“They” are Back (and still want to cure everyone): Psychologists’ Latest Bid to Curtail Public Epistemology, Part One, Lee Basham

Wagner-Egger et al. (2019) continue to defend a project of pathologizing and “curing” the public of doubts about the reliability of government, media and corporate statements and actions. They envision a mass psychological engineering project to curtail rational social epistemology, one particularly, but not limited to, targeting children in public schools. The project was originally brought to public attention when their bid for public funding appeared the prestigious French daily, Le Monde. Their project was widely critiqued in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC) and elsewhere. Their first defense in SERRC only heightened skepticism. Their newest defense remains as epistemically unsound and politically dangerous [please read below the rest of the article] …

Image credit: SebastianBartoschek via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Basham, Lee. 2019. “‘They’ are Back (and still want to cure everyone): Psychologists’ Latest Bid to Curtail Public Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (7): 23-33. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-4gu.

Please refer to Part Two of this article.

The PDF of the full article gives specific page numbers.

Selected Articles in this Dialogue:

Social epistemology has a strong political element. Our political concerns and inferences are often based on social epistemic processes. When social scientists contrive to artificially manipulate our beliefs and belief formation on a society-wide scale, this should be of extreme interest and concern to social epistemologists. A perfect test case is suspicion and belief contrary to the dominant sources of social-political information. Perhaps the most important and salient form are suspicions and accusations of intentionally organized deception of the public by governments, mainstream media and corporations. These are accusations and suspicions of conspiracy, conspiracy theories.

Our Present Context

Like most today, I am reasonably confident a small but prominent group within the executive and military of the United States government intentionally organized post-9/11 to deceive and manipulate hundreds of millions of people into believing Iraq must be invaded and conquered. Strong evidence was before us then, but their efforts prevailed. This conspiracy theory, in most circles now widely acknowledged to be true, today helps restrain future abuses. We collectively owe it, and its theorists, our thanks.

But a small, increasingly influential and ambitious group of social scientists and social psychologists would have it and anything like it rendered progressively unthinkable by the use of sophisticated psychological techniques. They wish to “target” our children. This is the pathologizing project within a faction of psychology and related studies. The goal is to pathologize “conspiracy ideation,” categorize it as a mass-mental illness, and begin an “effective,” sophisticated society-wide course of treatment. This will, of necessity, run for decades, or, well, forever. They aim to reestablish a general, naïve trust in government, mainstream media and economic powers. Whether that trust is merited or not matters not, if the ability to distrust has been scientifically ablated. They envision a sort of irresistible, mass epistemic/behavioral brain-alteration.[1]

What is critical for social epistemologists is that similar programs of epistemic-psychological disabling, targeting most any feature of reasoned, social belief, discussion, concern or political dissent, could be envisioned and enacted by the power of the state. It is the old totalitarian dream.

The Le Monde group’s intentions were announced in the influential French daily Le Monde as a group-declaration. They have repeated these numerous times since then, including recent articles found in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC). When the Le Monde declaration came to the attention of epistemologists, it was strongly criticized in SERRC and elsewhere. Recently an anthology appeared in the SERRC book series, edited by Matthew R. X. Dentith, that showcases all this, Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously.[2] Regrettably, but perhaps revealingly, the Le Monde group steadfastly refused permission to reprint their original declaration.[3]

Now, Wagner-Egger et al (2019) present a brand-new defense of the Le Monde declaration, “Why ‘Healthy Conspiracy Theories’ Are (Oxy)morons: Statistical, Epistemological, and Psychological Reasons in Favor of the (Ir)Rational View” (hereafter, “(Oxy)moron”).[4] Here, they contrast their “Unhealthy” view of conspiracy theories with the “Healthy” view, one that sees conspiracy theories as frequently rational and necessary for functioning democracies. Their defense of the well-named “Unhealthy view” gets off to a rocky start. With characteristic charm, the title labels conspiracy theorists (all reasonable humans) and their supporters as “unhealthy” and “morons.” But with a new lead editor, the piece is more coherent, far less strange, and more professional than its predecessor. [5]

It is important to recall that psychology, tempted and misled by a small minority, has a long history of extremely oppressive social-political projects and of justifying these with facile, poorly thought-out arguments and assumptions. These projects included attempts to explain human intelligence and justify genocide by studying the shapes of skulls (the Nazis were fond of this), forced sterilization eugenics programs, many driven by the same racist background theories, also psychological, in both the US and Europe (again, attractive to the Nazi party), the strange doctrines of Freud that deeply abused and damaged millions of patients for decades, and doctrinaire Behaviorism which sought to eliminate our conception of people as rational, autonomous persons, and substitute a society-wide program of “behavioral shaping” that aimed to train whole human populations the way you might a hapless lab rat.

Fortunately, wiser psychologists, philosophers, scientists. social critics and others came to the rescue of our democratic societies. But there were many close calls and some nations briefly drifted into these cultish errors. Now the psychologists are coming for a fundamental safeguard of our democracies, conspiracy theorizing.

Today the role of philosophy in the form of epistemology and ethics is to help keep this list from getting any longer.

Four Definitions

Conspiracy: The intentional cooperation by two or more persons to deceive others, either by omission of information, or the promulgation of false information and other misleading evidence, or by both.

The standard accepted meaning.

Conspiracy Explanation/Theory: A conspiracy theory is any explanation that makes reference to a conspiracy as a causal factor in past, present or future events.

This “basic definition” is a non-pejorative definition that epistemologists and others have arrived at over the last two decades. Many other theorists, including sociologists, cultural theorists and experimental psychologists, have adopted some version of it. In epistemology its main architects and advocates include Charles Pigden, Brian Keeley, David Coady, Matthew R. X. Dentith, Kurtis Hagen, me and others. Any difference between these analysts’ definitions is quite small. None are pejorative.[6] I am pleased to find myself in good company.

Its main epistemic virtue is that it does not beg the question against conspiracy theories, presupposing a certain negative evaluation in the category itself. Such judgements will have to be argued for separately. As logicians and epistemologists (inseparable studies, really) we have no difficulty that conspiracy theories are simply conspiracy explanations of whatever degree of evidential merit. because the meaning of “theory” here is exactly that, “explanation”.

Another advantage: It is consistent with common sense, non-pejorative usage. With the new renaissance of popular conspiracy theories, whose development and adoption are facilitated by the internet, the phrase “conspiracy theory” has no functional pejorative connotation in most of the population. Even recent work in social psychology has grasp that there is no significant pejorative effect to labeling an explanation a “conspiracy theory” (Among the general populace, I suspect there never really was). Michael Wood demonstrates this in, “Some Dare Call it Conspiracy: Labeling Something a Conspiracy Does Not Reduce Belief in it.” [7] A convincing, elegant study, it is also perfectly consistent with our ordinary experience. Strangely, Wagner-Egger. et al. still believe that “conspiracy theory” is now “very negatively connotated.”[8] The image of an ivory tower flashes before us. They are mistaken.

This reality-disconnected claim also makes one wonder why they wish the state to pay them to combat what they view as a new plague of conspiracy theories. These seem rather popular, do they not? The truth is much more encouraging for epistemically functional democracy: Any pejorative connotation, also now vanishing within epistemology, appears to linger only among a small group of academics, political elites and corporations attempting to leverage this effect for their own defense. These, and mainstream media when facing competition with conspiracy explanations they did not themselves already promulgate.

Particularism: Because there is nothing inherently irrational or otherwise logically or epistemically flawed about conspiracy explanations, these cannot be dismissed out of hand but instead must be judged, like any other explanations, on the basis of evidence. Either acceptance of the explanation, rejection of the explanation, or a studied agnosticism about it, result.

The work of the last decade in epistemology shows that particularism appears the only epistemically sound response to accusations of organized deception and conspiracy.[9]

The opposite of particularism is generalism: The belief, and arguably political superstition, that merely by being an explanation that posits organized deception—conspiracy—the explanation can rationally be dismissed as almost certainly false. No recourse to evidence is required.

The current Le Monde group still clings to generalism and where they were disingenuous before, now they openly advocate for a state-sponsored pathologizing project. After their earlier arguments disserted them, now they offer a new defense of their proposal. With a new lead author, the piece is more coherent, far less strange[10] and more professional than its predecessor.

In what follows I will outline and reply to the items on the Le Monde group’s new list of justifications for their pathologizing project. Then I supply a brief conclusion. I hope this will help the Le Monde group understand the real complexities involved in this pressing, timely and timeless topic and attract the interest of further social epistemologists.

The “Statistical Argument” [11]

The authors assert that 99 percent of conspiracy theories are false. The assertion and its mathematical precision are curious. Particularly for those who style themselves mathematically guided empiricists. They cite no data from their own studies or any others that support this claim. The claim would require that out of 1000 conspiracy theories (see definition), 990 were false. The claim is quite false, especially when we reflect on personal experience. We consistently form conspiracy theories about our personal lives, most minor and of little consequence. A good percentage of them turn out to be true over time.

For instance, people routinely organize to keep secrets, both damaging and benevolent, from ourselves and others for any number of reasons; business, sexual, familial and so on.[12] We do the same to others. It is entirely normal and rational. The common question, “why didn’t you guys tell me?” is common for the first reason; it happens all the time. It would be historically illiterate and naïve to think what we learned how to do and do well when we were ten does not thrive at the highest levels of political, economic and media power. At what point did our elites discard the simplest abilities of childhood? History, unfolding now as before, shows again and again they never did. I suspect they never will.

The over-generalization is also flawed. Conspiracy theories diverge radically in development and evidence. Wanger-Egger et al. make no notice of this; unusual for the statistically literate. 99% of mammals cannot type. We can infer that, with a 95% confidence, that humans cannot type. The same argument applies to scientific theories: 99% are false. And so on. Their argument is the very same.

The application is also flawed. We can hope that at the national and global level the “99% of conspiracy theories are false” rule is correct. But that alone is of no consequence. Here is the problem: Imagine within this flock of a thousand, ten harrowing ruling-elite conspiratorial abuses a year are true (10 out of 1000). That is what matters (and it does seem to be a modest estimate of the average over a year).

Similarly, one accused cannot present themselves before a rational judge and argue that 99% of the accusations made in this world are false, and then conclude the state’s behavior of making accusations is certainly, above a 95% confidence, irrational and demand acquittal. But that is exactly the argument of our psychologists. The issue instead is of particular evidence in each particular case; “particularism”. It is interesting such a fallacious argument as their “statistical” one could tempt and seduce them. Especially among those trained in the meaningful application of statistics. Confirmation bias?

Contact details: Lee Basham, South Texas College, University of Texas, Rio Grande, labasham@southtexascollege.edu

Part Two of this article.

[1] Basham, Lee and Matthew R. X. Dentith. 2016. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (10): 12-19.

[2]  Matthew R. X. Dentith, ed., Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.

[3] Surprising, since it first appeared in a widely read, well-reputed international newspaper and the basis, including their defenses of it, for the book.

[4] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (3): 50-67, 2019.

[5]  For instance, in the first reply Dieguez et al. habitually referred to themselves with quote marks around the word “they:” It was “They” throughout, as in: “They” believe that …“they” conclude …what “they” stand for … this bizarre device went on for pages. It certainly was entertaining, though, and one never quite shook the thought the whole piece was, in many ways, a good-spirited, intentional self-satire. To her credit, Karen Douglas, leading social psychologist of conspiracy theories, and a co-author of the original Le Monde declaration, declined to sign Dieguez et al.’s awkward reply. Several others vanished, too. See “‘They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (12): 20-39, 2016.

[6] For a well-reasoned and comprehensive explication of the issue, see Matthew R. X. Dentith’s insightful book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories (Ashgate, 2014). The motive for some psychologists to adopt a negatively connotated definition is this is there starting assumption in their pathologizing project. Conspiracy theories somehow must be “bad.” Such an assumption is not available if we wish an honest evaluation of that very assumption.

[7] Michael Wood, Political Psychology 37 (5): 695-705, 2016. A gifted researcher, trained by Karen Douglas as a second generation pathologizer, Wood has gone through a number of complex and understandable maneuvers, professional and public, to reconcile his observations with the pathologizing project he was trained to operate within. I have had no problem replicating similar versions of Wood’s study in the US. Also, in large student-surveys conducted before any discussion of the issue, only an insignificant fraction answer “agree” or anything like it (Likert 7-point scale) to, “If an explanation a ‘conspiracy theory’ that tells you it is probably false”, “… crazy” “… a lie” and so on. The dominant response is a fairly strong level of “disagree”. They readily accept the “basic definition” in their classes, too. This helps explain how conspiracy theories could be so popular.

[8] “(Oxy)moron,” 60.

[9] The list of authors converging on this conclusion is lengthy and it borders on literal consensus, even among those who dislike conspiracy explanations. This has forced a turn among critics from epistemology to moral critiques. See Patrick Stokes’ insightful contributions to the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective in recent years as well as in Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously.

[10] For instance, in the first reply Dieguez et al. habitually refer to themselves with quote marks around the word “they:” It was “They” throughout, as in: “They” believe that …“they” conclude … what “they” stand for … this bizarre device went on for pages. It certainly was entertaining, though, and one never quite shook the thought the whole piece was, in many ways, a good-spirited, intentional self-satire. To her credit, Karen Douglas, leading social psychologist of conspiracy theories, and a co-author of the original Le Monde declaration, declined to sign Dieguez et al.’s awkward reply. Several others vanished, too. See “‘They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (12): 20-39, 2016.

[11] “(Oxy)moron,” 51.

[12] It is interesting and amusing that the popular series 21st century Toy Story is overtly a fantasy conspiracy theory. It consists of a vast conspiracy of somehow possessed, benevolent toys. One to deceive their “owners” about the fact that toys are conscious, scheming, manipulative and yet deeply caring. The latter two facets sound like cooperative, good parenting, as virtually all good parents know. Brian Keeley makes a similar observation about the vast, well-organized and benevolent conspiracy to deceive our children about the existence of Santa. When we realize that we are being lied to, we quickly form a true conspiracy theory, albeit about a benign conspiracy.

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3 replies


  1. “They” are Back (and still want to cure everyone): Psychologists’ Latest Bid to Curtail Public Epistemology, Part Two, Lee Basham – Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  2. Measuring Public Pathology: A Brief Response to Dentith on Wagner-Egger et al.’s “Why Conspiracy Theories are ‘Oxymorons…’,” or “Just Asking Some Questions,” Lee Basham – Social Epistemology Review and Reply C
  3. The Philosophy of Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously, Ori Freiman – Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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