Archives For Critical Replies

Critical Replies are engagements with articles recently published in Social Epistemology.

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University, patrick.stokes@deakin.edu.au

Stokes, Patrick. “Reluctance and Suspicion: Reply to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 48-58.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3qM

Please refer to:

reluctant-_to_leave

Image credit: Thomas Huang, via flickr

I am grateful to both Matthew Dentith and Lee Basham for their thoughtful and generous replies to my barging into their discussion of particularism and generalism about conspiracy theory. An over-long reply is a rather poor way to repay that generosity, but here goes.

Conspiracy Theory vs. Conspiracy Narrative

A central part of my argument in Stokes is that there is a gap between how epistemologists use the term “conspiracy theory” and how the term is popularly used.[1] My concern is that by defining “conspiracy theory” so broadly, epistemologists end up losing sight of the recognizable cultural practice of conspiracy theorizing. It’s well established by this point in the debate that there is no prima facie reason to reject conspiracy theories on the basis of their formal explanatory structure alone. But that level of abstraction is not, so to speak, where we live, and nor is it the level on which social critiques of conspiracy theory operate.

Dentith and Basham respond to this concern in different ways. Dentith argues that some of my worries about conspiracy theory are really concerns about certain types of conspiracy narrative. The problem is not the simple act of forming (or asserting) explanations of observed events that involve two or more actors conspiring in secret, but the deployment of particular narratives about specific conspiracies; for instance, the “Jewish World Conspiracy” narrative (or overlapping narratives, perhaps) promulgated by figures as diverse as the Tsarist Okhrana, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Adolf Hitler, and David Duke. “To theorise about a conspiracy—to wit, to engage in conspiracy theorising—is a different task from hooking into an existing conspiracy narrative to press a point,” and accordingly, the two should be evaluated separately.[2]

At first blush, such a distinction maps neatly onto my own concern to differentiate conspiracy explanation as a formal category from conspiracy theory as a recognizable social practice and cultural formation. And in terms of the debate between generalism and particularism, adopting this distinction would seems to leave open the possibility of maintaining particularism about conspiracy theorizing while adopting a generalism about certain conspiracy narratives—something very like the “defeasible generalism” or “reluctant particularism” I endorsed.

In practice, however, it’s not clear how clear a line we can draw between conspiracy theory and conspiracy narrative as Dentith construes these terms. Dentith invites us to “imagine someone in a room, dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit.”[3] But if this conspiracy theorist is anything like most conspiracy theorists, her theories, however dispassionate, are going to draw upon existing conspiracy theory tropes and narrative structures. It is remarkable how strongly the same tropes recur in otherwise disconnected conspiracy theories: for instance, the near-ubiquity of “false flag” explanations. Say Dentith’s speculator sees reports of a mass shooting event, and wonders: “Perhaps this shooting is a false flag designed to prepare the ground for disarming the population.” That is not a stand-alone explanation, but one embedded in a tradition of “the government is coming take your guns” anxieties. It sits within a long, ongoing, evolving, recognizable history of interpretation. These day, it re-emerges, fully-formed, within minutes of any major mass shooting, regardless of context or location.

Of course, one could reply here that there’s no reason to think conspiracies won’t tend to resemble each other: the similarity of conspiracy narratives may simply reflect the finite repertoire of strategies available to conspirators. Moreover, conspiracy theories generally posit fairly powerful actors, which in turn limits the pool of possible perpetrators, so we’d expect to see recurring villains in these explanations. In short, there are only so many possible conspirators, and only so many possible ways for them to conspire effectively. Even so, in considering any individual act of conspiracy theorizing it’s difficult to see how we could differentiate between what is genuinely original (even if isomorphic with other conspiracy theories) and what borrows its form—and a large part of its sanction—from existing conspiracy narratives.

However, let’s assume that Dentith’s lackey-dispatching idle speculator is somehow oblivious to conspiracy theorizing as a social practice—perhaps she, in a nod to Frank Jackson’s “Mary,” has been raised in an environment where she has never been exposed to any existing conspiracy theories or conspiracy tropes.[4] Her conspiracy theories are, let’s stipulate, self-standing and sui generis alternatives to “official” explanations of given events. Does that entitle all her theories to be considered in a particularist way?

Accusation and Reluctance

This question connects us to what I described as “reluctance,” which should attach to both conspiracy theorizing and to indulging in particular conspiracy narratives. Dentith’s conspiracy theorist spins her theories “dispassionately.” But then, what motivates them? Dentith tells us that the question of whether mass shootings are a government plot designed to curb gun rights is “a perfectly interesting question” and that “entertaining that notion is something someone, somewhere should engage in.”[5] It’s not clear however where the “should” emerges from here. Of course, one can “dispassionately” speculate about anything. I could, for instance, walk into any room and try to calculate the probability that anyone in that room is plotting to kill me. Despite being a fairly anxious sort I’d probably do so calmly, because I am not actually entertaining the prospect that some of these people want to do me in. I’m just idly playing with the idea. But it is far from clear why I should speculate like this, and likewise it is far from clear why I should speculate whether mass shooting events were hoaxed by the government.

Ok, we might think, but surely such speculation is both harmless enough on its own terms and potentially exposes genuine plots, however unlikely? After all, insists Dentith, “you can theorise about conspiracy theories without making accusations.”[6] Dentith here specifies that “the threshold for accusation here [must be] something higher than simply saying “They are up to something…’”[7] But just how far can we go down that path before we’re making accusations? We can certainly avoid blaming anyone specific by offering explanations so under-described they barely seem to warrant the name “theory” (“Things are not as they seem,” “I’ll bet they are behind this” etc.). But this doesn’t get us very far. It’s not clear how far you can go with suggesting a mass casualty event was really a false flag exercise without impugning someone. We might try to find a redoubt here between accusation and non-accusation to hide in; we might want to call that redoubt “expressing suspicion” or, more commonly, “just asking questions” (less charitably known as “JAQing off”). But just asking questions that call someone’s innocence into question is not a morally neutral act. Dentith’s dispassionate speculator may not be doing very much practical harm, but she is nonetheless engaging in a practice with a moral cost. My walking into a room and idly wondering if you’re planning to kill me may not cause you much upset—mostly because I wouldn’t mention doing so, as that would make things pretty awkward—but I’ve still entertained the idea you might be a murderer, and thereby done you a passing wrong. There are of course circumstances where that’s a warranted suspicion or even a necessary prudential response; but those circumstances are, precisely because they violate the background trust intrinsic to human sociality (more on this below), abnormal, even when pervasive and persistent.

For Dentith, distinguishing between conspiracy theorizing and conspiracy narrative does allow us to avoid certain narratives that are discredited or problematic. But the motivation here remains, on his telling, fundamentally epistemological rather than ethical:

After all, if the evidence is “This looks like a redressed version of a Jewish banking conspiracy narrative,” then the appropriate evidential response is to ask “Hasn’t this been debunked?” Because if it has, then we will have evidence to mount against the new version. If it has not, then we need to investigate the claim further.”[8]

That may well be a perfectly valid evidential response. But we do not apply our evidential reasoning in a vacuum, but do so from within historically conditioned and epistemically finite situations, in a world already freighted with moral and political meanings. We do not step out of the world when we think and reflect; our thinking, reflecting, and suspecting are all actions we perform and so subject to moral inspection. In that context, an at least equally appropriate response is:

Entertaining theories about a global Jewish world conspiracy is a well-recognized anti-Semitic practice, and I will not engage in such a practice by taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

It remains logically possible such a theory is true, but not only are we not morally or rationally obliged to entertain every theory, we are morally obliged to reject some theories even at the risk of occasionally being wrong. Basham claims it is a virtue of particularism that it “directly confronts theories that are unwarranted (Jews are trying to destroy Western civilization),” but as he presents particularism here, it doesn’t look like this is the sort of confrontation he has in mind.[9]

Generalism and Ethics

Unlike Dentith, Basham evidently doesn’t want to buy into a distinction between conspiracy theory as a cultural phenomenon and conspiracy theory as a particular form of explanation. He instead defends a thoroughgoing particularism without even the evidentiary heuristics Dentith wants to develop, insisting that conspiracy theories “should be evaluated solely case by case, on the basis of evidence, without any epistemic mal-biasing.”[1] Basham claims that my “reluctant particularism” or “defeasible generalism” is an unstable binary: it either collapses into generalism (given that generalists preserve some sliver of defeasibility) or is simply particularism.

Here’s the argument Basham attributes to me:

1) Epistemic generalism is true; epistemic issues are “off the table” except in extremely rare cases (traditional generalism);
2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;
3) If a theory causes harm, it is morally suspect (consequentialism);
4) Particularism claims we should evaluate conspiracy theories on the evidential warrant of each;
5) Unwarranted conspiracy theories are popularly believed for long periods of time without evidence (the “unreasoning masses” gambit);

So, Particularism is not the correct approach to conspiracy theorizing.[2]

Basham also adds what he takes to be a missing premise here:

6) Our default analysis of conspiracy theories should not be in terms of evidential merit, but in terms of how they promote or undermine our political projects; those that undermine these should be rejected, those that promote these should be promoted.[3]

I don’t recognize my position in this argument, though I’ve no doubt this is down to imprecision on my part and not Basham’s. I do assert premises 2) and 3). Premise 5), as defined here, doesn’t really amount to an “unreasoning masses” gambit: conspiracy theorists rarely form a mass and are not necessarily irrational. For instance, with respect to my example of deaths from improperly/untreated AIDS in South Africa, it is of course no part of my original claim that the 330,000+ people who died necessarily believed in the conspiracy theory themselves, let alone that they were irrational; it is enough that the government (or even senior figures in the government) believed it and acted accordingly in framing their policy responses to the HIV epidemic.[4]

Premise 6) casts what is an essentially moral claim—show reticence in suspecting or accusing others of malfeasance—in political terms. Basham takes my view to be a version of the Public Trust Approach (PTA). But PTA is still an argument about the epistemic reliability of institutions; it’s “trust” in the sense of “I trust this ladder to bear my weight,” not trust in the sense of “I trust the people in this room not to kill me.” The latter is not merely predictive (“I’m 98% sure you’re not planning to kill me right now”) but an expression of a moral relation: I’m in your hands, and the fact I am so enjoins you not to act against me. This is not to deny that conspiracy theory can have dramatically corrosive effects on the body politic; indeed we’re arguably seeing that right now amidst the apparently tectonic shifts occurring in the relationship between media, politics, and citizenry. Nonetheless my point is primarily a scaled-up moral one rather than a scaled-down political one.

This brings us to the central point of disagreement here, which is premise 1). At least as phrased here, 1) seems to separate moral and epistemic issues that are in fact coimbricated right from the outset. That there is nothing prima facie epistemically false about conspiracy explanations simply as such is, to reiterate, now well established. But, as noted above, we never form our views in a moral vacuum, and that will (or should) have implications for the sort of theories we are prepared to entertain. In discussing my “reluctant particularism,” Basham notes that:

If “reluctant” means we will not immediately embrace a theory, but seek significant evidence for or against, then this is simply the particularist position. We have the same “reluctance” towards any scientific theory. This reluctance doesn’t view the theory as prima facie false. Saying a theory is not yet warranted is not to say it probably never will be, just because of the sort of theory it is.[5]

Quite right. But the comparison with science only goes so far, for we do not stand in a moral relation to the objects of scientific inquiry, at least as regards the purely scientific questions we pose of them; we do not do wrong by subatomic particles or nebulae by postulating theories about them that turn out to be false. Levelling a false accusation has a moral cost to it that proposing a flawed hypothesis in physics or chemistry, in itself at least, does not.

The Payoffs of Particularism

Basham takes it that when I discuss the moral cost of conspiracy accusation in this way, “the ‘immoral’ is a simple consequentialism.”[6] Consequences matter, and that is why I noted them in the case of AIDs denialism[7] in South Africa, but the claim is not fundamentally or solely a consequentialist one. If I publish a blog insisting without anything like credible evidence that Prince Philip had MI6 murder Diana, I’ve still wronged Prince Philip even if he never finds out or doesn’t care or suffers no other unwelcome effects of my accusation. But let’s dwell on consequences for a moment, as that is where Basham launches a defense of particularism.

Basham claims that particularism about conspiracy theory, characterized by “evidence-dissemination and open debate,” has in practice yielded various dividends, both in terms of confirming some conspiracy theories and refuting others. Two things need to be noted in response. The first is that all of the conspiracy theories Basham claims to have been defeated are alive and well: it will come as cold comfort to CDC employees harassed by anti-vaccination activists outside their workplace to hear that “The anti-vaccination movement has been profoundly undermined” and even less comfort to parents in places like the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, where vaccination levels, thanks to denialism, remain dangerously below herd immunity level.[8] The President of the United States has publically supported the idea of a link between vaccines and autism, and has reportedly discussed appointing antivax activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to chair a commission into the subject.[9] If this is a movement that has been profoundly undermined, one shudders to think what it looks like in rude health. It may also be true that, as Basham claims, “Many of the tenets of the 9/11 truth movement have been abandoned by its own members,”[10] but that movement has likewise hardly vanished; as Alex Jones has recently demonstrated, you can still go on TV and publically call 9/11 an inside job and Sandy Hook a hoax and still have the President-Elect of the United States call you to thank you and your viewers for their support.[11]

Secondly, Basham claims that particularism has made it possible for certain conspiracy theories to be confirmed. Specifically, he claims that “the Iraq war is now widely recognized in the West to be an act of political conspiracy on the part of the US and other Western governments, particularly those of Bush and Blair.”[12] But both “political conspiracy” and “widely recognized” (note that Basham does not simply say “widely believed”) are ambiguous here. If the claim is that the West unjustly pursued self-interested motives in invading Iraq under the cover of overblown WMD threats, that seems clearly true, but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a conspiracy. One can act in self-interested ways without conspiring with others.[13] If the claim is rather that Bush, Blair, and other actors actively and explicitly colluded to fake intelligence about WMDs to provide a false justification for invading Iraq, then this is far from a “widely recognized” fact.

The Chilcot Report, for instance, is comprehensively damning about the UK Government’s decision to go to war, yet even it stops short of alleging a conspiracy, unless we think that a grotesque combination of motivated willful ignorance, hubris, and negligence somehow meets the definition of conspiracy used by epistemologists. Of course, it may yet emerge someday that there was a conspiracy: a phone transcript might yet surface of Bush telling Blair “Let’s milk this 9/11 thing by pretending Iraq has WMD and then invading to take their oil.” But I’d be willing to bet that if that does happen, it won’t emerge from the ranks of those now popularly referred to as conspiracy theorists. It will come, as it usually does, from whistleblowers and journalists. (Until recently, I’d have included Wikileaks in that list…)

That in no way invalidates the important point made, by Pigden and others, that the pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theory” makes it easier for political actors to deflect attention from legitimate questions. But then, if we want to stop the term being used to shut down proper scrutiny, we need to be honest about why the term has the pejorative connotations it has: the tradition to which the term is characteristically applied, and the attitudes, tropes, and patterns of argumentation employed by that tradition.

The Tracy Affair

I raised the case of James Tracy as an instance of morally reprehensible behavior licensed by conspiracy theory. I think this case illustrates a very specific problem: the way conspiracy theories tend to (and note I do not say any more than “tend to”) cause conspiracy theorists to make purely defensive accusations. Basham insists however that while Tracy’s actions were “misguided” as well as “immoral and imprudent,” the Tracy affair has “no epistemic relevance to how we should approach conspiracy theories as such.”[14] The “as such” clause here makes a degree of sense if, like Basham, one is committed to a purely epistemological analysis of conspiracy theory. But only a degree. The behavior in this case is not simply a matter of insensitivity or imprudence grafted onto an otherwise unrelated belief system. It’s a direct result of trying to defend that belief system from disconfirmation.

Imagine you meet someone who tells you their child has been killed. What would need to be the case for you to begin to suspect that they are lying not merely about the death of that child, but about the child’s very existence? Now imagine how strong those suspicions would need to be for you to demand that the person you’re talking prove, to your satisfaction, that their child had existed. The evidentiary bar here would have to be very high indeed.

But now imagine that the story of the dead child (call this story or set of propositions x) is flatly incompossible with another set of beliefs you happen to hold (call this set c). You have four options:

1) Accept x is true and accept c is false;
2) Reject x and insist c is true;
3) Accept x is true but try to find a way to make this fact compossible with the truth of c;
4) Remain agnostic as to which, if either, of x and c is true.

In this case, the more committed you are to c, the stronger the reasons you’ll have for rejecting 1) and 4). That leaves you with either 3)—which is hard work and may turn out not to be possible in a given case—or 2). In this case, Tracy’s c was the belief that Sandy Hook was staged, and he took option 2). It strains credulity, to say the least, to claim that Tracy simply noticed, independently of his antecedent commitment to Sandy Hook being a hoax, problems with the Pozeners’ story and accused them on that basis. He accused them because their story contradicted an interpretation of the events of 14 December 2014 that he accepted. Moreover, such an accusation of deceit is easier to make, because more parsimonious, if one is already committed to the existence of a conspiracy not simply to commit the act, but to hide the truth. That doesn’t mean such accusations are always and necessarily a feature of conspiracy theorizing.

Again, my claim goes to the typical features of conspiracy theory as a social phenomenon rather than a specific form of explanation. And it is frequent enough to be a particularly salient feature of the phenomenon. Tracy, after all, is not the only person to confront Sandy Hook parents and witnesses and accuse them of being crisis actors. Nor is Sandy Hook Trutherism the only form of conspiracy theory that generates this class of accusations.[15] When journalist Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward were shot dead on live television in August 2015, Parker’s boyfriend Chris Hurst found his grief compounded by conspiracy theorists insisting that Parker was a crisis actor, that she was not dead, that Hurst too was a crisis actor, that they had never had a relationship, and so on.[16] Again, this doubt is motivated not by any evidence that would be compelling independently of a conspiracy theory, but solely by a pre-existing disposition to believe the shooting was staged and that Parker and Ward (and by extension Hurst) must therefore be crisis actors—a claim made by, among others, James Tracy’s blog.[17]

As I understand it, Dentith’s current project seeks to develop heuristics for determinging when a conspiracy theory claim is and is not worthy of being taken seriously enough to investigate it—in other words, something like the non-absolutist particularism I’m endorsing and Basham rejects. If we’re developing heuristics for when we should and should not investigate conspiracy claims, then

Does taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it require me to dismiss grieving parents as frauds, under conditions in which there exist no compelling theory-independent reasons to think they are? If so, don’t take this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

— isn’t a bad start.

A Final Word on Trust

One thing that this discussion has made clear to me is that radically different foundational views of the role of trust are in play here. In my initial reply I only alluded to this parenthetically, and it is clear that more needs to be said, if only to clarify what underlies the divergences. A fuller working out of this point will need to wait for another occasion. For now, it’s worth simply noting where the underlying views of the normativity of trust differ.

The philosophical literature on conspiracy theory largely embeds a calculative view of trust. When most philosophers ask “How much should we trust our society’s sources of information?” they are asking a question about reliability: “On past performance, how much confidence should we have that these institutions are telling the truth and/or acting in a way consistent with their stated commitments to acting in our interests?” There is, as Dentith notes, no way of determining in advance just how conspired the world really is.[18] But nonetheless, it is not unconspired—conspiracies occur, and most philosophers working on this topic take conspiracy to be a more pervasive feature of social and political life than we usually assume, and think we should calibrate our suspicions accordingly.

David Coady, for instance, explicitly endorses a sort of Aristotelian account of trust, according to which “the intellectual virtue of realism is a golden mean between the intellectual vices of paranoia and naivety.”[19] Thus, our phronetic judgement should aim to be just suspicious enough. Alasdair MacIntyre[20] has offered a similar account of ideal trust as a mean between excessive suspicion and credulity, arrived at through a long process of moral training: learning who to trust, and when, and how much.[21]

Yet trust as an interpersonal and moral phenomenon is not simply a matter of calculating and responding to reliability. For one thing, it involves mutual responsiveness to need, taking the fact the other person knows I am reliant on them to be a reason for them to act consistent with my interests.[22]

We know that not everyone is trustworthy in that sense. Basham tells us that “Human life is conspiratorial. We can face this, embrace it, but if we deny it, we empower it in the worst way.”[23] People lie, cheat, and steal, and sometimes they conspire in order to do so. But human life is also predicated on foundational, non-calculative trust. When I walk into a room I don’t mentally calculate the odds of you trying to kill me, not because I’ve previously assured myself that the odds too low to worry about, but because of that default background trust that is a condition for social life. As K.E. Løgstrup put it, trust is both conceptually and ontogenetically primary, distrust secondary; without that foundational trust the sphere of human life falls apart.[24] Accordingly, our judgments of what to believe of other people are guided by heuristics that are not merely epistemic in character, but also ethical. Giving “the benefit of the doubt” is not, or not typically, merely a judgement about the reliability of the other party, but an expression of that normative default attitude towards others.

This picture of foundational trust sits awkwardly, to say the least, with the standing vigilance required to maintain a democratic polity. There are always good reasons to be suspicious of power of all forms, both overt and covert, explicit and intrinsic. The work of identifying and uncovering power relations is indispensable, and it seems to involve a relentless and remorseless hermeneutics of suspicion. That tension—between foundational trust and vigilance—is a real and seemingly permanent feature of political and social life. What I have called “reluctance” here is an expression of that tension, an awareness of being caught between the duty to view others as good faith interlocutors and the duty to uncover wrong-doing. The sort of generalized, eager suspicion involved in entertaining and advancing conspiracy theories abandons that reluctance, and thereby misses that central dimension of human sociality. In a world full of untrustworthy people, the demand of trust remains.

Or, to quote the US President who presided over the Gulf of Tonkin conspiracy, himself misquoting W.H. Auden: “We must love each other, or we must die.”

References

Basham, Lee. “Between Two Generalisms: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 4-12.

Coady, David. “An Introduction to the Philosophical Debate about Conspiracy Theories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 1-12. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006a.

Coady, David. “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited David Coady, 115-127. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006b.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “In Defence of Particularism: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 27-33.

Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (April 1982): 127-36.

Jones, Karen. “Trustworthiness.” Ethics 123, no. 1 (2012): 61-85.

Løgstrup, Knud Ejler. The Ethical Demand. Translated by Theodor I. Jensen, Gary Puckering, and Eric Watkins. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Human Nature and Human Dependence: What Might a Thomist Learn from Reading Løgstrup?” In Concern for the Other: Perspectives on the Ethics of K. E. Løgstrup, edited by Svend Andersen and Kees van Kooten Niekerk, 147-166. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Pigden, Charles. “‘Popper Revisited,’ or What Is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25, no. 1 (1995): 3-34.

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism about Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 34-39.

Stokes, Patrick. “Spontaneity and Perfection: MacIntyre vs. Løgstrup.” In What is Ethically Demanded? K. E. Løgstrup’s Philosophy of Moral, edited by Hans Fink and Robert Stern, 275-299. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

[1] Ibid., 5.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10-11.

[4] Hence I don’t see how my paper “implies the existence of popular conspiracy theory at work in the populace and then infers that this belief must be efficacious in apparent medication refusal” (Basham 2016, 10 n.23).

[5] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 6.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Basham (2016, 10) is right to note that denialism per se is not the same thing as conspiracy theory. But AIDS denialism of various forms, much like other familiar forms of denialism—climate, vaccination etc.—does end up embedding conspiracy explanations either on the level of core theory or on the level of auxiliary hypotheses meant to sandbag the theory against disconfirmation. If I insist the world isn’t warming due to human activity, or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and yet the knowledge-generating mechanisms of society (academia, government research bodies, public health authorities etc.) keep insisting the contrary, I am forced to conclude the people who populate these mechanisms are collectively deluded, incompetent, or corrupt. The denialists just mentioned tend, with dispiriting regularity, to plump for the last option, even if they are not logically required to.

[8] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8.

[9] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-11/donald-trump-appoints-vaccine-sceptic/8174560

[10] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8-9.

[11] http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/trump-thanked-alex-jones-231329

[12] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 10.

[13] Consider the category of ‘quasi-conspiracies’: if all actors in a given context know that if they all act in certain ways the outcome will be better for all of them, and know that all the other actors know this too, they can act in a way that looks co-ordinated but in fact involves no actual collusion (Pigden 1995, 32 n.30; Coady 2006a, 5-6). Hence when an apprehended criminal gang all refuse to confess, this isn’t strictly a ‘conspiracy of silence’: they all just know if they each keep their mouth shut, they’ll all be better off than if any one of them spills the beans.

[14] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 12.

[15] As I write this, local media is reporting that a conspiracy theorist phoned a Melbourne hospital posing as a friend of a patient injured in a mass-casualty event, apparently hoping to prove the event was staged and the injured woman’s story was fake. http://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/news/australian-actor-impersonated-family-of-bourke-st-victims-in-calls-to-hospitals/news-story/d9be5da3a809ddf7bdaa58a96a54fc4e

[16] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/13/what-do-you-say-to-a-roanoke-truther.html This ‘the bereaved aren’t visibly upset enough in public so they must be lying’ trope is a depressingly recurrent one that extends far beyond conspiracy theory. Australians a few years older than myself will recall Lindy Chamberlain being accused of seeming too composed to be the grieving mother of a baby taken by a wild dingo she claimed to be. Chamberlain was convicted of murder, imprisoned, and subsequently exonerated when new evidence emerged; in 2012 a coroner found that a dingo had, in fact, taken baby Azaria. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

[17] http://memoryholeblog.com/2015/08/30/crisis-actors-alison-parker-and-adam-ward/ (Warning: on my most recent attempt to access this page [9 February 2017], Safari returned a malware warning)

[18] Denith, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories.

[19] Coady, “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories,” 126.

[20] MacIntyre, “Human Nature and Human Dependence.”

[21] On MacIntyre’s Aristotelian account of trust, which he offers in opposition to Løgstrup’s view of trust as foundational, see Stokes 2017.

[22] Jones, “Trustworthiness.”

[23] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 13.

[24] Løgstrup, The Ethical Demand.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org; Martin Orr, Boise State University, orr.martin@gmail.com

Dentith, Matthew R. X. and Martin Orr. “Clearing Up Some Conceptual Confusions About Conspiracy Theory Theorising.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 1 (2017): 9-16.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3oY

 Please refer to:

conspirators

Image credit: Jes, via flickr

In volume 5, issue 10 of this journal, we—along with five other conspiracy theory theorists (Lee Basham, David Coady, Kurtis Hagen, Ginna Husting, and Marius Raab)—took the authors of an opinion piece in Le Monde to task for advocating a cure to conspiracy theorising (Basham and Dentith 2016). The authors of that piece—Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Sebastian Dieguez, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian, and Pascal Wagner-Egger—with the exception of Karen Douglas—have since replied with a lengthy response, in which they claim:

What “they” had in mind, as must be clear by now, was to study how people, on their own or under some external influence, think and come to endorse some beliefs about such things. That, “they” think, would need some data, rather than wishful thinking, ideological clamours or armchair reasoning (Dieguez et al. 2016, 32).

So, we (at least two of us) are glad we could be of service, helping them elicit their purpose from the opinion piece they penned for Le Monde. However, we think that the lengthy response they have written raises more questions about their project than answers. In this short reply we will look at three systemic issues in their response: misrepresenting the work of the scholars they are responding to; the naive nature of their scientific research project; and the worry they are engaged in special pleading.

Misrepresentation En Masse

A curious feature of their response is to try and make out that the authors and co-signatories of the response to the Le Monde piece are inconsistent, or even hypocritical. We take issue with that for two reasons.

The first issue is the simplest to explain: yes, some of the earlier work of the co-signatories (some of it ten years old) is no longer reflective of their current thinking. You would think that people changing their minds, or refining their views would be considered an academic virtue, but it seems we are expected to hold fast to outdated views, or toe certain disciplinarian lines. As is to be expected, any group of scholars is bound to advance work that, despite broad-based agreements, will provide evidence of differences in approaches and conclusions.

The second issue is that where our respondents try to make out that our work is inconsistent, they achieve that only by misrepresenting said work. The number of these errors in their piece are too numerous for this short response, so let us just point out four examples, ranging from the bizarre (yet oddly mundane) to the worrying.

First, the mundane. They make much of the claim Lee Basham is the sole author of the co-signed letter, writing that ‘[Th]e article is referenced with Lee Basham as the sole author’ (Dieguez et al. 2016, 20). Yet, as is clear from the article itself, Matthew R. X. Dentith is listed as its co-author. This seems a simple mistake, but it is one that vexes them so much that they devote an entire footnote to what is an error in their collective reading of the piece.

More troubling is how they present our work. For example, they misrepresent one of the co-author’s work by claiming ‘Dentith seems very worried by those he calls “conspiracists”’ (Dieguez et al. 2016, 26). They seem to have missed section 7, ‘Stipulating Conspiracism’, where Dentith states quite clearly:

It might be also be the case that once we investigate Conspiracism, it turns out to be a fairly useless thesis, especially if it turns out there are not many (if any) conspiracists. However, if we are going to treat the thesis of Conspiracism seriously—and investigate it—we need to keep in mind that conspiracists are simply one kind of conspiracy theorist. The putative existence of such conspiracists does not tell us that belief in conspiracy theories generally is problematic. The question should be ‘When, if ever, is a conspiracy theorist a conspiracist?’ rather than presupposing that conspiracy theorists suffer from conspiracist ideation (Dentith, forthcoming).

‘When, if ever’ are hardly the words of someone who is vexed or troubled by the existence of conspiracists.

This is not the only example of such misrepresentation. Another of our works, a piece co-written by Ginna Husting and Martin Orr, gets similar treatment. Rather than attempting to ‘delegitimize the claims of alien believers’ (Dieguez et al. 2016, 26), Husting and Orr write:

While it is tempting to argue that Hofstadter is simply pointing to certain claims and claimants who seem truly misguided—for example, those who argue that aliens walk among us—this conclusion neglects a fundamentally important process (Husting and Orr 2007, 140 [emphasis added]).

Husting and Orr’s meaning is clear, and the use of the example is to make a point about our inability to establish a priori the truth of a belief or claim (whether a theory or not) simply by fixing the label ‘conspiracy theory’ to it. Likewise, in pointing out that we characterize the belief that the death of Elvis Presley was faked as ‘extreme’ (Dieguez et al. 2016, 26) we are objecting to the use of this example, and only this example, to reject all ‘conspiracy theories’ as a class of knowledge-claim. When we argue that ‘some claims characterized as conspiracy theories are false’, (Husting and Orr 2007, 131) the qualifier ‘characterized as’ is rather important to our meaning. Perhaps we should have been more direct: the point is that not all claims characterized as conspiracy theories are false.

We can debate the willfulness or sloppiness of these misrepresentations, but what is even worse is that they misrepresent the central argument of the piece they are directly replying to. By dropping essential qualifiers from the co-signatories argument they commit us to views we never expressed.

They claim that our position:

[C]an thus be framed as the following two-fold hypothesis: because real conspiracies have happened and still happen, conspiracy theories are not only warranted but necessary; the only reason this is not obvious to everyone is that “conspiracy theories” have been made to reflect badly on those who assert them by the very people they purport to unmask, and their enablers (Dieguez et al. 2016, 21).

Yet that is not what we said. Indeed, we are not committed to any general claim that ‘conspiracy theories are not only warranted but necessary’; at best we are committed to the two claims that:

1. We should not dismiss theories as unwarranted merely because they are called ‘conspiracy theories’, and

2. We should not downplay the necessity of conspiracy theorising. There should be no prescription against theorising about conspiracies, especially in a democracy, even if it turns out that some of those conspiracy theories will be pernicious, even damaging.[1]

So, at best, we agree that conspiracy theories are necessary, in that open democracies should tolerate (if not promote) investigating claims of conspiracy (the investigation of which will be predicated on the expression of conspiracy theories), but nowhere do we claim that conspiracy theories are in all cases warranted.

Now, it seems that what our colleagues meant to say is that we think conspiracy theorising is warranted, given that they claim:

Basham et al. (2016) essentially claim that conspiracy theorizing is generally warranted because there are conspiracies: that is a generalist view (Dieguez et al. 2016, 23).

Do we think conspiracy theorising is generally warranted? We certainly think it is warranted on a case-by-case basis, and we think that we should not dissuade people from theorising about conspiracies. Perhaps, then, we might extend an olive branch and say, yes, we think that—on some level—conspiracy theorising is generally warranted. There is, however, a huge difference between talk of conspiracy theorising and conspiracy theories. Thinking we should not dissuade people from theorising about conspiracies is a long way from saying that we think conspiracy theories are in all cases warranted and necessary. Perhaps our permissiveness about conspiracy theorising makes the existence of conspiracy theories in our polities necessary, but it does not commit us to any claim that said theories are necessarily warranted.

Taken individually, these errors (and we have but mentioned one minor, and three major) are troubling. Taken together, these errors indicate that our interlocutors have, to paraphrase words of Sherlock Holmes, ‘seen, but not observed’ (Conan Doyle 1891). It is errors like these which make us think ‘they’ wrote their response in haste: quick to anger; faster to reply. Rather than searching the corpus of seven scholars for evidence of apparently inconsistent views, they might look at what we have written in context. A few isolated or partial quotes might make us look inconsistent, or even foolish, but we trust readers of the reply at hand to be more careful.

A Naive Empiricism

Misrepresenting our work is one thing, but a bigger worry is the thread that runs throughout their reply piece: they are scientists, and our armchair theorising is no match for their experimental method. However, we think our social scientist friends might want to reconsider their scientific model.

The tenor of their reply reminds us of Bill Murray’s line from ‘Ghostbusters’. ’Back off man, I’m a scientist!’ (Murray, et al. 1984) Leaving to one side doctrinal disputes about the role of the social sciences in the grand schema of the sciences, the lack of engagement by these social scientists in pursuing the conceptual analysis of conspiracy theories by philosophers, sociologists, and the like is a marker of science done badly.

They, seemingly, do not want to dirty their work with the kind of theoretical concerns we are interested in. Rather, as scientists they see their job as going out to collect data, and then, perhaps, to theorise about said data later. But they are seemingly unaware of work from the middle of the century which showed that their naive empiricism is untenable. As W. V. Quine argued persuasively, evidence does not determine the truth of theories, because there are a potentially infinite number of theories consistent with a limited set of data points. Rather, our pre-existing theories (whether held explicitly or implicitly) end up being part of what determines what gets counted as evidence for said theories (Quine 1951). As social scientists, they are likely more familiar with the work of C. Wright Mills, who might suggest that ‘only within the curiously self-imposed limitations of their arbitrary epistemology have they stated their questions and answers…. [They] are possessed by … methodological inhibition’ (Mills 1959, 55).

The issue here is that our social scientists are taking the spectre of conspiracism and conspiracists seriously, without either doing the conceptual work to first identify what counts as conspiracist ideation before going off to find people who might suffer from it, or acknowledging that much of this work has already been done. The work of other scholars is ignored, and the difficult preliminary work of clarifying concepts and their relationships avoided. (That this work can often be most comfortably performed in an armchair is beside the point.)

Their whole project depends on taking the ‘conspiracist mindset’ as established empirical fact. Maybe the whole enterprise is scientific per se, but, if so, it is poorly conceptualised and operationalised. What we bring to this debate is a conceptual rigour that they, too, seem to want. Throughout their piece our colleagues ask for more time to work out definitions, or answer fundamental questions. Yet even a cursory look at the literature in philosophy, sociology, or anthropology shows that many of these questions are—if not outright answered—carefully considered (as we will show in the final section). But rather than engage with that work, they opt for special pleading: we need more time to work out the answers for ourselves!

A Case of Special Pleading

This brings us to our final set of worries; the fact that the reply piece penned by our colleagues ultimately rests upon special pleading.

Our social scientist friends present their project in the best possible light. They write:

So, what were “they” up to? Quite simply, “they” advocated for more research. “They” figured that, before “fighting” against, or “curing”, conspiracy theories, it would be good to know exactly what one is talking about (Dieguez et al. 2016, 21).

Specifically, they ask:

Are conspiracy theories bad? Are they good? Are they always bad, are they always good? Who endorses them, who produces them, and why? Are there different types of conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy consumers (Dieguez et al. 2016, 21)?

These questions have been addressed by scholars such as ourselves. Indeed, for a fulsome accounting of the problems of defining what counts as a conspiracy theory, and how our chosen definitions often presuppose answers to the research questions we are asking, they could do worse than look at the first three chapters of Dentith’s book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories (Dentith 2014).

The idea we can research a topic without knowing the terms of the topic seems rather backwards. If we do not define what counts as a ‘conspiracy theory’, how do we begin to measure when someone believes in such a theory, let alone whether that belief is rational or irrational? It is clear ‘they’ think they know what a conspiracy theory is, because they research belief in them. So why the reluctance to settle on a definition? Is it because settling on a definition would lead to problems in making their work seemingly fit together as the product of a coherent research programme?

Indeed, for researchers in search of a definition, they seem to have an awful lot to say about the definition they claim to have not yet settled upon.

For example, they claim:

[A]sserting that a conspiracy theory is any kind of thinking or explanation that involves a conspiracy—real, possible or imaginary—and that’s all there is to it, seems like a premature attempt to settle the issue, as if the topic itself was a non-topic and anyone—and that’s a lot of people—who thinks there is something there of interest is simply misguided, or manipulated (Dieguez et al. 2016, 22).

That is to say, they are at least aware that scholars have presented definitions of what counts as a ‘conspiracy theory’, and they have found said definitions wanting. That—at the very least—means they are operating with some definition of the subject-at-hand.[2] (And we would be the last to suggest that conspiracy theories are not of interest.)

So, what is their definition?

For the time being, thus, a “conspiracy theory” is what the conspiracist mindset tends to produce and be attracted to, an apparently circular definition that rests on ongoing work but is firmly grounded in relevant research fields such as cognitive epidemiology, niche construction and cognitively driven cultural studies, and could be refined or refuted depending on future results (Dieguez et al. 2016, 30).

Where do we start? They define conspiracy theories as irrational to believe despite earlier in their piece admitting some conspiracy theories have turned out to be warranted. Either they think those warranted theories somehow only became rational to believe over time (at which point we can say they are ignorant of the history of certain prominent examples) or they are being inconsistent with their terminology. Both issues have long been addressed in the wider academic literature.

It follows, then, from their definition that a conspiracy theorist is simply a believer in some irrational theory about a conspiracy. It is telling that they defend their scientific endeavour by pointing only towards weird and wacky conspiracy theories. They ask why alien shape-shifting reptile theories persist, and, yes, that is a good question. Yet they do not talk about the alleged conspiracy theories which turned out to be warranted nonetheless, like the Moscow Show Trials, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, or Watergate. It’s as if these examples of people theorising about actual conspiracies (yet being accused at the time of being irrational conspiracy theorists) are not of interest to them. Could it be because their theoretical basis for their scientific endeavour is entirely predicated on the idea that conspiracy theorists are not only gullible or subject to confirmation bias, but pathologically so—to the point that scientifically-informed state intervention is desirable? They ask us to explain why unwarranted conspiracy theories persist. We could ask them to explain how they would have reacted to John Dewey’s claim the Moscow Trials were rigged back in the 1930s, or to the claim that U.S. intelligence agencies were sweeping up intercontinental communications (subsequently documented by Edward Snowden).

What makes this all the worse is they acknowledge they start with a circular definition; a conspiracy theory is the sort of thing that attracts a deficient type of person, one plagued by a conspiracy mindset (which is assumed to be a problem from the get-go, rather than, say, the more widespread problems of confirmation bias, or premature closure of inquiry). Yes, people who believe things that are not true is a problem, so why not start there? That they proceed from a circular definition of the core concept, and then expect empirical research to fix fundamental conceptual problems, is just bad research design.

The Crux of the Matter

We stand, then, by our earlier claim that these social scientists seem to be committed to shutting down talk of conspiracy theories (Basham and Dentith 2016). After all, why would they not? They believe them to be, in all cases, bad beliefs. This, then, is the heart of our disagreement. We (both the authors of this article, and the undersigned of the piece the social scientists replied to) have done the conceptual work the social scientists claim they want to uncover in their empirical work. Now, they could embrace that fact, and consider the work of their academic peers seriously, using it to look at the cases where beliefs in conspiracy go awry (and also at those wonderful examples where it turned out the conspiracy theory was not just true, but well-evidenced and warranted to believe from the outset).

That is to say, before you decide something needs fixing, you need to come up with something other than a circular definition that rests on the existence of something that is demonstrated only by the research conducted premised upon your circular definition. What you do not do is assume the beneficence of those concerned about ‘the kids targeted by the programs’ (Dieguez et al. 2016, 30). That governments might discourage children from thinking critically about their governments (and the corporations they often serve), despite the very real history of the criminal abuse of power, seems to concern them only because they had not been consulted.

Apparently, though, ‘armchair philosophising’ (or, better put, careful conceptualisation of research problems) might interfere. This tendency to ignore the work of philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and the like shows a stunning lack of insight into the role such theorists have had on the development of the scientific method over the Twentieth Century. Our conceptual work is the underpinnings of good, rigorous science. We clarify the theoretical definitions upon which quality research is grounded. However, scientists who work without definitions (or try to hand wave their need for them away) ultimately produce results which can be easily questioned. After all, if we do not define what a ‘conspiracy theory’ is, how can we possibly measure belief in one? And if we do not know what a conspiracy theory is, how can we identify who the conspiracy theorists are? Yet, while they have a (circular) definition, they are not willing to engage in the conceptual analysis of it. It would, it seems, just get in the way of their ‘science’.

References

Basham, Lee and Matthew R. X. Dentith. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 12-19.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Strand Magazine June 25, 1891.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “The Problem of Conspiracism.” Argumenta (forthcoming).

Dieguez, Sebastian, Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian, and Pascal Wagner-Egger. “‘They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et Al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 20-39.

Husting, Ginna and Martin Orr. “Dangerous Machinery: ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ as a Transpersonal Strategy of Exclusion.” Symbolic Interaction 30, no. 2 (2007): 127-50.

Mills, C. Wright. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Murray, Bill, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis. Ghostbusters. Burbank, CA: RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, 1984.

Quine, W. V. O. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” Philosophical Review 60: (1951): 20-43.

[1] As for the second clause; we do not know what that they are trying to say, and have to assume that as the authors are French, it is a bad translation of some otherwise pithy point.

[2] We leave to the side that, once again, our social scientist friends have failed to capture or present this work accurately. These definitions they claim make the topic a non-starter are, in fact, aimed at looking at the broad class of theories covered by such a general definition, such that we can get to the heart of the question of how we judge and appraise such theories.

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College, labasham@southtexascollege.edu

Basham, Lee. “Between Two Generalisms: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 4-12.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3lM

Editors Note: An earlier version of this article posted to this page was a draft. We regret the error.

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Image credit: Mikey, via flickr

There’s the progress. We have found ways to talk around the problem—Michael Stipe

Most of us are fond of retro music, movies, what have you, some even epistemology. Let’s roll back to the 1990s. In his enjoyable, wide-ranging “Between Generalism and Particularism: A Reply to Basham and Dentith” Patrick Stokes encounters issues that have concerned social epistemologists for the last 20 years, Charles Pigden, Brian Keeley, David Coady, Kurtis Hagen and Matthew Dentith among them. I’m happy to be somewhere in the mix. The “furious agreement” Stokes notices is just thoughtful consensus. Even our new friends, the social psychologists, are increasingly on board. Stokes’ concerns are important and remain common in mainstream media and government discourse, if less among the public. He returns us to “the roots”, which these epistemologists, as well as cultural theorists like Peter Knight, Jodi Dean, Jack Bratich, Gina Husting and Martin Orr encourage us to grow beyond.

A problem some might wish to talk around which these theorists and others converge on, is the recurrent lack of transparency in our information hierarchies; political, economic and on occasion, scientific. Information control and the imposition and maintenance of constraining interpretive narratives is the habitual recourse in the stability of our hierarchical societies. This induces powerful stresses within our social epistemology. Because Stokes so quickly crosses so much territory, any response enjoys much to deal with.

Subject at Hand, Social Epistemology

Stokes claims he seeks a halfway house between particularism and generalism. In itself, that’s encouraging, given the dangers of generalism to democracies. Traditional generalism claims conspiracy theories are to be treated as prima facie false because they are conspiracy theories (or be subject to some similar epistemic mal-attitude). Particularism rejects the biasing prima facie false presumption against conspiracy theory. It treats conspiracy explanations as any other explanations; simply a question of evidence. Particularists tend to think conspiracies are normal to human conduct, so there’s no reason to think our natural ability vanishes in the upper reaches of our economic and political hierarchies. Some suspicion is proper.

But it’s a mistake to think particularism is the opposite of generalism. The opposite might be labeled anti-generalism: conspiracy theories are prima facie true. Both appear equally pathological in manner and measure. Generalists and anti-generalists tend to end up in similar places. Generalists are usually found as lower-level, true-believing functionaries in political parties and within cubicles in certain academic departments, while anti-generalists are often found in mental asylums or in the company of stolen shopping carts. Neither have much to recommend them as life-styles or epistemic positions. Particularism is the better place, a commonsense halfway house between either extreme.

Particularism and generalism have social consequences. Generalism functions as a stabilizing, silencing tactic concerning conspiracy explanations and as bridge to the pathologizing approach to those who explore conspiracy explanations. Particularism takes a cautious view of institutions that can gain much by public deception; governments, mass media and corporations. Conspiratorial, often illegal, activity is a significant possibility here and often powerfully anti-democratic. So conspiracy theories alleging such should be evaluated solely case by case, on the basis of evidence, without any epistemic mal-biasing. For particularism, the salvation of the state lies in watchfulness of the citizen.

Generalism expresses the piety that Western political and economic hierarchies rarely conspire against citizens, and mass media and national law enforcement can and will almost inevitably investigate and expose them should they ever make the attempt. The way paranoid anti-generalism embraces all conspiracy theories, generalism takes an equally paranoid stance to the very idea of conspiracy.

Presented with a dilemma argument with a conclusion one dislikes, one escape is to deny the disjuncts are exhaustive. Seek a halfway house. The trick is to have the halfway house be distinct from the original disjuncts. Stokes labels his halfway house between particularism and generalism as (a) “defeasible generalism” or alternatively, (b) “reluctant particularism”.

About (a): All generalists have an “ultimately defeasible” caveat because all grudgingly recognize that some conspiracy theories have proven true or well-warranted. But they require “overwhelming” evidence be presented before a conspiracy theory is to be considered as plausible. That places Stokes position squarely within the generalist camp. It does not distinguish Stokes’ position from traditional generalism, a position that on reflection appears untenable.

About (b): If “reluctant particularism” is “defeasible generalism” by another name, “conspiracy theories are prima facie false, but if presented with “overwhelming” evidence in their favor we will reluctantly concede they’re well-warranted or true, then again this merely re-labels old-style generalism.

If “reluctant” means we will not immediately embrace a theory, but seek significant evidence for or against, then this is simply the particularist position. We have the same “reluctance” towards any scientific theory. This reluctance doesn’t view the theory as prima facie false. Saying a theory is not yet warranted is not to say it probably never will be, just because of the sort of theory it is. Any explanation of events or phenomena in the context of competing explanations leads to this sort of “reluctance” on the part of a judicious evaluator. As evidence accrues, rejection, acceptance or agnosticism emerge. Not only the method of empirical science, it is also the method of academic history, the best journalism, and legal investigation into conspiratorial activities. The last three are rife with well-evidenced conspiracy theory. True, a few conspiracy theorists are evidentially incorrigible, but most are not. True, a few scientists and philosophers are evidentially incorrigible, when their guiding framework runs into problems, but most are not.

Stokes quickly opts for traditional generalism. He remains reasonable when invoking reality; his few examples of conspiracy theory all resort to particularism.

At this point we may have noticed that “generalism”, and any admixture with it, is intrinsically vague; what is “overwhelming”? What does “prima facie” really come to? In contrast, particularism focuses on evidence and proportions the selection of conspiracy theories to investigate on grounds of personal, political and human salience.

Meet the Public Trust Approach (again)

Stokes prefaces his remarks by resurrecting an element of Brian Keeley’s (1999) argument in “Of Conspiracy Theories”,

… I’d suggest we have reasons to be wary of conspiracy theorizing as a practice simply because the internal logic of conspiracy explanation disconnects the morally serious act of accusation from the force of evidence. To defend a conspiracy theory over any length of time typically requires the conspiracy theorist to recruit more and more people to the conspiracy. Conspiracy theory as a practice does not simply trade in suspicion, but in accusation without warrant.

Stokes’ remark is a skeletal version of the “public trust approach” (PTA). So commonplace in media and governing discourse it qualifies as Western political orthodoxy. This puts Stokes on the far side of generalism, one almost as extreme as might be imagined. Wisely, Keeley does not leap to the conclusion that conspiracy theory is accusation without warrant. Criticisms of the PTA are well-known and numerous in the literature. Even Keeley has abandoned the argument Stokes resurrects.

An insistence on ever-growing conspiracy is empirically mistaken. Most ambitious conspiracies don’t require ever-growing conspiratorial casts. So neither do theories about them. It’s easy to show conspiracies can be conducted with a surprisingly limited number of people. The vast majority empowering a conspiracy need not know what the goals of the conspiratorial leadership are and believe they are pursuing something entirely different. This is especially evident in hierarchical institutions, where people participate in well-compartmentalized roles within a top-down system of command and goal-interpretation.

Nor do most conspiracy theories trade in unwarranted accusation. A cursory examination of contemporary conspiracy theorizing quickly reveals that the argumentation used in most mature conspiracy theories is conducted with standards of evidence and inference we all share. Virtually all socially prominent conspiracy theories have significant warrant, even though it is often indecisive. That indecisiveness might be revealing. Whatever the case, it leaves us with rejection or a studied agnosticism. Conspiracy theorists’ careful evidential effort is an important reason why people are interested in these explanations. These aren’t baseless mutterings in alleys and on message boards. That’s a strawperson. They need much more than that to gain and hold anyone’s attention in today’s information-saturation.

Keeley, no friend of conspiracy theory, repeatedly makes this point. Many conspiracy theories, especially the most ambitious and popular, enjoy valid inferences and significant evidence; warrant. Pigden, Coady, Hagen, Dentith and myself have all pressed this. It’s an empirical reality. The developments within, and significant self-corrections, of alternative 9/11 conspiracy theories, are a useful casebook. Contra generalism, if we are to understand these conspiracy theories, we must carefully study them. Whatever we make of them, intellectual honesty forces us to concede they aren’t just “trading in accusation without warrant”. If they were, there would not be the sizable, detailed, intelligent discussions for and against them on the internet.

Even when a conspiracy is strongly suggested by publically available facts and observations, many institutions have non-epistemic motives that prevent them from exploring these conspiratorial possibilities and encourage them to actively dismiss, socially disqualify and effectively silence those who do explore these explanations. None of this involves being intentional co-conspirators. Some avenues of investigation are simply too economically, politically or socially “toxic” to pursue (the “why look” problem). Institutional forces and society stabilizing interests are all it takes. The Atomic Energy Commission irradiated millions of Americans during atomic bomb tests of the 1950s, leading to the fallout deaths in thousands of livestock and hundreds of thousands of human cancer deaths. They assured the public, contrary to their knowledge otherwise, that they were doing nothing dangerous and deadly. It is hardly surprising that the department of Agriculture didn’t hold a press conference to correct the deception, or that mainstream media did not investigate. No phone calls were necessary, no payoffs or threats. The topic was untouchable in the fear-hysteria of the 1950s. It was as toxic as the radioactive fallout. To do so would be “siding with the communists”. When a similar fear-hysteria swept the US post 9/11, the same move was applied to silence critics of the official story; they were “siding with the terrorists”. One would think this would be obvious to Stokes, as it was a source of great consternation and discussion in academia, post 9/11 as it was in the 1950s.

With Stokes’ halfway house nowhere in sight, issues of truth or warrant accordingly swept aside with the wand of generalism, we needn’t be detained by the question, is the conspiracy theory true? We can indulge a generalism of non-epistemic proportions; moral censure. This can only be consistent with epistemic generalism if it equally rejects conspiracy theories. For Stokes, it meets or exceeds. For Pigden, Coady, Dentith and others the moral verdict is the opposite: In a democracy moral considerations strongly support taking many conspiracy theories quite seriously, initially and then on the basis of evidence.

Moral Issues

Moving from the epistemic to moral, Stokes claims our fellow citizens are immoral to publically share conspiratorial possibilities.  Here the “immoral” is a simple consequentialism. Sharing them without rejection does social harm, so they should not be shared. While he makes no attempt to show they do more harm than good, Stokes seems to assume this is obvious. That’s easy to contest and has been in the literature. But let’s look at his examples, because he uses these not just as a moral critique of belief in particular conspiracy theories, but ironically, as a critique of particularism,

Conspiracy theories persist for years, even decades, in the absence of evidence, and can continue to cause harms while they do. There was never any evidence to suggest that AIDS was invented by Western drug companies and governments in an attempt to exploit and control Africa, yet this belief persisted long enough to kill over 330,000 people.

We should note “never any evidence” stamps for important political claims are almost always false, simplicities that social epistemology can rarely enjoy concerning anything socially momentous. This caution made, Stokes’ argument appears to be a 5 step one,

1) Epistemic generalism is true; epistemic issues are “off the table” except in extremely rare cases (traditional generalism);

2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;

3) If a theory causes harm, it is morally suspect (consequentialism);

4) Particularism claims we should evaluate conspiracy theories on the evidential warrant of each;

5) Unwarranted conspiracy theories are popularly believed for long periods of time without evidence (the “unreasoning masses” gambit).

So, Particularism is not the correct approach to conspiracy theorizing.

Invalid as it stands, it must be an enthymeme; there’s a missing, assumed to be obvious premise. We’ll return to that.

(4) is definitional. For the moment the interesting claims (1), (3) and (5) can wait. Let’s look at (2).

Stokes’ South African AIDS example doesn’t illustrate (2). In the paper he cites these 330,000 deaths were not caused by warrantless popular belief in an anti-Western conspiracy theory, thundering through the cities and villages. Instead the tragedy begins with a top-down decision in 1987 to reject anti-HIV drugs by the newly minted post-racist government of South Africa. Motivated by scientifically valid, if ultimately mistaken early doubts about HIV causation, racially and politically amplified by an understandable desire to demonstrate independence from  Western nations, the SA federal government rejected offers of free anti-HIV drugs. The paper’s premise is that had the government accepted and distributed the drugs, most would have gladly used them and the 330,000 would have been saved. “Denialism” is not the same as “conspiracy theory”.

But let’s pretend, far-fetched as it is, that the SA government in 1987 really believed anti-HIV drugs were Western stealth genocide and successfully propagated the same absurdity in the public. Is this a counter-example to particularism? Transparently the opposite. Particularism challenges unwarranted conspiracy theories. Which is exactly what happened, even on the “sincerely believed conspiracy theory” scenario; by 2008 the SA government’s minister health announced that “HIV denialism” was dead, along with much tragic human evidence. Evidence prevails.

(2) also appears to be false at large, as does the cynicism of (5); the “unreasoning masses” gambit popular among some political, economic and academic elites. Instead we typically observe the success of evidence-dissemination and open debate. The anti-vaccination movement has been profoundly undermined. Particularism. Many of the tenants of the 9/11 truth movement have been abandoned by its own members after lengthy, public, rational debate, some them quite quickly, even within months. Particularism. Similarly, and at the cost of significant social and personal anguish, the Iraq war is now widely recognized in the West to be an act of political conspiracy on the part of the US and other Western governments, particularly those of Bush and Blair. Particularism. The future wars particularism can prevent on the basis of past accuracy and future deployment are worthy of our moral consideration.

Returning to the argument above, the missing premise appears to be,

(6) Our default analysis of conspiracy theories should not be in terms of evidential merit, but in terms of how they promote or undermine our political projects; those that undermine these should be rejected, those that promote these should be promoted.

This is reminiscent of the position of Sunstien and Vermeule, who argue conspiracy theories the government finds objectionable should be undermined by covert governmental “cognitive infiltration”; the government conspiring against citizens who accuse the government of conspiring against citizens. As Hume would say, it’s hard to imagine a position less worthy of serious refutation. There is nothing epistemically suspect about conspiracy theories as such, distinguishing them from other political and economic explanations. The official account of 9/11 is a conspiracy theory. The non-conspiratorial “bizarre series of aviation mishaps” theory has no privileged status for being non-conspiratorial. It fares poorly. Any plausible explanation of 9/11 is a conspiracy theory. The question is which conspiracy theory? We face the same in Litvininko’s polonium poisoning; a conspiracy, but whose? One by fellow dissidents attempting to embarrass the Russian government, or by the Kremlin, punishing their critics?

Again, as a political tool generalism isn’t about dismissing “conspiracy theories”, it’s about silencing those who the political hierarchy, and those who find comfort within that hierarchy, dislike. But a reflexive habit of reasoning through evidence is the core value of democracy. Generalism stands in stark contrast. Particularism is an epistemic project: The conditional, if we adopt particularism, we are more able to detect real conspiracies, and more able to critique claims about conspiracies that are not. We can also recognize when the evidence is indeterminate. Not an epistemic piety, it’s a social project and more often than not, an empirical reality; functional democracy.

To the basic moral question: Perhaps the worst naiveté is a discourse-censoring generalism about conspiracy theories. Instead of a fair and open debate, a measured patience to sift through the facts, the orthodoxy of generalism won out, and to date at least 500,000 innocent people have died in the Iraq invasion and cascade of wars that followed. Previously, an intelligence community conspiracy about what didn’t happen on March 4, 1964, in the gulf of Tonkin led to the deaths of over 2,000,000, even though the possibility of a conspiracy to justify the war on false pretenses was quickly raised. The accusation the North Vietnamese in 1964 would attack the US Navy was ridiculous. Yet generalism proved the popular, though delusional, default value. The tradition of generalism of whatever form or guise reopens the path to moral disaster; as it has been it will be. Abbot Anshin Thomas puts it, “If nothing changes, nothing changes”.

Generalism is us continuing the same mistakes. If we aim to generate ever-growing body counts, the future surely lies with generalism. Particularism directly confronts theories that are unwarranted (Jews are trying to destroy Western civilization), promotes well-evidenced conspiracy theories (the US deceived the world to go to war with Iraq) or shows that we can have no more confidence in a theory than against it, agnosticism (certain Russians are conspiring to re-invade Western Europe).

The Tracy Affair

What are the ethical consequences of publically disseminating or seeking evidence for conspiracy theories? Different theories, in different hands, will have different consequences. It’s not about conspiracy theories or theorizing. The Tracy affair illustrates one person’s misguided actions at the end of an extreme and long drawn out case, involving Tracy’s questions about the reality of the Sandy Hook murders. It has no epistemic relevance to how we should approach conspiracy theories as such. Nor can it support a broad-brush normative rejection. It’s revealing Stokes doesn’t opt for generalism in the Tracy affair, declaring “It’s a conspiracy theory” and asking us to move on. Instead he opts for particularism, evaluating Tracy’s evidence as “weak”.

Conclusion

We don’t need a world increasingly closed, but one more open. Respect for conspiratorial possibilities is integral to this. The truth of our times, and any, is that we are frequented by conspiracies within our political and economic hierarchy. From either an epistemic or moral perspective, Stokes has not located a halfway house but a traditional generalism, epistemically and normatively; generalism doubled, “super-generalism”, one commonplace among our political, economic, media and academic elites.

It’s no surprise Stokes, seeking a halfway house after rejecting particularism, must be driven to generalism. Unfortunately, this also forces him, with other researchers, to pathologize billions of reasonable people. This is usually done by omission: (1) don’t recognize the critical role of conspiracy theory in fully functioning democracies (highlighted by Pigden, Coady and Dentith), (2) offer no examples in recent history of the many true and socially beneficial conspiracy theories, (3) offer none of the legion of examples of when the polis entertained conspiracy theories, gathered evidence on its own—unguided by government or mass media—and rejected those theories as unwarranted, (4) erroneously de-rationalize billions of rational persons, asserting that counter-evidence will bounce off those taking conspiratorial explanations seriously (“the unreasoning masses” gambit) and (5) don’t recognize the careful, often even-handed reasoning we see in conspiracy theory communities, reasoning that leads to public revelation. This is the essence of the increasingly discredited pathologizing approach to conspiracy theories and theorists in the social sciences. One is left with the impression these researchers have not actually tried to understand conspiracy theory and its theorists, but have arrived on the “scene of the crime”, already knowing who the guilty are. This is understandable, expressing a Western political piety of our times, but a piety that, to the consternation of many elites, appears to be collapsing within the general populace.

It should collapse. Generalism isn’t the morally appropriate attitude in an open society, a functioning democracy. It ignores the key roles conspiracy theorists play in securing our democracy; frequently these people are acting in our self-defense. It can’t come to terms with the many ways steep information hierarchies like our own can fail and frequently have failed to disseminate crucial information to the public. With open, fair-minded evidential discussion set aside—particularism—it inevitably leaves us with a highly censorial, de-rationalizing and mentally manipulative pathologizing response to those who voice suspicions of conspiratorial activities, no matter how well thought out. We know the answer as soon as we identify their suspicions as those of conspiracy: Pathologize, disqualify and silence.

This is immoral and dangerous. Many European Jews understood the NAZIs would never stop at the legal restrictions of the Nuremburg laws.  Even though this fear was denounced as an “outrageous conspiracy theory”, they spread the outrage. Among them, Einstein fled. Millions saved themselves. 30 years later hundreds of millions of Americans and Europeans accused the aptly named “coalition of the willing” of being based on lies and fear-mongering manipulations, which mass media in the US and many other countries cooperated with. The conspiracy theorists were right. Half a million have died in the Middle East, largely because of the disqualifying tactic of generalism and the pathologizing of reasonable people it entails. When “a war to save democracy” is used to perpetuate a dismissal of critical questions about the real aims and unreal evidence offered by leadership we should attend carefully to our conspiracy theorists. Generalism is deadly.

The reason is simple. Human life is conspiratorial. We can face this, embrace it, but if we deny it, we empower it in the worst way. It’s commonplace, natural to an intelligent, social and competitive species at our level of cooperative and communicative sophistication. People keep sexual secrets, cover for friends, cooperate in mutually beneficial thefts from employers, arrange global business manipulations, distort elections. The list goes on at any level of social organization, of any kind. Common sense and established history also shows conspiracy in the face of political oppression, manipulation and tyranny, is vastly beneficial. The mutual vigilance conspiracy generates between great nations, and the uncertainties it forces on policy, prevent wars of aggression. Like any social ability, conspiracy is what you make of it. The same applies to conspiracy theory. Like any other means of explanation, it has powerful abuses and absolutely critical uses.

Patrick Stokes’ motives are the best. His “full disclosure” tells us he combats those who question vaccine safety and efficacy. Laudable. Stokes’ position would be more plausible if he focused on anti-vaccination. That places him where he really lives; particularism. One shouldn’t generalize from a good fight against a narrow class of conspiracy theories to a condemnation of them all. That’s a broadside against all of us, including Stokes. We all embrace well-warranted conspiracy theories on all levels of social relationship and organization. Mass media and government protests notwithstanding, social research shows the vast majority of us experience no pejorative connotation to the term “conspiracy theory”. Good news for functioning democracies.

Generalism serves to perpetuate, not confront, the real vulnerabilities in our information hierarchy. We should welcome its fading. A 21st century epistemic honesty beckons. Between the extremes of generalism and anti-generalism, the real halfway house is particularism. It keeps a light on, and something good in the oven. As Patricia learns at the end of the Wizard of Oz, there’s “no place like home”.

Author Information: Andrew Carlin, Manchester Metropolitan University, A.Carlin@mmu.ac.uk

Carlin, Andrew. “On the Practical Work of Citation: Foundationalism and (Inter)disciplinary Incommensurability.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 28-40.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3kw

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Jef Safi, via flickr

In this response[1] I would like to thank Pamela Moss for her careful attention to my work. I may disappoint readers hoping for some measure of controversy or opposition—Moss has produced a cogent set of arguments in response to my original article. I very much appreciate her comments, and I have followed up her references with profit. There are general and specific areas upon which we both agree.

If I can gloss Moss’ reply, she details instances in my observations on disciplinary borrowings—particularly in relation to Stefan Timmermans’[2] use of David Sudnow’s[3] book Passing On—where I was doing precisely what I suggested Timmermans had being doing with Sudnow. I was making the point that in the case of disciplinary borrowings, authors could do more to account for the epistemological positions of arguments that are taken in support of their current paper. This elicited Moss’ “Tu quoque!” (“You too!”) conclusion:

A more generally relevant expectation might be that the cited articles are fairly represented for the purposes of the citation and that the collected body of articles cited is appropriate to the interpretations and generalizations the citing author is making.[4]

Moss’ critique, that had I outlined both Sudnow’s and Timmermans’ objectives more clearly I may have reached a different conclusion about Timmermans’ use of Sudnow’s work, is fair and one with which I agree—up to a point.

On Referencing as Practical Work

Among the—but for purposes of publication, deliberately unstated—aims of my paper was in advancing a broader consideration of literature measurement systems: bibliometrics, citation analysis, informetrics. A problem for citation analysis is context: what is a particular citation doing at a particular juncture within an article.

In emphasizing the “purposes” of references and citations, Moss confirms my reading of Timmermans’[5] article as oriented towards Sudnow’s book for the substantive field “sociology of death/dying,” what I had called “the ‘reading list’ approach to sociology.”[6] I am not concerned that Moss discerns “many purposes for using the literature within research projects.”[7] Indeed, I am delighted that she recognizes this, for example in my own use of citations within the original paper[8]; so much of the scholarship on citation and referencing misses this key feature of academic writing. Of course I was not suggesting that the main, or the one and only purpose for using the literature is for the surfacing of an identifiable research problem.

The reification of citations as homogenous entities for the practical purposes of counting how many times an author’s work is cited decontextualizes the work being accomplished by the writer of the citing work. As bibliometrics becomes increasingly sophisticated and fragmented—identifying new “edges” of scholarly communication to be operationalized, and new measures for doing the operationalizing[9]—discussions of citation measurement, citation practices and the contextual bases of referencing from outside bibliometry (resisting disciplinary “ownership”) appear less frequently.[10] They are all the more precious in their scarcity.

Without distorting discussion with consideration of members’ motives—“official lists” of these have already appeared in information science[11]—we may observe how references are doing different, practical work. For example, and in no particular order:

  • For purposes of comparison, e.g. to establish that a phenomenon was observed in other settings also.[12] The concatenation of sources or accumulative appeal to other settings may be a form of persuasion (see below)
  • For purposes of comparison, e.g. that related or similar phenomena can be observed in other settings also (including citations of David Sudnow’s “Normal Crimes” paper[13]).
  • For purposes of comparison, e.g. may be positive or negative citations. Often found in literature review sections.[14] For example, references may be cited “to demonstrate the novelty of one’s results. This is often achieved by reviewing the current state of knowledge in an Introduction, and then showing or implying that the findings reported constitute an advance.”[15] (This is also a form of persuasion; see below)
  • Locating arguments—according credit to a previous paper[16]
  • Locating arguments—facilitating information retrieval, so that readers are able to pursue the inquiry into particular points of discussion (as Moss has been able to do in her reply, for instance)
  • Locating arguments—while this relates to according credit it may also work to disclaim responsibility, or spreading the blame; colloquially known as “CYA”[17]
  • Glossing arguments—using citations as “concept symbols”[18]
  • Persuasive devices—as Nigel Gilbert suggests, citations on their own may not be “tools of persuasion”. However, they can do persuasive work. For example, “respected papers may be cited in order to shine in their reflected glory even if they do not seem closely related to the substantive content of the report”[19]
  • “Recipient design”[20]—in submitting a manuscript to a journal, the author tailors some of the arguments, and references, as recognizable to the particular journal under consideration. This may involve having been “socialized” into a particular discipline; or, this may involve considerable guesswork, anticipating what the journal editors/reviewers find acceptable[21]
  • “Doing disciplinarity”—displaying affiliation with particular disciplines, or fields within disciplines. Citing particular bibliographic sets presents the paper as relevant to particular research interests; for example, physical geography but not necessarily human geography
  • Self-citation—this may be doing informative work; though self-citation may be rhetorical or used as an authorization procedure[22]
  • “Doing networking”—displaying membership within a research network[23]; or attempts to affiliate with a particular research network.[24]

This is not an exhaustive list of the work of citations and citation practices; there are considerably more possibilities—demonstrable and reportable—reviewed elsewhere.[25] It was not the remit of my original paper to explore all of these in detail but, suffice to say, I am aware of the complex issues arising from academic requirements and their measurement.[26]

Locating David Sudnow within Ethnomethodology

Whilst I take no umbrage with Moss’ observation that I may be misrepresenting Timmermans’ representation of Sudnow, I am less sanguine about the contextualization of Sudnow’s work—both in Timmermans’ article, and in my own article. This dissatisfaction extends beyond Passing On and across Sudnow’s corpus of studies: I had not sufficiently explained the connections that I recognize as features of Sudnow’s works, taken as a corpus; and how this corpus coheres with the ethnomethodological corpus.[27]

For reasons that may become clear, this is not the venue in which to revisit arguments that were merely glossed by references—as mentioned above, providing citations as glosses for arguments is another use of the literature, of course—in order to explicate my practical reasoning procedures regarding selectivity of items, and corpora, of literature, which are queried by Moss.[28] To borrow Harold Garfinkel’s phrase (that derived from his collaborations with Sudnow), these are “documented conjectures”—from lectures on ethnomethodology, conversations with ethnomethodologists, and my acquaintance with studies from the “ethnomethodological literature.”

One issue that I should have made more explicit is how my original argument was framed within a disciplinary history of ethnomethodology. Passing On was written at a particular juncture in the history of ethnomethodology. In 1966, at University of California, Berkeley, Sudnow and Harvey Sacks were awarded their doctoral qualifications. A group of Goffman’s students had moved away from Goffman’s work intellectually, and increasingly aligned themselves with Harold Garfinkel, then a junior professor at University of California, Los Angeles.[29]

In the acknowledgements section of his PhD dissertation, Sacks does not mention Goffman; instead, Sacks thanked Edwin Shneidman for facilitating access to the telephone calls at the Center for the Scientific Study of Suicide, Suicide Prevention Center, Los Angeles, which he had used as data; and he thanked Garfinkel for financial and intellectual support: “In acknowledging this support of his I may also say that it is but the most tangible and recent item on a long list of indebtedness I have to him.”[30]

Another source of disappointment for Goffman was how Sacks had written a dissertation very different from a ‘more-Goffmanian-style’ manuscript that Sacks had shown him in the early Sixties.[31] As Sacks’ dissertation supervisor, Erving Goffman was reluctant to sign off on Sacks’ doctoral dissertation. Famously, the Chair of the dissertation committee, Aaron Cicourel, intervened to authorize Sacks’ award.

Garfinkel, Goffman, Sacks and Sudnow are all dead, now; we cannot solicit their recollections of 1966. However, the possibility that Goffman resented Garfinkel’s intellectual affinity with his own students is inferentially available. If Goffman did feel this way, or if Sudnow perceived Goffman to be acting on these feelings, we should not be surprised by the sociological program that characterizes Passing On. Sudnow had already published an article critical of the use of data in traditional sociological methods[32]—whatever their considerations of members’ methods might become, Sudnow was contributing to its development.

When Moss[33] decries “I read Sudnow for explicit references to ethnomethodology. I read the preface, the introduction, the conclusion, the appendices, and all the headings and subheadings in the book, and could not find ‘ethnomethodology’ named,” it would have been extremely unlikely for Sudnow to have used the word “ethnomethodology” within the pages of his dissertation as it had only just been coined.[34]

Although Sudnow does refer to ethnomethodology. In answer to Moss’ specific query[35] the prefatory note is not in his dissertation but appears in the Prentice-Hall edition of Passing On:

I have benefited at various points in the conduct of the research from my discussions with Sheldon Messinger, Harvey Sacks, Roy Turner, and Helen Pat Gouldner. An earlier version of Chapter 4 was presented at a conference held by Harold Garfinkel of UCLA in the summer of 1965. My indebtedness to Professor Garfinkel will, I hope, be clear to those who know his work. I do not claim, however, that this study is well representative of ‘ethnomethodological’ sociology, though should that be at all true, I would be very pleased.[36]

One of the key phrases in this acknowledgement is “My indebtedness to Professor Garfinkel will, I hope, be clear to those who know his work.” Unlike Sacks’ acknowledgement of Garfinkel’s influence in his dissertation (above), this does not appear in Sudnow’s dissertation. It is a “noticeable absence”; and “those who know his work” recognize this as a noticeable absence.

The field-specificity of Passing On is not only available through the citations it contains.

“Epistemologies at the Disciplinary Level”:[37] Indifference and Incommensurability

Despite the ritualistic citations to Goffman contained in his thesis, Sudnow was part of the “ethnomethodological firmament”. As mentioned above, he had already published an “ethnomethodological” study[38]; and, after Passing On was published, he was a key advocate of ethnomethodology in an infamous panel discussion to debate its disciplinary place in sociology.[39]

A decade later, at Garfinkel’s encouragement, he published an ethnomethodological study of competence—playing jazz piano—that can be seen as an early expression of Garfinkel’s “studies of work” program. Garfinkel’s procedural policy of “ethnomethodological indifference,” which discouraged literature use as a formulaic requirement of studies, made it possible for Sudnow “to realize the consequences of allowing the keyboard, and not an academic discipline, to tell me where to go.”[40]

To reiterate, my detailing of Sudnow’s books and papers in the original article were not geared toward idle recitation of references but were warranted by the reticulation of intellectual concerns that made up the corpus of Sudnow’s work, and how these cohered with the developing corpus of ethnomethodological studies. This is but one of the instances of item of literature/corpus of literature to which I was referring in the original arguments, and which Moss found problematic. Yet I make no apologies for reading Sudnow this way. However, Sudnow disputed Garfinkel’s presentation of “ethnomethodological indifference.”[41]

As a methodological policy, qua phenomenological bracketing, ethnomethodological indifference enabled the analyst to focus on a phenomenon without the distraction of “related literature,” which both set the “terms and determinations”[42] of the analysis and necessarily distanced the analyst from the phenomenon of interest. Sudnow appreciated how non-ethnomethodologists could understand “ethnomethodological indifference” as code for a Weberian attitude of “value-free” inquiry; even “objectivity” (something which, following Felix Kaufmann[43] on the protocols and standards of acceptability in social science, Garfinkel did not intend); or worse, for Sudnow, as being “indifferent” to iniquities and inequalities.[44]

To be clear, “ethnomethodological indifference” was not an ethical (or non-ethical) position but a methodological procedure. Even though Garfinkel’s work is characterized by a compassionate advocacy of those in adversity[45]—Garfinkel certainly was not indifferent to circumstances—Sudnow would never reconcile himself to what he regarded as a significant error of judgement on Garfinkel’s part.[46]

Ethnomethodologists have not been shy of taking up traditional sociological topics, such as racism, power, and inequality. It is a misrepresentation of ethnomethodological investigations to claim otherwise. That ethnomethodology has addressed topics in different ways is undeniable, however; yet this is not the same as being “indifferent” to such matters. As I said in my original article,[47] for instance, power has been approached as an in situ, collaborative activity.[48] This is to be contrasted with traditional representations of power in anthropological and sociological approaches.[49] Moreover, the topical relevance of studies brings me to another note of contention for Moss, regarding the appropriateness of the word “traditional” as a generalizing description of sociology.

My use of the word “traditional” does not connote “classical,” as Moss assumes in questioning its contemporary relevance.[50] “Traditional” does not compartmentalize work in pro tempore or chronological fashion. “Traditional” is not setting an arbitrary temporal marker between, say, Nineteenth Century sociology, or pre-War sociology, or pre-Nineteen Sixties sociology; versus Postmodern sociology, post-Nineteen Seventies Sociology, or Twenty-First Century sociology. Not at all. My use of the word “traditional,” as I have consistently used it, reflects or has equivalence with “professional sociological theorizing,” or “constructive analysis” (and, later, “formal analysis”). However, I should recognize—and I thank Moss for drawing this to my attention—that these were and remain contentious adjectives, too.

To clarify my use of terms, “traditional” is intended to disambiguate forms of sociology, as “professional sociological theorizing,” in contrast to “radical” forms of sociology which seek to explicate members’ practical sociological theorizing. Abbott’s fractals analogy, which he uses to emphasise the fluidity of conceptual development,[51] does not address this.[52] Nor, to use Moss’ other example,[53] does Actor-Network-Theory (ANT).[54]

Moss’ specific question reads, “is ethnomethodology incommensurable with ANT in the same way it might be incommensurable [with] traditions reflecting the structure-agency dualism?” A short answer is “Yes.”[55] The structure/agency dualism is implicated in foundational forms of theorizing, which both Abbott[56] and Latour[57] reproduce. In taking a methodologically ironic stance vis-à-vis members’ practical decision-making activities they fail to dissolve the tensions set up by foundational theories. Moss draws attention to Bruno Latour, who “acknowledges [ANT’s] affinities with ethnomethodology,”[58] but how does Latour go about such acknowledgement? Through citation of “ethnomethodological” resources; and here we may return to the ad hoc list of work done through referencing, above.

Furthermore, a key criterion remarking “incommensurability” is the gestalt configuration of analytic approaches. Ethnomethodology seeks to explicate the in situ, in vivo, practical work of members’ activities. In striving towards such explication, the ethnomethodologist cannot be beholden to “foundational” (e.g. Cartesian) formal analytic positions because these theorize out the very praxeological details that are being sought. Hence, ethnomethodology “dissolves” foundational residue, such as the structure/agency dichotomy, as interference with the description of members’ practices. Likewise, Actor-Network-Theory proposes an unnecessary analytic distancing from members’ phenomena. As Sormani asks,

why ‘ontologize’? Why, as an ethnographer, ‘ontologize, ‘epistemologize’, or otherwise ‘theorize’ phenomena, instead of describing them in their self-identifying features?[59]

The ontological fetishism of ANT removes the analyst further from the distinctive details which are not only constituent features of practice, what Sudnow[60] once termed “describably elegant knowledge,” but are practice; whether that be managing the interactional work of running an auction, professional coffee tasting, or playing jazz piano.

The plenitude of references to ethnomethodology within the Latour text cited by Moss are footnoted asides to relevant sources,[61] not to necessarily commensurable sources. That is, Latour takes a “found relevance” approach to his citation of ethnomethodological sources, e.g. in his example of the user manual that came with the new digital camera[62] he references Garfinkel’s[63] discussion of assembling furniture according to the instructions. He collocates this citation to Garfinkel with reference to Donald Norman[64] on user-centred design. The cognitivism of Norman’s thesis is at odds with the praxeological line of argument advanced by Garfinkel—these are incommensurable approaches, that become proximal citations via a reading-list approach to substantive topics, but readers familiar with Norman and with Garfinkel are unlikely to be confused as to the “found relevance” or nature of Latour’s use of literature. Latour’s practices of citation are unremarkable, routine, and certainly do not suggest that ANT possesses analytic affinities with ethnomethodology.

Although, there are distinct differences, too. Moss is correct, I think, in speculating whether the nature of incommensurability—between ethnomethodology and various forms of sociology—differs, and this is a valuable point to explore. For instance, Latour[65] claims overlap with ethnomethodology regarding the notion of “accounts”. However, for Latour, accounts are reasons, justifications, verifications, excuses; in environments of uncertainty, accounts justify the certainty of action, e.g. as adequate or plausible in the circumstances. For ethnomethodology, actions—textual, verbal or otherwise—are accounts.

The give-away is Latour’s[66] epistemological contrast between natural science accounts and social science accounts: “This is why the question of what is a good account is so much more crucial for the social than for the natural sciences”[67]; and later in the same chapter, this is transformed into “a good text.”[68] For ethnomethodology, there are “accounts” but there is no continuum for adjudging the adequacy or plausibility of accounts, such as “a good account”; that is a member’s concept, not an analytic category. Latour’s notion of “account” has more in common with a symbolic interactionist notion of account[69] than ethnomethodology.

Indeed, while I regard Moss’ query about incommensurability as a valuable pedagogic opportunity it also seems misdirected, given that Latour[70] distances himself from Garfinkel’s gloss “formal analysis.” Garfinkel used the term formal analysis to sharpen the focus of his distinction between incommensurable approaches in sociology—what (as mentioned above) he had termed “constructive analysis”—and incommensurable approaches in the social sciences more broadly. Latour[71] misquotes Garfinkel, and through misquotation, understates Garfinkel’s original distinction, the “worldwide social science movement.” Garfinkel began to use formal analysis in preference to constructive analysis in order to emphasize that sociology was only one discipline among many which misaligned its phenomena of inquiry with analysts’ versions of members’ methods.[72]

Furthermore, while Moss[73] posits “affinities” between ANT and ethnomethodology, Latour’s claims on this matter are shallow. Latour’s attempted connection between “the quality of a text”[74] and the “unique adequacy requirement of methods”[75] does not set up “equivalence.”[76] The unique adequacy requirement, like ethnomethodological indifference, is a methodological policy. Like ethnomethodological indifference, the unique adequacy requirement does not distance the researcher from the phenomenon of inquiry. It thus distinguishes between studies of work that describe and produce phenomena of investigation.[77],[78]

I take Moss’ query regarding incommensurability seriously, and suggest that both the structure/agency dualism and ANT are incommensurable with ethnomethodology through producing “methodological irony”. Both foundational reasoning (e.g. theorizing which is an outcome or based upon a structure/agency dualism) and ANT preclude a praxeological orientation as an accountable, constitutive feature of research ab initio. The post hoc incorporation and/or triangulation of members’ practices creates conceptual confusion and category-errors. This characteristic of ANT and its formulation as a blend of ethnomethodology and semiotics is fundamentally flawed as a praxeological pursuit, regardless of Latour’s claims—and his referential practices—to the contrary.[79] As vividly formulated in another context,

These sets of analytic practices cannot be conflated any more than can the games of football and tennis be conflated to produce a ‘supergame.’[80]

In studies involving human action, both ANT and studies in foundationalist programs require the analyst to make the final (if analytically arbitrary) decision as to what is really going on. As Lynch argues, “the theorist’s monism frames the heterogeneous ontologies attributed to actors within the frame.”[81]

In summary, if I was setting up a “contrast set”—to borrow Dorothy Smith’s[82] phrase—it was between traditional sociology, which as I have hoped to clarify does not connote a temporal characterization but an epistemological characterization vis-à-vis members’ practices; and radical sociology, which seeks to explicate members’ practices without re-describing them in terms of analytically imposed categories.

Conclusion

In trying to provide an overall view, however, I want to emphasize that the ethnomethodological position on foundationalism (and anti-foundationalism) is methodological, not epistemological, philosophical, or theoretical. Indeed, much of the contestation of this issue has been quarried through the distortion or misunderstanding of ethnomethodology’s position as an epistemological rather than a methodological approach to the phenomena of sociology.[83] The “identifying details” of studies in ANT and Cartesian investigations vary, yes; and the respective identifying details have specific consequences for the realization of incommensurability.

Yet this should not distract us from the difficulties of programs of interdisciplinarity: intra-disciplinary approaches within sociology have a wide degree of “autonomy,”[84] which challenges assumptions of disciplinary coherence, let alone interdisciplinarity.[85]

Nor should this distract us from assembling a corpus of studies that instead of taking an evaluative approach to members’ phenomena, extrinsic to the settings of members’ practices; develops inquiries that seek to explicate members’ practices from within the settings in which they occur.

References

Abbott, Andrew. Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Bittner, Egon. “The Concept of Organization.” Social Research 32, no. 3 (1965): 239-255.

Bittner, Egon. “Citation Classic Commentary on ‘The Police on Skid Row: A Study of Peace Keeping.’” Ethnographic Studies 13 (2013): 254-256.

Blackman, Lisa. “Social Media and the Politics of Small Data: Post-Publication Peer Review and Academic Value.” Theory, Culture and Society 33, no. 4 (2016): 3-26.

Boellstorff, Tom. “Submission and Acceptance: Where, Why, and How to Publish Your Article.” American Anthropologist 113, no. 3 (2011): 383-388.

Bornmann, Lutz and Hans-Dieter Daniel. “What do Citation Counts Measure? A Review of Studies on Citing Behavior.” Journal of Documentation 64, no. 1 (2008): 45-80.

Bornmann, Lutz, Hermann Schier, Werner Marx, and Hans-Dieter Daniel. “What Factors Determine Citation Counts of Publications in Chemistry Besides their Quality?” Journal of Informetrics 6 (2012): 11-18.

Carlin, Andrew P. “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 5-6 (2016): 624-642.

Cavan, Sherri. Liquor License. Chicago: Aldine, 1966.

Cicourel, Aaron V. The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 1968.

Douglas, Jack D. The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Falagas, Matthew E. and Panorea Kavvadia. “‘Eigenlob’: Self-Citation in Biomedical Journals.” The FASEB Journal 20 (2006): 1039-1042.

Fowler, James H. and Dag W. Aksnes. “Does Self-Citation Pay?” Scientometrics 72, no. 3 (2007): 427-437.

Francis, David W. and Wesley W. Sharrock. “Where Ethnomethodology Stands.” Sociological Problems 25, no. 2 (1993): 3-16.

Garfinkel, Harold. “Color Trouble.” In Primer for White Folks, edited by Bucklin Moon, 269-286. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1946.

Garfinkel, Harold. “Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an Intersexed Person.” In Studies in Ethnomethodology, 118-185. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Garfinkel, Harold. “Instructions and Instructed Actions.” In Ethnomethodology’s Program: Working Out Durkheim’s Aphorism, edited by Anne W. Rawls, 197-218. Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Garfinkel, Harold and D. Lawrence Wieder. “Two Incommensurable, Asymmetrically Alternate Technologies Of Social Analysis.” In Text in Context: Contributions to Ethnomethodology, edited by Graham Watson and Robert M. Seiler, 175-206. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992.

Gilbert, G. Nigel. “Referencing as Persuasion.” Social Studies of Science 7, no. 1 (1977): 113-122.

Glaser, Barney G. and Anselm L. Strauss. The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago: Aldine, 1967.

Greiffenhagen, Christian, Michael Mair, and Wes Sharrock. “Methodological Troubles as Problems and Phenomena: Ethnomethodology and the Question of ‘Method’ in the Social Sciences.” The British Journal of Sociology 66, no. 3 (2015): 460-485.

Hellsten, Iina, Renaud Lambiotte, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Marcel Ausloos. “Self-Citations, Co-Authorships and Keywords: A New Approach to Scientists’ Field Mobility?” Scientometrics 72, no. 3 (2007): 469-486.

Hertz, Ellen. “Pimp My Fluff: A Thousand Plateaus And Other Theoretical Extravaganzas.” Anthropological Theory 16, no. 2-3 (2016): 146-159.

Hill, Richard J. and Kathleen S. Crittenden. Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology. Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University, 1968.

Kaufman, Felix. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. London: Oxford University Press, 1944.

Kozak, Marcin and Lutz Bornmann. “A New Family of Cumulative Indexes for Measuring Scientific Performance.” PLoS ONE 7, no. 10 (2012): e47679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047679.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Livingston, Eric. Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Lynch, Michael. Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Lynch, Michael. “Ontography: Investigating the Production of Things, Deflating Ontology.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 3 (2013): 444-462.

Merton, Robert K. “Priorities In Scientific Discovery: A Chapter In The Sociology Of Science.” American Sociological Review 22, no. 6 (1957): 635-659.

Moerman, Michael. “Life after C.A.: An Ethnographer’s Autobiography.” In Text in Context: Contributions to Ethnomethodology, edited by Graham Watson and Robert M. Seiler, 20-34. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992.

Moss, Pamela. “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 46-54.

Myers, Greg. Writing Biology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Norman, Donald A. The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Sacks, Harvey. “The Search for Help: No One to Turn to.” PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 1966.

Sacks, Harvey. “Notes on Police Assessment of Moral Character.” In: Studies in Social Interaction, edited by David Sudnow, 280-293. New York: The Free Press, 1972.

Sacks, Harvey and Emanuel A. Schegloff. “Two Preferences in the Organization of Reference to Persons in Conversation and their Interaction.” In Everyday Language: Studies In Ethnomethodology, edited by George Psathas, 15-21. New York: Irvington, 1979.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. “On Sacks on Weber on Ancient Judaism: Introductory Notes and Interpretive Resources.” Theory, Culture and Society 16, no. 1 (1999): 1-29.

Scott, Marvin B. and Stanford M. Lyman. “Accounts.” American Sociological Review 33, no. 1 (1968): 46-62.

Sharrock, W.W. and D.R. Watson. “Autonomy among Social Theories: The Incarnation of Social Structures.” In Actions and Structure: Research Methods and Social Theory, edited by Nigel Fielding, 56-77. London: Sage, 1988.

Sharrock, W., and G. Button. “The Technical Operations of the Levers of Power.” In Orders of Ordinary Action: Respecifying Sociological Knowledge, edited by Stephen Hester and David Francis, 33-50. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Small, Henry G. “Cited Documents as Concept Symbols.” Social Studies of Science 8, no. 3 (1978): 327-340.

Smith, Dorothy E. “‘K is Mentally Ill’: The Anatomy of a Factual Account.” Sociology 12, no. 1 (1978): 23-53.

Sormani, Philippe. Respecifying Lab Ethnography. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Stavrakakis, Yannis. “Wallon, Lacan and the Lacanians: Citation Practices and Repression.” Theory, Culture and Society 24, no. 4 (2007): 131-138.

Sudnow, David. “Normal Crimes: Sociological Features of the Penal Code in a Public Defender Office.” Social Problems 12, no. 3 (1965): 255-276.

Sudnow, David N. “Passing On: The Social Organization of Dying in the County Hospital.” PhD diss., University of California Berkeley, 1966.

Sudnow, David. Passing On: The Social Organization of Dying. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Sudnow, David 1972. “Temporal Parameters of Interpersonal Observation.” In Studies in Social Interaction, edited by David Sudnowm 259-279. New York: The Free Press, 1972.

Sudnow, David. Ways of the Hand. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Sudnow, David. “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching: The Case of Popular Song Playing.” Paper presented to the British Sociological Association Sociology of Language Study Group, December 3 1999, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.

Timmermans, Stefan. “Social Death as Self-fulfilling Prophecy: David Sudnow’s Passing On Revisited.” The Sociological Quarterly 39 (1998): 453-472.

Watson, Rodney. “The Understanding of Language Use in Everyday Life: Is there a Common Ground?” In Text in Context: Contributions to Ethnomethodology, edited by Graham Watson and Robert M. Seiler, 1-19. Newbury Park: Sage, 1992.

Weinstock, Melvin. “Citation Indexes.” In: Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, vol. 5, edited by A. Kent, 16-40. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1971.

Zimmerman, Don H. and Pollner, Melvin. “The Everyday World as Phenomenon.” In Understanding Everyday Life, edited by Jack D. Douglas, 80-103. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

[1]. I am grateful to Glenn Gillespie at UC Berkeley Libraries, for factual clarification; and especially to Rod Watson, for generous discussion of these issues, and for alerting me to analytic asymmetries within this Response.

[2]. Timmermans, “Social Death as Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”

[3]. Sudnow, Passing On.

[4]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 53.

[5]. Timmermans, “Social Death as Self-fulfilling Prophecy.”

[6]. Carlin, “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity,” 5.

[7]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 47.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Kozak and Bornmann, “A New Family of Cumulative Indexes for Measuring Scientific Performance.”

[10]. Bittner, “Citation Classic Commentary on ‘The Police on Skid Row”; Blackman, “Social Media and the Politics of Small Data”; Hertz, “Pimp My Fluff”; Stavrakakis, “Wallon, Lacan and the Lacanians.”

[11]. E.g. Bornmann et al., “What Factors Determine Citation Counts of Publications in Chemistry Besides their Quality?”; Weinstock, “Citation Indexes.”

[12]. Glaser and Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory, 169, passim.

[13]. Cavan, Liquor License, 18; Cicourel, The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice, 55.

[14]. Carlin, “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity.”

[15]. Gilbert, “Referencing as Persuasion,” 116.

[16]. Merton, “Priorities In Scientific Discovery.”

[17]. Raymond L. Gold, personal communication.

[18]. Small, “Cited Documents as Concept Symbols.”

[19]. Gilbert, “Referencing as Persuasion,” 116.

[20]. Sacks and Schegloff, “Two Preferences in the Organization of Reference to Persons in Conversation and their Interaction.”

[21]. Myers, Writing Biology.

[22]. Falagas and Kavvadia, “‘Eigenlob’”; Fowler and Aksnes, “Does Self-Citation Pay?”

[23]. Hellsten et al., “Self-Citations, Co-Authorships and Keywords.”

[24]. Note for sociologists: this is a literal “reference group”!

[25]. E.g. Bornmann and Daniel, “What do Citation Counts Measure?”

[26]. Boellstorff, “Submission and Acceptance.”

[27]. Sudnow, Passing On.

[28]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 46.

[29]. Pace Moss (2016, 49), in my original article (Carlin 2016, 14, n. 13) I was clear that Erving Goffman, not Harold Garfinkel, was Sudnow’s dissertation supervisor.

[30]. Sacks, “The Search for Help,” ii.

[31]. This early manuscript was known informally as “the Police Paper” (Schegloff 1999), which Sudnow went on to publish (Sacks 1972).

[32]. Indeed, Sudnow’s “Normal Crimes” paper was described as one of “The most significant works on this subject” (Douglas, The Social Meanings of Suicide, 163).

[33]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 49.

[34]. Bittner, “The Concept of Organization.”

[35]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 49.

[36]. Sudnow, Passing On, v.

[37]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[38]. Sudnow, “Normal Crimes.”

[39]. Hill and Crittenden, Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology.

[40]. Sudnow, Ways of the Hand, viii.

[41]. Sudnow, “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching.”

[42]. Bittner, “The Concept of Organization,” 247.

[43]. Kaufmann, The Methodology of the Social Sciences.

[44]. Sudnow, “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching.”

[45]. Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” “Passing and the Managed Achievement of Sex Status in an Intersexed Person,” and “Instructions and Instructed Actions.”

[46]. Sudnow, “An Ethno-autobiography of Teaching.”

[47]. Carlin, “On Some Limits of Interdisciplinarity,” 14.

[48]. Sharrock and Button, “The Technical Operations of the Levers of Power.”

[49]. Moerman, “Life after C.A.”

[50]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[51]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[52]. My citation of Abbott’s work reiterates the variegated use of sources, as I had, for the purposes of the original article, only selected Abbott to establish the long-standing nature of interdisciplinarity. My citation was certainly not an endorsement of the book in toto, though many studies in citation analysis fail to disambiguate negative from positive citations, i.e. treat all citations as homogenous.

[53]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[54]. Latour, Reassembling the Social.

[55]. However, this direct affirmative shall be qualified below.

[56]. Abbott, Chaos of Disciplines.

[57]. Latour, Reassembling the Social.

[58]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[59]. Sormani, Respecifying Lab Ethnography, 234.

[60]. Hill and Crittenden, Proceedings of the Purdue Symposium on Ethnomethodology, 51.

[61]. E.g. footnotes 22, 49, 63, 97 in Latour, Reassembling the Social.

[62]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 205.

[63]. Garfinkel, “Instructions and Instructed Actions.”

[64]. Norman, The Psychology of Everyday Things.

[65]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 205.

[66]. Ibid., 125.

[67]. Ibid., emphasis added.

[68]. Ibid., 129.

[69]. Scott and Lyman, “Accounts.”

[70]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 226.

[71]. Ibid., fn. 312.

[72]. A pedagogical heuristic of this argument is the phenomenological emphasis on distinguishing between resources for study and topics of study (Zimmerman and Pollner 1970).

[73]. Moss, “Reading and Writing Across (Epistemological) Boundaries,” 52.

[74]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 129.

[75]. Garfinkel and Wieder, “Two Incommensurable, Asymmetrically Alternate Technologies Of Social Analysis.”

[76]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, fn. 182.

[77]. Livingston, Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics; Lynch, Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science.

[78]. Vide another example of the practical work of citation: Latour cites both of these studies of work in Reassembling the Social (pp. 59, 223) also; but he points to different relevances in citing them than I do in citing them together here.

[79]. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 122.

[80]. Watson, “The Understanding of Language Use in Everyday Life,” 11.

[81]. Lynch, “Ontography,” 453.

[82]. Smith, “‘K is Mentally Ill’.”

[83]. Francis and Sharrock, “Where Ethnomethodology Stands.”

[84]. Sharrock and Watson, “Autonomy among Social Theories: The Incarnation of Social Structures.”

[85]. In my original article, I cited the demonstration of this problem (Greiffenhagen, Mair and Sharrock, “Methodological Troubles as Problems and Phenomena”), which, in its demonstration, attends to the “identifying details” of the autonomy of sociological strategies.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, ICUB, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “In Defence of Particularism: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 27-33.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3jU

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Jacob Surland, via flickr

There has been a flurry of talk of conspiracy theories in these pages recently, largely led by Lee Basham and myself engaging in friendly correspondence over my paper ‘When inferring to a conspiracy theory might be the best explanation.’[1], [2], [3] Patrick Stokes, another philosopher interested in the philosophy of conspiracy theories, has gently criticised both Basham and myself for our portrayal of the tension between generalist takes on belief in conspiracy theories—which portray belief in conspiracy theories as typically irrational—and our particularist agenda, which requires that we assess conspiracy theories on the particulars of their evidence, rather than just dismiss them because they are called ‘conspiracy theories’.

Stokes’ criticism is not a defence of generalism per se. Rather, he takes it that Basham and I are over-egging the pot, so to speak, and not admitting that some part of the generalist agenda is worth hanging on to. Stokes proposes some kind of middle ground, or third way: in his own words, ‘defeasible generalism’ or ‘reluctant particularism.’[4] I am sympathetic to Stokes’ overall point: more nuance in how we talk about conspiracy theories in public discourse, and the epistemic and psychological factors at the root of why people hang views on certain recurrent conspiracy narratives can only be of benefit to the academic literature at large. Yet despite this, I find myself troubled by some of the details and arguments Stokes uses to motivate this.

The Alleged Problem of Particularism

Stokes gently chastises us for downplaying worries about the cultural and social practices associated with allegations of conspiracy. As Stokes’ puts it:

[T]here is … [a] risk of allowing a legitimate target of critique to hide within an innocent larger category of “conspiracy explanation.” That target is conspiracy theorizing as a recognizable concrete social practice and tradition. When people dismiss something as a “conspiracy theory” they don’t do so in a vacuum. Nor are they necessarily referring to a specific and precisely defined epistemological category.[5]

Indeed, Stokes argues there is a very real danger here, in that the particularist—in their defence of the epistemology of conspiracy theorising—ignores or downplays the ‘morally serious act of accusation’.[6] As supporting evidence of this, he discusses the case of James Tracy, a former Professor of Communications at Florida Atlantic University, whose tenure was recently terminated. [7] Stokes is right to point out that Tracy was not fired for conspiracy theorising per se. Rather, he was fired on the grounds that he was taken to be harassing the father of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre, making accusations that said father was crying wolf about his son’s death (and, indeed, existence).

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong about theorising that mass shooting events in the US might be part of a plot, say, by the federal government to curb gun rights. That is a perfectly interesting question. Indeed, I would argue, entertaining that notion is something someone, somewhere should engage in.[8] The move to accusation, though—Stokes’ worry—seems like something we should have a threshold for. It is one thing to ponder the epistemics of conspiracy. It is another to engage in the morally serious act of making accusations. Yet I worry that he is conflating two separate issues because Stokes goes on to characterise conspiracy theorising as:

[A] practice that involves beliefs that are largely impervious to rational refutation, that characteristically encourages participants to level an expanding range of un-evidenced accusations, that is inimical to and corrosive of foundational trust, and that in some cases license behaviors (even among college professors) such as harassing and defaming grieving parents. One might reasonably be concerned about such a practice.[9]

Is this social and cultural practice really conspiracy theorising, though, or is it the hooking of certain views on to conspiracy narratives?

Conspiracy Narratives

Talk of conspiracy narratives—the complex social and psychological factors which seem to underpin elements of certain recurrent claims of conspiracy—is an interesting field with a long history. Indeed, Richard Hofstadter’s seminal piece, ‘The paranoid style in American politics’ is, arguably, less about conspiracy theories as it is about the conspiracy narratives employed in US politics.[10] Certainly, that was the tenor of Gordon S. Wood’s criticism of Hofstadter, in which he examines talk of conspiracy in 18th and 19th Century North America in order to show Hofstadter’s claims about the exceptionalism of 20th Century US politics has a much longer history.[11] Geoffrey Cubitt looks at the role stories about perfidious Jesuits played in France at about the same time,[12] a topic Thomas Kaiser, et al. also examine.[13] Victoria Emma Pagán looks back to Ancient Rome, and the way in which certain tropes reoccur in talk of conspiracy in Roman literature.[14] [15] Joseph Roisman provides a similar analysis for such talk in Ancient Athens.[16]

Conspiracy narratives are cases where alleged conspiracies by the usual suspects—women, slaves, Jews, Catholics, and the like—are used as convenient scapegoats. These narratives are arational, in that they are rhetorical bad habits (‘Somethings wrong in your neighbourhood. Who you gonna blame? Feminists!’), which are not epistemically constrained, nor are they deployed on the basis of evidence. Now, whilst I do not agree with some of the conclusions these authors draw from their historical analyses of such narratives, it is intriguing to see how certain conspiratorial tropes reoccur in particular societal settings. It is, then, unfortunate, that Stokes’ chooses to cites—one assumes approvingly—the work of Jovan Byford.

Byford is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Open University. In his 2011 book, ‘Conspiracy theories: a critical introduction’, he writes:

Chapter 2 sets the scene for the subsequent discussion by looking at how legitimate analyses of secrecy and collusion in politics might be differentiated from conspiracy theories. It looks at why it is important (although not always easy) to maintain the distinction between the two types of explanation.[17]

Why does Byford need to distinguish between ‘legitimate analyses of secrecy’ and conspiracy theories? Because he’s a generalist. Throughout his book Byford talks about conspiracy theories as being merely rhetorical devices,[18] claims conspiracy theories as we know them have their origin in the French Revolution[19] (a claim so ahistorical it is hard to treat seriously, especially given the work of the aforementioned historians), are anti-Semitic in character (even if they do not immediately appear to be so),[20] and that we should resist taking conspiracy theories seriously, or even recognising them as a view of the world worth listening to.[21]

Byford is a generalist, pure and simple, and he develops an analysis of this thing called ‘conspiracy theorising’ in order to show that, generally, it produces bad theories. As a consequence, we do not need to engage with these theories on the evidence.

It’s useful, then, to compare Byford with Lance deHaven-Smith, who also thinks we should distinguish between conspiracy theories and legitimate analyses of secrecy. deHaven-Smith is a proponent of a very particular set of 9/11 conspiracy theories, the Inside Job hypotheses (which claim the events of 9/11 were orchestrated by elements within the US, likely the government). deHaven-Smith recognises his beliefs are usually labelled pejoratively as ‘conspiracy theories’, and thus thinks that we should avoid using the label. Instead, he wants us to focus our attention on what he calls ‘state crimes against democracy’, or SCADS.[22]

Byford and deHaven-Smith are keen to rob conspiracy theory of its potency by appealing to their intuition that something about conspiracy theorising is considered fishy by most people. Byford wants us to embrace our scepticism of conspiracy theories by showing that conspiracy theorising is a problem. deHaven-Smith wants to rescue the central concerns of the conspiracy theorist by simply giving what she does a new and untarnished name. Yet both of these moves are problematic. Byford overstates his case, largely by assuming conspiracy theories are bad, and then engaging in post facto reasoning to justify his conclusion. deHaven-Smith simply renames his problem. ‘Sure,’ he might well be saying, ‘No one trusts homeopathy, but my new homeopathy* won’t suffer the same kind of criticisms!’

Both of these conspiracy theory theorists are invoking the spectre of a kind of conspiracy narrative infecting decent talk about when we might think some dastardly secret plot is occurring. That is to say, they are worried about conspiracy narratives rather than conspiracy theorising.

The same criticisms cannot be levelled at the historians. Whether or not we accept their folk-psychological or folk-sociological views about the general warrant of the theories they focus on, they—at the very least—situate their worries about conspiracy narratives into the specific milieu of the cultures and periods they study. Byford, unfortunately, is just a bad example for Stokes.

None of this is to say that Stokes’ overall point should be dismissed. We will get to the merits of his contribution in the next section. Rather, I am keen to point out that the idea that we can fruitfully analyse conspiracy theories as a general mode of explanation—as Byford does—and thus come to a nuanced, rather than what Stokes’ calls a ‘naive’ particularism often just ends up simply rehashing or relabelling the very problematic views particularists have been fighting against since Charles Pigden started work on this epistemological project back in 1995.[23]

In Defence of Conspiracy Theorising

This brings us back to Tracy. His accusation that a certain son never existed—and thus never died—at Sandy Hook is based upon his conviction that the Sandy Hook mass shooting event was a hoax. However, in the final accounting, Tracy’s terminal error was to insist someone provide a birth certificate for their son, to prove that said son had ever existed. Tracy made a serious accusation, which said father took to be harassment. This is what his employer, the university, took a dim view of.[24]

However, we must note that you can theorise about conspiracy theories without making accusations. Tracy could have (and, indeed, did for a time) theorise about mass shooting events being false flag events without making explicit accusations.[25] Even then, in the case where the conspiracy theorist makes an accusation, it is not necessarily the case that they will make ever expanding accusations.

Stokes would be better off pressing his point against conspiracy narratives. The way in which certain conspiracy narratives repeat tropes and forms, after all, is a recognised problem, and it is certainly the case that we see the same accusations—mutatis mutandis—occur over and over again with respect for them. For example, the long history of recurrent anti-Semitic conspiracy narratives—which were given voice once again in the last week of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign—shows some claims of conspiracy will refuse to die regardless of how much evidence that we might lay against them. Narratives like these, despite a mass of evidence weighed against them over time, unfortunately continue to reappear.[26]

However, if Stokes wants to push the point more generally, and bring in conspiracy theorising, then he will end up misrepresenting things. We can understand the reticence to engage in the accusation of conspiracy without having to drag conspiracy theorising into things. Conspiracy theorising does not require ever expanding accusations. The problem, rather, Stokes is tilting against is people being inappropriately defensive about their conspiracy narratives when evidence is levelled against them. This gets us to the crux of this friendly disagreement with Stokes. ‘Conspiracy theorising’ is being used ambiguously here. It can, as he notes, refer to a form of narrative, or mode of explanation. Or it can refer to the activity of coming up with a particular conspiracy theory.

We must resist trading on this ambiguity. To theorise about a conspiracy—to wit, to engage in conspiracy theorising—is a different task from hooking into an existing conspiracy narrative to press a point. In the works of the aforementioned historians, we see examples of general worries in a population being expressed as conspiracy narratives. The claim of conspiracy does not come out of genuinely asking ‘Who or what is behind this?’ Rather, some problem is blamed upon a pre-existing conspiracy narrative, one which blames the usual suspects.

Now, some will claim that all I am doing here in response to Stokes is to engage in a language game, just like Byford and deHaven-Smith. ‘Oh, we’re not talking about that kind of conspiracy theorising when we defend particularism…’ Yet I would argue that by clearly speciating out talk of conspiracy theories with respect to conspiracy theorising and the invocation of conspiracy narratives is principled case of the particularist insisting that we need to work with the evidence. After all, if the evidence is ‘This looks like a redressed version of a Jewish banking conspiracy narrative’, then the appropriate evidential response is to ask ‘Hasn’t this been debunked?’ Because if it has, then we will have evidence to mount against the new version. If it has not, then we need to investigate the claim further.[27]

That being said, Stokes is right that there is a certain naiveté to any particularist response which handwavingly says evidence will win out. Human beings, unfortunately, do not weigh up claims dispassionately. Maybe we particularists are too inclined to think rational inquiry will save the day, or perhaps we think of such enquiry taking years or even decades. Maybe some of us just downplay certain reoffenders by saying ‘No one takes those theories seriously!’ But note that this is not a fault with particularism. Rather, it’s a fault of particular particularists. Some of us have been hasty in our defence of particularism, but our haste is not a mark against the thesis. It is, instead, a mark against the way in which we have propounded our views, and we should thank Stokes for reminding us to not repeat the errors of the generalist.

References

Basham, Lee. “The Need for Accountable Witnesses: A Reply to Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no.7 (2016): 6–13.

Byford, Jovan. Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

“Conspiracy, n.” 2011. “OED Online.” http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/39766; Oxford University Press.

Cubitt, Geoffrey. The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

deHaven-Smith, Lance. Conspiracy Theory in America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “When Inferring to a Conspiracy Might Be the Best Explanation.” Social Epistemology 30 (2016a): 572–91. doi:10.1080/02691728.2016.1172362.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Treating Conspiracy Theories Seriously: A Reply to Basham on Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9, no. 5 (2016b): 1–5.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. 1st edition. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Kaiser, Thomas E., Marisa Linton, and Peter R. Campbell, eds. Conspiracy in the French Revolution. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

Pagán, Victoria Emma. Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Pagán, Victoria Emma. Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature. University of Texas Press, 2012.

Pigden, Charles. “Popper Revisited, or What Is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25.1 (1995): 3–34.

Roisman, Joseph. The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism About Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 34–39.

Wood, Gordon S. “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century.” He William and Mary Quarterly Third Series 3 (1982): 401–41.

[1] Basham, “The Need for Accountable Witnesses.”

[2] Dentith, “When Inferring to a Conspiracy Might Be the Best Explanation.”

[3] Dentith, “Treating Conspiracy Theories Seriously.”

[4] Stokes, “Between Generalism and Particularism About Conspiracy Theory,” 38.

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] I should like to state that I know Jim, have had drinks with Jim, and have interviewed (and been interviewed by) Jim for our respective podcasts.

[8] I imagine someone in a room, dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit.

[9] Stokes, “Between Generalism and Particularism About Conspiracy Theory,” 38

[10] Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays.

[11] Wood, “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style.”

[12] Cubitt, The Jesuit Myth.

[13] Kaiser, Linton, and Campbell, Conspiracy in the French Revolution.

[14] Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History.

[15] Pagán, Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature.

[16] Roisman, The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens.

[17] Byford, Conspiracy Theories, 18.

[18] Ibid., ch. 2.

[19] Ibid., ch. 3.

[20] Ibid., ch. 6.

[21] Ibid., ch. 7.

[22] deHaven-Smith, Conspiracy Theory in America.

[23] Pigden, “Popper Revisited, or What Is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories.”

[24] Like Stokes, I also am not making any claim here about the appropriateness of the university’s response to the claim of harassment. However, I take it to be obvious that Tracy’s claim is a serious one, and that there are moral costs to making such a accusation.

[25] I take it here that the threshold for accusation here something higher than simply saying ‘They are up to something…’ After all, some low level accusation will be inherent to any claim of conspiracy, and we surely want to be able to entertain claims about conspiracies in order to investigate them.

[26] It’s useful here to note that the earliest found mention of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to a ‘recrudescence of the conspiracy theory’ (“conspiracy, n.” 2011), which suggests that even in 1909, people were aware that said theories sometimes ape earlier narratives.

[27] There is the interesting question here of when and how does a conspiracy theory become a conspiracy narrative, or how such narratives might arise outside of the epistemic considerations of conspiracy theorising. Unfortunately, the investigation of that topic will have to wait.

Author Information: Kristina Rolin, University of Helsinki, kristina.rolin@helsinki.fi

Rolin, Kristina. “Collective Epistemic Responsibility: A Reply to Chris Dragos.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 7-11.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3ie

Please refer to:

collective_responsibility

Image credit: Frans de Wit, via flickr

I wish to thank Chris Dragos,[1] Silvia Tossut,[2] Brad Wray,[3] and Mark D. West[4] for discussing my work. This discussion gives me an opportunity to clarify the view I defended in “Science as Collective Knowledge.”[5] My main thesis was that scientific communities are capable of having collective knowledge. By collective knowledge, I meant “justified true belief or acceptance held or arrived at by groups as plural subjects.”[6] I assumed that scientific communities can have, if not collective beliefs, at least collective acceptances.[7] I assumed also that “belief or acceptance has to be justified in some sense to deserve to be called scientific.”[8] As Tossut (2016) points out, I did not claim that epistemic justification is a sufficient condition for knowledge.[9]

Epistemic Justification as Epistemic Responsibility

My analysis of collective scientific knowledge was built on a particular conception of epistemic justification: epistemic justification understood as epistemic responsibility. According to this conception, an agent is epistemically responsible in claiming that p when the agent provides sufficient evidence in support of p or adopts it with a defence commitment. What counts as sufficient evidence depends on the agent’s audience, its background assumptions and standards of evidence at any given time. A defence commitment means that the agent takes on a duty to defend or revise the claim whenever it is challenged with counter-evidence or some other kind of argument. Thus, epistemic responsibility does not require an agent to cite evidence in support of all knowledge claims. Insofar as knowledge claims are not challenged, the agent does not need to defend them. As Michael Williams explains, epistemic justification in this sense is “like innocence in a court of law: presumptive but in need of defence in the face of contrary evidence.”[10]

Building on Williams’s analysis of epistemic responsibility, I argued that a scientific community as a whole can be epistemically responsible for some knowledge claims, especially for assumptions which function as default entitlements in the community’s social practice of knowledge-seeking. I argued that a scientific community is epistemically responsible for its default entitlements when community members are jointly committed to defend them in case they are challenged in an appropriate way.[11] For a scientific community to be epistemically responsible for its default entitlements, it is not necessary that all or most of the members of the community are actually capable of defending them. Default entitlements do not need to be defended when they are not challenged. And when they are challenged, a scientific community can distribute the duties to defend them among its members so that those scientists who are capable of defending them respond to criticism on behalf of the whole community. I suggested that “a community’s default entitlements are often more properly understood as collective knowledge rather than as individual knowledge.”[12]

As a result of the insightful criticism of my argument, I have come to realize that my conception of epistemic justification as epistemic responsibility is in need of clarification and defence.[13] I have built my argument on Williams’s analysis of epistemic responsibility because I believe that it is a highly relevant conception of epistemic justification when we aim to understand science as a social practice of knowledge-seeking. I do not claim that epistemic responsibility is the only conception of epistemic justification. Like Williams, I believe that epistemic justification can be understood also as “adequate grounding.”[14] Whereas epistemic responsibility is focused on the question of when an agent is justified in claiming that p, the conception of epistemic justification as “adequate grounding” is concerned with the question of when the proposition p is justified. Williams uses also the term “personal justification” to distinguish epistemic responsibility from the conception of epistemic justification as “adequate grounding.”[15]

While epistemic responsibility is not the only conception of epistemic justification, I believe that it captures important aspects of epistemic justification. Williams argues that “by behaving in an epistemically responsible way, I increase the likelihood that the beliefs I form are true.”[16] I agree with Williams, and I wish to add that epistemic responsibility is needed also to make justice to a moral dimension in our knowledge-seeking practices. By being epistemically responsible towards other human beings, I show respect to them especially in their capacity as knowers. This is morally valuable even when my behaving in an epistemically responsible way does not lead me to have true beliefs.

Williams emphasizes that epistemic responsibility alone is not sufficient for knowledge; yet, he thinks that it is required for knowledge.[17] I argue that epistemic responsibility is required, if not for all knowledge, at least for scientific knowledge. Both individual scientists and research groups are expected to be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims to particular scientific communities. What counts as sufficient evidence and what assumptions they are allowed to take for granted, depends on what their communities are willing to accept without further inquiries or challenges. Even though some epistemic values may be shared by all scientific communities, the standards of evidence can vary from one scientific community to another.[18] While the standards are set by scientific communities, they are not beyond criticism. Standards may be criticized and transformed in reference to other standards, goals, and values held temporarily constant.[19]

As Heidi Grasswick argues, also scientific communities, and not only individual scientists, are sometimes expected to be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims to lay communities.[20] One advantage in my account of collective scientific knowledge is that it enables me to analyse what such a responsibility involves. Given my account, a scientific community as a whole is epistemically responsible to other communities when community members are jointly committed to be epistemically responsible to other communities. In the actual practice of science, this may mean that at least one member of the community is epistemically responsible on behalf of the whole community. Given this interpretation of collective epistemic responsibility, individual scientists are not burdened with more epistemic duties than they can reasonably be expected to carry out. When scientific communities are faced with challenges from lay communities, they can be epistemically responsible by distributing their epistemic duties among their members so that some community members engage some critics and some others some other critics.

On the Criticism of My View

Let me turn to the criticism of my view. Dragos argues that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge relies uncritically on the principle of autojustification.[21] Since I do not defend the principle of autojustification (J-Auto), it is not clear why we should prefer this principle to an alternative principle: the principle of allojustification (J-Allo). The two principles are defined as follows:

J-Auto: The possessor or proper subject of any knowledge that p must be the possessor or proper subject of all justifiers.[22]

J-Allo: The possessor or proper subject of any knowledge that p need not be the possessor or proper subject of all justifiers.[23]

In response to this criticism, I suggest that J-Auto is analyzed into two claims. One claim is that epistemic justification is a necessary condition for knowledge. Another claim is that for an agent to be epistemically justified in believing or accepting that p, the agent must be the possessor or proper subject of all justifiers required to defend p. While I have assumed the first claim, I have not assumed the second one.[24]

My analysis of collective scientific knowledge does not rely on the second claim because I do not claim that epistemic responsibility is the only conception of epistemic justification. I claim merely that it is a relevant conception of epistemic justification when we aim to understand science as a social practice of knowledge-seeking. For an agent to be epistemically responsible in believing or accepting that p, the agent must be capable of either providing sufficient evidence in support of p or defending p when it is challenged. This claim may look like the principle of autojustification but it is a different claim. It follows that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge is compatible with the view that there is another conception of epistemic justification which belongs to the category of allo-justification. Like Dragos, I welcome attempts to understand the role of trust and testimony in science.[25]

Dragos argues also that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge implies the problematic view that research groups cannot have collective knowledge.[26] The reason for this is that for a research group to be epistemically responsible for its knowledge claims, it is necessary that someone in the group is capable of defending the assumptions on which the group has relied. But according to Dragos, this is not possible because research groups have to rely on at least some assumptions that only someone outside the group is in a position to defend. It follows that research groups cannot be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims because they are not capable of defending all their assumptions on their own. It is always a larger social unit that has to bear epistemic responsibility for scientific knowledge.

In response to this criticism, I argue that my analysis of collective scientific knowledge is consistent with the view that research groups can be epistemically responsible for many knowledge claims. As Dragos points out, for a research group to be epistemically responsible for its knowledge claims, it is necessary that the group is capable of defending the assumptions on which it has relied. But unlike Dragos, I think that in many cases this requirement is feasible for research groups. Research groups do not always need to ask someone outside the group to help them address challenges to their assumptions. Sometimes research groups may fail to be epistemically responsible for their knowledge claims because they have unwittingly relied on an assumption which they are not capable of defending. But I do not think that this scenario is as common as Dragos claims it to be. Also, a group is expected to defend an assumption only when the assumption is actually challenged in an appropriate way. In many cases, research groups are not asked to defend all their assumptions because their audiences accept the assumptions without further inquiries. It follows that research groups can be epistemically responsible for many knowledge claims. This conclusion is consistent with the view that there may be some other knowledge claims for which a larger social unit will have to bear epistemic responsibility.

Conclusion

In summary, I admit that “Science as Collective Knowledge” may have been too general a title for my 2008 article. But I still hold the view that scientific communities can be epistemically responsible for some knowledge claims. For example, they can be epistemically responsible for their default entitlements by distributing the obligations to defend these assumptions among their members when the assumptions are challenged. If scientific communities can be epistemically responsible for some knowledge claims, then they are candidates for having collective knowledge in at least one sense of the term “collective knowledge.” My analysis of collective knowledge involves the view that epistemic justification can be understood as epistemic responsibility.

References

Dragos, Chris. “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? Wray Vs. Rolin.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 5-6 (2016a): 611–23.

Dragos, Chris. “Justified Group Belief in Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016b): 6–12.

Gilbert, Margaret. “Collective Belief and Scientific Change.” In Sociality and Responsibility: New Essays in Plural Subject Theory, 37–49. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

Grasswick, Heidi. “Scientific and Lay Communities: Earning Epistemic Trust through Knowledge Sharing.” Synthese 177, no. 3 (2010): 387–409.

Kuhn, Thomas. “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice.” In The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change, 320–39. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Longino, Helen. The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Rolin, Kristina. “Gender and Trust in Science.” Hypatia 17, no. 4 (2002): 95–118.

Rolin, Kristina. “Science as Collective Knowledge.” Cognitive Systems Research 9 (2008): 115–24.

Rolin, Kristina. “Values in Science: The Case of Scientific Collaboration.” Philosophy of Science 82, no. 2 (2015): 157–77.

Tossut, Silvia. 2016. “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge? A Reply to Chris Dragos.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 18–21.

West, Mark D. “Organic Solidarity, Science and Group Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 1–11.

Williams, Michael. Problems of Knowledge: A Critical Introduction to Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wray, K. Brad. “Collective Knowledge and Collective Justification.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 8 (2016): 24–27.

[1]. Dragos, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?” and “Justified Group Belief in Science.”

[2]. Tossut, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?”

[3]. Wray, “Collective Knowledge and Collective Justification.”

[4]. West, “Organic Solidarity, Science and Group Knowledge.”

[5]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge.”

[6]. Ibid., 115.

[7]. Gilbert, “Collective Belief and Scientific Change.”

[8]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge,” 116.

[9]. Tossut, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?”

[10]. Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 25.

[11]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge,” 121.

[12]. Ibid., 122.

[13]. Dragos, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?” and “Justified Group Belief in Science.”

[14]. Williams, Problems of Knowledge, 22.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. Ibid., 23.

[18]. Kuhn, The Essential Tension, 321.

[19]. Longino, The Fate of Knowledge, 131.

[20]. Grasswick, “Scientific and Lay Communities.”

[21]. Dragos, ”Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?,” 615.

[22]. Dragos, ”Justified Group Belief in Science,” 7.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Rolin, “Science as Collective Knowledge,” 116.

[25]. See e.g. Rolin, “Gender and Trust in Science” and “Values in Science.”

[26]. Dragos, “Which Groups Have Scientific Knowledge?,” 616.

Author Information: Zoltan Majdik, North Dakota State University, zoltan.majdik@ndsu.edu

Majdik, Zoltan. “Expertise as Practice: A Response to DeVasto.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 11 (2016): 1-6.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3hQ

Please refer to:

ask_expertsImage credit: Chris Pirillo, via flickr

A few years ago, Bill Keith and I wrote a paper on rethinking the concept of expertise as a kind of argument, which opened by noting that “expertise” contains an essential tension between authority and democracy.[1] DeVasto’s recent article on expertise prompted me to rethink and extend some of our ideas in light of her argument for focusing more attention on (multiple) ontological and practice-based grounds for expertise. In this response to her paper, I want to suggest that to think of expertise as ontological is to think of expertise as a tension—that the subject matter of expertise across all domains of expert engagement can productively be understood as a kind of tension, and that the practice, the doing, of expertise lies in the resolution of tension. In other words, to think of expertise as a “doing,” as an ontology, all the way down, to be concerned with “patterns of practice”[2] as the ontology of expertise, is to understand expertise as an ongoing tension—with attendant deliberative demands and opportunities toward resolution—that encompasses political (between the authority of the few and a common interest), epistemic (between knowledge that is credentialed, and knowledge that is otherwise acquired), and moral (between legitimating the norms and practices of different groups, based on their rightness in a given context) aspects.

Early in her paper, DeVasto notes that the crux of scholarship on expertise is the “unresolved question of how to determine pertinent experts.”[3] There are numerous ways of trying to resolve this question, by providing structural models of expertise that tend to catalogue expertises in taxonomies, in decision charts, in inclusion networks, or in domains or regimes associated with questions of fact and value. These can be categorized by historical waves, classified by degrees of inclusiveness, parsed by types and degrees of experience, and so on. Most models of determining expertise, including the ones DeVasto cites, do so based on criteria fixed in the past: potential experts either have or have not acquired some kind of knowledge that would grant them expertise in a given situation, either because they have studied such situations or have experienced them. These selection criteria are reasonable in many cases, as they provide some normative stability to the determination of expertise, and so help push back against the kind of democratization of expertise we saw in the second wave of science studies. But they also lack situational flexibility, because they are built on how people have understood or managed exigent problems in the past.

Problems that require expertise, however, can sometimes emerge in new and unique ways, rendering systems of expert classification built on past experience difficult to work with. L’Aquila was precisely such a problem—a fact noted by Carl Herndl’s response to DeVasto as a potential barrier to the generalizability of her argument.[4] Yet, I’d argue that maybe the uniqueness of the L’Aquila case is precisely what gives strength to DeVasto’s claims. Her multiple ontologies frame can, I believe, work as a system for “determining pertinent experts” that is more nimble than a system based on past experience can be. Her use of Mol’s somewhat Wittgensteinian approach to ontology, and her argument for multiple ontologies as a guiding framework for expertise, moves toward that goal. Though I might argue with some details,[5] the new materialism approach does open a space for thinking not about legitimate classifications of expertise, but about the constitution of expertise itself in and as a practice.

DeVasto’s rejection of a “politics of who” illustrates this point. Pushing our understanding of expertise toward ontologies, hooked into practices, shifts emphasis from determining who qualifies as expert based on their past experience or knowledge, toward how expertise gets constituted in a situation—the “what” that is comprised by the practices emerging in a situation. But at times, DeVasto’s mapping of a multiple materialities framework onto the L’Aquila case simply recreates Collins and Evans’ classificatory model. Replacing their epistemic heuristic for classifying expertise with an ontological one—replacing the “who/how” with the “what”—ends up with the same four buckets of expertise, albeit now underwritten by ontological grounds: we have, in DeVasto’s analysis, still interactional ontology, contributory ontology, etc. She argues this point herself: “the types of expertise proposed put forth by Collins and Evans are actually distinct ontologies.”[6] This is, of course, not wrong: these are categories of expertise we encounter, and they are well conceptualized and well mapped onto actual exigent situations. But it raises the question of what we gain by moving to new materialism, practice, and multiple ontologies—what is the upside, if all we do is recreate an existing classificatory system?

DeVasto’s circling-back to Collins and Evans’ categories obscures the fact that shifting our perspective on expertise to its ontology via practice may do more than map onto existing categories. It may give us an out from a rigid classificatory system. “Practice,” after all, isn’t just inert materiality: it is, as DeVasto recognizes, an act, by which materialities are situated, positioned, actuated relative to people and exigencies and constraints. It is how we get from Ontology to multiple ontologies, from “experiencing an earthquake” to “‘doing’ earthquakes.”[7] As DeVasto shows, the value of Mol’s work isn’t simply that it “deconstructs the expert/lay binary,”[8] which, after all, Collins & Evans and many others had already done, and done well. It is that it escapes simply reconstituting it into another expert/lay binary. Mol’s, and DeVasto’s, contributions are meaningful in drawing attention to the legitimization and enactment of expertise as a practice in its own right, not in recreating new systems of classifications. They draw attention to the selection mechanism for choosing experts as being expertise, rather than as a means toward granting legitimacy to a group of experts. “How to determine pertinent experts” is itself what expertise does, is its ontology, its practice, not merely an epistemic heuristic by which we gain knowledge of who the proper experts are. This is what I meant when I referred to expertise as ontological all the way down.

Hence, in DeVasto’s view of expertise grounded in practices, we gain something in how we theorize expertise. Enacting expertise is not to use an existing body of knowledge—static, a priori sets of facts, skills, or experiences—that either fit or do not fit an exigent situation. Enacting expertise is to choose, deconstruct, assemble, test, and legitimize what knowledge best fits a situation. It is, thus, practical knowledge, phronesis, a kind of knowledge-in-making—a grappling with and discerning not only the epistemic dimension of knowledge as it ought to properly pertain to a problem, but also its structural and moral dimensions. It is a moral practice, in the sense Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky talk about moral judgments and the valuing of consequences of risk as questions of social criticism and communal consent,[9] and in the sense that Jürgen Habermas distinguishes moral-practical expressions having to do with the rightness of actions from the instrumentality of discourse that aims to validate truths.[10] The enactment of expertise is to discern and engage tensions between different sets of facts, actors, norms, and skill, legitimizing and justifying the their appropriateness relative to a situation. This is a long way of saying that expertise is not only located in the practices of those addressing exigent situations, but that expertise is a kind of practice itself.

DeVasto recognizes all this. As she shows in her conclusion, the fact that “people move among sites of practise” in enacting different ontologies[11] demonstrates the conceptual flexibility of a multiple ontologies framework. More importantly, she argues here for the importance of examining “how science-policy decision-making is conducted rather than remaining focused only on who should be present.” It is precisely this capacity of the theoretical framework she builds for pulling together sometimes related, sometimes divergent sets of practices into an intelligible model of expertise that makes this paper meaningful.

If DeVasto’s use of Mol’s multiple ontologies is to open new ways of recognizing legitimate and pertinent expertise in the practices of people, groups, and institutions, then a next step is to disentangle the “what” of the ontological perspective. Her move from a “politics of who” to a “politics of what” introduces a practical challenge. A practice-based view of selecting experts in situ eschews the use of simple, predetermined procedures: is is made up both of things old and new and of people from outside and within the problem at hand, and their “thrownness” (to use Heidegger’s fitting term) into an exigent situation. It is constituted by what’s there (both in terms of the objects at hand, and the institutional norms that guide their use and the interactions of people with them) just as much as it constitutes what’s there: practices create new objects, and challenge or reaffirm existing norms, hence altering the landscape of the “there.” To use ontology and practice as a means of “recognizing pertinent experts” requires understanding how such an expertise-as-practice can function.[12]

Doing so is beyond the scope of my response paper, but in the spirit of the Review & Reply Collective’s discussion-centric format, I will make some suggestions. One is to return to the epistemological function of expertise, but consider it within the context of an ontological/practice-centric model. If expertise is a kind of knowledge-in-making, its epistemological function—the information it can furnish for how to address an exigent situation—emerges downstream from the social and linguistic practices that go into resolving tensions about facts, norms, people, and skills. Expertise so undeniably has an epistemological function, but it is not its epistemological function. We find this kind of thinking about epistemology and practice in Giambattista Vico’s epistemology, and in particular his notion of a sensus communis. As John Schaeffer outlines, the relationship between sensus communis, language, imagination, and epistemology in Vico is complex.[13] One way to situate them is through the idea of practice, in the sense in which Vico locates concepts of language and knowledge closer to practice than to the kind of logical-deductive, Cartesian reasoning common at his time. “Eloquence,” argues Schaeffer, “does not merely mean speaking well; it means speaking the truth effectively in the public sphere.” Along with prudence, its design is to “make wisdom effective in civic life,” which is where “the community requires that concrete decisions [about matters of probability] be made in specific circumstances.”[14] And that sense of community—of the “what” of community, the “prelogical”[15] awareness of community—comes from a sensus communis that contains “conventional meanings” and “similitudes” which make “community choice possible.”[16]

We are, of course, a long way from the technical discussion of expertise in STS and related fields. But I suggest that broadening our focus to a place like Vico can be instructive, because it offers a deeply linguistic understanding of the kinds of on-the-ground practices that underwrite determinations of expertise in a multiple ontological framework. Concepts like imagination and similitude (precisely defined as in Vico’s work, or extended to places like Wittgenstein’s family resemblance) can serve to make concrete the linguistic, rhetorical structures that are at work in the complex, dynamic practice of expertise outlined by DeVasto and necessary for cases like the L’Aquila one.

A second aspect to consider is audience. Enactments of expertise have audiences, as well as are constituted by audiences—they address an audience, and are given legitimacy as “being expert” by that audience. Both these directions—the ontological “what” that makes expertise, and the epistemological “how” that conveys knowledge through expertise—work through the complex social contract of trust. We cannot talk about an ontology or an epistemology of expertise without considering the notion that the constitution of expertise as well as its social/epistemological function can exist only if experts and their audiences trust each other. And when we talk about expertise and trust, we are talking about Anthony Giddens, who sees both expertise and trust as central to the functioning of a late-modern social structure in which individuals engage with and are engaged by disembedded social institutions, and their norms about life abstracted from local place by an “emptying out of time and space.”[17]

For Giddens, the facts and norms of social institutions “coordinate social activities without necessary reference to the particularities of place.”[18] Yet, and seemingly paradoxically at first, it is precisely this “‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts and their rearticulation across indefinite tracts of time-space”[19] that allows for more coordinated, more precise modes of interaction. Giddens’ theory here speaks to the “place-ness” of expertise: this notion I briefly mention above that the challenge of expertise lies in the fact that it throws together highly local, idiosyncratic, particular features of a place with the generalized knowledge and practices of institutions (be they scientific, legal, economical, or otherwise) that are purposefully abstracted from the characteristics of the local. In fact, expertise to Giddens is the “disembedding mechanism” by which social institutions manage to “bracket time and space [through] technical knowledge.” And expert systems, along with a second disembedding mechanism (symbolic tokens), “depend in an essential way on trust” to function in our late modern space.[20] Hence, to see expertise in place and in practice, without abandoning the important function of institutionalized norms and knowledge as bases for determining expert knowledge, is to see it through a kind of interplay between institutional logic and local agency, mediated by trust. Here, it may be that the practice of crafting trust becomes a critical dimension of enacting expertise.

Considering audience and trust, and considering communality and a historical situatedness of language, as two possible directions for continuing a conversation on expertise may open the scope of academic inquiry on the topic beyond the commonly referenced STS-centric themes. In politics, for example, the role of expertise in the recent “Brexit” vote in the U.K. has been framed as a repudiation of experts, but maybe could be researched with some more nuance from a vantage point that sees expertise as partly constituted by considerations of audience, trust, and community. Whichever way further discussions go, they will benefit from DeVasto’s challenge, and Herndl’s added insights in this forum, to our understandings of expertise as a social practice.

References

DeVasto, Danielle. “Being Expert: L’Aquila and Issues of Inclusion in Science-Policy Decision Making.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 372–97.

Douglas, Mary, and Aaron B. Wildavsky. Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984.

Herndl, Carl G. “Doing and Knowing in the L’Aquila Case.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 1–6.

Knorr Cetina, Karin. Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Majdik, Zoltan P., and William M. Keith. “Expertise as Argument: Authority, Democracy, and Problem-Solving.” Argumentation 25, no. 3 (2011): 371-384.

Schaeffer, John D. “Vico’s Rhetorical Model of the Mind: ‘Sensus Communis’ in the ‘De Nostri Temporis Studiorum Ratione’.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 14, no. 3 (1981): 152–67.

[1]. Majdik and Keith, “Expertise as Argument.”

[2]. DeVasto, “Being Expert,” 381.

[3]. Ibid., 374.

[4]. Herndl, “Doing and Knowing in the L’Aquila Case.”

[5]. The notion, for example, that materiality can shift too far from the linguistic and perspectival. Cf. e.g., Knorr Cetina, who shows just how deep the role of language (as “imaginative terminological repertoires” in experimental physics), along with practices, can go in positioning objects in practices and enactments. Knorr Cetina, Epistemic Cultures, 112.

[6]. DeVasto, “Being Expert,” 383.

[7]. Ibid., 384.

[8]. Ibid., 377.

[9]. Douglas and Wildavsky, Risk and Culture, 5–10.

[10]. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 1:23.

[11]. DeVasto, “Being Expert,” 390.

[12]. Ibid., 374.

[13]. Schaeffer, “Vico’s Rhetorical Model of the Mind,” 152–53.

[14]. Ibid., 154.

[15]. Ibid., 163.

[16]. Ibid., 163.

[17]. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 17.

[18]. Ibid., 17.

[19]. Ibid., 18.

[20]. Ibid., 18.

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University, patrick.stokes@deakin.edu.au

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism about Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 34-39.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3gJ

Please refer to:

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The exchange on these pages between Lee Basham[1] and Matthew Dentith[2] has been largely one of furious agreement. That is, I hasten to add, no criticism. While we often take conflict to be the engine room of philosophy, we can sometimes overlook how productive philosophical agreement can be; the “yes, and…” species of reply can be just as fruitful as the “yes, but…” or “no, because…” varieties. Watching two outstanding philosophers of conspiracy theory engage in this way cannot help but be enriching and illuminating, even when they largely concur.

Specifically, both Basham and Dentith share the view that generalism about conspiracy theory – the view that conspiracy theories as a class of explanation are intrinsically suspect – should be rejected in favor of a particularism whereby “we can only pass judgment on individual conspiracy theories, assessing them purely on their respective evidential merits.”[3] On Basham’s diagnosis, Dentith’s method of overturning generalism is an attrition approach, which knocks out various generalist positions one by one until particularism wins by default. Basham then articulates an approach that critiques the reliability of the primary information sources that generalism relies upon, and ultimately commends a combination of both approaches.

In this brief intrusion to their exchange, I want to put some pressure on this shared view that generalism must be exchanged wholesale for particularism. Instead I want to suggest that a move from naïve generalism to thoroughgoing particularism misses important features that should guide our assessment of, and receptivity to, conspiracy explanations.

Conspiracy Explanation and Conspiracy Theory

As Dentith notes, the relevant literature is not voluminous. It is, however, both illuminating and characterized by a remarkable degree of consilience. Basham, Charles Pigden, David Coady, and Dentith have all arrived at the view that conspiracy theories are not inherently irrational, and that the pejorative connotations the term “conspiracy theory” has – at least in some quarters, though as Basham notes not all[4] – are undeserved, unfair, and dangerous. Coady declares the current attitude towards conspiracy theorists “an intellectual witch hunt,”[5] while Pigden[6] forcefully warns us that reflexive dismissal of conspiratorial explanations that contradict official narratives is a gift to powerful actors who want to avoid scrutiny. This attitude towards conspiracy theory stands, as Basham notes with some vigor,[7] in contrast to the widespread assumption in the social sciences and psychology that conspiracy theories and conspiracy ideation are necessarily irrational and pathological, and deserve to be combatted even by conspiratorial means if necessary.[8]

Central to this at least partial rehabilitation of conspiracy theory as a category is the philosophical literature’s very basic, and accordingly very capacious, definition of what a “conspiracy theory” actually is. Basham’s definition of conspiracy theory as any explanation of events in terms of “two or more persons intentionally cooperat[ing] to deceive others” is typical of the field.[9] Hence, on Basham’s view, “The categories “conspiracy theories” and “conspiracy explanations” emerge as co-extensive.”[10] This is the first step in what has become a standard move in the epistemological literature on conspiracy theory: define
“conspiracy” in a very formal and minimal way, and then show how there is nothing intrinsically irrational, or even unreasonable, about explanations of that form. Conspiratorial activity is at least sometimes, perhaps even often, the best available explanation to infer to.[11] Indeed, once we’ve taken that definition on board, as several writers in this area have noted, it turns out we’re all conspiracy theorists: we all believe that conspiracies are the best explanation of many historical events, from the murder of Julius Caesar to Stalin’s show trials to Watergate.

Philosophers acknowledge this definition clashes with the ways we generally talk about conspiracy theory. They like to remind us that, according to this definition, the “official” explanation for the 9/11 attacks is itself a conspiracy theory; that is, it explains the attacks as the outcome of a conspiracy on the part of al-Qaeda. Yet when we think of “conspiracy theories” we don’t generally think of such “accepted” explanations as falling under that heading. We don’t typically group officially sanctioned beliefs about al-Qaeda flying planes into buildings or Russian FSB agents murdering Kremlin opponents with polonium-laced tea with beliefs about the New World Order or the “Clinton Body Count.” Yet there’s nothing structural that differentiates the first set of beliefs from the second. If there is a formal difference between “Putin murdered Alexander Litvinenko” and “Bill Clinton murdered Vince Foster” it is hard to see what it might be. Appeals to the official status of one story but not the other don’t work, because an officially sanctioned story in one society might be considered a conspiracy theory in another. If we attempt to force that sort of solution we end up, as Pigden points out, with a blatantly gerrymandered and chauvinistic definition according to which a conspiracy theory is “a theory which posits a secret and morally suspect plan on the part of Western governments or government agencies to influence events by partly covert means.”[12] We have obvious reasons to look askance at any definition of conspiracy theory that entails that conspiracies are something only other societies do.

Conspiracy Theorising as Practice and Tradition

There are, undeniably, risks involved in a naïve generalism that reflexively dismisses any explanation in terms of conspiratorial activity. But there is also a corresponding risk of allowing a legitimate target of critique to hide within an innocent larger category of “conspiracy explanation.” That target is conspiracy theorizing as a recognizable concrete social practice and tradition. When people dismiss something as a “conspiracy theory” they don’t do so in a vacuum. Nor are they necessarily referring to a specific and precisely defined epistemological category. There’s probably a quasi-Wittgensteinian story to be told about the role of family resemblance in our definition of conspiracy theory, but this is not the time or place to tell it. For now, let’s simply note that there is recognizable cultural practice of conspiracy theorizing. Conspiracy theory as the term is popularly understood has its own stylistic tropes, history, and patterns of accusation. Conspiracy theory is, as Jovan Byford puts it, a tradition of explanation.[13] That tradition is a recognizable one, with a recurring cast of characters, narrative forms, and reflex moves and counter-moves – for instance, the tendency to accuse more and more people of involvement in the conspiracy in order to explain disconfirmatory evidence.

The boundaries of such a tradition or style of explanation are, naturally enough, fuzzy and ill-defined. But it’s clearly a far more concrete phenomenon than an explication of its basic epistemic form can capture. Accordingly, any critique of conspiracy theorizing as a real-world practice needs to resist an artificial simplicity that would strip it of precisely the content upon which we could judge such a practice. Viewed thus, both generalism and particularism turn out to take us further away from the concrete contexts in which we consider conspiracy theories. The generalist occludes the historical and cultural context in which conspiracy explanations have often turned out to be correct. The particularist, by insisting on viewing each conspiracy theory solely on its own merits, occludes the cultural, historical, and rhetorical context from which conspiracy theory as a tradition of explanation emerges. The generalist will refuse to even consider that the US government knowingly presented unreliable intelligence to justify invading Iraq, while the particularist will refuse to even acknowledge that “climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the UN and international bankers’ to bring about a socialist one-world government,” as a recently elected Australian senator apparently sincerely believes, is not a self-contained hypothesis worthy of at least cursory investigation but a recrudescence of various long-standing conspiracy tropes, including old anti-Semitic ones.[14]

Reasons to be Reticent

A look at that tradition supplies several reasons to be reluctant to take part in it. Some of those reasons might only be applicable in certain cases and in certain contexts. For instance while conspiracies about “international banking families” are recognizably and uncomfortably close to their anti-Semitic antecedents (and antisemitism remains a stubbornly recurrent motif in a surprising amount of conspiracy material), other conspiracy theories don’t obviously have any such taint. In terms of the rationality of conspiracy belief, various concerns about non-falsifiability, and the generally degenerating character of conspiracy research programs might also be adduced here.[15] Concerns have also been raised in the literature about the ways in which conspiracy theories corrode the trust essential to successful social and political life. (Again, there’s a story to be told about the foundational and non-calculative character of trust in ethical life, and the way in which philosophers of conspiracy theory instead treat trust as an Aristotelian mean and a matter of calculation, but this, again, is not the place.) Most fundamentally, however, I’d suggest we have reasons to be wary of conspiracy theorizing as a practice simply because the internal logic of conspiracy explanation disconnects the morally serious act of accusation from the force of evidence. To defend a conspiracy theory over any length of time typically requires the conspiracy theorist to recruit more and more people to the conspiracy. This is not done in response to new evidence but simply to defend the theory. Conspiracy theory as a practice does not simply trade in suspicion, but in accusation without warrant. (To throw out yet another promissory note, I discuss this specific moral cost of conspiracy theorizing in a forthcoming paper.)

Particularists can in fact agree that conspiracy theories often have problematic origins and results. They simply insist that this tendency alone doesn’t entitle us to reject any conspiracy theory simply because it is a conspiracy theory. Individual conspiracy theories maybe ludicrous, hateful, or destructive, but, as philosophers working in this area have demonstrated, that doesn’t entail that any conspiracy theory is just thereby necessarily wrong. That in turn would seem to suggest we should not denounce conspiracy theorizing as a practice or conspiracy theory as a tradition, because the theories offered by that practice and tradition may well turn out to be true. Frequently, of course, they won’t. What then? The confident assertion made by Basham, Dentith, and their co-signatories that “Poorly evidenced conspiracy theories will be quickly set aside”[16] if only we look at the evidence simply isn’t borne out by experience. Conspiracy theories persist for years, even decades, in the absence of evidence, and can continue to cause harms while they do. There was never any evidence to suggest that AIDS was invented by Western drug companies and governments in an attempt to exploit and control Africa, yet this belief persisted long enough to kill over 330,000 people.[17] The conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies are covering up widespread illness caused by vaccination has never been supported by any credible evidence; its persistence threatens herd immunity in communities throughout the world. If trust in democratic institutions is, in Basham’s phrase, a “political piety,” then the idea that weak conspiracy theories are quickly defeated by rational scrutiny is an “epistemic piety” that falls sadly short of reality.

Basham mentions, in passing, the firing of James Tracy from his position as a tenured professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, and suggests this may be an “extreme example” of “pathologizing those who question official narratives.”[18] Tracy was fired after harassing the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, demanding they provide proof their child had ever existed.[19] Whether one regards dismissal as an appropriate or proportionate response or not, such behavior is hard to explain if we take it three things to be true:

1. Rational evaluation defeats weakly evidenced conspiracy theories;

2. A tenured professor of communication would, ceteris paribus, be reasonably good at rational evaluation; and

3. The evidence for the belief that Sandy Hook and other putative mass-casualty events are false-flag operations by the US government is weak.

If Basham wants to defend 1), he would have to reject either 2) or 3). Given what passes for “evidence” for a Sandy Hook hoax, his best bet would be to use the ceteris paribus clause in 2) and point to some special circumstances in Tracy’s case. In that case, though, we’d still need to account for all the other people who hold to this belief: even if reason is the best solvent for un-evidenced belief, its efficacy still seems surprisingly limited. That being the case, we’re left with conspiracy theorizing as a practice that involves beliefs that are largely impervious to rational refutation, that characteristically encourages participants to level an expanding range of un-evidenced accusations, that is inimical to and corrosive of foundational trust, and that in some cases license behaviors (even among college professors) such as harassing and defaming grieving parents. One might reasonably be concerned about such a practice.

Beyond Particularism

What, then, might lie between, or beyond, generalism and particularism? Perhaps something that might be described as “defeasible generalism” or “reluctant particularism.” Such an attitude would not begin from the premise that conspiracy theories are always false. As such, it would not foreclose the possibility of ever investigating any conspiracy theory. It would, however, approach such theories with a certain reticence, given the social practice within which those theories are embedded and the moral costs associated with taking part in the conspiracy theory tradition. We would approach any claim that borrowed tropes or argumentative patterns from the conspiracy theory tradition with a particular suspicion, albeit a suspicion that could be countervailed in certain circumstances – namely where the growth of evidence passes a certain point (which, no doubt, cannot be specified ahead of time). We would apply an ethical heuristic in judging whether conspiracy claims are worth entertaining, much as we do when, for instance, we refuse to think badly of people until compelled by evidence to do so. Such a heuristic is not simply prudential – indeed it’s not hard to imagine how someone might take default suspicion to be more prudent – but rather reflects the need to avoid being caught up in patterns of thought that lose sight of the moral gravity of accusation.

It could be objected here that such an attitude would make us more vulnerable to becoming victims of conspiracies. A standing vigilance towards power (in all forms, including state power) is essential to any healthy society and polity, and maintaining such vigilance may seem incompatible with a standing reluctance to accept conspiratorial explanations. But equally we might note that a refusal to fall back on conspiracist tropes and patterns of thought may also help in such vigilance, by making it easier to avoid seeing patterns that aren’t really there.

None of that makes Dentith’s task of determining heuristics for when we should take conspiracy theories any less pressing – indeed it makes it all the more urgent. If both naïve generalism and naïve particularism are non-starters, then we need a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of when and under what circumstances the use of conspiracy explanation is justified. That must include not merely questions of epistemic and prudential rationality, but of ethical validity as well. We’re fortunate indeed that Dentith is engaged in such a project, and like Basham, I very much look forward to seeing his results.

Conflict of Interest disclosure: The author is an administrator of Stop the AVN, a group that campaigns against anti-vaccination activism.

References

Basham, Lee. “The Need for Accountable Witnesses: A Reply to Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016a): 6-13.

Basham, Lee. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016b): 12-19.

Byford, Jovan. Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

Chigwedere, Pride et al. “Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa.” JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes 49. no. 4 (2008): 410-15.

Clarke, Stephen. “Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32. no. 2 (2002): 131-50.

Coady, David. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Beliefs. Maldon, MA and Oxford: Wiley, 2012.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Treating Conspiracy Theories Seriously: A Reply to Basham on Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016a): 1-5.

Denith, Matthew R.X. “When Inferring to a Conspiracy might be the Best Explanation.” Social Epistemology 30, 5-6 (2016b): 572-591.

McPhate, Mike. “University in Florida Seeks to Fire Newtown Conspiracy Theorist.” The New York Times, December 18, 2015.

Pigden, Charles. “Complots of Mischief.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 139-66. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

Roberts, Malcolm. “‘Why?’ Motives Driving Climate Fraud.” http://www.conscious.com.au/docs/new/14_Appendix.pdf.

Sunstein, Cass R. and Adrian Vermeule. “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures*.” Journal of Political Philosophy 17. no. 2 (2009): 202-27.

[1]. Basham, “The Need for Accountable Witnesses.”

[2]. Denith, “Treating Conspiracy Theories Seriously.”

[3]. Ibid, 1.

[4]. Basham, “The Need for Accountable Witnesses,” 7 n.5.

[5]. Coady, What to Believe Now, 111.

[6]. Pigden, “Complots of Mischief.”

[7]. Basham, “The Need for Accountable Witnesses”; “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic.”

[8]. Sunstein and Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures*.”

[9]. Basham, “The Need for Accountable Witnesses,” 6.

[10]. Ibid, 7.

[11]. See e.g. Denith, “When Inferring to a Conspiracy might be the Best Explanation.”

[12]. Pigden, “Complots of Mischief,” 164.

[13]. Byford, Conspiracy Theories.

[14]. Roberts, “Why?”

[15]. Clarke, “Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing.”

[16]. Basham, “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic,” 14.

[17]. Chigwedere et al., “Estimating the Lost Benefits of Antiretroviral Drug Use in South Africa.”

[18] Basham, “The Need for Accountable Witnesses,” 11 n.18.

[19]. McPhate, “University in Florida Seeks to Fire Newtown Conspiracy Theorist.”

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Martin, Brian. “An Experience with Vaccination Gatekeepers.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 27-33.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3fZ

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For those promoting vaccination, one option is censoring critics, but this could be counterproductive. The response of editors of two journals suggests that even raising this possibility is unwelcome.

Background

For several years, I have been writing about the Australian vaccination debate. My primary concern is to support free expression of views. Personally, I do not take a stand on vaccination.

The trigger for my interest was the activities of a citizens’ group named Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), formed in 2009. SAVN’s explicit purpose was to silence and shut down a long-standing citizens’ group critical of vaccination, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). In several articles, I have described the methods used by SAVN including verbal abuse, harassment (especially via numerous complaints) and censorship.[1] Over decades of studying several public scientific controversies, I had never seen or heard about a campaign like SAVN’s using such sustained and diverse methods aimed at silencing a citizens’ group that was doing no more than expressing its viewpoint in public. (Campaigners on issues such as forestry who use direct action techniques such as blockades are sometimes met with violent repression.)

Prior to this, in 2007, I started supervising a PhD student, Judy Wilyman, who undertook a critical analysis of the Australian government’s vaccination policy. Judy was also active in making public comment. After the formation of SAVN, Judy came under attack. SAVNers criticised her thesis before it was finished and before they had seen it, and made complaints to the university. After Judy graduated and her thesis was posted online, a massive attack was mounted on her, her thesis, me as her supervisor and the University of Wollongong.[2] This involved prominent stories in the daily newspaper The Australian, hostile tweets and blogs, a petition and complaints, among other things.[3]

Here I report on a small spinoff experience that provides insight into thinking about vaccination issue. Two senior Australian public health academics, David Durrheim from the University of Newcastle and Alison Jones from the University of Wollongong, wrote a commentary published in the journal Vaccine.[4] They argued that academic freedom might need to be curtailed in cases in which public health is imperilled by academic work. Their specific concern was criticism of vaccination, and they mentioned two particular cases: Judy’s PhD thesis and a course taught at the University of Toronto by Beth Landau-Halpern.

Durrheim and Jones are established scholars with long publication records in their usual areas of research. However, in writing their commentary in Vaccine they ventured into social science. As I wrote in a previous article in the SERRC, Durrheim and Jones’ commentary was based on an inadequate sample, just two cases.[5] Furthermore, in both cases they appeared to rely on newspaper articles without obtaining independent assessments of the reliability of the information. Furthermore, they provided no evidence supporting the effectiveness of the measures they proposed to prevent unsound academic research and teaching on public health, nor examined the potential negative consequences of these measures, in particular for open inquiry. Ironically, in criticising allegedly unsound social-science teaching and research, they produced an unsound piece of social science writing.

I wrote a reply to Durrheim and Jones’ commentary and then contacted Vaccine about whether it would be suitable for submission. However, the editor-in-chief ruled that the journal would not publish replies to its published commentaries. This led me to publish my reply, along with an explanation of its context, in SERRC.[6] Beth Landau-Halpern wrote her own response.[7]

I then proposed to Vaccine to submit a commentary about the vaccination debate. The editor-in-chief asked for a summary of what I proposed. After receiving my summary, I was informed that the editor-in-chief (EiC) “has advised you can proceed to submission, however the EiC has requested a fresh viewpoint in the commentary which would add something new to the literature.” I prepared a short piece, “Should vaccination critics be silenced?,” making the case that censoring critics could be counterproductive. I submitted it through the usual online system, listing four potential referees. The managing editor told me that my submission would be handled by the editor-in-chief. Not long after, I received a form-letter rejection, a “desk reject,” including the following text:

We regret to inform you of our decision to decline your manuscript without offer of peer-review.

Vaccine receives a large number of submissions for which space constraints limit acceptance only to those with the highest potential impact within our vast readership. […]

If any specific comments on your paper are available, they are provided at the bottom of this message.

There were no comments on my submission. Normally, after submitting a proposed outline of points to be covered, I would have expected that my submission would be sent to referees, or at the very least that the editor would offer a justification for rejection without refereeing. My submission is reproduced below so that readers can judge its quality. Vaccine accepted Durrheim and Jones’ commentary three days after receipt, implying very rapid refereeing.

I next sent my commentary to the Journal of Public Health Policy. The co-editors soon wrote back declining my submission, saying “Perhaps you can find a journal with an audience for whom this material is new. If you submit it elsewhere, I suggest that you look at the attached article.” The attached article in one page argued that safety is important in vaccines, concluding “It will be far easier to achieve herd immunity when risks associated with vaccines are known to be so small that public confidence in the safety of vaccines is secure.”[8]

The co-editors’ reply perplexed me. I wrote back as follows:

I am not arguing for or against vaccination. Nor am I arguing about the benefits of herd immunity or measures taken to improve vaccination rates, the topics covered in the article you kindly sent.

My concern is about the wisdom of silencing critics, for example trying to block public talks, prevent speaking tours, shut down websites, force organisations to close and verbally attacking individuals to discourage them from making public comment. Possibly I did not spell this out clearly enough. Whether silencing critics using such methods is a good way to promote vaccination has seldom been addressed.

The co-editors responded:

We have followed vaccination policy and the problem with your comments about critics is that because the critics focus on decisions by parents and patients they strengthen the perception a person takes a vaccine to protect him or herself, rather than to protect the whole community.  You do not challenge that. Although not the focus of your submission, it gives some comfort to those who focus on protecting themselves or their children. Perhaps you can work around that problem, but your otherwise find [sic] submission does not do it.

The implication of this response is that any comment about vaccination that “gives some comfort to those who focus on protecting themselves or their children” is unwelcome. This sort of perspective, with herd immunity being an overriding concern, helps to explain the resistance of vaccination proponents to any analysis of attacks on vaccination critics.

My experience with just two journals is an inadequate basis for passing judgement about peer review and editorial decision-making concerning vaccination. However, it is compatible with there being a view that publishing anything that might be used by vaccine critics is to be avoided.

The vaccination controversy, like many other public scientific controversies, is highly polarised. Partisans on either side look for weaknesses in the positions of their opponents. It seems that even if censoring vaccination critics is counterproductive, raising this possibility is unwelcome among proponents. After all, it might give comfort to the critics.

Should Vaccination Critics Be Silenced? (submission to Vaccine and Journal of Public Health Policy)

Abstract

If vaccine critics seem to threaten public confidence in vaccination, one option is to censor them. However, given the decline in public trust in authorities, in health and elsewhere, a more viable long-term strategy is to accept open debate and build the capacity of citizens to make informed decisions.

Keywords: vaccination; critics; free speech; censorship

Ever since the earliest days of vaccination, there have been disputes about its effectiveness and safety. Today, although medical authorities almost universally endorse vaccination, opposition continues (Hobson-West, 2007). From the point of view of vaccination supporters, the question arises: what should be done about vaccine critics?

Proponents fear that if members of the public take vaccine critics too seriously, this may undermine confidence in vaccination and lead to a decline in vaccination rates and an increase in infectious disease. How to counter critics, though, is not clear, given that there are no studies systematically comparing different strategies.

One approach is simply to ignore critics, hoping that they will not have a significant impact. Another is to respectfully address concerns raised by parents and others on a case-by-case basis, depending on their level of opposition to vaccination, countering vaccine criticisms with relevant information (Danchin and Nolan, 2014; Leask et al., 2014). Then there is the option of trying to discredit and censor public vaccine critics, an approach used systematically in Australia for some years (Martin, 2015).

It may seem obvious that silencing critics is beneficial for maintaining high levels of vaccination. However, setting aside the ethics of censorship, there are several pragmatic reasons to question this strategy.

An initial problem is the lack of evidence that organized vaccine-critical groups are significant drivers of public attitudes towards vaccination. Although it seems plausible that efforts by these groups will induce more parents to decline vaccination, a different dynamic may be involved. It is possible that organized opposition is a reflection, rather than a major cause, of parental concerns that may be triggered by other reasons, for example awareness of apparent adverse reactions to vaccines or arrogant attitudes by doctors (Blume, 2006). There is some evidence for this view: a survey of members of the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network showed that most had developed concerns about vaccination before becoming involved (Wilson, 2013).

Another problem is that trying to discredit vaccine critics can seem heavy-handed and trigger greater support for them in what is called the Streisand effect or censorship backfire (Jansen and Martin, 2015). The targets of censorship are likely to feel disgruntled, and suppression of their views provides ammunition for their claims that a cover-up is involved. When critics are attacked or silenced, some observers may conclude there is something being hidden.

Underlying the drive to censor criticism of vaccination can be a fear that members of the public cannot be relied upon to make sensible judgments based on the evidence and arguments. Instead, they must be protected from dangerous ideas and repeatedly told to trust authorities.

However, reliance on authority is a precarious basis for maintaining policy goals given evidence—though complex and contested—for a decline in respect for authorities over the past several decades in health (Shore, 2007) and other arenas (Gauchat, 2012; Inglehart, 1999). When education levels were lower and dominant institutions seldom questioned, it could be sufficient to assert authority and most people would follow. However, many authorities have been discredited in the public eye, for example politicians for lying about war-making, companies for lying about product hazards, and churches for covering up paedophilia among clergy. Although scientists and doctors remain among the more trusted groups in society, they are increasingly questioned too, with various scandals having tarnished their reputations.

In addition, the greater availability of information means far more people are educating themselves and challenging experts. This is not simply an Internet phenomenon. In the early years of the AIDS crisis in the US, activists studied research and organized to challenge officials over HIV drug policy (Epstein, 1996). Similarly, the women’s health movement challenged patriarchal orientations in the medical profession (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971). The questioning of dominant views has spread to a wide range of issues, including for example the health effects of genetically modified organisms and electromagnetic radiation.

Therefore, it is only to be expected that there will be increasing questioning of vaccination policies, especially when they are presented as a one-size-fits-all application brooking no dissent. In this context, attempts to suppress criticisms appear to be pushing against a social trend towards greater independent thinking.

Rather than continuing to rely on authority, a different approach is to encourage open discussion and to help parents and citizens to develop a more nuanced understanding of vaccination. If the evidence for vaccination is overwhelming, there should be little risk in assisting more people to understand it. The strategy behind this approach is to democratize expert knowledge about vaccines, so that uptake depends less on the authority of credentialed experts and more on the informed investigations of well-read members of the public.

Possible consequences of this approach are highlighting shortcomings in the vaccination paradigm, for example the possibility that adverse effects are more common than normally acknowledged, and considering the possibility that childhood vaccination schedules could be modified according to individual risk factors. By being open to weaknesses in the standard recommendations and making changes in the light of concerns raised, the more important recommendations may be protected in the longer term. This would be in accord with the general argument for free speech that it enables weak ideas to be challenged and a stronger case to be formulated (Barendt, 2005).

However, such openness to constructive debate will remain elusive so long as vaccine critics are stigmatized and marginalized. While the vaccination debate remains highly polarized, it is difficult for either side to make what seem to be concessions and almost impossible for there to be an open and honest engagement with those on the other side. If this remains the case, it is easy to predict that critics will persist despite (or perhaps because of) attempts to silence them, and people’s increasing expectation for educating themselves rather than automatically deferring to authorities will continue to confound vaccination proponents.

References

Barendt, Eric. Freedom of Speech. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Blume, Stuart. “Anti-Vaccination Movements and their Interpretations.” Social Science and Medicine 62, no. 3 (2006): 628–642.

Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves. Boston: New England Free Press, 1971.

Danchin, Margie and Terry Nolan. “A Positive Approach to Parents with Concerns about Vaccination for the Family Physician.” Australian Family Physician 43, no. 10 (2014): 690–694.

Durrheim, D. N., and A. L. Jones. “Public Health and the Necessary Limits of Academic Freedom?” Vaccine 34 (2016): 2467–2468.

Epstein, Steven. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Freeman, Phyllis. “Commentary on Vaccines.” Public Health Reports 112 (January/February 1997): 21.

Gauchat, Gordon. “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.” American Sociological Review 77, no. 2 (2012): 167–187.

Hobson-West, Pru. “‘Trusting Blindly Can Be the Biggest Risk of All’: Organised Resistance to Childhood Vaccination in the UK.” Sociology of Health & Illness 29 (2007): 198–215.

Inglehart, Ronald. “Postmodernization Erodes Respect for Authority, but Increases Support for Democracy.” In Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Government, edited by Pippa Norris, 236-256. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jansen, Sue Curry and Brian Martin. “The Streisand Effect and Censorship Backfire.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 656–671.

Landau-Halpern, Beth. “The Costs and Consequences of Teaching and Analyzing Alternative Medicine.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 42–45.

Leask, Julie, Paul Kinnersley, Cath Jackson, Francine Cheate, Helen Bedford, and Greg Rowles. “Communicating with Parents about Vaccination: A Framework for Health Professionals.” BMC Pediatrics 12, no. 154 (2012). http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/12/154.

Martin, Brian. “Censorship and Free Speech in Scientific Controversies.” Science and Public Policy 42, no. 3 (2015): 377–386.

Martin, Brian. “An Orchestrated Attack on a PhD Thesis.” 1 February 2016a, http://comments.bmartin.cc/2016/02/01/an-orchestrated-attack-on-a-phd-thesis/.

Martin, Brian. “Public Health and Academic Freedom.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016b): 44–49.

Shore, David A., ed. The Trust Crisis in Healthcare: Causes, Consequences, and Cures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Wilson, Trevor. A Profile of the Australian Vaccination Network 2012. Bangalow, NSW: Australian Vaccination Network, 2013.

Wilyman, Judy. “A Critical Analysis of the Australian Government’s Rationale for its Vaccination Policy.” PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 2015. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/4541/.

[1] See http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html#vaccination for my publications and commentary on the vaccination controversy.

[2] Wilyman, “A Critical Analysis of the Australian Government’s Rationale for its Vaccination Policy.”

[3] Martin, “An Orchestrated Attack on a PhD Thesis.”

[4] Durrheim and Jones, “Public Health and the Necessary Limits of Academic Freedom.”

[5] Martin, “Public Health and Academic Freedom.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Landau-Halpern, “The Costs and Consequences of Teaching and Analyzing Alternative Medicine.”

[8] Freeeman, “Commentary on Vaccines.”

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College, labasham@southtexascollege.edu; Matthew R. X. Dentith, The Research Institute of the University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org

Basham, Lee and Matthew R. X. Dentith. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 12-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3fi

Please refer to:

conspiracy1

Image credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini, via flickr

“Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories.” — United States President George W. Bush, first national address following 9/11

Governments and corporations routinely conspire to deceive people. This is no startling revelation to anyone who is historically or politically literate. It’s also perfectly understandable; sometimes governments need to keep secret what they are up to now to realise some future benefit. On occasion businesses need to deny some claim in order to investigate it more fully. And, yes, sometimes it is because governments and corporations get up to no good. But if you believe a cadre of social psychologists, we’re not supposed to talk about any of this.

Witness the recent declaration published in Le Monde by a group of social scientists who research conspiracy theorizing.[1] In it they view a normal, even politically necessary, practice with horror. These researchers want to develop a science of how to stop the public from considering these things we call “conspiracy theories.”

And they want the public to pay them for it.

Why? Well, recently, the French Ministry of Education began a programme of educational initiatives designed to distinguish verifiable facts from various unprovable pieces of information, some of which are associated with the plethora of conspiracy theories which emerged in the wake of a series of terrorist incidents over the last few years. The Le Monde piece states:

The political reaction to the problem of the growth of conspiracy theories is not at all disproportionate, because it is essentially a major problem. However, the urgency of this reaction suggests undue haste, one which must give way to a reasoned political response that leans on solid scientific knowledge, and takes into account all the facts available.[2]

In effect, the declaration is a missive designed to chide the Ministry of Education for not being sufficiently scientific about its efforts at quashing conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorising. They ask for a reasoned response, and we—the undersigned of this reply—agree that a measured, cautious response to conspiracy theories is a must. However, the Le Monde declaration is neither measured, nor cautious. The authors focus not so much on the conspiracy theories themselves, or just how they might imperil the public, or even what evidence there is for or against them. It’s almost as if none of those questions really matter. What we are told by them is scientific techniques must be developed—and then deployed—so that people won’t even recognize conspiracy as an option. Their goal? That conspiracies can never (or at least hardly ever) be allowed to explain certain events (or any events) in Western society.

Why? Well, because:

If…the government is suspected of active involvement in a conspiracy, its attempts at communication can…at worst increase suspicion. Taking the time for scientific research to reflect and analyze…avoids harmful [government actions aimed at stopping public conspiracy theorizing].[3]

Conspiracy theories are bad. Period. They are “… a problem that must be taken seriously.” Not just some of them, all of them. These researchers give no attention to whether anti-government conspiracy theories might be well-evidenced. They give no respect to the danger real political conspiracy threatens the public with, and they make no acknowledgement that exposing conspiracies is a critical practice in a well-functioning democracy. After all, in an environment in which people take a dim view of conspiracy theories, conspiracies may multiply and prosper. Conversely, claims of conspiracy which are taken seriously, investigated by journalists, police, and the like, are much more likely to fail.

So, why do they take offence at the French prescription? Well, because “[t]he wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease… we believe it necessary to recall that current attempts to remedy the problem will only be, for the moment, an improvisation.” The authors of the Le Monde declaration are not talking about replying to racist babbling. Rather, they’re advocating disabling completely sensible questions about government conduct, and the various abuses of its covert powers.

Which is to say that they believe people shouldn’t bother evaluating the evidence for or against, even though an evaluation of the evidence for or against really should be the end of the story. Rather, people are to be scientifically directed, somehow, to fixate on the cry of “That’s a conspiracy theory!,” flee the room, and not reflect on any facts.

Conspiracy theorising is apparently a problem in need of a cure. Yes, conspiracy theorists are diseased, with a curious social ailment. In the academic literature this is known as the “pathologizing response” to conspiracy explanations, and is no longer well received. Why? Well, because we all believe in some theory about a conspiracy. And these researchers aim to cure us of that.

That’s dangerous. Contrary to these social scientists, we believe that it is not conspiracy theorizing that is the danger, but rather the pathologizing response to conspiracy theories.

The antidote to whatever problems conspiracy theories present is vigilance, not some faux intellectual sophistication which dismisses conspiracy theories out of hand. It’s really quite simple when you think about it: conspiracy theorising is essential to the functioning of any democracy, or indeed any ethically responsible society.

First, consider the antithesis of democracy: Political tyranny. History shows there is a significant probability of political tyranny’s development in any society which is not attentive to what its politicians are doing. The development or rapid advent of political tyranny typically begins and matures with conspiracies within the political leadership. As such, the prevention of any potential political tyrant requires the public be able to question what is happening in their polity, and that suspicions of misdeeds be treated seriously and investigated. These are necessary precautions, and they should not be restricted just because asking such questions might cause embarrassment, or lead to distrust.

It’s not just the emergence of extreme, overt tyranny we have to set a moral watch for. High-placed political conspiracies of lesser ambition often lie behind the political catastrophes of recent history. Very recent. For example, the catastrophe of the invasion of Iraq comes to mind. There is little doubt in the public or scholars that NATO, and many other governments, were intentionally misled and manipulated into this war, particularly by the U.S. government. This truth, well-evidenced at the time of grave decision, was silenced as an “outrageous conspiracy theory” by heads of state, mainstream media and yes, certain members of academia. Thus, a war that ultimately led to the death of hundreds of thousands, and a desperate global refugee crisis, was powerfully enabled by an anti-conspiracy theory panic. One that these scholars would seem to like to embrace and nurture as general policy.

We have to honestly ask: How many people have been killed by well-evidenced conspiracy theories? And how many have been killed by a flippant rejection of conspiracy theory? History holds the answer.

After all, these researchers ask we take into account all of the facts available. Well, the Holocaust began as a conspiracy. It had to. Prepared in secret councils of the Nazi party, the conspiracy culminated at the Wannsee conference of 1942. The contents of this conference were hardly broadcast to the world or its intended victims. They were hidden. The Nazis assured the world it was “relocating” Jews, even forcing family members already in the extermination facilities to write letters to their relatives in “ghettos” (often rural camps) encouraging them to get on the trains, as life, they were forced to write, was so much better at the extermination facilities. When Reich officials were challenged about their intentions and actions, they argued anything more sinister than relocation was an outrageous conspiracy theory. The same was said of Stalin’s murderous Show Trials—an outrageous conspiracy theory, and the denials of a North Vietnamese attack on the US in the Gulf of Tonkin—yet another outrageous conspiracy theory which happens to be warranted on the then available evidence. And need we point towards the words and deeds of people like Nixon, Bush, or Blair?

There was nothing outrageous at the time about any of these conspiracy theories. All of were well-evidenced and all were proved true. So we ask: How many more real outrages have slipped through the silence caused by conspiracy-denial? While some social scientists, with the best of intentions (we do not question these) may wish to combat conspiracy theories they dislike, we all should agree that the lesson of history is conspiracy theorizing is often necessary.

Only a thoughtful attention to conspiracy theory, on the merits of evidence, can meet the threat such conspiracies present. Evidence is the key. Nothing else suffices. Poorly evidenced conspiracy theories will be quickly set aside. But well-evidenced conspiracy theories will be pursued without censor.

Every mode of explanation can be abused. And every attempt at censorship, too. The German National Socialists generated absurd conspiracy theories about Jews in Europe. Cruel elements of the various Christian denominations had long done the same (as have various groups afterwards; Stalinists, the Social Credit movement, etc.). The lies were embraced, letting the murderous nightmare of the Holocaust to proceed. These fictions should have been met with facts, but when rational, evidential considerations are not allowed to be heard, reason can not prevail. This is why we should focus, always, on the facts. We cannot resort to conspiracy denialism. We all know where that road goes. Ask the people of Iraq. Ask the people of Syria.

After all, we were assured the US NSA is a law-abiding organization that would spy neither on US citizens nor trusted NATO allies. To question that (and some did with good reason) was dismissed as conspiracy theory. But the NSA did all this (and may still do so). Examples of this kind of behavior are legion. Take, for example, the remarkable death of prominent Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who was assassinated with Polonium. Who did it? Russian government agents? By his fellow dissidents, in order to embarrass the Russian government? Any reasonable explanation of his death turns out to be a conspiracy theory. The question is which one is warranted. Should we pay for a science that teaches us not to understand this?

Much contemporary media, most political leaders and some social scientists insist that “conspiracy theory” must mean something automatically false or irrational. Yet our historians show it does not and never did. The pejorative use of “conspiracy theory” is a use of mere convenience. The official account of 9/11 is, after all, a conspiracy theory: the hijackers conspired to fly airplanes into buildings in New York City, Washington, and elsewhere. That’s a conspiracy theory. Was it called that? Not by mainstream media, or most political leaders. But it was, just the same. Any pejorative use of “conspiracy theory” is intellectually suspect, as is its convenient absence when governmental institutions use conspiracy theories to promote their goals. We are facing a phrase of social manipulation, one which some academics wish to portray and empower in a way so that it cannot impugn our hierarchies of power, but only defend them. The only conspiracy theories permitted will be official conspiracy theories. They will not be called “conspiracy theories.” But their explanatory method will be indistinguishable.

There is nothing unusual or inherently defective about conspiracy explanations. We should always, without exception, adopt a case-by-case, evidential evaluation of all allegations of politically momentous conspiracy. These should never be simply dismissed and silenced. The anti-conspiracy theory panic, and the automatic dismissal it reveals, rests at the foundation of the declaration by these social scientists. It is not only anti-rational and non-historical it is unethical and foolish. This panic can only help repeat the many criminal errors of our democracies.

Political conspiracy theorizing in Western-style democracies should not be restricted, because to do so is a grave intellectual, ethical, and prudential error. As such, the declaration by respected scholars like these is likewise a grave intellectual, ethical and prudential error. Conspiracy theory saves lives, by the thousands, even millions, if we would let it. Its automatic dismissal leaves blood on our hands.

Fortunately for the public and our democracy, the more you tell the public not to think in ways open to all possibilities, including the real possibility of political and economic conspiracies, the more likely the public is to do it and more often do it. Call this an “open society.” Some social scientists are bothered by this and seek a scientific “remedy?” So be it, and our regrets that this would become the cornerstone of their careers. But we take great comfort in the open society. If research into public concerns about government need be, it should be in ways that encourage the people’s politically crucial gift, the historically proven gift of watchfulness in the citizen, and its sometimes necessary, proper and correct expression, conspiracy theory.

Sincerely,

Matthew R. X. Dentith

Lee Basham

David Coady

Ginna Husting

Martin Orr

Kurtis Hagen

Marius Raab

Bios

Matthew R. X. Dentith wrote his PhD on the epistemology of conspiracy theories, is the author of the book The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and is currently a Fellow at the University of Bucharest, working on his project “The Ethics of Investigation: When are we obliged to take conspiracy theories seriously?”

Lee Basham is a professor of Philosophy at South Texas College and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and has published several articles on the epistemology of conspiracy theory.

David Coady is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Tasmania, has published several articles on the epistemology of conspiracy theory, edited the anthology Conspiracy Theories, The Philosophical Debate (Ashgate, 2006), and is author of the book, What To Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Ginna Husting is a professor of Sociology at Boise State University whose research and publications include the sociology of “conspiracy theory” as a term of exclusion and control.

Martin Orr is a professor of Sociology at Boise State University whose research and publications also include the sociology of “conspiracy theory” as a term of exclusion and control.

Kurtis Hagen is a professor of Philosophy, recently retired from the State University of New York (SUNY), who has published several articles on the epistemology of conspiracy theory, as well as many on Asian philosophy.

Marius Raab is a professor of Psychology at the University of Bamberg whose research and publications explore the psychology of the generation of conspiracy theories as explanations.

Below is the Le Monde statement (English translation) we are responding to:

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.

Conspiracy theories are on many people’s minds and are the object of all kinds of initiatives, sometimes local, sometimes more ambitious. The French government is among them, evidenced by the collaboration between the Ministry of Education and France Télévisions to produce and diffuse a ‘video-kit’, available to all in the teaching profession (https ://vimeo.com/151519913). They also explore suitable responses to the worrying spread of these ‘theories’ by proposing, here and there, an intellectual defence or critical response. Ultimately, these associations come together to fight against this particular form of contemporary misinformation known as ‘conspiracism’.

As researchers and citizens concerned with the multiplication and dissemination of false information, errors in reason, even deliberate lies in a democracy that we would like to be more rigorous and rational, we welcome these steps and applaud the good intentions they represent. Conspiracism is indeed a problem that must be taken seriously, one which requires a proper response, and all the more quickly as it is on the rise, particularly in France these past few years.

The political reaction to the problem of the growth of conspiracy theories is not at all disproportionate, because it is essentially a major problem. However, the urgency of this reaction suggests undue haste, one which must give way to a reasoned political response that leans on solid scientific knowledge, and takes into account all of the facts available. One can question, for example, the scope and efficaciousness of the videos disseminated widely by the Ministry of Education: their effect, due to a lack of rigorous testing, is completely unknown. The laudable intention behind the creation of these films does not guarantee their effectiveness.

Boomerang effect

As a result, these tools, like many other educational initiatives, may turn out to be ineffective. Even worse, research in social psychology has shown that the fight against a belief can, paradoxically, serve to reinforce it by a ‘boomerang effect’, a phenomenon widely documented in studies of rumour and misinformation. It is therefore entirely possible that the actions of ministers and associations result in an effect that is the opposite of that desired for the target audience: a polarisation of beliefs and a growth in the conspiracist mindset. The communication’s source is not insignificant when viewed through a conspiratorial lens. If, for example, the government is suspected of active involvement in a conspiracy, its attempts at communication can, at best, be ineffective, and, at worst, increase suspicion.

Taking the time for scientific research, to reflect and to analyse before taking action, will often save time in the long run. It also avoids taking part in harmful activity.  Drugs are not launched without rigorous testing; in the same way it is risky to launch educational recommendations without basing them on solid results and prior investigations. A responsible policy begins with research and takes into account the information already available. Furthermore, these more or less random campaigns are expensive, and this investment is automatically taken from more methodical studies of the phenomenon. It is therefore urgent that we launch widespread research programmes aimed at evaluating present educational initiatives rather than continuing to promote them.

‘Confirmation bias’

Unanswered questions are still very common in conspiratorial thinking. Why is the hypercritical attitude of these adepts not extended to their own beliefs? This “confirmation bias’, which consists of favouring that which confirms our opinions and rejecting that which contradicts it, is well known, but has not yet been examined in the field of conspiracy theories. What is the role of the creative, entertaining component of these ‘theories’, which are often so imaginative? And must one distinguish between those who produce conspiracy theories and those who consume them?

To answer these questions is not simply to make advances towards the disengagement and suspicion that characterises conspiracism, but also to make progress in our understanding of belief mechanisms, social exchanges and ideological creativity.

Research into the psychological and social factors underlying the adherence to conspiracy theories is only the beginning. In the absence of solid scientific consensus on the question, we believe it necessary to recall that current attempts to remedy the problem will only be, for the moment, an improvisation.

Gérald Bronner, Sociologue, Université Paris-Diderot

Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sociologue, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme

Sylvain Delouvée, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université Rennes 2

Sebastian Dieguez, Neuropsychologue, Université de Fribourg

Karen Douglas, Chercheuse en Psychologie Sociale, University of Kent

Nicolas Gauvrit, Chercheur en Psychologie Cognitive, École Pratique des Hautes Études

Anthony Lantian, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université de Reims

Pascal Wagner-Egger, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université de Fribourg

Le Monde, 6 June 2016, p. 29

[1] Bronner, Campion-Vincent, Delouvée, Dieguez, Douglas, Gauvrit, Lantian, and Wagner-Egger, “Luttons efficacement contre les théories du complot,” 29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.