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Critical Thinking: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Moral Panics

If you’re teaching critical thinking and looking for timely and engaging material, why not try a conspiracy theory?

What is a conspiracy theory?

Everyone who studies them has a different definition of what constitutes a conspiracy theory. For this guide, the working concept is that a conspiracy theory is an idea (because once a conspiracy is proven, it’s no longer a theory but a fact) postulating that multiple, usually powerful, people are acting in secret to benefit themselves at the expense of the general public.

The phrase “conspiracy theory” shouldn’t be used as a pejorative. Some conspiracy theories are warranted--there are and have been actual conspiracies, like Tuskegee and Watergate.

It might be helpful to think of conspiracy theories as existing on a spectrum of plausibility, as suggested by Mick West, although the degree of perceived plausibility necessarily depends on the individual encountering the theory. One might believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone but draw the line of implausibility at Sandy Hook being a false flag operation. Another might believe the uber rich are up to no good at their closed meetings but consider the idea of lizard people ruling the world to be stretching credulity too far.

All of us believe at least one conspiracy theory. Many scholars, like Rob Brotherton and Karen Douglas, suggest such belief arises from our innate tendency to see patterns. Others consider our sense of proportionality to be a contributing factor; it can be unsatisfying to believe one man could kill an American President, for example, while a conspiracy feels “right”.

The guide includes both scholarly and popular resources that explore either specific contemporary conspiracy theories or conspiracy theorizing as a phenomenon.

Conspiracy theories, moral panics, and urban legends can overlap and any or all of them can be fake news. How to distinguish among them and which term applies to any given movement would make excellent paper topics.

Abbie Richards' chart

The chart is on Twitter. This link goes to an article that has an image of the chart and reprints some tweets: Abbie Richards' conspiracy taxonomy from Indy100


A list of conspiracy theories from Wikipedia

For the most recent conspiracy theory news: Google News Search for conspiracy theories

Looking for conspiracy theories, moral panics, and similar tales in their native habitat? Check YouTube, social media, Reddit, or visit one of these websites: NaturalNews, OANN, Epoch Times. If you find a rich vein elsewhere, please email me.



Most of the podcasts listed on the podcast tab discover conspiracy theories but some  discuss but some make conspiracy theories their main focus.


All titles are available through online retailers. If Buley or another CSCU library has the title, I've linked to it in the shared catalog.

My personal favorites are Republic of Lies and Suspicious Minds. I would also recommend Conspiracy Theories: A Primer and Escaping the Rabbit Hole. All are good introductory texts. Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them is a good introduction to the ways different disciplines approach the idea. The Seven Sins of Memory focuses on how memory works and it fits well with the other titles on the list.

Subject headings in SouthernSearch: