand for theories that include assertions that in themselves are not innately conspiracy theories. For instance, “5G is a health risk.”. Second, the passages Walker quotes could be read by a functionally illiterate person to mean “conspiracy” just means “conspiracy”. But this doesn’t support the idea that “conspiracy” is literally being used in these passages to mean “conspiracy”. Walker concedes it is clear from context that “conspiracy” is being used as short for “conspiracy theory”. Nevertheless, he finds this shorthand cognitively annoying in the extreme. A good editor and we should agree.

To his first worry, the only innately conspiratorial explanation (“idea”) is one that asserts a conspiracy as an explanation for events. To the second, I have no difficulty with mainstream media writers being clumsy with their terms if their communitive intentions are relatively clear. So we return to our first question: What does he think “conspiracy theory” means? And why? Perhaps he can clarify.

The Importance of Empiricism in Empirical Questions

Walker suggests,

One [observation] is an increased willingness to use the term to deride ideas that do, in fact, have a lot of cultural cachet, provided that this cachet is limited to an outgroup.[6]

But it’s unclear who he is referring to or why he thinks there is an increased willingness to use “conspiracy theory” among these persons in a way that’s derogatory to one’s cultural and political opposition. While attempts at dismissal via “conspiracy theory” labeling are still occasionally made by mainstream media pundits and political elites, these seem rare enough and for good reason: In most all cases they are fruitless. For my part, I also haven’t noticed “increased willingness” to use this tactic of late for the first reason; it’s futile. Instead, I’ve noticed just the opposite for the same reason. Whatever the case, it’s an empirical question and Walker provides no compelling empirical evidence.

This strange habit of considerable empirical claims without considerable or any significant empirical evidence has plagued the discussion of conspiracy theories for decades. “Ordinary usage shows”, “People think”, “We all know that”, “It is widely recognized that” [conspiracy theories are bad, etc.]. These are appeal to numbers fallacies that don’t supply any numbers. It has long been a bothersome, burdensome, wasteful distraction in the discussion. The simple psychological projection of it all is unsettling. It certainly fails to inspire confidence in such “scholarship”. Perhaps Walker means the fleeting ineffectual remarks of a few mainstream pundits and politicians. But where are the numbers for this? Nowhere to be found here. Nor, to my knowledge, are numbers  to be found  that  demonstrate a pejorative reaction to “conspiracy theory” is the majority public perception and growing rhetorical trend among the vox  populi.

To be fair, a book editor for Reason magazine need not be an analyst about “what is a conspiracy theory?”. Or be driven to a crass empiricism about empirical claims. We all have our impressions (or hopes) of what the larger population may actually believe, but without the number these are only that, impressions and hopes.

We need to be cautious with prejudice, intellectualized.

To be sure, conspiracy theories can literally be conspiracies, and noticing this is not anything that violates superior literary standards. Any defense attorney understands this: The prosecution’s goal is by profession to convict, not reveal the truth, and it conspires against my client by promoting a conspiracy theory indicating my client’s guilt. This is an absolutely necessary and ordinary thought in the practice of criminal defense law as it is in many other walks of life. These include world affairs. For a particularly painful instance, there’s The Holocaust. We know which Jews escaped occupied Europe. The conspiracy theorists who saw the NAZI party promoting a deadly conspiracy theory about them. This widely publicized NAZI conspiracy theory was an important element in their conspiracy to destroy the European Jews. This puts a whole new and heartening twist to the phrase “Jewish conspiracy theories”.

This has nothing to do with Walker’s literary concern, but it is important in understanding one deployment of conspiracy theories in the real world. To his credit this is a topic Walker briefly touches on with his example of the obsession of some Liberals/Progressives with and constant resort to allegations of “Russian disinformation”. Aside: Their argument is an ad hominem fallacy. What if the Russians are right, even if they don’t care or believe they aren’t? If they make important and believable accusations—effective disinformation must do this—we’ll have to evidentially examine these conspiracy theories regardless of who offered them or why. They might be, surprise, also true.

Conspiracy Theory as Meaning “Fringe”

So what is a “conspiracy theory”? A conspiracy theory is, “Any explanation of events that refers to a conspiracy as a cause of those events.”. [7] A conspiracy is, “Two or more persons intentionally cooperating to deceive others.”.[8] It’s significant to a realistic evaluation that that this automatically makes any conspirator also a conspiracy theorist about their own actions. Find a conspirator, you find a well-justified conspiracy theorist. And there are billions of conspirators. So there are billions of conspiracy theorists. Humans cooperate to deceive and know it when they do it.

Any sociological add-ons like “speculative”, “fringe” or “implausible” are just that; claims about how some would wish to, or at least wish others to, react to any explanation that posits a conspiracy as a cause of events. Pejorative add-ons cannot be definitional, as they logically presuppose a prior understanding of what a conspiracy theory is. The point is purely logical. Only then is a general evaluation of conspiracy theory as such even possible, be it statically positive or negative. Also, many conspiracy theories are well-evidenced, believed by the vast majority, and quite plausible. A list of bizarre and implausible theories is also just that: A list. Not a definition. A similar list can easily be compiled by a quick glance over the last two centuries of speculation in physical and life sciences. So?

Walker quotes himself, as found in Keeley,

People started using the phrase “conspiracy theory” to mean “implausible conspiracy theory,” then “implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy.” Meanwhile, they leave out those implausible theories that have a lot of cultural cachet. … Conspiratorial thinking is perceived not as a widespread human trait but as the province of a peculiar personality type, not as a mass phenomenon but as a fringe phenomenon. “Conspiracy” starts to mean “fringe”.[9]

But it doesn’t mean “fringe”. If it did we would be surrounded hundreds of millions of fluent speakers of English, who lose their fluency at precisely this point by, because it decisively does not mean “fringe” to them. Clearly, we are not so surrounded. Most all of us grant conspiracy theories are quite popular and these people hardly view themselves as fringe thinkers, nor should they. Keeley begins his first paper on conspiracy theory with his impression of growing popularity—with some alarm—and dedicates the rest of the paper to trying to help people, albeit unsuccessfully but in a very common sense and understandable manner, distinguish warranted from unwarranted conspiracy theories.[10]

But if conspiracy theory means fringe and fringe means probably false, (“implausible”) or some other pejorative or pathologizing maneuver, the distinction between warranted and unwarranted would never be needed.[11] But Keeley explicitly disavows this sweep thought in this first paper. [12]

Three problems immediately confront the Walker quote Keeley approves: 1) We don’t know who Walker is talking about—a few thousand people can be found who collectively believe almost anything imaginable, 2) It is an empirical claim about how many people, percentage wise or in raw numbers see conspiracy theories as “fringe”, but no empirical data is given and 3) Does “calling” or “labeling” in an often politically charged context reliably correlate with believing, or is it, as in so many human communications, a rhetorical method, however ineffectual.

One way to approach the topic of the uses of “conspiracy theory” is to distinguish, at least in contemporary English, the locutions, “That’s a conspiracy theory” from “That’s just a conspiracy theory”. The latter indicates a lack of evidence, the former a simple identification of the nature of the explanation; often followed by “…and a true one.”.

Exhuming a “Dead Horse”; the Fiction of Conspiracy Theory as “Fringe”

For what it’s worth, I have done empirical research on who and what percentage of persons have a dim view of conspiracy theory, or more precisely, find labeling an explanation a “conspiracy theory” reduces its likelihood to be true (n ~4000 in several near identical variants,) and the findings are clear: Among college students, working class and professional people, the percentage is quite low. People, being relatively intelligent, most view conspiracy theories neutrally until evidence is brought in. In an article published by the first tier Political Psychology, Social Psychologist Michael Wood (Winchester University) found the same.[13]  People find conspiracy theories “fringe”? No. Within the framework of their rational background beliefs they recognize politicians, corporations and governments routinely lie to the public and each other, just as ordinary people cooperate in much less ambitious deceptions. The vast majority of people do not believe a conspiracy explanation to necessarily be speculative, fringe or implausible simply because it is a conspiracy theory. They view particular conspiracy theories within their background framework. They are interested in certain theories they encounter in proportion to the salience of these for various events and communications to their lives and endeavors. They would like to hear what the evidence is for and against it and often actively seek both out.

Thus, the pejorative perception of conspiracy theories qua conspiracy theories appears instead to be an academic and political fiction. One that has little impact on those wedded to common sense or among the historically literate. Let’s look at some conspiracy theories we probably all endorse,

1. The intentional use of numerous deceptions by the US and the British governments to gain public support for the invasion of Iraq.

2. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident never occurred and was known not to have occurred by the US Department of Defense but used by the US government as a false flag operation to justify entering the Vietnam War.

3. That African Americans were secretly experimented on in US prisons (and one wonders why African Americans are vaccine “hesitant”), that US cigarette corporations bought off scientists to convince the public that smoking is healthy.

4. That companies like DOW Chemical, Union Carbide and others routinely hid evidence they were poisoning local populations and creating “cancer clusters”. They likely still are.

5. The US Government’s claim that Arabs conspired to destroy World Trade Centers 1 and 2 (yes, this is a conspiracy theory (it’s of interest hundreds of millions or even billions of people doubt it is true).

6. Pfizer Pharmaceutical Corporation intentionally hid information from the public about the real dangers of their mRNA Covid 19 vaccine, problems the US Government was aware of but also lied about (a theory that now seems indisputable as Pfizer has been forced to admit large irregularities and omissions in their testing and reporting).

7. The US maneuvered Japan into an attack on US navel forces at Pearl Harbor to justify US entrance into WWII, particularly against Germany via the Axis treaty’s mutual defense obligation—a war with one is a war with all. Germany shared this obligation with Japan (a conspiracy theory fairly popular at least among Historians of WWII).

8. There was significant organized election fraud and illegalities in the conduct of the 2020 US presidential election and perhaps in the 2016 election (whether these were sufficient to effect outcomes is a separate question).

9. MK-ULTRA: Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) mind control experiments were secretly conducted by scientific teams of the US government and other leading powers, including the USSR.

10. The US and other nuclear weapon powers intentionally hid the dangers of nuclear weapons test fallout from those downwind of the test and actively, knowing lied about the real and inevitable carcinogenic effects of exposure (for instance, this is particularly well evidenced in the US states of Nevada and Utah).

11. Sexual partners [name person] with the intentional cooperation of their friends, sometimes hide sexual infidelities.

12. Some employees intentionally conspire to steal from businesses [name business] or to hide knowledge of thefts by others from [name business] in a cooperative “one hand washes the other” scheme.

Fringe? Contra Walker and Keeley, keeping these and many millions of similar examples in mind, no historically literate or self-aware individual sincerely holds a pejorative view of conspiracy theory as such.[14]

The Southern Poverty Law Center

Another revealing example of conspiracy theory literally becoming conspiracy, prefaced by a brief caution: Walker mentions the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the context of sloppy language. The SPLC  might be best forgotten as an embarrassment to the civil rights movement. It’s a shame, given their enticing name. Regrettably the record in court bears this out, as does the internal turmoil of the organization as neophyte members discover that this anti-hate organization appears to be what it claims to hate, the exploitation of impoverished African Americans for publicity and profit. The reality is that like some government bureaucracies, certain NGOs realize that to succeed is their extinction and extinction is not an option. But it should be their goal. They are structured for failure. “Don’t kill the golden goose.” I invite the reader to do their own research.

How does a discussion of the SPLC further our understanding of conspiracy theory? It offers a recent parallel to The Holocaust example. The evidence now indicates the SPLC’s method involved an intentional conspiracy to discredit functional NGOs. This included a decades long conspiracy to publish endless, unevidenced lists of “known hate groups” (organizations they don’t like and/or view as competitors for donations). Founded by Morris Dees, the SPLC has for many years conspired to discredit reputable and valuable charities that help the African American community and others. This involved smears and falsifications in order to generate contributions from well-meaning but uninformed persons, both rich whites and poor blacks. Finally, the evidence caught up with the SPLC as their reach exceeded their grasp.[15] This is a conspiracy theory concerning the SPLC. And a true one.

The initial SPLC response to these well-evidenced allegations included the claim that any conspiracy theory alleging their intentional smear for financial gain conspiracy was itself a conspiracy in order to undo the reputation of the SPLC, a conspiracy theory launched by a cabal of racists. That is, the SPLC’s launched a conspiracy theory alleging a conspiracy against the SPLC in the form of an anti-SPLC conspiracy theory.[16] Did you get all that?

So the beat goes on. Sophisticated social primates are like that. Fortunately, recent epistemology has recognized this. Even in convoluted instances.


Walker’s title seems a tad unhelpful. At least a clarification of the precise definition of conspiracy theory from Walker is needed. Scare quotes around “conspiracy theory” in Walker’s title might have helped here.

What’s important, from the epistemic perspective is no pejorative element can be part of the definition of conspiracy theory, because that would require a prior understanding of what a conspiracy theory is in order to then continue with a general evaluation of the class, “conspiracy theories”. To put it simply, one can’t know conspiracy theories are bad if one doesn’t already know what conspiracy theory is, so one can then call them “fringe”, “implausible” or anything else positive or pejorative. Keeley and Walker miss this point.

Walker ends with a laudable observation,

All I know is that if I see a headline on an unfamiliar website tonight that says “We Need to Eliminate Conspiracies,” I would not be sure if the author is calling for eradicating beliefs or eradicating actual plots against the public. No matter how far the scholarly literature may be from a consensus on how to discuss conspiracy theories, at least it isn’t mired in this muddle.[17]

Well put. And perhaps just as true for Walker on a familiar, mainstream media website. I don’t suffer such uncertainty; context tells the tale. While we should regret such incompetent language in today’s media, we can easily forgive. Our standards in Journalism have declined, so our journalists have, too. A sort of partisan train wreck has emerged. But Walker’s right: The scholarly literature explicitly, habitually distinguishes between conspiracy and its theory. More good news: At least in epistemology, the dominate view is simple: The discussion of any particular conspiracy theory should proceed on the basis of evidence, “particularism”. That is, on a case-by-case basis, and on nothing else, because conspiratorial activity is natural and normal to humans and conspiracy theory is the natural and normal reaction to this.

Author Information:

Lee Basham, labasham@southtexascollege.edu, is a professor at South Texas College known for his research on conspiracy theories, conspiracy in a hierarchical society and its significant implications for a functional democracy.

[1] A helpful bio of Walker can be found at, https://reason.com/people/jesse-walker/.

[2] Walker, Jesse. 2023. “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 20–22.

[3] “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?”, 21.

[4] “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?”, 21.

[5] “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?”, 21.

[6] “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?”, 20.

[7] Either through omission (secret keeping to deceive others) or commission (making statements they either know or believe to be false to deceive others.

[8] These definitions or something very like them is the majority view in the epistemic literature.

[9] See, Keeley, Brian L., 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 413–422.

[10] See, Keeley, Brian L. 1999. “Of Conspiracy Theories.” Journal of Philosophy 96 (3): 109–26 (“OCT”).

[11] The are rare occasions nonpejorative uses of “fringe”, “A current fringe view in physics is that velocity and position are observer-relative and is undergoing additional research.”. Here “fringe” just means “uncommon”, not “implausible”, etc..

[12] See, “OCT”.

[13] See, Wood, Michael 2015. “Some Dare Call It Conspiracy: Labeling Something a Conspiracy Theory Does Not Reduce Belief in It.” Political Psychology 37 (5): 695–705.

[14] I reply on the SERRC in a somewhat different manner to Keeley’s contribution to Social Epistemology concerning “folk psychology” and conspiracy theory.

[15] For starters see, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/08/17/southern-poverty-law-center-hate-groups-scam-column/2022301001/. Numerous similar articles have appeared throughout the mainstream media, including The New York Times.

[16] It would be enjoyable to see the SPLC attempt to contest these historical claims in court. They won’t. More negative publicity and financial loss. See, https://lawandcrime.com/lawsuit/southern-poverty-law-center-must-3-3-million-payout-after-falsely-naming-anti-muslim-extremists/.

[17] “When is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?”, 22.

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