I agree with much of what J.C.M. Duetz and M R.X. Dentith have to say in “Reconciling Conceptual Confusions in the Le Monde Debate on Conspiracy Theories” (2022). They have given me a lot to think about and have caused me to change my perspective in some ways. I found their discussion of conspiracy beliefs and conspiracist mindsets to be especially interesting. Drawing on the work of social scientists, they argue that conspiracy beliefs are to be identified by how they are supported. They also clarified for me what this debate is really about in a way I had not previously appreciated. In particular, what do ordinary people think of when they hear ‘conspiracy theory’? There are a number of issues that I was running together without realizing it. And I think they show that the question about how ordinary people understand conspiracy theories is the central issue in this discussion…. [please read below the rest of the article].
Hill, Scott. 2022. “Substantive Disagreement in the Le Monde Debate and Beyond: Replies to Duetz and Dentith, Basham, and Hewitt.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (11): 18-25. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7kn.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
❧ Duetz, J.C.M. and M R.X. Dentith. 2022. “Reconciling Conceptual Confusions in the Le Monde Debate on Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (10): 40-50.
❧ Basham, Lee. 2022. “Hill on ‘Stereotypical’ Conspiracy Theories and Cognitive Disabling.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 64-74.
❧ Hewitt, Des. 2022. “Reflections on Scott Hill’s ‘A Revised Defense of the Le Monde Group’: ‘Never Again’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 7-18.
❦ Dentith, M R. X. 2022. “Avoiding the Stereotyping of the Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories: A Reply to Hill.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (8): 41-49.
Conceptual Confusion or Substantive Disagreement?
Duetz and Dentith identify a distinction between conspiracy theories and conspiracy beliefs. They argue that conspiracy theories are a very broad category and that category is what philosophers are talking about. And they argue that conspiracy beliefs are a narrower category and that category is what social scientists are talking about. They trace a lot of the alleged disagreement about this topic to a conceptual confusion committed by both philosophers and social scientists. Their view is that the two groups are mostly talking past one another. And once we see this, the two approaches can be reconciled.
I have a different perspective. I think that there are some substantive disputes in this literature. Among these are disputes about what ordinary people are talking about when they use ‘conspiracy theory’. Such disputes impact how we should report the findings of social science to ordinary people. In addition, there are disputes about how to evaluate specific conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. Such disputes impact what social scientists should assume and which examples social scientists should use in their experiments.
It would be one thing if philosophers and social scientists each introduced ‘conspiracy theory’ in their own ways as distinct technical terms divorced from the ordinary meaning of ‘conspiracy theory’. In that case, I would agree that they are talking past one another and that the debate has no real substance. But I don’t think that is what is going on. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is an ordinary term that ordinary people use. My view is that if a term is part of ordinary language, then when people use that term we should assume they are using it in the ordinary way unless they say otherwise. So I think that both philosophers and social scientists intend to use ‘conspiracy theory’ in its ordinary way.
Consider Pigden’s (2007) discussion of the conventional wisdom about conspiracy theories. What Pigden says would make little sense if he were not intending to talk about what ordinary people are talking about when they use ‘conspiracy theory’. Ordinary people intend to talk about a class of propositions using the term ‘conspiracy theory’. That class, Pigden suggests, is very different from what ordinary people believe. Ordinary people think the members of that class are not to be believed. Ordinary people think that class is very narrow and that it excludes propositions like ‘Nixon conspired in Watergate’ but includes propositions like ‘9/11 was an inside job’. Pigden argues, however, that ordinary people are wrong about all of this.
It is clear that Pigden is not merely introducing ‘conspiracy theory’ as a technical term that is divorced from the common usage of ‘conspiracy theory’. He is not arguing that ordinary people are talking about one thing that works one way but he is going to talk about this broader thing that works a different way. Instead, Pigden uses the same term as ordinary people to talk about the same thing as ordinary people. And he makes the substantive claim that ordinary people are mistaken.
Consider discussions of concrete examples of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists by figures such as Basham and Coady. Each denies that it is acceptable for social scientists to use the proposition that 9/11 was an inside job as an example in their research. Basham (2022) thinks this is because in doing so such social scientists dismiss “thoughtful concerns about the details of the 9/11 catastrophe.” Coady (2021) grants that thinking 9/11 was an inside job “manifests some sort of irrationality” but not a conspiracist mindset. And so he thinks it should not be employed in the experiments of social scientists. His argument depends on the assumption that ‘conspiracy theory’ is used by ordinary people in a broad way rather than a narrow way. Basham (2022) thinks conspiracy theorists are “some of the most thoughtful and intelligent segments of the population.” Coady (2007) and (2021) expresses skepticism that the sort of conspiracist mindset Duetz and Dentith talk about exists. So as I see it, these are additional substantive issues in this debate.
On the Dangers of Social Science Reporting
Duetz and Dentith worry that although social scientists study conspiracy beliefs, they report their findings as being about conspiracy theories. As Duetz and Dentith put it:
What is problematic, from a theoretical perspective, is that the conspiracy theories appealed to in such polls are almost invariably ‘unwarranted’ or ‘obviously false’ conspiracy theories—i.e., those bad, mad, and wacky speculations lacking appropriate evidential support (Hill’s stereotypical conspiracy theories)—whilst the conclusions being drawn are presented in terms of conspiracy theories generally (i.e. seemingly applying to conspiracy theories both stereotypical and non-stereotypical) … Framing these conclusions in terms of conspiracy theories generally is thus overreaching, misleading and is unwarranted. Furthermore, as the Commentators argue, these over-generalized conclusions are not just academically problematic because they are inflated and unjustified, they are also socially/politically problematic because of the stigmatizing effects such conclusions entail for all conspiracy explanations (warranted ones included) (44, 45).
I am skeptical that this is a real danger. I think that when ordinary people hear ‘conspiracy theory’, they do not think merely of a proposition about a conspiracy occurring. I take a side on the dispute about what ordinary people think about when they use and hear ‘conspiracy theory’. I believe they are thinking of a much narrower class of propositions than what some philosophers take them to be thinking of. I am skeptical that when social scientists claim people who believe conspiracy theories have certain traits, that ordinary people will hear that someone who merely accepts a proposition that a conspiracy occurred has those traits. And so I do not think they will draw the conclusion that Duetz and Dentith are worried about.
I place my bet on reporting of this kind not having bad effects. Duetz and Dentith place their bets on people being more resistant to positing conspiracies even when the evidence warrants it. I am happy to be refuted if things turn out the way Duetz and Dentith predict rather than the way I predict. But whichever of us turns out to be right, it seems to me that we have a substantive dispute. We have different perspectives on how the way in which social scientists report their findings will affect people. And our different perspectives seem to stem from having a different perspective on what ordinary people think of when they hear ‘conspiracy theory’. In particular, the issue is whether ordinary people see themselves as talking about something narrow or something very broad. It is the issue of whether when ordinary people hear ‘conspiracy theory’ it will call to mind QAnon alone or whether it will call to mind Watergate as well.
This seems like a great place for experimental philosophers to contribute. They could perform experiments and see what people really hear in response to such reports. If they do the experiments and find that what Duetz and Dentith say is true, then I will change my mind.
Are the Stereotypes Unified?
Pigden (2007) puts pressure on the idea that we can distinguish between propositions that are stereotypical conspiracy theories and propositions that are merely about conspiracies just through a priori reflection on the content of those propositions. I think Pigden might be right. I get that this is an important insight. But what I don’t get is why this implies that ‘conspiracy theory’ in its ordinary use is broad and expansive rather than narrow as the conventional wisdom would suggest it is. I think people can talk about a collection of things even if nothing interesting unifies that collection. I do not accept the principle I take to be implicit in the reasoning of some philosophers that if nothing unifies a collection that people are talking about, then they are really talking about whatever broader unified category includes that collection. Instead, they may just be talking about something disunified.
I also think that even though Pigden is probably right that the stereotypes are not unified by their content, it is too quick to conclude that nothing unifies them at all. Perhaps they are unified by their causes, their effects, or what they are correlated with. In their enlightening discussion of conspiracist mindsets and conspiracy beliefs, I take Duetz and Dentith to be providing an account of the unity of conspiracy beliefs in terms of being caused by a conspiracist mindset. If I am understanding them correctly, I wondered why they couldn’t make their very interesting model even more ambitious and extend their approach to be about conspiracy theories as well. In an unpublished manuscript, I have my own way of working out what I think unifies the stereotypes. But I think Duetz and Dentith suggest a way of doing it that is worth exploring.
Nature, Purpose, and Talking Past Each Other
Duetz and Dentith show that philosophers and social scientists have very different ideas about the nature of conspiracy theories. And they have very different uses for them in their different research programs. One might reasonably think that since the two groups have radically different theories about and uses for conspiracy theories, they must be talking about different things when they use ‘conspiracy theory’. However, I think profound theoretical and practical disagreement between two groups need not imply that the groups are talking past one another. It might be that they are talking about the same thing but sharply disagree about the nature and uses of that thing.
Consider the planet Venus. We once thought it was not a planet but a star. And we once thought it was not one star but two stars-the Morning Star and the Evening Star. We once used Venus to navigate. Under the guise of the Morning Star it would guide our navigation during one cycle. Under the guise of the Evening Star it would guide our navigation during a different cycle. Now we think Venus is a planet rather than a star. Now we think it is one thing rather than two things. Now we use our phones to navigate and we use Venus to appreciate beauty and learn about space. We have very different purposes for Venus than we did in the past. And we have very different theories about the nature of Venus than we did in the past. Nevertheless, both people today and people of the past have been talking about Venus all along.
In the same way, my view is that even though social scientists and philosophers have very different ideas about the nature of conspiracy theories and very different uses for them, they might nevertheless be talking about the same thing when they use ‘conspiracy theory’. And I think one disagreement between them is this question: “What do ordinary people call to mind when they think of conspiracy theories?”
Does the Le Monde Group Think ‘Conspiracy Theory’ has a Broad Scope?
Duetz and Dentith point out that in reply to Basham and Dentith (2016), the Le Monde group explicitly agreed that ‘conspiracy theory’ has a broad scope rather than a narrow scope. I agree. And their point is well taken.
However, I continue to think that is compatible with my view. What I think happened is that the Le Monde group gave up some ground to the philosophers. I think part of it is that they were not used to arguing with philosophers and they weren’t sure about what points they could push back on and what points they had to accept. So they just accepted the way the philosophers framed the discussion without realizing they could reject various aspects of that framing.
And I think part of it is that they were trying to communicate that even if the philosophers are right about conspiracy theories being a broad category rather than a narrow one, that they can still talk about only a subset of that category and that ordinary people often hear talk about conspiracy theories as being only about that subset rather than the bigger category.
Consider universalism. That is the metaphysical view according to which two objects always compose a third. So my cup is an object and Jupiter is an object. But the universalist will say that my cup and Jupiter together form a distinct third object. This is a respectable metaphysical view. But it is not the view of ordinary people. It is much broader in what it counts as an object. When ordinary people hear ‘object’, they do not hear both ‘Scott’s cup’ and ‘the mereological fusion of Scott’s cup and Jupiter’. They just hear ‘Scott’s cup’. In the same way, I think the view that conspiracy theories are a very broad category rather than a narrow one is a respectable philosophical view. But even if that view is right, I deny that it captures how ordinary people understand conspiracy theories. And I do not think we should assume that people have the broader view when we are thinking about how to report the results of social science to them.
Why Talk About This?
I want to say a bit about why I think it is valuable to have this discussion. I think there are substantive issues at stake. I think some of these are perennial issues in the philosophy of conspiracy theories that people are always talking about anyway and others suggest new areas of research that would open the subfield to new perspectives. There are issues about how to report the findings of social science to ordinary people, what ordinary people mean by ‘conspiracy theory’, and whether ordinary people are deeply mistaken in their beliefs about the nature of conspiracy theories or whether they have got it basically right. There are also issues about how to evaluate concrete examples of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. Are social scientists entitled to presume that the idea that 9/11 was an inside job is preposterous in their research? Or in doing so are they, as Basham puts it, dismissing “thoughtful questions about the 9/11 catastrophe”? Are the people who defend the idea that 9/11 was an inside job at best seriously misguided? Or are they instead heroes to be admired and essential to a functioning democracy? Does a conspiracist mindset exist? Or is it just something social scientists made up? I think these are exciting and substantive issues that are worthy of discussion.
Reply to Basham
Basham (2022) claims that I am part of an “EU funded” “suppression program” to “dehumanize”, “cognitively disable”, and “de-rationalize persons” in the service of “organized governmental and corporate deception.” Obviously this is false. Below I consider two issues raised in Basham’s paper.
Did the Le Monde Group Use ‘Conspiracy Theory’ in a Narrow Way or a Broad Way?
Basham (2022, 64) quotes the Le Monde group as saying: “Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively. The Ministry of Education must test its pedagogical tools against conspiracy culture. The wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease.”
Basham thinks this conflicts with my claim that the Le Monde group only meant to use ‘conspiracy theory’ in a narrow way rather than a broad way. Basham (2022) says this about the quoted passage:
This is entirely general. There is no constraint to labeling conspiracy theories as “stereotypical”. Or by guilt by association, arguing they are “stereotypical-like” by juxtapositioning them with surprising explanations that posit a conspiracy on the part of governments or corporations. This method is poor epistemology. It is also anti-democratic … The Le Monde declaration is a paradigm instance of a political pathologizing project. There are no limits set here; it is applied to conspiracy theorizing and theorists in general. Which includes all of us (original emphasis, 64-65).
Basham thinks that if the Le Monde group did not explicitly place a restriction on the scope of their claim, then they meant to use the broadest sense of ‘conspiracy theory’ possible. But imagine Basham and I are drinking beers together. I say “There is no more beer.” Basham then runs to the grocery store, comes back with five cases of beer, and says “You lied to me Scott. You said ‘there is no more beer’. But I found a lot of beer at the grocery store!” I then say “You know that’s not what I meant. I meant there is no more beer in the fridge.” Then Basham says “No. What you said is ‘there is no more beer’. It is entirely general. It includes no restriction on being in the fridge. If there is beer somewhere in the totality of existence and you knew about it, then what you said is a lie!” This would be a misguided thing for Basham to assert. And it is equally misguided in the present context.
To further clarify matters, I emailed the Le Monde group and asked them what they meant. I said:
Basham claims that you meant to use ‘conspiracy culture’ in a very broad way to include any belief that any conspiracy ever occurred. So he thinks you meant to use it to include both the belief that the Jews control the Islamic State and are responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre as well as the belief that Nixon conspired in Watergate. I think Basham is mistaken. I think you meant to use ‘conspiracy culture’ in a more narrow way that includes the belief that the Jews are responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre but not that Nixon conspired in Watergate. Would you be willing to weigh in and say which, if any of us, is correct?
In reply, one member of the Le Monde group, Sebastian Dieguez, wrote: “This part of the ‘tribune’ (as well as the title) was written by the editorial team at Le Monde (which is usual in this journal). But yes, Basham is mistaken, and of course, he knows it.” So Dieguez confirmed that Basham is mistaken in claiming that they meant to use ‘conspiracy theory’ in the very broad way that Basham claims they used it.
Basham thinks there is a problem with the poison example. I said: “Imagine it turns out that there is no simple and obvious definition of ‘poison’ that captures the stereotypical examples of poison but rules out regular liquids” (original emphasis, 2022b, 19)
And Bahsam replies:
We might think not. A poor parody. The answer is simple: Water is not a poison. A poison is a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures, or impairs an organism. Chemical action is on the level of electron interactions between atoms and molecules. Basic physical science (66-67).
This seems like a misunderstanding of the word ‘imagine’. When John Lennon sings “Imagine all the people .. Livin’ life in peace…”, it would display a misunderstanding to reply “Some people are fighting a war. Basic social science.” It also seems like a misunderstanding of parodies. When Johnathan Swift recommends that the Irish sell their babies as food to rich people, it would display a misunderstanding to reply “We might think not. A poor parody. The answer is simple: There is no way the Irish will sell their babies as food.”
When I said ‘imagine there is no simple definition of poison’, I didn’t mean to say that actually there is no simple definition of poison. What I meant is that whether there is a simple definition of poison is irrelevant to whether we can talk about what we typically classify as poison without talking about what we do not typically classify as poison.
If you Google ‘definition of poison’, one of the first results is the Merriam-Webster definition of ‘poison’. Although Basham does not cite Merriam-Webster, that definition is identical to the one he takes to be “Basic physical science.” However, Merriam-Webster is not an authoritative source for scientific definitions. Nor is its definition of ‘poison’ plausible. Imagine a substance that through its chemical action explodes when it touches an organism. It is a bomb rather than a poison. But it is a substance that through its chemical action usually kills, injures, or impairs an organism. Of course, this is beside the point since I didn’t make any claims about the actual definition of ‘poison’ in my earlier paper. But it serves to illustrate some of the problems with Basham’s approach to research.
Reply to Hewitt
In Hewitt’s (2022) contribution to this exchange, he goes further than I did in pressing Basham and Dentith (2016) on some of the historical claims they made. For example, Hewitt argues that by the time of the Wannsee conference, Jews had already been murdered across Europe, Hitler had made his intentions clear, and the murder of Jews was an intentional and overt policy rather than a secret conspiracy as Basham and Dentith claim. Hewitt also disputes other historical claims Basham and Dentith make that I accepted in my earlier paper. I do not know enough about the history of the Holocaust or the other topics Hewitt discusses to competently weigh in on this dimension of the dispute. But I find what Hewitt says to be plausible. And I’ll leave the historical matters to him.
For comments and discussion, I thank Bruce Blackshaw, Sebastian Dieguez, Katherine Dormandy, Richard Greene, Deborah Hill, Winfried Löffler, James Stacey Taylor, and Joona Räsänen.
Work on this paper was funded as part of the Euregio Interregional Project Network IPN 175 “Resilient Beliefs: Religion and Beyond”. For more information, please visit our website here: https://resilientbeliefs.fbk.eu.
Scott Hill, email@example.com, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Innsbruck. He has taught at the Ohio State University at Marion, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Auburn University.
Basham, Lee. 2022. “Hill on ‘Stereotypical’ Conspiracy Theories and Cognitive Disabling.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 64-74.
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.
Coady, David. 2021. “Conspiracy Theory as Heresy.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 1-5. doi:10.1080/00131857.2021.1917364.
Coady, David. 2007. “Are Conspiracy Theorists Irrational?” Episteme 4: 2 193-204
Dentith, M R. X. 2022. “Avoiding the Stereotyping of the Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories: A Reply to Hill.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (8): 41-49.
Duetz, J.C.M. and M R.X. Dentith. 2022. “Reconciling Conceptual Confusions in the Le Monde Debate on Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (10): 40-50.
Hewitt, Des. 2022. “Reflections on Scott Hill’s ‘A Revised Defense of the Le Monde Group’: ‘Never Again’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (9): 7-18.
Hill, Scott. 2022a. “The Role of Stereotypes in Theorizing about Conspiracy Theories: A Reply to Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (8): 93-99.
Hill, Scott. 2022b. “A Revised Defense of the Le Monde Group.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (8): 18-26.
Pigden, Charles. 2007. “Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom.” Episteme 4 (2): 219-232
Categories: Critical Replies
Scott, another interesting exploration of conspiracy theories etc. Thank you for your mention of my piece. I think all will find this interesting re: the Holocaust and when the killings began and the secrecy or not if the overt and intentional policy of the Nazis to murder Jews.
Thanks Des. And thanks for your contribution to this discussion! I appreciate it.
It’s a pleasure Scott, and thank you for rekindling my interest in researching the Holocaust. And without wanting to point score, I don’t think there’s any doubt that, as the article says above, the onslaught against the Jews of Germany and indeed Europe, was a carefully coordinated and orchestrated overt program by the the Nazi authorities in which hundreds and thousands of people were involved in. Wannsee was simply the speeding up of the ‘Final Solution’.
If anyone is interested in further research they should look at how the murder of people in Germany with learning and physical differences began after a letter from a mother of a child with wrote to Hitler to plead for help. This led to the use of those infamous and disgusting gas vans. This happened many years before Wannsee and indeed the outbreak of war. The genocidal program of the Nazis has to be seen in the round. Indeed, as Ukraine is so much in the news this link below illustrates just how as in Schindler’s List the words ‘the wolf is lose’ were correct when Hitler unleashed his forces on Eastern Europe. https://www.britannica.com/place/Babi-Yar-massacre-site-Ukraine
Regardless of the conspiracy theory debates (although my concern about these was made clear in my article) I believe it is important to understand how and when this happened. Never Again!
The mass extermination of the Jews was not the same as suppression and segregation. It was an entirely new order of horror; one not announced to the German population or the world. It was actually opposed by elements of the German legal ministry. At first, deportation was Germany’s preferred approach, but Allied countries did not step up to the challenge. Later, discussions of sterilization were had. Then Wannsee. Which is why I introduced it to the discussion. Wannsee was a secret conference and for that reason the records were ordered, at the conference, to be memorized and then immediately destroyed. That’s a conspiracy. And the Jews who, given their experience of pogrom after pogrom in the East, suspected that something like this might be in motion in Germany and its conquered territories. These were conspiracy theorists. Fortunately, it saved their lives! So I do know this; conspiracy theories saved an untold number of lives at that time.
Thanks for coming here. Welcome. Let me be candid, however. The one set of historical claims you made that I looked into were the ones about the Iraq War. Those claims turned out to be false. And you didn’t respond to my criticisms of those claims in your reply. You just ignored them. In light of that experience, I am unwilling to take your word for it on historical matters. So if you make historical claims like this, please provide sources to support your claims so that I can evaluate them for myself. I am happy to accept the historical claims if they are true. If you have evidence or sources, I want to see them. But I won’t believe the claims based on your testimony alone.
I see that you are assuming in your reply to Des that if something is a secret conspiracy then that is sufficient for it to be a conspiracy theory. Of course, that is something I have been disputing. I’m not going to now accept that inference just because you repeat it again.
Finally, I have some additional criticisms of your paper that I ended up cutting in order to make my paper shorter. Maybe now would be a good time to share some of those criticisms with you.
One example: You asked why I used the example about Charlie Hebdo. You said (2022, p. 69):
“Agreed, false. So why any discussion? Doesn’t evidence suffice? A Jewish plot to murder a minor newspaper is a strawperson/effigy hardly worthy of concern, bereft of evidence. Imagine various unpopular ideas like stepping on a pathological insect that isn’t even there. Now that behavior in the social sciences draws attention.”
You (2022, p. 69) also said:
“Virtually no one is conversant in Hill’s strange example of a Jewish plot against a minor newspaper. Hill’s reliance on this “stereotypical” conspiracy theory is not just sampling bias, it is also a resort to the fallacy of appeal to nonexistent numbers. “
And you (2022, p. 71) also said:
“It’s revealing that Hill’s example fails to fulfill the standard of the widely held; these stereotypical examples are almost entirely unknown to the public at large.”
My answer: I used the example about Charlie Hebdo to correct your misunderstanding. Go back to the beer example. If you claim that I am lying about there being no beer because there is beer at the grocery store, one way I can correct your error is to point out that I meant the beer in the fridge rather than every beer in the totality of existence. It would be weird, after being corrected, for you to then ask “Why are you talking about the beer in the fridge when it is such a small fraction of all beer in existence? Virtually no one is conversant in your strange refrigerator.” Similarly, when you claim that the Le Monde group thinks we should fight against any belief that any conspiracy ever happened, one way to correct your error is to point out that they only meant that we should fight against conspiracies like the ones that arose in France after the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
For another example: You claimed that I face a dilemma. You (2022, p. 70, 71) state the first horn of the dilemma in this way:
“So (1) If these beliefs are obviously stupid, they are not widely believed—“obvious” means “clearly seen and understood by all”—so inflicting the suppressive power of the State is clearly misplaced because needless. So, we don’t need a mass public intervention, unless we believe the public is itself incapable of conducting a democracy….
If (1), the Le Monde declaration is truly strange; we will teach intelligent people to not believe what they already don’t and will not believe, and this requires social scientists publicly begging for more funding and political support….
(1) Either the concern is so limited as to be uninteresting to the larger issue—are conspiracy theories rationally and therefore socially legitimate (which they are).”
I seems like you are trying to say this: In claiming that the stereotypes are stupid and obviously false, I might be claiming that a minority believes them. And if so, then they are not worthy of study. Only majorities are worthy of study. Regarding the other horn of the dilemma, you (2022, p. 70, 71) say
“So (2), We need a mass public intervention, because the public is not capable of conducting an intelligent democracy.
If (2), the public is incapable of intelligent democracy, so in the final analysis, we are not asking, we are announcing: You or at least your children need to be cognitively disabled. The le Monde declaration, either way, is a truly bizarre one.
(2) Used to banish reasonable concerns, disqualify in any public, rational intellectual endeavor. It’s a corner without escape.”
It seems like you are trying to say this: If I am claiming that the stereotypes are stupid and obviously false, but I’m not claiming that only a minority believes them, then I am committed to the claim that the State should be given totalitarian control over the population.
So, the alleged dilemma is: Either (1) it is pointless for social scientists to study conspiracy theories because only a minority believes them or (2) we should get rid of democracy because a majority believes them.
This is a false dilemma. Regarding (1), something can be interesting and worthy of study even if it affects only a minority. Take Parkinson’s disease. Only a small minority are affected by it. But it is worth studying.
Regarding (2), totalitarianism is unacceptable and democracy is valuable even if a majority have stupid and obviously false beliefs. Imagine the majority of people believe that the earth is flat. In that case, democracy would still be better than totalitarianism. And not just anything should be allowed to get people to see that the earth is not flat. Maybe very little should be allowed. It might turn out that things are better if the government mostly stays out of trying to get people to believe things. It would certainly be bad for the government to take a heavy handed approach. I would say the same thing if the majority believed 9/11 was an inside job. Democracy would still be better than totalitarianism. It is one thing to say that it is permissible for social scientists to study why people believe stupid and obviously false claims and to study how to help people not believe those things. It is another thing to say the government should be given totalitarian control over the population, permission to brainwash the population, and democracy should be abandoned. Those are two different suggestions. I endorse one and reject the other.
A third example: You (2022, p. 72) say:
“So if we explore the financial support of writing like Hill’s, we often find it is funded by those who are subject to conspiracy criticism. In Hill’s case, like others, an EU funded organization which among many other things supports funding suppression of political concerns. These are characterized as “resilient” to reason and therefore irrational beliefs. Since rationality is a defining human trait and ideal, these projects attempt to dehumanize some of the most thoughtful and intelligent segments of the population. A sort of intelligence tax, at least on expressed concerns and evidently well-justified inquiries. Given the record of funding, these suppression programs are predictable among increasingly establishmentarian thinking.”
I encourage you to click on the link you provided in your paper as well as the link I provided in my papers. If you click those links and then look around a bit, you will find that near the top we say this:
Some of these resilient beliefs appear completely rational.
Then we give examples of rational resilient beliefs that we view favorably. Go to the links and read at least the first few sentences. You claim that we think resilient beliefs are always bad. The only evidence you give is the link you provide. But clicking on that very link and briefly scanning the top is sufficient to refute you.
Ps correction. The euthanasia program in Germany began in 1939 but hereditary laws were passed as soon as Nazis came to power in 1933.
Thanks Des. What you say sounds convincing to me. I didn’t mean to cast doubt about your historical claims. But I just haven’t studied the topic in detail. So rather than making the claims myself, I thought it would be better to direct the reader to your paper.
No I didn’t think you were casting doubt Scott, I intended my comments to be read by others in this dialogue as well as thanking you and reiterating and supporting my original article. Bw des
Ah ok. That makes sense.
Dear Scott, you write that “This seems like a great place for experimental philosophers to contribute.”
In fact, Giulia Napolitano and myself have run several experiments that bear on the claims you are making, and in fact, the results by and large support your view in this debate. The article can be found here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10670-021-00441-6
I think you might be most interested in Study 2a and Study 2b.
Thanks for this Kevin. I can’t wait to read it! I wish I had seen your paper before writing mine.
It is probably also worth looking at Keith Harris’ “Some problems with particularism” where he argues that Kevin and Giulia’s results aren’t quite as decisive as they first seem. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11229-022-03948-9
Thanks M. I’ll take a look.
Thanks M. I’ll take a look.
There’s also two forthcoming pieces in a special issue of Social Epistemology (of which I am the editor) that also challenge the Napolitano and Reuter findings, but until the issue is released will have to remain vague gestures to criticism about to see print…
Whoops; misspelt my own name…
Sounds great! Once they are published, I hope you’ll return here to share the links.
Dear Scott, Dear M,
You might also be interested in a new paper (forthcoming) in which Lucien Baumgartner and myself dig deeper into the use of the term `conspiracy theory’ using corpus analysis. Among other things, we find that the use of the term has significantly changed within the last 10 years. It seems that the term has become far more evaluative and pejorative even in such a short time frame.
Here is the link to the paper: http://www.kevinreuter.com/ewExternalFiles/Corpus%20Analysis%20and%20Conspiracy%20Theory.pdf
The interesting part begins in Section 4, p.10.
@M: Please share with me the two papers that you speak about above once they are “out”. I am curious to see the challenges.
Looks awesome! Thanks Kevin. I will check it out. By the way, I see you aren‘t too far away from where I am in Europe. Maybe we will run into each other at some point. Would be cool to chat in person!
That would be great!
Really interesting post, Scott. I find it interesting how Basham seems to use these ad hominem attacks against you that themselves have a conspiracist tone. Since no form of reasoning is beyond legitimacy for him, I guess it makes sense to attempt to smear your work as some EU-funded authoritarian project to suppress dissenting knowledge. I wonder if he’ll smear me similarly once he finds out, through this comment, that a major shareholder of my employer is a trust owned by a prominent Canadian billionaire. That would, of course, make me an agent of elite-funded thought control policies.
Thanks Riggio. Glad to hear that you are part of the conspiracy too. I will see you at the next Illuminati meeting. I hear that this year we will be able to shed our human disguises and relax in our true form… as lizard people. 🙂
I’ve made no “against the person” attacks on Hill and never plan to. If you can identify any, I’d like to see them. Perhaps, hence your term “seems”. I doubt it seems that way. Disagreement on substantive issues is not an attack. I do believe some powerfully funded institutions/programs have a strong interest in suppressing conspiracy theories because they are viewed as a challenge to the established order. These interests are shared by those they fund and arguably derivative of this funding–this is as old as history–but that is hardly a smear against those funded by these. What it means is funding can be a distorting influence on our perceptions of our expected conclusions. This is why, when we publish, we are always ask to reveal funding sources, if any. As for “smear”: Take a lobbyist, for instance. It is hardly a “smear” against that person that their funders have certain expectations of them to produce certain outcomes. To think otherwise is at best surprising. We are all subject to such influences as a precondition of funding, “Don’t go off the rails if you want to keep your grant.”. The sciences are rife with this. As for said billionaire, I imagine this person is a well-intended philanthropist.
Apparently replies cannot go more than a few replies deep, so this is my reply to Scott’s reply to Lee.
Scott, you claim in response to Lee:
“The one set of historical claims you made that I looked into were the ones about the Iraq War. Those claims turned out to be false. And you didn’t respond to my criticisms of those claims in your reply.”
Given the historical claims about Iraq were made by both Lee and myself, I think it’s important to note that you are misrepresenting things here. I gave context to those claims around Iraq; notably, how people like Blair shifted the goalposts of the debate around Iraq by falsely conflating opposition to the invasion as being based upon a conspiracy theory about the US and UK only wanting to invade to get access to oil) but your response was:
“But I did not say Blair never accused critics of the war of believing conspiracy theories. I was aware of one of the quotes Dentith cites. Instead, I asked for a single example in which Bush, or someone in Bush’s orbit, dismissed doubts about WMDs as a mere conspiracy theory. That is what, as I understood it, Dentith and the Le Monde Group were arguing about. I did not say anything about dismissals of the war being about oil. So we are still without any examples in which Bush or Blair claim that the idea that there are no WMDs in Iraq is a conspiracy theory.”
Note that the problem isn’t what we originally said; as you point out, the problem was yours:
“That is what, *as I understood it,* Dentith and the Le Monde Group were arguing about.”
You might have *thought* we were making some other point, but you can’t then accuse us of making false claims just because you assumed we were making that other point.
Plus, as I pointed out in my reply to you, I found those cites within a minute of searching. They were not, as I said, the only examples of the then leaders of the US and UK using such rhetoric to dismiss their critics at the time.
Lee, of course, will have been aware of my reply to you (since it predates his reply), and probably did not feel the need to hammer home further what we were talking about back in 2016 when the discussion of the Le Monde opinion piece first appeared.
Thanks for this. Two thoughts. First, here is the passage that made me think you were claiming that the idea that there were no WMDs in Iraq was dismissed as a mere conspiracy theory:
“Those who are politically literate will be doubtlessly aware that part-and-parcel of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq in 2003ACE was the creation of a doctored (sometimes called “dodgy”) dossier by the British which sought to show that—despite not just a lack of evidence on the ground but also the assurances of UN Weapons Inspectors—that there really were Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. It was not that these weapons were “finally not found” which led the US and the UK to “recognize their ‘error’.” It was that these two governments manufactured consent through the production of fake evidence.
Now, you can dispute how conspiratorial this dodgy dossier was: for some the dossier is clear evidence that the Plan for a New American Century was going according to schedule; others have argued that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush really did think they would find the WMDs and thought once they were found the creation of the dossier would be but a footnote.
What you probably should not do is rewrite history to make the problem of the “US/UK Weapons of Mass Destructions” conspiracy theory disappear … (2).”
So my question is: What is the “US/UK Weapons of Mass Destructions” conspiracy theory? I get that it is not the claim that there are no WMDs in Iraq. OK. Fair enough. But if it isn’t that, what is it? And what are the examples of authorities dismissing it? Is it the claim that the dossier purporting to show that there were WMDs in Iraq was not trustworthy? If so, is there an example of Bush or Blair claiming that denying that the dossier is trustworthy is a conspiracy theory? Is it the claim about the Iraq War being all about oil? If so, why doesn’t oil appear in this passage? I just don’t see what the conspiracy theory is supposed to be here. And I don’t see that I’ve been given any examples of the conspiracy theory being dismissed. I’m happy to be convinced. I just want to see some sources or evidence. Give me the evidence, and I will change my mind.
Second, as you note, in your reply you give two examples of Blair using the term ‘conspiracy theory’ to talk about the claim that the Iraq War was all about oil. I do not understand how that is sufficient to support the claim that the Iraq War was powerfully enabled by conspiracy theory panic. And I do not understand how this supports what you say in the above passage. If all you did was search for a minute, and find the two examples, then it seems to me that your historical claim remains unsupported. It seems to me that the Iraq War would have happened whether Blair had dismissed the claim that it was all about oil as a mere conspiracy theory or not.
Of course, if you search more and find more examples, then we can talk about those. And I am happy to change my mind. But if all I am given are the two examples, I find it difficult to accept your historical claim just on that basis. It seems clearly false to me.
It is fairly clear, Scott, that by shifting the goalposts of the argument (demanding that Lee or myself provide evidence of the claim you *think* we made rather than the claim we actually made) that whatever evidence we might provide you won’t suffice. You make a similar goalpost shift in your combined response to Julia, myself and Lee, claiming that despite what the Le Monde Declaration authors admitted, what they should have, or what you intuit they should have, said is really something else. I prefer to work with what was argued for rather than what you claim we were really saying…
Fair enough. It will come as no surprise that I disagree with your characterization of the discussion. Thank you for engaging with me. I wish you well. I am ready to talk more if you change your mind.
Upon reflection, I would like to address M’s allegation that I am shifting goalposts. I have three points.
First, as I see it, the question of who is shifting goalposts is irrelevant to the substantive issue. The substantive issue is this: M and Lee claim that the Iraq War was “powerfully enabled by conspiracy theory panic.” They beat the Le Monde group over the head with this claim. It is fair to ask what their evidence for this claim is. The only evidence they have given, as far as I can tell, is that after a minute of searching, M found two cases in which Tony Blair dismissed the idea that the Iraq War was all about oil as a mere conspiracy theory. It is fair to point out that that is not significant evidence. It is fair to ask for more.
Second, I looked at the document M cites (Saraceni 2003) in which the examples about Blair and oil appear. M claims that these examples are ones in which Blair evaded criticisms of Iraq by shifting the discussion to being about the claim that the Iraq War was all about oil. M says “I gave context to those claims around Iraq; notably, how people like Blair shifted the goalposts of the debate around Iraq by falsely conflating opposition to the invasion as being based upon a conspiracy theory about the US and UK only wanting to invade to get access to oil)” and M says in M’s paper “it was used by the US and the UK as a way to sidestep criticism of the invasion by saying “Oh, the people who oppose military action in Iraq are just conspiracy theorists who think we’re only in it for the oil!” I do not think that this claim is supported by M’s examples. Consider the example M discusses in the main text of M’s paper. If you go to the source M provides, just before the relevant quote, M’s source (Saraceni 2003, p. 9) says: “In an interview with MTV, 6 March 2003, asked about the possibility that the purpose of the war was to get control over Iraqi oil, Tony Blair replied….” and then it gives the quote M puts in the paper. In that example, Tony Blair is being interviewed by MTV. Someone at MTV directly asks him what he has to say about the idea that the Iraq War is all about oil. He says it is a conspiracy theory once. And then he goes on to give reasons why he thinks that it is not true. M’s source also says, with respect to Bush and Blair using ‘oil’, that “In most cases the word is used in statements aimed at refuting allegations of any hidden agenda about Iraqi oil.” So according to M’s source, allegations of oil being the motivation for the war are made. And then in response to those allegations about oil, Bush and Blair use the term ‘oil’ themselves. This in no way supports the claim that Blair conflated opposition to the invasion with the idea that the war is about oil. I guess it is possible that in these other cases, Blair or Bush is using oil to evade claims they would rather not talk about. But I see no evidence for this in M’s source. There is no support here for M’s claim that Tony Blair conflated opposition to the war with the claim that the war was all about oil. Indeed, in the very quote M provides, Blair says this: “ I genuinely believe – I believe there are people who oppose war for perfectly good reasons. Indeed, I oppose war unless it’s the last resort. But, we don’t have any oil interest there.”
Notice furthermore that in the passage M quotes, Blair does not just say that it is a conspiracy theory and treat that by itself as sufficient to dismiss it. He says it is a conspiracy theory once and then gives extended reasons as to why he thinks people should be suspicious of the claim that the war is about oil. The term ‘conspiracy theory’ is inessential to what Blair is doing in response to the question about oil. He could have answered it just as effectively if he had given his reasons without also mentioning ‘conspiracy theory’. This is not evidence of the power of weaponizing conspiracy theory talk. If all he wanted to do was shift the conversation he had numerous tools with which to do it. He could just as well have started talking about how bad Sadam is and how Sadam needs to be removed as he often did. Or he could have talked about how dangerous WMDs are and how the intelligence agencies were reliable.
Furthermore, according to M’s source, the main arguments Bush and Blair use to support the war are not ones in which oil talk is used at all. Instead, Sarenci (2004, p. 6) says: “When we consider the arguments that have usually been put forward to justify this war (Table 9), we can note that Blair refers to them less often than Bush, including the avowedly official reason – the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. Although Blair mentions these items, he does not emphasise them as much as Bush does. Table 10, however, offers some cues as to what seems to be important to Blair: removing Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
So as I read the document M relies on, it seems to me that that document casts doubt on M and Lee’s claim that the Iraq War was powerfully enabled by conspiracy theory panic. M makes it sound like people are asking Blair about something else and then Blair shifts to talking about oil as a way of not having to talk about it. M makes it sound like Blair is trying to get people to identify opposition to the war with belief that the war is based on oil. But that isn’t what happened. If the document M cites as their source for the Blair quote is correct, conspiracy theory panic did not significantly enable the Iraq War.
Third, I went back and read M’s papers in this discussion. In each case, I searched for ‘Blair’, ‘oil’, ‘goalpost shifting’ and analogous terms. Here are the only instances of ‘Blair’ I found before the 2022 paper:
“And need we point to the nefarious deeds of people like Nixon, Bush, and Blair?” 2016, p. 14
“Now, you can dispute how conspiratorial this dodgy dossier was: for some the dossier is clear evidence that the Plan for a New American Century was going according to schedule; others have argued that UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush really did think they would find the WMDs and thought once they were found the creation of the dossier would be but a footnote.” (2019, p. 2)
“This version of the story can be finessed even further by claiming that Bush and Blair preferred the findings of certain intelligence agency senior officials over that of staff on the ground. However, given what happened, charity seems an unnecessary virtue.” (2019, p. 2)
I only found one instance of ‘oil’. And that is in a passage in which M quotes the Le Monde group. M puts in bold part of the passage in which the Le Monde group talks about WMDs and leaves in plain text the part in which they talk about oil. And then M goes on and on about WMDs but never mentions the part about oil.
I could not find any place in which M says anything in the neighborhood of ‘Blair dismissed the claim that the Iraq War was all about oil as a way to shift the discussion’ or ‘Blair tried to get people to identify opposition to the war with the claim that the war was about oil.’ Perhaps I missed something. Please correct me if I am wrong and if M did mention this idea in one of their papers in the Le Monde debate prior to M’s 2022 reply to me.
M says that they “prefer to stick with what was argued for.” But in that case why is M only now in 2022 saying that what M was really talking about all along was the stuff about Blair pointing to the oil claim as a conspiracy theory in order to shift the discussion. M calls this “giving context”. I call it “shifting the goalpost”.
Finally, M claims that I shift the goalpost because I deny the claim that the Le Monde group, in their original letter, meant to be using ‘conspiracy theory’ in the super broad way that they use it. They provided what they took to be evidence that the Le Monde group meant to use the super broad claim. Their evidence is that after they started arguing with them, the Le Monde group took on board their assumption about the term ‘conspiracy theory’ being broad rather than narrow. But I pointed out that my view can accommodate that evidence just as well as their view. Maybe the Le Monde group was mistakenly impressed by M’s argument and thought that they had to now accept that ‘conspiracy theory’ has a broad rather than narrow scope. Maybe they didn’t know all the options they had in rejecting the way M framed the discussion. All of that is compatible with the idea that they used ‘conspiracy theory’ in the normal narrow scope way in their original letter and only adjusted how they talk about conspiracy theories after they were subjected to pressure from M and Lee. I also emailed the Le Monde group and asked them what they meant. The lead author on some of the Le Monde group’s papers said that my interpretation is correct and that M and Lee’s interpretation is wrong. M calls this ‘shifting the goalpost’. Some other people emailed me back but would did not give me permission to cite them. No one in the Le Monde group responded by telling me that M and Lee were right. I call it “showing that my hypothesis can explain the data they cite and showing that there is other evidence that supports my hypothesis and is evidence against theirs.”