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Why we should not dismiss conspiracy theories

by Matthew Dentith

Often when we think of conspiracy theories we also think of conspiracy theorists. There’s David Icke and his theory that the world is secretly controlled by blood drinking, alien shape-shifting reptiles. Then there’s Glenn Beck, who worries that the world is controlled by a combination of liberals and socialists who want to destroy America and American values. Icke and Beck are big, identifiable names in the conspiracy theory literature, and their views are rightfully treated with disdain by most of us.

Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of conflating the wackiness of some conspiracy theorists – like Icke and Beck – with the question of whether it is a rational to believe a particular conspiracy theories.

Think of it this way: it would be silly to dismiss the thesis of atheism just because we can point towards some atheists who have less than rigorous reasons for believing that God does not exist. The truth or falsity of the thesis of atheism is a fact independent of what we believe about the world. Either there are Gods or there are not.

However, what makes atheism a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold depends both on the evidence and the arguments they put forward in support of their position. In the same way, what makes a conspiracy theory a rational or reasonable belief for someone to hold also depends on arguments and evidence, and it would be a mistake to dismiss someone’s belief in a conspiracy theory merely because Glenn Beck also believes it.

One person who expresses this worry is Robin Ramsay, the editor of “Lobster”, a British para-political magazine. Ramsay argues that we often confuse what we take to be problems with the reasoning of certain conspiracy theorists –  like David Icke and Glenn Beck – with issues to do with belief in conspiracy theories generally. While we can single out a sub-set of conspiracy theorists who believe that ‘nothing happens by accident’ this tells us nothing particularly interesting about whether belief in conspiracy theories tends to be irrational. After all, while conspiracy theorists who assume the existence of conspiracies without good reason certainly do exist, they are, in the end, just a subset of the larger group of conspiracy theorists.

Luckily, there is a way to respect the pejorative claim that “They’re just a conspiracy theorist”, but only if we are willing to distinguish between belief in conspiracy theories and the thesis of conspiracism. Conspiracism describes a particular problem with belief in conspiracy theories on the part of certain conspiracy theorists, or what we should properly call ‘conspiracists’ – someone who believes in the existence of a conspiracy without good reason.

Conspiracism is a folk-psychological thesis. When we say: ‘They’re just a conspiracy theorist’ what we are really saying is: ‘Look, this person believes some conspiracy theory pathologically.’ Conspiracists are not merely wrong to think some event was caused by a conspiracy – i.e. they have not just made a faulty inference – they have, rather, jumped to the conclusion a conspiracy is the best explanation. However, analysing conspiracy theories solely through the lens of conspiracism turns out to be problematic, because, after all, conspiracism assumes that belief in conspiracy theories is prima facie irrational.

This is not to say that discussions about the psychology of particular conspiracy theorists should be off-limits. Rather, we should not let folk-psychological theses about the rationality of certain types of conspiracy theorists – conspiracists – influence discussion about whether particular conspiracy theories can be warranted.

People like David Icke and Glen Beck might be the kind of people we immediately think of when we hear the term ‘conspiracy theorist’, but this does not make them typical. Rather, they are significant and thus prominent, but nothing about that significance or prominence tells us anything about how typical they are with respect to the wider group of conspiracy theorists.

Which gets us to the nub of the problem: under what conditions is belief in a particular conspiracy theory irrational, and when is belief in conspiracy theories, in general, pathological? Answering the former question does not necessarily tell us much about the latter.

So, whatever we believe about the potentially pathological psychology of conspiracists, this does not tell us anything particularly useful about the merits – or lack thereof – of individual conspiracy theories. We cannot use our skepticism of the beliefs of particular individuals like Beck and Icke to justify a suspicion of an entire field of theories, which span from the utterly mundane to the bewildering complex.

If that were the case, then Republicans of a certain stripe would be justified in thinking Anthropogenic Climate Change was not occurring merely because some Democrats believe it as a matter of dogma, rather than because they have looked at the evidence. Yet damning belief in conspiracy theories generally because of the beliefs of certain conspiracists is rife in public discourse, even though it turns out to be, at best, a mistaken reaction to the absurdity of some conspiracists and their peculiar conspiracy theories.

If, in the end, there really is an argument which justifies the common sense intuition people have that belief in conspiracy theories is bunk, it will not be based upon a view – like conspiracism – which assumes conspiracy theories are irrational. Rather, it will come out of the analysis of these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ and examining in depth just how hard (or easy) it is to show that they are warranted.

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This post is adapted from chapter 3 of Matthew Dentith's forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, which will be published on November 8. Matthew speaks at TedX Christchurch on November 1.

Matthew also has a PledgeMe campaign to help him raise the money to travel to Miami to present a paper at the Conference on Conspiracy Theories at the University of Miami next March. He would welcome your contribution and offers a range of intriguing rewards to donors.

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