Tuesday, 17 January 2023

Rethinking Conspiracy Theories

Today's post is by Matthew Shields at Wake Forest University, on his recent paper “Rethinking Conspiracy Theories” in Synthese

Matthew Shields

What do you think of when you think of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists? The first image that typically comes to mind are individuals on dark corners of the internet spinning bizarre tales to explain some major event: that the moon landing was faked, that 9/11 was an “inside job”, that Sandy Hook was a false flag, or that Princess Diana was assassinated. You’re in good company: a great deal of the academic research on the topic takes just these cases to be paradigmatic of what and who conspiracy theories and theorists are. Many philosophers have followed suit. Researchers then go on to defend claims such as the following: conspiracy theorists are political extremists, not well-off socioeconomically, less educated, amateurs who lack and repudiate the relevant expert credentials. The problem of conspiracy theories, in turn, should be solved via state interventions and improving our practices of intellectual and moral education.

In my paper “Rethinking Conspiracy Theories”, I argue that these claims are all false or in need of radical revision, and I argue that this is so by these researchers’ and philosophers’ own lights. 

To see why, consider the two most influential views according to which conspiracy theories are inherently flawed. On the first, conspiracy theories are epistemically self-sealed: no amount of counterevidence will change the conspiracy theorist’s mind. On the second, conspiracy theories are primarily forms of political propaganda and therefore fall prey to a host of epistemic flaws. 

Suppose these views, or some combination of them, are right. Are the cases we started with the best examples of this phenomenon? Note a striking feature they have in common: they are all views espoused by individuals who are not part of the dominant political, economic, media, or educational institutions of their societies. (I call them ‘Non-DITs’: Non-Dominant Institution Conspiracy Theories and Theorists.) Perhaps this is no coincidence. It’s at the margins, some would argue, where we should expect to find uniquely flawed beliefs. But defenders of these philosophical views also concede, if only in passing, that individuals who are part of the dominant institutional landscape can also be conspiracy theorists, as they understand the latter.

In the paper, I argue that this is not only possible, but that conspiracy theories fabricated and promoted by those in positions of dominant institutional power are by far the best examples of the phenomena these philosophers take themselves to be identifying. I look in-depth at the Iraq-Al Qaeda conspiracy theory created and promoted by the Bush administration and the domestic and global McCarthyism scares promoted by both major American political parties. Both are ‘DITs’ (Dominant Institution Conspiracy Theories and Theorists). DITs, I show, are a much clearer form of political propaganda because they have a far more coherent political agenda in contrast to the mishmash of political beliefs behind Non-DITs. DITs are also more epistemically insulated because there is enormous institutional pressure not to dissent from the theory.

Moreover, DITs cause the most harm, and researchers tell us that we should study conspiracy theorists and theories precisely because of the harms they cause. By their very nature, DITs are produced by institutions with the largest share of resources and power, and their harms reflect this fact: wars are fought because of them, countries destroyed, atrocities committed.

Given philosophers’ own arguments regarding the flaws of conspiracy theories and the harms they cause, we therefore have excellent reason to treat DITs as our central examples rather than the cases that have dominated the academic literature. But if we do make this shift in paradigm cases, we will end up with very different conclusions: conspiracy theorists, it turns out, are primarily produced by those who adopt “mainstream” political ideologies, rather than the supposed extremists; they are often created and pushed by the best educated and most well off socioeconomically, by those widely viewed as experts and who have the backing of our most prestigious intellectual institutions. 

Our understanding of who conspiracy theorists are, why they believe what they believe, and how resulting harms should be combatted must therefore all change radically if researchers in this literature are to remain true to their central claims.

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