by Lee Basham and Matthew R. X. Dentith
Theories about conspiracy theories are rife, with historians, cultural studies scholars, psychologists and sociologists all contributing to the ongoing debate as to whether belief in conspiracy theories is, in fact, irrational, what kind of people believe conspiracy theories, and what, if anything, should we do about the prevalence of belief in them. So, what say the philosophers? In the last two decades philosophers like Charles Pigden, Brian L. Keeley, David Coady and, yes, ourselves, have taken a close look at conspiracy theories, and the news is in: belief in conspiracy theories is not irrational and the conspiracy theorist, despite the opprobrium expressed towards her, has emerged as good a thinker as you or us. Their theories are intriguing, and often constructed with a careful eye to the standards of both logic and evidence that we all share. “They” are just like us. In fact, “they” are us. Charles Pigden's simple observation, well-summarized by David Coady, ably demonstrates this.
1) Unless you believe that the reports of history books and the nightly news are largely false, you are a conspiracy theorist.
2) If you do believe that the reports of history books and the nightly news are largely false, you are a conspiracy theorist.
Conclusion: We're all conspiracy theorists.
This conclusion, however, flies in the face of a recent article published in Aeon, “Bad thinkers”, by the University of Warwick's Quassim Cassam. Cassam wants us to accept the common wisdom that belief in conspiracy theories is problematic. Like Richard Hofstadter and Karl Popper before him, Cassam takes it that the problem with conspiracy theories lies not so much to do with the theories themselves but, rather, in the intellectual character of those who would believe them. Which is to say that rather than judging conspiracy theories on the evidence, our suspicion of them comes out of worries about the kind of people who turn out to be conspiracy theorists. After all, most of us have been in a situation where, when presented with a long list of reasons to believe some conspiracy theory, our immediate response has been to focus our attention on the character of our conspiratorial companion. However, Cassam's argument for why this is the right move for us to make doesn't just mistake political piety for intellectual virtue, but treats a willingness to challenge political beliefs as mere gullibility.
In “Bad thinkers” Cassam introduces us to Oliver, of whom he says:
“Like many of his friends, Oliver thinks he is an expert on 9/11. He spends much of his spare time looking at conspiracist websites and his research has convinced him that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, of 11 September 2001 were an inside job. The aircraft impacts and resulting fires couldn't have caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse. The only viable explanation, he maintains, is that government agents planted explosives in advance. He realises, of course, that the government blames Al-Qaeda for 9/11 but his predictable response is pure Mandy Rice-Davies: they would say that, wouldn't they?”
And they would. According to Cassam, Oliver's problem – his belief in conspiracy theories – is rooted in the kind of thinker Oliver is. So, let us contrast Oliver with Olivia, his opposite and counterpart. Olivia also thinks she is an expert on 9/11; she has read the 9/11 Commission Report, and frequents debunking sites like Popular Mechanics. She is convinced 9/11 was the result of terrorist activity by Al-Qaeda, and that there is nothing to be said for the conspiracy theories which claim 9/11 was an inside job. Like Oliver, her beliefs about 9/11 are – in the words of Cassam – “the result of the peculiarities of her intellectual constitution – in a word, of her intellectual character.”
Cassam, like many of us who think and care deeply about conspiracy theories, has taken the time to cautiously look through the complex evidence and arguments offered for them. Perhaps, naturally, he has come to the conclusion that one particular theory, say about 9/11, is warranted. However he makes the mistake of assuming that everyone else – his fellow travellers like Olivia – have gone through a similar process. Yet this assumption is not something we should endorse without further thought. Indeed, we would be very gullible to make that assumption. People like Olivia – people who believe, for example, that the best explanation of 9/11 is that Al-Qaeda were behind it – are just as likely to be conspiracy theory skeptics because of the oft-repeated, common sense wisdom that conspiracy theories are bunk. Few of us have actually taken the time to investigate these theories for themselves, after all. Why should we? We all know that conspiracy theorists are weird, right?
Yet this is a surprising claim when you think about it. If it were true, it would undermine a lot of our understanding of history, for example. According to most of our historians – ancient and recent – history is replete with intrigue and conspiracy. From the assassination of Julius Caesar, to the Moscow Show Trials, to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and even the invasion of Iraq in 2002. Historians do not doubt that conspiracies occur. Indeed, many of them are willing to challenge orthodox or official accounts that deny conspiratorial activity and call some of our warranted and orthodox theories what they are: conspiracy theories. So, it cannot be the case that the problem with conspiracy theories is that they are theories about conspiracies.
Ah, but you see, Oliver – so it turns out – is the kind of person who believes lots of conspiracy theories. Cassam uses Oliver's utterly wanton belief in conspiracy theories – what social psychologists call a “conspiracy mentality” – to argue that his character and intellectual conduct is questionable. However, Cassam gets to that conclusion solely because Oliver is an effigy, someone who is gullible and also just happens to also be a conspiracy theorist. Cassam's argument begs the question. He wants to understand why we are suspicious of conspiracy theorists, so he posits someone whose views are naturally suspicious. So, the fact that Oliver has suspicious views and also happens to be a conspiracy theorist as well does not tell us that conspiracy theories are, in general, suspicious. No, all it tells us is that some conspiracy theorists also happen to believe weird things.
Think of it this way: if Oliver were just a conspiracy theorist about 9/11, then we might well think that he has some grounds for believing 9/11 was an inside job. After all, Oliver could point to discrepancies in the official theory, and raise questions as to whether jet fuel really could have weakened the support structures of the Twin Towers, leading to their gravitational collapse. That is to say, Oliver's belief is likely predicated on the citation of evidence and arguments. Most of us are simply will not be in the position to judge Oliver's interpretation of the complex arguments 9/11 Truthers offer, which often rely on detailed, scientific (or scientific-sounding) evidence. It is for that reason that a philosopher should continue conversing with Oliver (and his friends), ferreting out the evidence, asking careful questions, and identifying their rational strategies. It is the only way – time consuming as it is –to settle questions about the rationality of the theory in question, and, by extension, its advocates. Indeed, a quick review of popular conspiracy theory websites, as well as dozens of interviews conducted over the last decade with self-identified conspiracy theorists reveals the evidence attentive adherents of popular conspiracy theories amass is impressive. These people are not crazy, nor are they beholden to some intellectual vice. Rather, they are ask sensible questions, and look at the evidence, often in a refreshing way. Maybe not every theory they put forward is true, but then again, that's true of all of us. Remember, we are all conspiracy theorists.
However, according to Cassam Oliver is just gullible – no matter the evidence he accrues for in support of the conspiracy theory – and thus we should dismiss his belief in conspiracy theories as merely being a product of an intellectual vice. Still, even if we accept Cassam's conclusion about the intellectual vice of conspiracy theorists, gullibility is only a character flaw for some conspiracy theorists. After all, Inside Job and Holocaust Denialism conspiracy theories – two of the exemplar cases Cassam cites – are not the only game in town. For years people talked about cover-ups by the police and the intelligence services, and many of these “conspiracy theories” have been vindicated. Maybe they are no longer conspiracy theories because they are somehow official, but they were conspiracy theories in the sense Cassam discusses until only recently: are we to say that all the people who posited them and believed them were gullible? If we think the problem of belief is one of intellectual character, then it turns out those of us who trusted the government's dismissal of those claims – phrased as being “merely conspiracy theories” – were the ones suffering from the intellectual vice of gullibility.
The problem for Cassam's argument is that it relies on characterising belief in conspiracy theories solely along the lines of theories many of us already think are unwarranted. Cassam's argument, then, ends up assuming the very thing he is trying to prove. Conspiracy theories are bad, and so it must follow belief in conspiracy theories is indicative of conspiracy theorists suffering from some intellectual vice, which in turn tells us that belief in conspiracy theories is bad.
So, what might an actual 9/11 conspiracy theorist say, if you asked them why they believe that Al-Qaeda could not possibly be responsible? Look no further than philosopher Kurtis Hagen, physicist Steve Jones, architect Richard Gage, all of whom have called into question the official theory of 9/11. Whatever we think of them and their arguments, the word “gullible” does not leap to mind, despite what Cassam would have us believe. None of this is about whether the US government was really responsible for the events of 9/11. We are not here to push any particular conspiracy theory. Rather, we are concerned about how we best respond to accusations of conspiracy. The reason Cassam's Oliver gets to have one and only one reason for his suspicions is so we can quickly jump to the conclusion he suffers from some ominous mental pathology. But Oliver is an effigy, built to get us to agree to toe the party line that conspiracy theories are bunk, that they are bad, and that we should prefer non-conspiratorial explanations. But how do we identify views which are bad except with, and only by, thinking critically about them?
This gets us to the meat of Cassam's piece, his policy recommendation for our future, “Educating for intellectual virtue”. If that's really what it is – rather than really instilling politically motivated blinders, telling us how to think and so what not to – then that may be all very well and fine. But in talking about conspiracy theories he's toying withmedicalizing dissent. In their intellectual vice, conspiracy theorists (“them”) suffer from a mental disorder, one we must “do something about”. Cassam writes:
“You also need to be motivated to do something about them, and actually be able to do something about them….[we need] the development of academic training for students to encourage and equip them not only to think critically but to challenge unacceptable views….What if Oliver is too far gone?…the only remedy in such cases is to try to mitigate the harm their vices do to themselves and to others….Some defects are incurable.”
If there's a perennial vice of the mind, here it is: if we can't rationally, fairly persuade “Bad thinkers”, then we are going to try to cure them of their bad thoughts. And when we fail? We will mitigate them, minimize their harm to others and themselves. Notice this has nothing to do with whether Oliver's right or not. As ominous as this is, Cassam really means it.
So, what does Cassam want his students of tomorrow to do to the Olivers of tomorrow? He never says. We're left to read between the lines. But his menacing policy recommendation, whatever its many realizations, is quite surprising for a philosopher. We know where that road always leads. Socrates' views made the unacceptable list, too, when he cast doubt on the core pieties of his own day, and that was motive enough to challenge him; the mitigators of old Athens felt no need to resort to critical thinking to dutifully arrest and imprison the man. Eventually he was even cured. But unlike old Athens, a real democracy is premised on dissent not subject to cures of any kind. Cassam's “Bad Thinkers” is perilous thinking.
We identify rationally unacceptable views by, and only by, thinking critically about the evidence, and we communicate our conclusion by providing others our reasons. But Cassam explicitly distinguishes thinking critically from challenging unacceptable views. What could his future call to “challenge” them mean? It can't be “openly disagree” because people obviously do that now, in print, in person, on the internet, with most everyone about most everything—conspiracy theorists and their theories included—billions of times a day, often passionately, sometimes angrily. His “challenge them” can't be that. We already do that, with gusto. It can only be a euphemism for something much more aggressive and disciplinary. Censorship? Public humiliation? Loss of promotion or even employment? What is it? Old vices in new clothes have an easy way of returning to our lives. This week's fashion is challenge. There are many such vices; they begin with thoughts and talk of solutions and cures, and end in tears.
Cassam's “gullibility” story not just expresses but exploits a wonderful irony. “Gullible” points to a very particular kind of vulnerability, which is the unspoken seductive appeal of Cassam's approach. “Gullible” is not a mere synonym for “stupid”. True, the stupid will often be gullible, but the gullible need not be stupid. If you're “gullible” you're easily fooled, and to exhibit it, at some point you need to get fooled. Gullibility, closely related to naiveté, isn't just susceptibility to poor or little evidence, it pinpoints a very specific susceptibility: to clever or charming liars, con-artists, seducers; to those who skilfully, intentionally mislead others, “I was gullible, I believed her beautiful lies”. Gullibility takes getting fooled, and getting fooled takes someone who fools you.
This “gullibility” entails another truly ominous idea: Conspiracy theorists aren't just wrong, they're victims, they've been fooled. So are we, if we agree. As these theories spread among the gullible masses, deceivers are snickering in the darkness. Somewhere down the chain of gullibility, at the birth of every obnoxious conspiracy theory, are cruel tricksters and intellectual pranksters, in it for the fame, the money or the turmoil they can cause. Enemies of society, soon co-operating. If the scam really takes off, popularity soars, they work together, sharing conversion strategies, public dissemination opportunities, pointing to each other's “evidence”, stroking each other's reputation, standing together for “truth”, the way the captains of political or religious cults do. Here's the irony: since we're sure Cassam understands the niceties of “gullible”, his theory looks to be the conspiracy theory of conspiracy theorists. At this point we can't help but wonder, who really are the paranoid in this story?
Which is all to say that if Cassam insists he has a “non-fooled” sense of “gullible” in mind, then we should point out he is just using the wrong word. The word he really wants is “stupid”. And that, to put it gently, is an implausible take on most conspiracy theorists.
Our predicament gets worse. Gullibility goes both ways; not just for the few Olivers but for the many Olivias, too. You can be gullible in the sense that you can be willing to believe something that you would like to be true. This can can easily be exploited, by both individuals and by co-operating parties. You do not need to be deceived by beautifulliars and lies to be gullible. Sometimes even rank amateurs can engage our gullible natures because they are selling something we want to believe. Americans, for example, have historically distrusted both their government and their political parties. Yet even though the Democrats and Republicans are often equally detested, the message they sell the American people – that everything is fine and nothing wrong is going on behind closed doors – is something people want to believe. The same is true of the arms of that government; the CIA, the NSA, the Police, and yet it turns out that it's not the case everything is fine and, yes, there's plenty of wrong things going on behind closed doors. They are the ones who have a vested interest in making sure we continue to call pejoratively call theories about what they are up to “conspiracy theories” If gullibility is a vice, it's one that affects everyone, not just those pejoratively labeled “conspiracy theorists”. Pejorative labels, even about intellectual character, are not the answer. Only critical thinking is.
So, the final irony: don't we all want to believe we live in a world where conspiracies are rare and thus conspiracy theories are the kind of thing we should not believe, should not tolerate? Yet, who's really gullible in this case? Is it the conspiracy theorists, who often come up with nuanced, evidence-based analyses, or the people who pledge political piety because asking questions might reveal things about the world in which they live they don't want to know?
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Basham, Lee, “Conspiracy Theories and Rationality” in Beyond Rationality (eds. Jensen, Carl and Harré, Rome), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011
Cassam, Quassim “Bad Thinkers”, Aeon, March 2015, http://aeon.co/magazine/philosophy/intellectual-character-of-conspiracy-theorists/
Coady, David “Are Conspiracy Theorists Irrational?”, Episteme, 2007, iss. 193
Dentith, Matthew R. X. “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories”, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Hagen, Kurtis 'Is Infiltration of “Extremist Groups” Justified', International Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 24, iss. 2, 2010
Hofstadter, Richard “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays, Knopf, 1965
Jones, Steven E. “Revisiting 9/11/2001 –Applying the Scientific Method”, Journal of 9/11 Studies, May, 2007
Keeley, Brian L. “Of Conspiracy Theories”, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 96, iss. 3, 1999
Pigden, Charles “Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom Revisited” in Secrets and Conspiracies (ed. Loukola, Olli), Rodopi, Forthcoming
Popper, Karl “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1969
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About the authors
Lee Basham is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at South Texas College, University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. His most recent paper on the philosophy of conspiracy theories, co-authored with Juha Räikkâ, “Conspiracy Theory Phobia” comes out next year.
Matthew R. X. Dentith is an epistemologist who gained his PhD in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Auckland. He is the author of “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), regularly blogs about the conspriacy theories of Aotearoa (New Zealand) conspiracy theories (http://episto.org) and is the co-host of “The Podcaster's Guide to the Conspiracy (http://conspiracism.podbean.com)