Kaikoura: The Dolphin Conspiracy #3

The final longform outline before the process of writing the paper begins. In this respect this post is really more for my benefit; should I forget to bring my flashdrive into work I have a copy of what I am working only a few clicks away. Still, you might find some of this interesting, seeing that there have been some major chances in my thinking since, well, yesterday.

Start off with a quick selection of Conspiracies; Roman, English, Russian and then American.< Julius Caesar The Ridolfi Plot - A cabal of Catholics conspire to assassinate Elizabeth I and place Mary on the throne so as to return England to Catholic rule. The Trotsky Trials - Leon Trotsky is placed on trial for crimes against the Russian State. Many commentators claim that this trial is rigged. It later transpires that this was the case. The WMD Rationale to Invade Iraq - both the heads of the British and USA Governments claim that the rationale for the invasion of Iraq was the development of WMDs despite their sub-ordinates claiming there was no such evidence to justify this rationale.   Then ask the simple question; do these previous instances inform our opinion about the existence or likelihood of their being at least one major conspiracy going on now (the question both Pigden and Basham ask)? Run Charles' line: they do. Why? Well, because they are Conspiracies. Past instances of Conspiracies as being common allows us to infer that there may well be Conspiracies going on now. Charles is arguing against Karl Popper who, in 'The Open Society and its Enemies' argued thus: [Quote] 'To suggest, for example, that New Zealand’s lurch to the right is due to a conspiracy between leading politicians, the Treasury, and big business is to invite the shaking of heads and pitying looks from sophisticated colleagues. Everybody knows that that is not the way history works. Yet, on the face of it, the evidence points the other way. History is littered with conspiracies, successful and  otherwise. The reign of Elizabeth I, for instance, reads like a catalog of conspiracies-the Ridolfi plot, the Throckmorton plot, the Babington plot, and so on-and the queen herself was no stranger to conspiratorial intrigue. So why is it so silly to believe in conspiracies?' - p. 3[?], Pigden 1995 and: ‘The moral of the story is this. History, as we know it from the original documents, and as it is recorded by the best historians, is shot through with conspiracy. If, as the modem superstition has it, conspiracy theories per se are crazy, suspect, disreputable, or unbelievable, then history as we know it is bunk that is crazy, suspect, disreputable, or unbelievable. The vast bulk of what we think we know about the history of England, as of many other countries, would be too systematically tainted with conspiracy to command belief. But history is not bunk - by and large, it is neither crazy, suspect, disreputable, or unbelievable. Hence the modem superstition is a superstition, and there is nothing crazy, suspect, disreputable, or unbelievable about conspiracy theories per se - though, of course, some conspiracy theories are crazy, suspect, disreputable, or unbelievable.’ - 160, Pigden 2006 Charles is talking here about Conspiracy Theories, those theories that purport to explain events by reference to a Conspiracy. The term Conspiracy Theory is often taken as being a pejorative term but Charles is arguing that it should not be so; such theories have, in the past, been true. [There is probably some line of argumentation here about the number of positive vs. negative instances, but that is probably irrelevant to this particular paper; we shall give Pigden the most charitable interpretation of the data.] In this respect we can reconstruct Charles argument as being about past instances of Conspiracies giving us some idea as to the likelihood of conspiracies now and in the future being true (an issue of warrant). That there have been many conspiracies in the past seems to tell us that there will be conspiracies in the future. Run Basham's line: they do not. The circumstances under which Conspiracies occurred in the past are different to the circumstances under which Conspiracies are now occurring. Actually arguing against Keeley; Basham thinks that conspiracies are a feature of history and we should expect from this that there is, at least, one conspiracy happening now. Basham is interested in whether we have the warrant to think that we live in an unconspired world, contra Keeley, who assumes we do. Keeley 96, p. 121-2 - ‘No, the problem with UCTs is not their unfalsifiability, but rather the increasing degree of skepticism required by such theories as positive evidence for the conspiracy fails to obtain. These theories throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable data and evidence. In doing so, they reveal just how large a role trust in both institutions and individuals-plays in the justification of our beliefs. The problem is this: most of us-including those of us who are scientists and who work in scientific laboratories full of expensive equipment-have never carried out the experiments or made the empirical observations that support most contemporary scientific theories. Unless we want to conclude that the vast majority of us are not warranted in believing that the platypus is a mammal and that gold is an atomic element, we need some procedure by which the epistemic warrant obtained by those who do make the appropriate observations can be transferred to the rest of us. In modern science, this procedure involves the elaborate mechanisms of publication, peer review, professional reputation, university accreditation, and so on. Thus, we are warranted in believing the claims of science because these claims are the result of a social mechanism of warranted belief production. ‘In the public sphere where conspiracy theories dwell, there are related mechanisms for generating warranted beliefs. There is the free press, made up of reporters, editors, and owners who compete to publish "the scoop" before others do. There are governmental agencies charged with investigating incidents, producing data, and publishing findings. And there are, of course, various "free agents" (including the conspiracy theorists themselves) who are members of the public. Inherent in the claim that alleged evidence against a theory should be construed as evidence for that theory is a pervasive skepticism about our public, fact-gathering institutions and the individuals working in them. Thus, as a conspiracy theory matures, attempt after attempt to falsify a conspiracy theory appears to succeed, and this apparent success must be explained as the nefarious work of the conspirators. As a result of this process, an initial claim that a small group of people is conspiring gives way to claims of larger and larger conspiracies.’ (Public trust issues; last paragraph also summaries the accelerating growth of CTs) Keeley 96, p. 123 - ‘It is this pervasive skepticism of people and public institutions entailed by some mature conspiracy theories which ultimately provides us with the grounds with which to identify them as unwarranted. It is not their lack of falsifiability per se, but the increasing amount of skepticism required to maintain faith in a conspiracy theory as time passes and the conspiracy is not uncovered in a convincing fashion. As this skepticism grows to include more and more people and institutions, the less plausible any conspiracy becomes.’< ‘The conspiracy theorist presents us with a much more interesting and challenging background proposition: (1) We have only limited grounds on which to claim positive warrant for our confidence in public institutions of information where critical interests of the dominant powers are at stake, and (2) abundant positive warrant exists to suspect that public institutions of information are commonly used to deceive us in the pursuit of these interests. It is precisely this positive warrant that places many conspiracy theories in an entirely different league than the merely speculative schemes and concerns of a global philosophical skepticism.’ (B2001 p. 270-1) The Openness Objection: Western-styled Democracies are increasingly more and more open. As a society becomes more open we find that we can check the processes under which political decisions are made. Should someone rig an election then we can get the vote registries. Should a council try to pass an underhanded motion behind closed doors then we can check the minutes. Basham posits the following problem; the world we live in exists on a spectrum between a largely unconspired (that is, fairly free of conspiracies operating in the background) or a world which is heavily conspired (there are conspiracies, possibly large, malevolent ones) and that we are in no real position to discern at which part of the spectrum our world is in. Basham argues that we have positive warrant, in the form of past instances, to believe that our public institutions have conspired against us in the past and that such whilst this should not engender total skepticism about them on our part we should, at least, admit the possibility that there is, at least, one major conspiracy going on right now being promulgated by a Public Institution. (B2003 p. 94-5) Basham proposes the following dilemma: ‘[T]here are two distinct scenarios between which we must decide: (1) These basic claims [observationally given claims such as documents, interviews and other parts of the public record] are largely filtered and sometimes totally fabricated through deceptive practices put in place by fairly well-developed networks of highly placed conspirators (unified or unconnected) in order to avoid detection by inquiries like our own, or (2) these basic claims are largely accurate, because the level of conspiratorial activity in our society is fairly weak and so conspiratorial control of such information is weak. The issue of degree simply presents itself again. We are left having to assume an answer to the essential issue of how conspiratorial our society is in order to derive a well-justified position on it. In its most rock-bottom premise any public trust approach falls to this point.’ (B2003 p. 97) However, Basham also argues that whilst we do have grounds to be suspicious of our Public Institutions we should not distrust them outright. He argues that the public instituitions in our society are increasingly open; should I want to check if there has been electoral fraud then I can check the various registries. Should I desire to know what Parliament has been debating I need only check the Hansard, and so forth. The more open the institutions the less likely we are to be living in a conspired world. (B2003 p. 99) The Reply: Basham also talks about hierarchy, and herein lies a possible flaw to his objection. ‘The reason this response [that malevolent Conspiracy Theories will be exposed by the Free Press] is normal is that in the West we have all been deeply indoctrinated in the mythos of the vigilant free press, the benevolent protection of the investigative authorities, and the unstoppable power of the lone crusader for truth. Our press, government, and media taught us this, naturally. But does confidence in this trinity of truth have the kind of rational basis required to undermine effectively the possibility (or even likelihood) of something as potentially dangerous as global conspiracy?’ (B2003 p. 94)< If institutions are, indeed, hierarchical [another quote?] then our society is not as open as Basham thinks. If the voting registry is controlled by a cabal and this is the only way to check the substance of a particular election then the conspirators need only control the registrar to plot successfully. If the minutes of a meeting are kept by a secretary then the council need only pay off the secretary, et cetera. Whilst we appear to be free to be able to check democratic processes this may only be an illusion. Basham, I think, fails to take into account his own criticism of Keeley. If Basham is committed to the belief that hierarchies can control the flow of information from public insituitions to the general public then these self same hierarchies could very well make public institutions look open when they are not. If my cabal has committed electoral fraud by increasing the ACT Party vote in Epsom by inserting votes from dead philosophers such as Albert Camus and John Stuart Mill then I can, when someone comes to check the registry, alter it. The process of obtaining public information is governed by a bureaucracy and this bureaucracy is hierarchical. A judgment of the level of openness in our public institutions seems to be subject to the same concerns as judgments as to how trustworthy our Public Institutions are, especially considering past instances. I should point out at this stage that I think Basham would agree to this; he does seem to think that our society is not sufficiently open enough at this stage to warrant belief that we live at to the unconspired end of the world spectrum but merely that we are closer to it than we are to the conspired world end. (B2003 p. 99) Basham's reply to Pigden is interesting. He is right to day that Conspiracies today would be different from Conspiracies yesterday but the Openness Objection doesn't tell us that Conspiracies today are less likely but that Conspirators today must surely act differently. Pigden raises an interesting point but I am not convinced by it. If we take Lee Basham’s notion of openess into account then the instances of conspiracies in the past may make us think that it is possible that people will want to conspire in the now and future but that this intention to want to conspire might not be fulfilled (or could be found out) because the increasing openess of modern society makes it harder and harder still for would-be conspirators to hide their plots. Pigden’s examples come from a time where the flow of information was restricted politically by breeding and education and thus a commoner was never in a position to scutinise the limited information that was made public to them. In our society, however, it at least appears that we have more access to basic claims, to borrow Basham’s terminology, and thus it does not follow that the conspiracies of the past tell us anything of their likelihood in the now. Pigden's argument relies on a suppressed premise, a ceteris paribus claim that, all things being equal, Conspiracies in the past give us positive warrant for the existence of Conspiraices now and into the future, but all things are not equal; with a change in society we have a change in the way that Conspiracies work. Past instances might tell us that people want to conspire but that doesn't mean they are conspiring or going to conspire (wants vs. actions). *This suggests that there is a difference in kinds of Conspiracies. Historical Conspiracies, by and large, operated in a society where there was little to no ability for people outside the cabal to investigate the plots and schemes of the conspirators. That people found out about such conspiracies usually tended to be by accident; a slave or a mistress speaking out of turn, a note, et al. JC - not discovered; successful (although there is the 'Beware the Ides of March;' check Suetonius. Hmm. Accordingly he was given a note detailing the plot but failed to read on his way to the theatre) Ridolfi - Charles Baille is discovered carrying comprising letters in Dover (surely a crime if ever I have heard one); under torture he reveals all. *Modern day Conspiracies are somewhat subject to the Openness Objection in that it is true that it is now harder to hide a plot or scheme. Whereas in the past conspirators needed to worry about keeping the plot secret the modern conspirator needs to keep their plot consistent; they need to make sure the right documents are faked, the right disinformation leaked, et al. Trotsky – The Dewey Commission examines the evidence against Trotsky and finds that he was framed. At the time this alternative verdict is poo-poohed by the Russian Government, as well as that of the UK and the USA, but when Khrushchev report was released in mid-1956 the Commission in its claims of conspiracy were vindicated. WMDs – Almost immediately dismissed by relevant authorities and the public as being a pre-text, although for exactly what it is still being argued. [It might take some work to show that there is a real difference here.] If there are current day Conspiracies then they should look different to historical conspiracies. Is this true? All-embracing CTs... Templars, 9/11. Conspiracy Theories are entailed by Conspiracies but Conspiracy Theories do not entail Conspiracies. We need to run this argument in regards to actual Conspiracies. Do we have examples? The WMD Excuse for the Invasion of Iraq< The Exclusive Brethren


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.