Taxonomizing Conspiratorial Information Practices: Examining the Ong’s Hat Legend

This paper examines an influential hoax within the sphere of amateur online science in order to understand the ways that alternative epistemic communities engage with institutionally recognized scientific literature in idiosyncratic ways while advancing epistemological viewpoints frequently denigrated as “conspiracy theories.” Rather than attempting to judge the veracity or the merit of such theories, I instead build on Latour and Woolgar’s (1979) suggestion that factuality is constructed during a series of negotiations between material conditions and human actors. In the process, I develop a preliminary taxonomy of the information practices that conspiracy theorizers use. The case study is drawn from the urban legend of “Ong’s Hat,” which suggests that a group of Princeton University-affiliated physicists developed techniques for inter-dimensional travel in the 1980s. The theory developed a wide enough online following that it was discussed on nationally syndicated conspiracy radio and served as the subject of at least one academic monograph (Kinsella 2011). More recently, Ong’s Hat has been reframed as a predecessor for the online QAnon movement (Hon 2020). The study examines the Ong’s Hat Incunabula catalog, a “brochure” advertising both real and fabricated publications central in the Ong’s Hat legend. First, I quantify and classify both the authentic and fabricated sources listed in this catalog according to meaningful characteristics, focusing on their relationships to institutionally recognized scientific literature. Next, I note the specific narrative function of each publication in order to develop a taxonomy of conspiracist information practices.