Episteme Review #3 – Conspiracy Theories and the Internet: Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development – Steve Clarke

Conspiracy Theories and the Internet: Controlled Demolition and Arrested Development – Steve Clarke


Following Clarke (2002), a Lakatosian approach is used to account for the epistemic development of conspiracy theories. It is then argued that the hyper-critical atmosphere of the internet has slowed down the development of conspiracy theories, discouraging conspiracy theorists from articulating explicit versions of their favoured theories, which could form the hard core of Lakatosian research programmes. The argument is illustrated with a study of the “controlled demolition” theory of the collapse of three towers at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.


Clarke’s hypothesis is that rather than engendering the growth of Conspiracy Theories the Internet has actually hindered them; theories that are subject to instant peer-review will fall apart unless they are rigourous, well-specified and, importantly, plausible. Clarke’s point seems to be that Conspiracy Theories on the net are neither rigourous nor well-specified. They tend to be negative accounts; the rival, ‘official’ explanation is shown to have errant data associated with it and so is ‘debunked’ leaving room for an alternative, Conspiracy Theory which is suggested rather than proved. Clarke further suggests that as Conspiracy Theorists know that their explanations will be subject to intense scrutiny by believers and skeptics alike that they are deliberately formed in a vague way, thus making them untestable (because no specific cabal is mooted, nor a specific motive given) and largely unassailable. They fail to be good theories and thus are representative of a degenerate research programme (to use Lakatos). He does give internet Conspiracy Theorists credit for advancing a hypothesis; an explanation sketch, if you will, but this isn’t sufficient for a progressive Research Programme (and likely indicates, if Clarke is correct about his developmental view (and I think he is), that this is because such theories can never become progressive because of the criticism they are subject to (I wonder if this has an analogue in the Natural Sciences (such as theories about Cold Fusion (indeed, that example of the scientists who went public a few years back before they submitted a peer-reviewed article is probably an example of what I am thinking)))).


Peter Giger says:

Thanks for the tip about this article. I haven’t got it yet, but besides the anti-conspiracy view of the Internet, I am interested how you use the concept of peer-review here. You mostly hear this concept in closed corridors, selected reviewers in an hierarchical organisation. However, the possibilities of different forms of peer review on the Internet is almost endless. I think ‘transparency’ is a key word.

horansome says:

Aye, that it is. The notion of peer review as a hierarchical notion probably fits into the (I think currently controversial) debate in the epistemology of Conspiracy Theories on whether we live in mostly open or mostly closed societies (in respect to being able to access information). Brian L. Keeley’s ‘Of Conspiracy Theories’ is the piece to read, followed by Lee Basham’s ‘Malevolent Global Conspiracy.’ Basically they argue, variously, that either we can trust our ‘peers’ because we can fact-check them or we can’t, because the hierarchical nature of society means it is always possible to conspire at some higher level to make society look open when it is not.