Lee Basham asks how I define “conspiracy theory.” I have a rather broad-church definition: I use the phrase to mean any theory that posits a conspiracy. I do not think a theory needs to be implausible, fringy, or false to qualify. Indeed, I do not even think the alleged conspiracy must be malign: My book The United States of Paranoia, a history of American conspiracy stories, includes a chapter about tales of benevolent conspiracies.
Walker, Jesse. 2023. “Defining ‘Conspiracy Theory’: A Reply to Lee Basham.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (8): 10–11. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7ZO.
This article replies to:
❧ Basham, Lee. 2023. “Walker and the Fiction of Conspiracy Theory as ‘Fringe’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 39–47.
Articles in this dialogue:
❦ Keeley, Brian L. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 413–422.
❦ Walker, Jesse. 2023. “When Is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 20–22.
So where does Basham get the notion that I “might think conspiracy theory is by nature implausible”? Here we see the problems that can emerge when one joins a conversation midway through it. The passage I wrote that was quoted in Brian Keeley’s paper, and then in my response to Keeley’s paper, and now in Basham’s response to me, comes from an article called “What We Mean When We Say ‘Conspiracy Theory.’” I first presented it at the Conspiracy Theory Conference at the University of Miami in 2015, which Basham also attended, but perhaps he missed that session, or perhaps he didn’t remember the paragraph’s original context. The point of the paper was that the mainstream media will often use the term “conspiracy theory” to describe fringy views that do not involve conspiracies (such as the notion that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was sucked into a black hole) and will not use it to describe conspiratorial beliefs that are widely embraced by social and political leaders (such as mainstream fears about cults, gangs, and terrorists).
So when I wrote that “People started using the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ to mean ‘implausible conspiracy theory,’ then ‘implausible theory, whether or not it involves a conspiracy,’” the “people” I was referring to were mainstream pundits and reporters, and I was criticizing them. I am not surprised to hear that Basham has seen different patterns of behavior among “college students, working class and professional people,” partly because that matches many of my own experiences and partly because I remember Basham making the same point at that 2015 conference.
As for whether or not it is true that those pundits have shown 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,” I confess that I do not have a set of empirical tables to share here. But my comment wasn’t purely impressionistic either: I periodically search Google News for “conspiracy” and related terms, and I have observed an increased willingness to apply the phrase “conspiracy theory” to mainstream beliefs—the very thing that was not happening in those discussions that I wrote about back in 2015. But I’m not seeing this in stories about cults or gangs. I’m seeing it when outlets like MSNBC talk about views that are mainstream enough to be featured regularly on Fox, and when outlets like Fox talk about views that are mainstream enough to be featured regularly on MSNBC. If Basham has missed this, that probably means he has not been watching much Fox or MSNBC, which I commend as an excellent lifestyle choice.
 Basham, Lee. 2023. “Walker and the Fiction of Conspiracy Theory as ‘Fringe’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 39–47.
 Jesse Walker. 2013. The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, HarperCollins. Since Basham raises the issue of real-world conspiracies, I should note that the book also includes a chapter on how the revelation of real plots and cabals has affected the evolution of conspiracy theories.
 Jesse Walker. 2018. “What We Mean When We Say ‘Conspiracy Theory’.” In Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them edited by Joseph E. Uscinski, 53–61. Oxford.
 Indeed, when I covered the conference for Reason, I wrapped up my dispatch by citing Basham’s remarks. See Jesse Walker. 2015. “What I Saw at the Conspiracy Theory Conference.” Reason March 18. reason.com/2015/03/18/what-i-saw-at-the-conspiracy-theory-conf.
 If someone wants to test my impressions with a more formal empirical study, one approach might be to examine how often the phrase “conspiracy theory” and its derivates were applied to the not-always-accurate claims about terrorist plots that emanated from official circles in the Bush years, and then compare that to a sampling from the Trump years. I suspect you’ll find that even among people who harshly criticized both presidents—and the overlap will be large, given that both are Republicans—the phrase was much more likely to be applied to Trump-era conspiratorial claims than to those from the Bush administration.
Categories: Critical Replies