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In his 1997 book Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From, Daniel Pipes discriminates between ‘conspiracies, which are real’ and ‘conspiracy theories, which exist only in the imagination’ and which are no more than a manifestation of an irrational ‘fear of non-existent conspiracies’ (1997: 20–21). Throughout the book, the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ conspiracies is treated as largely self-evident and unproblematic, although Pipes does acknowledge the potential fuzziness of the boundaries when he suggests that some left-wing writers have been allowed to get away with promoting bogus conspiracy theories, in large part due to an anti-right-wing bias among critics of conspiracism.

Noam Chomsky referred to this label as ‘the intellectual equivalent of four letter words and tantrums’ or a ‘curse word’ which is used to dismiss or marginalise dissident views, including his own (Chomsky, 2004). Swami and Coles (2010) have recently argued that the reluctance among psychologists to engage with conspiracy theories might be attributed to ‘fear of being branded as conspiracy theorists themselves’, presumably if their analysis should lead to a conclusion that falls short of outright condemnation and cen- Towards a Definition of Conspiracy Theories 23 sure.

In fact, given that most of these questions have been addressed by experts (see Dunbar and Reagan, 2006), 9/11 conspiracy theorists are the only people who still consider them to be relevant. Through the use of disclaimers, therefore, Fisk distanced himself from ‘conspiracy theories’ as a category of explanation, while at the same time elevating conspiracist suspicions about the ‘real’ causes of 9/11 into the domain of legitimate political analysis. Setting the epistemic threshold between real and bogus conspiracies The inherently contested nature of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ illustrated through the earlier examples presents a problem for anyone 30 Conspiracy Theories engaging with the topic.

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