I agree with much that Rico Hauswald (2023) says in “‘That’s Just a Conspiracy Theory’: Relevant Alternatives, Dismissive Conversational Exercitives, and the Problem of Premature Conclusions.” I agree with him that the term “conspiracy theory” standardly acts in ordinary language as a dismissive conversational exercitive. In other words, it is used to narrow the set of propositions deemed to be worthy of serious consideration. I also agree with him that “all too often, legitimate beliefs, investigative hypotheses, forms of social criticism etc., are excluded from serious consideration by being dismissed in ordinary language and public discourse as ‘conspiracy theories’” (500). Finally, I agree with him that this practice often leads people to draw conclusions prematurely. … [please read below the rest of the article].
Coady, David. 2023. “A Reply to Hauswald’s ‘That’s Just a Conspiracy Theory’.”
Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (10): 44–46. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-8aH.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
❧ Hauswald, Rico. 2023. “‘That’s Just a Conspiracy Theory’: Relevant Alternatives, Dismissive Conversational Exercitives, and the Problem of Premature Conclusions.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 494–509.
❦ Pigden, Charles. 2023 “‘Conspiracy Theory’ as a Tonkish Term: Some Runabout Inference-Tickets from Truth to Falsehood.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 423–437.
On Conspiratorial Hypotheses
Hauswald rightly says that it can be perfectly legitimate to perform dismissive conversational execertives, for the simple reason that “some alternatives really don’t deserve to be taken seriously” (499), and he concludes that “performing dismissive conversational exercitives against conspiratorial hypotheses can at least sometimes be legitimate” (500). Again, he is certainly right about this, since there are plenty of conspiratorial hypotheses that don’t deserve to be taken seriously. However, I don’t believe anyone has ever claimed otherwise.
The issue is not whether there are conspiratorial hypotheses that don’t deserve to be taken seriously, but whether they don’t deserve to be taken because they are conspiratorial hypotheses. Someone who says “that’s just a conspiracy theory” is not merely saying that the hypothesis in question is not to be taken seriously and it is a conspiracy theory, but that it is not be taken seriously because it is a conspiracy theory. I, along with others such as Charles Pigden, have long argued that no view should be excluded from serious consideration on this ground. One should never dismiss a view as “just a conspiracy theory”.
It may be that Hauswald agrees. He acknowledges that it doesn’t follow from the fact that it is sometimes legitimate to dismiss conspiratorial hypotheses, that it is “ever legitimate to dismiss propositions by speech acts such as ‘That’s just a conspiracy theory’” (500). He says that this does not follow because I (Coady 2018) may be right that “there may be good reasons for altogether refraining from using the term ‘conspiracy theory’” (500). However, one doesn’t have to adopt my eliminationist approach to the topic to hold that one should never dismiss a view on the ground that it is just a conspiracy theory (in some sense of that term). One could, for example, try to reform the term “conspiracy theory”, in such a way that it no longer functions as a dismissive conversational exercitive.
Elsewhere (Coady 2012, 127) I have discussed the possibility of reappropriating the term “conspiracy theory”, along with related terms, such as “conspiracy theorist” and “conspiracism”, in a way that is analogous to reappropriating of terms like “witch” and “queer” by people whose voices have in the past been excluded from the public domain by these disparaging words. I won’t delve into the debate between eliminativists (such as myself) and reformists (such as Pigden) here. It is enough to note here that our disagreement is about semantics. That doesn’t mean it is unimportant; however, on the present issue of whether it is ever legitimate to dismiss any view as “just a conspiracy theory”, Pigden and I are agreed. To dismiss a view for this reason is (at best) to dismiss it for the wrong reason.
Hauswald lists several harms that can happen when “legitimate beliefs” are excluded from serious discussion by being labelled as “just conspiracy theories”, and I agree with each of the items on his list, except for the alleged harm of “political polarization” (500). I have argued (forthcoming) against the widespread idea that political polarization is a bad thing.
In fact, I don’t think Hauswald goes far enough in his discussion of the harms caused by the term “conspiracy theory”. It is not only harmful when legitimate beliefs are dismissed as “just conspiracy theories”; it is also harmful when illegitimate beliefs (for example beliefs that are demonstrably false and/or maliciously motivated) are dismissed in this way. To dismiss illegitimate beliefs as “just conspiracy theories” is to dismiss them for the wrong reason, since it implies wrongly that there is something wrong with believing in conspiracies, and it contributes to a practice (i.e. the dismissal from serious consideration of anything successfully labelled as a “conspiracy theory”) which makes it is easier for conspiracy to thrive at the expense of openness.
Hauswald is right to say that the exclusionary character of the label “conspiracy theory” can lead people to draw conclusions prematurely, and he provides some excellent examples to illustrate this phenomenon. However, I think the more fundamental problem is not that people draw conclusions prematurely, but rather that they draw the wrong conclusions. Take for example, Hauswald’s discussion of a hypothetical person who has become aware of a rumor that Johnson’s Baby Powder contains asbestos, and who wonders whether her asbestos related disease is caused by it. Although the rumor is in fact true, she ends up dismissing it, because epistemic authorities (or people she supposes to be epistemic authorities) characterise it as “just a conspiracy theory” (502).
Now Hausland is right that this person has drawn a conclusion prematurely: namely that there isn’t asbestos in the Baby Powder; but the more fundamental problem surely is not that she has drawn a conclusion prematurely (i.e. too quickly), but rather that she has drawn the wrong conclusion. When we focus on prematurely drawn conclusions, we confine our attention to circumstances in which someone arrives at a conclusion, when they should have withheld judgement instead. However, this is only one way in which the exclusionary character of the term “conspiracy theory” leads us astray. Although it can lead us to prematurely draw conclusions in circumstances in which we should withhold judgement, it can just as easily lead us to draw belated conclusions, or no conclusions at all, in circumstances in which the correct conclusion would be immediately apparent, were it not for the fact that it involves postulating a conspiracy and there is a widespread irrational prejudice against doing that.
A “Functionalist Turn”?
I commend Hauswald for not adding to the bewildering array of existing definitions of “conspiracy theory” in the literature. As I understand him, he doesn’t give his own definition, because he wants to focus on the term (494), rather than its referent (whatever exactly that may be). More particularly, he focuses on the term’s function, and expresses the hope that his essay can be the start of a “functionalist turn” to the debate (503). It seems to me that such a functionalist turn is already underway, albeit on a small scale. I, for example, have argued that the terms “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theory” serve the function of suppressing beliefs opposed to the interests of powerful institutions, just as the terms “heresy” and “heretic” once did (Coady 2021). Likewise Charles Pigden has recently argued that these terms function as what Arthur Prior and Michael Dummett called “Tonkish terms”, licensing inferences from truths to falsehoods (Pigden 2023). Hauswald’s analysis of the speech act of saying “that’s just a conspiracy theory” is a welcome contribution to this literature.
Coady, David. forthcoming. “A Defence of Extremism.” In Extreme Philosophy: Bold Ideas and a Spirit of Progress edited by Stephen Hetherington. Routledge.
Coady, David. 2021. “Conspiracy Theory as Heresy.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 55 (7): 756–759. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2021.1917364.
Coady, David. 2012. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hauswald, Rico. 2023. “‘That’s Just a Conspiracy Theory’: Relevant Alternatives, Dismissive Conversational Exercitives, and the Problem of Premature Conclusions.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 494–509. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2023.2172699.
Pigden, Charles. 2023 “‘Conspiracy Theory’ as a Tonkish Term: Some Runabout Inference-Tickets from Truth to Falsehood.” Social Epistemology 37 (4): 423–437. https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2023.2212379.
Categories: Critical Replies