Archives For conspiracy theories

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

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

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

 Please refer to:

conspirators

Image credit: Jes, via flickr

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

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

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

Misrepresentation En Masse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They claim that our position:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Naive Empiricism

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

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

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

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

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

A Case of Special Pleading

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

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

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

Specifically, they ask:

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

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

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

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

For example, they claim:

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

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

So, what is their definition?

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

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

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

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

The Crux of the Matter

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Sebastian Dieguez,i Gérald Bronner,ii Véronique Campion-Vincent,iii Sylvain Delouvée,iv Nicolas Gauvrit,v Anthony Lantian,vi Pascal Wagner-Eggervii

i Laboratory for Cognitive and Neurological Sciences, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
ii Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire des Énergies de Demain, Paris Diderot, France
iii Retired sociologist, formerly Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris, France
iv Psychology Laboratory: Cognition, Behaviour, Communication, Rennes 2 University, France
v Human and Artificial Cognition Laboratory, University of Paris-Saint-Denis, France
vi Laboratoire Parisien de Psychologie Sociale, Université Paris Nanterre, France
vii Department of Psychology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Dieguez, Sebastian, Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian & Pascal Wagner-Egger. “’They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’.” [1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 20-39.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3o8

Please refer to:

spiral

Image credit: MoxyJane@Spiral Bound Images, via flickr

Abstract

Basham et al. (2016), fear that “they want to cure everyone” of conspiracy theories. Here, “they” 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 and advocated for more research on the topic. Basham et al. call instead for more conspiracy theories and less “conspiracy theory panic”. “They” attempt to explain this fundamental disagreement by “just asking” some questions, first about the definition of conspiracy theories and the conspiracist mindset, second about the possibility that Basham et al. hold an inflated view of the investigative and reasoning talents of conspiracy theorists, third about whether “they” are conspirators or Basham et al. conspiracy theorists, and fourth about the notion that conspiracy theorists should be “cured”. In the process, “they” reiterate the importance of empirical sociopsychological research to resolve issues related to the conspiracist mindset and highlight a number of problems in Basham et al.’s approach to conspiracy theories. “They” conclude on a bright note: careful and rigorous research, in the end, might help everybody become better conspiracy theorists, perhaps even Basham et al.

“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster?”—Joe McCarthy, U.S. Senate, 1951.

“Who sits in the taller chairs? Do They have names?”—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973, 202.

As the authors of Le Monde’s article[2] targeted in Basham et al.’s (2016) comment, we are delighted to be referred to by the collective “they” in their title. Who is “they”? Now we finally know, it’s us! In the spirit of this pynchonesque homage, we thus henceforth proudly adopt this qualifier. Indeed, what could be more appropriate, in a scholarly discussion of conspiracy theories, than labelling a disagreeing party as “they”? It makes things much clearer. So “they” thank Basham et al., for permitting “them” to clarify some points of interest and addressing a few potential misunderstandings.

The crux of the matter is an open commentary “they” wrote for Le Monde (Bronner et al. 2016), in which “they” took issue with French governmental and local initiatives designed to tackle the apparent proliferation of conspiracy theories among youths, a trend many deem worrying in the wake of several terrorist attacks on French soil, and in a context of ethnic and religious tensions, increased ideological polarization and ready online access to hate-speech and misinformation. “They” thought, too, that something should be done. But “they”, as scientists working on reasoning, belief formation, belief epidemiology, social influence, and related fields, figured that early and hasty endeavours had the potential to misfire or simply be ineffective. Indeed, as Basham et al.’s comment rather fittingly illustrates, suspicion towards authorities will be poorly amenable to advice and educational programs devised and offered by those very authorities.

The Need for Questions, More Research

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? Who endorses them, who produces them, and why? Are there different types of conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists, and conspiracy consumers? What is the difference between people who believe in conspiracy theories and those who reject them, or between hardcore believers and those who vaguely endorse conspiracy theories or parts of them, those who acquiesce to them but don’t really believe them (Risen 2016), or those who playfully engage in conspiracy theories, share them, discuss them, but never give them any credence?

“They”, in fact, are “just asking” some questions (Aaronovitch 2010), 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. At the very least, “they” suggested in their letter, one should keep track of the already launched initiatives and obtain some measure of how they fare, if only as a matter of accountability, or even mere curiosity. Doing things right would benefit everybody: the authorities, social scientists, the kids targeted by the programs, and yes, society at large, including taxpayers.

That’s, at any rate, what “they” wrote and what “they” think. But perhaps that was naive. Perhaps “they” should just have turned to the writings of a handful of philosophers and social epistemologists, and they would have discovered 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” (15),[3] or worse, a genocidal crime against the masses, destroying lives “by the thousands, even millions” (16). Indeed, while reading Basham et al.’s piece, “they” shuddered at the thought that “they” could be allies to really evil people, such as, say, warmongers, Nazis, Stalinists, assassins, and the like. And pondering Basham et al.’s rhetoric, “they” also almost wondered whether “they” themselves needed to be cured from their “unethical and foolish” (15) penchants, and hopefully be saved from their “faux intellectual sophistication” (13). Even better, maybe “they” should just abandon their research and shut up about the whole thing. But, of course, that would be intimidation and censorship, and also needlessly incendiary, so that can’t possibly be what Basham et al., as the self-avowed defenders of an open society that they are, had in mind.

Basham et al.’s Hypothesis and the Conspiracist Mindest

Well, let “they” see. The whole issue, it seems to “them”, is best summarized in a single point, a point which, it turns out, “they” are quite familiar with from 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?” Indeed, what about them? History books can be read as an endless list of failed and successful conspiracies—which everybody, including “they”, acknowledges—so, what could be wrong about conspiracy theorizing? Running parallel to this classic objection against the preemptive dismissal of conspiracy theories, is the idea that “conspiracy theory” is a rhetorical weapon used to discredit and silence any opponent holding inconvenient beliefs or exposing dangerous truths. That’s “anti-conspiracy panic” (14), or “conspiracy denialism” (15). Basham et al.’s point, it seems to “them”, can 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.

The heuristic value, as well as the truth or falsity, of this hypothesis would of course depend on how the concept of “conspiracy theory” is defined. The outcome of such a conceptual groundwork could then determine whether “they” are enablers of criminal conspirators with blood on their hands (or perhaps conspirators “themselves”), and also whether Basham et al. are just posturing in a desperate attempt to rationalize their own conspiracist tendencies. Now, it is true that “they” are no social epistemologists, merely a “cadre” (12) of social and psychological scientists. Fortunately, “they” believe that the issue is at its core an empirical one, to be addressed with appropriate data collection and experimental designs, not only armchair venting.

But yes, “they” agree that simply claiming that “conspiracy theories” only refer to those conspiracies that are “unwarranted” will not do (Brotherton 2013). Also, pointing out that a conspiracy theory which turns out to be true is no longer a conspiracy theory is ad hoc and obviously unsatisfying. Adjusting the concept of conspiracy theory to its use in common parlance, whatever that is, is not convenient and somewhat tautological. Yet claiming that “conspiracy theory” is simply a derogatory term invented by those in power to discredit inquiring minds, pace Basham et al. (2016), seems oddly conspiratorial and self-serving, or at the very least a rather partial approach of the issue. Likewise, asserting 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.

What do “they” make of all this? Well, “they” have another approach. As Basham et al. (2016) aptly noticed, “they” did not argue at all about specific conspiracy theories or the nature of the evidence available in favour or against them[4]. Rather, “they” think that there is such a thing as a conspiracist mindset, also diversely called the political-paranoid style (Hofstadter 1966), conspiracist ideation (Brotherton, French, & Pickering 2013; Brotherton & French 2015; Swami et al. 2011), or conspiracist mentality (Moscovici 1987; see also Bruder, Haffke, Neave, Nouripanah, & Imhoff 2013). This is to say that, regardless of the facts available in the outside world, the mind of some people attracts and is attracted by conspiracist cognitions, which come to form a monological belief system involving conspiracies (Goertzel 1994).

Take the newly elected president of the USA, Mr. Donald J. Trump. Trump has been said to believe in, or at some point have believed or endorsed, about 60 different conspiracy theories.[5] According to Basham et al’s approach, this means that Trump is a relentless investigator. And if it is the case that Trump is indeed “theorizing” about conspiracies, wouldn’t we all be in great trouble if we chose to ignore such a bold truth-seeker and disinterested whistle-blower? On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Trump has just been mindlessly making stuff up and irresponsibly spreading nonsense all along, because of some peculiar worldview he holds and/or some cognitive and personality propensities that favour the perception and endorsement of conspiracy theories in general (in other words a conspiracist mindset). This last approach is actually, at the moment, the most robust finding in the rather recent field of social-psychological conspiracy theory research: people who believe in one conspiracy theory tend to believe in other, unrelated, conspiracy theories.[6]

Why could that be? If conspiracy believers are avid followers of Basham et al’s (2016) advice, to wit that “we should focus, always, on the facts” (15), then they are indeed remarkable citizens, specializing, for the sake of preserving our liberties, in fields as diverse as climate science, structural architecture, geopolitics, economics, photography, history, forensics, and so on.[7] The alternative, of course, is that many, perhaps most, conspiracy theorists simply tend to endorse conspiracy theories qua conspiracy theories, and are not, in fact, really “theorizing” about conspiracies at all, but rather driven to a specific type of propositions and explanations because of a conspiracist mindset. After all, if Basham et al. deplore that so many people mindlessly reject conspiracy theories qua conspiracy theories, they could at least entertain the possibility that many people also endorse them for the same “reason”. Especially as the conspiracist mindset hypothesis seems to be in line with other observations, which “they” think are very promising and valuable areas of current and future research (by which “they” mean actual scientific research).

First there is the remarkable rapidity of conspiracy “theorizing”. If “evidence is key” (14), as Basham et al. (2016) insist, then it is all the more incomprehensible that conspiracy theories would increasingly flourish before any evidence is available, or indeed even during the unfolding of the events being “theorized” about. What is more, some school teachers in France complain that conspiracy theories are endemic in their classes. So either there is a truly remarkable generation of 14-17 years-old already well versed in geopolitical and historical assessment of multiple lines of evidence, or there is some kind of a problem. Second, speaking of evidence, it would be interesting to investigate just what kind of evidence is assessed, and how, by conspiracy theorizers.

In their letter to Le Monde, “they” pointed out that the so-called confirmation bias could be a central feature of conspiracy theorizing, leading to the odd and frequently noted tendency of conspiracy theorists to favour “errant data” and otherwise weak sources, while ignoring or dismissing (for instance, as fabricated, planted or irrelevant) “official” reports and resources. Already in 1995, McHoskey (1995) presented pioneering results in this direction, by showing that the immutability of personal theories about the real perpetrator(s) of the John F. Kennedy’s assassination (both in favor and against conspiracy theories) was associated to processes of biased assimilation and attitude polarization. Of course, this needs to be replicated and further investigated, but it suggests that at least some theories about conspiracies are the result of a biased assessment of the evidence. But only rigorous empirical research will tell, not armchair digressions or self-pity.

In the meanwhile, research has found other points of interest as well. For instance, 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 be believers in the paranormal (Brotherton et al., 2013),[8] outright reject well-established scientific findings (Lewandowsky, Cook, & Lloyd 2016; Lewandowsky, Oberauer, & Gignac 2013), simultaneously endorse flatly contradictory conspiracy theories (Wood et al. 2012), readily accept experimentally made-up conspiracy theories (Swami et al. 2011), and display a strong need for control in their lives (van Prooijen, 2016; van Prooijen & Acker 2015)? Wouldn’t such findings, and many others of the sort, start to make sense if it turns out that people’s interest and belief in conspiracy theories is, at least in part, the result of a conspiracist mindset? “They” think this is a plausible hypothesis.[9]

Bad Conspiracy Theorists and Evidence

“They” also think that’s all rather fascinating. What Basham et al. think, however, is up for grabs. Perhaps this is all bad science to them. Perhaps these results were forged, or simply the outcome of “a false, research-distorting assumption” (Basham 2016, 10). Perhaps “they” are all sold to the military-industrial complex, or part of some secret society. Or perhaps the results are all an artefact of the stereotype-threat induced by the negative connotation of “conspiracy theory”. Better yet: it might be the case that having a conspiracist mentality, assuming that such a construct exists, is actually an excellent predictor of the capacity to successfully expose actual conspiracies! This would need to be empirically tested, but for the time being, somehow, “they” are not holding their breath.[10]

Now, in the spirit of academic collegiality, “they” would like to suggest a much more plausible, and practical, way out to Basham et al.: why not simply claim that, if it is true that some people hold conspiracy theories simply out of a conspiracist mindset, then those are not real conspiracy theorists? Such people would not be theorizing at all. Rather, for whatever reason, they would be dismissing out of hand the “official narrative” being offered, or they would have decided that whatever happens in the world is never what it’s made to look like. After all, Basham et al. (2016) admit that there are, or at least there have been, “absurd conspiracy theories” (15), some perhaps merely involving “racist babbling” (13).

Other co-signatories of Basham et al. (2016) also seem to be aware of this issue. Husting & Orr (2007, 140), for instance, delegitimize the concerns of alien believers as “truly misguided” (140) and those that believe Elvis is (still) alive as “extreme” (141). Hagen (2011) does the same with Roswell conspiracy believers, whose theorizing, he laments, do nothing but discredit the good theorizing of 9/11 “inside job” theorists. Dentith (2016) seems likewise to deplore the association of conspiracy theorists with figures such as David Icke and Alex Jones. In fact, Dentith seems very worried by those he calls “conspiracists”, such as the “archetypal conspiracy theorist” built by Cassam (2016), to wit “Oliver”, who believes that 9/11 was an “inside job” based on his reading (or “research”) on his spare time.

Dentith (2016) thinks that this construal might not be “the best” and indeed “suggests [that] Cassam simply shares with social psychologists the same views on those pernicious conspiracy theorist”, by which he probably means a “pathologizing” one. So, all the Olivers out there turn out to be bad, or suboptimal, or not “typical” (Dentith 2016, 24), or “dumbed down” (Dentith 2016, ft 14) conspiracy theorists, or simply, “first and foremost—people who are gullible who—secondly—just happen to be conspiracy theorists” (Dentith 2016, 24). Oliver, in Dentith’s most recent development, is thus a “conspiracist”, in other words a bad conspiracy theorist, just like David Icke, Alex Jones, alien believers, Elvis enthusiasts, in short all those who believe in “weird and wacky” (Dentith 2016, 3) conspiracies.

Of course, it is possible that gullibility, bad thinking, stupidity, mental pathology, and extremism sometimes “just happen” to be associated with belief in conspiracy theories, just as all these features can be associated with being a philosopher or a scientist. But what if certain cognitive biases, personality features and ideological worldviews “happen” to be correlated with belief in conspiracy theories?[11] Well, then that would point to conspiracy theories as a specific attractor for certain social, personality and cognitive features, regardless of whether they are good or bad conspiracy theories, and that would require some explaining, not mere hand-waving.

But in the meanwhile, it is clear that Basham et al. (2016) do sometimes act as normative prescribers, deciding from their scholarly authority that some conspiracy theorists are wrong, “weird and wacky”, and even could be undermining the cause of “healthy conspiracy theorizing” (Dentith 2016, 32).[12]

Yet, somehow, Basham et al. (2016) still feel confident that “[p]oorly evidenced conspiracy theories will be quickly set aside” (14). While that would certainly be reassuring, it doesn’t say what one should make of all those “weird and wacky” (i.e., false) conspiracy theories out there. If indeed “some claims characterized as conspiracy theories are false” (Husting & Orr 2007, 131), then how do these conspiracy theories even come to life, and what can possibly explain that some of them seem not to be “quickly set aside”? Are the people who propose or endorse them crazy? Are they sick? Are they a bunch of losers (Uscinski, Parent, & Torres 2011)? Or simply stupid, gullible (Cassam 2016) or somehow epistemologically “crippled” (Sunstein & Vermeule 2009)? Are they a “caricature” of real conspiracy theorists (Hagen 2011, 15)? Perhaps they are just bad conspiracy theorists? Or are they actual conspirators, consciously striving to manipulate the masses with their forged “absurd” conspiracy theories, in order to discredit the good conspiracy theorists? Even more disturbing: it stands to reason that there are not only false conspiracy theories, but also missing conspiracy theories. Just as not all conspiracy theories have their counterpart conspiracy, not all actual conspiracies have their conspiracy theories. In those cases, what where conspiracy theorists doing? Where they distracted? Did their theorizing skills somehow falter? Where they, once again, bad conspiracy theorists?

But let “they” stick to the first case: why are there false conspiracy theories around? Hard to say, when, according to Basham et al. (2016), “an evaluation of the evidence for or against [a conspiracy theory] really should be the end of the story” (13). “They” agree it would indeed be worthwhile, at least now and then, to reach “the end of the story”. But then “they” would also love to have a rational explanation of why this doesn’t always happen. Indeed, in real life, that is, outside of the cosy echo chamber of radical-chic social epistemologists, the mantra that “We should always, without exception, adopt a case-by-case, evidential evaluation of all allegations of politically momentous conspiracy” (15) yields some surprising results. For one thing, one can ask: where does the buck stop? If no evidence whatsoever is found to substantiate the occurrence of a conspiracy, is that “the end of the story”, or rather evidence in favour of a really good conspiracy?

Maybe Basham et al. would agree that such perfect conspiracies are unlikely, or by definition outside of the scope of rational inquiry, and therefore they would admit that at least some kind of conspiracy theorizing, the kind involving the “preternatural” conspiracies Hofstadter (1966) had in mind, is unwarranted after all. But are there other, more mundane, claims of conspiracy that could suggest “evidence” is not really what is at stake in some (or most?) conspiracy theories? While some might think it would be helpful to obtain X-Rays of politicians to ascertain that they are truly humans and not Reptilians (or anything else), “they” remain somewhat sceptical about the value of such an inquiry. Obviously, one should first trust those who would provide and assess the X-rays, and who can trust anyone these days, especially people working with scientific equipment? More importantly, however, there is no evidence that Reptilians even exist, yet, somehow, “the end of the story” has not been reached for everybody on that issue. Why? Well, perhaps some social-psychological scientific research could help understand this mystery.

It would also be fascinating to make absolutely sure that the police officer who was shot point-blank by the Charlie Hebdo assailants is actually dead. After all, we are told by some valiant vigilantes of governmental deviousness that a clean head-shot is supposed to produce more blood than was observed in the video-recording of that murder. Perhaps, if pressed, that man’s family would confess to some false-flag operation? Again, “they” are just asking questions (Aaronovitch 2010). And what about that moon landing thing? Why can’t that most important debate be settled once and for all? The public wants to know the truth (or some of the public, at any rate). One can only hope that after 47 years of intense “moral watch” (14), the “end of the story” is just around the corner.

Perhaps Basham et al. have not been following the intense evidence checking of conspiracy theorizers during the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Bataclan massacre and the Brussels airport and subway bombings. Well, “they” have, and still are. Here’s a short selection of the type of “evidence” pursued “without censor” (15) about these events by those that practice that “essential” (13), “crucial” and “necessary” “gift of watchfulness” (16): it smells fishy; this can’t be true; real Muslims would never do that (so it must be the Jews); who really benefits from all of this?; it’s all a big lie; it’s all fake; this detail is not clearly explained; this seems to be connected to that; this thing happened in close spatial or temporal proximity with that other thing; such and such says that he is not convinced and I agree with him, and so forth, ad nauseam.

If this does not sound like the kind of democratic and epistemological hygiene that Basham et al. would prefer to see, then maybe they can contribute by helping online investigators to uncover the real truth when the next school shooting or terror attack unfolds, and show these people how a false-flag operation is properly and correctly exposed. Likewise, real democratic heroes could benefit from Basham et al’s lights on the fronts of the anti-vaccination movement, climate-change denialism, and, well, that very old conspiracy theory that somehow has never been “quickly set aside”, namely, that of a global Jewish conspiracy. Or perhaps these are not so “poorly evidenced” after all, and Basham et al. would like to suggest that the jury is still out? “They” are all ears.

So What are Conspiracy Theories?

True, none of this still amounts to a working definition of “conspiracy theory”. This is because “they” think that any such definition should entail a clear understanding of why some people are prone, quick and enthusiastic when it comes to endorsing, producing or spreading ideas about conspiracies, while others are not. “They” have nevertheless already provided some evidence that there seems to be such a thing as a conspiracist mindset that is quite unrelated to the available (or unavailable) “evidence” pertaining to specific claims of conspiracy. This concept of a conspiracist mindset is problematic for Basham et al.’s hypothesis, because it introduces a large set of individuals who “theorize” about conspiracies with a complete disregard for the evidence, as they are rather interested in conspiracy theories qua conspiracy theories, as long as they allow freeriding a general suspicion against the authorities or intuitively pinpointing some faceless, or not so faceless, enemy.

Here is a proposal. If this conspiracist mindset exists, then it will be especially attuned to still ongoing, unverified, vague, controversial, sensationalistic, and sometimes ultimately unverifiable theories about conspiracies. Why? Because contrary to the unveiling of real and verified conspiracies, which most often requires careful work from scholars, investigators, official agents, journalists, and people generally working on one specific issue at a time with a clear goal in their mind, that’s where the conspiracist mindset can best and endlessly display its talents. Therefore, “they” posit, a “conspiracy theory” is a powerful attractor for the conspiracist mindset, which involves features such as errant data, unfalsifiability, disregarded for and asymmetrical care in the evaluation of counter-evidence, the perception of malevolent intentions, the ascription of preternatural omnipotence and omniscience on the part of the conspirators, a taste for plain bullshit (Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr, Koehler & Fugelsang 2015), and certainly other features, which all still need to be robustly tested, researched or replicated. In that respect, the content of conspiracy theories is certainly a valuable field of inquiry, but “they” believe that such research needs to work hand in hand with a more thorough understanding of the features, the mechanisms and the development of the conspiracist mindset itself, which “they” already know involves some perfectly normal and expected aspects of the human cognitive architecture, but which seem to be biased in a particular direction or excessively sensitive to a specific type of information available on the cognitive market (Bronner 2011; 2013).

At any rate, that is the kind of things “they” are working on, and “they” must say it’s all pretty interesting. Surely Marius Raab, one of the co-signatories of Basham et al. (2016), would agree, as he and his colleagues found that a conspiracist mindset predisposes individuals to endorse specific types of fictional conspiracies (Gebauer, Raab, & Carbon 2016), that conspiracy theories are “a means of constructing and communicating a set of personal values” (thus not a disinterested quest for the truth only based on the evidence), which could help “understand why some people cling to immunized, racist and off-wall stories—and others do not” (Raab, Ortlieb, Auer, Guthmann, & Carbon 2013), and that the presence of “blatant” and “extreme statements indicating an all-encompassing cover-up” increased the persuasive power of conspiracy theories (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon 2013). Very interesting stuff indeed.[13]

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.

“Conspiracy Theorists” vs “Conspirators”

Note that, already, this approach can be profitably applied to Basham et al. (2016). Indeed, if “they” are correct, then Basham et al.’s article (and hypothesis) not only severely misses the point, but simply is a conspiracy theory as “they” define it for the time being. Notwithstanding the meek disclaimer that “they” are motivated by “the best of intentions” (14), the rest of the comment’s rhetoric is rather candidly unmistakable. Consider: even with “the best of intentions”, “they” are portrayed as to be so misguided as to be allies and analogues of the most malevolent forces that have plagued and continue to precipitate humanity into suffering, desolation and death, including Nazis, the Bush government, covert assassins, liars, and Big Brother. “They” not only utterly (and willingly?) fail to “impugn our hierarchies of power, but only defend them” (15). “They” have “blood on [their] hands” (16). And not only are “they” devising devious techno-social-engineering methods to silence the masses, but in “their” cynical outlook, “they” plan to do so with the very money of those to be censored and brainwashed. “They” are thus (at best) guilty by association, dangerous, and possibly malevolent, orchestrating something that will restrain freedom and democracy all the while protecting the interests of those in power. Also, “they” seem to be rather powerful, otherwise “they” wouldn’t be the targets of such worrying accusations. “They” must be really evil indeed, and up to no good.

Or are “they”? To make sure, one would need to be very careful in one’s appreciation of the facts. Of course, it is true that conspiracies exist, but that’s all the more reason to give some pause before accusing fellow academics of being part of one such awful conspiracy. Conversely, one should not use the phrase “conspiracy theorist” lightly if one holds a theory about “conspiracy theories” that might not please one’s opponents in the debate. It could betray some “direct association with pejorative phrases, caricature/exaggeration of claims, and the creation of equivalencies between very different claims”, as Husting and Orr (2007, 138-139), two co-signatories of Basham et al. (2016), so perceptively wrote about “the epithet conspiracy theorist”. And that would indeed be undignified.

Now, if any of this happens in this exchange, then “they” would claim that “they” are the unlucky targets of individuals driven by a conspiracist mindset, and then Basham et al. would scream in horror that they are the targets of that stigmatizing “phrase of social manipulation” (15). As a result, we all would be running in unproductive circles, and no one likes that; presumably, not even social epistemologists.

So, with that caveat in mind, “they” scrupulously examined the method Basham et al. used to reach their damning conclusions about “they”. Did Basham et al. carefully examine the available evidence, as they insist proper conspiracy theorizing needs to be done? Did Basham et al. weight into their assessment the current socio-political context in France? Did Basham et al. stick to the text they criticize without drawing overblown inferences? Did Basham et al. consider that differences in scholarly, theoretical, and methodological approaches do not necessarily make disagreeing parties enemies or criminals? Did Basham et al. painstakingly seek to avoid “direct association with pejorative phrases, caricature/exaggeration of claims, and the creation of equivalencies between very different claims”? How exactly did Basham et al. proceed in writing their article, or the co-signatories before approvingly signing it?

Thankfully, an indication of how to respond to all these questions is directly available in Basham et al. (2016), clearly spelled out on page 15. There, Basham et al. make the claim that the “explanatory method” of what they call “official conspiracy theories”, referring to the type of conspiracies that are denounced and sanctioned by authorities or experts legitimated by the powers in place (such as the “official” version of what happened on 9/11, namely a conspiracy by Islamist terrorists), is in fact “indistinguishable” from the nonofficial, run-of-the-mill type of conspiracy theories held by ordinary people and that are systematically discredited by the same authorities and experts. “They” think this is a remarkable admission.

Quite aside from the point that “conspiracy theory” is thus shown to be “a phrase of social manipulation” (a gentle euphemism, Husting and Orr (2007) call it a piece of “dangerous machinery” enforcing a “transpersonal strategy of exclusion” and “discursive violence”), it more importantly suggests that, according to Basham et al., the liars and criminals in place in fact use the same “explanatory method” than the minorities fighting for the truth, and conversely that these minorities use in fact the same “explanatory methods” than the conspiring malefactors they are seeking to expose. So, what gives? Simple: apparently, any “explanatory method” will do, and thanks to Basham et al., epistemology, social or not, has just become a much more accessible field.

No doubt “conspiracy theorist” can be a derogatory term (see Klein, Van der linden, Pantazi, & Kissine 2015; Kumareswaran, 2014; Wood & Douglas 2013). But then so is “conspirator”, and anyone developing or holding a conspiracy theory must have a group of conspirators in sight. Surely Basham et al. have considered the potential harm done when a false accusation of “conspirator” is lightly made, but “they” wonder whether they have pondered about the effectiveness of labelling someone “conspirator”, even, or especially, if it happens that he or she, or they, is an actual conspirator. By their reasoning, the negative value attached to “conspiracy theorist” increases the possibility that conspirators will get away with their conspiracies: “in an environment in which people take a dim view of conspiracy theories, conspiracies may multiply and prosper” (13). But does the idea that a stigma attached to the label “conspiracy theorist” increases the risk of conspiracies, and thus that conspiracy theory skeptics enable real conspirators, even make sense in the first place?

How is one to evaluate this claim without taking into account: 1) the potential cost-limiting effect of successfully discarding false conspiracies; 2) potential cases of conspiracies that unfold in such secrecy that there is not even a conspiracy theory about them to be skeptical of; 3) potential cases of conspiracies that unfold unproblematically even in the face of conspiracy theories about them that nobody or almost nobody is skeptical of, or that are endorsed by a substantial share of the population; and 4) potential cases were derogatively labelling something a conspiracy theory is ineffective in deflecting suspicions of actual conspiracy? Further, if journalists and academics with a prejudiced view of conspiracy theorists had such power in blinding entire populations, one wonders why many of them still deem conspiracy theories such a worrying issue, or even would want to “cure” them.

In light of such complications, it is probably premature, not to mention rather distasteful and slightly delusional, to start drawing the respective body counts of conspiracy theorists and those who take a dim view of them, merely based on the idea that “conspiracy theorists” is a disabling and stigmatizing epithet, which is an empirical question anyway. For all “they” know, because conspiracy theorists are presumably quite often aware that the “alternative information” they follow and sometimes endorse is routinely classified as “conspiracy theories” by those they deem untrustworthy, the label “conspiracy theorist” might in fact well reinforce their belief that they are “on to something” and have positive effects on in-group cohesion and self-esteem[14].

A Cure?

Basham et al. (2016) fear that “they” want to curtail the free speech of conspiracist opinions, asking, after having made the point that whoever poisoned Alexander Litvinenko, his death had to be the result of some conspiracy: “Should we pay for a science that teaches us not to understand this?” (15). Indeed, it would be ironic that innocent people would end up paying, with their hard-earned money, for a scientific conspiracy meant at making sure that no one will ever even dare to think there could be any type of conspiracy in this world. In fact, that would not only be ironic, that would be genius, a conspiracy of the “preternatural” kind if there ever was one. “They” only wish “they” had such power and influence, but thankfully, at least for the time being, that is not what “they” had in mind. 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.

Now, it is true that “they” used a medical analogy to make “their” point. Before flooding the market with a new remedy, it is good medical and scientific practice to carefully and rigorously test said remedy. Perhaps it doesn’t work, perhaps it makes things worse, perhaps it has unforeseen side-effects. At any rate, surely it would be desirable to know more about the disease, what it is, what are its mechanisms, its etiology, its symptoms and so forth. Who knows, maybe it would turn out that the remedy is not needed after all, as the disease might be transitory, or even not a disease at all. 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.

The issue is indeed pressing, at least in France, not so much because conspiracy theories are a danger (although they could be), but because many uninformed people are jumping on the bandwagon and adding confusion to the issue. “They” advocate some patience, lest things will get worse in the long run. Note that “they” are not even promoting “cognitive infiltration” (Sunstein & Vermeule 2009)—although in some way this is what “they” are attempting to do here, namely introducing some cognitive diversity in a spiraling and self-congratulating clique of insulated theorizers—which effectiveness would need to be carefully evaluated anyway. Presumably in our day and age, more technologically advanced solutions could be devised. How about a neural micro-chip disrupting the cortical networks responsible for conspiracy beliefs and subversive thinking in general? Indeed, why settle for a “micropolitical power” (Husting & Orr 2007, 140) when “they” could go full bio-psycho-political? Well, again, perhaps “they” don’t have so much power (and time, and resources) after all, having to resort to open letters in the mainstream press to gently chastise the government and local initiatives for taking hasty and unpredictable measures.

To repeat, “they” merely urged for more research. Many people, and this includes philosophers, seem to think the topic of “conspiracy theories” is merely a matter of opinion or of conceptual clarification. “They” think it is foremost a matter of empirical research and careful hypothesis testing, and that any action designed to decrease belief in conspiracy theories, especially in the classroom, should be based on evidence and empirically assessed at the same time.

Even Dentith acknowledges that there might be a problem with “certain conspiracy theorist”, perhaps even “some seeming cases of irrational, or even pathological belief in conspiracy theories” (Dentith 2016, 36).[15] He doesn’t say, however, to what extent these people are a problem, how widespread “conspiracism” is, and what to do with such people and beliefs. This is unfortunate, because had Basham et al. the answers to these questions, they could actually help people become the good conspiracy theorists they wish everybody were, so that no one would endorse conspiracy theories qua conspiracy theories. “They” suggest that when this happens, the problem of those people who dismiss conspiracy theories qua conspiracy theories would become largely irrelevant. In fact, such behaviour would be ineffective and bizarre: the “completely sensible questions about government conduct” (13) would simply look as such.

Indeed, what would be best for democracy and the open society? An army of bad conspiracy theorists, jumping on every semi-cooked counter-explanation available on the cognitive market out of a conspiracist mindset, wasting precious time and resources on worthless and discrediting ventures, or good and thoughtful conspiracy theorists, asking tough and relevant questions on the basis of a careful and unbiased examination of the facts? Now, imagine if some kind of education and basic principles, based on scientific evidence, could help obtain the latter, and reduce the former, wouldn’t that be fantastic news? Or maybe this idea is an unacceptable infringement on one’s basic freedom to be systematically misguided, wrong and isolated, and deserves an angry and self-righteous response.

Obviously, Basham et al. are entirely free to perceive and construe the proposal to pursue research on the topic of conspiracy beliefs as, say, a “transpersonal strategy” for “othering” “certain voices” (Husting & Orr 2007), a slippery-slope towards dehumanization and abuse (Hagen 2011), or, more positively, an encouraging sign that the ongoing “conspiracy panic” demonstrates that political tyrannies will no longer be tolerated by the increasingly enlightened public. Whatever “cure” “they” end up devising, if any, “they” are not so gullible as to think it will work for everybody. But let “they” propose a deal.

“They” will continue to focus on the psychology and sociology of conspiracy theories, conceived as the outcome of situational factors, personality, and cognitive traits largely unrelated to the truth or falsity of said “conspiracies”. In the meanwhile, Basham et al. will carry on their defense of those that aim, driven by the “gift of watchfulness” and their idiosyncratic “explanatory method”, at closely monitoring and exposing the criminal tyrants and liars that would like to rule the world and mislead the public. Hopefully, together, “they” and Basham, Dentith, Coady, Husting, Orr, Hagen, and Raab will help the world become a better place. Already, or so “they” are told by undisclosed sources of information, it appears that the powerful are shaking in their boots.

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[1] Although the article is referenced with Lee Basham as the sole author, it is in fact signed collectively, in the following order, by Matthew R. X. Dentith, Lee Basham, David Coady, Ginna Husting, Martin Orr, Kurtis Hagen and Marius Raab. We see no reason, and none is mentioned in the paper, to single out Lee Basham as the author of that piece, when all co-signatories have approved and have agreed to be associated with its contents. We thus henceforth will refer to this article as Basham et al. (2016).

[2] “Luttons efficacement contre les théories du complot” [Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively], written and signed by Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Sebastian Dieguez, Karen Douglas, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian and Pascal Wagner-Egger, published on June 5th, 2016, in the print edition of Le Monde. As this text was widely read and shared (more than 2,000 hits on ResearchGate), the authors produced an English translation for non-French readers.

[3] Unless otherwise specified, paginations refer to the pdf version of Basham et al. (2016).

[4] In their writings, Basham and Dentith, a co-signatory of Basham et al., make much of a distinction between “particularists” and “generalists”. Briefly, the former refers to an approach to conspiracy theories based on the examination of each specific claim of conspiracy and its respective argumentative and evidential merits (or shortcomings). The latter approach sees broadly conspiracy theories as a class of its own. The distinction has been put forward by Buenting and Taylor (2010) who defend the particularist against the generalist view on the grounds that the generalist view a priori, and unfairly, assumes that conspiracy theories are irrational and thus need not be assessed on their own merits. Yet on closer inspection, this partition turns out to be meaningless, self-serving and self-refuting. First Basham et al. (2016) essentially claim that conspiracy theorizing is generally warranted because there are conspiracies: that is a generalist view. Moreover, the evidence shows that conspiracy theorists are generalists, in that they tend to endorse several and varied conspiracy theories (see below). Yes, “generalism” might lead to the “flippant rejection” (14) of conspiracy theories, but it might as well lead to their uncritical acceptance, a generalist stance. On the other hand, “they” never said that all propositions regarding the possibility of some nefarious intent or actions from some group of colluding individuals must be immediately rejected. In fact, “they” could as well be the “particularists” because “they” are interested in individual differences between believers and non-believers, thus assessing cognitive processes and personality profiles on a “case-by-case” (15) basis. “They” are even open to the possibility that there might be different kinds of conspiracy theories—say, minority conspiracies (Campion-Vincent 2005; Moscovici 1987; Wagner-Egger & Bangerter 2007), system conspiracies (Campion-Vincent, 2005; Moscovici 1987; Wagner-Egger & Bangerter 2007), supernatural conspiracies (van der Tempel & Alcock, 2015), in-group vs out-group conspiracies (Grzesiak & Suszek 2008; Uscinski & Parent 2014) and so forth—a particularist approach. But of course, such convolutions are only needed if one absolutely wants to build artificial rivalries and point to imaginary enemies. As it turns out, “they” see the “particularist vs generalist” distinction as orthogonal to “their” interests anyway. Bad conspiracy theorists could still come up with, or endorse, good theories about actual conspiracies, but for bad reasons. By the same token, then, good conspiracy theorists could come up with false conspiracies, although for good reasons. While this might be fascinating for political score-keeping, “they” are merely interested in the psychology of all this, and thus, the “evidential” content of specific conspiracy claims can indeed be safely put aside unless what “they” study calls up for such details.

[5] http://www.alternet.org/right-wing/58-donald-trump-conspiracy-theories-and-counting-definitive-trump-conspiracy-guide. Speaking of President Trump, there are two interesting insights to be gained from his election. First, it now seems clear that the epithet “conspiracy theorist” is not such a powerful engine of delegitimization. Trump has been derided as a conspiracy theorist over and over again, and yet he still managed to get elected. Second, among Trump conspiracies, and similar to what happened with the “Brexit” vote in Britain and the recent referendum held in Italy, there were many conspiracy theories making the rounds about a “rigged” polling or electoral process. Pro-Trump, pro-Brexit and anti-Renzi outlets repeatedly claimed and feared that those in power would never allow their desired outcome to come to life. Yet it happened in all three cases, and it would be interesting to see what became of these “theories of conspiracy” when they were directly contradicted by the facts. Basham et al., in particular, could learn something about the operations of the mind when conspiracist thinking demonstrably fails, a Festinger 2.0, as it were, manifestation of cognitive dissonance, except that nowadays, there does not even seem to be any such “dissonance” anymore.

[6] Please refer to: Dagnall, Drinkwater, Parker, Denovan, & Parton 2015; Goertzel 1994; Imhoff & Bruder 2014; Lantian, Muller, Nurra, & Douglas 2016; Sutton & Douglas 2014; Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Furnham 2010; Swami et al. 2011; Swami & Furnham 2012; Wagner-Egger & Bangerter 2007; Wood, Douglas, & Sutton 2012.

[7] Come to think of it, because low ratings of endorsement are also correlated across conspiracy theories (surprise!), it might be the case that other individuals have also scrupulously examined all the evidence and came up with the conclusion that the “official story” is okay after all in all or most cases. Why should these people be any less careful and heroic investigators than their conspiracists counterparts?

[8] See also: Bruder et al. 2013; Darwin, Neave, & Holmes 2011; Lantian et al., 2016; Lobato, Mendoza, Sims, & Chin 2014; Newheiser, Farias, & Tausch, 2011; Stieger, Gumhalter, Tran, Voracek, & Swami 2013; Swami et al., 2011; van Elk, 2015; Wagner-Egger & Bangerter 2007.

[9] Perhaps it is worth mentioning that some of “they”, in their quest to better—scientifically—understand such a mindset, sought to investigate the widely-made claim that conspiracy theorists have a miscalibrated appreciation of chance events, in other words, that they tend to think that “nothing happens by accident”. This was and is still claimed to be a central feature of the psychology of conspiracy theory believers (e.g. Barkun 2003; Campion-Vincent, 2005; Lewandowsky, Cook, Oberauer, Brophy, Lloyd, & Marriott 2015; Taguieff 2013). Well, “they” found that is not the case, and “they” even reported this negative finding in an actual scientific journal (Dieguez et al. 2015). Which goes to show that intuitive feelings and conceptual reasoning should, in the end, always be subjected to empirical testing. Then again, “they” also found, in the same study, the now familiar strong correlations among various conspiracy theories endorsements, which “they” now know, thanks to research, are not associated to a low prior for randomness.

[10] Or perhaps Basham et al. think that regardless of the existence of a conspiracist mindset as described above, it would still be advantageous to entertain conspiracy theories rather than dismiss or avoid them. Yet, the idea that because real conspiracies happen it would be worst to dismiss conspiracy theories than to consider them carefully is simplistic at best (more about this below). To be sure, large-scale conspiracies would be an awful thing. Yet what is missing from the calculus is a clear and fair assessment of the dangers of endorsing and spreading theories of conspiracies that are nonexistent. Indeed, perhaps real conspiracies would be better fought against if conspiracy theories in general were not so widespread. Fighting for democracy and transparency might actually involve some hard work, rather than mere anti-authoritarian jerk-reflexes and random annotations on a screen-shot, and known conspiracies could be precisely those that weren’t the subject of armchair “theorizing”, but were uncovered by real investigative work from, say, government officials, members of the “mainstream” media or even the state police. Thinking and acting on the basis of misinformation, especially if it turns out that no large-scale malevolent conspiracies are actually ongoing in parallel, could very much endanger the open society and erode democracy. Of course, the cost-benefit analysis is hard to perform, in particular because conspiracy theories involve, by definition, so many, or even mostly, unknowns. As a result, it is “their” opinion that the conspiracist-mind is fruitless, whereas the uncovering of actual conspiracies is never, or almost never, the outcome of the conspiracist-mind as “they” define it. “They” could be wrong, of course, but “they” think a democracy needs investigators, journalists, whistle-blowers, strong and democratic institutions and safeguards, as well as trust, rather than merely conspiracy theorists.

[11] For instance, as reported in Abalakina-Paap, Stephan, Craig, & Gregory 1999; Barron, Morgan, Towell, Altemeyer, & Swami 2014; Brotherton & Eser 2015; Brotherton & French 2015; Crocker, Luhtanen, Broadnax, & Blaine 1999; Dagnall et al. 2015; Darwin et al. 2011; Dieguez, Wagner-Egger, & Gauvrit 2015; Douglas & Sutton 2011; Douglas, Sutton, Callan, Dawtry, & Harvey 2016; Furnham 2013; Goertzel 1994; Grzesiak-Feldman 2013; Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont 2008; Grzesiak-Feldman & Irzycka 2009; Grzesiak-Feldman & Suszek 2008; Imhoff & Bruder 2014; Jolley & Douglas 2014a; Jolley & Douglas 2014b; Lantian 2015; Lantian et al. 2016; Leman & Cinnirella 2007; Lobato et al. 2014; McCauley & Jacques 1979; McHoskey 1995; Moulding et al. 2016; Oliver & Wood 2014; Newheiser et al. 2011; Radnitz & Underwood 2015; Stieger, et al. 2013; Swami, Voracek, Stieger, Tran, & Furnham 2014; Swami 2012; Swami et al. 2010, 2011, 2013, 2016; Swami & Furnham 2012; Uscinski, Klofstad, & Atkinson 2016; van Elk 2015; Wood et al. 2012; Wagner-Egger & Bangerter 2007; van Prooijen, Krouwel, & Pollet 2015; van Prooijen & van Dijk 2014.

[12] Dentith even acknowledges that “it may still be useful to study Conspiracism and putative conspiracists, given that such a study may well explain particular cases of weird belief in conspiracy theories” (2016, 35). Well, “they” look forward to reading his research in this area, and can only lament that such an epiphany came too late for Dentith to sign our letter in Le Monde.

[13] As we say in French, one wonders what Raab, when signing Basham et al. (2016), est allé faire dans cette galère.

[14] If anything, evidence already suggests that labelling a conspiracist claim “conspiracy theory” does not decrease its endorsement (Wood 2015). Surely Basham et al. (2016) should be delighted by such good news (at least Basham (2016, ft 5) seems to be, somewhat).

[15] In a previous version of Dentith (2016), the pathologizing term “suffering from conspiracism” was even used (emphasis added). Dentith, however, still writes about “healthy conspiracy theorising” (emphasis added, Dentith 2016, 32), thus pointing out the existence of unhealthy conspiracy theorising, and Basham sees no problem with introducing the concept of “conspiracy theory phobia”, a term borrowed from clinical psychiatry (emphasis added, Basham 2016, 8). Although, thankfully, Basham and Dentith propose no “cure” whatsoever for these problems at least they collectively managed to medically diagnose pretty much everybody but themselves.

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

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nl

Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Fabrizio Angius, via flickr

Call me self-interested, but as the festive season approaches, and (some) duties relax, I find I now have the time to consider those pernicious thoughts which are the dull echoes at the back of my mind. ‘What is it about social epistemology’, they rattle (like a certain Dickensian spectre) ‘that keeps you working right up to Christmas eve?’

My work, thus far, has been the analysis of how epistemic agents like ourselves work out how we judge the warrant of particular conspiracy theories. It is interesting work (at least personally), and occasionally it makes one paranoid (as evidenced by increasingly plausible conspiracy theories concerning the recent US presidential elections). Yet one cannot appraise conspiracy theories alone. Indeed, the vast number of them we seem to encounter on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis can sometimes make one think ‘Stuff this for a lark!’ and retreat into the kind of scepticism of conspiracy theories generally I (and other philosophers) have argued is prima facie unprincipled. As such, the issue which motivates me (and, I argue, is a central concern when it comes to the whole social epistemological project) is how we distribute the epistemic load when it comes to assessing complex claims.

After all, if I asked you to appraise and judge all the conspiracy theories you know, you would never have time for coffee, let alone breakfast. Judging the merits (or lack thereof) of specific conspiracy theories is a hard task, given they are oft complex claims, made up of different types of evidence, and relying on the testimony of persons who may, or may not be experts. Yet traditional treatments of how we judge and appraise conspiracy theories usually rely on individual epistemic agents working out on their own what to believe, with some hand-waving towards claims about ‘and taking into account what the experts say…’

Surely, though, the model of how we appraise any complex claim about the world is one where individual epistemic agents rely not just on their own epistemic abilities, but also that of their epistemic peers? Rather, we distribute the cognitive load throughout our epistemic communities. Now, any conspiracy theorist worth their salt will reply ‘But what about the possibility that the epistemic community is conspired, or filled with disinformation agents?’ Awkward as it seems, we cannot easily dismiss such a reply, given that any historically or politically literate person can provide us with examples of conspiracies where certain groups abused appeals to authority, or subverted public institutions. As such, how we distribute the epistemic burden when it comes to appraising and judging conspiracy theories is a (to my mind) a central (and thus interesting) question in social epistemology, because it allows us to interrogate a far more fundamental set of questions—what duties (if any) do individual epistemic agents have when hearing some conspiracy theory, and what should we require (if anything) of other epistemic agents in our communities? We can get to the answer to those questions via a whole range of different cases, but it turns out (for me at least) talk of belief in conspiracy theories seems the most obvious route.