Archives For Matthew R. X. Dentith

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University, patrick.stokes@deakin.edu.au

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

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

Please refer to:

reluctant-_to_leave

Image credit: Thomas Huang, via flickr

I am grateful to both Matthew Dentith and Lee Basham for their thoughtful and generous replies to my barging into their discussion of particularism and generalism about conspiracy theory. An over-long reply is a rather poor way to repay that generosity, but here goes.

Conspiracy Theory vs. Conspiracy Narrative

A central part of my argument in Stokes is that there is a gap between how epistemologists use the term “conspiracy theory” and how the term is popularly used.[1] My concern is that by defining “conspiracy theory” so broadly, epistemologists end up losing sight of the recognizable cultural practice of conspiracy theorizing. It’s well established by this point in the debate that there is no prima facie reason to reject conspiracy theories on the basis of their formal explanatory structure alone. But that level of abstraction is not, so to speak, where we live, and nor is it the level on which social critiques of conspiracy theory operate.

Dentith and Basham respond to this concern in different ways. Dentith argues that some of my worries about conspiracy theory are really concerns about certain types of conspiracy narrative. The problem is not the simple act of forming (or asserting) explanations of observed events that involve two or more actors conspiring in secret, but the deployment of particular narratives about specific conspiracies; for instance, the “Jewish World Conspiracy” narrative (or overlapping narratives, perhaps) promulgated by figures as diverse as the Tsarist Okhrana, Henry Ford, Nesta Webster, Adolf Hitler, and David Duke. “To theorise about a conspiracy—to wit, to engage in conspiracy theorising—is a different task from hooking into an existing conspiracy narrative to press a point,” and accordingly, the two should be evaluated separately.[2]

At first blush, such a distinction maps neatly onto my own concern to differentiate conspiracy explanation as a formal category from conspiracy theory as a recognizable social practice and cultural formation. And in terms of the debate between generalism and particularism, adopting this distinction would seems to leave open the possibility of maintaining particularism about conspiracy theorizing while adopting a generalism about certain conspiracy narratives—something very like the “defeasible generalism” or “reluctant particularism” I endorsed.

In practice, however, it’s not clear how clear a line we can draw between conspiracy theory and conspiracy narrative as Dentith construes these terms. Dentith invites us to “imagine someone in a room, dispassionately coming up with conspiracy theories, and then getting her lackeys to see if they have any merit.”[3] But if this conspiracy theorist is anything like most conspiracy theorists, her theories, however dispassionate, are going to draw upon existing conspiracy theory tropes and narrative structures. It is remarkable how strongly the same tropes recur in otherwise disconnected conspiracy theories: for instance, the near-ubiquity of “false flag” explanations. Say Dentith’s speculator sees reports of a mass shooting event, and wonders: “Perhaps this shooting is a false flag designed to prepare the ground for disarming the population.” That is not a stand-alone explanation, but one embedded in a tradition of “the government is coming take your guns” anxieties. It sits within a long, ongoing, evolving, recognizable history of interpretation. These day, it re-emerges, fully-formed, within minutes of any major mass shooting, regardless of context or location.

Of course, one could reply here that there’s no reason to think conspiracies won’t tend to resemble each other: the similarity of conspiracy narratives may simply reflect the finite repertoire of strategies available to conspirators. Moreover, conspiracy theories generally posit fairly powerful actors, which in turn limits the pool of possible perpetrators, so we’d expect to see recurring villains in these explanations. In short, there are only so many possible conspirators, and only so many possible ways for them to conspire effectively. Even so, in considering any individual act of conspiracy theorizing it’s difficult to see how we could differentiate between what is genuinely original (even if isomorphic with other conspiracy theories) and what borrows its form—and a large part of its sanction—from existing conspiracy narratives.

However, let’s assume that Dentith’s lackey-dispatching idle speculator is somehow oblivious to conspiracy theorizing as a social practice—perhaps she, in a nod to Frank Jackson’s “Mary,” has been raised in an environment where she has never been exposed to any existing conspiracy theories or conspiracy tropes.[4] Her conspiracy theories are, let’s stipulate, self-standing and sui generis alternatives to “official” explanations of given events. Does that entitle all her theories to be considered in a particularist way?

Accusation and Reluctance

This question connects us to what I described as “reluctance,” which should attach to both conspiracy theorizing and to indulging in particular conspiracy narratives. Dentith’s conspiracy theorist spins her theories “dispassionately.” But then, what motivates them? Dentith tells us that the question of whether mass shootings are a government plot designed to curb gun rights is “a perfectly interesting question” and that “entertaining that notion is something someone, somewhere should engage in.”[5] It’s not clear however where the “should” emerges from here. Of course, one can “dispassionately” speculate about anything. I could, for instance, walk into any room and try to calculate the probability that anyone in that room is plotting to kill me. Despite being a fairly anxious sort I’d probably do so calmly, because I am not actually entertaining the prospect that some of these people want to do me in. I’m just idly playing with the idea. But it is far from clear why I should speculate like this, and likewise it is far from clear why I should speculate whether mass shooting events were hoaxed by the government.

Ok, we might think, but surely such speculation is both harmless enough on its own terms and potentially exposes genuine plots, however unlikely? After all, insists Dentith, “you can theorise about conspiracy theories without making accusations.”[6] Dentith here specifies that “the threshold for accusation here [must be] something higher than simply saying “They are up to something…’”[7] But just how far can we go down that path before we’re making accusations? We can certainly avoid blaming anyone specific by offering explanations so under-described they barely seem to warrant the name “theory” (“Things are not as they seem,” “I’ll bet they are behind this” etc.). But this doesn’t get us very far. It’s not clear how far you can go with suggesting a mass casualty event was really a false flag exercise without impugning someone. We might try to find a redoubt here between accusation and non-accusation to hide in; we might want to call that redoubt “expressing suspicion” or, more commonly, “just asking questions” (less charitably known as “JAQing off”). But just asking questions that call someone’s innocence into question is not a morally neutral act. Dentith’s dispassionate speculator may not be doing very much practical harm, but she is nonetheless engaging in a practice with a moral cost. My walking into a room and idly wondering if you’re planning to kill me may not cause you much upset—mostly because I wouldn’t mention doing so, as that would make things pretty awkward—but I’ve still entertained the idea you might be a murderer, and thereby done you a passing wrong. There are of course circumstances where that’s a warranted suspicion or even a necessary prudential response; but those circumstances are, precisely because they violate the background trust intrinsic to human sociality (more on this below), abnormal, even when pervasive and persistent.

For Dentith, distinguishing between conspiracy theorizing and conspiracy narrative does allow us to avoid certain narratives that are discredited or problematic. But the motivation here remains, on his telling, fundamentally epistemological rather than ethical:

After all, if the evidence is “This looks like a redressed version of a Jewish banking conspiracy narrative,” then the appropriate evidential response is to ask “Hasn’t this been debunked?” Because if it has, then we will have evidence to mount against the new version. If it has not, then we need to investigate the claim further.”[8]

That may well be a perfectly valid evidential response. But we do not apply our evidential reasoning in a vacuum, but do so from within historically conditioned and epistemically finite situations, in a world already freighted with moral and political meanings. We do not step out of the world when we think and reflect; our thinking, reflecting, and suspecting are all actions we perform and so subject to moral inspection. In that context, an at least equally appropriate response is:

Entertaining theories about a global Jewish world conspiracy is a well-recognized anti-Semitic practice, and I will not engage in such a practice by taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

It remains logically possible such a theory is true, but not only are we not morally or rationally obliged to entertain every theory, we are morally obliged to reject some theories even at the risk of occasionally being wrong. Basham claims it is a virtue of particularism that it “directly confronts theories that are unwarranted (Jews are trying to destroy Western civilization),” but as he presents particularism here, it doesn’t look like this is the sort of confrontation he has in mind.[9]

Generalism and Ethics

Unlike Dentith, Basham evidently doesn’t want to buy into a distinction between conspiracy theory as a cultural phenomenon and conspiracy theory as a particular form of explanation. He instead defends a thoroughgoing particularism without even the evidentiary heuristics Dentith wants to develop, insisting that conspiracy theories “should be evaluated solely case by case, on the basis of evidence, without any epistemic mal-biasing.”[1] Basham claims that my “reluctant particularism” or “defeasible generalism” is an unstable binary: it either collapses into generalism (given that generalists preserve some sliver of defeasibility) or is simply particularism.

Here’s the argument Basham attributes to me:

1) Epistemic generalism is true; epistemic issues are “off the table” except in extremely rare cases (traditional generalism);
2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;
3) If a theory causes harm, it is morally suspect (consequentialism);
4) Particularism claims we should evaluate conspiracy theories on the evidential warrant of each;
5) Unwarranted conspiracy theories are popularly believed for long periods of time without evidence (the “unreasoning masses” gambit);

So, Particularism is not the correct approach to conspiracy theorizing.[2]

Basham also adds what he takes to be a missing premise here:

6) Our default analysis of conspiracy theories should not be in terms of evidential merit, but in terms of how they promote or undermine our political projects; those that undermine these should be rejected, those that promote these should be promoted.[3]

I don’t recognize my position in this argument, though I’ve no doubt this is down to imprecision on my part and not Basham’s. I do assert premises 2) and 3). Premise 5), as defined here, doesn’t really amount to an “unreasoning masses” gambit: conspiracy theorists rarely form a mass and are not necessarily irrational. For instance, with respect to my example of deaths from improperly/untreated AIDS in South Africa, it is of course no part of my original claim that the 330,000+ people who died necessarily believed in the conspiracy theory themselves, let alone that they were irrational; it is enough that the government (or even senior figures in the government) believed it and acted accordingly in framing their policy responses to the HIV epidemic.[4]

Premise 6) casts what is an essentially moral claim—show reticence in suspecting or accusing others of malfeasance—in political terms. Basham takes my view to be a version of the Public Trust Approach (PTA). But PTA is still an argument about the epistemic reliability of institutions; it’s “trust” in the sense of “I trust this ladder to bear my weight,” not trust in the sense of “I trust the people in this room not to kill me.” The latter is not merely predictive (“I’m 98% sure you’re not planning to kill me right now”) but an expression of a moral relation: I’m in your hands, and the fact I am so enjoins you not to act against me. This is not to deny that conspiracy theory can have dramatically corrosive effects on the body politic; indeed we’re arguably seeing that right now amidst the apparently tectonic shifts occurring in the relationship between media, politics, and citizenry. Nonetheless my point is primarily a scaled-up moral one rather than a scaled-down political one.

This brings us to the central point of disagreement here, which is premise 1). At least as phrased here, 1) seems to separate moral and epistemic issues that are in fact coimbricated right from the outset. That there is nothing prima facie epistemically false about conspiracy explanations simply as such is, to reiterate, now well established. But, as noted above, we never form our views in a moral vacuum, and that will (or should) have implications for the sort of theories we are prepared to entertain. In discussing my “reluctant particularism,” Basham notes that:

If “reluctant” means we will not immediately embrace a theory, but seek significant evidence for or against, then this is simply the particularist position. We have the same “reluctance” towards any scientific theory. This reluctance doesn’t view the theory as prima facie false. Saying a theory is not yet warranted is not to say it probably never will be, just because of the sort of theory it is.[5]

Quite right. But the comparison with science only goes so far, for we do not stand in a moral relation to the objects of scientific inquiry, at least as regards the purely scientific questions we pose of them; we do not do wrong by subatomic particles or nebulae by postulating theories about them that turn out to be false. Levelling a false accusation has a moral cost to it that proposing a flawed hypothesis in physics or chemistry, in itself at least, does not.

The Payoffs of Particularism

Basham takes it that when I discuss the moral cost of conspiracy accusation in this way, “the ‘immoral’ is a simple consequentialism.”[6] Consequences matter, and that is why I noted them in the case of AIDs denialism[7] in South Africa, but the claim is not fundamentally or solely a consequentialist one. If I publish a blog insisting without anything like credible evidence that Prince Philip had MI6 murder Diana, I’ve still wronged Prince Philip even if he never finds out or doesn’t care or suffers no other unwelcome effects of my accusation. But let’s dwell on consequences for a moment, as that is where Basham launches a defense of particularism.

Basham claims that particularism about conspiracy theory, characterized by “evidence-dissemination and open debate,” has in practice yielded various dividends, both in terms of confirming some conspiracy theories and refuting others. Two things need to be noted in response. The first is that all of the conspiracy theories Basham claims to have been defeated are alive and well: it will come as cold comfort to CDC employees harassed by anti-vaccination activists outside their workplace to hear that “The anti-vaccination movement has been profoundly undermined” and even less comfort to parents in places like the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, where vaccination levels, thanks to denialism, remain dangerously below herd immunity level.[8] The President of the United States has publically supported the idea of a link between vaccines and autism, and has reportedly discussed appointing antivax activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to chair a commission into the subject.[9] If this is a movement that has been profoundly undermined, one shudders to think what it looks like in rude health. It may also be true that, as Basham claims, “Many of the tenets of the 9/11 truth movement have been abandoned by its own members,”[10] but that movement has likewise hardly vanished; as Alex Jones has recently demonstrated, you can still go on TV and publically call 9/11 an inside job and Sandy Hook a hoax and still have the President-Elect of the United States call you to thank you and your viewers for their support.[11]

Secondly, Basham claims that particularism has made it possible for certain conspiracy theories to be confirmed. Specifically, he claims that “the Iraq war is now widely recognized in the West to be an act of political conspiracy on the part of the US and other Western governments, particularly those of Bush and Blair.”[12] But both “political conspiracy” and “widely recognized” (note that Basham does not simply say “widely believed”) are ambiguous here. If the claim is that the West unjustly pursued self-interested motives in invading Iraq under the cover of overblown WMD threats, that seems clearly true, but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of a conspiracy. One can act in self-interested ways without conspiring with others.[13] If the claim is rather that Bush, Blair, and other actors actively and explicitly colluded to fake intelligence about WMDs to provide a false justification for invading Iraq, then this is far from a “widely recognized” fact.

The Chilcot Report, for instance, is comprehensively damning about the UK Government’s decision to go to war, yet even it stops short of alleging a conspiracy, unless we think that a grotesque combination of motivated willful ignorance, hubris, and negligence somehow meets the definition of conspiracy used by epistemologists. Of course, it may yet emerge someday that there was a conspiracy: a phone transcript might yet surface of Bush telling Blair “Let’s milk this 9/11 thing by pretending Iraq has WMD and then invading to take their oil.” But I’d be willing to bet that if that does happen, it won’t emerge from the ranks of those now popularly referred to as conspiracy theorists. It will come, as it usually does, from whistleblowers and journalists. (Until recently, I’d have included Wikileaks in that list…)

That in no way invalidates the important point made, by Pigden and others, that the pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theory” makes it easier for political actors to deflect attention from legitimate questions. But then, if we want to stop the term being used to shut down proper scrutiny, we need to be honest about why the term has the pejorative connotations it has: the tradition to which the term is characteristically applied, and the attitudes, tropes, and patterns of argumentation employed by that tradition.

The Tracy Affair

I raised the case of James Tracy as an instance of morally reprehensible behavior licensed by conspiracy theory. I think this case illustrates a very specific problem: the way conspiracy theories tend to (and note I do not say any more than “tend to”) cause conspiracy theorists to make purely defensive accusations. Basham insists however that while Tracy’s actions were “misguided” as well as “immoral and imprudent,” the Tracy affair has “no epistemic relevance to how we should approach conspiracy theories as such.”[14] The “as such” clause here makes a degree of sense if, like Basham, one is committed to a purely epistemological analysis of conspiracy theory. But only a degree. The behavior in this case is not simply a matter of insensitivity or imprudence grafted onto an otherwise unrelated belief system. It’s a direct result of trying to defend that belief system from disconfirmation.

Imagine you meet someone who tells you their child has been killed. What would need to be the case for you to begin to suspect that they are lying not merely about the death of that child, but about the child’s very existence? Now imagine how strong those suspicions would need to be for you to demand that the person you’re talking prove, to your satisfaction, that their child had existed. The evidentiary bar here would have to be very high indeed.

But now imagine that the story of the dead child (call this story or set of propositions x) is flatly incompossible with another set of beliefs you happen to hold (call this set c). You have four options:

1) Accept x is true and accept c is false;
2) Reject x and insist c is true;
3) Accept x is true but try to find a way to make this fact compossible with the truth of c;
4) Remain agnostic as to which, if either, of x and c is true.

In this case, the more committed you are to c, the stronger the reasons you’ll have for rejecting 1) and 4). That leaves you with either 3)—which is hard work and may turn out not to be possible in a given case—or 2). In this case, Tracy’s c was the belief that Sandy Hook was staged, and he took option 2). It strains credulity, to say the least, to claim that Tracy simply noticed, independently of his antecedent commitment to Sandy Hook being a hoax, problems with the Pozeners’ story and accused them on that basis. He accused them because their story contradicted an interpretation of the events of 14 December 2014 that he accepted. Moreover, such an accusation of deceit is easier to make, because more parsimonious, if one is already committed to the existence of a conspiracy not simply to commit the act, but to hide the truth. That doesn’t mean such accusations are always and necessarily a feature of conspiracy theorizing.

Again, my claim goes to the typical features of conspiracy theory as a social phenomenon rather than a specific form of explanation. And it is frequent enough to be a particularly salient feature of the phenomenon. Tracy, after all, is not the only person to confront Sandy Hook parents and witnesses and accuse them of being crisis actors. Nor is Sandy Hook Trutherism the only form of conspiracy theory that generates this class of accusations.[15] When journalist Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward were shot dead on live television in August 2015, Parker’s boyfriend Chris Hurst found his grief compounded by conspiracy theorists insisting that Parker was a crisis actor, that she was not dead, that Hurst too was a crisis actor, that they had never had a relationship, and so on.[16] Again, this doubt is motivated not by any evidence that would be compelling independently of a conspiracy theory, but solely by a pre-existing disposition to believe the shooting was staged and that Parker and Ward (and by extension Hurst) must therefore be crisis actors—a claim made by, among others, James Tracy’s blog.[17]

As I understand it, Dentith’s current project seeks to develop heuristics for determinging when a conspiracy theory claim is and is not worthy of being taken seriously enough to investigate it—in other words, something like the non-absolutist particularism I’m endorsing and Basham rejects. If we’re developing heuristics for when we should and should not investigate conspiracy claims, then

Does taking this theory seriously enough to investigate it require me to dismiss grieving parents as frauds, under conditions in which there exist no compelling theory-independent reasons to think they are? If so, don’t take this theory seriously enough to investigate it.

— isn’t a bad start.

A Final Word on Trust

One thing that this discussion has made clear to me is that radically different foundational views of the role of trust are in play here. In my initial reply I only alluded to this parenthetically, and it is clear that more needs to be said, if only to clarify what underlies the divergences. A fuller working out of this point will need to wait for another occasion. For now, it’s worth simply noting where the underlying views of the normativity of trust differ.

The philosophical literature on conspiracy theory largely embeds a calculative view of trust. When most philosophers ask “How much should we trust our society’s sources of information?” they are asking a question about reliability: “On past performance, how much confidence should we have that these institutions are telling the truth and/or acting in a way consistent with their stated commitments to acting in our interests?” There is, as Dentith notes, no way of determining in advance just how conspired the world really is.[18] But nonetheless, it is not unconspired—conspiracies occur, and most philosophers working on this topic take conspiracy to be a more pervasive feature of social and political life than we usually assume, and think we should calibrate our suspicions accordingly.

David Coady, for instance, explicitly endorses a sort of Aristotelian account of trust, according to which “the intellectual virtue of realism is a golden mean between the intellectual vices of paranoia and naivety.”[19] Thus, our phronetic judgement should aim to be just suspicious enough. Alasdair MacIntyre[20] has offered a similar account of ideal trust as a mean between excessive suspicion and credulity, arrived at through a long process of moral training: learning who to trust, and when, and how much.[21]

Yet trust as an interpersonal and moral phenomenon is not simply a matter of calculating and responding to reliability. For one thing, it involves mutual responsiveness to need, taking the fact the other person knows I am reliant on them to be a reason for them to act consistent with my interests.[22]

We know that not everyone is trustworthy in that sense. Basham tells us that “Human life is conspiratorial. We can face this, embrace it, but if we deny it, we empower it in the worst way.”[23] People lie, cheat, and steal, and sometimes they conspire in order to do so. But human life is also predicated on foundational, non-calculative trust. When I walk into a room I don’t mentally calculate the odds of you trying to kill me, not because I’ve previously assured myself that the odds too low to worry about, but because of that default background trust that is a condition for social life. As K.E. Løgstrup put it, trust is both conceptually and ontogenetically primary, distrust secondary; without that foundational trust the sphere of human life falls apart.[24] Accordingly, our judgments of what to believe of other people are guided by heuristics that are not merely epistemic in character, but also ethical. Giving “the benefit of the doubt” is not, or not typically, merely a judgement about the reliability of the other party, but an expression of that normative default attitude towards others.

This picture of foundational trust sits awkwardly, to say the least, with the standing vigilance required to maintain a democratic polity. There are always good reasons to be suspicious of power of all forms, both overt and covert, explicit and intrinsic. The work of identifying and uncovering power relations is indispensable, and it seems to involve a relentless and remorseless hermeneutics of suspicion. That tension—between foundational trust and vigilance—is a real and seemingly permanent feature of political and social life. What I have called “reluctance” here is an expression of that tension, an awareness of being caught between the duty to view others as good faith interlocutors and the duty to uncover wrong-doing. The sort of generalized, eager suspicion involved in entertaining and advancing conspiracy theories abandons that reluctance, and thereby misses that central dimension of human sociality. In a world full of untrustworthy people, the demand of trust remains.

Or, to quote the US President who presided over the Gulf of Tonkin conspiracy, himself misquoting W.H. Auden: “We must love each other, or we must die.”

References

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

Coady, David. “An Introduction to the Philosophical Debate about Conspiracy Theories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 1-12. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006a.

Coady, David. “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories.” In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited David Coady, 115-127. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006b.

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

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

Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (April 1982): 127-36.

Jones, Karen. “Trustworthiness.” Ethics 123, no. 1 (2012): 61-85.

Løgstrup, Knud Ejler. The Ethical Demand. Translated by Theodor I. Jensen, Gary Puckering, and Eric Watkins. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Human Nature and Human Dependence: What Might a Thomist Learn from Reading Løgstrup?” In Concern for the Other: Perspectives on the Ethics of K. E. Løgstrup, edited by Svend Andersen and Kees van Kooten Niekerk, 147-166. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Pigden, Charles. “‘Popper Revisited,’ or What Is Wrong With Conspiracy Theories?” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25, no. 1 (1995): 3-34.

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

Stokes, Patrick. “Spontaneity and Perfection: MacIntyre vs. Løgstrup.” In What is Ethically Demanded? K. E. Løgstrup’s Philosophy of Moral, edited by Hans Fink and Robert Stern, 275-299. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

[1] Ibid., 5.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 10-11.

[4] Hence I don’t see how my paper “implies the existence of popular conspiracy theory at work in the populace and then infers that this belief must be efficacious in apparent medication refusal” (Basham 2016, 10 n.23).

[5] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 6.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Basham (2016, 10) is right to note that denialism per se is not the same thing as conspiracy theory. But AIDS denialism of various forms, much like other familiar forms of denialism—climate, vaccination etc.—does end up embedding conspiracy explanations either on the level of core theory or on the level of auxiliary hypotheses meant to sandbag the theory against disconfirmation. If I insist the world isn’t warming due to human activity, or that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and yet the knowledge-generating mechanisms of society (academia, government research bodies, public health authorities etc.) keep insisting the contrary, I am forced to conclude the people who populate these mechanisms are collectively deluded, incompetent, or corrupt. The denialists just mentioned tend, with dispiriting regularity, to plump for the last option, even if they are not logically required to.

[8] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8.

[9] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-11/donald-trump-appoints-vaccine-sceptic/8174560

[10] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 8-9.

[11] http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/trump-thanked-alex-jones-231329

[12] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 10.

[13] Consider the category of ‘quasi-conspiracies’: if all actors in a given context know that if they all act in certain ways the outcome will be better for all of them, and know that all the other actors know this too, they can act in a way that looks co-ordinated but in fact involves no actual collusion (Pigden 1995, 32 n.30; Coady 2006a, 5-6). Hence when an apprehended criminal gang all refuse to confess, this isn’t strictly a ‘conspiracy of silence’: they all just know if they each keep their mouth shut, they’ll all be better off than if any one of them spills the beans.

[14] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 12.

[15] As I write this, local media is reporting that a conspiracy theorist phoned a Melbourne hospital posing as a friend of a patient injured in a mass-casualty event, apparently hoping to prove the event was staged and the injured woman’s story was fake. http://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/news/australian-actor-impersonated-family-of-bourke-st-victims-in-calls-to-hospitals/news-story/d9be5da3a809ddf7bdaa58a96a54fc4e

[16] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/13/what-do-you-say-to-a-roanoke-truther.html This ‘the bereaved aren’t visibly upset enough in public so they must be lying’ trope is a depressingly recurrent one that extends far beyond conspiracy theory. Australians a few years older than myself will recall Lindy Chamberlain being accused of seeming too composed to be the grieving mother of a baby taken by a wild dingo she claimed to be. Chamberlain was convicted of murder, imprisoned, and subsequently exonerated when new evidence emerged; in 2012 a coroner found that a dingo had, in fact, taken baby Azaria. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

[17] http://memoryholeblog.com/2015/08/30/crisis-actors-alison-parker-and-adam-ward/ (Warning: on my most recent attempt to access this page [9 February 2017], Safari returned a malware warning)

[18] Denith, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories.

[19] Coady, “Conspiracy Theories and Official Stories,” 126.

[20] MacIntyre, “Human Nature and Human Dependence.”

[21] On MacIntyre’s Aristotelian account of trust, which he offers in opposition to Løgstrup’s view of trust as foundational, see Stokes 2017.

[22] Jones, “Trustworthiness.”

[23] Basham, “Between Two Generalisms,” 13.

[24] Løgstrup, The Ethical Demand.

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

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

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

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conspirators

Image credit: Jes, via flickr

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

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

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

Misrepresentation En Masse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They claim that our position:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Naive Empiricism

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

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

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

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

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

A Case of Special Pleading

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

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

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

Specifically, they ask:

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

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

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

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

For example, they claim:

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

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

So, what is their definition?

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

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

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

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

The Crux of the Matter

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image credit: Fabrizio Angius, via flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image credit: Mikey, via flickr

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

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

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

Subject at Hand, Social Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Public Trust Approach (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral Issues

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

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

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

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

2) Many popular conspiracy theories cause harm;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tracy Affair

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Jacob Surland, via flickr

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

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

The Alleged Problem of Particularism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conspiracy Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defence of Conspiracy Theorising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

“Conspiracy, n.” 2011. “OED Online.” http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/39766; Oxford University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., 35.

[6] Ibid., 37.

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Cubitt, The Jesuit Myth.

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

[14] Pagán, Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History.

[15] Pagán, Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature.

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

[17] Byford, Conspiracy Theories, 18.

[18] Ibid., ch. 2.

[19] Ibid., ch. 3.

[20] Ibid., ch. 6.

[21] Ibid., ch. 7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Patrick Stokes, Deakin University, patrick.stokes@deakin.edu.au

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

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

Please refer to:

conspiracy_erase

Image credit: Mikey, via flickr

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

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

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

Conspiracy Explanation and Conspiracy Theory

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

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

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

Conspiracy Theorising as Practice and Tradition

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

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

Reasons to be Reticent

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

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

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

1. Rational evaluation defeats weakly evidenced conspiracy theories;

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

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

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

Beyond Particularism

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts, Malcolm. “‘Why?’ Motives Driving Climate Fraud.” http://www.conscious.com.au/docs/new/14_Appendix.pdf.

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

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

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

[3]. Ibid, 1.

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

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

[6]. Pigden, “Complots of Mischief.”

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

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

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

[10]. Ibid, 7.

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

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

[13]. Byford, Conspiracy Theories.

[14]. Roberts, “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College, 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: Matthew R. X. Dentith, University of Auckland, m.dentith@episto.org

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

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

Please refer to:

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 16.08.50

Image credit: cobalt123, via flickr

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

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College, 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:

conspiracy

Image credit: Alexander Mueller, via flickr

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

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