Archives For Le Monde

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

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

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

Editor’s Note:

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

conspiracy_van

Image credit: KD, via flickr

The dog the stone hits yelps loudest.—Folk saying

The Le Monde social scientists’ statement begins,

Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively. The Ministry of Education must test its pedagogical tools against conspiracy culture. The wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease.

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

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

The goal of pathologizing projects is to disqualify a class of citizens from public discourse, silence them, ideally, eliminate them in one manner or another. In one way or another, to disappear them from the dominant discourse of the times. It is a method of dealing with dissident citizens. The formula is simple: Pathologize, disqualify, silence, disappear. These are historically applied to any group deemed sufficiently efficacious in society and excessively contrary to certain political and ideological tenets. Today the pathologizing approach is increasingly applied to those who question the veracity of their governments and suspect these governments are, on occasion, involved in organized, deeply anti-democratic, improper public deception. But only a thoughtful attention to conspiracy theory, on the merits of evidence, can meet the threat such conspiracies present. Evidence is the key. Nothing else suffices.

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

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

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

A Response to a Letter of Concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pathological Mindset Definition of “Conspiracy Theory”

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

… [A] “conspiracy theory” is what the conspiracist mindset tends to produce and be attracted to, an apparently circular definition that rests on ongoing work but is firmly grounded in relevant research fields such as cognitive epidemiology [disease], niche construction and cognitively driven cultural studies, and could be refined or refuted depending on future results.[8]

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

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

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

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

Going Pathological: The Social Science Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Fair to Conspiracy Theorizing

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

In our original letter of concern we wrote,

[The authors] believe people shouldn’t bother evaluating the evidence for or against, even though an evaluation of the evidence for or against really should be the end of the story. Rather, people are to be scientifically directed, somehow, to fixate on the cry of “That’s a conspiracy theory!,” flee the room, and not reflect on any facts.[20]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] “They” Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s “Social Science’s Conspiracy Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 20-39, p.20. (Hereafter “‘They’ Respond”. Please note Karen Douglas did not join the Le Monde authors’ response to our letter of concern.

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

[5] “‘They’ Respond”, 20.

[6] Ibid, 20.

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

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

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

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

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

[12] “‘They’ Respond”, 31.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] “Conspiracy Panic”, 11.

[21] “‘They’ Respond”, 39.

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

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

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

Author Information: 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.