So, news travels slowly from Wellington to Auckland. The big city newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, has finally caught on to Stuart Brock’s (of the Department of Philosophy at Victoria) course on conspiracy theories. Admittedly, it’s the Wellingtonian Bob Jones who has broken the news, in his latest column, which is both a dig at Stuart and a dig at a certain section of the wealthy classes.
Bob Jones is no stranger to Philosophy. Indeed, he’s actually quite a fan of Philosophy and philosophers in general. For example, the Department of Philosophy at the University of Auckland is the recipient of three (I think it’s three) Bob Jones Scholarships each year, given to the best Stage III students in the Department of Philosophy1, so when he says “[B]ut what has that nonsense to do with philosophy?” I take it that he’s asking a serious question (and he’s holding philosophers to a higher standard than, say, psychologists.
I have an answer to Bob Jones, an answer that I kind of already knew the answer to but, nonetheless, took me me four and an half years to put down in words. But you all know that (if you don’t, then welcome to the blog!). What Jones is expressing here is the usual “Conspiracy theories are bunk and everyone knows it so why bother studying them” canard2 and I’m very much inclined, what with having defended a peer reviewed thesis on the matter, to disagree. Conspiracy theories are not prima facie irrational beliefs. Some are, some aren’t; what’s important is knowing how to work out when a conspiracy theory is vapid and when it might actually be warranted.
For example, Jones, by a reductio ad absurdum, takes the theories of David Icke to task. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think Bob Jones has ever actually read one of Icke’s books let alone sat through nine hours of Icke discussing his theory. I, on the other hand, have. I can quite clearly articulate why it is that Icke’s conspiracy theory is vapid and unwarranted. So, whilst there is agreement between Jones and me as to to the epistemological status of the claims of David Icke (unfounded and unjustified), my view is nuanced and is based upon how the inferences Icke makes are fallacious (and thus fatally undermine his claim of conspiracy). Jones is simply (once again, I’m making an assumption here) saying “Oh dear. What bollocks.”
There is much merit to teaching a course on the epistemology of conspiracy theories (I’ve taught such a course before, twice). For one, conspiracy theories are popular and most people are sympathetic to at least one example of the form, so shedding light on how conspiracy theories, as beliefs, work, can be useful for illustrating modes of reasoning. Such a course can also helpfully show that Philosophy and Psychology need not be loggerheads3. Maybe some of the examples it will apparently cover look a bit hackneyed and over-used, but that’s not, in itself, a reason to pour scorn on the course4.
Still, it’s fairly obvious that Jones’ real purpose was an excuse to write a little comedy. It’s up to you as to whether that worked. I couldn’t possibly comment.
- I’m told that he deliberately chose Philosophy because he thinks philosophy graduates are better in the workplace than, say, Business School grads, but given that the person who told me that was a philosopher, take that rumour with the grain of salt it clearly deserves.
- I’m not sure that is really the right word but it will do for the time being.
- I’m one of those philosophers who think other philosophers could learn a lot about reasoning from psychologists.
- My lack of involvement in the course. Now there’s a reason to scorn it. I jest, I think.