Paper Review – “Unbelievable” (Tony Sobrado)

Tony Sobrado’s article “Unbelievable” in the June 2012 issue of “The Skeptic” treats conspiracy theories as a species of what Sobrado calls “pseudo-theories.” Sobrado runs an analogy between the demarcation of the (natural) and pseudo-sciences and the demarcation between theory (proper) and pseudo-theories. His analogy is then used to argue for the claim that conspiracy theories fail the test of being anything other than pseudo-theories, which in turn justifies our suspicion of such theories.

Obviously, given that my thesis is called “In defence of conspiracy theories,” Sobrado and I do not see eye-to-eye in this matter. Indeed, I find his argument perplexing, in part because I think he applies the wrong tool to the analysis of conspiracy theories (falsificationism) and he buys into a pejorative definition of conspiracy theory (by talking almost solely about what he calls “meta-conspiracy theories:” the ones which cite the existence of the New World Order, et cetera)1 one that makes his argument trivially valid but skirts around the interesting epistemic issues.

Sobrado’s article is, ostenisbly, an argument about how we can apply some theories from the Philosophy of Science to the analysis of conspiracy theories. His argument is based upon an understanding of how philosophers of the Natural Sciences talk about theory and the various desiderata that are currently in vogue when we talk about such theories being adequate. However, I think Sobrado is mistaken to talk about theory sui generis in this way, because he is talking about theories in the Natural Sciences and then importing that discussion to theories in the Social Sciences.

Firstly, take one of the Holy Grails of the scientific method: prediction. These abound in the natural sciences, ranging from how, when, and why your PC will turn on to planes flying and equations of time and space. The social sciences tread a more precarious and unreliable ground. However, through the collection of data based on conceptualised variables along with statistical models of causation, predictions can be levied. Anyone who has an investment portfolio can see the benefits of employing time series and regression analysis in economics although the latest financial crises illustrates that these predictions are far from completely accurate. (p. 23)

Herein lies the first problem: what is he defining as the “Social Sciences” here? Is Anthropology, under his understanding, a social science? Is History? Because it seems he has chosen an example here (Economics) which looks, at first glance, to be a good fit/analogous with the theories of the Natural Sciences but may not be representative of the Social Sciences as a whole.

For example, if History is a Social Science, then prediction is questionable as a shared feature between the Natural and Social Sciences, given that historical explanations are often contextualised to one time and place and if you force them into a form where they can be made to appear predicative, such predictions are either hopelessly vague (“Monarchies get overthrown when the middle-classes become powerful”) or false (“Monarchies get overthrown when the middle-classes become powerful”). The same kind of question can be raised about Sociology (in which many adequate sociological theories explain the phenomenology of a social group at some particular time), Anthropology, Geography and the like. Do we expect all the adequate theories in these Social Sciences to be predicative? Some very well might be, but many aren’t, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for many of those theories, given that they still adequately explain phenomena in the domain of that particular social science.

I think, then, that Sobrado has, presumably inadvertantly, chosen an example (Economics) which closely adheres to the standards of the Natural Sciences (although my suspicion is that most Economics is more like Sociology and the like, so the fit is partial at best). He has then inferred if Economics can be predicative, then not only should the other Social Sciences should be as well, but as conspiracy theories fail to be predicative, they are pseudo-theoretic.

I am not at all convinced. As I argue in my thesis, conspiracy theories are a kind of explanation (specifically, historical explanations) and whilst scientific explanations typically act as both predictions and retrodictions, social scientific ones (especially historical theories) are not necessarily predicative (although it’s nice when they can be). Prediction might well be a “holy grail” for theories in the Natural Sciences, but it’s not clear it is a disiderata for theories in the Social Sciences.

Sobrado also brings in talk of falsificationism, stating that as conspiracy theories cannot be falisified, they are, consequently, pseudo-theories (p. 23). For one thing, the process of falsificiationism differentiates between the theories which are scientific and non-scientific theories. If a purported “scientific theory” cannot be falsified, then it can rightly be considered “pseudo-scientific.” That being said, falsificationism isn’t necessarily a useful demarcation between adequate theories in the Social Sciences. Certainly, according to some philosophers of Science, the theories of the Social Sciences are not examples of kinds of theories we find in the Natural Sciences. Thus, while under Popper’s view such non-science theories might well be unfalsifiable, that doesn’t mean they are pseudo-scientific (say, in the way that Homeopathy is). If a theory is unfalsifiable it is, according to Popper, not a scientific theory (and thus we should not accept it in the packet of scientific theories) but just because a theory is unfalsifiable, that doesn’t make it a pseudo-theory because whilst being falisifiable is important to theories in the Natural Sciences, it isn’t clear that it’s a desiderata of theories in the Social Sciences. Lots of theories in the social sciences are unfalsifiable but still adequate2.

Also, I have to ask, has Sobrado not read Brian L. Keeley’s seminal (at least with respect to the philosophy of conspiracy theories) “Of Conspiracy Theories?” Keeley argues that falsification is a fine thesis but just not applicable to things like conspiracy theories. To quote:

By hypothesis, the conspiracy theorist is struggling to explain phenomena that other, presumably powerful, agents are actively seeking to keep secret. Unlike the case of science, where nature is construed as a passive and uninterested party with respect to human-knowledge gathering activities, the conspiracy theorist is working in a domain where the investigated actively seeks to hamper the investigation. Imagine if neutrinos were not simply hard to detect, but actively sought to avoid detection! This is exactly the case with which conspiracy theorists contend we are confronted in the cases they seek to explain. This is why countervailing evidence and lack of evidence can and ought to be construed as supporting their theories. (p. 120)

and:

It is not ad hoc to suppose that false and misleading data will be thrown your way when one supposes that there is somebody out there actively throwing that data at you. (p. 121)

and:

Falsifiability is a perfectly fine criterion in the case of natural science when the target of investigation is neutral with respect to our queries, but it seems much less appropriate in the case of the phenomena covered by conspiracy theories. (p. 121)

If there are conspiracies in existence, we should expect evidence for them to be hard to come by and the very evidence which might falsify such a conspiracy theory might well be disinformation that has been put out there by the conspirators in order to hide or obfuscate evidence for the existence of said conspiracy.

In short, if it turns out that the kind of things which make theories in the Social Sciences adequate are different from those of the Natural Sciences, then Sobrado’s analogy between the pseudo-sciences and what Sobrado calls “pseudo-theories” might very well fall down. I think this is yet another article (common to the field) where the author assumes conspiracy theories must be, sui generis, unwarranted and thus constructs a case for said lack of warrant. In this instance, Sobrado applies an understanding of the Philosophy of the (Natural) Sciences to conspiracy theories without, it seems, realising that the criteria by which we analyse the Natural Sciences is not necessarily the same as the way we appraise theories in the Social Sciences (of which conspiracy theories are a subset).

Notes

  1. I also think he buys into Popper’s notion of the conspiracy theory of society when he writes:

    This then leads to the paradox in conspiracy theory with regards to observed social phenomena and epistemology. This is that the observed phenomenon is allocated to the realm of conspiratorial explanation. The explanation encapsulates the activity of cabalist agents operating illustrious tricks of misdirection yet simultaneously these grand tricks are not only detected by conspiracy theorists but also are fully deciphered. We are thus left with a logical dissonance because the conspirators are both fully competent and almost omnipotent like in that they can control all facets of social activity but are completely inept in the maintenance of secrecy as they leave an amassed trail of clues behind for conspirators to find. (p. 24)

    Sobrado, like Popper before him, seems to think there is some kind of weird paradox between the claims of seemingly all-powerful conspirators and their plots being known about, but as Charles Pigden wrote in “Popper Revisited, or What is wrong with conspiracy theories anyway?” this thesis appears to be a bit of a strawman argument against belief in conspiracy theories.

  2. I’m leaving to one side all the attendant criticisms of the thesis of Falsificationism which indicates that it might not be a good demarcating criterion between the Natural Sciences and the pseudosciences and that it might not even be a feature of theories in the Natural Sciences anyway.

Paper Review – The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing (Juha Räikkä)

Juha Räikkä, “The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing” in The Journal of Value Inquiry (2009) 43:457–468

Juha Räikkä’s paper “The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing” worried me, because I currently have in preparation a project on the ethics of investigation into conspiracy theories (i.e. when is it going to be appropriate to not just believe conspiracy theories but also when is it going to be rational to investigate them, especially in case were they seem unwarranted but, if true, would be the kind of thing we should know about). Having covered Räikkä’s 2009 paper “On Political Conspiracy Theories” (in the Journal of Political Philosophy) in my thesis I was both curious to see what new material Räikkä would bring to the debate but also concerned that maybe the ethics of conspiracy theorising might well say some of the things I was planning on saying.

Luckily for me, Räikkä’s paper does not presage my new research project. Unluckily (for someone at least) I am not convinced by Räikkä’s argument about the ethics of conspiracy theorising.

Let me start with a minor but still irkingly particular problem I have with Räikkä’s analysis: his distinction between “global” and “local” conspiracy theories.

A conspiracy theory is global rather than local when the person who advances it aims to explain global or international events or when the explanation the person provides refers to international affairs. (p. 459)

I don’t run such a distinction in the thesis because I don’t need to; my argument that conspiracy theories can be warranted (and the attendant analysis of how we infer to the existence of a conspiracy) isn’t in anyway predicated on the size of the conspiracy. As such, I do not distinguish between local conspiracies (say, the organisation of a surprise party) with global conspiracies (the destruction of the Twin Towers) because I don’t think size really has much to do with the warrant/rationality (or lack thereof) of such beliefs. I think it is a distinction which seems all very nice but doesn’t actually do anything to advance our understanding of whether belief in conspiracy theories (or how they are generated) is warranted. That being said, Räikkä uses his notion of global conspiracies to admit to yet another class of conspiracy theory, the “total conspiracy theory:”

Total theories are advanced to explain the course of world history or the whole of global politics by referring to a conspiracy or a series of conspiracies. (p. 459)

Now, I can kind of see why you might want to define a set of total conspiracy theories: these are the kinds of conspiracy theories which most people (perhaps rightfully) find epistemically suspicious, given that whilst we can easily point towards, in Räikkä’s terms, warranted local and global conspiracy theories, the evidence seems to be against total conspiracy theories. However, I worry that running such a set of distinctions is just another way of defining away problem cases as ipso facto unwarranted (and thus ignoring the possibility that maybe there is an argument for there being a total conspiracy in effect). Indeed, on page 460, Räikkä basically defines away total conspiracy theories as being unwarranted because if they were true, then the entire history of the world, apparently, would be the result of a conspiracy and Räikkä thinks this is obviously false. He ends up throwing away a class of conspiracy theory because he thinks such claims are ridiculous, but that seems like a weird move to make if we aren’t going to inspect the arguments for such total conspiracy theories.

I also was perplexed by this:

Although total theories can be and have been used for political purposes, they do not cause political quarrels as systematically as political conspiracy theories. Hence, total theories are not, strictly speaking, political theories, although total theories may naturally have political relevance. (p. 459-60)

That’s also weird. Why would you consider, because total theories explain all politics (and everything else) with reference to some controlling group, that such theories are non-political? Surely, indeed as Räikkä goes on to argue, these total conspiracy theories end up being very much structured on Left/Right lines, being that the groups which are considered to be “the menace” are the enemies of the theorist, politically-speaking.

It also doesn’t help that his set of distinctions between the sizes of conspiracy theories doesn’t really play much of a role in his argument about the value/consequences of conspiracy theorising.

Räikkä’s purpose, in “The Ethics of Conspiracy Theorizing” is to analyse whether it is ethical to theorise about conspiracies. He summarises some of the views various theorists have had about the virtue (or lack thereof) of political conspiracy theorising but then goes on to say something I think is both odd and skews the rest of the paper.

For our purposes, it is more important to pay attention to the fact that every now and then people have negative attitudes toward single conspiracy theories. If we assume that they are justified in having their negative attitudes, we can ask what justifies them. (p. 462)

Räikkä’s argument seems to be based upon adopting the common usage form of “conspiracy theory” as being an example of a suspicious belief to hold. Surely, I would argue, that just makes the rest of his argument trivially true, given that Räikkä then goes on to argue that conspiracy theorising is unethical. Because, whilst Räikkä started the paper with the claim:

The ethical evaluation of conspiracy theorizing as a cultural phenomenon should be distinguished from the ethical evaluation of particular conspiracy theories. Political conspiracy theorizing may be a valuable cultural phenomenon, even if most or all political conspiracy theories have moral costs. (p. 458)

his focus is really on the unethical consequences of conspiracy theorising. I think he ends up labelling conspiracy theorising in the pejorative sense rather than asking when it might not be an irrational thing to engage in. As I said, I think his argument is skewed here because he assumes that we have grounds to be suspicious of conspiracy theorising and thus seeks to justify them. This, I would argue, is the wrong way to deal with these suspicions. We need to know if the suspicions are justified, not assume they are justified and then work out the how and why. Assuming conspiracy theorising to be suspicious, without looking at the argument for that suspicion, means you are going to end up playing down the virtues and overplaying the negative consequences of such theorising. He writes:

Too often the conspiracy theorist gets her motivation for conspiracy theorizing from her prejudices about religions, mass media, professional elites, public health authorities, academia, intelligence agencies, the police and the military. (p. 463)

To which I say “So do non-conspiracy theorists.” Räikkä charges conspiracy theorists with, it seems, being more involved, and prejudicial than non-conspiracy theorists but it isn’t clear that this is really the case. Were Woodward and Bernstein particularly prejudiced journalists? Was John Dewey (and the rest of the Dewey Commission) particularly prejudiced when they investigated the Moscow Trials? This seems like the kind of bold assertion (about the psychology of conspiracy theorists) that needs to be based upon evidence rather than anecdote (Räikkä’s evidence for this claim is to cite the Conspiracy Encyclopedia; hardly the best source for the psychological attitudes of conspiracy theorists and there is still the lingering question of “Isn’t this true of non-conspiracy theorists as well?).

But the real problem I have with this paper is the analogy Räikkä runs between apologists for the War on Terror and those who argue that there are benefits to conspiracy theorising:

For a comparison, let us consider the following argument in defense of what is often called the war against terrorism, where the conclusion is that the war against terrorism is morally justified, as it serves extremely important goals such as democracy, justice, and freedom. It is true that the individual actions in the war violate systematically human rights and narrow basic rights of people all over the world. In target countries human sacrifices are common. The war harms especially women and children in many areas. No doubt, these are moral costs of the war, but, the argument continues, they are small price to pay. Although some individual actions may be unnecessary and could be replaced by more humane actions, an effective warfare requires actions that are not morally acceptable if evaluated one by one. Intentional killing of non-combatants is generally morally impermissible, but in the context of terrorism it may be morally permissible and even required in order to remove the terrorist threat.

Whatever the initial plausibility of the argument may be thought to be, it will not convince the opponents of the war against terrorism. It is unclear whether the alleged goals of the war are consistent with the means used in it. It is also unclear whether the means are necessary or even effective. People who defend conspiracy theorizing by referring to its desirable social consequences should be ready to face similar suspicions. (p. 464)

I think this is both a terrible analogy (because theorising that a conspiracy might be in existence is not the same thing as making a moral claim for a war) and it somewhat shows that, despite the neutral language Räikkä uses at the beginning of the paper, his view on conspiracy theorising is obviously one of moral condemnation.

When it comes to political conspiracy theorizing, publishing suspicions can be morally problematic, because harsh claims are made in too early a stage of the investigations. (p. 466)

This seems to be his main worry but if this is the cost of conspiracy theorising he is worried about, then the war analogy really is very, very terrible indeed. This is the ethics argument the author is running. It’s about the cost of accusing someone of conspiracy rather than looking at whether such a claim is worthy of investigation. The former issue, however, bears on the latter because if we think we should not conspiracy theorise because such claims are “harsh,” then that rules out some investigation into claims of conspiracy which might turn out to be warranted.

Whilst I agree that we should look at more prosaic alternative explanations whenever possible, we should not reject conspiracy theorising merely because it might present some people or organisations in a bad light. For one, that may very well allow conspiracies to flourish and, for another, given the way we treat conspiracy theorising in our culture, such claims are not likely to be taken all that seriously anyway.

Conference Paper Review: Conspiracy Theories are for Losers

Joseph E. Uscinski, Joseph M. Parent and Bethany Torres, “Conspiracy Theories are for Losers,” Presented at the 2011 American Political Science Association annual conference, Seattle, Washington, the University of Miami.

Read it here

“Conspiracy Theories are for Losers” is a political science paper which makes a very bold claim: the primary factor in conspiracy theorising is political (rather than sociological or psychological), a claim that, unfortunately, I do not think is supported by the evidence the authors present.

The causes of conspiracy theories are not primarily philosophical, psychological, or sociological—they are political. Conspiracy theories tend to resonate when they help vulnerable groups manage threats. They do this because successful conspiracy theories have a strategic logic that sharpens internal cohesion and focuses attention on dangers. During times of low external threat, we find regular alternation between left-wing groups out of power blaming right-wing groups in power for conspiring against them followed by the reverse. During times of high external threat, we find infighting receding and foreigner-fearing conspiracy theories coming to the fore. Because defeat is their biggest inducement, conspiracy theories are for losers (speaking descriptively, not pejoratively.) (p. 5)

The main problem with this paper is the strong conclusion the authors draw. They claim that conspiracy theorising is foremost a political activity when, really, they should be saying something like political factors have significant influence on conspiracy theorising. This is a weaker claim but it follows from their argument. The stronger claim, about the primacy of political factors in conspiracy theorising, can only be made with several caveats, caveats which end up undermining the novelty of their argument.

I can understand why the authors push for a bold conclusion: the claim that political factors have significant influence on conspiracy theorising is not particularly novel and therefore it is not very interesting. For example, Mark Fenster, in his book “Conspiracy Theories – Secrecy and Power in American Culture” (a book the authors cite) argues that conspiracy theorising on the part of groups of conspiracy theorists is significantly affected by political allegiance. Indeed, almost everyone in the field agrees that political views influence the types and kinds of conspiracies people are prone to, and conspiracy theory historians (like Victoria Emma Pagán in her book “Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History” and Thomas E. Kaiser, Marisa Linton and Peter R. Campbell’s book “Conspiracy in the French Revolution”) have all expressed theories about how conspiracy theories reflect the political power disbalances of their days.

The problem for the argument (towards the strong conclusion) in “Conspiracy Theories are for Losers” is, I think, that it relies both upon ignoring sociological contributions to the debate about conspiracy theories and making a claim about political identity which ignores how such identity is basically social in character.1

The authors characterise the sociological contribution to the debate on conspiracy theorising in the following passage:

Others have examined conspiracy theories from sociological and ethno-sociological viewpoints, arguing that culture is key in contextualizing conspiracy theorizing. How groups view themselves in relation to others helps determine how likely they are to view events as conspiracy related (Goldberg 2001; Locke 2009; Simmons and Parsons 2005; Waters 1997; Fenster 1999; Hellinger 2003; Melley 2000). By this logic, culture is a filter that screens out unflattering information and favors complimentary narratives. Inferior status is explained away by immoral machinations or illegal maneuvers, which grants the implied honor of being a worthy opponent or necessitating cheating to win.

Sociological approaches are adept at describing the worldview of conspiracy theorists, and internal group dynamics. But lush detail is the main strength and weakness of these approaches. By focusing on individual groups and individual conspiracies, sociological work sacrifices the systematic comparisons necessary to make conclusions with broader validity. These scholars accept conspiracy theories as an abstract concept, but have poured their energies into understanding the subject at a more granular level. (p. 12)

Meanwhile, the authors characterise their contribution to the debate on conspiracy theorising as follows:

In a nutshell, our main claim is that perceived power asymmetries drive conspiracy talk. (p. 13)

and:

By our logic, all groups are likely to engage in conspiracy theorizing when they suffer defeats (or toil at the bottom of a perceived asymmetry), and the more defeats they suffer (or the more toiling they do) the more popular and stubborn conspiracy beliefs are. (p. 16)

They base their analysis upon, what I take is, this crucial definition:

Fundamentally, our explanation is about groups competing for power. Groups perform at least two functions: coordination and distribution. To compete against others, groups coordinate individuals to create or capture resources, broadly interpreted, and then distribute those spoils authoritatively. These two tasks are in tension; there are always incentives to cooperate to expand the size of the pie, and compete for a greater slice of the pie. The ratio between the two is primarily a product of external threat (Simmel 1964; Coser 1956; Stein 1976). So the larger outside dangers loom, the more in-group cooperation and less distributional strife there is likely to be. (p. 14)

If their analysis is really one about group dynamics, how is this different from the sociological approach which they claim is lush but “sacrifices the systematic comparisons necessary to make conclusions with broader validity”?2 If conspiracy theorising is both political and group-based, do these groups exist as explicit political entities made up of definite members (say, Republican party-members and Democrats) or are they implicit (say, the Left vs. the Right)? i.e. Having said “It’s political!” doesn’t it turn out that the authors’ argument ends up being social (i.e. rooted in sociology) after all?

I think this is an important question, and it is not one the authors’ come up with nor given any approximate answer to. They want their analysis to be purely political but what they take to be a purely political analysis seems heavily indebted to sociology.

Indeed, this seems to come out clearly in their actual data set. The claim to fame of this paper is that they have gathered quite the longitudinal dataset, having canvassed over a hundred years of published letters to the editor at the New York Times. The authors say an awful lot about how they picked out letters which are examples of conspiracy theorising, how they differentiated between elite vs. non-elite writers and the like, but I think they over looked one crucial factor. Because it is reasonable to say that over time political groups change in constitution, the analysis the authors engage in when identifying the political factors at work when conspiracy theories are mused about in these letters really must be based, at least in part, in Sociology (and thus not primarily politically after all), unless they want to make some kind of claim that the Republicans of the early Twentieth Century are the same kind of people as the Republicans who back the Romney-Ryan ticket. Now, maybe they do, but it would be both a weird and implausible claim. The New Zealand Labour Party of today is quite different from the New Zealand Labour Party of the late Eighties and the kind of support that party had in the early part of the 20th Century is not necessarily where it draws its support today.

My point is this: what counts as a political factor, it seems, in the authors’ analysis, comes from some notion of an individual identifying with a political view/affiliation/identity which ends up being social (or cultural) in nature. If all the argument is ends up being “People of political stripe X, when not the dominant group in government, theorise about conspiracies by people of political strip Y, who are in government,” then it seems we’re talking about a thesis in sociology with a special emphasis on political groups.

It doesn’t seem like they are suggesting that it is political factors which are especially responsible for conspiracy theorising but, rather, that political factors are important when considering the type and kind of conspiracy theorising that goes on with respect to certain (politically interested/involved) groups of people.

Still, there is a lot to like about this paper (sans the overstated conclusion). It presents some interesting data (I’m not convinced that it’s a sufficiently large sample to infer much from, but that’s a matter for another time) covering quite a long period of time that shows that a particular correlation we’ve always suspected of being true (the people who don’t hold power tend to theorise the existence of conspiracies amongst those who do) and I particularly like this comment about transparency:

More positively, our policy recommendations are modest but seek to amplify the virtues of liberal democratic governance. Greater governmental transparency will not quell the power asymmetries that feed conspiracy theories. Some people will always be unreachable. But if knowledge is power, increased transparency blunts some of the advantages of power asymmetries and takes some of the wind out of conspiracy theorists’ sails. Of course, there are countervailing dangers to more transparency, but a marginal decrease in conspiracy theorizing is at least worth weighing against those risks. (p. 33)

Notes

  1. The authors are somewhat dismissive of the existing literature on conspiracy theorising in Psychology, Sociology and Philosophy. I think the authors miss the point of the philosophical literature. Whilst we talk a little about the conditions of conspiracy theorising, most of the philosophical interest in conspiracy theories has been epistemic. We (philosophers) are interested in when it is rational to believe given conspiracy theories and the kind of conditions under which it is reasonable to be a conspiracy theorist. When it comes to questions about the resonance of conspiracy theories in a given context… That kind of issue is best answered by experts in fields which study that kind of thing (Sociology, History, Psychology and Political Studies) and the fact that philosophers might not have much to say on it doesn’t mean our contributions elsewhere aren’t important. Still, I’m not concerned here with perceived slights against Philosophy but, rather, the (slight) slight against Sociology the authors seem committed to.
  2. I don’t actually accept that the sociological views of Fenster and company lack the ability to make such systemic comparisons, but that is neither here nor there for my argument.

Episteme Review #6 – Shit Happens – Peter Mandik

Shit Happens – Peter Mandik

Abstract:

In this paper I embrace what Brian Keeley calls in “Of Conspiracy Theories” the absurdist horn of the dilemma for philosophers who criticize such theories. I thus defend the view that there is indeed something deeply epistemically wrong with conspiracy theorizing. My complaint is that conspiracy theories apply intentional explanations to situations that give rise to special problems concerning the elimination of competing intentional explanations.

Review:

I’m not really sure, some days, where I fall in the schema of answers to ‘Is belief in Conspiracy Theories rational?’ I’m obviously on the side of ‘No,’ but I think it’s a little more like ‘Not really, no, but…’ Mandik’s paper is one of those pieces that makes me think my sympathy is really with the ‘Yes, but…’ crowd (of which Coady and Pigden are the best examples). Mandik is arguing for what Coady calls the Coincidence Thesis; it is more rational to assume that things just happen than to posit intentional agency. Mandik’s greater thesis is really an argument against the traditional account of Historical Explanations. Because we cannot know what an agent (or set of agents) intended to do we should prefer non-intentional explanations of the variety of ‘shit happens’ (this is a little misleading; Mandik isn’t saying that events happen randomly but rather that we cannot adequately describe them as happening intentionally). It’s an interesting argument (and one that has been hashed out agian and again since the 1960s, most famously and influentially by Donald Davidson in ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’) but no matter what you think about about the status of Historical Explanations (I think that they a) obviously exist and b) have a different epistemic status to that of explanations in the Natural Sciences) I think Mandik gets entirely the wrong end of the stick by arguing that Conspiracy Theories look like classical examples of Historical Explanations where the explanada is somehow ‘witnessed’ by the person providing the reasons for the explanadum. This seems wrong; Conspiracy Theorists, I think, infer the existence of Conspiracy Theories rather than witness them. Thus a lot of what Mandik says in this paper misses the point (I think), although he does argue fairly well for a set of individually necessary, jointly sufficient set of conditions for what counts as a Conspiracy Theory (with the exception of his claim of secrecy, which just doesn’t work at all).