Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cure

I’ve just read a rather interesting paper by Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule; Sunstein, to quote one critique, is a:

confidante of Obama, Harvard Law professor, current head of the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, potential Supreme Court nominee – and the latest crusader against those dastardly conspiracy theories.

In ‘Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cure’ he and Vermeule cover the epistemological basics of conspiracy theories and then, quite naturally and controversially, suggest some policy directions as to how governments might deal with the threat of conspiracy theories that counter official theories. This blogger, for example, thinks this is a bad thing.

I’m not so sure, though. Sunstein and Vermeule go out of their way to ensure that the kind of conspiracy theories they are dealing with are the unwarranted kind, suggest malign activity and could have disastrous consequences if they were believed. They even admit that they are talking about government in an abstract ‘Of course they’re only there to help’ way and that the political reality is sometimes quite perverse.

Be that as it may, the critics have said; it is a bad article because Sunstein and Vermeule recommend the infiltration the ranks of Conspiracy Theorists and this is a bad thing, seeing that it threatens civil liberties, suggests the Orwellian state, et cetera, etc. &c.

Except that what Sunstein and Vermeule want is to merely sow the seeds of doubt in regard to unwarranted conspiracy theories. They think that governments and their agencies should engage with the arguments put forward to such theories and simply point out where they fail, as well as putting forward additional evidence and different takes on how the inferences might run1; not exactly terrible stuff. Indeed, the kind of stuff that conspiracy theorists continually advocate when they deal with official theories.

The problem, for opponents of this paper, is twofold: Sunstein and Vermeule assume that governments are good (which, as they say, you need to when you are recommending policies for said governments), and that drives their subsequent analysis and justification of how governments should act towards rivals to official theories. However this is problematic because the second point plays into it; Sunstein is a Washington insider. He is treated with suspicion because he, presumably, should know that, actually, governments are, if not bad, at the very least not-good.

As I often say in the critical thinking classes I teach, the ad hominem, as an argument, is often fallacious but can be, in very special cases, legitimate; given that Sunstein has put forward an argument we really should deal with what he says, rather than worry about from where he speaks it, but, at the same time, you might argue that he is in the perfect position to justify the actions of a regime he supports with a well-placed paper or two. Even though I don’t think this is the case here (the authors go out of their way to talk about how this is a model for an ideal situation) I can see how this would be alarming; imagine that you’re part of a group that runs a different line to that of the government and are afraid that they will want to shut your discourse down. If you know that your government actively sends out agents to infiltrate and take over your discussions for the purposes of ‘keeping it real,’ you probably are going to not trust your fellow correspondents. In other words, what turns out to be a solution to troublesome unwarranted theories might also be get used to stifle debate o topics the government would rather you didn’t entertain.

Which leaves me feeling a bit like a Conspiracy Theorist rather than a Conspiracy Theory Theorist.

Anyway. I would, very happily, use this paper as a first reading in any postgraduate course I was teaching on the epistemology of conspiracy theories. It contains a good summary of the epistemological issues and the second half provides a good rationale as to why we need to analyse conspiracy theories philosophically, as well as touching on the sociological and political issues to do with their transmission.

Meanwhile, in crank-ville, Daniel Pipes is recommending that Barack Obama should bomb Iran to save his presidency.

Notes

  1. Sunstein and Vermeule think that the chief fault of conspiracy theorising is limited information on the part of Conspiracy Theorists and thus the use of what they call a ‘crippled epistemology’

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.