Conspiracy Theory as Public Intelligence: A Reply to Keeley, Lee Basham

While passing through Grants, New Mexico, you will see haunting bumper stickers. The town is for the most part the picture of poverty. But there is a powerful back-story, the near-by Ambrosia Lake Uranium mines. The old, local restaurants, now largely abandoned, are in some cases “hot”.[1] The footprint of decades of workers coming in with their radioactive, powder covered boots and apparel, leaving the seats and floorboards a gamma ray story that will last for thousands of years. Bumper stickers include, “Welcome to America’s Hiroshima”, “Justice for U-Cancer”, “US Government Lied, Dad Died” and so on. Just North of town giant spraying hoses constantly soak mining heaps (tailings) to reduce radioactive dust clouds that still blanket the local communities. Yellow warning signs with radiation symbols are found mile after mile. Entire communities of homes are demolished and buried or burned.[2] In the local grocery store people are seemingly desperate to have their stories heard: The horrors of contamination.

Image credit: Diana Robinson via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Basham, Lee. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory as Public Intelligence: A Reply to Keeley.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 31–39.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Published originally on 25 July. Professor Basham significantly revised the article found below on 28 July. Reposted on 30 August, the article has been lightly edited to reflect the SERRC’s house style.

This article replies to:

❧ Keeley, Brian L. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology doi: 10.1080/02691728.2023.2191290.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Walker, Jesse. 2023. “When Is a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (7): 20–22.

Image credit: Uranium Cafe Chinese Sign Route 66 Grants, New Mexico.
Image Source:

These people are conspiracy theorists. Grants sees itself as a cancer cluster. The Federal government denies it is. The offending corporation also denies it is, while it buys and demolishes radioactive homes because they are radioactive. The local health care providers disagree with the powers that be, “A lot of us are contaminated way over the limit”.[3] They say the government is lying. Brian Keeley says we have a word for the people in and around Grants, New Mexico. The word is “paranoid”.[4]

In “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology” Keeley turns to “eliminative materialism” to perhaps set aside people like those in Grants. In what follows we will briefly explain the ambitions of eliminative materialism. We discuss the following:

(1) Keeley’s description of eliminative materialism fails to reflect its ambition to eliminate “folk psychology” (belief/desire explanations) as a theory of human behavior;

(2) Why any attempt to resurrect a pejorative connotation to “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” with “paranoid” fails for the reasons it always has; it empties the term “paranoid” of any cognitive significance;

(3) That Keeley fails to see that conspiracy can be both a beneficial or a malevolent phenomenon.

There is no automatic asymmetry. Conspiracy theories are both a normal, benevolent method in societies and within personal relationships as well as a malevolent method.[5] For instance, in the avoidance of needless harms or in their manufacture. Conspiracy theories can liberate or entrap. The idea they only irrationally entrap is dangerous. They often rationally liberate.

Eliminative Materialism and Conspiracy Theory

Keeley’s essay gestures to a radical theory of mind—or the mind’s nonexistence—“eliminative materialism”. The article also includes a sketchy history of the development of the epistemology of conspiracy theory. It vanishes key figures like Brian Martin, Kurtis Hagen, myself, Jack Bratich, Karen Douglas and others. Without the work of these authors, there would be little to write about and in the words of Hume, Keeley’s 1999 classic “Of Conspiracy Theories” would likely have “fallen stillborn from the press…”.[6] Keeley’s 1999 was not attended to until my replies in 2001 and 2003.[7] He does mention the work of David Coady and M.R.X. Dentith. This is literature derivative of these previous authors and respondent to more recent work. He also ignores the important moral critiques offered by Patrick Stokes. These could be used to further his argument. When one decides to frame their argument in terms of recent historical literature, an attention to an accurate history is helpful.

Eliminative materialism is an ambitious project. Keeley does us a service by reminding us, especially those whose focus is Philosophy of Mind, that conspiracy theories are usually expressed in “folk psychology” (“fp” for brevity). A well-known position in Philosophy of Mind, it claims folk psychology is a false theory. Keeley’s characterization of eliminative materialism is hesitant. He moves from “revise” folk psychology to “radically revise” folk psychology, but he never embraces eliminative materialism’s real ambition: To eliminate folk psychology from realist and scientific discourse. That Keeley is coy about this is not a major issue. While Patricia and Paul Churchland were aggressive and remained bold in their eliminative approach and advocacy, we can set minimalizing aside.

So what is “folk psychology”? And what does this have to do with conspiracy theory? In Keeley’s presentation it is hard to tell. In its simplest form folk psychology is belief-desire psychology. It explains actions as the consequence of beliefs and desires. Desire identifies a goal, beliefs reflect constraints and opportunities in this world, and together a stratagem is devised to achieve the goal. This could be as simple as asking for a fork or a masterful plan to conquer and control the planet. Folk psychology operates by (at least) probabilistic laws. Most all of us, once we get past the abstractness, will recognize this one,

x (a person) will do y if x most wants z (a goal, a desired outcome) at time t, and x believes y (a representation of constraints and opportunities) at time t that y is the best way of achieving z.[8]

Paul Churchland gives this example; call it the “Psychological Law” of folk psychology. This isn’t as strange as it looks. I will ask for a fork if at that moment I most want a fork and I believe asking for a fork is the best way to get a fork at that moment.[9]

An ordinary 2-year-old appears to use this law to organize these variables (desire, belief, time indexing). This allows them to get what they want when they want it and develop some understanding (another fp term) of why others do what they do (for instance, friends, parents and pets) when they do. So what will we replace fp with? One idea is a mature neuroscience, probably based on the statistics of neural network theories. The nodes are “neurons”. The lines vary in their activation strengths of downstream neurons (left to right). A simplistic example, but powerful at scale,

Image Credit: Neuronal Network Scheme. Image Source:

The middle, the “hidden” layer, does the work.[10] Here the input values, whatever input you like, are resolved into two categories, 1 or 2: A “yes” or “no” given what the network is supposed to respond to: Logic, math, visual or auditory perceptual input, really, anything. There is room for probability here, including inconclusive, but the goal is to “settle” the network down via various means to have differences in the output layer that manifest and represent the reality of the input layer’s interaction with the environment and some feature of it; this might be other networks in a brain or initial, perceptual inputs, vision for instance. So we have a dog detector. a cat detector, a demeanor detector, etc.. Notice there are no beliefs or desires in this diagram, nor need we take the time to somehow go through the gymnastics required to reinterpret it that way. Belief and desire talk has been eliminated. It’s just neurons and activation strengths.

What does any of this have to do with conspiracy theory? Conspiracy theories are, often (but not necessarily), beliefs and the like, and they typically posit beliefs and desires of conspirators.[11] Let’s italicize the folk psychology. For instance,

The conspirators: We believe (fp) if we can make it look like (create mass-belief) the target nation conducted (fp) an intentional, organized brutal sneak attack on our country (fp) this is the best way to gain popular support (create mass-belief and mass-desire) (fp) for a war with the target nation. We strongly desire this war (fp), over any risks or other factors of hesitation it might involve for us (fp). So we will make it look like (fp) the target nation conducted an organized brutal sneak attack against us (fp).

Suppose I sincerely claim (fp) this is what the conspirators are doing. I believe (fp) and share a conspiracy theory. I am a conspiracy theorist. And I’m automatically wrong. The whole thing is riddled with folk psychology. The worm-wood of the sinking ship of folk psychology. All belief, all desire and similar mental ascription statements are false and any dependent on these are for the same reason, false. So all conspiracy theory is false. And everything I have claimed is, for that reason (fp), false. This is the argument Keeley should have offered if he is to wield eliminative materialism against conspiracy theories and theorists. But he doesn’t. Instead, he opts to segue to a pejorative, folk psychological approach to conspiracy theories. They are not neural network depolarizations, but mental acts of paranoia (fp); an irrational fear of others (fp). All of this is folk psychology.

Again, the real question is what does eliminative materialism have to do with conspiracy theory? Clearly eliminating or “radically revising” folk psychology will not eliminate organized, cooperative deception or truthful or warranted accusations of the same. Under what possible scenario would conspiracy and conspiracy theory cease to exist if we eliminated or radically revised “folk psychology”? Keeley needs to provide one but doesn’t.

Pathologizing Conspiracy Theory as “Paranoid”

To some surprise, given the title, Keeley does not deploy an eliminative materialist argument against conspiracy theory. Instead, he argues that conspiracy theory is a pejorative term because he believes it is pejorative in common usage; paranoid. Rather like arguing the world is flat because people talk as if it is. But the problem is, they don’t think it is flat, anymore than “conspiracy theory” means flawed as such. They know it’s round and that globes and maps reflect this, and that governments, even their own, and corporations conspire.

Keeley’s pathologizing approach to conspiracy theory is dated but still of import, as it is an attempt at politically selective silencing. We’re in the realm of the political. This silencing has received consistent criticism in the Epistemic literature.[12] Fortunately, in an increasingly, horizontal information system the pejorative stance has dissolved into a mainstream media remanent; like the rounded, melting fragments of ice at the bottom of an empty glass. In my own research I found in thousands of interviews with students, working class people and professionals where there was no indication of expectation or my position, “conspiracy theory” has no statistically significant pejorative connotation.[13] The opposite, among many. This is healthy in a democratic polis.

Keeley appears to suggest we substitute popular usage for sound epistemology. But in this case it’s unnecessary, because they correspond rather well. As he frames it: The issue within “conspiracy theory theory” (the epistemic theory of conspiracy theory) is whether or to what extent our central concept of conspiracy theory should conform to a common, lay sense of the term. I would argue: If it doesn’t, so much the worse for an academia adrift. Fortunately, it does, which is one of the motivating factors for the entire discussion. The vox populi sees conspiracy theories as entities of rationality and evidence when they are rational and confirmed by evidence. As does academia, judging from much of the new literature. Conspiracy theories are no different then reasonable accusations of crime compared to bizarre hoaxes. For instance, if a woman claims she drove behind a diaper-clad toddler for 600 meters on a busy interstate and when the child then walked into the woods, she followed the child on foot and was abducted by an orange-haired cult leader and taken to a cabin full of naked people who stripped her, did not sexually molest her, but instead fed hercheese and crackers, we might question the lack of evidence, coherence and the clear contradictions in the story.

Keeley argues that English has a telling marker for the conspiratorial fear; “paranoia”. But his thought is this shows how common actual conspiracy is. This is puzzling. “Paranoia” is unreasonable fear. But here it is reasonable fear, “the prevalence of conspiracy in human lives”,

Indeed, one telling marker of the prevalence of conspiracy in human lives [italics added] is revealed by our language. In English, at least, there is a very common word to describe the suspicion that others are conspiring to harm one: ‘paranoia’. However, there is no similarly common word to describe the suspicion that others are conspiring to benefit one.[14]

The word is “paternal”. At root, care. We’ll return to this below.

This “ordinary usage” and “linguistic association” argument requires a report of empirical research; a pattern of established and quantified evidence about what people at large actually do think of the accusation of organized deception. But there is little and it tends towards approval of conspiracy theories if there is evidence. A claim without descriptive statistics has little evidential value. It neither shows there is a negative association in the population at large nor that if there was, would it be anything but a political piety, sincere or feigned. Are people who believe there are organized acts of deception actually viewed as “paranoid”? That would convict the entire law enforcement and legal system—paranoids manufacturing delusional cartel conspiracy theories to help feed the courts they established in a mania of mass deception? Unlikely. But it is an entailment of a linguistic pathologizing approach that asserts the current normal response to conspiracy theory is that it’s “paranoia”.

Fortunately, the paranoia approach is not now popular, even in academia, Popper not withstanding.[15] People who properly entertain conspiracy theories—all of us—are not “paranoid”, nor is that word normally applied to us; rather the opposite. The idea we are all paranoiacs is paranoid, an unreasonable fear of others. It’s also irrelevant, as the question is not about persons who believe conspiracy theories, but if such theories are warranted. This point has been made many times. Should we resort to antediluvian time-travel to conflate conspiracy theories with conspiracy theorists and their alleged mental pathologies? Or similarly, try to resurface the more direct conspiracy-theory pathologizing project that is lost in the same sediments?

Keeley continues, using examples that first appeared in my replies to Keeley in the early 2000s.[16] This is progress. For instance, romantic partners thought to be monogamous carry out secret affairs, organized theft of trade secrets has always been part of the business landscape, groups of people cooperate to carry out all sorts of crimes, and so on. We’re not a paranoid people when we recognize the conspiracy is natural and normal human beings.

Again, both “paranoid” and “paternal” are terms in common usage. The expectation of a surprise birthday party is a conspiracy theory. The person who is supposed to be surprised suspects there will be such an attempt at surprise. They infer, “My friends love me and might cooperate to celebrate my birthday in a way that will surprise me”. Covert, intentional cooperation in itself, unlike paranoia, involves no pejorative connotation. Consider investigations into crime. The police are not necessarily paranoid, but they often suspect and encounter criminal conspiracies. In response, they develop and in court defend conspiracy theories.

Paternalism versus Paranoia: An Example

A common term for much benevolent covert cooperation is paternalism. If someone says we decided cooperative caring was the best for our elderly parent who is clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, yet we did not expose to this person our shared goal, would anyone who thought we were not being forthcoming about the illness be thought “paranoid”? If a single word is required, it’s paternalism. Since “paranoid” is not the first word that occurs to most people when encountering a humane conspiracy, Keeley’s linguistic argument collapses via its very method.

Keeley’s portrayal of current English associations is surprising given the facts of ordinary family life and friendships. And equally, of political public discourse. Conspiracies are frequently beneficial and understood as such. In the US people were once not informed of terminal diseases afflicting them. Fortunately, today this is frowned upon in the US but is still common throughout the world.[17] Our prosperity has given humans our eight billionth baby.[18] Clearly untold hundreds of millions of families and medical professionals, motivated by paternalism, conspire to keep a terminal diagnosis secret and “play along” with the “you’ll get better” story.

Other paternalistic conspiracies appear beneficial and in time, autonomy enabling. Let’s set aside, for instance, events like the prior knowledge of the US of the Pearl Harbor attack and focus on more intimate paternalistic conspiracy.[19] Imagine we have discovered that our friend, “Ashley”, may have a problem with drugs and so we have decided to systematically confiscate those drugs, but do so in a manner that is not confrontational as much as covertly educational. The addled mind of the drug addict notices their drug supplies are diminishing at surprising rates. They are also aware that the people around them that might be able to access where these drugs are hidden but clearly are not interested in using them. Nevertheless, we know where the drugs are and we take steps to dilute the drugs, “cutting them”, or remove quantities of the drugs. The person slowly finds a new clarity has entered their life. The cocaine is not doing what it used to do. The evasion it offered is gone. The primary source—the dealer—is also recruited to the task: “She’s going to die if you don’t help us. She’s exhibiting increasingly bizarre behaviors. Death is at the door. Don’t make us make the phone call.”. The source shares our concern and cooperates.

After a time, the drugs lose their hold. In the end Ashley announces with gratitude towards the unknown force that bent her life towards a better place. The drugs that were destroying them no longer have the attraction they once did. Years later, perhaps during a camping trip, paddling in a canoe, or in a quiet luncheon, she remarks on the seeming randomness healing by forces unknown. Perhaps she ascribes this to God or some other metaphysics. But it was human conspiracy. She was clearly in the midst of a downward spiraling. A caring conspiracy saved her.

Should we disclose a paternalistic conspiracy to its subject? Only in the end. Otherwise our benevolent conspiracy would fail. Agreement is reached among the conspirators that it can’t safely and properly be done if the person is informed. She came to believe her drug addiction was pointless and worse. In this way she recovered a much fuller measure of her humanity, her future and in the end redeemed her life with a little help from her friends. Maybe we tell her. The person is shocked and then overwhelmed with the cunning caring, the cooperative but covert love that pried her loose: In that moment, like Venus just before the dawn. Maybe she shifts her metaphysics to unseen forces influencing us. But she is grateful. Direct confrontation would have failed in anger. But unseen hands can accomplish great good. Rather like we raise our children.


Democracy requires facts for the public to consider and relate. History teaches that our steeply hierarchical governmental, corporate and media information structure is a conspiracy generator, and the normal and natural rational response to this among the larger population is conspiracy theorizing. It’s a sign of public intelligence,

Just learned that the “OceanGate” [the Titanic-bound] submersible [Titan] imploded on Sunday and the government has known the entire time [this posted on Thursday, after]. The US military heard the implosion [with its East coast underwater listening system] and have been sitting on this information…the US government took the entire world for a ride, putting so many other people needlessly at risk out at sea trying to find a craft that was never there anymore. This search was a distraction, the government needed to distract us [from presidential scandals]…a corrupt tyrannical government and the media covering for them needs to face appropriate justice.[20]

The writer sees families left twisting in doubt and torment for a week. Like those in Grants, New Mexico have been for decades. Are they paranoid? No. Whatever the facts, it is a reasonable suspicion that knowledge of the sub implosion was suppressed given the political controversies within US politics at the time of this reckless loss of life. It is also reasonable to suspect Grants was and still is a dangerously radioactive place to live. The public frustration with conspiratorial mainstream media distraction tactics is well placed. So is a general caution about corporate and governmental pronouncements. This is a rational public stance of distrust; a prerequisite of functional democracy.

But the anti-democracy beat goes on. Keeley’s surprising critique repeats, “We have a word for these people.”. The people have one, too: “Intelligent”. Another is “caring”.

Author Information:

Lee Basham,, is a professor at South Texas College known for his research on conspiracy theories, conspiracy in a hierarchical society and its significant implications for a functional democracy.

[1] I used a GQ 600+ gamma ray detector. See, A Sievert is a measure of harmful radiation; particularly gamma rays. Some gamma readings (mSv/a) and counts per minute equal or exceed those of the nuclear test site in Nevada as well as samples of Trinitite itself—fused sand from the first Plutonium-design bomb tested near the McDonald ranch, New Mexico, in 1945.

[2] See, for instance,

[3] Personal communication, 5/21/2020.

[4] Keeley, Brian L. 2023. “Conspiracy Theory and (or as) Folk Psychology.” Social Epistemology doi: 10.1080/02691728.2023.2191290.

[5] Or at least, “morally questionable”.

[6] See Hume’s 1748 introduction to his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding  where he laments the “stillborn” reception of his first adventure in epistemology A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739. See, Keeley, Brian 1999. “Of Conspiracy Theories.” The Journal of Philosophy 96 (3): 109–126.

[7] Basham, Lee. 2001. “Living with the Conspiracy.” Philosophical Forum and Basham, Lee. 2003. “Malevolent Global Conspiracy.” Journal of Social Philosophy.

[8] See Churchland, Paul M. 1981. “Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes.” The Journal of Philosophy 78 (2): 67–90, particularly 70–72.

[9] Aside: Paul Churchland is a remarkable philosopher. On visits to his office he had a picture of a human brain on the desk. When asked he said it was a picture of his wife, philosopher Patricia Churchland; her brain-scan.

[10] This is not the place to discuss biasing, self-training verses supervised training, and a great many other topics in “Neural Network Theory” or “Parallel Distributed Processing”. The point is the network is statistical in any complex problem.

[11] Conspiracy theories are frequently suspicions or speculations that invite additional investigation. We will focus on beliefs in what follows, though this is a simplification.

[12] In his “Of Conspiracy Theories” Keeley does not assume conspiracy theory is a pejorative term. Instead, he offers two arguments that (public trust and supporting uncontrollability), while question begging, do try to distinguish warranted from unwarranted conspiracy theories while avoiding direct recourse to evidence and the recognition that sources of information are easily compromised. Theories. As is now recognized, neither of Keeley’s arguments succeed.

[13] The statistics do not support the claim of a pathologizing or pejorative connotation to “conspiracy theory”. We looked at n=220, among US freshmen and sophomore students at the University of Missouri, Kansas City in 2007 and n=1446 in 2018-2021 at South Texas College and University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. This involved a labeling contrast; the same scenario that we identify as a “conspiracy theory” or a “conspiracy explanation”. Participants rate the identical scenario to perceived probability, using a Likert style scale of 1-7. There was no significant difference between probability ratings. That is, “a rose by any other name…” null finding. Both groups rated the imaginary conspiracy as rather likely. Other conspiracy scenarios resulted in a very similar response pattern. In a further test using simply “deception explanation” verses “conspiracy theory”, the results were statically comparable. Similar recent tests in California show the same.

[14] “CTFP”, 6.

[15] See Karl Popper “The Conspiracy Theory of Society” and the large commentary surrounding Popper’s simplistic suggestion.

[16] These examples first appear in Basham, Lee. 2001. “Living with the Conspiracy.” Philosophical Forum and Basham, Lee. 2003. “Malevolent Global Conspiracy.” Journal of Social Philosophy.

[17] In my personal experience some well-meaning Arab and Iranians have argued it is best to keep terminal illness a secret.

[18] See, for instance, (retrieved July 11, 2023).

[19] See, Basham, Lee. 2018. “Joining the Conspiracy.”Argumenta 3 (2): 271–290 for a detailed discussion.

[20] Twitter post, retrieved June 22, 2023.

Categories: Critical Replies

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply