“They” are Back (and still want to cure everyone): Psychologists’ Latest Bid to Curtail Public Epistemology, Part Two, 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 part two of this article] …

Image credit: ISOtob 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 One of this article.

The PDF of the full article gives specific page numbers.

Selected Articles in this Dialogue:

The Night of the Long Razors [1]

The Le Monde group believes that conspiracy explanations are (1) of necessity inordinately complex and (2) somehow obnoxious in a way that forces us to always prefer explanations based on stupidity and incompetence.

The Le Monde group then invokes two “razors” in order to short cut our attention to evidence. The first is an old pied piper, Occam’s “razor”, a Medieval heuristic which distresses over complexity. The second, one more novel and ambitious, is Hanlon’s or Heinlein’s “razor.” Both are rather dull in this context.

Occam’s razor is irrelevant to making the generalist case against conspiracy theories because a great many official stories are far more complex in the entities and processes. Moreover, they routinely propose conspiracy theories of the same events. So, any appeal to Occam’s razor to undercut conspiracy explanations as such is a non-starter. We would have to dismiss both accounts if we followed Wagner-Egger et al.’s flawed reasoning.

9/11 is a good example of both problems. The official account of 9/11 is far more convoluted than the alternative 9/11 accounts; those that assert the US government either let 9/11 happen on purpose or made it happen on purpose. In contrast, the official account invokes innumerable accidents and an inordinate amount of coincidences to enable the disaster, and only then adds the relatively simple claim that the actual attacks were perpetrated by a very small and very lucky group of Arab co-conspirators. The official account of 9/11 is also, no surprise, a conspiracy theory: These terrorists conspired to enter the US on false pretexts, take control of civilian jetliners and use them as suicide weapons against high-value targets.

Moreover, conspiracies can be remarkably simple in inception. It is easy to show a small group can wield vast resources because almost all of the persons below do not understand the real goals and nature of what they are doing. Stunning powers can be brought to bear when the real reasons are privy to a small, well-placed number. Gulf of Tokin is now an established example,[2] as is, arguably, the apparent US allowance of the Japanese attack on Pearl harbor on December 7, 1941, as a pretext for entering WWII. Today, this is a well-established position among academic historians.[3]

On Occam’s razor we will, therefor, opt for either some variant of alternative 9/11 theory, “let it happen on purpose” or “made it happen on purpose” or some combination. This is the far simpler explanation. So, given Occam’s “short cut” this would elevate the alternative, government-accusing 9/11 conspiracy theory to epistemic superiority. Something has gone terribly wrong with Wagner-Egger et al.’s invocation of Occam.

A Dull Razor

Next, Wagner-Egger et al. turn to another, even duller “razor,”, Hanlon’s or Heinlein’s (depending on who you ask). An amorphism, the idea is that we must not attribute to malice anything we can adequately attribute to stupidity. In this case, to malicious conspiracy. But as it happens, all people conspire at times and rationally suspect the same, at times, from others. So why embrace a radically biased preference to explanations based on stupidity? Whatever the answer, it could not be epistemic or particularly intelligent. No surprise, Hanlon’s one-sided “razor” is never show-cased in epistemology or logic. The fallacy is just too transparent. It would have it we must be irrationally biased to those explanations (no matter how convoluted, complex and speculative) that do not attribute malice, dishonesty or malicious conspiracy, but only attribute events to the good intentions but stupidity of their animating actors.[4] Never to bad intentions and cunning. All the more so whenever explaining the actions of powerful people and institutions; say, the CIA and its director? Odd.[5]

We should also notice that Halon’s razor is inconsistent with Occam’s. It often gives us the opposite diagnosis of Occam’s. Often malice and cooperative malice, not blundering stupidities, are the simpler explanations of events.[6]

That Wagner-Egger et al. would invoke a standard as anti-evidential and irrelevant to the facts as Hanlon’s razor appears only to speak to the wonders that confirmation bias works in the minds of establishmentarian psychologists and in the context of powerful political institutions, to which they rely on for their careers and vision of the world. Hanlon’s razor emerges as a strain of political piety: Conspiracy theories can only be accepted when no version of stupidity is ever available. No matter what, no matter how unlikely.

Burdens of Proof [7]

Echoing the above, Wagner-Egger et al. invoke burden of proof arguments. This is unusual for scientists. Rather un-Galilean. These arguments have a poor track record, not just in science but particularly where institutions of power are being questioned. The West’s “Middle Ages” are evidence enough. Establishmentarian reactions slowed science and philosophy for centuries, they even imprisoned and executed informed skeptics.

In science, as in philosophy and all of rational life, the received view must defend itself if challenged. Challenge can appear in two ways. Imagine some people approach proponents of the received view: 1. We want you to explain the evidence for your account? The proponents of the received view must provide. They cannot reject the question on mere authority and be epistemically and intellectually honest. In the same way, “We have evidence your view is false.” The proponent must reply, “Please present such falsifying evidence”, not denounce the challenge with ad hominem arguments. The “burden” cuts equally in both directions. There is no epistemic deferential. Symmetry is complete.

So, there is no epistemic privilege in honest science, no unique bias that favors the “received” view in the face of evidential challenge. The challenge succeeds or it does not. Consider the ordinary understanding of the perihelion of Mercury test, which ushered in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. In one observation, GR replaced Newtonian physics. This is the epistemology of science. Surely one they accept in other contexts. Wagner-Egger et al.’s is the fallacy of special pleading.[8] Not an attempt at jury-rigged appeals to “burden of proof”. The evidential challenge must be responded to in either direction.

Let us switch to a political or economic context. If there is some sort of burden of proof, it is certainly against high-placed groups within our political and economic hierarchies. They have powerful and numerous opportunities and inducements for public deception and manipulation and availed these in the past. That reality is the first premise of democracies: The salvation of the state lies in watchfulness of the citizen.

When there is evidence of government etc. wrong doing, they must establish its innocence. Primarily this is because of the vast differential of power favoring power elites over citizens, especially in today’s modern states. The reverse should be true, when the powerful state attacks citizens with criminal accusations. The burden of proof is reversed, because the power differential is. The state must prove beyond a “reasonable doubt” the citizen is guilty. This is to curtail conspiratorial and other abuses by the state. This is elementary civics; both legal and political. Such a “burden of proof” is not epistemic but instead an ethical/political one in nature. A very different animal, but it carries a special proof-burden, just the same. Citizen researchers should be accorded the same respect, contra the Le Monde declaration.

Conspiracy Theorists in the Pathologizers’ Own Literature

The picture here is not pretty. This body of research-literature has been criticized on many occasions by a number of epistemologists. Frequented with transparent fallacies in the results-interpretation sections, it becomes rather numbing. Space limitations prevent anything like a complete catalogue. Kurtis Hagen provides a powerful and convincing critique of the whole enterprise.[9] Reviewing the studies that claim to have uncovered new and more disturbing facets to the irrationality, immorality and paranoia of conspiracy theorists suggests to an objective observer that only an obsessive attachment to an a priori assumption that conspiracy theorists are all these things and worse can explain them. A self-insulating, self-perpetuating, pathologizing “monological belief system,” spiked with a Chernobyl-level dose of confirmation bias, seems the best explanation.

Wagner-Egger et al. concede that there are serious methodological problems in many of the pathologizing studies, as pointed out by Dentith, Hagen, me and others. But they then demand we reconduct their studies.[10] Remarkable. Their demand is like someone who crashes his own car then demands you fix it. Their theoretical sustenance, as it stands, is tainted. They tainted it. So, replacement with responsible studies is their job. “You break it, you buy it.” We look forward to a more responsible research culture in the future.

Logic and Definition

Le Monde group moves on, claiming that real conspiracy theories consist only of errant data. Again, the image of an ivory tower might flash before us. Here is a surprising lack of empirical acquaintance with conspiracy theories, even the fledgling, particularly for those who professionally study the phenomenon. It ignores all the mature, popular flagship theories like JFK, Alternative 9/11, Sandy Hook, Moon Landing Hoax and even, for that matter, the less popular and radical theories, like Flat Earth (which has made a new and sophisticated resurgence, apparently as a segue to Theism).[11] All are richly populated with positive data.

Flushed with ambition, our colleagues declare, contrary to a number of previous statements,[12] that warranted conspiracy theories, “do simply not exist, because conspiracy theories may in our view be defined as irrational suspicions of conspiracy based on errant data about the official version…” [13] Well yes, you may so define; you may just as well define them as croissants. But as your grounds for wholesale rejection are systematically flawed, your definition now only serves as a premise in an obviously circular argument, one that assumes the conclusion in the premise, points to any particular conspiracy theory, and derives the desired conclusion.[14] The group’s definition is also empirically false. Rational, evidentially justified conspiracy theories are legion. As most any historian is willing to point out.

Wagner-Egger et al.’s final proposal is that we commit ourselves as epistemologists to the very epistemic blindness and generalism they wish to engineer into the general population. We will only listen to those who are government judges, commissions and committees or members of the mainstream media, and on occasion, the “whistle blower” or a rare “non-professional” these institutions opt (for whatever reason, in whatever manner) to bring to our attention, “[We]…support only the results (and not the announcement) of serious journalistic or judicial inquiries bringing positive proofs of the conspiracy… Hence, our proposition could be an epistemic solution to the long-lasting problem of defining warranted versus unwarranted [conspiracy theories].”[15] No, this just reinstates the question. Then it begs the question: These are the very institutions that conspiracy theorizing justifiably brings under constant examination and often, justified retort.

All these institutions have a long and continuing history of catastrophic failure, and all, given this, are properly subject to conspiratorial doubts, as they often are.[16] Unfortunately the conspiracy theorist has history on her side. Nor is there any “long-lasting problem” concerning warrant here. It was solved long, long ago. Our normal methods of unbiased handling of evidence in a contested human context are well established and sufficient for the task, in daily life, civil discourse and in our courts.

Wagner-Egger et. al.’s appeal to a monopoly of politically sanctioned authorities is as pointless as perilous. An act of amnesia.[17] It is vacuous: What counts as “serious”, “journalist”, reliable “judicial” reports, etc. and how do we discern these in any instance? It is politically dangerous, as it routinely shelters elites in powerful institutions from accountability they do not choose to provide and have the power to easily, covertly deny.

A Healthy View and an Unhealthy View

The Healthy view of public vigilance is the healthy one, contra Wagner-Egger et al. The healthy view is that vigilant suspicion and an unbiased, openness to accusations of high placed, organized deception and conspiracy is rational, practical and prudent. As is the unprejudiced development and exploration of evidence. This is entirely reasonable. It is a proven, necessary technique for the maintenance of a functional democracy and the preservation of rational public life. It need not and should not be interfered with by self-appointed and seemingly historically illiterate social scientists.

The Unhealthy view is the unhealthy one, contra Wagner-Egger et al. This is the view that vigilant suspicion and an unbiased openness to accusations of high placed, organized deception and conspiracy within government and corporations is almost certainly the result of mental disorders, one destructive of the largely politically pious, submissive lives the Le Monde group wishes us all to lead.[18]

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

Part One of this article.

[1] “(Oxy)moron,” 52-3.

[2] Hanyok, Robert J. 1998. “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2 – 4 August 1964.” Cryptologic Quarterly, 19 (4): 20.1, 1-50 (derived from NSA/CSSM 123-2, redacted, approved for release by NSA, 11-03- 2005).

[3] Here the main concern, as documents now show, was not the Japanese, but by leveraging the Axis treaty of mutual support, to enter into the war in Europe against Nazi Germany.

[4] True, intentions matter, both good and bad, and should and can be evidentially discerned. Neither discernment is easier than the other without such evidence of whatever nature.

[5] David Coady notes that there is a form of what I would call “political piety”. In contrast to “conspiracy theory” he terms it “coincidence theory”. Coady contrasts the accusation that all conspiracy theories are irrational with the claim that the preferred explanation must always be an improbable series of coincidences, “coincidence theory”; which is actually is manifestly irrational. Wagner-Egger et al.’s use of “Hanlon’s razor” looks to be a narrow variant of irrational “coincidence theory.” See David Coady What to Believe Now, Wiley-Blackwell, 196-7, 2012.

[6] This emerges as a larger pattern in Wagner-Egger et al.’s logical treatment. It continually trips over itself.

[7] “(Oxy)moron,” 53-55.

[8] Exploiting differing standards in relevantly similar cases.

[9] See our several critiques in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, in Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously, and Kurtis Hagen “Conspiracy Theorists and Monological Belief Systems” in Argumenta 3 (2): 303-26, 2018, and in Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously.

[10] “(Oxy)moron,” fn, 57.

[11] See Eric Dubay’s, “200 reasons why the earth is not a spinning ball,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tUpkL5pdcQ, retrieved on March 22, 2018. An enjoyable, if a bit repetitive, unconvincing mixture of both errant data and positive evidence. It is an excellent workout in logic and the physics of light. A number of late 19th century scientific attempts at demonstration populate their arguments, mainly appealing to long distance horizon viability observations and civil engineering principles that appear to violate the curvature of the earth. Atmospheric deflection effects were not well understood at the time (which, of course, can still be contested, but only on evidence).

[12] Their “Statistical” and “Burden of Proof” arguments, among others.

[13] “(Oxy)moron,” 60. Whether suspicion or belief is not relevant, either. Both can properly serve as propositional attitudes to a conspiracy explanation.

[14] This definition is also question-begging, as the majority of analysts share a definition that is true to human and historical experience, some version of the “basic definition” introduced in our introduction.

[15] “(Oxy)moron,” 60.

[16] The standard is known as the “public trust approach” and has long ago been recognized as hopeful yet quite inadequate. See Lee Basham “Joining the Conspiracy [Special Issue]” Argumenta 3 (2): 271-290, 2018 for a recent restatement.

[17] Charles Pigden presses this point in his several writings on the subject, beginning with “Popper Revisited, or What is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25 (1): 3-34, 1995.

[18] By extension, the Le Monde group ought to also declare that the development and exploration of evidence against their Unhealthy view is prima facie irrational and mentally disordered, too. It is neither bent on pathologizing nor generalist in its manner and on occasion its practitioners publicly endorse conspiracy theories.

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6 replies


  1. “They” are Back (and still want to cure everyone): Psychologists’ Latest Bid to Curtail Public Epistemology, Part One, Lee Basham – Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  2. The Iniquity of the Conspiracy Inquirers, M R. X. Dentith – Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  3. A Defense of the Le Monde Group, Scott Hill, - Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  4. A Revised Defense of the Le Monde Group, Scott Hill - Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  5. Avoiding the Stereotyping of the Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories: A Reply to Hill, M R. X. Dentith - Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective
  6. Conspiracy Theory, Personal Epistemic Crisis and Epstein: Riggio on Trying, Lee Basham - Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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