Critical Conspiratorial Thinking

So, someone at Takapuna Grammar has either decided to teach conspiratorial views of history and justify the exercise by claiming that it was all in the aid of teaching Critical Thinking skills or they decided to teach Critical Thinking skills by presenting Conspiracy Theories as rival explanations to the Official View of History. The Herald article on the subject isn’t exactly clear on this.

Let’s assume that the teacher is a good pedagogue and she is trying to instill Critical Thinking skills. Her theory would seem to be that by presenting conspiratorial views of events in history (I am never sure whether I should capitalise ‘history’ or not) we can learn something about, say, what it is to know history or come to have a justified belief about historical claims. Perhaps you want to teach your students something about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe postulating that the Kennedy assassination could have been the work of a shadow government trying to avoid a nuclear firestorm could shed light on the crisis? Or maybe you want to highlight the restrictive nature (in re civil liberties) of the Bush Administration by showing how a staged attack on the Twin Towers could have aided that regime.

The problem with this approach, to my mind, is that you would actually have more success if you focussed on examples of Conspiracy Theories that turned out to be actual Conspiracies, such as the Dewey Commission’s findings on the Moscow Trials. It’s not that I don’t think there is merit to teaching Conspiracy Theories as an aid to developing Critical Thinking; I am developing such a course to be taught in the second half of this year. It’s just that I don’t think that this is an apt method to be teaching History (see, as a subject name it definitely gets a capital ‘H’) in secondary schools.If the teacher in question is trying to teach Conspiracy Theories as history and then using the Critical Thinking card as justification then I think we have a serious issue[1]. Whilst some Conspiracy Theories do accord to actual Conspiracies most do not. We seem rightly dismissive of the conspiracy theoretic worldview because a large section of those things we call Conspiracy Theories are bunk. The selection of Conspiracy Theories this teacher focussed on, the Moon landings, the Holocaust, et cetera, are examples of these patently false Conspiracy Theories. Much time and effort has been spent on showing not just that these rival explanations for events in history are bad explanations but that they are also trumped as explanations by the level of support and justification the standard histories get (not just by way of evidence but also from what we know of the rest of human history (see, if ‘history’ deserves a captical ‘H’ here would that also mean that ‘human’ would get one as well?)).

Brian L. Keeley argues that belief in a conspiracy theoretic worldview leads to a form of total scepticism of social data and thus it would lead to scepticism in regards to any historical theories. Keeley’s argument goes something like this; Conspiracy Theories make use of errant data, data contrary to or unaccounted for by the official, non-conspiratorial explanation of the event under examination. This makes Conspiracy Theories look more complete than their rivals. In addition, Conspiracy Theories predict disinformation, data that is contradictory to the Conspiracy Theory. Keeley argues that this means that Conspiracy Theories cannot be falsified and that the claims of Conspiracy Theorists are not prima facie irrational. Any cabal seeking to hide their plot will produce disinformation to support the official view and thus lead people away from their nefarious activities. This move, however, also robs the believer in a given Conspiracy Theory the ability to falsify their own theory. This, Keeley argues, leads to ‘Public Trust Skepticism; because Conspiracy Theories rely on social data the Conspiracy Theorist must doubt the veracity of any such information and be a skeptic in regard to all public information. This is why we, Keeley claims, find Conspiracy Theories so epistemically dubious; buying into a conspiracy theoretic worldview leads to a wholsesale scepticism of well, life, the universe… Everything!

If we presume that this teacher was using Conspiracy Theories in her History class for the best possible motive; teaching students about what she firmly believes is the truth of human history, then she is misguided. Keeley is right to point out that Conspiracy Theories are, by and large, destructive in their approach to presenting and explaining events in history. They cast doubt not just on evidence but the production of evidence and the support of such evidence. Once we admit that disinformation is rife nothing is trustworthy, including the claims of conspiracy theorists. Whilst this position may well be one that turns out to be true (it is possible[2] that world history is, in fact, mostly comprised of fictions masquerading as facts) it is a sophisticated account to run even at the best of times[3]. It is certainly not an account you want to be running at the Secondary level.

The role of Conspiracy Theories in history is something I’ve thought about a lot; I’m constantly tempted to start making notes for my next research project, which (currently) is on alternative histories (such as the claim that the Celts colonised New Zealand first). I suspect the virtue of both of these notions is that they allow you to construct counterfactual claims and these can be used to highlight historical processes. However, such stories should not be treated as being somehow even vaguely contingently true. I don’t trust the quality of reporting in the Herald to have given us the most accurate description of what went on, and so I have colleagues finding out more about this through somewhat more respectable channels. If there is anything more to know, then I shall let you know.

1. If I were to rant on the matter I would probably write something like this: If you care about what your students are being taught and you also believe that the general public is being lied to, fine and good. This is not a reason to teach Conspiracy Theories carte blanche[sp?]. Yes, provide commentary on the issue, such as ‘Someone people have doubted that the Moon landings actually took place…’  but teach this not as history but as an interesting sidenote. Perhaps I’m a traditionalist about historical truthes, but to me history is the collectively agreed upon story of human events. Sometimes history can be wrong (contemporary historians painted Nero as a tyrant; modern historians seem to think that he wasn’t so bad after all) and there is room to challenge historical theories, but not in the Secondary School classroom. If you have issue with what is being taught, challenge the curriculum, write letters to the Minister and the newspapers and cause a stir. Don’t mess with a child’s education by instilling in them stories and ideas that are not the accepted norm (and, worse of all, not even good stories).

2. One would hope that this possibility is rated at ‘Not very high.’

3. The Kaikoura piece I have been working on goes into this account to a certain degree, and I, like many others, do not think that the scepticism belief in a conspiracy theoretic worldview seems to warrant is as bad as it initially appears. It is, however, still a kind of scepticism that needs to be dealt with carefully and it is not the kind of thing you would teach to first year university students. 


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.