Archives For Critical Replies

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

Author Information: David Bakhurst and Sergio Sismondo, Queen’s University at Kingston, bakhurst@queensu.ca; sismondo@queensu.ca

Bakhurst, David and Sergio Sismondo. “Commentary on Ilya Kasavin’s ‘Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 20-23.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Коля Саныч, via flickr

Ilya Kasavin’s paper[1] argues for a renewed conception of the philosophy of science. He laments what he sees as the present division of labour, which gives philosophy of science responsibility for the logical and methodological analysis of scientific knowledge, while the history, sociology and psychology of science are conceived as separate domains of enquiry, each with its distinct subject matter. 

Kasavin’s Project

Kasavin proposes a more holistic vision inspired by a range of Russian thinkers—including Hessen, Shpet, Vygotsky, Bakhtin, Ilyenkov, Fedorov and Vernadsky—who all offer profoundly holistic views that seek to transcend familiar oppositions between mind and world, individual and social, nature and culture. The Russian tradition yields “a more realistic image of knowledge as a complex, self-developing, human-dimensional system that can be separated from its context only by abstraction” [p. 6; translation corrected—D.B.]. Thus we cannot put the study of the philosophy, history, sociology and psychology of science into different silos. They need to be properly integrated, and when they are, philosophical insight will both inform and issue from the study of science in its various dimensions.

To illustrate his position, Kasavin invites us to consider “megaprojects”, which, in contrast to the historical and sociological case studies so characteristic of contemporary Science and Technology Studies (STS), are endeavours of such “technical complexity and political-economic significance”, that they cannot be understood without a philosophical vision. He takes as his example the building of the Kara-Kum Canal in the Stalin era, a project that, though its primary purpose was the irrigation of desert lands, had its origin, Kasavin argues, in Peter the Great’s ambition to construct a water transportation route that would unite northern and southern Russia and open up further routes to Persia, India and China. Such massive undertakings cannot be treated as if they are merely scaled up versions of smaller engineering projects. On the contrary, they present distinctive problems of explanation and analysis, and carry within them profound philosophical significance that any attempt to understand them must bring into view.

This is even more true of what Kasavin calls “global projects”, such as Isabella of Castile’s sending Columbus on his voyage of discovery, a project of truly world-historical significance that “intertwines science and everyday life, traditions and innovations, history and geography, the spontaneous inhomogeneity and constructive purposefulness of development, national mentality and the spirit of an epoch” (12). Any hope of understanding such phenomena requires more than a multi-disciplinary collaboration. It demands a “transdisciplinary reorientation” animated by the right philosophical sensibility—creative, open and holistic.

Unity? But What Unity?

How plausible is Kasavin’s optimism that the requisite philosophical sensibility is to be found in the Russian tradition? The difficulty here is that while it is relatively easy to say what the many and various Russian thinkers he presents jointly dislike, it is far harder to articulate a positive vision that they share. As Kasavin brings out, they all dismiss representationalist conceptions of mind and correspondentist theories of truth; reject scientism; distrust views that are sceptical of human creativity, and disdain those that fail to countenance the fundamentally social character of mind. It would be wrong, however, to suppose that anything like a common philosophy emerges from their work. Russian cosmism, for example, is a million miles from Ilyenkov’s Marxism. It is true, of course, that all these thinkers (with the probable exception of Bakhtin) look to philosophy for a unifying vision and represent knowledge as a oneness with reality achievable by individuals only in community with others. But there is little unity in their respective ways of developing such insights.

Kasavin invokes the distinctively Russian notion of “integral knowledge” as a unifying theme, representing it as introduced at the turn of the 20th century by a number of Russian thinkers, including Shpet and Solovyev, and subsequently taken up by Vygotsky and Bakhtin. But the notion of “integral knowledge” actually derives from the 1850s and the work of Ivan Kireevsky, one of the key figures of the Slavophile movement, and while it found various expressions in the ideas of later thinkers, it is hard to liberate it entirely from its original associations with Orthodoxy, the Russian Soul, and the transcendence of reason. These are not ideas usually associated with Vygotsky or Bakhtin, let alone Ilyenkov. We do not doubt that there is much in the Russian tradition that could contribute to the revitalization of philosophical conceptions of science, but there remains a good deal of work to be done to make this explicit.

Case Studies 

Kasavin is concerned that STS is overly focused on case studies that only rarely make philosophical contributions. Of course, it is implicit in the idea of a case study—as opposed to a study of purely antiquarian interest—that it illuminates something larger than itself: it should provide a case of something general, abstract or fundamental. Whether STS’s case studies make philosophical points will depend in part on the boundaries of philosophy, although certainly STS has helped to reshape ideas of such things as scientific argumentation and objectivity, of relations between theory and experiment, and of the application of science, all of which are important to the philosophy of science and technology.

One of the effects of ethnographic and historical case studies in STS has been to show how philosophy has often relied on idealized visions of science and technology that line up poorly with science as it is actually practiced. Philosophers have often based their views on textbook or other whiggish accounts of scientific practice, accounts that tend to draw scientific beliefs toward presently accepted truths. We might see this in terms of a kind of distance between philosophical views and actual practice. STS has replaced whiggish accounts by relentlessly constructivist ones: STS looks to how things are constructed from the ground up. The concrete details of materials, actions and representations matter to scientific and technological constructions.

Megaprojects

One of the risks of doing empirical studies is that they may not turn out to be of any larger significance. To guard against that, Kasavin, as we observed above, turns to what he considers an empirical topic of intrinsic significance, a megaproject.

Construction on the Kara-Kum Canal, running from the Amu Dar’ya River across the Kara-Kum Desert, began in 1954 under Stalin and was completed in 1988. As Kasavin describes, the canal was one of the largest engineering projects undertaken by the Soviet Union, is one of the longest waterways of the world, permitted the irrigation of what could become valuable agricultural land, and led to extensive development in Turkmenistan.  Kasavin argues that the real origins of the canal lie in the era of Peter the Great, who in the early years of the eighteenth century saw commercial and political possibilities in the creation of a navigable waterway through the Kara-Kum Desert. The canal would form an important leg in the passage from the heart of Russia to India. Although Peter did not progress beyond preliminary surveying of the possible canal bed and building a few necessary political alliances, Kasavin suggests that the idea remained alive through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an element of a general Russian enthusiasm for hydraulic engineering. Is the implication of the line drawn from Peter the Great’s Kara-Kum Canal to Stalin’s Kara-Kum Canal that megaprojects like these can have lives of their own?

For Kasavin, we should not assume that megaprojects are the products of economic opportunities or political circumstances. The Kara-Kum Canal did not depend on a calculation of costs and benefits, but instead issued from acts of will: first Peter’s, who did not have the power to bring it into being, and then Stalin’s, who did. Here lies a kind of romanticism in Kasavin’s account, which fuels his impatience with merely technocratic approaches to megaprojects (exemplified in his article by the Danish authors who attempt to address the anarchic tendencies of megaprojects by deciding how best to budget, plan and execute them).  What needs to be understood, is that, while born of pure will, the Kara-Kum Canal was built by workers who, in Trifonov’s image, were doing a kind of practical philosophy as they reshaped space and time, a kind of embodied metaphysics. Nature was mastered and transformed to human ends, most immediately the ends of Soviet society. The result is something of almost unbelievable grandeur and gravitas, producing experiences of what David Nye (following Perry Miller) calls the “technological sublime”, in which the individual human agent is dwarfed by the scale of megaprojects as the social giant unleashes its Promethean aspirations to reshape nature to human ends.

Yet to support Kasavin’s picture we surely need to study the details of how the Kara-Kum Canal and other megaprojects are actually realized.  Kasavin offers us a unifying vision, but it yields an a priori narrative, illustrated by literary texts (Platonov, Trifonov) rather than close study of historical detail. STS’s current, and very different, sensibility would suggest a need to drill down into the details of megaprojects to understand how they are made, how they work and don’t work, and how they are understood. What traces and records were left of the project imagined by Peter the Great, how were they interpreted and reinterpreted over the course of hundreds of years, and how, if at all, did they influence Stalin’s project? In what sense are these two projects connected? Planning the canal was begun under Stalin—and it is certainly plausible that the canal arose out of his force of will—but the digging, blasting and pouring of cement did not begin until after Stalin’s death, and continued for more than thirty years before the project was complete. Why did Stalin’s canal not suffer the fate of Peter’s? What important decisions, obstacles and compromises gave the canal its eventual shape?

No doubt it is only the kind of philosophical vision that Kasavin applauds that draws us to the subject matter about which we ask these questions, but it is only by attention to empirical detail that we stand a chance of answering them. But it is precisely the kind of case studies favoured in contemporary STS that have taught us a lot about the profundity and complexity of the empirical study of science and technology. We should not scorn that legacy, as Kasavin sometimes seems to, and embrace instead a diet of speculative narratives and a priori reflections, but find a way to ensure that a due appreciation of philosophical richness of our subject matter informs our efforts to bring out its empirical reality in all its depth and richness. That, we contend, is the guiding principle that must inform any attempt to rethink the nature of case studies or the role of philosophy in contemporary studies of science.

[1] Kasavin, Ilya. “Towards a Social Philosophy of Science: Russian Prospects.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 1-15.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 12-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3y8

Please refer to:

Image credit: ebrkut, via flickr

Quite recently, Anderson (2017) has distinguished a new form of epistemic injustice: conceptual competence injustice. This is characterised as the injustice that people are inflicted when they are not recognised as knowers or experts in some domain because of failure to grasp one or various concepts in what is said. Conceptual competence injustice is defined as “[…] a wrong done to a person specifically in their capacity as a knower of those claims that would traditionally be regarded as conceptual and linguistic truths” (Anderson 2017, 210).

Conceptual competence injustice clearly differs from testimonial injustice, or the unfairness sustained when the testimony dispensed is thought to be unreliable or false (Fricker 2003, 2007). Here, what is at stake is credibility. Conceptual competence injustice also diverges from hermeneutical injustice, or “[…] the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding” (Fricker 2006, 99). The issue here is intelligibility, as a person is not understood as deserved or expected (Fricker 2006, 105-107; 2007, 151). Hermeneutical injustices have no perpetrator (Fricker 2006, 102) and stem from a “[…] hermeneutical lacuna […] preventing [individuals] from rendering [their] experience communicatively intelligible” (Fricker 2006, 101). They arise when individuals lack the conceptual tools facilitating expression of experience or reference to specific actions or events, so they cannot “[…] make communicatively intelligible something which is particularly in [their] interest to be able to render intelligible” (Fricker 2006, 103).

Conceptual competence injustice also significantly contrasts with contributory injustice (Dotson 2012), which originates when “[…] a person has the conceptual tools to comprehend [their] experience […] and the linguistic tools to articulate it, but [their] attempts at communicating [their] ideas are thwarted by the fact that [the] audience willfully misunderstand [them]” (Dotson 2012, 32). When someone sustains a contributory injustice, what they say fails “[…] to gain appropriate uptake” (Dotson 2012, 32) inasmuch as their interlocutors intentionally, purposefully and decidedly do not “[…] capture the ideas or experiences being expressed” (Dotson 2012, 32). Consequently, contributory injustices have perpetrators: those who refrain from correctly understanding what the target of the injustice says.

In addition to helping better understand the complexity and diversity of epistemic injustice, the notion of conceptual competence injustice may be most helpful to pragmatics, a field in linguistics which may certainly benefit from it. This notion may contribute to conceptualising an undesired or unexpected perlocutionary effect (Austin 1962) of communicative behaviour arising as a consequence of the accidental relevance of a conclusion drawn in the search for the optimal relevance of verbal stimuli processed, among which lies communicative behaviour (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson 1999; Wilson and Sperber 2004). In what follows I purport to show the usefulness of this novel kind of epistemic injustice and thus argue in favour of incorporating a notion originated in the field of social epistemology into a linguistic discipline. In so doing, I will rely on some claims and postulates of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995), a cognitive pragmatic framework delving into communication and, more precisely, comprehension, which may conveniently account for the origin of some conclusions derivable from human behaviour.

Communicative Competence

Speaking a language requires abstract knowledge of the language in question, which feeds a series of interrelated, specialised abilities indispensable for performance. Those abilities, or sub-competences, make up communicative competence and have been labelled differently in extant models (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1990; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995). Among such sub-competences are:

Linguistic competence, or knowing the grammar rules and lexical repertoire of a language, which are the very rudiments of a language.

Sociocultural competence, which involves awareness of social and institutional structures; the social attributes of participants in conversations (age, gender, power, distance, etc.), and the register, style or level of politeness expected, required or allowed in certain situations. These greatly determine what people say and how they say it.

Actional competence, or mastery of a range of (conventionalised) semantico-syntactic structures to mean, but more importantly, to do specific things with words.

Linguistic competence, and more specifically, possession of and ability to use precise and adequate lexical items, are primordial in communication. Words like nouns (‘house’, ‘cat’), adjectives (‘big’, ‘empty’), verbs (‘run’, ‘bite’) and adverbs (‘fast’, ‘slowly’) encode concepts, or mental objects that become part of the mental representations entertained during comprehension (house, cat, big, red, run, bite, fast, slowly).[1] Those words are the means to name and allude to people, animals, objects, actions, events, etc. (Wilson and Sperber 1993), even if the concepts they encode may be inferentially adjusted through operations like broadening or narrowing (Wilson and Carston 2007; Carston 2012). Other words like ‘but’, ‘so’ or ‘because’, in contrast, encode procedures, or mental instructions steering the inferences the mind performs when processing linguistic input (Blakemore 1987; Wilson and Sperber 1993). While words in the former category are conceptual, those in the latter are procedural and “[…] put the user of the language into a state” in which they perform a domain-specific inference at a sub-personal level (Wilson 2016, 11). To put it differently, procedural expressions “[…] point the hearer in a [particular] direction” (Wharton 2009, 61).

Lexical (In)competence

Employing appropriate words turns out crucial for hearers to infer speakers’ actual informative intention—i.e. the set of assumptions that speakers intend to make manifest,[2] or the intended message (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Speakers are usually presupposed to be benevolent—i.e. they will seek to provide true and relevant information–[3] and competent—i.e. they are believed to command their native language and its rules of usage (Sperber 1994). True communicative competence involves guiding hearers to intended meaning through appropriate morphological, lexical, syntactic or pragmatic choices. This requires, among others, checking that words and communicative strategies are adequate and do not demand excessive cognitive effort, and that what is said will result in a satisfactory amount of cognitive effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

Unfortunately, speakers are not always fully competent in a language—think of non-native speakers or learners of a second language– or do not behave competently because of diverse permanent pathologies—e.g. autism, Asperger syndrome, etc.– or temporary mental or physiological states like tiredness, absentmindedness, disease, anger, euphoria, nervousness, etc. (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017). Among other mistakes, these factors may cause speakers to misuse vocabulary. On some occasions, lexical mistakes do not have very serious consequences, but result in rather funny anecdotes. This was the case of a French person who sought to enquire in a broken Spanish where he could catch a taxi. A mistake when pronouncing a consonant sound in the verb ‘coger’ (‘catch/take’) turned it into ‘comer’ (‘eat’), so they asked “¿Dónde puedo comer un taxi?” (“Where can I eat a taxi?”).

Some speakers may also be less competent than others in specific linguistic areas like vocabulary, syntax or pragmatics. As regards vocabulary, individuals may have conceptual deficits or conceptualisation problems originating in mismatches between concepts and words (Dua 1990; Sperber and Wilson 1997; Bazzanella and Damiano 1999). These give rise to misstatements, which may lead hearers to utterly misunderstand speakers if no meaning negotiation ensues (Banks et al. 1991). Among misunderstandings stemming from lack or misuse of vocabulary are failure to correctly understand the meaning of the words employed—i.e. the predicative function– or failure to grasp what is talked about—i.e. the referential function (Weigand 1999).

When conceptual expressions are inadequately used or the speaker lacks them, a pragmatic failure may arise, as the hearer does not understand what the speaker actually means or the hearer has difficulties to do so (Thomas 1983). Indeed, failures in expressive acts prevent hearers from making the expected or appropriate inferences (Bosco et al. 2006).[4] For instance, if someone asked you to grab them a spoon, when what they actually meant was a stool, you would reach for the spoon and not the stool and conclude that they want to eat or cook, but not to sit down or rest for a while.

When speakers do not succeed at finding adequate vocabulary, they may resort to paraphrases, synonyms, antonyms, pointing, etc. in order to somehow explain what they mean. They may also employ vague terms or placeholders, and trust hearers to inferentially adjust them in order to arrive at what they mean. Doing so is part and parcel of speakers’ strategic competence, another component of communicative competence thanks to which communicative problems are avoided or overcome, and mutual understanding is restored (Canale 1983; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995). Nevertheless, lack or misuse of vocabulary, in addition to hindering smooth communication and hampering on correct understanding, may have negative perlocutionary effects: they may bias perceptions of speakers as knowers and users of a language. In other words, infelicitous linguistic performance may impact the impressions that hearers forge about speakers.

Consequences of Lexical Problems

As linguistic input is perceived, it is processed by the mind, which subconsciously performs a wide variety of simultaneous inferences at an incredibly fast pace. Some of those inferences are necessary to assign reference to proper names, pronouns or indexicals—i.e. words like ‘here’, ‘there’ or ‘now’—others enable restriction of the denotation of some of the concepts encoded in the words in utterances; others facilitate recovery of elided material or disambiguation of some word strings; others result in the construction of descriptions of the speaker’s attitude to the proposition expressed or the speech act performed, and others are necessary to arrive at implicit contents or implicatures (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). These inferences depend on access to an immense variety of contextual information, which is perceptible in the physical environment or mentally stored. Virtually, there is no limit to the amount and sort of information that the mind accesses, but the mind is normally guided, as a result of evolution, by expectations of optimal relevance: it follows the path of least possible effort and maximum cognitive reward (Wilson 1999; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Verbal actions like requesting, offering, inviting, thanking, etc., make manifest a variety of assumptions. Consider a request for a glass of water such as “May I have some water?” It may make manifest assumptions referring to the requester’s thirst and willingness to get some water, as well as to the existence of a water tap and glasses in the place where she and the hearer happen to be, and the hearer’s ability to give her some water. The speaker may have intended to make manifest to the hearer those assumptions, so they are strongly communicated (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). The hearer will use them as implicated premises in order to reach the implicated conclusion that the requester wants some water and he can give it to her. As a result, the hearer may decide either to comply with the request, which is the expected or preferred perlocutionary effect of the request, or not to comply with it, which is its unexpected or dispreferred perlocutionary effect.

Linguistic performance may also make manifest, to a greater or lesser extent, assumptions which the mind may exploit as premises amenable to yield a wide array of conclusions. Such conclusions are weak implicatures and are drawn as a result of the constant search for optimal relevance. Many of them are not intended by communicators, but hearers derive them at their own risk. Moreover, hearers may not even be fully aware of them or their content, so they are like impressions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). For instance, stuttering, some tones of voice or gestures may make manifest assumptions referring to nervousness or anxiety, and lead to conclude that the stutterer is uncertain about something or afraid of someone. Asking for a glass of water through an conventionally indirect request such as “Could I have some water, please?” may make manifest assumptions about the requester’s attitude and prompt the hearer to deduce that she is seeking to be polite.

Unskilled lexical performance may likewise induce people to conclude that a speaker is less competent than expected, or than average, in terms of vocabulary. If during an Old English class a student used the nominal phrases “that symbol” or “that letter” instead of the term ‘thorn’ to refer to ‘ϸ’, the teacher could conclude that the student has missed several classes or is not very knowledgeable of the Old English alphabet. If, while watching a Holy Week procession in Seville, someone referred to one of the vases or amphoras on a float through the Spanish word ‘jarrón’ instead of using the specialised term ‘jarra’ or ‘ánfora’, a local well versed in this religious festival would very likely think that the speaker is alien to it, has no idea of the various ornaments and decorations in floats, or does not know how to properly refer to them.

Lexical Problems and Epistemic Injustice

What is at stake here is an area of an individual’s communicative competence: lexical competence. While lack of vocabulary may reveal a conceptual lacuna or lack of the conceptual tools to make experience intelligible or to correctly allude to specific items, misuse of words may unveil erroneous mappings of concepts onto words, which similarly prevent a speaker from correctly naming elements in reality according to the addressees or a community of practice’s standards (Speber and Wilson 1997). Upon lack or misuse of vocabulary, the audience, depending on benevolence and condescendence, the sort of information manifest to them and the inferences they make, may arrive at prejudicial or detrimental conclusions, which might not be in the interest of the speaker owing to their partiality or inaccuracy. Those conclusions may add to the audience’s knowledge about the speaker and become the basis of an epistemic injustice (Fricker 2003, 2006, 2007). It would be ‘epistemic’ because it has to do with knowledge about the person who lacks or misuses words; it is an ‘injustice’ because the audience, on the grounds of perception of just a part of a person’s behaviour, might not construe adequate or fair knowledge about her.

In the realm of communication and verbal interaction, epistemic injustices may arise when people perceive that speakers appear less competent than expected or than average in some domain. Epistemic injustices may be unexpected or undesired perlocutionary effects and may negatively bias the testimony subsequently dispensed about an unskilled speaker, thus affecting her reputation. The question that now arises is what type(s) of epistemic injustice lack and misuse of vocabulary may give rise to.

Definitely, none of them may result in testimonial injustices because what is at stake is not the speaker’s ability to give information or the truthfulness of the information imparted. Lack of specific vocabulary would not a bring about a contributory injustice either, since the speaker lacks the words to correctly talk about specific issues, and contributory injustices arise when, despite possession of appropriate conceptual tools, a person is not understood on purpose. Misuse of vocabulary, in turn, would not trigger a contributory injustice because words do not match the appropriate concepts and the hearer does not willfully refrain from understanding the speaker. Could lack and misuse of vocabulary then result in hermeneutical injustices?

As regards lack of vocabulary, there is a conceptual lacuna that prevents the speaker from being understood as they would have expected or desired, so it could be considered to give rise to a special type of hermeneutical injustice. However, this would be problematic for two reasons: (i) there is a perpetrator of the injustice, and proper hermeneutical injustices do not have one, and (ii) the injustice stems from negative conclusions about the speaker’s performance as a consequence of poor lexical abilities. Therefore, lack and misuse of vocabulary could be better argued to give rise to an epistemic injustice about the speaker’s competence, so this is why such injustice may be better characterised as a conceptual competence injustice.

A conceptual competence injustice not only negatively affects the speaker’s lexical competence, but also her credibility (Anderson 2017). Since information and people are judged reliable or credible if they suggest sound knowledge about a particular domain, being perceived as lacking appropriate words or misusing them may decrease a speaker’s credibility because they exhibit lack of knowledge. When someone suffers a hermeneutical injustice, that person is denied epistemic trustworthiness and degraded as a knower (Fricker 2007). When a speaker is inflicted a conceptual competence injustice, they would not be completely denied communicative competence, as they are capable of producing expressive acts, even if defectively. What is at stake is simply a component of communicative competence: lexical repertoire. Competence is a gradual and comparative property: people may be more or less competent in some domains, at particular moments or in specific circumstances, or more or less competent than other people (Medina 2011). If a speaker sustains a conceptual competence injustice, they could be degraded as a knower of only some domain corresponding to a particular semantic field, but never as a fully competent speaker of a language.

The speaker in question would only be degraded as a knower of a language in some respects and could be denied what may be labelled lexical reliability or accuracy: the ability to select and use appropriate words in order to name objects, animals, events, etc. and refer to them. This should feature as a component of communicative competence. When someone is inflicted a conceptual competence injustice, they are perceived as less competent as regards vocabulary, and a person who is incompetent in terms of vocabulary, and ultimately in conceptual terms, cannot be veridical because they lack certain words or fail to use them correctly. Accordingly, that person may receive what Dotson (2011) calls testimonial quieting, a phenomenon occurring when an audience do not recognise someone as a knower and refuse to pay attention or accept what they say about a specific domain of knowledge.

Conclusion

Production of words and utterances may have varied perlocutionary effects, some of which are unexpected or undesired. Lack or misuse of vocabulary may give rise to detrimental conclusions about speakers, which may lead an audience to wrong her. The notion of hermeneutical injustice proves problematic in order to define and characterise such wronging, and so does that of contributory injustice. Another notion alluding to competence is called for, and that is Anderson’s (2017) notion of conceptual competence injustice. It may certainly be most helpful to linguistic pragmatics as a way to conceptualise some of the manifold consequences of communicative behaviour.

References

Anderson, Derek. “Conceptual Competence Injustice.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 2 (2017): 210-223.

Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bachman, Lyle F. Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Banks, Stephen P., Gao Ge, and Joyce Baker. “Intercultural Encounters and Miscommunication.” In “Miscommunication” and Problematic Talk, edited by Nikolas Coupland, Howard Giles, and John M. Weimann, 103-120. London: Sage, 1991.

Bazzanella, Carla, and Rossana Damiano. “The Interactional Handling of Misunderstanding in Everyday Conversations.” Journal of Pragmatics 31 (1999): 817-836.

Blakemore, Diane. Semantic Constraints on Relevance. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Bosco, Francesca M., Monica Bucciarelli, and Bruno G. Bara. “Recognition and Repair of Communicative Failures: A Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Pragmatics 38 (2006): 1398-1429.

Canale, Michael. “From Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy.” In Language and Communication, edited by Jack C. Richards and Richard W. Schmidt, 2-28. London: Longman, 1983.

Carston, Robyn. “Word Meaning and Concept Expressed.” The Linguistic Review 29, no. 4 (2012): 607-623.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, Zoltán Dörnyei, and Sarah Thurrell. “Communicative Competence: A Pedagogically Motivated Model with Content Modifications.” Issues in Applied Linguistics 5 (1995): 5-35.

Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 236-257.

Dotson, Kristie. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33, no. 1 (2012): 24-47.

Dua, Hans R. “The Phenomenology of Miscommunication.” In Beyond Goffman, edited by Stephen H. Riggins, 113-139. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.

Fricker, Miranda. “Epistemic Injustice and a Role for Virtue in the Politics of Knowing.” Metaphilosophy 34, no. 1-2 (2003): 154-173.

Fricker, Miranda. “Powerlessness and Social Interpretation.” Episteme 3, no. 1-2 (2006): 96-108.

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

Hymes, Dell H. “On Communicative Competence.” In Sociolinguistics. Selected Readings, edited by John B. Pride and Janet Holmes, 269-293. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972.

Keysar, Boaz, and Anne S. Henly. “Speakers’ Overestimation of Their Effectiveness.” Psychological Science 13, no. 3 (2002): 207-212.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary.” Social Epistemology 25, no. 1 (2011): 15-35.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Interlocutors-related and Hearer-specific Causes of Misunderstanding: Processing Strategy, Confirmation Bias and Weak Vigilance.” Research in Language 15, no. 1 (2017): 11-36.

Shintel, Hadas, and Boaz Keysar. “Less is More: A Minimalist Account of Joint Action in Communication.” Topics in Cognitive Science 1 (2009): 260-273.

Sperber, Dan. “Understanding Verbal Understanding.” In What Is Intelligence? edited by Jean Khalfa, 179-198. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “The Mapping between the Mental and the Public Lexicon.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 9 (1997): 107-125.

Thomas, Jenny. “Cross-cultural Pragmatic Failure.” Applied Linguistics 4, no. 2 (1983): 91-112.

Weigand, Edda. “Misunderstanding: The Standard Case.” Journal of Pragmatics 31 (1999): 763-785.

Wharton, Tim. Pragmatics and Non-verbal Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Metarepresentation in Linguistic Communication.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11 (1999): 127-161.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Reassessing the Conceptual-Procedural Distinction.” Lingua 175-176 (2016): 5-19.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Robyn Carston. “A Unitary Approach to Lexical Pragmatics: Relevance, Inference and Ad Hoc Concepts.” In Pragmatics, edited by Noel Burton-Roberts, 230-259. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Linguistic Form and Relevance.” Lingua 90, no. 1-2 (1993): 1-25.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory”. In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn, and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, the mental concepts encoded by some words are notated in small caps.

[2] In relevance-theoretic pragmatics, the notion of manifestness refers to the capability of some fact or state of affairs to be mentally represented by an individual (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

[3] Relevance is a property of stimuli, which increases as the amount of cognitive effectsstrengthening or contradiction of previous information, or contextual implications– increases and decreases as the amount of cognitive effort invested in processing increases.

[4] Note that to speakers, what they mean may be clear enough, as they tend to be egocentric and might not take into account their interlocutors’ mental states (Keysar and Henly 2002; Shintel and Keysar 2009).

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, University of Bucharest[1], m.dentith@episto.org

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Conspiracy Theories and Their Investigator(s).” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 4-11.

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

    Given the extent of the exchange to which Dentith’s reply belongs, please refer to the section after the endnotes for related articles. [a]

Image credit: Bousure, via flickr

Is there a conspiracy by certain philosophers to turn the Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective into a clearing house for articles on conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory theories? That I cannot answer (for a variety of reasons), but what I can say is that a recent reply piece by Patrick Stokes, ‘Reluctance and Suspicion: Reply to Basham and Dentith’[2] has induced me to put pen to paper once again.

Stokes’ piece is a reply to two earlier pieces, one by myself, and another by fellow philosopher of conspiracy theories, Lee Basham.[3] Stokes’ commentary on Basham’s piece will not concern me here (I suspect the agents working for the aforementioned putative conspiracy about this journal will do that job for me). Rather, I want to focus on what I think Stokes gets right about his reply to me (the worry about how we deal with conspiracy theories in public discourse), and what I think he gets wrong (how I think an investigation into conspiracy theories would work). I do not think Stokes gets my view wrong through any mistake on his part. Rather, due to a poor choice of words on my part, I failed to adequately describe my view, and this naturally lead Stokes to assume I imagined a more individualistic, less socially epistemic investigator (or set of investigators) into these things we call ‘conspiracy theories.’

The Investigator(s)

In ‘Reluctance and Suspicion,’ Stokes takes me to task for speciating out what I label as ‘conspiracy narratives’—arational, rhetorical bad habits associated with particular conspiratorial tropes—from conspiracy theorising generally. He points out that these conspiracy narratives seem awfully hard to distinguish from actual cases of conspiracy theorising. Stokes is too polite to claim I am engaging in the No True Scotsman Fallacy[4]. He saves his criticism for the crux of my reply[5] to his first reply[6] (we are hurtling towards a conspiracy theory theory inception), where I argue we can hand wave the problem away by appealing to an investigator locked up in a room, ‘dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit’ (my words, not his).[7]

Stokes characterises my putative investigator as someone:

[S]omehow 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. Her conspiracy theories are, let’s stipulate, self-standing and sui generis alternatives to “official” explanations of given events.[8]

Now, as I noted in the piece Stokes is replying to, knowing about these narratives/social practices is part-and-parcel of being an investigator with regard to conspiracy theories. I admit that this is not immediately obvious, but when I wrote about:

[S]peciating 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 (Dentith 2016, 31).

I was talking about how particularists-qua-investigators should go about their investigative work. That is to say, like the detective investigating the murder of a spouse, there is certain background information we expect the detective to be aware of, such as the likelihood of the surviving partner being the most plausible perpetrator, etc. But my point could have been clearer, and for that I apologise.

However, my chief mistake was to talk about an investigator, and her lackeys. That is to say, I posited a quite individualistic notion of the investigator when the model I am proposing for the investigation of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ is more akin to a community of inquiry.

Communities of Inquiry

A community of inquiry (a term I take from the works of John Dewey[9] and C. S. Pierce[10]) is a community-led inquiry into problematic situations, where members of said community co-operate in a democratic and participatory fashion. It is a way of talking how best to distribute the epistemic burden when it comes to the discussion and analysis of complex claims (and thus, by extension, these things called ‘conspiracy theories’). Such a community operates on the assumption that while there may be no one expert (or set of experts) with respect to the complex claims contained in many conspiracy theories, we can compensate for the lack of conspiracy theory expertise by sharing the epistemic burden across a suitably constituted community.[11] Potential members of a community of inquiry will include interested members of the public, journalists (both professional and citizen), the police, the judiciary, politicians, and the like.

Describing my putative investigators in the singular ‘she’ was a mistake born out of not quite having nailed down aspects of the terminology of my current research project, ‘Investigating conspiracy theories.’ A social epistemologist at heart, I have always thought that how we analyse any complex claim is a community affair, one of sorting out who shoulders the epistemic burdens, and who gets to be a ‘free rider,’ appealing to the views of others. So, Stokes was mislead only because of my poor choice of words.

Stokes asks what would motivate these investigators, given they are supposedly isolated from conspiracy theorising as a social practice? I think they would—in an ideal setting—be spurred by the idea that if a conspiracy theory turned out to be warranted, then surely we would be obliged to do something about it? Obviously that sense of obligation is linked somehow to scale and/or purpose; a conspiracy to organise a surprise party is something you might well encourage, rather than work against (unless you hate surprise parties). A political conspiracy to rort an election, however, is something most of us think we ought to work against.[12]

Dispassionate Investigations

Now, Stokes might find issue with this fuller picture of a community-led investigation in conspiracy theories because of my stipulation about the investigator(s) ‘dispassionate’ nature. He notes that:

[W]e 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.[13]

I admit, talking about the ‘dispassionate’ nature of the investigator(s) was another poor choice of words on my part.[14] What I was trying to get across with the label ‘dispassionate’ is that an investigator can be informed by cultural mores, etc., but that does not mean that she is immediately or necessarily subject to them. Which is to say that members of the community of inquiry will surely know about certain conspiracy narratives (or the social practices associated with some cases of conspiracy theorising) without necessarily having to in any way endorse or engage with them.

Indeed, the diversity of members within a community of inquiry should help with this, in that even if some members embrace the trope, others in the community will question it. Said communities may also end up being international or globalist in constitution, so views which might not be socially or politically unacceptable in one context might be allowed to be expressed in some other. Finally, the diversity of the community (properly—there’s that word again—constituted) should mean even if some members act insincerely, that insincerity should be uncovered or outed (that is, a well-formed community of inquiry should be resistant to conspiracy if it emerges in a society which is largely open[15]).

But the real issue here—which separates Stokes’s work from mine and that of Basham—is the worry about the kind of accusations implicit in some conspiracy theories, and the way in which they (sometimes) can entail particular harms.

Accusations Without Merit

Using the example of recurrent anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (or narratives, as I termed them) as his example, Stoke writes:

[W]e 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.[16]

I appreciate Stoke’s point here; conspiracy theories or narratives which suggest that, say, the Jewish people are behind the world’s various calamities are, indeed, of the kind we have grounds to not treat seriously. Or, at least, most of us do. The reason why most of us have grounds to not treat these claims seriously is both the harm such theories cause, and the fact that—on investigation—these theories routinely turn out to be baseless.[17] The relationship between these two claims—harms and baselessness—are tightly intertwined. Our communities of inquiry, we should hope, will know this. They will not theorise in a vacuum. If they investigate some alleged Jewish banking cartel plot, they do it with the knowledge of systemic racism, a familiarity with tropes, and an eye on new, and compelling evidence.

However, it is important to note that we already allow some pretty extreme accusations to be made in the public sphere. Many government chambers allow politicians to make accusations on the public record without being subject to libel or defamation. The police can arrest and charge people on what is—to many an epistemologist or ethicist—troublingly vague evidence, and various security services make claims about people on the basis of secret evidence (which may or may not exist). Now, we might object to all of these examples, but we have systems in place which allow accusations to be made, and for them to be challenged.[18]

It is also worthwhile to note that a community of inquiry which investigates some particular conspiracy theory need not do it publicly; the members might work behind closed doors, only going public once an investigation has been concluded. Secret investigations into conspiracy theories, I realise, seem almost prima facie problematic, but unless we think of these investigations as being necessarily public in nature, there is no reason why concerned citizens cannot start their investigation behind closed doors. Indeed, think of the case of a community of inquiry into the Moscow Trials of the 1930s; if you were a Muscovite, would you want your work to be public?[19]

Stokes also makes the following claim about the moral cost of my dispassionate investigator(s) speculations:

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.[20]

I am sympathetic to this point. A similar argument stands for why we rightfully cast opprobrium on racist speech. After all, someone might claim that is logically possible members of a particular ethnicity (or the opposite sex, etc.) have lower IQs than members of some other group. However, most of us realise that treating such a claim seriously is likely to cause more harm than good; the very act of engaging in the anthropological (or sociological, etc.) research involved creates the idea such notions are respectable, and thus deserving of serious scrutiny. All such an investigation will do—even in the case of a null result—is give proponents of such a theory grounds to say ‘Look, those boffins at Yale thought it was worth checking out…’ Whilst in theory any idea is worth investigating, or treating seriously, in practice there are certain ideas which deserve scrutiny only if we have good grounds to investigate them. Indeed, sometimes we have good socially-constituted reasons to think certain questions need not be raised, or, if raised, not answered.[21]

Yet consider the following hypothetical: a woman walks into a room and finds herself alone with a man. Does she cause a passing wrong by entertaining the notion she might not be safe in that situation? I don’t think so, but even if she does, it seems both justifiable and outweighed by the need for caution. Or think of the detective who, on investigating the murder of a spouse immediately suspects the surviving partner as a matter of course. Is this also a passing wrong, given that she knows a crime has been committed, and that the most likely culprit in such cases is the surviving spouse?

Investigators think like this all the time, and I do not think this is a problem per se. Yes, such thinking entails beliefs which—if expressed in a certain way, or in particular contexts—can cause harm. Apropos of nothing, if I walk into a room and tell you that I think you are planning to kill, that likely will damage our friendship. My idly thinking it, however, does not strike me as problematic. However, I guess it all depends on what ‘idly’ means here; if it is a passing thought, then I cannot see how it causes harm at all. If it persists throughout the conversation I am having with you, causing me to act nervously or become reticent around you, maybe that does mean I’ve wronged you in some sense.

Now, admittedly, this kind of response entails a problem: if we accept that investigators (or, our putative community of inquiry) think like this all the time, and some investigations can be undertaken in secret, then surely there is nothing wrong about some community going off, behind closed doors, and looking into the question about IQs being lower in that particular ethnicity? Surely Stoke’s argument that such putative accusations/speculations are problematic points to the central intuition as to why some of us might think they entail passing wrongs?

Stokes notes that ‘default background trust that is a condition for social life.’[22] I do not disagree; for the most part, ordinary epistemic agents should operate with a degree of trust in others. Otherwise it is hard to establish even the basics of human life, let alone much knowledge, given how social constituted most of our knowledge is. Yet the whole point of this talk of conspiracy theories is to push the idea that some one, or some body needs to take these claims seriously, and investigate them in order to preserve that ‘default background trust.’ Such trust is—at least, I would argue, in the case of politics—not a prima facie given; it is earned, and the reason why people trust their governments comes out of some belief that the threats to said trust are investigated, or going to be investigated. It may mean that investigators must do work that other (more ordinary) epistemic agents are not obliged to do. Some of that work might even be dirty. But—and I hope this speaks to Stokes’ concern here—our investigators, or community of inquiry, will not only be cognisant of conspiracy narratives, but that some of their putative work might entail passing wrongs. Thus they will only be motivated to investigate when there are new, compelling reasons to do so.

Primed for Failure?

Let me end by pre-empting the most obvious criticism to the community of inquiry approach I am advocating. Surely this is how we already investigate conspiracy theories? Isn’t this project a dismal failure from the start? Whilst we can point to interested communities of inquiry which uncovered the conspiracies behind the Moscow Show Trials (lead by John Dewey, whose terminology I am borrowing), Watergate, and the like, the sceptic of this approach will gesture towards on-going calls to re-investigate 9/11, the assassination of JFK, and the claims the MMR vaccine is responsible for the uptick in autism diagnoses. In these cases, nothing seems to have been settled, and we have rival communities of inquiry claiming the other side are stupid, irrational, or engaged in a cover-up.

What is happening here? Is the problem one of these communities of inquiry being badly constituted (which then raises question: how might we better form them?), or is there some other, lingering issue getting in the way of their investigations. I would hazard that it is a little of both. Given the pejorative labelling of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’, investigations into them tend to fall into two camps: those who think the conspiracy has occurred, and those who want to show that the conspiracy theorists are a bunch of wackos. That is, arguably, most of our communities of inquiry (at least when it comes to investigations into conspiracy theories) start from an assumption that the members already know the conclusion, and thus are looking for evidence to prove it to the unbeliever.

Part—and I’d like to stress that this is only part—of this problem is the spectre of Generalism: the pathologising approach to the treatment of belief in conspiracy theories Basham, Stokes, and myself have been discussing in these pages. The ‘she said/he said’ approach to dealing with conspiracy theories in public discourse often bifurcates along the lines of ‘these theories are prima facie irrational!’ and ‘you’re ignoring the elephant in the room!’. The only salve to this worry would be to ensure that any community of inquiry include members who have diverse attitudes to these things called ‘conspiracy theories.’ This is not just a salve to the conspiracy theorist; after all, the sceptic of conspiracy theories will also be concerned about communities of inquiry made up of people who already assume the existence of the very conspiracies they are investigating.

We might think of this as being a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ condition: for the investigation of any conspiracy theory to pass muster, there must be some members of the community who will challenge the need or urgency to investigate some given claim, and some members who will argue that pursuing, or treating seriously this conspiracy theory is a potentially dangerous activity. Given that a community’s findings will be more akin to a judicial decision than a jury decision (dissenters should always be able to explain their minority view), even if the sceptic is not convinced by the community’s findings, their presence in the investigation will surely be of value.

This is no different as to how we debate the issues in Philosophy, or Physics, or Sociology, and so it should be the same when it comes to these things called ‘conspiracy theories.’ That is, if our investigative communities of inquiry are properly constituted. But that is a discussion for another time.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ori Freiman, and Patrick Stokes for feedback on an earlier draft of this paper.

References

Basham, Lee. “Between Two Generalisms: A Reply to Stokes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 4–14.

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

Dewey, John. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt, 1938.

Pierce, C. S. “The Fixation of Belief.” In Charles Sanders Peirce: Selected Writings, edited by Philip Wiener, 91–112. New York: Dover Publications, 1958..

Stokes, Patrick. “Between Generalism and Particularism About Conspiracy Theory: A Response to Basham and Dentith.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5 (10 (2016): 34–39.

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

[1] Matthew R. X. Dentith was supported by a fellowship at the Research Institute of the University of Bucharest (ICUB).

[2] Stokes 2017.

[3] Basham 2016.

[4] Or, like me, he’s not sure what to call it now, given that the label seems rather racist.

[5] Dentith 2016.

[6] Stokes 2016.

[7] Dentith 2016, 28.

[8] Stokes 2017, 49.

[9] Dewey 1938.

[10] Pierce 1958.

[11] I have a (hopefully) forthcoming paper on this issue, but—in short—I take it while there are no institutionally-accredited experts in conspiracy theories (unlike, say, in the sciences), and that any conspiracy theorist worth their salt will find issue with appeals to expertise or authority when it comes to dismissing some conspiracy theory (because of the worry the institutions which accredit expertise or authority might be conspired) we can partially solve both of these problems by properly allocating the epistemic burden across members in our societies.

[12] Some people might disagree, if they think the party favoured by the conspiracy ought to be in control; a diverse community of inquirers should be able to counteract the pro this-conspiracy aspect of some of its members.

[13] Stokes 2017, 50.

[14] One reason to think ‘dispassionate’ is a poor choice of word here is a curious but troubling aspect of contemporary debate, which is that passion (whether anger, joy, or sadness) is taken to be a mark against someone’s argument in much public discourse. The marginalised person of colour, or the trans person, say, who gets angry about some policy debate, or discussion of institutional prejudice, is taken to not be arguing properly. Instead, they are asked to be dispassionate about the details of a debate which affects them personally, as if separating their lived experience from their discourse is somehow a good thing. It is easy to be dispassionate about events which do not directly effect you, but it is very cruel indeed to ask those who are directed effected to be dispassionate by those very same events.

[15] All bets are off if the society is towards the closed end of the spectrum, of course.

[16] Stokes 2017, 50–51.

[17] Not just that; we have good anthropological and sociological theories as to how these narratives first emerged, which strongly suggest that the appellation ‘conspiracy’ in these cases was insincerely fomented by agents who wanted to blame the Jewish people, in order to make them scapegoats.

[18] Admittedly, the fact we allow these accusations to be made does not tell us anything about the morality of making them. However, the fact there are societal agreements about when such accusations can (and cannot) be made speaks to the idea that we at least tolerate allowing discussion of certain extreme claims in a range of cases.

[19] There is also a question about whether we are concerned with open practices, or merely open and accessible results? That is, could we—in some cases—run our investigation in secret? Then, once we have our findings, publish all the data (and give a full accounting of our investigative method), and thus by ‘revealing’ our secret to the world, circumvent the issues associated with such a secretive investigation?

[20] Stokes 2017, 50.

[21] Some will claim that such grounds should not be of interest to the epistemologist, but I would counter by saying that the social epistemologist is very much aware of the social-constituted nature of knowledge, and how these things play out.

[22] Stokes 2017, 57.

[a] For articles in this exchange, from least recent to most recent, please refer to:

Author Information: Mikhail Sergeev, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA

Sergeev, Mikhail. “‘Integral Knowledge’ and Enlightenment Rationalism: A Reply to Pruzhinin and Shchedrina.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017): 1-3.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Evgeniy Isaev, via flickr

In “The Ideas of Cultural–Historical Epistemology in Russian Philosophy of the Twentieth Century” Boris Pruzhinin and Tatiana Shchedrina write about the socio-cultural dimension of Russian epistemological theories.[1] They maintain that since the turn of the twentieth century those theories were characterized by the concepts of “wholeness” and “whole knowledge,” which “consists of the unity of value and cognitive elements” (17). The Russian philosophical project of “positive philosophy” (not to be confused with “positivist philosophy” or “positivism”) consisted in arguing that “[k]knowledge acts as the most important element in cultivating the human soul” and as such has to “meet not only the requirements of our mind, but also the demands of our hearts” (17).

This epistemological perspective has led Russian thinkers to emphasize the cultural-historical circumstances and the existential condition of the human cognizer. As the authors of the article write, “Cognitive content of knowledge always has a concrete meaning for the person, for it is always to be found in particular life context. And in this context knowledge acquires value for a human: not only practical (or everyday) usefulness, but also of an existential significance (or higher value)” (18).

Pruzhinin and Shchedrina believe that this existentially oriented Russian epistemological tradition not only exerted significant impact on the development of semiotics and structuralism in the twentieth century—they trace its influence back to the Russian phenomenologist Gustav Shpet (1879-1937) and linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982)—but also retains its philosophical value and potentials in our contemporary post-structuralist world.

Historical Dimension

I would like to make several comments with regard to the thesis of the article—the first one being related to its historical roots. The origin of the idea of “integral cognition” goes farther in history than the turn of the twentieth century. I prefer to translate the Russian expression “tsel’noe znanie” as “integral” rather than “whole” knowledge—as it is rendered in the anthology of Russian philosophy first published in 1965 and still used as a standard textbook on Russian thought in American universities.[2]

The concept of “integral cognition” was introduced into Russian philosophy by one of the founders of the Slavophile movement Ivan V. Kireevsky (1806-1856). A religious and philosophical school in Russian thought, Slavophilism was conceived in the nineteenth century as a response to the challenge of European Enlightenment and its supposedly one-sided notion of abstract reason. The Slavophiles searched for new principles in philosophy—ones that are based on the Orthodox Russian tradition and are capable of providing new impetus to modern thinkers who were torn apart by the separation of human rationality and faith.

As we read in the anthology, “Kireevsky’s chief philosophical contribution to this task was centered in his doctrine of ‘integral cognition’ … which he also called ‘faith’ and sometimes imperceptibly identified with Russian Orthodox belief.”[3] In his philosophical program Kireevsky did not oppose abstract reason or logical thinking per se. Rather he maintained that

… there is a kind of cognition which underlies such logical thought, which is identical with the “whole personality” of the individual … is not a separate faculty [and] includes the realms of feeling, motivation, desire, and intention which put man in contact with reality and with other men prior to any process of abstract thinking. [4]

Introduced by the Slavophiles, the concept of “integral knowledge” was picked up by Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) whom Pruzhinin and Shchedrina refer to in their article. Soloviev was a philosopher and religious thinker who tried to formulate the middle way between the two extremes of Russian Slavophilism and Westernism. A devout Orthodox Christian himself he attempted to navigate between the Scylla of Orthodox nationalism and the Charybdis of Western secularism.[5]

In the center of Soloviev’s philosophical speculations lied the notion of vseedinstvo, which is usually translated into English as “all-unity” (or sometimes as “total-unity”). In “his doctoral dissertation, the Critique of Abstract Principles (1880) Soloviev described those ‘abstract principles’ as “various aspects of All-Unity, which, by separating from the whole and establishing their autonomy, lost their true character, conflicted with each other, and plunged humanity into a state of disunity and chaos.”[6]

Soloviev’s program of philosophical reintegration was directly influenced by Kireevsky’s concept of “integral cognition” to which (reintegration or the achievement of “all-unity”) it fits nicely as its epistemological hypostasis.[7] Later Kireevsky’s and Soloviev’s ideas were explored by other Russian philosophers in both religious and secular directions.

Modern Implications

The second comment that I would like to make is in reference to modern applications of the concept of “whole” or “integral” knowledge. In their article Pruzhinin and Shchedrina point out that the “specificity of cultural-historical epistemology is related to a special interpretation of knowledge as a cultural phenomenon that has an existential-symbolical meaning for the cognizer.” They further argue—and I repeat this key idea of the article—that “[k]nowledge acts as the most important element in cultivating the human soul (cultural and cults designating, correspondingly, the cultivation, of the soul)” (17).

In Kireevsky’s mind, as well as in Soloviev’s, the existential dimension of such an epistemology had a very specific meaning and presupposed Orthodox Christian moral and religious values as a necessary condition for the spiritual growth of the human soul. When divorced from its original religious background the notion of integral cognition, in my view, loses its essential orientation and turns into an idea that is quite ambiguous.

What would the “growth of the human soul” mean in the context of secular culture? It could mean very many, in fact, quite the opposite things, to different people. Without the initial religious and spiritual compass the concept of “integral cognition” seems to lose its existential precision and may as well be used as justification for any ideology that claims to serve as an instrument of “human growth.”

Conclusion

I would like to commend Pruzhinin and Shchedrina for raising awareness of the American readers and for an in-depth discussion of one of the key concepts in classical Russian philosophy. I believe that this cultural and philosophical exchange of ideas is not only productive but essential for the growth of humanity (pan intended). In the spirit of such a dialogue I would like to offer a short list of the most important books and anthologies of Russian thought that were published in English over the last half-century.[8]

[1] Pruzhinin, Boris and Tatiana Shchedrina. “The Ideas of Cultural–Historical Epistemology in Russian Philosophy of the Twentieth Century.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (16-24): 2017.

[2] Russian Philosophy, eds. James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, and Mary-Barbara Zeldin with the collaboration of George L. Kline, Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1987, Vol. I, 168.

[3] Ibid, 168.

[4] Ibid, 168-69.

[5] For more on Vladimir Soloviev’s project of modern Orthodoxy see, for example, my article “Liberal Orthodoxy: From Vladimir Solov’ev To Fr. Alexander Men.” Religion in Eastern Europe, vol. XXIII, no. 4 (2003), 43-50. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ree/vol23/iss4/2/.

[6] Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: from the Enlightenment to Marxism, tr. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979, 379.

[7] For more on Kireevsky’s influence on Soloviev see Walicki, A History of Russian Thought, 375-76. On page 376 Walicki writes, for instance: “The first work in which Soloviev outlined a system of his own was Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge (1877). The title itself clearly harks back to the notion of tselnost’, or “wholeness,” which was the kernel of Kireevsky’s philosophical works.”

[8] (1) Lossky, N. O. History of Russian Philosophy. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1951; (2) Zenkovsky, Vasilii V. A History of Russian Philosophy, 2 vols. translated by George L. Kline. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953; (3) Russian Intellectual History. An Anthology, edited by Mark Raeff, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1966; (4) Russian Philosophy, 3 vols. (1965) edited by James M. Edie, et al. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976; (5) Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought, edited by Alexander Schmemann, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, 2nd. ed., Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977; (6) Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: from the Enlightenment to Marxism, translated by Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979; (7) Frederick C. Copleston, Russian Religious Philosophy: Selected Aspects, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988 and Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986; (8) A Documentary History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism, translated and edited by W.J. Leatherbarrow and D.C. Offord, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1987; (9) Georges Florovsky. Ways of Russian Theology translated by Robert L. Nichols in Collected Works. Vol. VI, Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987; (10) A History of Russian Philosophy. From the Tenth Through the Twentieth Centuries, 2 vols. edited by Valerii Kuvakin. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994; (11) James Scanlan, Marxism in the USSR. A Critical Survey of Current Soviet Thought, Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1985; Evert van der Zweerde, Soviet Historiography of Philosophy. Istoriko-Filosofskaia Nauka. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997.

Author Information: Kurtis Hagen, Independent Scholar, kurtishagen@yahoo.com

Hagen, Kurtis. “What Are They Really Up To? Activist Social Scientists Backpedal on Conspiracy Theory Agenda.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 89-95.

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

Editor’s Note:

    Given the extent of the exchange to which Hagen’s reply belongs, please refer to the section after the endnotes for related articles. [a]

Image credit: Rool Paap, via flickr

In a joint statement published in Le Monde, a group of social scientists called for more research on conspiracy theorists in order to more effectively “fight” the “disease” of conspiracy theorizing (see Basham and Dentith 2016, 17).[1] In response, a number of scholars, including myself, signed an open letter criticizing this agenda (Basham and Dentith 2016).[2] In response to us, the authors of the Le Monde statement (minus Karen Douglass) published a sprawling rebuttal entitled, “‘They’ Respond” (Dieguez et al. 2016). Matthew Dentith and Martin Orr have already offered their response in turn (2017), as has Basham (2017). I will here add my own. I will often refer to the scholars who authored the Le Monde statement, and the response to our objection to it, simply as “they.” I find this to be quite ordinary English, and, frankly, I think they have overreacted to our previous usage of this innocuous pronoun.

To keep this short, I will focus on just three issues: (1) They misrepresent their own previously stated intentions. (2) They misrepresent our critique of those intentions. (3) They fail completely in their attempt to show that, regarding the inappropriate pathologizing of conspiracy theorists, we are as guilty as they are. In restricting myself to these three issues I by no means wish to imply that the rest of their response was unproblematic.

The Misrepresentation of Their Own Original Position

So, what were they up to? The very title of the Le Monde statement makes it clear, “Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively.” They worry that the “wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease” (see Basham and Dentith 2016, 17). The “disease,” of course, is conspiracy theorizing, which they conflate with “conspiracism,” expressing their desire to help “fight against this particular form of contemporary misinformation known as ‘conspiracism’” (17). In putting it this way, they reveal their bias: the presupposition that conspiracy theories are a form of misinformation. They believe that “the growth of conspiracy theories” is “a major problem” (17). And so, they aim to provide research that will help “remedy the problem” of “adherence to conspiracy theories” (18). This research is necessary, they reason, because “Conspiracism is indeed a problem that must be taken seriously” (17)—again conflating conspiracy theories with conspiracism.

It was this objective with which we took issue. But now, in response to our criticism, they have recast their position. Although they had originally characterized the intentions of governmental initiatives to undermine conspiracy theories as “laudable” (17), they now characterize their original Le Monde letter in the following ways:

[Our commentary] cautioned against governmental initiatives to counter conspiracy theories among youths and advocated for more research on the topic” (Dieguez et al. 2016, 20).

[We] took issue with French governmental and local initiatives designed to tackle the apparent proliferation of conspiracy theories among youths” (20-21).

Both of these statements are technically true, but quite misleading. These ways of putting it makes it sound as though they are against governmental initiatives to counter conspiracy theories. Reinforcing this impression, they go so far as to suggest that they are, in part, trying to “ascertain whether there is a problem [with conspiracy theories] at all” (21), and that they want to “help everybody become better conspiracy theorists” (20). Oh really? That is not at all the impression one gets from the Le Monde statement, as indicated above.

In reality, the original Le Monde statement was not cautioning against governmental initiatives to counter conspiracy theories. They expressed full support for that objective. They were merely cautioning against doing it without first funding more research[3] (to be done by themselves),[4] so that, armed with this research, the government could counter conspiracy theories more effectively. In our response we took issue with that objective. But now I am taking issue with something different. I’m taking issue with the way they, in their response to us, have misleadingly characterized their own previously expressed purpose.

Though they have attempted to recast their intentions, they have not fully retreated from activism. They say that they “thought…that something should be done” (21). About what? Why, about “ideological polarization… hate-speech and misinformation” (21). But who said anything about those things? It seems that a number of questions have suddenly been begged. Then, almost admitting what their original position had been all along, they worry that “early and hasty endeavours had the potential to misfire or simply be ineffective” (21). Endeavors to do what? Now they seem to be suggesting that they are for efforts to reduce hate speech and misinformation. But their original statement was about being ineffective in undermining conspiracy theories. Rather than straightforwardly defend that position, they equivocate between conspiracy theories and “ideological polarization… hate-speech and misinformation.”

Finally, after a ten-page exercise in distraction, they return to the central issue, under the heading, “A Cure?” Here, once again, they reframe their purpose in neutral terms. They write, “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” (Dieguez et al. 2016, 32, emphasis in original). They maintain that they just want to use objective science to answer questions such as whether a new “remedy is not needed after all, as the disease might be transitory, or even not a disease at all” (33). They continue, “Scientific research turns out to be the best currently available tool to answer such questions, and that’s where the analogy lies with programs devised to counter conspiracy theories.” It’s a curious position, if we are to take it seriously. They support “programs devised to counter conspiracy theories,” wanting to try to make such programs more effective, because, they seem to suggest, “Who knows? We might end up finding that there was no problem to begin with!” But how likely is it that biased researchers, funded by grants directed for a purpose that aligns with that bias, are going to produce findings that run directly counter to that purpose and so support the conclusion that no more such funding is warranted? No conspiracy theory is needed to recognize this as flawed, if not intellectually dishonest, approach.

The Misrepresentation of Our Critique

Naturally, since they misrepresented their original position, they needed to misrepresent our critique of it as well. And so they did. They did not focus directly on the substance of our actual critique, namely, that seeking to use what passes for “science” to assist the state in undermining belief in conspiracy theories (without concern to whether or not there is justification for those theories) is a bad idea. Instead, they attributed to us a number of positions that we never asserted. Then they produced a wide variety of points in response to these positions, some of which are unobjectionable, others quite problematic, but none directly germane to our central complaint.

For example, they suggest that our objection to their project involved the idea that “everything there is to know on the matter is in fact already known, and that any further attempt to investigate the topic would be a ‘grave intellectual, ethical and prudential error,’ or worse, a genocidal crime against the masses, destroying lives ‘by the thousands, even millions’” (21). Wow! Did we write anything as crazy as that? Or, more likely, is this a rather egregious misrepresentation of our critique? Let’s find out. While it is true that much of the social science research on conspiracy theorists is deeply flawed (as forthcoming articles will show in detail,[5] and Basham 2017 explains more briefly), we did not even mention this in our objection to their proposal. We certainly did not claim that “any further attempt to investigate the topic” would be necessarily problematic. After all, we ourselves, in our own ways, investigate the topic. No. That was not the problem we were pointing out. Neither did we suggest, needless to say, that merely investigating the topic would destroy lives by the thousands or millions. So, what exactly did we write? We wrote this:

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 (Basham and Dentith 2016, 15).

So, quite plainly, we were not saying that any investigation would be inappropriate. We were saying that there should not be an effort to restrict (it would have been better to have said “undermine”) political conspiracy theories. That is what would be the “intellectual, ethical, and prudential error.” And, remember, that is precisely the goal that the Le Monde authors were originally supporting, though they are now, in their response, not straightforwardly admitting.

We continued, writing:

Conspiracy theory saves lives, by the thousands, even millions, if we would let it. Its automatic dismissal leaves blood on our hands (16).

What were we talking about? Certainly not that merely investing the topic would result in untold carnage. Perhaps our explanation bears repeating:

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 (14).

We gave other examples as well. So, quite plainly, we were saying that it is engaging in an effort to disable a mechanism for thwarting potentially disastrous conspiracies that “leaves blood on our hands,” not merely investigating the topic. Further, let me be emphatically clear about this: they were not originally advocating investigating the topic in a fair and neutral way. They have a clear bias (they assume that conspiracy theories are a disease that needs to be cured), and they have an explicit agenda, namely, to “fight conspiracy theories effectively.”

Now, I am not opposed to activism, and there is nothing inherently wrong with having an agenda. Indeed, I have an agenda in writing this. I am making a case for what I believe to be true, and defending what I think is important. But here is the crucial difference: I am not pretending to be a neutral scientist, objectively collecting the data and letting it speak for itself. These scholars, on the other hand, do claim to be in precisely that business. Perhaps that is why they have a hard time admitting their agenda. And so, having been called out for their agenda, they are now trying to claim that all they wanted to do was to dispassionately and scientifically investigate the topic. They are “just asking questions” (28; cf., 20, 21) and gathering data, they claim.[6] But they are not convincing. As shown above, that position is refuted by their own words in their original statement.

They also claim that we “call… for more conspiracy theories and less ‘conspiracy theory panic’” (20). Here they are half right. It seems fair to say that we are against “conspiracy theory panic,” but it is silly to say we want “more conspiracy theories.” For my part, I would say that I want fairness toward conspiracy theories (a desire also expressed by Basham 2017). I do not want to see the state allied with biased social scientists for the purpose of producing research designed to help the state undermine legitimate conspiracy theorizing. But that is not the same as calling “for more conspiracy theories,” as if we think that the more conspiracy theories in circulation the better, regardless of their merits. No. We were calling out those who would use “science” to try to undermine a legitimate and important activity.

In addition, they also suggest that we accused them of being part of a conspiracy (30). But we did not maintain that they were secretly up to something morally dubious. Their morally dubious agenda was openly articulated in a public forum. However, given their bizarre response, it now seems that they are retrospectively trying to pretend that they were up to something different from what they clearly and repeatedly stated originally. But I, speaking just for myself, do not maintain that they plotted any of this. No, in this case, I favor a cock-up theory.

Pathologizing Conspiracy Theorists

Another central concern that we raised was their pathologizing of conspiracy theorizing, suggesting that conspiracy theories are a “disease” (Basham and Dentith 2016, 17). Basham 2017 addresses this issue more broadly. I’ve chosen here to focus narrowly on reasoning errors in their attempt to vindicate themselves by suggesting that we are equally guilty of the same offence. They accused us of inconsistency since we oppose the generic pathologizing of conspiracy theories and yet some of us had, on their reading, pathologized certain particular conspiracy theories. Hmmm. Actually, even if they had read us correctly (which in at least one case they have not), there is nothing inconsistent about that.

Since I was one of those accused of this supposed inconsistency, and since they have indeed misread me, I’ll use their critique of my work to set both matters straight. Specifically, they accuse me of “delegitimiz[ing]” Roswell conspiracy believers (Dieguez et al. 2016, 26). Neither did I intend to do that nor would it have been in any way significant if I had. Here is what I wrote:

[Sunstein and Vermeule’s] deliberate intent to be dismissive becomes unambiguously apparent. Immediately after the mention of Operation Northwoods they write: “In 1947, space aliens did, in fact, land in Roswell, New Mexico, and the government covered it all up. (Well, maybe not).” This trivializes a whole list of significant conspiracies that they could not but admit were real, though the list could have been much longer (Hagen 2011, 13).

I was objecting to an obvious appeal to ridicule and inappropriate trivialization of agreed upon facts by throwing in a widely disbelieved example, accompanied with a snarky comment. As for my own position on the issue of alien visitations in general, and the Roswell incident in particular, I have no firm opinion, as I have not studied these issues in any depth (interesting though they are).

The point of the claim that I delegitimized Roswell conspiracy believers is that I had thereby, presumably, engaged in the pathologizing of a particular group of conspiracy theorists, as others in our group are likewise accused. This is a problem, they think, because we were critical of their attempt to pathologize conspiracy theories in general.

There are multiple layers of problems with their analysis. To begin with, as I have just explained, I had not even claimed that Roswell conspiracy believers were wrong, or that their belief is poorly evidenced. I did not take a position on that, and I have none. But even if I had, it would not follow that I pathologized them. Asserting that someone’s position is wrong, or is not well evidenced, does not suggest that the person is defective. But that is what the Le Monde scholars seek to do. They aim to describe a presumed-to-be-defective conspiracist “mindset” (Basham and Dentith 2016, 18; Dieguez et al. 2016, 20, 23-25, 29-30, 34). And they advertise that their studies will help make efforts to undermine conspiracy theories more effective.

Their project is a delegitimizing one. Ours is not. And further, even if I had pathologized a particular group of conspiracy theorists, that would not mean I had acted hypocritically in criticizing the Le Monde scholars for pathologizing conspiracy theorists in general. (After all, while it is wrong to generically pathologize Atheists, Republicans, or Norwegians, that does not mean there are no individuals in those groups who may legitimately be regarded as, in some sense, pathological.) At minimum, pathologizing conspiracy theorists in general is an instance of inappropriate pathologizing, since believing in conspiracy theories is not necessarily, or even typically, pathological—even if there are particular instances that are (about which I have taken no position). In sum, their argument goes wrong at every turn. No wonder they value “data” and disparage reason.[7]

Conclusion

If these scholars want to help move the dialog forward, they must respond in a way that does not mischaracterize what they had originally said, and mischaracterize the critique of what they said. (It would be nice if they did not get so much else wrong besides, but perhaps that cannot be helped.) Indeed, their response so far further undermines confidence in their ability to conduct fair and reasonable studies of conspiracy theorists, or on any subject for that matter. And thus their response calls into question the wisdom of their original proposal, even if its objective had been defensible, which even they seem unwilling to defend. Mere incantations of the holy words “science” and “data” will not turn invalid arguments into valid ones, nor remove the stain of flagrant misrepresentation.[8]

References

Basham, Lee. “Pathologizing Open Societies: A Reply to the Le Monde Social Scientists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 59-68.

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. (An English version of the Le Monde publication, “Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively,” is also contained herein.)

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.

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.

Hagen, Kurtis. “Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts.” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies 21, no. 2 (2011): 3–22.

[1] References are to an English translation of the Le Monde statement affixed to the end of Basham and Dentith 2016. (Page numbers to Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective articles refer to the PDF versions.)

[2] Regarding the original critique of the Le Monde statement (namely, Basham and Dentith 2016), it should be noted that while eight scholars, including myself, endorsed the critique, only two of us, Basham and Dentith, actually did the writing. Just to be perfectly clear, while I am proud to be associated with the critique, and refer to it as “our” response, I did not substantially contribute to it, other than offering some comments on a couple drafts. So, it seems to me perfectly sensible for it to be published as, and referenced as, “Basham and Dentith 2016,” giving credit where it is due.

[3] Here is how they pitch it: “[The current] more or less random campaigns [to combat belief in conspiracy theories] 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” (Basham and Dentith 2016, 18, emphasis added).

[4] Further, is it not a tad hypocritical of them to charge us with a “self-serving” (Dieguez et al. 2016, 22) interpretation while they are calling for more funding for research in which they would like to engage? But for critics of conspiracy theories, double standards are par for the course.

[5] For example, a special issue of Argumenta on the ethics and epistemology of conspiracy theory will include articles by Matthew Dentith (“The Problem of Conspiracism”), Lee Basham (“Joining the Conspiracy”), and myself (“Conspiracy Theories and Monological Belief Systems”). In addition, “Conspiracy Theory Phobia,” by Juha Räikkä and Lee Basham, is forthcoming in Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them (Oxford University Press), edited by Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent.

[6] 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. Are conspiracy theories bad? Are they good? Are they always bad, are they always good? … ‘They’, in fact, are ‘just asking’ some questions” (Dieguez et al. 2016, 21). Once again, this is a clearly misleading representation of what they were up to. They now ask in a neutral voice, “Are conspiracy theories bad?” Yet they had already answered this when they described belief in conspiracy theories as a disease and conflated it with “contemporary misinformation known as ‘conspiracism’” (Basham and Dentith 2016, 17). Have they truly turned over a new leaf? If so, why not be honest about what they had originally said?

[7] They contrast data, data collection, experimental designs, and empirical research with “armchair” reasoning and various derogatory versions of the same (Dieguez et al. 2016, 22, 25, and 32).

[8] I would like to thank Lee Basham and Matthew Dentith for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this response.

[a] For articles in this exchange, from least recent to most recent, please refer to:

Author Information: Jamie Shaw, Western University, jshaw222@uwo.ca

Shaw, Jamie. “Feyerabend and the Cranks: On Demarcation, Epistemic Virtues, and Astrology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 74-88.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Jonathan Khoo, via flickr

In a well-known paper, Larry Laudan announces the demise of providing any criteria to distinguish science from non-science or pseudoscience.[1] He writes “the [demarcation] question is both uninteresting and, judging by its checkered past, intractable.”[2] While there were many philosophers who contributed to this “checkered path,” one of the most noteworthy critics of demarcation was Paul Feyerabend who argued against the ability to provide any meaningful demarcation criterion that does not simultaneously deny the scientific status of many of the most important transitions in the history of science. The primary aim of this paper is to reconstruct Feyerabend’s arguments for pluralism and the corresponding implications for the very idea of a demarcation criterion and show how Pigliucci’s revival of the demarcation problem fails to address these arguments. I then evaluate Kidd’s attempt to reintroduce Feyerabend into this discourse via his defense of purported pseudosciences. I conclude by highlighting Feyerabend’s numerous remarks about “the cranks,” which shows his intellectual allegiance to some of Pigliucci’s and Kidd’s goals.

The structure of this paper is as follows. In the first section, I reconstruct Feyerabend’s views of pluralism.[3] Specifically, I focus on his principles of proliferation and tenacity and what consequences they have for the demarcation problem. In the second section, I show how Pigliucci’s demarcation criteria fail in light of this reconstruction. In the third section, I consider Kidd’s analysis of Feyerabend’s defense of astrology and its reformulation in light of Pigliucci’s criticisms and defend a revised formulation of Kidd’s original position. The final section highlights Feyerabend’s disdain for “the cranks,” which appears to line up with Pigliucci and Kidd concerns.

A Tale of Two Principles: Feyerabend on Proliferation and Tenacity

Though Popper inspired Pigliucci’s revival of the demarcation problem, his own criteria differs from falsificationism. Since Feyerabend was one of the most vociferous and important critics of Popper’s philosophy and the demarcation criteria in general, his arguments must be circumvented for a revival of the demarcation problem to be successful. Indeed, in Pigliucci and Boundry’s 2013 collection, Feyerabend is only referenced once en passant. The burden of proof, therefore, lies on Pigliucci to show how Feyerabend’s arguments against demarcation have been mistaken. This section will repeat Feyerabend’s arguments against any demarcation criteria via his defense of pluralism that can serve as a standard of evaluating Pigliucci’s own model.

Pluralism is the most dominate theme throughout Feyerabend’s career. As Robert Farrell rightly notes:

The most long-lived, ubiquitous and deepest theme of Feyerabend’s philosophy is pluralism. The changes in Feyerabend’s philosophy, over the decades is best interpreted as the gradual drawing out of the consequences of a pluralistic philosophy: pluralism is the hard-core of the Feyerabendian philosophical program and it came to permeate all aspects of his thought.[4]

Similarly, Oberheim writes that “almost all of [Feyerabend’s] major publications, and even most of the minor ones, contain some form of a methodological argument for pluralism.”[5] As such, I cannot hope to capture the details of Feyerabend’s views, their development, and their motivation.[6] In this section, I outline two principles that comprise Feyerabend’s pluralism: the principles of proliferation and tenacity.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, Feyerabend argued that all observation statements (“facts”) rely on theoretical assumptions. For any observation statement to be true, we must make certain theoretical assumptions about the nature of observation. This may include theories about observation itself (e.g., perception, physiology, etc.) or about what Feyerabend calls “mediating terms” which are not immediately present in observation (e.g., the laws of optics, relative motion, Coriolis forces, etc.). Furthermore, the meaning of observation terms is, at least partially, dependent on theories. Demon possessions used to be (and, for some, still are) observational facts in the same way we “observe” seizures.

If we deny medieval demon psychology, then observation statements such as “I see a demon possession” are false.[7] Facts, therefore, can be tested. Feyerabend’s favorite example of this is Brownian motion which, he argues, would never have refuted the second law of phenomenological thermodynamics if it weren’t for the kinetic theory of heat. This forms the basis of the principle of proliferation: we should “[i]nvent, and elaborate theories which are inconsistent with the accepted point of view, even if the latter should happen to be highly confirmed and generally accepted.”[8] As Feyerabend’s thought develops, his notion of a “test” becomes multifarious. For example, we may also:

  1. Compare the structures of infinite sets of elements and see whether there is an isomorphism or not.
  1. Compare theories via their “local grammars’, defined as “that part of a [statement’s] rules of usage which is connected with such direct operations as looking, uttering a sentence in accordance with extensively taught (not defined) rules.”[9]
  1. Construct a model of a theory “T” within its… alternative “T” and “consider its fate.”

Additionally, alternatives change the importance of facts. Even though the discrepancies between Newton’s celestial mechanics and the orbit of Mercury at its perihelion was known since Le Verrier’s observations and calculations in 1859, it wasn’t until general relativity’s alternative explanation that this minor problem became a major problem. As Feyerabend puts it, theories “on the basis of new principles will lift them out of the background and deviational noise and then turn them into an effect that is capable of refuting the [alternative] scheme.”[10] Finally, alternatives have psychological benefits; “a mind which is immersed in the contemplation of a single theory may not even notice its most striking weaknesses.”[11] This means that even if the alternatives are not true (or empirically successful), they should still be welcomed into scientific discourses for their heuristic import.[12] This, in a nutshell, is the basis of the principle of proliferation.

The principle of proliferation, on its own, is empty. It would merely result in half-baked theories rather than sophisticated theories making interesting criticisms. This is why proliferation must be complemented by the principle of tenacity which states that we should “select from a number of theories the one that promises to lead to the most fruitful results, and stick to this theory even if the actual difficulties it encounters are considerable.”[13] In other words, we must develop theories from their infantile stages with internal contradictions, apparent paradoxes, and recalcitrant evidence to more sophisticated theories that can reconcile at least some of their initial problems. One could easily claim that the slogan of Feyerabend’s pluralism is “Proliferation without Tenacity is empty and Tenacity with Proliferation is blind” or, as Feyerabend puts it, “[t]he interplay between tenacity and proliferation which we described in our little methodological fairy tale is also an essential feature of the actual development of science.”[14]

Kuhn was the first to recognize the principle of tenacity: all theories are constantly beset by anomalies. As Lakatos puts it, all theories are “born refuted.”[15] If we were to abandon theories the moment they came into difficulties, we would have abandoned many of the most successful theories throughout the history of science. The justification of some kind of tenacity is, therefore, quite reasonable. However, Feyerabend’s mature view of tenacity is exceptionally radical in two ways. Firstly, it has no conditions for acceptance; any theory can be held tenaciously. This is because only research can determine what theories are useful and in what ways.[16] Even theories that have blatant internal contradictions or seem to conflict with facts can be, and often are, developed into useful research programs; all that is needed is “[a] brilliant school of scholars (backed by a rich society to finance a few well-planned tests).”[17] Secondly, and more importantly, for Feyerabend, tenacity, has no “expiry date.” There are three primary arguments for this. First, any expiry date will be arbitrary. “If not now why not wait a bit longer?”[18] Second, the reason for granting a theory “breathing space” in the first place remains true; the theory may make a comeback. This is not a mere “logical possibility,” as Achinstein suggests,[19] but one that has been substantiated many times throughout the history of science.[20] Finally, any view that theories cannot make comebacks must make various metaphysical assumptions about the simplicity of nature.[21] The principle of tenacity does not, of course, commit us to indefinitely pursuing every line of research we inquire about but simply that it is always perfectly rational to continue developing ideas despite their extant problems. Furthermore, tenacity must be complemented by proliferation; so it is not the case that the entire scientific community should tenaciously develop one theory, as Kuhn thought, but multiple theories competing and complementing each other in a variety of ways. While this provides only a cursory glance at Feyerabend’s pluralism, it provides us with a starting point for evaluating demarcation criteria.

The principle of proliferation applies equally to many features of science; methods, theories, experimental designs, and so forth. Furthermore, what is proliferated need not be consistent with the features already at play in a given research context since “[a]lternatives will be more efficient the more radically they differ from the point of view to be investigated.”[22] Because of this, any theory of demarcation will rule out some features that have played or could play important roles in advancing knowledge. Furthermore, the principle of tenacity has important consequences for theories of scientific rationality. This is because if at any given time, t1, a theory does not meet the requirements of that theory of rationality (e.g., that theories conform to the facts, are made as simply as possible, etc.), cannot be rejected since it could eventually come to meet those requirements at t2 given sufficient attention to these issues. Because of this, what is “non-scientific” one day is “scientific” the next and the transition between the two requires being placed within scientific debates. While there is much more that could be said about the details of these principles and their justification, this should be sufficient for evaluating Pigliucci’s proposal for a model of demarcation.

A Feyerabendian Criticism of Pigliucci’s Demarcation Criterion

If science is as diverse as Feyerabend claims, and cannot be understood as a single entity, then any demarcation criterion that provides necessary conditions that theories or methods must meet to be scientific will inevitably exclude other valuable scientific endeavors. Pigliucci is sensitive to this point and does not wish to return to the “old-fashioned” ways of distinguishing science from pseudoscience via some set of necessary and sufficient conditions.[23] Pigliucci, instead, suggests that demarcation must be understood as a family resemblance concept “characterized by a number of threads connecting instantiations of the concept, with some threads more relevant than others to specific instantiation.”[24] Pigliucci immediately follows up by stating that “[a]t a very minimum, two ‘threads’ run throughout any meaningful treatment of the differences between science and pseudoscience: what I label ‘theoretical understanding’ and ‘empirical knowledge.’”[25] This definition, admittedly preliminary,[26] provides necessary conditions for what constitutes science.[27] He then states that theoretical understanding and empirical knowledge come in degrees, with pseudoscience possessing little to none of either virtues. While Pigliucci does not define what he means by “empirical knowledge,” he appears to mean that “confirmed predictions” and “theoretical understanding” involves “internal coherence and logic.”[28] I have no clue what it means for a theory to “have logic,” but internal coherence is cashed out as a lack of internal contradictions or contradicting other well-established scientific theories. Pigliucci concludes by providing three meta-criteria for any demarcation criteria:

  1. A viable demarcation criterion should recover much (though not necessarily all) of the intuitive classification of sciences and pseudosciences generally accepted by practicing scientists and many philosophers of science…
  1. Demarcation should not be attempted on the basis of a small set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions…A better approach is to understand them via a multidimensional conditions classification based on degrees of theoretical and soundness and empirical support…
  1. Philosophers ought to get into the political and social fray raised by discussion about the value (or lack thereof) of both science and pseudoscience.[29]

Let us now consider these statements from what we have learned in section 1. First, theories that contain low degrees of empirical support (or even conflict with known facts) or are theoretically confused are perfectly pursuit-worthy on Feyerabend’s account. This is because these theories can gain empirical support, can “correct” evidence, and become more coherent. Furthermore, even if theories are not pursued as a potentially true description of the world, they can be pursued for a variety of heuristic purposes (e.g., instruments of criticism, points of contrast, serve a number of psychological functions necessary for more general critical attitudes, and so forth). Therefore, Pigliucci’s criteria fail to provide reasonable grounds to prevent the consideration of “pseudosciences.”[30]

Furthermore, not only does the principle of tenacity allow us to pursue theories with internal contradictions, we can pursue theories that contradict previously well-established theories as well. Pigliucci wrongfully states that “[f]ollowing a Quinean conception of the web of knowledge, one would then be forced to either throw out astrology (and, for similar reasons, creationism) or reject close to the entirely of the established sciences…The choice is obvious.”[31] We don’t need to “throw out” anything! We can retain both theories, develop them, and see what happens.[32] As for the meta-criteria, seems suspicious for two main reasons.[33] The first concerns virtue epistemology. Pigliucci concedes to Kidd that it is a virtue to not make declarations about fields that are alien to their field of expertise.[34] However, demarcation criteria affect people with different intellectual backgrounds. They affect funding distribution policies, taxation policies, those who benefit or are harmed by the creation (or lack thereof) of particular pieces of scientific knowledge, and so on. This is far beyond the domain of scientists or philosophers of science who provide, at best, one perspective on demarcation. Additionally, the intuitions of scientists and philosophers may have been shaped by social forces which themselves are problematic. If scientists are forced to conform to certain views because their education does not provide viable alternatives, if peer review is so conservative that it causes long-term conformity, and so on, then those intuitions aren’t worth taking seriously.[35] They are products of sociological forces which themselves are open to criticism. On this view, scientists and philosophers of science may have the wrong intuitions that need to be corrected. I have no immediate complaints about (2)[36] and (3) is completely Feyerabendian. If we are to have a theory of demarcation, it should be of practical relevance.

I welcome a response from Pigliucci and his sympathizers to reformulate their views in light of these problems. In the meantime, there appears to be little reason to find this view appealing in light of the many criticisms of Feyerabend and others.[37] I will leave this issue aside for now and move on to Kidd’s arguments on Feyerabend’s defense of astrology.

On Feyerabend’s Defense of Astrology and Virtue Epistemology

Kidd’s paper does not directly target Pigliucci’s claims on demarcation. However, as evidenced by their dialogue, their arguments overlap. In his paper, Kidd makes two primary claims. First, that Feyerabend defended the epistemic integrity of some practitioners of astrology because he was practicing the pluralism he preached and decided to defend views that were dismissed or ostracized from the philosophy of science. In other words, Feyerabend was proliferating.[38] Secondly, these actions can be understood using the resources of contemporary virtue epistemology. In this section, I outline Kidd’s original claims, show his concessions in light of Pigliucci’s criticisms, and argue that Kidd’s original claims are correct. I then point out a few potential pitfalls for the subsequent development of a Feyerabendian account of virtue epistemology.

Kidd’s paper attempts to “identify the epistemic rationale for Paul Feyerabend’s defences of astrology, voodoo, witchcraft, Chinese traditional medicine, and other ‘non-scientific’ beliefs, practices, and traditions.”[39] His thesis is that the epistemic rationale motivating Feyerabend’s defense of purported pseudosciences is not that he is committed to them (i.e., believes them to be true) but that he is practicing his own brand of pluralism which derives from Mill.[40] Feyerabend lays out his interpretation of Mill’s pluralism as the conjunction of four claims:

  1. Because a view one may have may have reason to reject may still be true. “To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”
  1. Because a problematic view “may and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
  1. Even a point of view that is wholly true but not be contested “will…be handled in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension of feeling of its rational grounds.”
  1. One will not understand its meaning, subscribing to it will become “a mere formal confession” unless a contrast with other opinions shows wherein this meaning consists.[41]

Or, in Kidd’s words:

Central to [] pluralism is the epistemological conviction that the use of “radical alternatives” to prevailing theories and methods enables “immanent critique” of entrenched systems of thoughts and practice. The use of radical alternatives can afford new and otherwise unavailable forms of empirical and theoretical critique and so provides an essential strategy for countering…a tendency for enquirers to drift into a state of unreflective reliance upon a fixed set of epistemic resources.[42]

There are plenty of empirical reasons to think that pluralism of this kind can deliver its promises so we can reasonably expect pluralism to achieve its desired results.[43] Feyerabend’s defense of astrology, according to Kidd, can be seen as an attempt to combat the epistemic vice of arrogance (or, conversely, to promote the epistemic virtue of humility).[44] To support this interpretation, Kidd considers Feyerabend’s “The Strange Case of Astrology” which was written in response to a statement made in The Humanist with 186 signatures from prominent scientists condemning astrology as contributing to the “growth of irrationalism and superstition.”[45] Without going into the details of Feyerabend’s article, he essentially argues that the writers of the Humanist statement are often historically inaccurate, make confused conceptual statements about astrology, and, more generally, do not know anything about astrology. Astonishingly, Feyerabend writes:

This [that the writers of the statement “certainly do not know what they are talking about”] is quite literally true. When a representative of the BBC wanted to interview some of the Nobel Prize Winners they declined with the remarks that they had never studied astrology and had no idea of its details.[46]

Feyerabend admits that there are genuine problems with modern astrology (which are not the same problems of the astrology of, say, Kepler); modern astrology is “not used for research; there is no attempt to proceed into new domains and to enlarge our knowledge…. they simply serve as a reservoir of naïve rules suited to impress the ignorant.”[47] However, “this is not the objection that is raised by our scientists.”[48] By revealing the ignorance of this statement, Feyerabend defends modern astrology not because he thinks its true (or even valuable) but because its critics are being arrogant, so defending a “pro-astrology” perspective is necessary to combat this vice. For scientists to enjoy any epistemic authority, they must display the proper epistemic virtues that were not demonstrated in The Humanist response.

We can see how Pigliucci’s demarcation conflicts with Feyerabend’s pluralistic defense of astrology. Astrology in its modern form is not an empirically successful science and thereby fails to meet his demarcation criterion.[49] Remember, alternatives have many different functions and Kidd has highlighted one of them in Feyerabend’s defense of astrology: combating arrogance and ignorance. Pigliucci makes a few criticisms in his reply to Kidd that Kidd concedes to. Pigliucci admits that the Humanist statement is indeed problematic. Specifically, it is a form of scientism which Pigliucci defines as “scientific claims overstepping the epistemic authority of science…largely directed at delegitimizing the humanities and establishing a sort of scientific imperialism on all human knowledge and understanding.”[50]

Scientism, Pigliucci claims, is the common enemy; he, Kidd, and Feyerabend merely “disagree on how most effectively to deal with the menace.”[51] These disagreements are in two primary forms:

  1. That astrology is a particularly bad choice of proliferation,
  1. Feyerabend displayed the vice of “epistemic recklessness” in defending astrology.

For the former, Pigliucci argues that “astrology has never been a research program” and, even more strongly, that “both astrology and voodoo have no epistemic value whatsoever.”[52]

Pigliucci then generalizes this claim to other purported pseudosciences and states “radical alternatives are fine if they are credible and constructive, but astrology, voodoo, homeopathy and the like are light-years away from being either.”[53] For 2), Pigliucci states that the results of Feyerabend’s “attitude” are deeply troublesome; “rampant denial of climate change, the anti-vaccination movement, AIDS denialism, and so form. All of which is costing us in the hard currency of actual pain, suffering, and death.”[54]

Kidd then backs off from a few of his claims. He writes that Pigliucci is “quite right” that “Feyerabend is wrong to say that astrology is a good example of the limits of scientific explanation” and that he is “happy to concede” that astrology was not a research program though he does not respond to the stronger claim that pseudosciences are completely worthless.[55] Kidd also concedes that Feyerabend himself had “epistemically vicious positions at certain times of his life [and] joins the rest of us in having a dappled character.”[56]

I argue that Pigliucci hasn’t offered any good reasons for Kidd to back down on any of these claims. First, Pigliucci never addresses the pluralist motivation behind Feyerabend’s defense of astrology. Remember tenet (3) of Feyerabend’s Millian justification of pluralism: we do not understand the rational basis for, say, rejecting astrology and preferring modern astronomy without knowing what astrology was, what the arguments for and against it were, and so forth. In other words, it must be taught and discussed. The lack of pluralism is a partial cause for the ignorance of the writers of the Humanist manifesto and, therefore, astrology doesn’t need to be true to be a part of some kinds of scientific discussions. Second, astrology most certainly was a research program in a loose sense.[57] Feyerabend even supplies some of the preliminary arguments for this in his article.

Depending on how loosely one interprets the astrological tenet that celestial events influence human affairs, there was research in the early 70s suggesting that there are many causal links between certain celestial events and non-reproducible physico-chemical processes. This research spawned a number of further studies, the citations of which Feyerabend provides, which even filled a (then) lacunae in environmental studies.[58] Feyerabend also discusses Kepler’s arguments and evidence for retaining a constrained version of sidereal astrology (though not tropic astrology) and there is much more that could be discussed about the developments of astrology over centuries of overlapping research programs.[59] This is a part of Feyerabend’s complaint: these expansive explorations with varying degrees of success all become subsumed under the single heading of “astrology” with the assumption that the entire research program contains the rigor found in newspaper horoscopes.

Finally, Pigliucci has not given any reason to think that Feyerabend’s defense of astrology was an instance of “epistemic recklessness.” While Kidd has argued elsewhere that Feyerabend chagrined many intellectually dishonest endeavors that paraded his arguments,[60] Feyerabend never, to my knowledge, discusses climate change, anti-vaccination movements, or AIDS denialism; these (mostly) became issues after Feyerabend’s death. Furthermore, there is no legitimate inference from Feyerabend’s pluralism to defending these topics in a direct way. Feyerabend repeatedly states that each case must be analyzed on its own and not lumped into more general categories.[61] Since Feyerabend made no specific comments about these issues, he has no commitment to any of the peculiarities of these subjects (which are also all multifaceted and disunified subjects themselves).[62] Therefore, Pigliucci cannot ascribe any of these particular consequences as emanating from Feyerabend. It is because of these reasons that I urge Kidd to retain his initial arguments that Feyerabend’s defense of the epistemic authority of scientists via astrology is a perfectly fine choice; both in terms of virtue epistemology and its scientific credentials.

I’d like to finish this section by remarking that if Kidd wishes to elaborate on his virtue epistemology reading of Feyerabend, which I would certainly encourage, there are pitfalls that he (and those similarly inclined) should be careful of. Many epistemic vices contain functions that may be of value to the scientific community as a whole. Feyerabend points out how vices like stubbornness (e.g., Boltzmann’s defense of atomism) or deceptiveness (e.g., his case study of Galileo), for example, can be important for the growth of knowledge. This argument is most prominent in Feyerabend’s defense of propaganda: contingent idiosyncrasies of particular communities may require overcoming by unorthodox and potentially “vice-like” behaviour.[63] Unless Kidd wants to suggest that vices are inherently problematic, he must allow for a flexible notion of what counts as a “vice” or a “virtue.” I think this accommodation can be easily made, but it does require attention in the subsequent development of a Feyerabendian virtue epistemology. Regardless, it would be an interesting topic to see what virtue epistemology Feyerabend may have endorsed given his recognition of the diverse kinds of mindsets needed for a flourishing community and his radical cultural pluralism.

Feyerabend and the Cranks

Throughout Feyerabend’s career, he complains about what he calls “the cranks.” While Feyerabend did not, and would not, provide a definition of who counts as a “crank,” his general description of cranks should sound familiar to those worried about intellectual honesty in science. Early in Feyerabend’s career, he writes the following:

The distinction between the crank and the respectable thinker lies in the research that is done once a certain point of view is adopted. The crank usually is content with defending the point of view in its original, undeveloped, metaphysical form, and he is not prepared to test its usefulness in all those cases which seem to favor the opponent, or even admit that there exists a problem. It is this further investigation, the details of it, the knowledge of the difficulties, of the general state of knowledge, the recognition of objections, which distinguishes the “respectable thinker” from the crank. The original content of his theory does not.[64]

Indeed, Feyerabend’s aforementioned complaints about modern astrology fall under this category. Those who do not wish to assess astrology critically, attempt to apply it in new ways, test it, and so forth are, simply put, cranks. One can infer that Feyerabend is not supporting the proliferation of the cranks, but serious researchers who get lumped together with the cranks. This is evidenced by who Feyerabend cites. In his defense of Voodoo, he doesn’t defend con-artists on Bourbon street, but the sophisticated and extensive work by C.R. Richter and W.H. Cannon[65] which is scientific by any reasonable standard![66] Similarly, in Against Method, Feyerabend complains about “intellectual pollution” where “illiterate and incompetent books flood the market, empty verbiage full of strange and esoteric terms claims to express profound insights, ‘experts’ without brains, without character, and without even a modicum of intellectual, stylistic, emotional temperament tell us about our ‘condition’ and the means of improving it.”[67] It is clear that there is a commonality between Pigliucci, Kidd, and Feyerabend: their disdain for the cranks! Feyerabend’s lack of defense of the cranks[68] clarifies what kind of proliferation Feyerabend is interested in and what attitudes he thinks belong in scientific communities.

Concluding Remarks

Pigliucci is right to stress the social, political, and epistemic importance of the demarcation problem. For decades, the preoccupation with uncovering what is unique and praiseworthy about science dominated the philosophy of science. But times have changed. Increasing investigations into various scientific practices throughout history and across the globe have made it seemingly impossible to resuscitate the universal standards that philosophers once sought. I hope to have contributed to this discussion by ensuring that our revitalization of the demarcation debate does not repeat the mistakes of the past and that we begin thinking of demarcation in terms of its conditions of applications and its relationship to pluralism.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks for Ian James Kidd’s helpful comments. I tried to address as many of them as I could. Marie Gueguen, Erlantz Etxeberria, and Adam Koberinski also provided superb feedback while workshopping an earlier draft of this paper.

References

Achinstein, Peter. “Proliferation: Is It a Good Thing?” In The Worst Enemy of Science?: Essays in Memory of Paul Feyerabend, ediyed by John Preston, Gonzalo Munévar & David Lamb. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Bigo, Vinca and Ioana Negru. “From Fragmentation to Ontologically Reflexive Pluralism.” Journal of Philosophical Economics 1, no. 2 (2008): 127-150.

Bschir, Karim. “Feyerabend and Popper on Theory Proliferation and Anomaly Import: On the Compatibility of Theoretical Pluralism and Critical Rationalism.” HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 5, no. 1 (2015): 24-55.

Desjardins, E., J. Shaw, G. Barker, G., and J. Bzovy. “Geofunctions, Pluralism, and Environmental Management.” In From the North of 49: New Perspectives in Canadian Environmental Philosophy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming.

Epstein, Steven. “The Construction of Lay Expertise: AIDS Activism and the Forging of Credibility in the Reform of Clinical Trials.” Science, Technology & Human Values 20, no. 4 (1995): 408-437.

Farrell, Robert. Feyerabend and Scientific Values: Tightrope-Walking Rationality. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism” In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume III: Scientific Explanation, Space and Time, edited Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell, 28-97. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1962.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Realism and Instrumentalism: Comments in the Logic of Factual Support.” In Critical Approaches to Science and Philosophy, edited by Mario Bunge, 260-308. Princeton: The Free Press, 1964.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Reply to Criticism: Comments on Smart, Sellars and Putnam.” Proceedings of the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science (1965a): 223-61.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Problems of Empiricism.” In Beyond the Edge of Certainty: Essays in Contemporary Science and Philosophy, edited by Robert G. Colodny, 145-260. University of Pittsburgh Series in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965b.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.” In Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Volume 4: Analysis of Theories and Methods of Physics and Psychology, eds. Michael Radner and Stephen Winokur, 17-130. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970a.

Feyerabend, Paul. Consolations for the Specialist. In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 197-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970b.

Feyerabend, Paul. “In Defence of Classical Physics.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (1970c): 59-85.

Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. London: Verso Books, 1975.

Feyerabend, Paul. Science in a Free Society. London: Verso Books, 1978.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Proliferation and Realism as Methodological Principles.” In Rationalism, Realism, and Scientific Method: Philosophical Papers Volume 1, 139-145. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Kassell, Lauren. “Stars, Spirits, Signs: Towards a History of Astrology 1100–1800.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 41, no. 2 (2010): 67–69.

Kitcher, Philip. Science In a Democratic Society. New York: Prometheus Books, 2011.

Kidd, Ian James. “Why Did Feyerabend Defend Astrology? Integrity, Virtue, and the Authority of Science.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016a): 464-482.

Kidd, Ian James. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016b): 11-17.

Kidd, Ian James. “Was Feyerabend a Postmodernist?” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 30, no. 1 (2016c): 55-68.

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Lakatos, Imre. “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes.” In Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, eds. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, 91-197. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Lakatos, Imre. “On Popperian Historiography.” In Philosophical Papers Volume 2: Mathematics, Science and Epistemology, eds. John Worrall and Gregory Currie, 201-210. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Laudan, Larry. “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem.” In Physics, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, 111-127. Springer Netherlands, 1983.

Lloyd, Elisabeth A. “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism.” Philosophy of Science 64 (1997): S396-S407.

Oberheim, Eric. Feyerabend’s Philosophy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “The Demarcation Problem: A (Belated) Response to Laudan.” In Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem, edited by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, 9-28. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Pigliucci, Massimo. “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology? A Commentary on Kidd.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 5 (2016): 1-6.

Post, H.R. “Correspondence, Invariance and Heuristics: In Praise of Conservative Induction.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 2.3 (1971): 213-255.

Preston, Christopher J. “Pluralism and Naturalism: Why the Proliferation of Theories is Good for the Mind.” Philosophical Psychology 18, no. 6 (2005): 715-735.

Preston, John. Feyerabend: Philosophy, Science and Society. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.

Roberts, Royston M. Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 1989.

Stanford, P. Kyle. “Unconceived Alternatives and Conservatism in Science: The Impact of Professionalization, Peer-Review, and Big Science.” Synthese (2015): 1-18. DOI: 10.1007/s11229-015-0856-4

Tsui, Anne S. “From Homogenization to Pluralism: International Management Research in the Academy and Beyond.” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 6 (2007): 1353-1364.

[1] Laudan, “The Demise of the Demarcation Problem.”

[2] Ibid, 125.

[3] I acknowledge that the act of treating Feyerabend’s pluralism as a unified doctrine conflicts with Oberheim’s reading of Feyerabend as having no unified view (Oberheim, Feyerabend’s Philosophy, 12). I disagree with this reading, since there is substantial theoretical continuity across Feyerabend’s published works up to (and including) Against Method, but I will not make this argument here.

[4] Farrell, Feyerabend and Scientific Values, 135.

[5] Oberheim, Feyerabend’s Philosophy, fn. 338 246.

[6] The most detailed discussions of Feyerabend’s pluralism can be found in chapters 7-9 in Oberheim, Feyerabend’s Philosophy; chapter 7 of Preston, Feyerabend; Lloyd, “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism”; and chapters 5 and 6 in Farrell, Feyerabend and Scientific Values; though these accounts differ in various ways. I do not think any of these accounts is completely accurate for reasons I will not go into here. However, they should provide the reader with a starting point for understanding Feyerabend’s pluralism.

[7] The same point is true for less complicated observation terms since any term licenses particular inferences and, therefore, makes theoretical assumptions about the entity observed. The sentence “I see a tree” is false if what is seen does not, say, absorb carbon dioxide or engage in photosynthesis.

[8] Feyerabend, “Reply to Criticism,” 105. For a more detailed description of this process of “anomaly import” see Bschir, “Feyerabend and Popper on Theory Proliferation and Anomaly Import” and Couvalis, “Feyerabend, Ionesco, and the Philosophy of the Drama” for a reconstruction of Feyerabend’s account of Brownian motion.

[9] Ibid, fn. 32 116.

[10] Ibid, fn. 7 106.

[11] Ibid. See Preston, “Pluralism and Naturalism” for an empirically updated defense of this view.

[12] Feyerabend cites many empirical studies to support this intuition and a few which show its limits (cf. Feyerabend “Against Method,” fn. 42 107). Contemporary empirical literature also supports a Feyerabendian view (Preston, “Pluralism and Naturalism”).

[13] Feyerabend, “Consolations for the Specialist,” 203.

[14] Ibid, 209.

[15] See chapters 6 and 7 of Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” 3(c) and (d); and Feyerabend, “Against Method,” 37-40 for examples and discussions.

[16] While Feyerabend does not mention this explicitly, many theories are fruitful in unexpected ways. See Roberts, Serendipity and the subsequent literature on serendipity in scientific discovery for examples.

[17] Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” 100.

[18] Feyerabend, “Against Method,” 77.

[19] Achinstein, “Proliferation.”

[20] Feyerabend’s favorite example of this is Boltzmann’s defense of atomism (see Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism,” 108). Furthermore, while Feyerabend never makes this connection, comebacks can include theories that were pursed without a gap and theories that were abandoned at one point and resurfaced later on (see chapter 4 of Against Method and his “In Defence of Classical Physics” (especially fn. 20, 66) for his defense of the revival of classical physics in the 1960s and recent literature on Kuhn-loss (cf. Post 1971) for several examples).

[21] Feyerabend, Against Method, fn. 12 185. Defending the simplicity of nature thesis is remarkably difficult to do in a non-circular fashion since Hume. However, one could conceivably have other metaphysical theses that entail that theories that fail will continue to fail.

[22] Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism,” 214.

[23] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 19.

[24] Ibid, 21.

[25] Ibid, 22.

[26] “I am certainly not suggesting that these are the only criteria by which to evaluate the soundness of a science (or pseudoscience), but we need to start somewhere” (Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 22).

[27] Pigliucci states that theoretical understanding and empirical knowledge can both be made rigorous with fuzzy logic with no clearly defined borders and this is what he means by a “family resemblance concept.’ But these are completely separate issues. A family resemblance concept would allow that a concept can be missing some conditions entirely which is different from saying these conditions have fuzzy boundaries. I will leave this ambiguity alone for the moment, as it does not affect his primary claims.

[28] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 22.

[29] Ibid, 25-26.

[30] See Desjardins et al. (forthcoming) for a defense of the use of non-testable theories to ground policy decisions.

[31] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 24.

[32] This, of course, is a practical impossibility since we must make choices about what to fund and what to abandon. However, it is a separate question about how the hypothetical unconstrained nature of tenacity and proliferation must be adapted to meet these practical demands.

[33] Pigliucci, “The Demarcation Problem,” 1.

[34] Pigliucci, “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology?,” 1.

[35] This, often times, seems to be the case (cf. Stanford, “Unconceived Alternatives and Conservatism in Science”).

[36] Kidd has pointed out to me that Feyerabend himself may have been sympathetic to this notion (see the introduction to the Chinese edition of Against Method).

[37] There are similar, but importantly distinct, justifications of tenacity from Lakatos, “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes” and Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Feyerabend’s criticisms are not the only ones that need to be overcome to advance our knowledge on demarcation.

[38]. “The principle of proliferation not only recommends invention of new alternatives, it also prevents the elimination of older theories which have been refuted” (Feyerabend, “Problems of Empiricism,” 107).

[39] Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 464.

[40] Kidd credits Oberheim’s Feyerabend’s Philosophy for the arguments that Feyerabend was not committed to his defense of pseudosciences and Lloyd’s “Feyerabend, Mill, and Pluralism” for the argument that Feyerabend’s polemics can be seen as his pluralism in action.

[41] Feyerabend, “Proliferation and Realism as Methodological Principles,” 139.

[42] Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 468. This Millian defense of pluralism extends the account roughly sketched out in section 1 though I will not go into the fine-grained details of how Feyerabend’s understanding of pluralism evolved from the early “60s to the “early 80s.”

[43] Cf. Preston, “Pluralism and Naturalism”; Tsui, “From Homogenization to Pluralism”; Bigo and Negru, “From Fragmentation to Ontologically Reflexive Pluralism.”

[44] Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 473.

[45] Quoted in Kidd, “Why did Feyerabend Defend Astrology?,” 470.

[46] Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, fn. 13 91.

[47] Ibid, 96.

[48] Ibid.

[49] It is unclear what the practical applications of Pigliucci’s demarcation criterion are supposed to be. Should pseudoscience not appear in journals? Textbooks? University curriculum? Subjugated to further research? All of the above? The answer to this question is crucial if we are to understand what exact functions pseudosciences should or should not play within science.

[50] Pigliucci, “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology?,” 1. Kidd, “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology?,” 11 reaffirms his and Feyerabend’s allegiance to combat scientism.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid, 2.

[53] Ibid, 3.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Kidd, “How Should Feyerabend have Defended Astrology?,” 11-12.

[56] Ibid, 15. Kidd states that this is “affirmed in [Feyerabend’s] autobiography” but does not offer any quotations or hints as to what these epistemic vices are or how they are relevant to Feyerabend’s defense of astrology. I certainly would not argue that Feyerabend, nor anyone else, was an epistemic saint, but these ambiguities should be addressed.

[57] Pigliucci cites Lakatos suggesting that he means “research program’ in his sense (though nowhere in that volume does Lakatos make that argument). This would require an exceptionally complicated historical analysis to show that this is the case. For now, I will merely argue that astrology was a research program in the more casual sense that Pigliucci seems to use.

[58] See Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society, fn. 16 93.

[59] For a fraction of the expansive literature on the history of astronomy and its applications in medicine, meteorology, astrobiology, and many other disciplines see the references contained in Kassell, “Stars, Spirits, Signs.”

[60] Kidd, “Was Feyerabend a Postmodernist?”

[61] As a side note, both Pigliucci and Kidd often lump together many distinct research programs together and discuss them as if they could be treated uniformly. It is important to note that astrology, voodoo, homeopathy, climate change skepticism, and so on are distinct disciplines with their own histories, successes and problems, methods, and so forth and should not be treated under a single heading.

[62] Pigliucci also argues that Feyerabend’s support for the democratization of science has had “horrible results’ citing the decisions of parents to not vaccinate their children (Pigliucci “Was Feyerabend Right in Defending Astrology?,” 4). First, the decision to vaccinate or not is partially a value decision and, therefore, certainly one that should be discussed in a democratic fashion. Second, there is a wealth of literature on the positive effects of the democratization of science, such as racial inclusivity in AIDS control trials (Epstein, “The Construction of Lay Expertise”), increasing safety standards of nuclear waste transportation, and many other important social issues. See Kitcher, Science In A Democratic Society for a brief overview of some of these discussions.

[63] “Even the most puritanical rationalist will then be forced to stop reasoning and to use propaganda and coercion, not because some of his reasons have ceased to be valid, but because the psychological conditions which make them effective, and capable of influencing others, have disappeared. And what is the use of an argument that leaves people unmoved?” (italics in original, Feyerabend, Against Method, 16).

[64] Feyerabend, “Realism and Instrumentalism,” 305.

[65] Feyerabend, Against Method, ft. 7 30.

[66] The case is more difficult with witchcraft and ancient Chinese medicine since his references are more oblique and sporadic. See chapter 4 of Against Method for a somewhat sustained discussion of ancient Chinese medicine and witchcraft.

[67] Feyerabend, Against Method, 219.

[68] He does, however, explicitly defend the use of the cranks’ ideas (Feyerabend, Against Method, 26). This can also be seen in the “Realism and Instrumentalism” quote where he states that the content does not distinguish the respectable thinker from the crank.

Author Information: Elena Trufanova, Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences, eltrufanova@gmail.com

Trufanova, Elena. “A Reply to ‘The Destiny of Atomism in the Modern Science and the Structural Realism’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2016): 62-65.

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

Please refer to:

Image credit: Cezary Borysiuk, via flickr

The idea of atoms as “basic” elements of matter is one of the classical “thematic structures” as it was put by Holton (1988)—the ever-recurring idea that was present in human thought since ancient Greeks and Indians, disappearing for a while then coming back again. I have always seen Democritus’ atomism as a genius insight ahead of its time. This really shows how science does not always need to be empirical to be productive in the ways of explaining the world. Professor Mamchur warns after Heisenberg against interpreting Greek atomism as an origin of the modern science atomism, however the fact remains: even if the modern scientists do formulate new notion of atoms, they still come back in time in looking for the name itself to the ancient Greeks.

Nowadays atoms, as well as their parts—the particles that we now call elementary (and that can be found out to be not so elementary in a while)—are often referred to as examples of “socially constructed” elements of the modern science. Their very existence is questioned, mostly due to their “unobservable” nature. The main problem is indeed not the question of the atoms in particular, but the question of reality of the scientific objects in general. The unobservables are just a very good example because it is very easy to suggest that such things do not exist. This is in fact a typical naïve realism stance—I do not see or feel them hence they are not real.

However, as I teach my students and explain to them what the objective existence of matter means, I always give them the following example: we don’t feel the radioactive particles “piercing” our body, but our body starts to break apart nonetheless if the radiation level is high enough. That is if something is not given or is not accessible to our perception, it doesn’t mean we don’t have proof for its existence. We may try convincing ourselves that radiation is socially constructed, that what we call our scientific knowledge about radiation is totally wrong and has nothing to do with reality, but still there is some real phenomena behind the word “radioactivity” and the warning yellow-black sign—and this reality can hit us really hard.

Atoms, Quarks and Social Construction

Professor Mamchur starts her paper (2017) with considering the idea of linguistic origin of the atomistic idea which suggests that the idea of atoms comes from the alphabetic structure of Indo-European languages. She is not much convinced by this idea, though it could have added some wood to the flame in the so-called “science wars”. Atoms have since the ancient Greeks lost the status of the indivisible and basic elements, of the last bricks of matter, but we have quarks and gluons and elementary particles instead that have taken their place. Do we have them for real? Pickering (1999) says nay, we have just “constructed” them for our purposes. Pickering’s work became an easy target because the common sense cries to us—come on, for Heaven’s sake!—we know for sure that physics describe matter and matter is composed of atoms and their nuclei are built of quarks. What is more real than physical matter? How can quarks then be socially constructed?

According to Pickering, we have constructed the theory of matter that presupposes the idea of quarks. We could have constructed theory of matter differently, says Pickering, and thus our science could have been developing in the non-quark trend.

It is very easy to criticize this point of view without even giving it a second thought: the very idea that the structural elements of matter can be socially constructed seems ridiculous. But that is not exactly what Pickering meant. What he meant is: we do not know the physical reality behind our theories. This is the main challenge for the scientific realism in all its different varieties. This is what “science wars” was about—when we speak about the social processes or mental states most of us will agree that we can allow them to be considered as socially constructed, but the “solid” physical reality, as many would say, should be spared from the constructionist blow.

I am sympathetic with Hacking’s theory of “experimental” realism, even if, as Professor Mamchur suggests, it can be easily criticized. However, I see some other criteria that can be used when we talk about the reality of scientific objects that suggest that they are not just social constructions. Let us take quarks—if we say that they are purely theoretical, why do we classify them using the terms “flavours”, “colours”, and “generations”? There must be some characteristics that make us do this kind of sorting. The idea is that there are unexplained bits of information about quarks that we can study and explore. If quarks are purely theoretical constructions, if they were born in our minds, why don’t we hold complete information about them? Why is it possible for them to surprise us as we do our further research? Thus, the scientific objects are real if they are able to provide us with new unexplained data about them.

As Professor Lektorsky (2015, 21) puts it:

Theoretical knowledge often uses so-called ideal objects: material point, perfectly rigid body, incompressible gas … The scientists that suggest these objects are completely aware that they cannot be real. For example, the body volume of the object that has a mass cannot be a point. We should distinguish these objects from theoretical objects that refer to real referents: atom, electron, quark. It is useless to suppose that we can discover new qualities of ideal objects: these qualities are determined by the very means of constructing of these objects. But when we take real objects like atom, we can discover their new characteristics, build new theories about them, specify these theories, change them etc.

I would call these criteria “the criteria of the limited knowledge”—that is, if we have limited knowledge about a certain object, then it is probably real, because if it were our own construction we would have the complete knowledge about it.

Realism and Mutual Understanding

What is usually neglected by the supporters of the social constructionist approach is the fact that we do not really invent the scientific theories out of thin air, we are trying to explain certain natural phenomena. Our explanations may be faulty, but the phenomena are real anyway—they are “out there” in the world—maybe even beyond our reach, but they are still there.

Another very important point is made by Agazzi (2016, 18) when he speaks about the necessity of the clear distinction between

[T]he “things” of ordinary experience and the “objects” of the different sciences, though recognizing that precise links exist between them. Now, while it would be wrong to say that every science specifically deals with a particular domain of “things” (because any “thing” can become the “object” of several sciences) one can say that every science deals with whatever thing “from its own point of view” and it is owing to this particular point of view that it makes this thing one of its proper “objects”. Therefore, one could say that the objects of a science are the “clippings” obtained in things by considering them from the point of view of that science.

That is to say—scientific objects are not identical to the “things” that constitute our reality, but they reflect certain characteristics that exist in those things, they refer to reality.

Also, I do not see the argument of pessimistic induction as a substantial threat to realism. The natural phenomena we encounter are still there, they are still real, the change of the ontological set is like a different language: the table doesn’t cease to exist if we start calling it “tavola” or “Tisch”. This might be a crude analogy, but I hope it makes its point.

What I would like to underline in the conclusion of these fleeting remarks is that the question of scientific realism is not purely academic. I see it as a question of the possibility of mutual understanding. If we cannot agree that the physical world around us is real, how can we agree on anything else, how can we understand each other? We have to start from some basic foundations, and I feel like physical world is a good place to start—it shows us that whatever our cultural or social differences are we still live in the same world (Trufanova 2017).

References

Agazzi, Evandro. “The Truth of Theories and Scientific Realism.” In Varieties of Scientific Realism edited by Evandro Agazzi, 49-68. Springer International Publishing, 2017.

Holton, Gerald. Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Lektorsky, Vladislav. “Konstruktivizm vs Realism” (“Constructivism vs Realism”).  Epistemology & Philosophy of Science 43, no.1, (2015): 20-26. (in Russian).

Mamchur, Elena. “The Destiny of Atomism in the Modern Science and the Structural Realism.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 1 (2017): 93-104.

Pickering, Andrew. Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Trufanova, Elena. “Uskol’zayushchaya Real’nost’ i Sotsial’nye Konstruktsii” (“Elusive Reality and Social Constructions.” Philosophy of Science and Technology 22, no. 1 (2017) (in Russian).

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

Basham, Lee. “Pathologizing Open Societies: A Reply to the Le Monde Social Scientists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 59-68.

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

Editor’s Note:

    Given the extent of the exchange to which Basham’s reply belongs, please refer to the section after the endnotes for related articles. [a]

conspiracy_van

Image credit: KD, via flickr

The dog the stone hits yelps loudest.—Folk saying

The Le Monde social scientists’ statement begins,

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.

This is a paradigm instance of a political pathologizing project. Here, it is applied to conspiracy theorizing and theorists. Which includes all of us. We all are aware of, and believe on the basis of good evidence, contemporary conspiracies happen, even, and even especially, at the highest levels of power, and in this knowledge and expectation, we are not pathological.

Pathologizing projects are ordinary to establishmentarian political cultures. These political cultures understand themselves through a biological metaphor; they are the body, and what is not of the body must be identified and eliminated. Hence the purpose of the establishment: To protect its way of life. The familiar methods include surveillance to detect alien thought and activities, censorship of what might spread these and control and elimination of its sources, rather like a cancer from within, or as we witness in the Le Monde declaration, a disease of mysterious origin. This familiar cognitive hygiene tactic makes its entrance: Society has been infiltrated by this threatening “mindset” (in the past, Communists, Satanist day-care operators, and so on); the enemy within scenario. They are everywhere but they look like us. Cognitive epidemiologists are then called to duty. Sometimes they even line up.

The goal of pathologizing projects is to disqualify a class of citizens from public discourse, silence them, ideally, eliminate them in one manner or another. In one way or another, to disappear them from the dominant discourse of the times. It is a method of dealing with dissident citizens. The formula is simple: Pathologize, disqualify, silence, disappear. These are historically applied to any group deemed sufficiently efficacious in society and excessively contrary to certain political and ideological tenets. Today the pathologizing approach is increasingly applied to those who question the veracity of their governments and suspect these governments are, on occasion, involved in organized, deeply anti-democratic, improper public deception. But 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.

Let us be clear: These authors motives are not in question; only their assumptions and goals.[1] They appear to actually believe in a sort of society-wide epidemic. In the US, the UK and France, this small group of social scientists have been used by governments to play a key role in the first stage of this parthologizing project.  Now they ask to directly assist the government to fund their development of sophisticated psychological techniques to successfully prevent the public from conspiracy theorizing, or as they put it, “just asking some questions”. The disappear phase. To this end, they offer their services.

As one philosopher prominent in the field proposes, the Le Monde piece is merely an appeal for more funding, marketed as a cognitive hygiene crusade. This is a kindly, if minimizing, apologetic. And they might devise some clever disqualifying-silencing techniques as a result, too. The question that faces our democratic polis is more pressing: Why should we wish them to? And pay them for it?

They never address this in their original statement or subsequent response. It is a given. Most philosophers in the field and a significant number of social scientists and cultural theorists, as well as the public at large, are rightfully skeptical of such a project by any government. They have increasingly, and with good reason, come to recognize that conspiracy theorizing is a thoughtful, normal and democratically necessary social activity. There is no mention of these critical facts in the Le Monde statement, but a rather disturbing omission of them. Conspiracy theorizing is treated simply as a personal and social disease.  Fortunately, the Le Monde authors initially seem to concede a pathologizing stance is politically dangerous, as they take umbrage at the very idea they would be involved in such a thing. By itself, this seems to represent a total retraction, a very welcome one. They will no longer participate in these manipulations of public thought. Unfortunately, this hope—at this time—vanishes as we read on.

A Response to a Letter of Concern

Matthew Dentith and I replied to the Le Monde statement in “Social Science’s Conspiracy Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone”.[2] Our reply was reviewed and improved by other philosophers active in the field, as well as social scientists studying the same. All pointed to the obvious political perils of a psychologically sophisticated government “combating” conspiracy theories challenging the government, the questionable pathologizing assumption at the heart of the Le Monde piece and within much (but not all) social science on conspiracy theorizing. Now our colleagues feel the need to explain themselves.

The authors of the Le Monde statement have responded,[3]

Basham et al. (2016), fear that “they want to cure everyone” of conspiracy theories. Here, “they”[4] respond and try to put this concern to rest. The commentary “they” published in French newspaper Le Monde, with which Basham et al. take issue, cautioned against governmental initiatives to counter conspiracy theories among youths.[5]

The Le Monde statement objected to government initiatives to counter conspiracy theorizing that are ineffective, and suggested social psychology could improve upon these, fighting the disease effectively. Our letter of concern cautioned against government initiatives, psychologically sophisticated or not, to counter conspiracy theorizing. The Le Monde authors continue,

“They”, in fact, are “just asking” some questions, which Basham et al. surely agree is always a good thing. Perhaps, by clarifying such and related issues, some pertaining to the conceptual and others to the empirical domains, one could get a better sense of how to address conspiracy theories, and even ascertain whether there is a problem at all.[6]

When they already view conspiracy theory as a disease, it is unlikely they are curious to discover if conspiracy theorizing is a disease or not, and so a problem or not. That ship has sailed. For them it is a pressing problem and they have moved onto the how to cure stage of the project. Accordingly, when the purposes of questions are highly suspect, we might wonder if asking such questions is always a good thing: The lethality of hydrogen cyanide, for instance. Questions, when in the service of bad motives, easily lend themselves to far worse answers and results. Immediately thereafter we are told, “Doing things right would benefit everybody: the authorities, social scientists, the kids targeted by the programs, and yes, society at large, including taxpayers.”.

What is intended by “doing things right”? And while we are “targeting kids”? And why target children in such a charged political context if not to direct their thoughts and behavior as adults? In the Le Monde statement what “doing things right” is explicit. It remains so in their response to critics: Entirely a matter of preventing the public from indulging the disease of conspiracy theorizing. The authors then present us their prize discovery: There is mass social disease, the “conspiracist mindset”. From this something that comes from seemingly nowhere conspiracy theory suspicions and beliefs are to be best explained. Of course, this strange theory is rather like arguing all Moslems are Osama bin Ladens in the waiting: Beware the “Islamic mindset”.

This pattern of “giving with one hand and taking back with the other” becomes familiar as we read through the response and indeed, study the entire literature. This logically contradictory oscillation appears defining of the pathologizing project in its relation to critics in our larger, democratic society. While historically literate people agree our governments have long resorted to conspiracy, we must pathologize those who note this and suggest it is still occurring. When critics point to the problematic nature of the pathologizing assumption guiding their research, the authors briefly deny they are pathologizing anyone, then resorting to questionable studies, proceed to explain why conspiracy theorists are pathological. This invitation to double-think, a self-contradictory oscillation between explicitly pathologizing and silencing citizens who explore conspiracy explanations while denying as researchers they are doing this, but instead are “just asking questions”, appears to be the blue-print for their entire response.[7]

The Pathological Mindset Definition of “Conspiracy Theory”

The Le Monde authors’ unusual definition of “conspiracy theory” lays bare the internal logic of the pathologizing project,

… [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 [disease], niche construction and cognitively driven cultural studies, and could be refined or refuted depending on future results.[8]

This is a typical pathologizing “enemy within our society” hypothesis. The difficulties appear numerous, so it is hard to know where best to begin. First, “firmly grounded” appears to simply mean, “firmly repeated”; the mindset theory has only been assumed, used as a template for interpretive distortions and never demonstrated to exist within our populace.

It is also an empirical nonstarter: Most all normal, rational people accept conspiracy theories for rational reasons, including contemporary ones like the US/UK WMD hoax. In the WMD hoax, evidence indicates a lion’s share of people did so far before mainstream media was forced to concede that we were being lied to and the media was the deception’s megaphone. People worked it out on their own.[9] Further, if we view it as an actual definition, there’s nothing “apparently” circular about it, it is straightforwardly so, a logical nonstarter: Conspiracy theories are those theories created and believed by conspiracy theorists, victims of the “conspiracist mindset”, and victims of the conspiracy mindset are those irrational people who believe in conspiracy theories.

It also appears to be a case of confirmation bias, a self-fulfilling presupposition: If we insist on the “conspiracist mindset” story before reflecting on our fellow citizens, designing questionnaires and interpreting responses only accordingly, we will only become more and more convinced of mass-pathology and the progress of our pathologizing project.  If additional critique is needed, it lies again in the fact that all of us believe well-evidenced conspiracy theories, including the authors. So either very few of us suffer a “conspiracist mindset”, or there is nothing whatsoever pathological about it. Either very few people are subject to a “conspiracist mindset”, or almost every rational person is. Either way the “mindset” theory is reduced to one of trivial interest.

No surprise, in hundreds of interviews with rational people who explore and sometimes accept conspiracy explanations counter to mainstream media, the pattern observed is the same: Evidence for a conspiracy theory, suspicion others may be true, and an entirely appropriate openness to considering others. Sound familiar? It should. That’s virtually all of us.

Going Pathological: The Social Science Literature

What is the caliber of the pathologizing (“conspiracist mindset”) literature? Much data reported is interesting if expected.[10] But then we come to the interpretation of results stage (“discussion”). Here things frequently fall apart. A full survey isn’t possible for reasons of space, but those of us not participating in the project are often struck by the implausible interpretations it indulges.[11] For an extreme instance, the Le Monde authors rhetorically ask, “…why should it be the case that people merely interested in uncovering the lies of would-be tyrants by carefully gathering, evaluating and presenting the best evidence, would also turn out… [to] simultaneously endorse flatly contradictory conspiracy theories?”[12] The Le Monde authors’ reference is to Michael Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Jolly, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories” (2012) (hereafter, “Dead and Alive”).[13] The Le Monde authors’ rhetorical question is a text-book case of the disqualify-silencing strategy. A more de-rationalizing, dehumanizing accusation against people who entertain and explore conspiratorial explanations is hard to imagine: Conspiracy theorists routinely, simultaneously believe obviously contradictory conspiracy theories? Rather surprising. But do they?

Fortunately, they do not. The accusation is an empirical non-starter. Instead these citizens are keenly aware of the contradictions between alternative explanations and work hard to evidentially resolve these impasses, much like any good detective or forensic scientist would. Even a cursory glance over the writings of conspiracy theorists many of us may find disturbing and offensive, like those within the “inside job” 9/11 community, amply demonstrate this logical meticulousness. The contrasting recklessness of the authors’ accusation is a bit stunning, but not entirely, if we recall again the power of the “monological” (one explanation fits all) pathologizing belief system the authors have been limited to. Obviously something has gone wrong with this alleged demonstration. But what?

The Wood et al. paper remains a flag-ship of the pathologizing approach to conspiracy theorists by social psychology. I hasten to add I consider Wood and Douglas friends and gifted scientists.[14] But while producing this paper they were operating within a culture defined by the pathologizing goals and assumptions we are questioning. It would be surprising if we expected them to deviate from these. They did not. Let’s look at a quick summary of their methods and their interpretation of results.

In the Osama bin Laden scenario participants were asked to rate on a scale of 1 (“definitely not true”) to 6 (“definitely true”), with a “somewhat” gradient 2, 3, 4 and 5 in between, the following,

1. Osama bin Laden was killed in the American raid [in Pakistan]. Rate 1-6.
2. Osama bin Laden is still alive. Rate 1-6.
3. When the raid took place, Osama bin Laden was already dead. Rate 1-6.
4. The actions of the Obama administration indicate that they are hiding some important or damaging piece of information about the raid.[15] Rate 1-6.

Pencil in hand, suppose we rate (1) as “5” and circle it accordingly; we suspect the reports are fairly likely to be true. Next we rate (2) as “4”; we harbor some suspicions about the veracity of government reports. We are not entirely certain about these, especially in such a politically charged context. For instance, the body was reported to be disposed of at an undisclosed location but bin Laden’s capture, interrogation and even perhaps a trial seem like valuable options. Next, recalling numerous government and mainstream media reports that bin Laden was killed in Afghanistan, but his body could not be retrieved from the blasted caves of Tora Bora, we are also willing to entertain (3), so we circle “4” again. Coherent with the above, when we reach (4), we are content to circle “5” once more. Then we put our pencil down.

This, we are told, is the profile of a lunatic.

Notice we never report a settled belief. Wood et al’s interpretive mistake is so surprising because it is so clear. Simply, the researchers conflate participants’ reports of strong suspicions with settled beliefs. This is an easy way to contrive irrationality in anyone about almost anything. Imagine you have misplaced your key ring. You suspect you left it in the front door lock. You also suspect you left it in the kitchen. Given your previous behavior, you rate as quite probable, “agree” that it is in the front door and equally as probable, “agree”, the keys are in the kitchen.[16] This is an entirely rational cognitive practice. But according to the interpretation of Wood et al., you believe your keys are located, at the very same moment, in both your front door and in your kitchen.

For those with lost-key beliefs, believing one has left the keys in the front door is apparently no obstacle to believing the keys are simultaneously in the kitchen. Clearly, those with lost-key beliefs are irrational. Also, it would seem, are scientists who given current evidence view likely but contrary explanations as equally probable. For instance, when scientists noted the cancer-driven decline of the Tasmanian Devil, they recognized that a biological pathogen or an artificially introduced carcinogen would equally well explain the animals’ plight. Given the evidence, both were quite probable. At that juncture only additional investigation could distinguish which hypothesis was more likely, in this case a viral pathogen.[17] Ignoring the diversity and contrasting logical properties the propositional attitudes is the “slight of hand” here, however unintentional. This is strange for psychologists; but not when a pathology-hunt defines their research culture.

Wood et al. shelter their “Dead and Alive” conclusion from participants’ predictable protests, participants who could be any of us. They provide no opportunity for them to disambiguate what they mean by drawing circles “on a scale of 1-6”. That would no doubt undermine the suspicion is settled belief maneuver. They certainly don’t ask them, “Do you believe Osama bin Laden is simultaneously both dead and alive?” That would up-end the whole study, requiring heroic efforts to indict the participants of massive self-deception: They wouldn’t find many participants acknowledging they believe Osama bin Laden walks the earth while moldering in a watery grave, nor witness many participants gasp in astonishment when they discover the extremity of their mindset disorder. The thesis is a non-starter, unless, perhaps, when uttered in the halls of the pathologizing project. No clarification is allowed. Instead Wood et al. go behind the participants’ backs, reinterpreting the data in the most de-rationalizing way they can.[18] While this is understandable in some research, here it is all too convenient.

The Le Monde authors’ claim that Wood et al. have scientifically established conspiracy theorists simultaneously believe flatly contradictory theories fails to inspire confidence in their standards of science.

Among a number of examples in the pathologizing literature, another seemingly transparent instance of forced and fallacious interpretation of data can be found in Robert Brotherton and Christopher C. French, “Belief in Conspiracy Theories and Susceptibility to the Conjunction Fallacy”, Applied Cognitive Psychology 28 (2014), 238-248, esp. 238. The participants are not committing the conjunction fallacy. The probability of 2 conjuncts cannot be greater than the probability of either conjunct. The participants are reasoning to the best explanation for the facts presented. Consider one of Brotherton and French’s examples:

Josh is now on the verge of perfecting a device which will increase the fuel efficiency of any car by 500%.’ The response options were (i) the CEOs of several major petrol companies hold a meeting in which they discuss the implications of Josh’s invention; (ii) Josh is found dead in his home before patenting the invention; and (iii) the CEOs of several major petrol companies hold a meeting in which they discuss the implications of Josh’s invention, and Josh is found dead in his home before patenting the invention.

The authors claim participants who rate (iii) as more likely than (i) or (ii) are irrational. But there is nothing irrational, let alone paranoid, in this cognitive practice; (iii) has greater explanatory power and unifies in a rational manner seemingly disconnected phenomenon. These are primary goals of both scientific and ordinary reasoning. The “and” in (iii) is naturally and rationally interpreted as causation, as in “the car crashed and caught on fire.” Since explanatory power and unification are positively correlated with rational acceptability and the truth, so until additional information and considerations are forthcoming, we should rate (iii) as more probable in this scenario than (i) or (ii), rationally interpreting the “and” as causation, just as any competent police investigator would. The pathologizing project blinds Brotherton and French to the obvious epistemic considerations, ones that also loom large in the empirical sciences. A verdict of “participants are rational” would, after all, have to follow. The authors brush this sort of devastating objection aside with a brief footnote, saying this issue is complex. But really, it’s not. Such troubling examples are endemic to the pathologizing literature, starting as it does with the universal, and apparently false, “conspiracist mindset” hypothesis.

These are two ordinary, not outlier, examples of the pathologizing project. Instead of science, a standard of forced and fallacious interpretations of results, as required by the pathologizing project, appears to be the guiding light of this literature, followed with almost unwavering allegiance across dozens of papers. This problem has been noted for several years.[19] Need it continue to develop?

Being Fair to Conspiracy Theorizing

The “conspiracist mindset” hypothesis is an effigy of conspiracy theorists, demonstrably distorting current research, supporting a project perfectly suited to disqualify, silence and socially disappear dissident citizens. But an anthropology of people who entertain conspiracy explanations—again, all of us—reveals a very different tale. We almost universally proceed from suggested hypothesis, evidence for or against, typically deploying sound inference, and reach rational conclusions; rejection, suspicion, acceptance or agnosticism. Sound familiar? It should. In the massive contemporary media flux, conspiracy allegations need evidence to gain the slightest notice, and in this competition, conflicts within or between accounts need to be resolved if this attention is to be sustained.

In our original letter of concern we wrote,

[The authors] 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.[20]

For the Le Monde authors, little seems to have changed. Indeed, their pathologizing stance seems not to have become more nuanced, but more aggressive.

History shows enemy-within “mindset” theories, applied to large swaths of society in charged political contexts, are almost certainly false. Yet they are politically useful reductions of thoughtful persons to “mindset pathogens”: Victims and carriers of a mental plague. It is unseemly and dangerous in the long run for governments to contrive—worse, “scientifically” contrive—to censor and disable their critics because government officials classify them as “conspiracy theorists”.  Such a label is correctly applied to anyone who claims a group within the government is being intentionally deceptive about certain programs, actions or plans that it should not be.

There is also much cause for hope. We can be fair to conspiracy theorizing. This begins by approaching conspiracy theorists as rational persons, not inflicting designs and forced interpretations contrived to make them appear insane or variously deranged and dangerous. It rejects the broader “outlier” obsession of social psychology, and its application to conspiracy theorists. Of course, those who explore conspiracy explanations are not outliers unless we all are “outliers”; but then it follows none of us are. In the final paragraph, the authors propose a peace treaty. They will study only the non-rational components of conspiracy theorizing, and please leave us alone.[21]

Dare to dream. Why should these researchers restrict themselves to such a narrow vision in a bid for social control? When hundreds of thousands were killed and continue to be killed in Iraq? A counter proposal: Good science. Seek out the rational elements, be careful not to be blinded by a pre-opted, establishmentarian pathologizing project, and see what we really can discover by pursuing all the cognitively relevant questions.[22] Unbiased, good science. Jack Bratich insightfully summarizes conspiracy panics, “Conspiracy panics operate only via a series of contradictory analyses, self-delusional claims, even its own paranoid projections. They often operate in similar ways to the objects they problematize…seeking a figure for incrimination.”.[23] Draped, as all conspiracy panics are, in establishmentarian politics and dubious analysis, this certainly appears to apply to our colleagues in the Le Monde statement and their subsequent defense of it. But the day is bright and the canvas wide. Conspiracy theorizing is not a disease. Social scientists increasingly recognize the “conspiracist mindset” story and its political pathologizing and silencing project are suspect, both as politics and science.

[1] The Le Monde authors report they suffer popular hatred, “The whole issue [in] numerous online discussions and the type of hate mail ‘they’ regularly receive from ‘historically or politically literate’ (12) defenders of the truth, sometimes also called ‘conspiracy theorists’: ‘But what about the real conspiracies?’” Why anyone would think this “hate mail” is unclear. Perhaps there may be other examples more clearly hateful. I hope not. But a sense of popular rejection may go some way to explaining the spirited tone of their response, and reinforce their commitment to pursuing the pathologizing project.

[2] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 9 (2016): 1-5.

[3] “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, p.20. (Hereafter “‘They’ Respond”. Please note Karen Douglas did not join the Le Monde authors’ response to our letter of concern.

[4] Dieguez et al’s peculiar scare-quote motif, “they”, appears throughout the Le Monde authors’ response. As Kurtis Hagen playfully quips, “Would it have been better if we had called them “it?”.

[5] “‘They’ Respond”, 20.

[6] Ibid, 20.

[7] It appears to be the public face of this latest of “cognitive hygiene” projects. The constant shuffle between disinterested science and social-political policy is revealing. The authors also refer to “cognitive epidemiology”, another medicalization and venue for public policy. Envision the future “Ministry of Cognitive Epidemiology and Health”, and all else follows.

[8] “‘They’ Respond”, 30. This definition would render, for instance, croissants “conspiracy theories”, too, at least when conspiracy theorists make them or seek to eat them.

[9] Later in the Le Monde authors’ response they inform us social psychology has established these same billion plus people are simultaneously certain Mr. Hussien secreted away vast stockpiles of WMD, an ideation on their part that speaks for itself.

[10] Weak correlations to rational attitudes like watchfulness of authorities, a sense of powerlessness, distrust of public information, a willingness to commit similar behavior if in power, and so on. All are rational responses to the evidenced-driven acceptance, or suspicion that, any given ambitious (not minor) political conspiracy theory is true.

[11] Matthew Dentith, Peter Knight, Gina Husting, Martin Orr, Kurtis Hagen, David Coady, Jack Bratich and Charles Pigden, among a number of others.

[12] “‘They’ Respond”, 31.

[13] See Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories”, Social Psychological & Personality Science 3 (2012), 767-773. In this paper, “endorsement” literally means, “settled belief”.

[14] It’s nice to discover how much you have in common at lunch and a night on the town.

[15] “Dead and Alive”, 4. Notice that (4) has profound implications for any ordinary person about the evaluation of 1, 2 and 3; these are reduced to speculations by it.

[16] Perhaps a 5 or 6 on the authors’ 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 or 7 (strongly agree) point scale.

[17] At times the Wood et al. retreat from explicit talk of “belief” to the ambiguous term “endorse”, which can be interpreted as either “belief” or “suspicion”, among other things. In “Dead and Alive” there is no occurrence of “suspicion” or similar language in the description of respondents, but ironically it does occur in their initial characterization of concerns over the handling of the bin Laden assassination, “Conspiracy theories alleging that bin Laden had not actually been killed in the raid immediately started to propagate throughout the Internet and traditional media, mostly. Proponents claimed that their suspicions were aroused by several actions of the Obama administration, including a refusal to release pictures of bin Laden’s body and the decision to bury him at sea shortly after the raid (emphasis added).” Yet subsequently, “…those who distrust the official story of Diana’s death do not tend to settle on a single conspiracist account as the only acceptable explanation…” So yes, they “have suspicions” concerning multiple mutually excluding explanations. But no logical contradictions can be derived from that.

[18] This an instance of the broader “why don’t you just ask them?’ problem plaguing this literature: People are treated as non-rational, malfunctioning automatons from start to finish.

[19] In talks in the US, Nordic countries, Germany and Eastern Europe, these criticisms and others of the much of this literature have been met with surprising agreement by social psychologists. Perhaps this is what Marius Raab, in signing the letter of concern, “est allé faire dans cette galère”? See Riakka and Basham, “Conspiracy Theory Phobia”, Uscinski, Joseph, Parent, Joe, (eds.) in Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them, Oxford University Press, in press.

[20] “Conspiracy Panic”, 11.

[21] “‘They’ Respond”, 39.

[22] Such unbiased rationality-testing research designs are now in the works with the help of accomplished social psychologists here in the US, Germany and Sweden.

[23] Bratich, Jack, 2008, Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture, SUNY, 166.

[a] For articles in this exchange, from least recent to most recent, please refer to:

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.