“Investigating Conspiracy Theories: The case for treating conspiracy theories seriously, even the (apparently) ridiculous ones” The term ‘conspiracy theory’ gets a bad rap in public discourse. Recent academic work – particularly in History, Philosophy and Sociology – has convincingly argued that conspiracy theories do not deserve their bad reputation; conspiracies don’t just happen but many pejoratively-labelled ‘conspiracy theories’ have turned out to be warranted. But what would it be like to treat such theories seriously enough to engage in a systemic investigation of them? How do we sort good theories from bad? What counts as evidence for or against a conspiracy? Just who would investigate such theories? Drawing together a swath of recent academic work on these things we call ‘conspiracy theories’ I argue that we ought to treat conspiracy theories seriously and investigate them, even if that means sometimes we have to ponder whether alien shape-shifting reptiles run our governments.
Conspiracy theories are typically thought to be examples of irrational beliefs, and thus unlikely to be warranted. However, recent work in Philosophy has challenged the claim that belief in conspiracy theories is irrational, showing that in a range of cases, belief in conspiracy theories is warranted. However, it is still often said that conspiracy theories are unlikely relative to non-conspiratorial explanations which account for the same phenomena. However, such arguments turn out to rest upon how we define what gets counted both as a ‘conspiracy’ and a ‘conspiracy theory’, and such arguments rest upon shaky assumptions. It turns out that it is not clear that conspiracy theories are prima facie unlikely, and so the claim that such theories do not typically appear in our accounts of the best explanations for particular kinds of events needs to be reevaluated.
Matthew R. X. Dentith completed his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Auckland. He works in epistemology and argumentation theory. He is the author of ‘The philosophy of conspiracy theories’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
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Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom Revisited
Conspiracy theories should be neither believed nor investigated - that is the conventional wisdom. I argue that it is sometimes permissible both to investigate and to believe. Hence this is a dispute in the ethics of belief. I defend epistemic ‘oughts’ that apply in the first instance to belief-forming strategies that are partly under our control. I argue that the policy of systematically doubting or disbelieving conspiracy theories would be both a political disaster and the epistemic equivalent of self-mutilation, since it leads to the conclusion that history is bunk and the nightly news unbelievable. In fact (of course) the policy is not employed systematically but is only wheeled on to do down theories that the speaker happens to dislike. I develop a deductive argument from hard-to-deny premises that if you are not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ in my anodyne sense of the word then you are an ‘idiot’ in the Greek sense of the word, that is, someone so politically purblind as to have no opinions about either history or public affairs. The conventional wisdom can only be saved (if at all) if ‘conspiracy theory’ is given a slanted definition. I discuss some slanted definitions apparently presupposed by proponents of the conventional wisdom (including, amongst others, Tony Blair) and conclude that even with these definitions the conventional wisdom comes out as deeply unwise. I finish up with a little harmless fun at the expense of David Aaronvitch whose abilities as a rhetorician and a popular historian are not perhaps matched by a corresponding capacity for logical thought.
Charles R Pigden, University of Otago, Philosophy Department, Faculty Member