2 thoughts on “Podcast – An evening in Boise with Ginna Husting and Martin Orr

  1. Great cast.

    M sets a great stage for a great conversation.

    Surely by design, Gina inserts a reference to John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” (Plastic Ono Band) in the last moment of the cast. The line she refers to is, “You think you’re so clever and classless and free. But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”. I adored this song as a teen. Used to call in to the radio station in the wee hours, when they could play a song with the F-word. Lost on the frozen plains, we had local DJs then. They understood a 13 year-old might really need to hear it. Genius, Gina.

    The avoidant dichotomy between “conspiracy explanation” and “conspiracy theory” that is used to reject the category of “conspiracy theory” is increasingly present. Martin questions this directly. Of course, the distinction is completely problematic. If “conspiracy theory” is needed to label “unwarranted conspiracy explanation”, why not just say “unwarranted”? When we refuse this obvious point, the Jin is out of the bottle: “conspiracy theory” is merely a term of silencing and pathologizing, not epistemology, in these peoples’ mouths. Nothing more. So once I point this out I can redirect these avoiders to the evidence, not the ad hominem pathologizing. As Gina and Martin also note, the “theory” usage, as contrasted to “explanation”, is twisted into a mere political formation; yet “quantum mechanical theory” is entirely parallel to “quantum mechanical explanation”. If we identified conspiracy theories as evidentially unjustified (unwarranted) or evidentially justified, calling them explanations has no added conceptual content. So it’s a political project.

    Nice Pitzer talk. M and me agree that salience is a basic source of the “conspiracy theory” equals “bad events only” mythology. People focus on salient conspiracies, ones that are ambitious and horrifying. Because of their salience, we use the term “conspiracy theory” as only referring to such accusations, accusations that offend the political/economic piety of “representational democracies”. But the concept of conspiracy theory is entirely general, including surprise birthday parties. In my 2011 in Beyond Rationality there are many arguments for this mistaking salience for definition. (The LSE paid for and put that out, bless them) and why some sort of Bad is a necessary condition for conspiracy doesn’t work. This allows us a method of silencing and avoidance of these present and future realities, when we also pathologize the phrase. It encourages a society-wide amnesia, at least on the level of publicly acceptable discourse, concerning the human normality of conspiracy.

    We’re on to something. “Salience” is quite important in inflicting questionable selectivity to the concept “conspiracy theory”, and the belief such are rare in our societies. This is something we really need to work into our analysis of the pathologizing approach to CT. Salience can itself be manipulative.

    So what fixes salience, and not insistence on insanity, in our societies? Exploring this seems a great way to find the soft spots, the weak, sensitive tissue, if you will, of our society. Why can’t we call official accounts “conspiracy theories”? It can’t simply be that we need a pejorative term and “unwarranted conspiracy theory” doesn’t convey the epistemic deficit. This is beyond epistemology. One obvious thought: It is about stability, and selective, power-based use, the need for a term of abuse: Pathologize, silence.

    The question of why CT is prominent in fiction is interesting. That we might reflexively describe it as “conspiracy theory”, as in the cast conversation, and not “conspiracy explanation” is interesting. Why do we fall so easily into the traps we denounce? After all, the same texts can be described as rife with “conspiracy explanation”.

    But the thought that it, whatever we call it, “theory” or “explanation”, is common just because “we can do in fiction but not in reality”, while true, seems to pass over the concern of the question raised; why is it is being done at a higher level, “in fiction” and “in fact”, at levels more public than before? This trend is evident in not just youth fiction, but movies and TV.

    My view is that human social explanation frequently averts to conspiracy because humans frequently, normally conspire. Why might this momentarily diminish in the public realm post WWII? One idea, limited to the US and commonwealth: We had a period of unity during and after WWII, and this has eroded since. And now? A society becoming more honest about so much concerning it, such as identity, can hardly miss the reality of conspiracy, too. Ewe now have a generation of writers for youth attuned to this. In this explanation fiction follows reality, or as we say, art (“fiction”) imitates the real. It wouldn’t surprise me if, subsequently, reality will increasingly imitate conspiracy-art; a new generation of conspirators and those more open about the need to watch out for them.

    So perhaps it’s not only about a “safe space” to toy with conspiracy—young fiction—it’s about current popular perceptions of the prior probability of conspiracy in the very societies where these stories are being written. They are popular with the young and sold to them because because this is how the young perceive their reality; conspiratorial and relatively powerless. Furthermore, kids and teens are consummate conspirators, often intentionally cooperating to deceive their parents, other authorities and each other. Certainly fits my experience as a child.

    On a priori false conspiracy theories: The only conspiracy theory—or any sort of theory at all—that could be a priori false is one with internal logical contradictions in its claims. All internally consistent theories are therefore only subject to empirical rejection of one kind or another. Take the reptile ruler case; even this one is rejected empirically, because it doesn’t cohere with our background beliefs about the world that are well justified, and lacks much in the way of any positive evidence for it. It’s what Juha Räikkä calls “fanciful” conspiracy theories.

    Gina makes this point at the end. The expectation of high placed conspiracy is not just normal and non-pathological, but absolutely necessary for the conduct of the current society, and increasingly so, exponentially, at the highest levels. The victorious Western societies, after shaking off of the post WWII trust-haze, finally understood as a deceptive default value of trust, and resented, culturally rebelled. The normality of high placed conspiracy is even an open secret, as Martin notes. The practices of invisible government; our endless “closed congressional sessions” and worse.

    I think I’ll drop the audio quotes in as text, clean this up a bit for public consumption (proper names, nice intro, topic transitions), toss in some more cheerleading, and put it up over at SERRC. With your permission, of course? Lot’s of episto refs.

    Back to proclivities!



    • Yeah, I think the salience issue does a lot of work for many a generalist; it’s easy to get your priors wrong in re conspiratorial activity if you mistake what’s important to you personally with what is essential to the concept. There’s probably (given prior discussion) a lot more to say about this kind of thing, especially since we see it a lot in the dismissal of certain conspiracy theories (“People should focus on x rather than flights of fancy y” which is just another way of saying “I don’t care about y and am annoyed you are spending time on it!”).

      In re the hypothesis of the post WWII consensus, we should be able to test for that by looking at the prevalence or lack thereof of claims of conspiracy post other big wars where countries or peoples united against a common enemy. Given the history of war in Europe of people ganging up against a common enemy we must surely see something similar. We just need a pet historian or set of historians to ensure we get enough of a read on said histories to confidently press the point.

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