Conspiracism – Who’s in (and who’s out)?

Over the last two months I have been working on a number of papers/book chapters. One is a rehash of the last two chapters of the book… Well, “rehash” is not the right term; I take the some broad analysis from the last two chapters but look at a different issue. More on this later. No, today I want to say something more about conspiracism.

“Conspiracism” and “conspiracist” are typically used interchangeably with “conspiracy theorising” and “conspiracy theorist”, but I’ve argued in the book and a recent paper that we should reserve these terms and use them only when talking about irrational conspiracy theorising and conspiracy theorists who do not have adequate reasons to believe some conspiracy theory. Part of my argument is that if we bake in the pejorative aspect to these terms, then we are avoiding the question “Can belief in conspiracy theories even be justified?” by defining away the answer. It all becomes a simple matter of definitions, rather than an analysis of the evidence, and that seems a) uncharitable, and b) not particularly philosophical. So, let’s keep a pejorative in the form of the terms “conspiracism” and “conspiracist” and look at the general classes of conspiracy theorising and conspiracy theorists with an open mind.

But here’s the rub: I’m not entirely convinced there are many, if any, real conspiracists. Confused? You probably should be.

Problem one: If we define a conspiracist as “someone who believes a conspiracy theory for inadequate reasons”, then it might turn out there aren’t many conspiracists.

One thing which infuriates a lot of us who spend time analysing conspiracy theories is the claim that people believe them just because. An analysis of what conspiracy theorists actually say in support of their theories, however, indicates that they often have quite well-developed arguments; they just don’t happen to either share the same assumptions as their opponents, or weight evidence in different ways. As comrade Gio can attest, Richard Gage has quite a long and detailed argument as to why he thinks the Twin Towers were destroyed by a controlled demolition, rather than because two Boeing 747s flew into them. Both Gio and myself disagree with Gage’s assessment as to how good that argument is, but Gage isn’t a Truther “just because”.

So, one worry about my usage of the term “conspiracist” is factored around the possibility that the worrisome conspiracy theorists like Gage turn out not to be conspiracists. Sure; we think their theories are unwarranted, but they’re not unwarranted because they aren’t based in evidence or arguments. Rather, their theories are unwarranted because on closer inspection the arguments suffer from problems of validity or soundness, in a non-trivial (i.e. not immediately obvious) sense.

Problem two: If we define a conspiracist as “someone who believes a conspiracy theory for inadequate reasons”, then it might turn out we are all conspiracists.

Most psychologists and philosophers will be happy to endorse some version of the following proposition: Most of us (if not all of us) believe at least one thing which turns out to be unjustified.

Justifying our beliefs is hard, and most of us believe a number of things that, when challenged to defend them, will turn out to be unexamined beliefs. That’s not too contentious a claim, although some philosophers will disagree (some philosophers will always disagree; it’s a discipline for disagreeable people, after all!). If we add to that my claim (which I dutifully admit I inherit from Charles Pigden) that we are all conspiracy theorists, then it seems probably (but not necessarily likely) that many of us conspiracy theorists are conspiracists about at least one conspiracy theory we believe.

For example, friend Lee keeps telling me that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was a real example of a false flag operation, one which the U.S. Government tried and succeeded (for a time) to cover up. I trust Lee as a source, and I’ve also checked the Wikipedia page. Now, I know Wikipedia is not the best source in the world, which is why it is supporting evidence for Lee’s constant assertions about Tonkin, but it’s quite possible Lee is wrong or lying to me (maybe he even edited the Wikipedia page!), and so my belief that the Gulf of Tonkin incident is a false flag may well make me a conspiracist.

Note that this particular problem has an interesting corollary: I can be a conspiracist with respect to one conspiracy theory and a perfectly normal (even rational) conspiracy theorist with respect to some other conspiracy theory. I might be a conspiracist about Tonkin but have warranted beliefs about the conspiracy theory behind the Moscow Show Trials.

Problems one and two are interesting because they are decent objections to conspiracism. Problem one describes a general problem: as defined, there might not be many conspiracists. Problem two describes what we might call a specific problem: depending on the conspiracy theory I might turn out to be a conspiracist in one case and a conspiracy theorist in some other. Yet both are bullets I think we need to bite; it may turn out that there aren’t many conspiracists, or that if conspiracists exist, many of us might turn out to be one. As long as we’re aware of these issues, then I think we can proceed in the analysis of these things called “conspiracy theories” and spend some time working out whether belief in them really is as irrational as many academics claim.


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.