Official Stories vs. Conspiracy Theories

Hello, new readers.

Well, I’m hoping there are new readers; I’ve had some record highs for hits the last few days and it would be nice if some of you stayed on and continued to read. At some point over the weekend I’m going to present a digest of some of the e-mails I received in response to the Herald on Sunday article, but today I thought I might talk about the latest part of the thesis, a paper I am presenting at the AAPNZ1 2009 conference in Palmerston North.

Title: The Role of Endorsement in Conspiracy and non-Conspiracy Theories

Abstract: One of the arguments that belief in Conspiracy Theories is irrational stems from a common preference for what might be called “Official Theories,” “Official Stories” or the “Received View.”  Official Theories, in an ideal world, would be theories with good epistemic credentials endorsed by some appropriate set of authorities. However, some Official Theories are supported by a mere appeal to political authorities. Any Conspiracy Theorist worth their salt will tell you that theories that are only supported in this way should be treated with suspicion. The mere fact that someone is in power does not imply that they are an epistemic authority. If, in some cases, an Official Theory is backed up solely by an appeal to a political authority, should we prefer it over a Conspiracy Theory? I say “Yes,” but with caveats.

The paper is my attempt to explain why Moscovites were reasonable in their preference for the Official Stories of the Moscow Show Trials and Lysenkoism in the 1930s, despite the fact that both these events were examples of the Soviet Government conspiring against its citizens. It is a paper in Social Epistemology, I suppose; I am arguing that the endorsement of an explanation by some relevant authority (its having institutional status) suggests that the explanation has epistemic credentials, even though it is not entailed.

To sort through the issue I ask three questions:

1. To what extent is the explanation conspiratorial?

2. What are the explanation’s epistemic credentials?

3. What is its institutional status?

Which gives me a range of different theories, from Mere (no epistemic credentials) Sneer (negative institutional status) Conspiracy Theories to Warranted (the right epistemic credentials) Endorsed (positive institutional status) Theories. What I’m primarily interested in are when Mere Endorsed Theories seem to trump Conspiracy Theories; why is it that it seems reasonable for a 1930s citizen of Moscow to accept the official line on the Moscow Trials and ignore the findings of the Dewey Commission?

As I get closer to presenting I should, hopefully2 have more to say on this.

Notes

  1. Australasian Association of Philosophy, New Zealand Branch.
  2. I know, I’ve made promises like this before.

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