Conspiracy Theorists might be sane; Kevin Barrett doing them no favours

New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane; government dupes crazy, hostile claims Dr. Kevin Barrett of PressTV.

You may have seen the link on Facebook or Twitter. Maybe someone sent you the article via e-mail. Whatever the case, the title of that article is just the first misleading thing about it.

As regular readers should know, and as new readers might want to trawl the archives to find out, I don’t think conspiracy theorists (defined here as someone who believes some conspiracy theory) are necessarily insane or irrational.1 I’ve argued for this position in my thesis and I’m arguing for it again in my forthcoming book (which I should be writing en lieu of working on this piece). However, nothing irritates me more than a bad argument in support of a position I agree with, and the PressTV piece is not just a bad argument, it’s also dishonest.

The gist of Kevin Barrett’s piece is this:

Recent studies by psychologists and social scientists in the US and UK suggest that contrary to mainstream media stereotypes, those labeled “conspiracy theorists” appear to be saner than those who accept the official versions of contested events.

and the piece he seems to relying upon to make this claim is the easily downloaded (and almost as easily read) “What about Building 7? A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories” by Michael J. Wood and Karen M. Douglas.

Barrett argues that Wood and Douglas claim conspiracy theorists are saner than conventionalists (holders of official, non-conspiratorial rival theories) and that as conspiracy theorists out-number conventionalists in online discussions, conventionalist theses are on the wane. According to Barrett:

That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.

and:

Perhaps because their supposedly mainstream views no longer represent the majority, the anti-conspiracy commenters often displayed anger and hostility: “The research… showed that people who favoured the official account of 9/11 were generally more hostile when trying to persuade their rivals.”

There’s a problem with this: Barrett’s description of the central argument of “What about Building 7?” is inaccurate and misleading. Indeed, I suspect he has selectively quoted them to score points against skeptics of, say, the 9/11 Truth Movement. Here are a few choice cuts from “What about Building 7?” which call into question Barrett’s construal of their argument:

“Since 9/11 conspiracy theories are (at least in the West) an opinion held by a vocal minority attempting to effect change…” (p. 3)

According to Wood and Douglas, 9/11 conspiracy theorists (the group they were investigating) are merely a vocal minority. The claim that conventionalists are outnumbered by such Truthers, which Barrett makes much of, comes from the description of the sample: Douglas and Woods were looking at online discussions about 9/11 conspiracy theories, and it turned out that conspiracy theorists outnumbered conventionalists in these discussions. This doesn’t tell us anything about the general population of conspiracy theorists vs. conventionalists. It also doesn’t tell us anything about the rationality of either view.

Woods and Douglas define conspiracy theorists with respect to the thesis of conspiracism, which they characterise thusly:

One particularly important element of the conspiracist worldview is thought to be a generalized opposition to official or received narratives. In this view, conspiracy belief is not about believing in particular alternative theories, but in disbelieving in whatever the official story is. (p. 2)

and:

Likewise, conspiracy theory belief appears to be more of a negative belief than a positive one—it is more concerned with saying what the cause of a condition or event was not (i.e., whatever the official explanation is) than with putting forward a specific alternative account. (p. 2)

As such, any claim that conspiracy theorists are sane or rational with respect to the views of conventionalists (Barrett’s interpretation of “What about Building 7?”) needs to take into account Woods and Douglas’s less than charitable characterisation of conspiracy theorists. Indeed, with respect to 9/11 Truthers, they have this to say:

“This pattern of results [we got from our investigation into online discussions about conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11] supports the idea that conspiracy theories have their basis more in opposition to officialdom than in beliefs in specific alternative theories. For the adherents of the 9/11 Truth Movement examined here, the search for truth consists mostly of finding ways in which the official story cannot be true. There is much less of a focus on defending coherent explanations that can better account for the available evidence.” (p. 7)

Wood and Douglas are not arguing that conspiracy theorists are sane; rather, they are arguing that conspiracy theorists seem to be more interested in calling into question conventionalist narratives than they are in advancing support for their conspiracy theories. If this is a definition of sanity for Barrett, then he has a problem: calling into question rival accounts is all good and proper, but Woods and Douglas do not claim that the 9/11 conspiracy theorists are successful in calling into question such accounts. All they are claiming is that this is what conspiracy theorists (well, the conspiracy theorists that constituted their sample) do. Woods and Douglas’s thesis is perfectly congruent with, say, Karl Popper’s “conspiracy theory of society” or Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”: the conspiracy theorists might well just be irrational in their suspicion of both conventionalist-qua-official theories and the evidence advanced for them.

What Wood and Douglas found interesting about their sample (and what I think Barrett is using to advance his peculiar interpretation that conspiracy theorists are sane and conventionalists are dupes) is that conventionalists ended up being more vitriolic towards the conspiracy theorists than the authors expected. Once again, this “surprising vitriol” doesn’t tell us much about the rationality of either view2.

There is literature out there which supports the notion that conspiracy theorising is a rational response to the kind of world we live in, and that conspiracy theories are not necessarily reflective of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style”. “What about Building 7?” is not one of those pieces. Barrett’s usage of it to advance his own “government dupes are crazy, yo!” thesis is, then, either a case of him failing to read the article fully or (mind now set in conspiratorial mode) Barrett (like a number of holders of radical alternative explanations) deliberately misrepresenting “What about Building 7?” in the hope no one else would bother to check his sources. Either way, Barrett has some explaining to do.

Notes

  1. Some will be, because under my general definition almost everyone is a conspiracy theorist of some stripe and as a sub-section of the general population is either insane or irrational, that should be reflected in the population of conspiracy theorists as well.
  2. Although this finding fits in with the thesis that Skeptics tend to be cocks. Sorry, skeptics, but you often are when it comes to online discussions.

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.