Taking Account of Conspiracy Theorising
Conspiracy theories are an increasingly hot topic. Not only are they seemingly rife in contemporary political discourse, there has been a surplus of new work on conspiracy theory in academic literature.
“Conspiracy theory” refers to a broad church. There are stories about alien, shape-shifting reptiles in control of our political elites, chemtrails and fluoride turning the population into docile drones, and rumours of Cultural Marxism forcing children to change gender. But claims of alien bloodlines secretly controlling the world’s governments are not the only conspiratorial game in town. There are also tales of hidden "pee-tapes" relating to a sitting U.S. President, dirty politics behind the Leave Campaign in the U.K., and historical cases of conspiracy like the Watergate Affair or the Moscow Show Trials. As such conspiracy theories range from sensible, upright members of the community to something akin to those weird relatives you regret sitting next to at a family dinner. Yet this particular fact is not something which is paid much heed by many conspiracy theory theorists.
In 2016, for example, some social scientists penned a piece for the French newspaper Le Monde, entitled “Luttons efficacement contre les théories du complot” (Bronner, 2016). The article opined that French educational efforts to deal with conspiracy theories in the classroom needed a firmer evidence-base. But this was not a call to to ferret out bad theories from good ones. Rather, Bronner and company argued that the French authorities needed to recognize that talk of conspiracy theory in the classroom might result in people taking conspiracy theory seriously, with the apparently deleterious effect of then asking awkward questions about politics, society and the like.
“Luttons efficacement contre les théories du complot” treats conspiracy theory as a problem in search of a cure. This is symptomatic of a general trend in conspiracy theory theory. Until recently, the academic work on the subject has predominantly argued that conspiracy theories generally should be treated as prima facie suspicious.
This is the thesis of 'Generalism' - the argument that belief in conspiracy theories generally should be considered irrational. That is, we can judge the general class of conspiracy theories without first considering the particulars – the actual evidence – for or against individual conspiracy theories.
There is a growing discontent with such generalist analyses of conspiracy theory, largely due to recent philosophical developments. From Brian L. Keeley’s seminal work “Of Conspiracy Theories” (Keeley, 1999) and Charles Pigden’s “Popper Revisited, or What is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?” (Pigden, 1995), philosophers have argued that we cannot dismiss conspiracy theories out-of-hand merely because they are conspiracy theories. Rather, we must judge them by their evidence. This view is known as “Particularism”.
Think of it this way: if we want to analyze either the cost or benefits of belief in conspiracy theories, then we have to first work out which conspiracy theories are warranted or unwarranted according to evidence. We cannot simply dismiss or treat with skepticism conspiracy theories generally, because then we risk throwing out the baby with the bath water. The Watergate Affair happened, but part-and-parcel of the cover-up was labelling journalists – like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – as perfidious “conspiracy theorists” chasing a nonsense “conspiracy theory”. Stalin and his cronies conspired to get guilty verdicts in the Moscow Trials of the 1930s, and even invented the term “disinformation” to cover up said injustice.
If people had not taken the Watergate Affair conspiracy theory seriously and investigated it, then the truth would never have come to light. Examples like this show us the cost of Generalism – if we had simply dismissed the allegations of a cover-up with respect to the Democratic National Headquarters break-in just because they were labelled as a “conspiracy theory”, then the conspiracy would likely have never been uncovered. Indeed, the fact that – for several years – the idea senior Republican figures in the U.S. administration were involved in what was called a “mere burglary” was, in fact, labelled as a “conspiracy theory” and dismissed accordingly. It was only because some took the conspiracy theory seriously that the truth ever came out. As such, the assumption behind Generalism – that conspiracy theories are “mad, bad, and dangerous” – provides fertile ground for conspiracies to prosper. This is not to say that each and every conspiracy theory should be regarded as prima facie warranted. Rather, it is simply the acknowledgement that we have to take conspiracy theories seriously if we want to render judgement on individual conspiracy theories.
The push for a Particularist take to conspiracy theory is one of the motivations behind Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2018). The contributors – Charles Pigden, David Coady, Ginna Husting, Kurtis Hagen, Lee Basham, Marius Raab, Martin Orr, and myself – all argue that we cannot dismiss theories about conspiracies merely because they have been labelled as “conspiracy theories.” Yet whilst it is fair to say that the contributors to Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously agree Particularism is the only way to take conspiracy theories seriously, there is still a healthy disagreement about its nature and potential limits.
Take, for example, the tension between the epistemology (the study of knowledge) of conspiracy theory and the ethics of conspiracy theorizing. Patrick Stokes argues that our epistemic duties when it comes to assessing particular conspiracy theories needs to take into account the moral consequences of conspiracy theorizing, particularly the way in which conspiracy theories can entail making accusations against putative conspirators before the evidence is in.
That conspiracy theories end up accusing people of conspiring towards some end is indisputable. However, Stokes argues that the moral cost of such accusations means we should be wary of engaging in the social practice of conspiracy theorizing. As such, whilst he argues we should be Particularists, we should express a necessary reticence with respect to such Particularism that entails that it should be “reluctant” or “restricted” in scope.
Lee Basham, in reply, disagrees, taking it that such a “reluctant” or “restricted Particularism” is just another form of Generalism, one which substitutes ethical reasons for the standard epistemic argument for treating conspiracy theories generally with suspicion. As Basham argues, there is no middle ground between Particularism and Generalism (Basham, 2018).
Yet Stokes’ point is not meritless. Particularists should be happy to admit that belief in some unwarranted conspiracy theories has unfortunate consequences. After all, antisemitic conspiracy theories are still propounded today, despite having been debunked time and time again. Indeed, some of the people who believe such theories do go out and act upon their beliefs, thus propagating antisemitism, along with antisemitic violence. As such, there are grounds to be cautious about engaging in the social practice of conspiracy theorizing – even just casually asking aloud “But is this true?” can have deleterious side effects.
But are bad consequences grounds to being reluctant to engage in a Particularist analysis of conspiracy theories? I would argue no. It is, rather, an invitation to consider how we should treat conspiracy theories seriously such that we can investigate them properly.
Charles Pigden, another contributor to Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously, argues that there are also moral costs to the kind of reticence about conspiracy theorising advised by Stokes (Pigden, 2018). Pigden argues that a better approach is to focus on what he calls the “defectibility” of certain kinds of conspiracy theory. Where the cost of revealing a conspiracy is outweighed by the benefit of exposing it, you would expect the conspiracy to have already been revealed. As such, belief in such highly defectible conspiracy theories seems unwarranted. Pigden points out that the kind of theories Stokes is concerned with – those which moor his reluctant Particularism –are of the highly defectible kind. Thus, we can embrace Particularism without needing to worry so much about the ethics of accusation.
As I argue in the final chapter of Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously, another way around this issue is to talk about how we assess and investigate conspiracy theories. Most of us think that to make false accusations of people is morally wrong, and impugning others on no evidence whatsoever is bad practice. It is also true that some conspiracy theories seem so lacking in evidence that it is hard to imagine that people can accuse others of conspiring in good faith. But Stokes’ point is that sometimes these consequences occur before we know whether or not there really is a conspiracy. That is, to find out whether some conspiracy theory is warranted according to the evidence requires that we engage with a practice – conspiracy theorizing – which has known negative consequences.
Yet to suspect someone of conspiracy is not necessarily to publicly accuse them. Detectives may well suspect a spouse of killing their partner, but they are not likely to accuse them until such time they have good evidence. Police decide upon suspects based upon a variety of different kinds of preponderant evidence. The people implicated by this kind of evidence are then investigated: they become the “suspects,” and it is only after a suspect has been investigated adequately (at least in an ideal justice system) that they are then accused publicly of some crime. Taking a conspiracy theory seriously enough to investigate should work in the same. You might well suspect a group of covering up their involvement with regard to some event, but this does not mean you will make accusations against them until such time you have some hard evidence.
Much work in epistemology thus far has focused on individual epistemic agents and what we can do to judge whether our beliefs are true, false or (in many cases) whether our beliefs are plausible given our other beliefs. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the role groups play in our reasoning, especially as much of what we claim to know comes from others. From expert testimony to the way in which rumors and gossip influence our beliefs, there is something social to many of our knowledge-claims. This has, in part, lead to the development of Social Epistemology, a domain of inquiry which includes insights from epistemology, sociology, and psychology to build up a picture of how it is we know so much (or little) based upon the kinds of groups or societies in which we live.
A social epistemology approach to the treatment of conspiracy theories is one that takes heed of the insights and findings of the social sciences. It is true that belief in some conspiracy theories can have drastic consequences, with respect to both warranted and unwarranted cases. Belief in antisemitic conspiracy theories (which are unwarranted) continue to lead to violence towards Jewish people. Belief in political cover-ups (like what happened before and after the break in of the Democratic Party National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel) can lead to a loss of trust in the government. In the former case the result of these beliefs is something we should be concerned about, because they are the result of unwarranted claims about the Jewish people. But in the latter case the revelation of a political cover-up is the kind of thing which should have consequences for trust generally in the political class. Given the kind of societies in which most of us live, finding out some influential institution has conspired is not only something we ought to know, but it is also something which ought to affect our views on that institution going forward. From work in Social Psychology to Sociology, scholars have studied how changes our belief in just how trustworthy institutions are can lead to changes in our attitudes towards said institutions. Sometimes, it turns out, drastic consequences follow from cases of actual conspiracy.
We should take conspiracy theory –and conspiracy theories – seriously. In a society where people take a dim view of conspiracy theories, conspirators and their conspiracies have the opportunity to multiply and prosper. But in an environment in which particular conspiracy theories are taken seriously, and investigated by journalists, police and citizen assemblies, conspiracies are much more likely to fail because they are more likely to be uncovered. This is at the heart of a properly social epistemological understanding of how we should treat conspiracy theory. Influential institutions, and the people who run them, are more likely to be thought of as trustworthy if they are not automatically trusted. What we should not want is a society in which it is considered a mark of intellectual sophistication to dismiss theories about conspiracies out of hand because they have been labelled as “conspiracy theories.” The only way to do that is to treat conspiracy theory seriously.
Bronner, G. et al. 2016. Luttons efficacement contre les théories du complot, Le Monde, June 6th, 2016, p. 29
Basham, L. 2018. Conspiracy Theory Particularism, both Epistemic and Moral, Versus Generalism in “Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously” (ed. M R. X. Dentith), Rowman and Littlefield
Dentith, M R. X. 2018. “Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously” (ed. M R. X. Dentith), Rowman and Littlefield
Keeley, B. L. 1999. Of Conspiracy Theories, The Journal of Philosophy, 96(3), p. 109-126
Olmsted, K. 2009. “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11,” Oxford University Press, New York
Pigden, C. 1995. Popper Revisited, or What Is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 25(1), p. 3-34
———. 2018. Conspiracy Theories, Deplorables and Defectibility: a Reply to Patrick Stokes, in “Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously” (ed. M R. X. Dentith), Rowman and Littlefield, 2018
Stokes, P. 2018a. Conspiracy Theory and the Peril of Pure Particularism in “Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously” (ed. M R. X. Dentith), Rowman and Littlefield
Stokes, P. 2018b. On Some Moral Costs of Conspiracy Theory in “Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously” (ed. M R. X. Dentith), Rowman and Littlefield
Uscinksi, J. 2018. “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them” (ed. J. Uscinski), Oxford University Press, 2018
Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously
Matthew R. X. Dentith
M R. X. Dentith is currently a Fellow in the Institute for Research in the Humanities (ICUB) at the University of Bucharest. Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously is available now in all formats.