Conference Paper Review: Conspiracy Theories are for Losers

Joseph E. Uscinski, Joseph M. Parent and Bethany Torres, “Conspiracy Theories are for Losers,” Presented at the 2011 American Political Science Association annual conference, Seattle, Washington, the University of Miami.

Read it here

“Conspiracy Theories are for Losers” is a political science paper which makes a very bold claim: the primary factor in conspiracy theorising is political (rather than sociological or psychological), a claim that, unfortunately, I do not think is supported by the evidence the authors present.

The causes of conspiracy theories are not primarily philosophical, psychological, or sociological—they are political. Conspiracy theories tend to resonate when they help vulnerable groups manage threats. They do this because successful conspiracy theories have a strategic logic that sharpens internal cohesion and focuses attention on dangers. During times of low external threat, we find regular alternation between left-wing groups out of power blaming right-wing groups in power for conspiring against them followed by the reverse. During times of high external threat, we find infighting receding and foreigner-fearing conspiracy theories coming to the fore. Because defeat is their biggest inducement, conspiracy theories are for losers (speaking descriptively, not pejoratively.) (p. 5)

The main problem with this paper is the strong conclusion the authors draw. They claim that conspiracy theorising is foremost a political activity when, really, they should be saying something like political factors have significant influence on conspiracy theorising. This is a weaker claim but it follows from their argument. The stronger claim, about the primacy of political factors in conspiracy theorising, can only be made with several caveats, caveats which end up undermining the novelty of their argument.

I can understand why the authors push for a bold conclusion: the claim that political factors have significant influence on conspiracy theorising is not particularly novel and therefore it is not very interesting. For example, Mark Fenster, in his book “Conspiracy Theories – Secrecy and Power in American Culture” (a book the authors cite) argues that conspiracy theorising on the part of groups of conspiracy theorists is significantly affected by political allegiance. Indeed, almost everyone in the field agrees that political views influence the types and kinds of conspiracies people are prone to, and conspiracy theory historians (like Victoria Emma Pagán in her book “Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History” and Thomas E. Kaiser, Marisa Linton and Peter R. Campbell’s book “Conspiracy in the French Revolution”) have all expressed theories about how conspiracy theories reflect the political power disbalances of their days.

The problem for the argument (towards the strong conclusion) in “Conspiracy Theories are for Losers” is, I think, that it relies both upon ignoring sociological contributions to the debate about conspiracy theories and making a claim about political identity which ignores how such identity is basically social in character.1

The authors characterise the sociological contribution to the debate on conspiracy theorising in the following passage:

Others have examined conspiracy theories from sociological and ethno-sociological viewpoints, arguing that culture is key in contextualizing conspiracy theorizing. How groups view themselves in relation to others helps determine how likely they are to view events as conspiracy related (Goldberg 2001; Locke 2009; Simmons and Parsons 2005; Waters 1997; Fenster 1999; Hellinger 2003; Melley 2000). By this logic, culture is a filter that screens out unflattering information and favors complimentary narratives. Inferior status is explained away by immoral machinations or illegal maneuvers, which grants the implied honor of being a worthy opponent or necessitating cheating to win.

Sociological approaches are adept at describing the worldview of conspiracy theorists, and internal group dynamics. But lush detail is the main strength and weakness of these approaches. By focusing on individual groups and individual conspiracies, sociological work sacrifices the systematic comparisons necessary to make conclusions with broader validity. These scholars accept conspiracy theories as an abstract concept, but have poured their energies into understanding the subject at a more granular level. (p. 12)

Meanwhile, the authors characterise their contribution to the debate on conspiracy theorising as follows:

In a nutshell, our main claim is that perceived power asymmetries drive conspiracy talk. (p. 13)

and:

By our logic, all groups are likely to engage in conspiracy theorizing when they suffer defeats (or toil at the bottom of a perceived asymmetry), and the more defeats they suffer (or the more toiling they do) the more popular and stubborn conspiracy beliefs are. (p. 16)

They base their analysis upon, what I take is, this crucial definition:

Fundamentally, our explanation is about groups competing for power. Groups perform at least two functions: coordination and distribution. To compete against others, groups coordinate individuals to create or capture resources, broadly interpreted, and then distribute those spoils authoritatively. These two tasks are in tension; there are always incentives to cooperate to expand the size of the pie, and compete for a greater slice of the pie. The ratio between the two is primarily a product of external threat (Simmel 1964; Coser 1956; Stein 1976). So the larger outside dangers loom, the more in-group cooperation and less distributional strife there is likely to be. (p. 14)

If their analysis is really one about group dynamics, how is this different from the sociological approach which they claim is lush but “sacrifices the systematic comparisons necessary to make conclusions with broader validity”?2 If conspiracy theorising is both political and group-based, do these groups exist as explicit political entities made up of definite members (say, Republican party-members and Democrats) or are they implicit (say, the Left vs. the Right)? i.e. Having said “It’s political!” doesn’t it turn out that the authors’ argument ends up being social (i.e. rooted in sociology) after all?

I think this is an important question, and it is not one the authors’ come up with nor given any approximate answer to. They want their analysis to be purely political but what they take to be a purely political analysis seems heavily indebted to sociology.

Indeed, this seems to come out clearly in their actual data set. The claim to fame of this paper is that they have gathered quite the longitudinal dataset, having canvassed over a hundred years of published letters to the editor at the New York Times. The authors say an awful lot about how they picked out letters which are examples of conspiracy theorising, how they differentiated between elite vs. non-elite writers and the like, but I think they over looked one crucial factor. Because it is reasonable to say that over time political groups change in constitution, the analysis the authors engage in when identifying the political factors at work when conspiracy theories are mused about in these letters really must be based, at least in part, in Sociology (and thus not primarily politically after all), unless they want to make some kind of claim that the Republicans of the early Twentieth Century are the same kind of people as the Republicans who back the Romney-Ryan ticket. Now, maybe they do, but it would be both a weird and implausible claim. The New Zealand Labour Party of today is quite different from the New Zealand Labour Party of the late Eighties and the kind of support that party had in the early part of the 20th Century is not necessarily where it draws its support today.

My point is this: what counts as a political factor, it seems, in the authors’ analysis, comes from some notion of an individual identifying with a political view/affiliation/identity which ends up being social (or cultural) in nature. If all the argument is ends up being “People of political stripe X, when not the dominant group in government, theorise about conspiracies by people of political strip Y, who are in government,” then it seems we’re talking about a thesis in sociology with a special emphasis on political groups.

It doesn’t seem like they are suggesting that it is political factors which are especially responsible for conspiracy theorising but, rather, that political factors are important when considering the type and kind of conspiracy theorising that goes on with respect to certain (politically interested/involved) groups of people.

Still, there is a lot to like about this paper (sans the overstated conclusion). It presents some interesting data (I’m not convinced that it’s a sufficiently large sample to infer much from, but that’s a matter for another time) covering quite a long period of time that shows that a particular correlation we’ve always suspected of being true (the people who don’t hold power tend to theorise the existence of conspiracies amongst those who do) and I particularly like this comment about transparency:

More positively, our policy recommendations are modest but seek to amplify the virtues of liberal democratic governance. Greater governmental transparency will not quell the power asymmetries that feed conspiracy theories. Some people will always be unreachable. But if knowledge is power, increased transparency blunts some of the advantages of power asymmetries and takes some of the wind out of conspiracy theorists’ sails. Of course, there are countervailing dangers to more transparency, but a marginal decrease in conspiracy theorizing is at least worth weighing against those risks. (p. 33)

Notes

  1. The authors are somewhat dismissive of the existing literature on conspiracy theorising in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy. I think the authors miss the point of the philosophical literature. Whilst we talk a little about the conditions of conspiracy theorising, most of the philosophical interest in conspiracy theories has been epistemic. We (philosophers) are interested in when it is rational to believe given conspiracy theories and the kind of conditions under which it is reasonable to be a conspiracy theorist. When it comes to questions about the resonance of conspiracy theories in a given context… That kind of issue is best answered by experts in fields which study that kind of thing (Sociology, History, Psychology and Political Studies) and the fact that philosophers might not have much to say on it doesn’t mean our contributions elsewhere aren’t important. Still, I’m not concerned here with perceived slights against Philosophy but, rather, the (slight) slight against Sociology the authors seem committed to.
  2. I don’t actually accept that the sociological views of Fenster and company lack the ability to make such systemic comparisons, but that is neither here nor there for my argument.

7 thoughts on “Conference Paper Review: Conspiracy Theories are for Losers

  1. I appreciate your having read my paper and posting about it. This has been a very enjoyable project for me to work on. The draft you cite is somewhat old now, and newer versions address some of your concerns. I don’t necessarily disagree with your critique, but let me ask two questions.

    1. You seem to carve out a large intellectual space for sociology. Given this, what would be, in your view, a political explanation? What would be political then that is not sociological in your view?

    2. Is your critique really one of semantics? Let’s say that you are correct that the argument is really “sociological,” rather than political. Does it matter? Does that negate the empirical findings or the support for the theory proffered?

    On another note, we have had a lot of people say that the paper only confirmed what they “knew” or had heard all along. Obviously I think our theory is supported by our data, and I think that there are many recent high profile examples that support our theory as well. But, consider the recent birther theory for example. A handful of explanations have been forward about the belief in that conspiracy theory, but none that I heard had anything to do with political power – usually they center on racism, reactions to bad economic conditions, or general craziness. I am unaware of anyone saying: Obama is accused of being from another country and hiding it because he is in power. Also, there are studies showing that feelings of powerlessness lead to conspiracy theorizing. But the real-world conditions that lead to those particular feelings of powerlessness have not been identified in previous literature.

    Again, I appreciate the critique. In fact, I shared it on my Facebook page.
    Joe

    • Hi, Joe.

      If you can pass on a more recent version of the paper (to m[dot]dentith[at]episto[dot]org) I’ll happily a) read it and b) update the review (since, as you say, a more recent version of the paper may very well address some of the criticisms I raised).

      Of course, that means the following answers to your questions might be a bit off, because I’m working from an version of the paper which is not current. I’ll also answer your questions in reverse order, because I think it’ll clarify things much more that way.

      My primary worry with the version of the paper I read was the strong claim it made, namely:

      The causes of conspiracy theories are not primarily philosophical, psychological, or sociological—they are political.

      So, in answer to 2, if my critique is semantic in nature, it’s because I think you phrase the conclusion of your argument in stronger terms than I think your argument actually warrants. I think you make a claim about the political factors involved in conspiracy theorising which I think really points towards a number of social factors which happen to intersect with individual agents’ expressed political affiliations.

      As I said in my review, I think there is much to like about the paper; the dataset is certainly interesting (with all the caveats I mentioned there), but I’m just not convinced that this is a radical new thesis which is primarily about political factors.

      With respect to your first question, you ask “What would be polit­ical then that is not soci­olo­gical in your view?” I guess I take it that the kind of political factors you reference in your longitudinal study are a subset of sociological factors, which is the other way of expressing my worry about the way you phrased your conclusion. If your argument was “The causes of conspiracy theories are not just primarily philosophical, psychological, or sociological in general but also political” then I don’t think I would have been startled by your argument at all (although I’m also not sure it would necessarily have been a particularly novel claim: Mark Fenster has argued something along these lines in his book).

      Now, you might argue that by saying “Political factors have not been given their due when talking about the causes of conspiracy theories” entails some claim like “The causes of conspiracy theories are not primarily philosophical, psychological, or sociological—they are political” but that leads me into the worry I have about the way you characterise the sociological contributions to the academic debate on conspiracy theories (I didn’t really talk much about my worries as to your characterisation of the philosophical contributions to the debate on conspiracy theories in my review, but as someone who has reviewed all the philosophical literature in the course of writing my PhD, I think you are not all that generous to said philosophers). I realise a paper is not the right place to include a large literature review, but I certainly didn’t think your characterisation of the sociological work on conspiracy theories resembled what I read when I did the literature review for my thesis.

      I am also a bit suspicious of comments like “[W]e have had a lot of people say that the paper only con­firmed what they “knew” or had heard all along.” As I’m sure you know, lots of theories are supported by peoples’ gut instincts, but that doesn’t say anything much about the actual merit of the theory on offer (take a lot of anthropogenic climate change denial; many such deniers will happily say that the work of Christopher Monckton confirms what they already knew, but that doesn’t change the fact that Monckton’s theory (and conspiracy theories) are not supported by the actual evidence). Now, as I said in the review, your work does seem to confirm something people suspected (and I certainly think some thesis like yours is plausible) but I’d be wary of using such anecdotal evidence (what other people suspected or heard) as support for your view, unless they have some argument which says their gut instinct or what they heard from others is a view founded upon a good argument (i.e. some argument about how our intuitions are reliable in these cases or that the person they heard that from was an appropriate authority). Once again, I think something like your thesis is likely but that’s not an argument in support of your thesis unless I can express an argument as to why that it is the case.

      So, I guess my biggest worry is this: given that the nature of politics and political affiliation have changed remarkably in the last one hundred years (for example, people often claim that the Republicans of today really only share the name but not the politics of the Republicans of the early 20th Century), aren’t the political factors you identify really just sociological ones about political identity? And given that, isn;t what your doing supporting the work of sociologists rather than suggesting a new way of characterising the causes of conspiracy theories?

      By the way, thanks for responding to the review; as I’m still writing on conspiracy theories this is really quite beneficial (hopefully to us both).

      Cher,

      M.

  2. Matthew,
    Thank you for responding to my reply. I appreciate your comments. The project is currently in book form, and is under review at a press right now. I will email you a copy. In the book version , we spend much more time addressing the philosophical literature. Your comments would be greatly appreciated.

    Let me make two comments on your reply:
    1. When I said that “[W]e have had a lot of people say that the paper only con­firmed what they “knew” or had heard all along,” I was not not implying that this was good evidence in favor of our findings.

    I was instead addressing your comment “…shows that a par­tic­u­lar cor­rel­a­tion we’ve always sus­pec­ted of being true (the people who don’t hold power tend to the­or­ise the exist­ence of con­spir­acies amongst those who do)” from your original post. This is why I said: “con­sider the recent birther the­ory for example. A hand­ful of explan­a­tions have been for­ward about the belief in that con­spir­acy the­ory, but none that I heard had any­thing to do with polit­ical power — usu­ally they cen­ter on racism, reac­tions to bad eco­nomic con­di­tions, or gen­eral crazi­ness. I am unaware of any­one say­ing: Obama is accused of being from another coun­try and hid­ing it because he is in power. Also, there are stud­ies show­ing that feel­ings of power­less­ness lead to con­spir­acy the­or­iz­ing. But the real-world con­di­tions that lead to those par­tic­u­lar feel­ings of power­less­ness have not been iden­ti­fied in pre­vi­ous literature” in my previous post.

    I was trying to say that while our explanation makes sense to most people who read the paper, it has not been sufficiently tested previously in the literature, or propagated in the media as an explanation of conspiracy theorizing.

    2. We argue, and continue to argue, that conspiracy theories are political, first and foremost. In later iterations of the paper, which you will soon receive, we pay more homage to other disciplines. But, our work still points to political factors as the driving causes of conspiracy theorizing. Elections and wars, which are our main causal variables in this paper, are political.

    I think you might be blurring the distinction between political and sociological, and I am still unclear as to what you count as political. If political events, like wars and elections, activate people’s political identities in ways that spur conspiracy theorizing, how is this not a political explanation?

    I very much appreciate the comments, and I will send you my book manuscript.

    • Hi, Joe. Sorry for the late reply; it’s been a bit of hectic week. Perhaps it’s best to save the questions (from both of us) until I’ve had a chance to read the most recent version. I know what it’s like to try and compress material into a conference presentation and it may very well be that I’m being unfair to your work because I’ve only read the conference paper and not the more fulsome material the conference paper summarises. I look forward to reading the manuscript.

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