The furtive fallacy is an informal fallacy of emphasis in which outcomes are asserted to have been caused by the malfeasance of decision makers. Historian David Hackett Fischer identified it as the belief that significant facts of history are necessarily sinister, and that "history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious." It is more than a conspiracy theory in that it does not merely consider the possibility of hidden motives and deeds, but insists on them. In its extreme form, the fallacy represents general paranoia.
Fischer identifies several examples of the fallacy, particularly the works of Charles A. Beard. In each case, Fischer shows that historians provided detailed portrayals of historical figures involved in off-record meetings and exhibiting low morals, based on little or no evidence. He notes that the furtive fallacy does not necessarily imply deliberate falsification of history; it can follow from a sincere (but misguided) belief that nothing happens by accident or mistake.
Richard Hofstadter discussed the fallacy before Fischer, although not by name. In reviewing histories from the Progressive Era, Hofstadter noted that the progressive historians tended to assume that reality was always hidden and ignored, being determined by bribes, rebates, and secret business deals.
A modification of the furtive fallacy holds that when the historical record provides no evidence explaining a particular set of events, this is itself evidence of a furtive cause.
The idea of the furtive fallacy is criticized by Jeffrey M. Bale, who cites the risk of historians underestimating the influence of political secret societies, vanguard parties, and intelligence agencies.
- Fischer, David Hackett (1970). Historians' Fallacies.
- Hofstadter, Richard (1955). The Age of Reform.
- Davidson, Ronald M. (2002). Indian Esoteric Buddhism.
- Bale, Jeffrey M. (2007). "Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics". Patterns of Prejudice 41 (1): 58–59.
- Roisman, Joseph (2003). Brill's Companion to Alexander the Great.