Episteme Review #7 – Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom – Charles R. Pigden

Last one.

Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom – Charles R. Pigden


Conspiracy theories should be neither believed nor investigated – that is the conventional wisdom. I argue that it is sometimes permissible both to investigate and to believe. Hence this is a dispute in the ethics of belief. I defend epistemic “oughts” that apply in the first instance to belief-forming strategies that are partly under our control. But the belief-forming strategy of not believing conspiracy theories would be a political disaster and the epistemic equivalent of self-mutilation. I discuss several variations of this epistemic equivalent of self-mutilation. I discuss several variations of this strategy, interpreting “conspiracy theory” in different ways but conclude that on all these readings, the conventional wisdom is deeply unwise


Charles’ line is deceptively simple; we are all Conspiracy Theorists because any sufficiently educated member of society believes in at least one Conspiracy (whether historical, current political or just from knowing the way that businesses “conspire” against consumers. The two terms, Conspiracy Theorist and Conspiracy Theory, cannot, then, be pejorative and so if there is something suspect about being one or believing in the other then it must be to do with their contents. It’s a nice line of argumentation and I’m quite sympathetic to it myself, but like Keeley, Coady et al I still think that there are some grounds for a pejorative case. His thesis in this paper is: 1. Just because we ought to have certain beliefs doesn’t mean we can have them (so we might find that there is a perfect theory of rationality that we, as evolved beings, cannot attain naturally) and 2. We may not be able to choose our beliefs but we can select which ones we value (or choose to act upon). I suspect that where Charles and I differ is that he thinks that Conspiracy Theories are Conspiracy Theories and I think there are some legitimate distinctions between Historical Conspiracy Theories, Contemporary Conspiracy Theories and suchlike (which was the substance of the paper I wrote at the beginning of last year). Because I think we can distinguish different formulations of Conspiracy Theories due to their context the considerations of Historical Conspiracy Theories in one place might not be informative of Conspiracy Theories now. Whilst we might all be Conspiracy Theorists that doesn’t mean we can’t think that some Conspiracy Theorists, as merely Conspiracy Theorists, are irrational.

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.