More adventures in internet criticism

So, every few months someone – let’s call them ‘Steve Tooban’ – gets in contact to share with me their particular Shakespeare conspiracy theory (they write on the authorship controversy, a strangely popular theory about a putative Elizabethan conspiracy to hide the true author of the works of one Bill Shakespeare). I must admit to not really replying, or indeed doing much with these emails; I once taught that particular topic in an adult education class, but as conspiracy theories go… Well, it’s not that interesting outside of Shakespearian circles, and it’s also just not that weighty a concern. No one thinks the world will be changed if Bill Shakespeare turned out to be Eddie de Vere, or Frank Bacon. Well, no one other than the people who think it’s so important that they need to email me about it.

So, yesterday I got another email from Mr. Tooban, and it started off nice and polite, saying ‘Thought you might enjoy my most recent mention’, followed by a couple of links. But then it ended with:

BTW, I look forward to the day everyone knows how useless people like you are. Do you have any capability to distinguish when a conspiratorial explanation is warranted and substantiated?

Talk about not knowing your audience. I did write a book on that very topic, thank you very much, my little correspondent.

This email is just one of many, for I’ve had a lot of correspondence over the years which comes from people who obviously have searched for either ‘conspiracy theories’ or ‘conspiracy theorist’, and done no further research. Well, no other than looking for a contact form. I’ve been asked to promote forums, miracle cures, had demands I show how I know a theory I’ve never heard of is false, and even asked for money to help someone self-publish their book.

Oh, and I’ve had my expertise on ‘Doctor Who’ has been called into question.

Now, perhaps I think my stance on these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ is so obvious that I don’t think constant reminders of my general thesis (‘Belief in conspiracy theories is rational in a range of cases’) is necessary. Perhaps I should have – ala the suggestion of last week’s dissenting correspondent – some kind of disclaimer at the top of each post. And maybe it’s not obvious that I’m not here to promote particular theories (or give away my lack of wealth to other aspiring writers). However, you would think that even a cursory look at my work to date would show that I do have the capability to distinguish when a conspiracy theory is warranted.

Which I guess is my gripe. Do these correspondents of mine not do any research? Do they not look at just a smattering of my recent posts and go ‘Hmm, actually, this person is not exactly what I think?’

I mean, on the one hand I can understand why these correspondents assume that my work must be squarely on the ‘Conspiracy theorists are cray cray’ end of the spectrum. Most (certainly not all) loud academic voices on the topic of conspiracy theories are pushing the line that these theories are mad, bad, and dangerous to believe. People like Cassam Quassim, David Robert Grimes, Cass Sunstein, and the like, produce well-regarded works (by a public fed a litany of views that say conspiracy theories are bunk) which argue that we should not believe conspiracy theories. It’s somewhat reasonable, on first thought then, to assume that other academics (say, like myself) are likely arguing similar.

However, that only gets you part of the way. Once you’ve found a conspiracy theory theorist, you need to do a little light stalking of their work. What have they written? Have they said strange things in interviews? What about that book they wrote? If someone has published articles, a book, or written a slew of blogposts, you have to sample at least a few of them, simply to see if your assumptions that they are one of ‘them’ is actually true.

Because, and this is important, academics are not all members of a hive mind. Indeed, the wonderful thing (maybe one of the only wonderful things) about the Academy is the diversity of well-argued views and opinions. Dissent is popular in the realm of the University, because dissent is the basis of new research projects and papers. So, just because there is an identifiable set of conspiracy theory theorists with a certain view, that does not tell you that the person you are about to (try to) enter email correspondence with is one of them. Or that ‘the view’ is entirely homogenous in the first place.

I’m griping, I know. Yet I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to do a little research before contacting someone just to say ‘I look forward to the day everyone knows how useless people like you are’, only to follow that up with a reason for my kind’s uselessness which indicates the correspondent has no idea who they are talking to.

Harrumph!


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.