Paul Braterman: Is Creationism A Conspiracy Theory?

POSTPONED due to a family emergency…stay tuned for updated timing in the near future.

Is #creationism a #ConspiracyTheory? That is the conversation today between Professor Paul Braterman and I, with some input from #KenHam too.

Paul thinks the answer is “yes,” writing,

“I would argue that the present-day creationist movement is a fully fledged conspiracy theory. It meets all the criteria, offering a complete parallel universe with its own organizations and rules of evidence, and claims that the scientific establishment promoting evolution is an arrogant and morally corrupt elite.”

-Paul Braterman’s Snopes article: Why creationism bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory

Of course, Ken Ham (at #AnswersInGenesis) disagrees, and he may have a point,

“He is deliberately trying to align creationist organizations like Answers in Genesis with events and an organization we have had absolutely nothing to do with, as any true fact-checker would be able to quickly find out.”

-Ken Ham’s response: Snopes Exposed! | Answers in Genesis

As for me, I am not so sure Paul is correct for a different reason. Conspiracy theories are not institutionally strong, as is YEC. That is one reason I wrote my recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

“This might seem like a classic instance of the tension between religion and science. But the real issue is whether Americans can live alongside each other while disagreeing about the most important issues.”

-S. Joshua Swamidass A Compromise on Creationism - WSJ

Let’s talk conspiracy theories, creationism, institutions, and how we can live together across our differences.

I think first we need a definition of what a “conspiracy theory” is, to determine what features are intrinsic or extrinsic.

The OED defines it thusly:

  1. Special Combs. conspiracy theory, the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; spec. a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event; so conspiracy theorist.


A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable. The term has a negative connotation, implying that the appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence.


A conspiracist belief can be described as “the unnecessary assumption of conspiracy when other explanations are more probable” [1]

A conspiracy theory can be defined as an unverified and relatively implausible allegation of conspiracy, claiming that significant events are the result of a secret plot carried out by a preternaturally sinister and powerful group of people (Brotherton, 2013). [2]

Is lack of ‘institutional strength’ a requirement for being a conspiracy theory? Does the prevalence of belief in the claim, within the Republican Party, that there was widespread vote fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election mean that this claim is not a conspiracy theory?


Conspiracy theories seem to have an aspect of “I have special knowledge, and all of the experts are wrong/deceived/lying…”.

I think there is a version of creationism to which this applies. I might call it “scientific creationism” where scientific creationists believe they have the correct scientific knowledge.

However there are many other people who believe in creationism, for whom the science is relatively unimportant. They believe based on how they interpret the Bible. For this form of creationism, I don’t it aligns well with a conspiracy theory.

As I’ve pointed out many times before. The Creationism/Creationists who seem to predominate on the internet, in my experience are not representative of the majority of of creationists.


I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t think that’s a material difference. I would probably rephrase it as

I think most people would probably say the most definitive characteristic of a conspiracy theory is the nature of the narrative justifying the theory’s lack of acceptance, not the fact that it’s wrong (though I take that as a prerequisite) nor that it’s institutionally strong (which is optional, IMO)

I’ll be looking forward to this video on March 31st!

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I have never really liked the term “conspiracy theory,” because the difficulty with it is that it applies, literally, to all theories of the existence of conspiracies, whether true or false. I litigated the existence of conspiracies in civil rights actions again and again; all that “conspiracy” means is that more than one person has combined to do some wrongful act. That’s it. No Illuminati required, no government coverups required, nothing really very special at all. One cop clubs someone over the head for no reason, and his partner helps him lie about it: conspiracy.

Obviously what people MEAN by “conspiracy theory” in most cases is something dodgy and false. But the elements of “conspiracy” are really (1) the collaboration of multiple actors, and (2) the wrongfulness of the act. And there’s the problem. Is the concerted action of the scientific establishment (surely not all cooperating with one another, but with many cooperative relationships existing within that establishment) a “conspiracy” about which one might have a theory? Well, the collaboration part is there, full blown. The whole inquiry, then, turns on the other part: is it a combination of actions to do something wrongful? Obviously not; but there’s where the creationists have got to turn it into a “conspiracy” by alleging the basic claim of creationism itself: that the evidence shows the scientists are wrong. So the “conspiracy” collapses to the question of the truth or falsity of creationism, and to nothing else.

So the collaboration of the creationists with one another is a conspiracy; the collaboration of scientists is not. But this depends not upon the collaboration, but upon the honesty of the actions. Creationists lie, and they must lie in order to make their ludicrous and offensive dogmas sound credible.

Now, in the popular parlance, as opposed to the strict usage of the terms, is creationism a conspiracy theory? Well, sure. It posits that the scientists are lying about the evidence, and in order to defend that particular ludicrous falsehood it must assert a degree of cooperative action among scientists to hide the ball. But the term “conspiracy theory” just isn’t very useful. I think it’s more straightforward to say that creationism (including ID Creationism) is a lie, and that all lies have both liars and dupes. The beliefs that creationists promote do constitute a “conspiracy theory” in the popular sense, but so what? It doesn’t make all of that lying any worse.


Date not settled yet…

I don’t think it is uncommon for word combinations to take a formal meaning that is more specific than, and/or at odds with, the combined meanings of the words individually. “Rat race” and “death spiral” would appear to be examples of this. Where a word combination has received a formal definition, such as from OED above, I think it is largely irrelevant what “the strict usage of the terms” taken individually is.

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That’s often true. In this case, however, it is a tremendous generator of misunderstanding because the word “conspiracy” has become associated with what people popularly call “conspiracy theories,” to the point that any time someone files a lawsuit alleging a perfectly proper and mundane conspiracy, it’s liable to be mocked as “oooooooooh, CONSPIRACY!” when in fact this is just an ordinary term of reference that describes concerted wrongful action. I think it’d be good if we could find something else to describe what are commonly called “conspiracy theories.” I’d call them “creationism-like theories,” but I think that would be pretty insulting to people who merely believe QAnon nonsense and want to violently overthrow the government, but who haven’t gone off the deep end to the degree creationists have.


I sympathise with your problem with sloppy thinking/use-of-language. However I don’t think you’ve got much chance at getting the name changed, particularly given (i) the current name has had time to achieve considerable momentum & (ii) your lack of a catchy/memorable alternative.

You may have better chance of getting the legal term changed – I’d suggest connivance, off the top of my head. :slight_smile:

In the case of some anti-science movements you reach a point where there has to be a worldwide scientific conspiracy. This is how Flat Earthers try to explain away all of the pictures from space showing a globe Earth, as one example.

More than once I have seen YEC’s push these types of conspiracy theories. One example that I have seen is their claim that geologists are reporting false isotope ratios just to make rocks look old. Others claim that fossils are fakes. For YEC to be true it would require nearly everything about the scientific consensus in all of the physical sciences to be wrong, and the only sane way this could happen is if scientists are actively propping up a consensus that they know to be wrong. As Francis Collins puts it:

It may be that many YEC’s don’t understand why it would require a worldwide scientific conspiracy, but if they follow the evidence long enough they will paint themselves into a corner where that is one of the only options they have left.


Perhaps it’s better, but it’s still barely non-zero. We’re still using Latin, together with all manner of archaic words and expressions: seisin, estoppel, laches, ejectment, et cetera. I sometimes still encounter the kind of clowns who end every affidavit with “Further affiant sayeth naught,” which is contemptibly stupid, but there it is.

Not bad. But I think we’d be safer choosing a unique term for “conspiracy theory” that doesn’t have other, broader connotations.

I would propose something like pseudo-conspiratio. I like it better than the pseudo-conjuratio which some traditional classicist might propose—and I especially like that the fact that they would deride me for joining a Greek word with a Latin word. (But scientists already do that with some technical terms.)

Come to think of it, pseudo-conjuratio sounds like a sexual practice which is still banned in seventeen Bible Belt states. On the other hand, “Pseudo conspiratio!” sounds like a handy incantation which Harry Potter would have learned at Hogwarts. So it does sound more family-friendly.

Anyway, you don’t have to read Latin to know that pseudo-conspiratio refers to a “non-existent plot” and the rhyme flows off the tongue quite smoothly. And it openly allows for conspiracies which truly do exist.

If you took all the world’s affiants and laid them end-to-end at room temperature, they’d eventually be ambient affiants. At that point they would also further say naught. (Yes, I am very bored on this Friday late afternoon. My apologies.)


I think perhaps a “rhetoric of persecution” might be more accurate and informative,


That’s very nice. I heartily approve.

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I’d suggest that, given that the problem @Puck_Mendelssohn outlined was “conspiracy theory” getting truncated down to simply “conspiracy”, that your “pseudo-conspiratio” and @swamidass’ “rhetoric of persecution” are likely to endure the same fate, if we managed to insert them into the lexicon in the first place.

“Pseudo-conspiratio” would almost certainly get truncated to “conspiratio”, which is similar enough to “conspiracy” to continue the confusion (and likely the unfamiliar “conspiratio” would eventually morph to the more familiar “conspiracy” in any case). "Rhetoric of persecution” would likely become “persecution”, which has the advantage of moving well away from “conspiracy”, but may yield fresh confusions.

When I was contemplating this question on my walk yesterday, the phrase that I came up with was “Illuminati thinking” (centering it around what is probably the oldest extant conspiracy theory – the Illuminati has been linked by conspiracy theories both to the French Revolution and to the New World Order). This shouldn’t create too much confusion if truncated to simply “Illuminati” – but would cause amusement to those of us who remember the card game of the same name (and similar theme). :slight_smile:


Perhaps we could borrow from Mencken’s handy word “booboisie” and make it sound like an early Fellini film: Il Boobinati. The one problem is that this might be a better descriptor of the adherents to creationism than of creationism itself.


Interesting. I think it was Mencken who first coined the term “The Bible Belt”—or at least he made the term famous.

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Mencken had some hilarious references to the southern religious problem. He called them the “Ku Klux Klergy,” referred to the preachers of the “Coca-Cola belt,” and said that WJ Bryan had become a brother to the forlorn pastors who belabor halfwits in galvanized iron tabernacles beside the railyards. None of that seems to have changed much.

We need Mencken back again, especially now that the booboisie have moved beyond the galvanized iron tabernacles and are attempting to overthrow the government. Alas, Mencken has lain in his grave for almost seventy years. His “The American Language” remains a valuable reference still, as do his columns on the Scopes trial. If only he could have covered Kitzmiller!


Bryan was, if I recall, “a tin-pot pope in the Coca-Cola belt.”

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