Notes concerning a radio broadcast

I’m not at all confident when it comes to balanced reporting in re Conspiracy Theories as Research; I’m sure many of us remember the storm in a teacup that was the secondary school teacher using Conspiracy Theories as an aid to teaching History. That blew over very quickly, and I’m told it was because the media got it entirely the wrong way around. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I listened in on Kim Hill’s interview with Dr. Marc Wilson of Victoria University’s Psychology Department.Kim Hill is an interviewer I quite like, but sometimes the interview veer away from discussing the issues to focus on the ephemera that, I am sure, makes for good radio but can make this listener despair. The interview with Dr. Wilson was par for the course (as a golfer might say), but over the half-hour I make a few connections.One. I’m not sure whether Dr. Wilson actually meant to say this or whether it was a slip, but he referred to the conspirators in a given conspiracy as ‘Conspiracy Theorists.’ I’m not sure whether the term actually makes sense if it refers to a conspirator; a ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ is someone who has a theory about a conspiracy. Now, admittedly, a conspirator will have a theory about what they are doing, but as the theory is related to the actions they are (presumably actually) performing surely ‘Conspirator’ fits the situation better. Then again, someone contemplating being part of a conspiracy might, plausibly (although not very) be called a conspiracy theorist. I might e-mail the learned Doctor and see if this is a term he uses (and, if it is, I’ll add it to the eventual terminology clarification that will take up part of the introduction to the thesis proper).Two. Dr. Wilson argues that we (royal ‘we’) are only interested in Conspiracy Theories that interest us. This is why people will believe a Conspiracy Theory about the world but not necessarily a conjunction of them. Conspiracy Theories are, then, a answer to a question of interest, which fits in very nicely with some of the work Alvin Goldman has been doing in Social Epistemology. Goldman uses a question-answering model; states of belief have value to an agent when they are responses to a question that interests said agent. Thus the range of beliefs that the agent isn’t interested in will have no negative impact on the vertistic value of her actual belief states. Thus an agent will have beliefs about some Conspiracy Theories because they are in the domain of interest to that agent whilst be happily ignorant or dismissive of other Conspiracy Theories because they simply are not of interest. This actually seems rather obvious but it will be important in a few months seeing that I plan to track Conspiracy Theories as examples through Goldman’s explication to see if I can get something new and exciting out of it. Nice to see that the groundwork is already laid, so to speak (what is it with me and these bits of rhetoric at the moment?).Three. Dr. Wilson touched briefly on the chestnut that extremists (especially of the political kind) tend to be more inclined to Conspiracy Theories than centrists. Historically this seems true; in the middle of the Twentieth Century it was mostly the Right and now it does seem to be mostly the Left who are paranoid about world events. Wilson, who performs psychological surveys upon Wellingtonians (and, I have to ask, who doesn’t?) has found that ACT and New Zealand First party faithful seem to be the most likely political affiliates to, for example, think that Princess Diana was murdered (more disturbing is the claim that 31% of survey participants did not think that the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by foreign nationals…). Wilson argues that this is because we want to belong to majority views and when we don’t (i.e. we are on the far end of a spectrum of beliefs) we want to know why it is that we don’t. i.e. Are people actually conspiring against me? I presume this should also be true of other minor parties (in fact, numerically this rather suggests that the Libertarianz must be very paranoiac indeed). Certainly, if we think that there is some truth in consensus and, paradoxically, the consensus is wrong then it does seem that we look for reasons to show that consensus isn’t working. I’m thinking here of the Climate Change Skeptics who, on one hand, want to point to consensus in their view and yet deny the other consensus (which, arguably, is both larger and more in tune with what we take to be the scientific method). This is all a little problematic in that I’m not entirely sure that consensus in belief is the same thing as some kind of social activity creating convergence towards true belief. Then again, I’m also somewhat tempted by the project that separates ‘knowledge’ from ‘justified true belief’ so I exist somewhere out on the fringe anyway.P.S. Thanks, Mr. Olthwaite, for the alerting of me to this interview.


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.