Archives For epistemology of conspiracy

Author Information: Luca Tateo, Aalborg University & Federal University of Bahia, luca@hum.aau.dk.

Tateo, Luca. “Ethics, Cogenetic Logic, and the Foundation of Meaning.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44i

Mural entitled “Paseo de Humanidad” on the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, in Sonora. Art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
Image by Jonathan McIntosh, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to: Miika Vähämaa (2018) Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

In his interesting essay, Vähämaa (2018) discusses two issues that I find particularly relevant. The first one concerns the foundation of meaning in language, which in the era of connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and post-truth (Keyes, 2004) becomes problematic. The second issue is the appreciation of epistemic virtues in a collective context: how the group can enhance the epistemic skill of the individual?

I will try to explain why these problems are relevant and why it is worth developing Vähämaa’s (2018) reflection in the specific direction of group and person as complementary epistemic and ethic agents (Fricker, 2007). First, I will discuss the foundations of meaning in different theories of language. Then, I will discuss the problems related to the stability and liminality of meaning in the society of “popularity”. Finally I will propose the idea that the range of contemporary epistemic virtues should be integrated by an ethical grounding of meaning and a co-genetic foundation of meaning.

The Foundation of Meaning in Language

The theories about the origins of human language can be grouped in four main categories, based on the elements characterizing the ontogenesis and glottogenesis.

Sociogenesis Hypothesis (SH): it is the idea that language is a conventional product, that historically originates from coordinated social activities and it is ontogenetically internalized through individual participation to social interactions. The characteristic authors in SH are Wundt, Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (2012).

Praxogenesis Hypothesis (PH): it is the idea that language historically originates from praxis and coordinated actions. Ontogenetically, the language emerges from senso-motory coordination (e.g. gaze coordination). It is for instance the position of Mead, the idea of linguistic primes in Smedslund (Vähämaa, 2018) and the language as action theory of Austin (1975).

Phylogenesis Hypothesis (PhH): it is the idea that humans have been provided by evolution with an innate “language device”, emerging from the evolutionary preference for forming social groups of hunters and collective long-duration spring care (Bouchard, 2013). Ontogenetically, language predisposition is wired in the brain and develops in the maturation in social groups. This position is represented by evolutionary psychology and by innatism such as Chomsky’s linguistics.

Structure Hypothesis (StH): it is the idea that human language is a more or less logic system, in which the elements are determined by reciprocal systemic relationships, partly conventional and partly ontic (Thao, 2012). This hypothesis is not really concerned with ontogenesis, rather with formal features of symbolic systems of distinctions. It is for instance the classical idea of Saussure and of the structuralists like Derrida.

According to Vähämaa (2018), every theory of meaning has to deal today with the problem of a terrific change in the way common sense knowledge is produced, circulated and modified in collective activities. Meaning needs some stability in order to be of collective utility. Moreover, meaning needs some validation to become stable.

The PhH solves this problem with a simple idea: if humans have survived and evolved, their evolutionary strategy about meaning is successful. In a natural “hostile” environment, our ancestors must have find the way to communicate in such a way that a danger would be understood in the same way by all the group members and under different conditions, including when the danger is not actually present, like in bonfire tales or myths.

The PhH becomes problematic when we consider the post-truth era. What would be the evolutionary advantage to deconstruct the environmental foundations of meaning, even in a virtual environment? For instance, what would be the evolutionary advantage of the common sense belief that global warming is not a reality, considered that this false belief could bring mankind to the extinction?

StH leads to the view of meaning as a configuration of formal conditions. Thus, stability is guaranteed by structural relations of the linguistic system, rather than by the contribution of groups or individuals as epistemic agents. StH cannot account for the rapidity and liminality of meaning that Vähämaa (2018) attributes to common sense nowadays. SH and PH share the idea that meaning emerges from what people do together, and that stability is both the condition and the product of the fact that we establish contexts of meaningful actions, ways of doing things in a habitual way.

The problem is today the fact that our accelerated Western capitalistic societies have multiplied the ways of doing and the number of groups in society, decoupling the habitual from the common sense meaning. New habits, new words, personal actions and meanings are built, disseminated and destroyed in short time. So, if “Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups” (Vähämaa, 2018, p. 169) what does it happen to language and to knowledge when social groups multiply, segregate and disappear in a short time?

From Common Sense to the Bubble

The grounding of meaning in the group as epistemic agent has received a serious stroke in the era of connectivism and post-truth. The idea of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed among the different agents of a collective network (Siemens, 2005). Knowledge does not reside into the “mind” or into a “memory”, but is rather produced in bits and pieces, that the epistemic agent is required to search, and to assemble through the contribution of the collective effort of the group’s members.

Thus, depending on the configuration of the network, different information will be connected, and different pictures of the world will emerge. The meaning of the words will be different if, for instance, the network of information is aggregated by different groups in combination with, for instance, specific algorithms. The configuration of groups, mediated by social media, as in the case of contemporary politics (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017), leads to the reproduction of “bubbles” of people that share the very same views, and are exposed to the very same opinions, selected by an algorithm that will show only the content compliant with their previous content preferences.

The result is that the group loses a great deal of its epistemic capability, which Vähämaa (2018) suggests as a foundation of meaning. The meaning of words that will be preferred in this kind of epistemic bubble is the result of two operations of selection that are based on popularity. First, the meaning will be aggregated by consensual agents, rather than dialectic ones. Meaning will always convergent rather than controversial.

Second, between alternative meanings, the most “popular” will be chosen, rather than the most reliable. The epistemic bubble of connectivism originates from a misunderstanding. The idea is that a collectivity has more epistemic force than the individual alone, to the extent that any belief is scrutinized democratically and that if every agent can contribute with its own bit, the knowledge will be more reliable, because it is the result of a constant and massive peer-review. Unfortunately, the events show us a different picture.

Post-truth is actually a massive action of epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007), to the extent that the reliability of the other as epistemic agent is based on criteria of similarity, rather than on dialectic. One is reliable as long as it is located within my own bubble. Everything outside is “fake news”. The algorithmic selection of information contributes to reinforce the polarization. Thus, no hybridization becomes possible, the common sense (Vähämaa, 2018) is reduced to the common bubble. How can the epistemic community still be a source of meaning in the connectivist era?

Meaning and Common Sense

SH and PH about language point to a very important historical source: the philosopher Giambattista Vico (Danesi, 1993; Tateo, 2015). Vico can be considered the scholar of the common sense and the imagination (Tateo, 2015). Knowledge is built as product of human experience and crystallized into the language of a given civilization. Civilization is the set of interpretations and solutions that different groups have found to respond to the common existential events, such as birth, death, mating, natural phenomena, etc.

According to Vico, all the human beings share a fate of mortal existence and rely on each other to get along. This is the notion of common sense: the profound sense of humanity that we all share and that constitutes the ground for human ethical choices, wisdom and collective living. Humans rely on imagination, before reason, to project themselves into others and into the world, in order to understand them both. Imagination is the first step towards the understanding of the Otherness.

When humans loose contact with this sensus communis, the shared sense of humanity, and start building their meaning on egoism or on pure rationality, civilizations then slip into barbarism. Imagination gives thus access to the intersubjectivity, the capability of feeling the other, while common sense constitutes the wisdom of developing ethical beliefs that will not harm the other. Vico ideas are echoed and made present by the critical theory:

“We have no doubt (…) that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking (…) already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not [engage in] reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate (…) In the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to nationalist paranoia (…) the weakness of contemporary theoretical understanding is evident.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, xvi)

Common sense is the basis for the wisdom, that allows to question the foundational nature of the bubble. It is the basis to understand that every meaning is not only defined in a positive way, but is also defined by its complementary opposite (Tateo, 2016).

When one uses the semantic prime “we” (Vähämaa, 2018), one immediately produces a system of meaning that implies the existence of a “non-we”, one is producing otherness. In return, the meaning of “we” can only be clearly defined through the clarification of who is “non-we”. Meaning is always cogenetic (Tateo, 2015). Without the capability to understand that by saying “we” people construct a cogenetic complex of meaning, the group is reduced to a self confirming, self reinforcing collective, in which the sense of being a valid epistemic agent is actually faked, because it is nothing but an act of epistemic arrogance.

How we can solve the problem of the epistemic bubble and give to the relationship between group and person a real epistemic value? How we can overcome the dangerous overlapping between sense of being functional in the group and false beliefs based on popularity?

Complementarity Between Meaning and Sense

My idea is that we must look in that complex space between the “meaning”, understood as a collectively shared complex of socially constructed significations, and the “sense”, understood as the very personal elaboration of meaning which is based on the person’s uniqueness (Vygotsky, 2012; Wertsck, 2000). Meaning and sense feed into each other, like common sense and imagination. Imagination is the psychic function that enables the person to feel into the other, and thus to establish the ethical and affective ground for the common sense wisdom. It is the empathic movement on which Kant will later on look for a logic foundation.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant 1993, p. 36. 4:429)

I would further claim that maybe they feed into each other: the logic foundation is made possible by the synthetic power of empathic imagination. Meaning and sense feed into each other. On the one hand, the collective is the origin of internalized psychic activities (SH), and thus the basis for the sense elaborated about one’s own unique life experience. On the other hand, the personal sense constitutes the basis for the externalization of the meaning into the arena of the collective activities, constantly innovating the meaning of the words.

So, personal sense can be a strong antidote to the prevailing force of the meaning produced for instance in the epistemic bubble. My sense of what is “ought”, “empathic”, “human” and “ethic”, in other words my wisdom, can help me to develop a critical stance towards meanings that are build in a self-feeding uncritical way.

Can the dialectic, complementary and cogenetic relationship between sense and meaning become the ground for a better epistemic performance, and for an appreciation of the liminal meaning produced in contemporary societies? In the last section, I will try to provide arguments in favor of this idea.

Ethical Grounding of Meaning

If connectivistic and post-truth societies produce meanings that are based on popularity check, rather than on epistemic appreciation, we risk to have a situation in which any belief is the contingent result of a collective epistemic agent which replicates its patterns into bubbles. One will just listen to messages that confirm her own preferences and belief and reject the different ones as unreliable. Inside the bubble there is no way to check the meaning, because the meaning is not cogenetic, it is consensual.

For instance, if I read and share a post on social media, claiming that migrants are the main criminal population, despite my initial position toward the news, there is the possibility that within my group I will start to see only posts confirming the initial fact. The fact can be proven wrong, for instance by the press, but the belief will be hard to change, as the meaning of “migrant” in my bubble is likely to continue being that of “criminal”. The collectivity will share an epistemically unjust position, to the extent that it will attribute a lessened epistemic capability to those who are not part of the group itself. How can one avoid that the group is scaffolding the “bad” epistemic skills, rather than empowering the individual (Vähämaa, 2018)?

The solution I propose is to develop an epistemic virtue based on two main principles: the ethical grounding of meaning and the cogenetic logic. The ethical grounding of meaning is directly related to the articulation between common sense and wisdom in the sense of Vico (Tateo, 2015). In a post-truth world in which we cannot appreciate the epistemic foundation of meaning, we must rely on a different epistemic virtue in order to become critical toward messages. Ethical grounding, based on the personal sense of humanity, is not of course epistemic test of reliability, but it is an alarm bell to become legitimately suspicious toward meanings. The second element of the new epistemic virtue is cogenetic logic (Tateo, 2016).

Meaning is grounded in the building of every belief as a complementary system between “A” and “non-A”. This implies that any meaning is constructed through the relationship with its complementary opposite. The truth emerges in a double dialectic movement (Silva Filho, 2014): through Socratic dialogue and through cogenetic logic. In conclusion, let me try to provide a practical example of this epistemic virtue.

The way to start to discriminate potentially fake news or the tendentious interpretations of facts would be essentially based on an ethic foundation. As in Vico’s wisdom of common sense, I would base my epistemic scrutiny on the imaginative work that allows me to access the other and on the cogenetic logic that assumes every meaning is defined by its relationship with the opposite.

Let’s imagine that we are exposed to a post on social media, in which someone states that a caravan of migrants, which is travelling from Honduras across Central America toward the USA border, is actually made of criminals sent by hostile foreign governments to destabilize the country right before elections. The same post claims that it is a conspiracy and that all the press coverage is fake news.

Finally the post presents some “debunking” pictures showing some athletic young Latino men, with their faces covered by scarves, to demonstrate that the caravan is not made by families with children, but is made by “soldiers” in good shape and who don’t look poor and desperate as the “mainstream” media claim. I do not know whether such a post has ever been made, but I just assembled elements of very common discourses circulating in the social media.

The task is no to assess the nature of this message, its meaning and its reliability. I could rely on the group as a ground for assessing statements, to scrutinize their truth and justification. However, due to the “bubble” effect, I may fall into a simple tautological confirmation, due to the configuration of the network of my relations. I would probably find only posts confirming the statements and delegitimizing the opposite positions. In this case, the fact that the group will empower my epistemic confidence is a very dangerous element.

I could limit my search for alternative positions to establish a dialogue. However, I could not be able, alone, to find information that can help me to assess the statement with respect to its degree of bias. How can I exert my skepticism in a context of post-truth? I propose some initial epistemic moves, based on a common sense approach to the meaning-making.

1) I must be skeptical of every message which uses a violent, aggressive, discriminatory language, and that such kind of message is “fake” by default.

2) I must be skeptical of every message that treats as criminals or is against whole social groups, even on the basis of real isolated events, because this interpretation is biased by default.

3) I must be skeptical of every message that attacks or targets persons for their characteristics rather than discussing ideas or behaviors.

Appreciating the hypothetical post about the caravan by the three rules above mentioned, one will immediately see that it violates all of them. Thus, no matter what is the information collected by my epistemic bubble, I have justified reasons to be skeptical towards it. The foundation of the meaning of the message will not be neither in the group nor in the person. It will be based on the ethical position of common sense’s wisdom.

Contact details: luca@hum.aau.dk

References

Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bouchard, D. (2013). The nature and origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Danesi, M. (1993). Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kant, I. (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.

Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin’s.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1) http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm

Silva Filho, W. J. (2014). Davidson: Dialog, dialectic, interpretation. Utopía y praxis latinoamericana, 7(19).

Tateo, L. (2015). Giambattista Vico and the psychological imagination. Culture & Psychology, 21(2), 145-161.

Tateo, L. (2016). Toward a cogenetic cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 22(3), 433-447.

Thao, T. D. (2012). Investigations into the origin of language and consciousness. New York: Springer.

Vähämaa, M. (2018). Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Wertsck, J. V. (2000). Vygotsky’s Two Minds on the Nature of Meaning. In C. D. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (eds), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 19-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg, ccc@experimental-psychology.com

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yb

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details: ccc@experimental-psychology.com

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

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

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

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

Please refer to:

conspiracy1

Image credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini, via flickr

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

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

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

And they want the public to pay them for it.

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

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

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

Why? Well, because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Matthew R. X. Dentith

Lee Basham

David Coady

Ginna Husting

Martin Orr

Kurtis Hagen

Marius Raab

Bios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively

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

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

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

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

Boomerang effect

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

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

‘Confirmation bias’

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

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

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

Gérald Bronner, Sociologue, Université Paris-Diderot

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

Sylvain Delouvée, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université Rennes 2

Sebastian Dieguez, Neuropsychologue, Université de Fribourg

Karen Douglas, Chercheuse en Psychologie Sociale, University of Kent

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

Anthony Lantian, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université de Reims

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

Le Monde, 6 June 2016, p. 29

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

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: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-354

Please refer to:

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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…