What is conspiracy?

It’s hard to understand something if you don’t even know what it is. With that in mind, can you define conspiracy?

If you can’t, don’t feel bad. Most people intuitively know what conspiracy is, even if they can’t put it in words. My book What Is Conspiracy? dedicates an entire chapter to defining conspiracy. Let me give you a condensed version:

In fact, there are several definitions, but that’s a pretty good generic definition. Conspiracies are usually planned in secret, and they are usually criminal, immoral, or evil in nature. Conspiracies can be good, but even many good conspiracies hurt people (though they often deserve it).

The word conspiracy is based on the root word conspire, which usually describes a plot involving two or more people. This can be confusing, because, in criminal law, one person can be convicted of conspiracy. Lee Harvey Oswald is often described as a lone conspirator.

So, how about it—can one person conspire? It’s easy to sidestep this question by simply replacing conspire or conspiracy with plot. The words conspiracy and plot essentially have the same meaning except that conspiracy is usually understood to involve more than one person, while plot can refer to any number of people, including lone individuals.

Conspiracy theory is more complex, but it most commonly describes a theory or maybe even a suspicion that there’s something fishy about a particular event, policy, or person. If you read something in the news about an attempted coup in a Latin American country and you instinctively think “Aha! I’ll bet the CIA is behind it!” you’re nursing a conspiracy theory.

Conspiracy theories vary wildly in quality. They can be credible, absurd, or somewhere in between. (See Conspiracy Classification)

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