Claiming that someone subscribes to a conspiracy theory can be a potent method of denigration. I observed this process up close. The thesis of one of my doctoral students was alleged to endorse a conspiracy theory, therefore discrediting it. Journalists, bloggers, petition signers, Wikipedia editors and scientists endorsed the allegations without assessing whether the thesis actually propounded a conspiracy, without assessing whether evidence was provided for the alleged conspiracy, and without providing any evidence that the allegation discredited the thesis …
Image credit: Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr / Creative Commons
Martin, Brian. 2019. “Uptake of a Conspiracy Theory Attribution.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (6): 16-30. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4cP.
The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Claiming that someone subscribes to a conspiracy theory can be a potent method of denigration. I observed this process up close. The thesis of one of my doctoral students was alleged to endorse a conspiracy theory, therefore discrediting it. Journalists, bloggers, petition signers, Wikipedia editors and scientists endorsed the allegations without assessing whether the thesis actually propounded a conspiracy, without assessing whether evidence was provided for the alleged conspiracy, and without providing any evidence that the allegation discredited the thesis. It seems that few people will question a claim that is endorsed by others, meshes with what they would like to believe, and requires effort to check.
On the Study of Conspiracy Theories
In recent decades, there has been a huge increase in the study of conspiracy theories (Dentith 2018; Uscinski 2019). Some of the alleged conspiracies directly involve science, for example the claim that HIV was biologically engineered by the military. Others involve science indirectly, for example the claim that the US government organised the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which involves arguments about jet fuel and explosives as means to bring down the US Trade Towers. Examining these sorts of conspiracy theories provides a means of gaining insight into people’s understanding and acceptance of scientific claims.
There are quite a few studies of people’s beliefs in conspiracy theories, typically based on polls (Goertzel 1994; Oliver and Wood 2014). Some of these show high levels of belief in prominent theories, such as that a conspiracy was involved in the 1963 assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. In many of these studies, the authors assume that belief in conspiracy theories represents a deficit in reasoning or understanding (Keeley 1999; Grimes 2016). Some authors have attempted to identify specific shortcomings in what is called conspiracist ideation—in simple terms, tending to believe in conspiracy theories, including implausible ones—that can be identified by the nature of the claims and logic involved in supporting them (Sunstein 2014; Sunstein and Vermeule 2009).
Challenging these approaches is what might be called a revisionist perspective on conspiracy theories (e.g., Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen 2017; Fenster 2008; Hagen 2011, 2018). One important observation is that conspiracies do exist, for example CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro. Authors questioning the dominant perspective on conspiracy theories question whether it is possible to identify fallacious reasoning independently of specific cases. They argue that to determine whether a conspiracy theory is right or wrong, it is necessary to examine the evidence and logic involved, just as with any other claim.
In this view, to label something a conspiracy theory is itself evidence of poor reasoning, because it has not been established that those beliefs labelled conspiracy theories are systematically different from other beliefs. Among philosophers, those supporting the revisionist perspective are called particularists: they call for conspiracy theories to be evaluated on their merits. This is in contrast to generalists, who argue that conspiracies are rare and that conspiracy theorising is inherently suspect (Dentith 2018).
Sociologist Jaron Harambam spent two years immersed in Dutch conspiracy-theory circles. His observations challenge many of the conventional assumptions about conspiracy theorists (Harambam and Aupers 2015, 2017; Harambaum 2017). One important finding is that the analyses involved in many beliefs called conspiracy theories have similarities with scholarly analyses of the same issues, for example concerning powerful groups (or social structures) influencing decision-making behind the scenes. Some scholarly treatments of the role of the Bilderberg group or the World Bank have affinities with accounts that are called conspiracy theories, and for good reason: one of the goals of scholars is to investigate groups and influences that may not be apparent in everyday discussions.
A number of commentators have noted that the label “conspiracy theory” is derogatory. For example, Husting and Orr (2007) call the conspiracy-theory label “a routinized strategy of exclusion.” Harambam and Aupers (2015, 467) comment that “… those who are labeled ‘conspiracy theorists’ are a priori dismissed by academics and excluded from public debate.” Coady (2018, 183) says “The expressions ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ are the respectable modern equivalents of ‘heresy’ and ‘heretic’ respectively; these expressions serve to castigate and marginalize anyone who rejects or even questions orthodox or officially endorsed beliefs.”
Conspiracy Theory Attribution
In the minds of many people, the conspiracy theory label serves to put beliefs in the category of less credible or even apparently absurd claims such as that the moon landings were faked or that world leaders are actually alien lizards. The common assumption that conspiracies are necessarily vast and evil has itself been criticised as inaccurate. Hagen (2018) notes that many so-called “conspiracy theories” are small-scale, and some conspiracies are for the common good.
Because, in much discourse, “conspiracy theory” remains a discrediting attribution, applying the label can be a way to discredit research and researchers whose work is unwelcome. Calling a view a conspiracy theory relegates it to the realms of nonsense. According to the revisionist or particularist view, this is illegitimate on several grounds. First, applying a label does not make the label accurate; instead, a careful assessment of the work is required. Second, even if a researcher has claimed to have identified a conspiracy, this does not make the claim incorrect; again, a careful assessment is needed. Third, just because a researcher claims a conspiracy is involved should not automatically discredit all the researcher’s work; yet again, a careful assessment is required.
A claim or allegation that someone has espoused a conspiracy theory is called here a conspiracy-theory attribution (CTA). It can be asked, are science-related CTAs accepted uncritically or are they investigated and tested for validity? Without attempting to answer this general question, here a specific CTA is examined, as part of a natural experiment.
In the next section, the CTA used as a case study is presented and analysed. The following section describes this CTA’s uptake by various commentators in several types of media. In looking at the articulation and uptake of the CTA, attention is given to the presence or absence of careful assessments of whether a conspiracy is actually involved, of evidence for a conspiracy, and of explicit justification for assuming that identifying a conspiracy legitimately discredits the researcher. In the discussion section, several possible explanations for the lack of scrutiny of the CTA are canvassed.
Conspiracy Theory Attribution Analysed
The conspiracy theory attribution (CTA) analysed here refers to the PhD thesis of Judy Wilyman, for whom I was principal supervisor. Obviously I had, and have, a stake in the quality of her thesis. Supervisors have a responsibility to support students in developing research skills and producing theses that, in the Australian system, must pass the scrutiny of independent external examiners. Readers should judge my analysis in this context. On the other hand, because I know that my role in relation to this analysis may be criticised, I have made special attempts to make the analysis robust. All the documents referred to are publicly available, so my assessments can be checked.
Wilyman received her PhD from the University of Wollongong in December 2015 (Wilyman 2015). Most theses by research students are posted on the university’s digital repository, Research Online (https://ro.uow.edu.au). Wilyman’s thesis was posted on 11 January 2016. Two days later, a front-page story in the national daily newspaper The Australian claimed that the thesis subscribed to a conspiracy theory and, therefore by implication, lacked credibility.
This story triggered a huge outpouring of condemnation of the thesis, Wilyman, me as her supervisor and the university. This attack on a PhD thesis was remarkable in its high profile, duration and extent (Martin 2017). It therefore provides a useful tool for examining the uptake of a conspiracy theory attribution. Later I will look at commentary about the thesis. Here, to begin, it is worth looking at the thesis itself and at the passages associated with the CTA.
I correctly anticipated that posting of Wilyman’s thesis would result in a surge of criticism, because she and her thesis had come under attack for years prior to her graduation. Therefore, on the day her thesis was posted online, I posted a commentary about attacks on theses, in which I provided a summary of the key ideas in her thesis.
It makes four main critical points in relation to Australian government vaccination policy.
❧ First, deaths from infectious diseases had dramatically declined in Australia before the mass introduction of most vaccines, suggesting that vaccination is not the only factor in controlling these diseases.
❧ Second, Australian vaccination policies were adopted from a one-size-fits-all set of international recommendations, without consideration of the special ecological conditions in Australia, for example the levels of sanitation and nutrition, and the incidence and severity of diseases.
❧ Third, nearly all research on vaccination is carried out or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in selling vaccines; the conflicts of interest involved in vaccine research can lead to bias in the research design and conclusions drawn.
❧ Fourth, there are important areas of research relevant to vaccination policy that have not been pursued, but should have been; a plausible reason for this “undone science” is that the findings might turn out to be unwelcome to vaccination promoters (Martin 2016a).
Kylar Loussikian, the journalist who wrote the 13 January 2016 story about Wilyman’s thesis, received a copy of my commentary, including this summary of key ideas, the day before. However, he did not use any of it.
The title of his article was “Uni accepts thesis on vaccine ‘conspiracy’.” The opening sentences of Loussikian’s article provide a succinct statement of the attribution that her thesis contains, or is based on, a conspiracy theory.
The University of Wollongong has accepted a PhD thesis from a prominent anti-vaccination activist that warns that global agencies such as the World Health Organisation are colluding with the pharmaceutical industry in a massive conspiracy to spruik immunisation.
Judy Wilyman, the convener of Vaccination Decisions and Vaccination Choice, submitted the thesis late last year, concluding Australia’s vaccination policy was not a result of independent assessment but the work of pharmaceutical industry pressure on the WHO.
The WHO convened a “secret emergency committee” funded by drug firms to “orchestrate” hysteria relating to a global swine flu pandemic in 2009, Ms Wilyman said in her thesis.
“The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was declared by a secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to make excessive profits from the pandemic,” she wrote (Loussikian, 2016).
Before turning to the question of whether Loussikian’s portrayal of the thesis is balanced and accurate, it is useful to look at the section of the thesis concerned with WHO and the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
Prior to 2009, a flu pandemic was defined by WHO as simultaneous worldwide epidemics from a new flu virus that caused enormous numbers of illnesses and deaths. In common understanding, a pandemic was thus particularly deadly, far more so than an epidemic. Then in 2009 the definition was changed to omit the reference to “enormous numbers,” though many members of the public would be unaware of this. Wilyman describes this change of definition on page 287 of her thesis. In the following pages she tells about WHO advisory boards and the mechanisms used by WHO to manage conflicts of interest, in particular the links of advisory board members to pharmaceutical companies.
Over several pages she describes the links and recounts the concerns raised by a number of commentators and organisations about conflicts of interest and lack of transparency. She notes concerns raised about WHO changing its definition of a pandemic and then, only a few weeks later, declaring the H1N1 virus—the swine flu virus—as a pandemic, thereby activating various government agreements that led to the sales of billions of dollars worth of vaccine, most of which was never used because the virus did not cause “enormous numbers” of illnesses.
In this exposition, Wilyman cites several sources. One of them, which presents the same sort of analysis, is a 2010 article published in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), with this lead:
Key scientists advising the World Health Organization on planning for an influenza pandemic had done paid work for pharmaceutical firms that stood to gain from the guidance they were preparing. These conflicts of interest have never been publicly disclosed by WHO, and WHO has dismissed inquiries into its handling of the A/H1N1 pandemic as “conspiracy theories” (Cohen and Carter 2010).
After several pages presenting information about WHO and the swine flu pandemic, on page 290 of her thesis Wilyman summarises her assessment with several statements, one of which is “The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was declared by a secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to make excessive profits from the pandemic.” This sentence was quoted by Loussikian seemingly to justify labelling her views as a conspiracy theory. The word “secret” used by Wilyman has connotations of conspiracy; it is the same word used in the BMJ article in referring to a committee for which the identity of its members was not known outside WHO.
Loussikian did not contest any of the elements of Wilyman’s argument, namely that the definition of a pandemic was changed, that a committee whose members were not publicly known was involved, that some committee members had conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical companies, and that the companies stood to make billions of dollars from declaration of a pandemic. Rather, he quoted a sentence from her thesis as if it lacked any backing, suggesting it was absurd.
Wilyman did not use the word “conspiracy” or “collude” in her thesis, as a word search will confirm. It was Loussikian who applied this label. Wilyman did not use the word “spruik”; that, again, was Loussikian’s choice.
In summary, in several pages of her thesis, Wilyman presented an account of the WHO and the swine flu pandemic drawing on mainstream sources. This account was not central to the argument of her thesis.
Loussikian misrepresented and stigmatised the thesis, by:
- not discussing or mentioning the central arguments in the thesis;
- using quotes from the thesis taken out of context, thereby giving the impression that Wilyman was making unsupported assertions;
- not mentioning that sources in mainstream journals presented the same analysis;
- applying the label “conspiracy theory.”
Loussikian, following journalistic practice, found an apparently legitimate source to back up his treatment.
Senior immunology academic John Dwyer, spokesman for the Friends of Science in Medicine, said he would write to the university and express his concerns. “The candidate (Ms Wilyman) has endorsed a conspiracy theory where all sorts of organisations with claimed vested interests are putting pressure on WHO to hoodwink the world into believing that vaccines provide more benefits than they cause harm,” Professor Dwyer said (Loussikian 2016).
In the quote, Dwyer appears to attribute a broader conspiracy theory to the thesis than Loussikian did. Loussikian quoted from the thesis in relation to the swine flu pandemic, whereas Dwyer, in the quote, implies the thesis endorses a more sweeping conspiracy, “to hoodwink the world into believing that vaccines provide more benefits than they cause harm.”
Note also that Dwyer, whose field is immunology, assumes the authority to criticise a thesis dealing with health policy, even though he has no credentials or refereed publications in policy studies. Furthermore, he made his judgement within 24 hours of the thesis appearing online.
For a detailed sociological analysis of how WHO conceptualised “pandemic” and the infectious agent H1N1, and how critics, notably the Council of Europe, contested WHO’s conceptualisations, see Abeysinghe (2015a, 2015b). Abeysinghe’s studies were published during the period when Wilyman was completing her thesis.
This is a brief outline of the conspiracy theory attribution, made by an immunologist and a journalist. For them, the attribution was assumed to be true, to discredit the entire thesis and to discredit Wilyman, me as her supervisor, and the University of Wollongong for having allowed her to graduate.
Abeysinghe, Sudeepa. 2015a. “Vaccine narratives and public health: Investigating criticisms of H1N1 pandemic vaccination.” PLoS Currents 25 February; 7. doi: 10.1371/currents.outbreaks.17b6007099e92486483872ff39ede178.
Abeysinghe, Sudeepa. 2015b. Pandemics, Science and Policy: H1N1 and the World Health Organisation. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bjerg, Ole and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen. 2017. “Conspiracy theory: truth claim or language game?” Theory, Culture & Society 34 (1): 137–59.
Campbell, Alison. 2019. “A new critical analysis of the Wilyman thesis.” University of Waikato Bioblog, 6 March. https://blog.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/2019/03/a-critical-analysis-of-the-wilyman-thesis/
Coady, David. 2018. “Anti-rumor campaigns and conspiracy-baiting as propaganda.” In Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously, edited by M R. X. Dentith, 171–88. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Cohen, Deborah and Philip Carter. 2010. “WHO and the pandemic flu ‘conspiracies’.” BMJ 340, c2912.
Dentith, M R. X., ed. 2018. Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Durrheim, David N. and Alison L. Jones. 2016. “Public health and the necessary limits of academic freedom?” Vaccine 34 (22): 2467–68.
Fein, Alex. 2016. “Stop the University of Wollongong’s spread of disease and death via anti-vaccination PhD.” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/simon-birmingham-stop-the-university-of-wollongong-s-spread-of-disease-and-death-via-anti-vaccination-phd.
Fenster, Mark. 2008. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Goertzel, Ted. 1994. “Belief in conspiracy theories.” Political Psychology 15: 733–44.
Gorski, David [oracknows]. 2016. “The University of Wollongong issues a PhD in antivaccine pseudoscience.” 12 January. https://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/01/13/the-university-of-wollongong-issues-a-phd-in-antivaccine-pseudoscience.
Grimes, David Robert. 2016. “On the viability of conspiratorial beliefs.” PLoS ONE 11, no. 1: e0147905. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0147905.
Hagen, Kurtis. 2011. “Conspiracy theories and stylized facts.” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies 21 (2): 3–22.
Hagen, Kurtis. 2018. “Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style: do conspiracy theories posit implausibly vast and evil conspiracies?” Social Epistemology 32 (1): 24–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2017.1352625
Hansen, Jane. 2018. “Anti-vax activist charges parents $4000 for ‘expert report’.” Sunday Telegraph, 25 November.
Harambam, Jaron. 2017.“The Truth Is Out There”: Conspiracy Culture in an Age of Epistemic Instability. PhD dissertation, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Harambam, Jaron and Stef Aupers. 2015. “Contesting epistemic authority: conspiracy theories on the boundaries of science.” Public Understanding of Science 24 (4): 466–80.
Harambam, Jaron and Stef Aupers. 2017. “‘I am not a conspiracy theorist’: relational identifications in the Dutch conspiracy milieu.” Cultural Sociology 11 (1): 113–29.
Hare, Julie. 2017. “Anti-vaxxer putting her new PhD to good effect.” The Australian, 24 May.
Hare, Julie. 2019. “Analysis finds flaws in anti-vax thesis.” The Australian, 13 March.
Husting, Ginna and Martin Orr. 2007. “Dangerous machinery: ‘conspiracy theorist’ as a transpersonal strategy of exclusion.” Symbolic Interaction 30 (2): 127–50.
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Keeley, Brian L. 1999. “Of conspiracy theories.” Journal of Philosophy 96 (3): 109–26
Loussikian, Kylar. 2016. “Uni accepts thesis on vaccine ‘conspiracy’.” The Australian, 13 January, pp. 1, 4.
Loussikian, Kylar. 2017. “Threat level: hive.” Daily Telegraph, 26 May, pp. 1, 4–5.
Loussikian, Kylar. 2018. “Anti-jab activist turns ‘expert’ witness.” Sun-Herald, 23 September, p. 3
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