Cambridge prof: how to think about ‘conspiracies and cock-ups’

David Runciman
David Runciman

Professor David Runciman at Cambridge University in England has something interesting to say about the role of conspiracy theories in a democratic society.

Runcima “is deep into a five-year project to work out where, when, how and why conspiracy theories fester – and looking in particular at the link between conspiracy and democracy,” according to the Cambridge News.

“These days when people have conspiracy theories, they tend to think their government is behind it,” explains David. “A classic modern example is 9/11. There are conspiracy theorists who believe that either the American government knew it was going to happen and didn’t tell anyone, or organised it as an excuse to have war in Iraq; they say it’s about oil – all this kind of stuff. Yet 100 years ago, people were perhaps more likely to blame, say, secret organisations or the banks if anything went wrong, so we’re interested in trying to understand why people now think that government is the villain.”

The subject attracts a crowd, he says.

“We’ve discovered that you just have to use the words ‘conspiracy theory’ in an event and people will come. People are really interested. Some of them are a little bit…” David grimaces, “but most of them aren’t. No-one can look at this stuff and not have moments where they think ‘But… Hmm…’ Because there are real conspiracies! Some of them are true.”

Runciman explains:

“In a world of real conspiracies, you have to sometimes be a conspiracy theorist,” he adds. “Certainly you don’t want to not suspect big organisations of being corrupt. Banks, businesses, drug companies… That’s what’s interesting about this project: what’s the conspiracy theory that’s OK, and what’s the kind that’s not OK? It turns out it’s really hard to draw the line.”

7 thoughts on “Cambridge prof: how to think about ‘conspiracies and cock-ups’”

  1. Please, please, please, everyone… Read Lance deHaven-Smith’s outstanding Conspiracy Theory in America (2013: U of Texas Press).

    As he so lucidly demonstrates, the term “conspiracy theorist” really WAS introduced into the national and international political discourse by CIA’s 1967 memo on countering Warren Commission critics. It is a term of dismissal and derision and it creates false equivalencies between the most rational conspiracy investigators and genuine kooks.

    And it helps clarify that use of the term virtually guarantees that Runciman’s question – “what’s the conspiracy theory that’s OK, and what’s the kind that’s not OK?” – cannot be answered, at least in the mainstream dialogue.

    I cringe time and time again when I see the term used on this blog, which is otherwise a very valuable resource. It is time to lose terms like “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” for good. They may be semantically accurate, but they have become so loaded with social and cultural baggage as to be destructive to political discourse as a whole. And of course they serve to shield real criminal conspiracies from exposure.

  2. Quick lesson in criminal law. What is a conspiracy?

    The elements of a conspiracy are (a) an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime, and (b) a step in furtherance of that agreement by any one ore more of those persons.

    Example: Shaw, Ferrie, Bannister, and Oswald meet in New Orleans and agree to kill the president. But that’s it. None of them does a thing in furtherance of the agreement. No conspiracy for criminal law purposes. If on the other hand, Shaw subsequent to the agreement gives Ferrie some money to give to Oswald to buy four Mannlicher-Carcano bullets to do the deed, a conspiracy has been committed upon Shaw’s delivery of the money to Ferrie; and all four parties can now be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit murder.

    Conspiracy is one of the easiest criminal laws to violate, because its elements do not require the actual commission of a criminal act. It is an “inchoate” crime.

    Was there a conspiracy to kill JFK, a conspiracy for criminal law purposes? To answer this question, one must search the record for (a) signs of an agreement to kill JFK, and (b) at least one step in furtherance of the agreement by a party to the agreement.

    As I search the record, what jumps out at me in terms of conspiracy is a phone call placed to the Paine residence shortly after the assassination. The caller, a man, says to the answering party, a woman, that they both know who’s responsible for JFK’s death.

    If I were the chief prosecuting attorney for Dallas today, I’d seek an indictment against Ruth Paine for conspiracy to kill JFK. She needn’t have done anything criminal in and of itself. She only needed to have been a party to an agreement. And it appears from the phone call in question she was.

    1. You would indict Ruth Paine on the basis of what, exactly, Jonathan? Hearsay about a phone call?

      In the CT world it seems that everyone’s a suspect but Oswald.

      1. Jean Davison,

        The phone call in question is laid out in Warren Commission Document 206 (p. 66). You’re correct this document is hearsay; but the recordation of the call would be admissible into evidence today in a criminal prosecution of Ruth Paine for conspiracy to commit murder as an official record, one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule.

        As prosecuting attorney, I’d argue to the jury (a) Ruth Paine was without reasonable doubt the person who answered the call, and (b) the content of the call makes clear Ruth Paine was aware of a plot to kill JFK, and (c) a reasonable conclusion flowing from her awareness is that she had agreed to some role in the plot.

        That’s the case for conspiracy; and it’s no stretch.

        I’d have no problem seeking an indictment against Oswald, were he alive, except this: as Jeremy Gunn said, based on what’s now known, he’d far rather defend Oswald than prosecute him.

    2. “Was there a conspiracy to kill JFK, a conspiracy for criminal law purposes?”

      A car crash uncovered the peculiarly close relationship between governments, heroin traffickers, armed forces and terrorists. This led to a number of investigations and unravelling of one the deep states of Operation Gladio.

      Decommissioning of the American Gladio franchise should be a goal here – criminal prosecution is unreasonable.

    3. Can’t believe people are saying what they’re saying. About that phone call. Isn’t it possible that they were referring to LHO? If Ruth Paine was involved, then it’s plausible that Marina was also involved. I don’t think everyone realizes what they’re saying and the implications, the consequences that might follow. I am thinking about what Jean Davison said here…….in the CT world it seems everyone’s suspect but Oswald. I ask………why?

  3. “what’s the conspiracy theory that’s OK,and what’s the kind that’s not OK?”

    I suppose Cass Sunstein might suggest official conspiracy theories are OK. 911 – In 5 Minutes is a documentary by James Corbett, that quickly (5 mins) looks at the official 911 conspiracy theory:
    False official conspiracy theory are forgotten.

    “so we’re interested in trying to understand why people now think that government is the villain.”

    People have lost trust in government. People no longer think that government is a hero.
    This hero forced the government make an incredible admission. This admission was bigger than anything than anything released the last 50 years of the JFK case.

    “people now think that government is the villain.”

    Government as villain? – I thought more people consider corporations the villains. The Corporation is an award winning documentary that looks at corporations as persons – as psychopaths.
    It looks like Professor David Runciman takes patronizing approach to the subject,much like the lap dog Jonathan Kay. Indepentdent architects, engineers have become heros:

    “there are real conspiracies! Some of them are true.”

    1) I suppose Operation Northwoods might be considered a true conspiracry.
    2) Operation Gladio , where the CIA sponsored terror is used in Europe is officially documented. Russia Today, James Corbett describes Gladio here: on

    But some of them are false. False official conspiracy theory are forgotten:
    1) The official Saddam Hussein/Al Qaeda conspiracy quickly turned out to be false.
    2) The official Al Qaeda anthrax attack conspiracy also turned out to be false: In the aftermath of the 911 anthrax attacks, White House officials repeatedly pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller to prove it was a second-wave assault by Al Qaeda. President Bush said that there may be some possible link to Bin Laden. Fort Detric experts told us this was a military strain of the bioweapon and not something some guy in a cave could come up with. ”

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