Conspiracism

Special thanks to Lee Basham for a incredibly useful email which made it clear that I hadn’t quite explained myself clearly here. As such, I’ve added in a few new sentences. Also, I really need to stop using the phrase “as such” as commonly as I do.

Two years ago I was engaged in a debate with a supervisor about my non-pejorative definition of “conspiracy theorist.” Typically, in political discourse, calling someone a “conspiracy theorist” is akin to calling them stupid or paranoid and whilst my supervisor agreed with my argument that the term shouldn’t have that implication, he wanted to somehow preserve that intuition by introducing a new term, the “conspired world theorist”.

I was never particularly taken with conspired world theorist, in part because it’s a little clumsy on the tongue but mostly because I had a nagging feeling we were trying to name something unnecessarily. I couldn’t help but think “No, there’s a term for this already.”

There is. It’s “conspiracist”, someone who subscribes to the thesis of conspiracism, a tendency to see conspiracies where there are none.

Why did I miss this/not pick this up? Well, for one thing, it’s a term which isn’t used much in the philosophical literature on conspiracy theories. For another, it’s a term (well, a set of terms) which is used very inconsistently in the wider literature.

Let me explain. I define a conspiracy theorist as “anyone who believes some conspiracy theory” and I define a conspiracy theory as “any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a salient cause”.

Both of these definitions are general and non-pejorative: there is nothing in the definitions which marks out conspiracy theories or theorists as being irrational. As such, whilst I think belief in specific conspiracy theories can be irrational if there is no evidence which satisfies the inference to the existence of a conspiracy or there is insufficient reason to think that the conspiracy is the best explanation of the event on offer, I do not think we should build pejorative implications into the definitions of either conspiracy theory or conspiracy theorist.

A conspiracist, then, on my view, is someone who sees a conspiracy where there is none (and is, thus, a subscriber to the thesis of conspiracism).1 The thesis of Conspiracism is a psychological one (well, a folk psychological one), in that the accusation one is a conspiracist is the claim that the conspiracy theorist in question has a tendency to believe in or see conspiracies despite a lack of evidence. Conspiracists, then, are pathological conspiracy theorists and, as such, are a subset of the very general class. Whilst every conspiracist is a conspiracy theorist not every conspiracy theorist is a conspiracist.

Now, the problem as I see it is that many academics associate any belief in conspiracy theories with the folk-psychological thesis of conspiracism. Under that view, all conspiracy theorists are conspiracists and as all conspiracists are irrational (as the definition of conspiracism entails), it turns out that all conspiracy theorists are irrational.

Clearly, I don’t hold to that view and I provide, in the thesis and in the forthcoming book, arguments as to why I don’t think this construal does us any favours. However, my worry at the moment is that the literature is confused and confusing: it is not always clear which terms are in use. For example, several writers define conspiracy theorising in conspiracist terms without ever using the terms “conspiracist” or “conspiracism”. Some theorists defending belief in conspiracy theories co-opt conspiracist definitions from elsewhere because they have failed to notice that when writer X talks about conspiracy theorists they actually defined belief in conspiracy theories as conspiracist (and so they end up undermining their own arguments).

Annoying? Yes.

I am trying to both disentangle the literature and advance an argument which stipulates that we should use these terms carefully. However, as I keep finding, the nested nature of the definitions that are play keep tripping me up. I’ll find a quote which I think advances my argument, check its references and then sigh heavily because somewhere a term has slipped meaning.

Which is why it has taken nearly two weeks to write what will be, at most a 1,500 word section.

Back to the grindstone.

Notes

  1. More properly, a conspiracist is someone who sees conspiracies where there is none; we should probably constrain conspiracism to a more general view.

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.

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