The Epistemology of Conspiracy Theories


Daniel Cohnitz and the lizard-people




Recent years have seen significant growth in conspiracy theories. This can't be a coincidence. This tutorial will examine this topic from a philosophical perspective of epistemology, focusing on the rationality of belief systems and the conditions for the justifiedness of knowledge claims. In connection with conspiracy theories, this raises fundamental questions of social epistemology, such as the criteria for distinguishing experts from novices, the social-epistemic mechanisms of belief formation in groups, and the social epistemology of information providers (e.g., the news media). The aim of this tutorial – and line of research Cohnitz is developing – is to understand why conspiracy theories gained in popularity, how people can learn to identify (and thus avoid) implausible conspiracy theories, and how institutions can be protected from conspiracies and regain the trust of their audience.
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M. R. X. Denith: The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, Palgrave 2014
D. Coady (ed.): Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, Ashgate 2006

As an appetizer, here is a presentation about one of my favorite conspiracy theories:

Detailed description:

Despite their growing popularity and significance in all kinds of political debates in the public sphere, conspiracy theories have so far received relatively little attention from philosophers. Only in the last 15 years have philosophers started to systematically discuss the nature of conspiracy theories, and whether that nature makes them epistemically problematic.

Some authors (most prominently [Pop72]) think that their problematic character should be obvious: conspiracy theories, especially those that surmise the successful large-scale secretive collaboration between several individuals for a jointly intended result should befall the same verdict as miracles do in David Hume’s analysis: their presuppositions just make them too unlikely to be rationally believable (cf. [Kee99]).

Popper [Pop72] offers the following consideration against conspiracy theories: they have to presuppose that all events are due to intentional action, and that these intentions were successfully realized. But hardly any plan comes out as intended, therefore conspiracy theories are too unlikely to be rationally believable.

Including such theories in our worldview might, in addition, have bad effects on our belief-system as a whole. The distrust and scepticism that belief in large-scale conspiracies generates might undercut all our other beliefs that we acquired on the basis of testimony (cf. [Kee99]). Many conspiracy theories include the idea that the conspirators are not only acting in secrecy, but are also planting misleading evidence and have a network of “experts” that only provide misinformation in order to keep us from discovering the conspirators’ real plans. Once you accept one conspiracy theory it becomes difficult to see where you should stop interpreting the world through the lens of the conjectured conspiracy.

These conspiracy theory sceptics meet the criticism of conspiracy theory defenders. The defenders point out that we know quite well of successful as well as of unsuccessful conspiracies in the course of human history, from the murder of Caesar to the spying of the NSA on US citizens. Belief in these conspiracies is warranted, thus conspiracy theories can’t be defective just because they explain an event as the outcome of a conspiracy (cf. [Pig07, Den14]).

Clearly, if a conspiracy theory is nothing but “an explanation that cites the existence of a conspiracy as a salient cause of some event” [Den14, 30], then there doesn’t seem to be a reason to dismiss conspiracy theories out of hand. Conspiracy theory sceptics have thus argued for a stricter definition of unsuccessful conspiracy theories. These attempts have so far not been very enlightening. Unsuccessful conspiracy theories on those accounts are simply conspiracy theories that are not rationally compelling, and you shouldn’t hold a theory that isn’t rationally compelling anyway, whether it is a conspiracy theory or any other theory [Pig07].

In this tutorial we will look at the phenomenon of conspiracy theories from three different perspectives from three different perspectives. The perspective of the conspiracy theorist (part 1), the perspective of the conspiracy believer (part 2), and the perspective of institutions (such as media and academia) that are the supposed conspirators (part 3).

Part 1: Conspiracy Reasoning
Here we will mainly look at the already existing literature on conspiracy theories (which is summarized a bit above). The task is to inquire whether there are indeed structural problems with conspiracy theories (or the reasoning that leads to them) that are specific to those theories.

Part 2: Expert Testimony
In the past 50 years conspiracy theories have gained in public reputation: more and more laypersons consider conspiracy theories to be plausible explanations [Aup12]. In fact, when reading comment sections on official news platforms one gets the impression that most people who comment on the news hold one conspiracy theory or other (almost regardless of what the news topic is, be it TTIP, the refugee crisis, the political situation in Ukraine or Russia, etc.). People who comment in this way on news items of the “mainstream media” typically receive their alternative account from other news sources (rather than make these alternative accounts up themselves). While they consider themselves to be better informed and a more critical consumer of information than those who merely rely on the “mainstream media”, they often end up relying on the wrong news source.

These laypeople face what is known in social epistemology as the “novice / two experts problem” [Gol01]. The problem is how a layperson can tell— when confronted with two disagreeing accounts—which of them is based
on genuine expertise [Bau07]. This problem is, of course, intensified by the enormous amount of apparent expert accounts that float around on the internet. How is the layperson supposed to orient herself in the light of this abundance of alternative accounts?

Thus, the second part of the tutorial will investigate the social-epistemic mechanisms of belief formation in groups of conspiracy theory believers.

Part 3: Epistemically Trustworthy Institutions
In this part the focus is on information-providing institutions, such as the media. In largely the same vein in which Philip Kitcher [Kit93, Kit11] investigates how we should organise science as an institution in order to promote its epistemic reliability and efficiency, we can investigate the news media and their institutional organisation in order to find out which kind of structures and incentive systems would best promote the objectivity and reliability of the media as information providers.

For example, Kitcher argues that science would benefit from an incentive system that supports a division of cognitive labour, such that not all scientists follow the same (most promising) research program. On such a system, the reward (e.g. prestige) each scientist receives is inversely proportional to the number of scientists who follow the same successful research program. This way scientists have an incentive to also follow less promising research programs, since the reward in case of success might be higher (due to the smaller number of scientists in such program) [Kit93].

Many journalists complain that the news media experienced a massive loss of trust in the past years. One question is whether the institutional structure of the free press of Western European societies and its incentive structure makes it objectively more trustworthy in an epistemological sense than alternative news providers. A related question is how the media can improve their organisation (or, in case there is no need to improve, make their organisation more transparent) in order to regain the trust of the majority of their audience.

Thus, in the third part we will see whether we can apply a Kitcher-style institutional analysis to the media.

[Aup12.] Stef Aupers. ‘Trust no one’: Modernization, paranoia and conspiracy culture.
European Journal of Communication, 27:22–34, 2012.

[Bas01.] Lee Basham. Living with the conspiracy. The Philosophical Forum, 32:265–280, 2001.

[Bau07.] Michael Baurmann. Rational fundamentalism? An explanatory model of fundamentalist beliefs. Episteme, 4:150–166, 2007.

[Cla02.] Steve Clarke. Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorizing. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32:131–150, 2002.

[Cla07.] Steve Clarke. Conspiracy theories and the internet: Controlled demolition and arrested development. Episteme, 4:167–180, 2007.

[Coa92.] C. A. J. Coady. Testimony: A Philosophical Study. Oxford University Press, 1992.

[Coa03.] David Coady. Conspiracy theories and official stories. International Journal of Applied
, 17:197–209, 2003.

[Coa06.] David Coady, editor. Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate. Ashgate, 2006.

[Coa07.] David Coady. Introduction: Conspiracy theories. Episteme, 4:131–134, 2007.

[Den14.] Matthew R. X. Dentith. The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[Gol99.] Alvin Goldman. Knowledge in a Social World. Oxford University Press, 1999.

[Gol01.] Alvin Goldman. Experts: Which ones should you trust? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63:85–110, 2001.

[HA14.] Jaron Harambam and Stef Aupers. Contesting epistemic authority: Conspiracy theories on the boundaries of science. Public Understanding of Science, Online First:1– 15, 2014.

[Hep15.] Karl Hepfer. Verschwörungstheorien: Eine philosophische Kritik der Unvernunft. transcript Verlag, 2015.

[Kee99.] Brian L. Keeley. Of conspiracy theories. Journal of Philosophy, XCVI:109–126, 1999.

[Kee03.] Brian L. Keeley. Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition! More thoughts on conspiracy theory. Journal of Social Philosophy, 34:104–110, 2003.

[Kit93.] Philip Kitcher. The Advancement of Science. Oxford University Press, 1993.

[Kit11.] Philip Kitcher. Science in a Democratic Society. Prometheurs Books, 2011.

[Lak70.] Imre Lakatos. Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. In Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, editors, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, pages 91–195. Cambridge University Press, 1970.

[LS06.] Jennifer Lackey and Ernest Sosa, editors. The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press, 2006.

[Man07.] Pete Mandik. Shit happens. Episteme, 4:205–218, 2007.

[Pig95.] Charles Pigden. Popper revisited, or what is wrong with conspiracy theories? Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 25:3–34, 1995.

[Pig07.] Charles Pigden. Conspiracy theories and the conventional wisdom. Episteme, 4:219–232, 2007.

[Pop72.] Karl R. Popper. Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge Kegan Paul, 4th edition, 1972.

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