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Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College,

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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

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Image credit: Mikey, via flickr

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

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

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

Subject at Hand, Social Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Public Trust Approach (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral Issues

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

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

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

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

2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tracy Affair

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, ICUB, University of Bucharest,

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: Jacob Surland, via flickr

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

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

The Alleged Problem of Particularism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conspiracy Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defence of Conspiracy Theorising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Conspiracy, n.” 2011. “OED Online.”; Oxford University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Ibid., 37.

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Cubitt, The Jesuit Myth.

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

[14] Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History.

[15] Pagán, Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature.

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

[17] Byford, Conspiracy Theories, 18.

[18] Ibid., ch. 2.

[19] Ibid., ch. 3.

[20] Ibid., ch. 6.

[21] Ibid., ch. 7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University,

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: Mikey, via flickr

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

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

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

Conspiracy Explanation and Conspiracy Theory

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

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

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

Conspiracy Theorising as Practice and Tradition

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

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

Reasons to be Reticent

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

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

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

1. Rational evaluation defeats weakly evidenced conspiracy theories;

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

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

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

Beyond Particularism

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts, Malcolm. “‘Why?’ Motives Driving Climate Fraud.”

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

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

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

[3]. Ibid, 1.

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

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

[6]. Pigden, “Complots of Mischief.”

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

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

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

[10]. Ibid, 7.

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

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

[13]. Byford, Conspiracy Theories.

[14]. Roberts, “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College,; Matthew R. X. Dentith, The Research Institute of the University of Bucharest,

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini, via flickr

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

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

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

And they want the public to pay them for it.

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

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

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

Why? Well, because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Matthew R. X. Dentith

Lee Basham

David Coady

Ginna Husting

Martin Orr

Kurtis Hagen

Marius Raab


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively

The Ministry of Education must test its pedagogical tools against conspiracy culture. The wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease.

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

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

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

Boomerang effect

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

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

‘Confirmation bias’

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

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

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

Gérald Bronner, Sociologue, Université Paris-Diderot

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

Sylvain Delouvée, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université Rennes 2

Sebastian Dieguez, Neuropsychologue, Université de Fribourg

Karen Douglas, Chercheuse en Psychologie Sociale, University of Kent

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

Anthony Lantian, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université de Reims

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

Le Monde, 6 June 2016, p. 29

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, University of Auckland,

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

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 16.08.50

Image credit: cobalt123, via flickr

Conspiracy theories are—if you believe certain sources—rife, plentiful, and abounding. Despite this being a concern to some social scientists (see, for example, the recent declaration in Le Monde by Gérald Bronner, et al.[1]), the academic literature on these things we call “conspiracy theories” is still small. On the one hand, what better way to spend a week or three than in the examination of the various articles and books on the subject? But, on the other hand, the smallness of the literature reveals some peculiarities, particularly among the works of many social scientists. For example, despite “conspiracy theory” appearing to be perfectly general term (some explanatory theory concerning the existence of a conspiracy), and the apparently “curious” fact (curious in that such instances are often played down when talking about conspiracy theories) that conspiracies occur, there is already a deep-seated vein in the existing literature which says conspiracy theories are bunk, and we have a general case to be suspicious of them.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College,

Basham, Lee. “The Need for Accountable Witnesses: A Reply to Dentith.” [1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 6-13.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: Alexander Mueller, via flickr

Hard pounding this, gentlemen, let’s see who will pound longest. — Wellington at Waterloo

Matthew R. X. Dentith’s paper (2016) explores the important epistemic issue of conspiracy theory as legitimate explanation. He provides, in his characteristically measured and cautious manner, a compelling critique of academic dismissals of conspiracy theorizing, a manner of explanation proven by ordinary experience and history. The critics of conspiracy theory advocate generalism, where conspiracy explanations are by nature extremely suspect. The generalist makes little distinction between any particular conspiracy theory and ignores the justificatory practices of conspiracy theorists, studiously avoiding their actual arguments.[2] Dentith’s project is a gradualist, attrition approach. He undermines one generalist critique after another, gradually dismantling the cumulative generalist case. Dentith’s goal is, as conspiracy-minded novelist Agatha Christie would put it, “And then there were none”. In what follows, I will briefly contrast the attrition approach to an alternative one that critiques primary information sources in our Western information hierarchies.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Stefano Bigliardi, Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue, Geneva; Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University; ITESM Campus Santa Fe, Mexico City,

Bigliardi, Stefano. “I’Jāz, Conspiracy Theories, and Ufology—Some Suggestions with a Touch of Latour.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 1-7.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

    Articles related to the broader discussion on Islam and science, hosted by the SERRC, are listed below the article. [a]


Image credit: Stefano Maffei, via flickr

During a brief research stay in Iran (2011), I happened to be exposed to a curious narrative. One of my generous hosts and guides was a person of high culture and relevant social standing who showed a surprisingly deep knowledge of the popular culture of my home country although he had never visited it nor did he speak Italian. During a conversation touching upon Italian politics and society he stated en passant that Edoardo Agnelli (1954-2000), son of FIAT industrialist Gianni Agnelli (1921-2003), had in fact not committed suicide. Edoardo, according to my Iranian friend, was a convert to Islam and he had been assassinated in a plot aimed at avoiding that a Muslim would inherit part of the family’s fortune.  Continue Reading…