An open letter to the hosts of Axons and Axioms on the irrationality of belief in conspiracy theories

Back when I was in Finland earlier this year, I listened to an episode of the podcast ‘Axons and Axioms’, a series which describes itself as ‘A podcast dedicated to all things philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience.’ Said episode was on conspiracy theories, and I really wasn’t very impressed by it. If the hosts honestly think they are dedicated to all things philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, then they should have at least looked at the philosophical work on belief in conspiracy theories, rather than just mocked such beliefs outright. I wrote them a letter, which was never responded to. As such, I post it here as a warning to the curious.

Dear Tim and Derek.

My name is Matthew R. X. Dentith, an epistemologist who writes on conspiracy theories. I was just listening to your podcast on that same topic, and I thought I would drop you a line to offer some feedback.

Firstly, I was curious as to why you didn’t mention any of the philosophical literature on belief in conspiracy theories; since 1995 there has been a resurgence of interest in the topic, starting with Charles Pigden’s “Popper revisited, or what is wrong with conspiracy theories” (Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 25(1), 1995) through to my book, “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Over the past twenty years such philosophers as Brian L. Keeley, Lee Basham, David Coady, Juha Räikkä, Jason Taylor, Joel Bunting, Pete Mandik, Steve Clarke and the like have written on epistemic issues of belief in conspiracy theories, and I found it interesting that you didn’t present any of this research when declaring your case for a general scepticism of these things we call “conspiracy theories”. If you had, you might have found that many of the philosophers who write on this topic reject the idea belief in conspiracy theories is prima facie irrational, and argue instead that we need to appraise such theories on their merits. We cannot merely dismiss them just because they are called “conspiracy theories”.

As such, I would invite you to look at the topic again, but this time approaching it with respect to the philosophical literature. I have appended a somewhat comprehensive bibliography of recent work to this email.

Secondly, I was also curious as to why you didn’t talk about the large amount of social psychology lit on the topic either. Whilst it is much more sceptical of the warrant of conspiracy theories, it defends a much more nuanced case for a general scepticism than the one you presented.

Sorry if this email comes across as harsh, but I do think academics have a responsibility to present the current thinking of the day, and I think you dropped the ball in this case. A podcast devoted to the intersection of philosophy and psychology should not ignore work in either fields, let alone both (especially when a simple search in the Philosopher’s Index would have given you a lot of interesting material to play with).

Yours sincerely,

Matthew R. X. Dentith, PhD (Auckland)

Bibliography

  • Basham, Lee. 2011. ‘Conspiracy theory and rationality.’ In Beyond rationality, edited by Carl Jensen and Rom Harré, 49–87. Newcastle on Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Basham, Lee, and Matthew R. X. Dentith. 2015. ‘Bad thinkers? Don’t be so gullible!’ 3 Quarks Daily, edited by S. Abbas Raza. http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2015/08/bad-thinkers-dont-be-so-gullible.html.
  • Buenting, Joel, and Jason Taylor. 2010. ‘Conspiracy theories and fortuitous data.’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40 (4): 567–78.
  • Cassam, Quassim. 2015. ‘Bad thinkers.’ Aeon, edited by Brigid Hains. March. http://aeon.co/magazine/philosophy/intellectual-character-of-conspiracy-theorists/.
  • Clarke, Steve. 2002. ‘Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorizing.’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 32 (2): 131–50.
    • ———. 2006. ‘Appealing to the fundamental attribution error: was it all a big mistake?’ In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 129-132. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.
    • ———. 2007. ‘Conspiracy theories and the internet – controlled demolition and arrested development.’ Episteme 4 (2): 167–80.
  • Coady, David. 2006. ‘Conspiracy theories and official stories.’ In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 115-128. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.
    • ———. 2007. ‘Are conspiracy theorists irrational?’ Episteme 4 (2): 193-204
    • ———. 2012. What to believe now : applying epistemology to contemporary issues. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. 2014. The philosophy of conspiracy theories. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Feldman, Susan. 2011. ‘Counterfact conspiracy theories.’ International Journal of Applied Philosophy 21 (1): 15–24.
  • Keeley, Brian L. 1999. ‘Of conspiracy theories.’ The Journal of Philosophy 96 (3): 109–26.
  • Levy, Neil. 2007. ‘Radically socialized knowledge and conspiracy theories.’ Episteme 4 (2): 181–92.
  • Lipton, Peter. 2004. Inference to the best explanation. Second Edition. London: Routledge.
  • Mandik, Peter. 2007. ‘Shit happens.’ Episteme 4 (2): 205–18.
  • Pigden, Charles. 1995. ‘Popper revisited, or what is wrong with conspiracy theories?’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25 (1): p.3–34.
    • ———. Forthcoming. ‘Conspiracy theories and the conventional wisdom revisited’ In Secrets and Conspiracies, edited by Loukola, Olli. Rodopi.
  • Popper, Karl Raimond. 1969. The open society and its enemies. 5th ed. Vol. 2. London; Henley: Routledge Kegan Paul.
    • ———. 1972. Conjectures and refutations. Fourth Edition. Routledge; Kegan Paul.
  • Räikkä, Juha. 2009a. The ethics of conspiracy theorizing, Journal of Value Enquiry, 43, 457-468.
    • ———. 2009b. On political conspiracy theories, Journal of Political Philosophy, 17 (2), 185-201
  • Räikkä, Juha and Basham, Lee. Forthcoming. ‘Conspiracy theory phobia’. In Conspiracy theories and the people who believe them, edited by Joe Uscinski.

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.