Do Conspiracy Theorists Drive Chevys?

September 21, 2015

Benjamin Radford

I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Over the years I've written about dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories, including the Obama birthers, the Sandy Hook shootings (for which I still receive hate e-mails), Osama bin Laden death conspiracies, claims that vaccines are attempts to poison children, 9/11 truthers, the EPA spill in the Animas river, and countless others. I've also participated in several panels on the subject, including a Dragon*Con panel with Virtual Skeptics podcast stalwart Bob Blaskeiweczizxczzzz.

I'm fascinated by the psychology of conspiracy thinking, why some conspiracies gain traction while other fade away, and more. One curious and often-overlooked element of conspiracy thinking is that conspiracy theorists are for the most part completely uninterested in actual, provable conspiracies.

Conspiracies are fairly common: conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to distribute illegal substances, and so on. Some conspiracies only involve two people; for example in the last week a young Boston girl found dead in June and called Baby Doe was finally identified, her mother and her mother's boyfriend arrested in the child's death. According to police the boyfriend killed the girl, and they both engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the murder, dispose of the body, and hide the crime.

Other conspiracies involve hundreds of people. The Iran-Contra scandal, which happened under the Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush administration, secretly and illegally supplied arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages, and funneled money to fighters in Nicaragua.

But these conspiracies barely merit a mention on web sites and talk radio, which leads to an interesting question: If conspiracy buffs are so concerned about conspiracy theories and the potential evil they bring, presumably they wouldn't want to support any organizations, companies, or institutions which have engaged in conspiracies--especially conspiracies that harmed, or could harm, the public. After all, if you truly think that conspiracies are a genuine threat to your liberty, future, and indeed the country itself, you'd want to do everything in your power to not enable conspirators.

It's not difficult to find lists of large companies involved in genuine, proven conspiracies at one time or another. Bank of America executives, for example, have been found guilty of conspiracy and sent to prison for years. The food giant Archer Daniels Midland pled guilty to conspiracy in the 1990s for working with other companies to fix the prices of an animal feed additive. ADM produces a wide range of agricultural products in many foods and consumer items ranging from cocoa powder to corn to cosmetics.

And most recently General Motors was fined $900 million for hiding faulty ignition switches. They didn't plead guilty to formal conspiracy charges, but they did admit knowing about, and intentionally covering up, safety problems with their vehicles for years. As NBC News noted:

According to court documents filed Thursday, GM knew as early as 2005 that the switches were prone to moving to the "accessory" or "off" position while the cars were underway. And by the spring of 2012, GM personnel knew that the defect presented a safety hazard. In 2006, the Justice Department found, a GM engineer directed that the defective switches no longer be used, but "nothing was done at this time to remedy the cars equipped with the defective switch that were already on the road." GM did not correct its earlier assurance that the switch posed no safety hazard, and the company did not issue a recall. GM even rejected a simple improvement to the head of the ignition key "that would have significantly reduced unexpected shutoffs at a price of less than a dollar a car," the Justice Department said. Instead of informing safety regulators, as federal law requires, the company stalled, fearing a blow to its business, and did not recall affected cars until February 2014."

To be clear: GM's conspiracy was not a theoretical, abstract harm; it resulted in the deaths of at least 120 people and hundreds of injuries.

There are plenty of activists who refuse to shop at WalMart, Hobby Lobby, Chick-Fil-A, and dozens of other businesses because of the actions of their corporate owners. You might think that conspiracy theorists would organize boycotts of General Motors, Bank of America, brands that use ADM products, and dozens of other familiar brands and companies found guilty of engaging in conspiracy theories that have harmed--and in some cases even killed--people.

But these genuine, real, and proven conspiracies aren't even on the conspiracy believers' radar; instead they're deeply concerned about the Illuminati, Jade Helm 15, and gubmint chemtrail programs. Tilting at windmills is much more fun.


#1 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday September 21, 2015 at 4:29pm

I’d like to introduce you to Matthew Dentith.

He’s a philosopher based in the University of Auckland. His Doctor of Philosophy topic was about constructing a philosophy of conspiracy theories. He’s even written a book on the subject.

#2 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday September 21, 2015 at 4:30pm

Whoops. My attempt at a html link failed in the previous post.

Matt’s blog can be found at

#3 Daniel Schealler (Guest) on Monday September 21, 2015 at 4:31pm

Okay. It’s getting stripped. Just google him, his blog is the first hit in the search results.

#4 Benjamin Radford on Monday September 21, 2015 at 8:53pm

Okay, I’ll check it out, thanks!

#5 Old Rockin' Dave (Guest) on Tuesday September 22, 2015 at 12:08pm

I’d like to make some points I rarely see brought up.
As Prof. Steve Dutch points out in his personal pages, conspiracists have an only barely less than total lack of first-hand knowledge.
They also have a complete lack of interest in seeking out evidence first hand. As an example,an old friend of mine lives in New Jersey and believes in chemtrails. I challenged her to test for herself. Surely someone in her community had a good SLR camera and a very long lens, and why not ask him to take pictures of the “suspicious” planes and contrails. Maybe a local high school or college had a spectroscope that might yield evidence of the contrails’ composition. You’d have thought I offered her a lightly grilled weasel on toast.

#6 drstrangelove on Tuesday September 22, 2015 at 2:23pm

Not sure that what GM did was a conspiracy.  It is not necessarily economically viable for an auto manufacturer to fix every possible problem.

#7 Old Rockin' Dave (Guest) on Tuesday September 22, 2015 at 6:13pm

drstrangelove, I don’t know whether I’d call it a conspiracy, but I would think that while fixing a problem that killed people might cut into their profits and hurt their public image, but fighting off all those wrongful death lawsuits would sting even more. I’m no lawyer and don’t play one on TV, but knowing of the defect and not fixing it even after it caused injury and death sounds to me like criminally negligent homicide.

#8 Count Otto Black (Guest) on Thursday October 15, 2015 at 7:10pm

The ultimate conspiracy theory was of course the interesting idea which surfaced in 1969 that Paul McCartney had been secretly dead since 1966, and the current “Paul” was a stand-in called William Campbell who had been recruited for commercial reasons. However, the remaining Beatles were a bit guilty about the deception, therefore they included cryptic clues in their records that you could discover by playing them backwards, or even massaging the covers with Vaseline. If you ever find a vinyl copy of The White Album with a weirdly stained sleeve in a thrift shop, that’s why - yes, really!

Of course, it was utterly absurd that one of the most famous people in the world at the time could have somehow been dead for 3 years without anyone noticing, despite being under intense media scrutiny throughout that period. And, weirdly, almost none of the people who supposedly bought into this idea actually wanted Paul McCartney to be dead. They just liked knowing something The Man didn’t want them to know, therefore logic went out of the window. If you’re interested, the whole thing is covered very well indeed in a book by Andru J. Reeve called “Turn Me On, Dead Man”.

I’m just wondering to what extent modern conspiracy believers actually believe? To take this idea to its illogical extreme, David Icke claims that not only do reptoid shape-shifting aliens already control the world, but reality itself is created by a supercomputer on the Moon, and we live in The Matrix. And we’re supposed to resist this… how, exactly…?

If David Icke is correct, our Reptilian Overlords could erase him - their self-proclaimed greatest enemy! - by pressing a button, and erase all memory of his existence by pressing a few more buttons. The fact that I can type this post all the way through without wondering who the hell David Icke is proves that he’s as wrong as anyone can be without jumping out of a window to disprove the existence of gravity.

It’s almost all like that. Let’s conduct a thought experiment. You live in Germany in 1935, and somehow you’ve obtained evidence that your beloved Führer is actually a madman who plans to start a senseless war against almost everybody else in a few years, and furthermore, intends to industrially slaughter and incinerate millions of people who have done nothing other than not being white enough or having the wrong shape of nose. You know that Hitler intends to commit the most evil actions in the history of mankind. Tens of millions of lives will be senselessly wasted if he goes ahead. What do you do?

Let’s keep it simple. Do you a) stand on a street-corner in Berlin selling copies of your self-published newsletter detailing all of these accusations, with your real name and address included in case concerned citizens want to get in touch with you; or b) absolutely anything else?

If you answered a), you’re an internet conspiracy theorist. And in the real world, you’d be in a soundproofed basement having a very unpleasant chat with the Gestapo. As would your family, your friends, and everyone who might possibly have known you. And unless you have the IQ of a tree-stump, you know it.

This is all about self-empowerment. Deep down, even the believers don’t believe, otherwise they wouldn’t be ranting on the internet in terms which basically boil down to: “Hey, you guys with the ultimate evil power that I’m trying to fight withy my feeble human resources! Here’s my address - kill me if you dare!”

#9 Matthew Dentith (Guest) on Monday October 19, 2015 at 12:29am

Hello! I’m the philosopher mentioned in the comments. I guess my contribution to this part of the debate is to say that “But these genuine, real, and proven conspiracies aren’t even on the conspiracy believers’ radar” is a bit of a mischaracterisation; as Kathryn Olmsted’s great book, “Real Enemies” goes a long way to show, conspiracy theorists use proven examples of conspiratorial activity all the time as supporting evidence for their arguments about putative conspiracies. Plenty of conspiracy theorists have gone “Look at GM! Look at VW!” Conspiracy theorists come in all kinds; for every David Icke and Alex Jones, there is your annoying relative at family gatherings who thinks the U.S. knowingly lied about WMDs in Iraq, or argues that the TPPA is more about big business colluding to gerrymander the system than actual free trade; in the end the group of people we might call “conspiracy believers” is a broad church, and many of them are literate enough to talk about proven conspiracies whilst maybe, maybe not, also tilting at windmills.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.