Reply to Neil Levy’s “Is Conspiracy Theorising Irrational?” David Coady

Neil Levy says that he rejects something he calls my “solution to the problem” (2019 fn 3). This is doubly wrong, since I not only don’t advocate the so-called solution he ascribes to me, I also don’t think the so-called problem to which I allegedly offer a solution is really a problem at all … [please read below the rest of the article].

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Coady, David. 2020. “Reply to Neil Levy’s ‘Is Conspiracy Theorising Irrational.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (5): 86-90.

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Neil Levy says that he rejects something he calls my “solution to the problem” (2019 fn 3). This is doubly wrong, since I not only don’t advocate the so-called solution he ascribes to me, I also don’t think the so-called problem to which I allegedly offer a solution is really a problem at all.

The so-called problem is something Levy calls (borrowing from work in social psychology) ‘conspiratorial ideation’. I have long argued against using this term or any of the terms associated with it (such as ‘conspiracy theory’, ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘conspiracism’ etc.) partly because they illegitimately pathologise certain people’s political beliefs and partly because they promote a misguided complacency about the very real dangers of actual conspiracies. It would perhaps be permissible to use these terms if there were phenomena corresponding to them which couldn’t be identified without resort to such neologisms, but, as I have laboured to make clear, there are not. In short, these terms do no good, while doing considerable harm. Thus, contrary to Levy, there is no problem of conspiratorial ideation (i.e. no problem which deserves the name ‘conspiratorial ideation’). However my message is not entirely sanguine; there really is a serious problem. The problem is the term ‘conspiratorial ideation’, along with related terms such as ‘conspiracy theory’ etc., not any phenomena to which they may refer.

On Conspiratorial Ideation

Levy defines conspiratorial ideation twice over. First, (in the abstract) as “the disposition to be accepting of unwarranted conspiracy theories” and second, in the body of the text as simply “the acceptance of conspiracy theories” (66). Notice that the former definition includes the words ‘disposition’ and ‘unwarranted’ whereas the latter does not. The latter difference appears not to matter to Levy since he treats conspiracy theories as by definition unwarranted:

When I ask whether conspiracy theorising is rational, it is this subset of conspiracy theories I have in mind: theories that are objectively irrational and subjectively irrational for most of us. From now on, I will use ‘conspiracy theories’ to refer to this subset of unwarranted theories (65).

One puzzling feature of this passage is that Levy seems to have answered the question he begins it with by definitional fiat.[1] It appears that the question whether conspiracy theorising is irrational must be answered in the affirmative by anyone who defines conspiracy theories as objectively irrational and unwarranted. It’s true that Levy leaves open the possibility that conspiracy theories, so-defined, might be subjectively rational for some people, but, at least on his account of subjective rationality, according to which a person is being subjectively rational “if they use a procedure that is by their lights best” (65), subjective rationality doesn’t seem to be a species of rationality at all. Anyone who forms an opinion about anything will presumably be using a procedure which “by their lights” (i.e. in their opinion) is best. It’s hard to see how anyone could fail to be subjectively rational on Levy’s account.

Putting these concerns aside, I have long argued against loaded (or question-begging) definitions of ‘conspiracy theory’ according to which we can simply stipulate that conspiracy theories are unwarranted or that believing them is irrational. For one thing, this approach is not consistent with the vast majority of definitions to be found in the literature, both popular and academic, on the subject. Of the literature Levy (2019) cites, only Brotherton and French 2014 stipulate that by ‘conspiracy theory’ they mean ‘unwarranted conspiracy theory’. It follows that, if they are to be taken at their word, Levy, Brotherton, and French are not talking about the same things as everyone else, but only to a proper subset of them. Furthermore, the reluctance of others to take the stipulative approach is clearly justified. Those who regard conspiracy theories as unwarranted (i.e. virtually everyone who uses these terms) typically don’t think that they are unwarranted by definition because that would reduce the claim that we should not believe conspiracy theories to a triviality, if not a tautology. The claim that we shouldn’t believe conspiracy theories would be equivalent to the claim that we shouldn’t believe unwarranted conspiracy theories. Of course we shouldn’t, but that is just an instance of the general truth that we should not believe unwarranted theories of any kind

But, it will be objected, putting these semantic issues aside, surely there really is a problem with conspiratorial ideation, understood as a disposition to be overly credulous towards conspiracy theories, and there really is an issue about how this problem should be addressed. Indeed, the objection will go on, there has been a substantial literature coming out of social psychology, the “results” of which are repeatedly cited by Levy, which purport to offer insights into this alleged problem. I have spilt some ink debunking this literature elsewhere (Coady 2019). Here I will confine myself to pointing out a few specific methodological problems, before arguing that these problems are in principle unfixable.

In order to establish who does and who does not suffer from conspiracist ideation the researchers begin with a list of purported conspiracies which a lot of people believe to be real (though not of course the researchers themselves or their presumed readers). The more of these a person is inclined to give credence to the greater their alleged susceptibility to the supposed vice of conspiracist ideation (or “conspiracism” as some of the researchers call it). Unfortunately for these researchers their lists invariably include some real conspiracies.

Belief in a conspiracy by American government agencies to bring drugs into American inner-city communities continues to be routinely cited by authors in this literature as evidence of conspiracist ideation, despite it being true (Shou 2014). Other beliefs regularly cited within the literature as evidence of conspiracist ideation, such as the belief that there were conspiracies behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, are highly controversial. Reasonable and well-informed people appear to disagree about whether there really were conspiracies in these cases. Hence they are not the kind of things that can be cited as evidence of conspiracist ideation (i.e. a tendency to be overly credulous of conspiracy theories).

September 11 Conspiracies

Of course some of the examples of purported conspiracies cited in this literature clearly did not take place. Indeed some of them are such that there is a legitimate question about how large numbers of people could come to believe that they did take place. However, it doesn’t follow and, as I have argued at length, it doesn’t in fact seem to be true, that people believe in these conspiracies because they suffer from so-called “conspiratorial ideation.” Easily the most widely cited example of so-called “conspiratorial ideation” in the recent psychological literature is the belief that American government agencies were behind the 9/11 attacks. It has paradigmatic status in almost all of the literature to which Levy refers (e.g. Brotherton and French 2014; Bruder et al. 2013; Douglas et al.  2016; Douglas et al.  2019; Drinkwater, Dagnar and Parkwell 2012; Klein, Clutton and Polito 2018; Meyer 2019; van der Tempel et al. 2015; Van Prooijen et al. 2018). Now this is certainly a false belief and evidence of some sort of irrationality (though not necessarily the same sort in everyone who has the belief). However this belief obviously isn’t explicable in terms of conspiratorial ideation, because it doesn’t involve belief in conspiracy in favour of a non-conspiratorial explanation of events; rather it involves belief in one conspiracy rather than another (in this case real) conspiracy, namely the one which took place amongst the 19 hijackers, al-Qaeda, and perhaps others. Charles Pigden has pointed out the absurdity of trying to explain 9/11 without supposing there to have been some sort conspiracy in the following passage:

Nobody half-way sane supposes that the events of 9/11 were not due to some conspiracy or other. (To think that you would have to suppose that the perpetrators assembled in the planes quite by chance and that on a sudden, by coincidence, it struck them as a neat idea to hijack the planes and ram then into the Twin Towers, the Whitehouse and the Pentagon, with the aid of other perpetrators who, presumably, they had never met before.) (Pigden 2006, 158).

Those who believe American government agencies were behind 9/11 are certainly mistaken, but they are not mistaken because they suffer from conspiratorial ideation. They are not mistaken because they believe in a conspiratorial explanation of this event. They are absolutely correct to believe in a conspiratorial explanation of this event. They are mistaken because they’ve misidentified the conspirators.

The “Martha Mitchell Effect”

The problem with the literature Levy cites on this matter is not merely that it relies on poorly chosen examples. If psychologists genuinely want to find out if there is a problem of conspiracist ideation (i.e. excessive willingness to believe conspiracy theories), they need to first have an idea of how willing one should be to believe conspiracy theories, and that would require them to have an idea of how widespread actual conspiracies are. Unfortunately this is not a question which psychologists are particularly well-qualified to answer. If anyone has expertise relevant to this issue, they would presumably be historians or political scientists.

In fact, as we have seen, psychologists tend to be remarkably naïve about the issue. This naivety is dangerous. There are well-documented cases of psychologists being used by the state to persecute people for believing in real conspiracies. The “Martha Mitchell Effect” is the name given to the process by which a psychiatrist or psychologist labels a patient’s accurate beliefs as delusional and misdiagnoses accordingly. Martha Mitchell, after whom the phenomenon is named, was the former wife of Richard Nixon’s Attorney-General John Mitchell. When she accused her former husband and other White House officials of engaging in illegal conspiracies, the White House responded with a coordinated campaign to portray her claims as the product of mental illness. Ultimately she was vindicated and her former husband was convicted of several crimes, including conspiracy.

So much for the so-called problem. What about my so-called solution to it? Levy describes my solution as “self-conscious vigilance over what we are told”. Such vigilance, he claims, is “the cause of the problem, not its solution” (fn 3). Now Levy is right that I’m generally in favour of people exercising vigilance over what they are told (though I’ve never said that such vigilance should be particularly self-conscious), however he is wrong to say that I present it as a solution to what he calls “the problem”, since I don’t believe there is such a problem. Nonetheless it’s worth considering why Levy thinks that vigilance (self-conscious or otherwise) is a problem.

Levy concedes that we should exercise some vigilance, but mainly “within our special area of expertise” and that outside that “we should mainly take things on trust” (fn. 3). This position presupposes a contrast between being vigilant and taking things on trust. However, a little reflection should make it clear that this supposed contrast is untenable. Being vigilant to a large extent consists in working out who to trust, and that in turn may consist in working out who to trust about who to trust etc. Levy’s position assumes that one achieves expertise in an area, by transcending reliance on testimony (by making oneself epistemically independent) but that is mistaken. As recent work on testimony has made abundantly clear, and as Thomas Reid noted long ago, complete epistemic independence is unachievable and undesirable in all areas of human knowledge. This is particularly true in the social and political domains where conspiracy theories, rational and irrational, true and false, are to be found.

Conspiracy Theories and Testimonial Injustice

I have said that we should not use the terms “conspiratorial ideation”, “conspiracy theory” etc. Whenever we do so, we are implying, even if we don’t mean to, that there is something wrong with believing, wanting to investigate, or giving any credence at all, to the possibility that powerful people (and especially governments or government agencies of Western countries) are engaged in secretive or deceptive behaviour. The terms are essentially tools to silence people who are suspicious of, or would like to investigate, the behaviour of powerful people. They herd respectable opinion in ways that suit the interests of the powerful, and make it more likely that they will be able to get away with conspiracies.

So one bad effect of these terms is that they contribute to a political environment in which it is easier for conspiracy to thrive at the expense of openness. Another bad effect of them is that their use is an injustice to the individuals who are characterised as conspiracy theorists or whose beliefs are characterised as conspiracy theories. Following Miranda Fricker (2007), we may call this a form of testimonial injustice. When someone asserts that a conspiracy has taken place (especially when it is a conspiracy by powerful people or institutions) that person’s word is inevitably given less credence than it should because of an irrational prejudice produced by the pejorative connotations of these terms. When these terms are employed by professional psychologists and cited uncritically by philosophers it can constitute a form of gaslighting; that is, a manipulation of people into doubting their own sanity. I hope and believe that in the future these terms will be widely recognised for what they are: the products of an irrational and authoritarian outlook. When that happens we will look back on the pseudo-scientific study of conspiracy theories (and fake news) by many professional psychologists in the same way that we now look back on phrenology.

Contact details: David Coady, University of Tasmania,


Brotherton, Robert and Christopher C. French. 2014. “Belief in Conspiracy Theories and Susceptibility to the Conjunction Fallacy.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 28 (2): 238–248.

Bruder, Martin, Peter Haffke, Nick Neave, Nina Nouripanah, and Roland Imhoff. 2013. “Measuring Individual Differences in Generic Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories Across Cultures: Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire.” Frontiers in Psychology 4, 225.

Coady, David. 2019. “Psychology and Conspiracy Theories.” In The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology edited by David Coady and James Chase, 166-175. Routledge.

Douglas, Karen M., Robbie M. Sutton, Mitchell J. Callan, Rael J. Dawtry, and Annelie J. Harvey 2015. “Someone is Pulling the Strings: Hypersensitive Agency Detection and Belief in Conspiracy Theories.” Thinking & Reasoning 22 (1): 57–77.

Douglas, Karen M., Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang, and Farzin Deravi. 2019. “Understanding Conspiracy Theories.” Political Psychology 40 (S1): 3–35.

Drinkwater, Ken, Neil Dagnall, and Andrew Parker. 2012. “Reality Testing, Conspiracy Theories and Paranormal Beliefs.” The Journal of Parapsychology 76 (1): 57–77.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press.

Klein, Colin, Peter Clutton, and Vince Polito. 2018. “Topic Modeling Reveals Distinct Interests within an Online Conspiracy Forum.” Frontiers in Psychology 9.

Levy, Neil. 2019. “Is Conspiracy Theorising Irrational?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (8): 65-76.

Meyer, Marco. 2019. “Fake News, Conspiracy, and Intellectual Vice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (10): 9-19.

Shou, Nick, 2014. Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. Nation Books.

van der Tempel, Janvan and James E. Alcock. 2015. “Relationships Between Conspiracy Mentality, Hyperactive Agency Detection, and Schizotypy: Supernatural Forces at Work?” Personality and Individual Differences 82: 136–141.

van Prooijen, Jan Willem, Karen M. Douglas, and Clara De Inocencio. 2018. “Connecting the Dots: Illusory Pattern Perception Predicts Belief in Conspiracies and the Supernatural.” European Journal of Social Psychology 48 (3): 320–335.

[1] The fact that Levy makes conspiracy theories objectively irrational and unwarranted (I take it these are meant to be synonyms) by definition is particularly puzzling since he presents himself as a defender of conspiracy theories, indeed as one who goes further in their defence than other defenders of them such as myself and Charles Pigden.

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