Episteme Review #4 – Radically Socialized Knowledge and Conspiracy Theories – Neil Levy

Radically Socialized Knowledge and Conspiracy Theories – Neil Levy


The typical explanation of an event or process which attracts the label ‘conspiracy theory’ is an explanation that conflicts with the account advanced by the relevant epistemic authorities. I argue that both for the layperson and for the intellectual, it is almost never rational to accept such a conspiracy theory. Knowledge is not merely shallowly social, in the manner recognized by social epistemology, it is also constitutively social: many kinds of knowledge only become accessible thanks to the agent’s embedding in an environment that includes other epistemic agents. Moreover, advances in knowledge typically require ongoing immersion in this social environment. But the intellectual who embraces a conspiracy theory risks cutting herself off from this environment, and therefore epistemically disabling herself. Embracing a conspiracy theory therefore places at risk the ability to engage in genuine enquiry, including the enquiry needed properly to evaluate the conspiracy theory.


Levy’s paper turns on two notions; epistemic authorities and a deeply social epistemology. The former, epistemic authorities, are a development of David Coady’s ‘Official Stories’ from his 2006 paper ‘Rumour Has It,’ a piece I am very familiar with, having written my most recent paper as a form of reply to it. Levy argues that appropriately formed epistemic authorities are a) figures that provide us warranted knowledge and b) tend to be ignored by people who subscribe to Conspiracy Theories. I shan’t say much about this because the next paper in the issue is a reply to Levy and my thoughts on the matter are in accord with it. His second point, the development of a deeply social epistemology, is really the crux of the article. Levy accuses the recent developers of Social Epistemology (Alvin Goldman and Frederick Schmitt, chiefly) of being too individualistic and not focussing enough on the social fabric of knowledge. Levy’s point is that it is external factors, to whit the external world, that really arbitrates knowledge claims. He runs a few examples from psychology to illustrate his point and then argues that most Social Epistemologists overly subscribe to an individualistic picture of the Mind and don’t appreciate just how we distribute our knowledge across individuals. Levy’s thesis is that any theory (conspiratorial) that conflicts with an official story (told by an appropriate epistemic authority) is prima facie unwarranted because a) the mechanisms of social knowledge (the transmission of propositions from speakers to hearers in a community are truth-conducive (I’d change this to talk about propositional plausibility myself) and b) we should prefer official stories (formed properly) over alternative explanations (especially since official stories often explain (the data of?) alternative explanations). I don’t think his move to a deeply social epistemology helps, however. Yes, we rely on (mind) external ‘devices’ but this isn’t so much an indication of a shared external world (that arbitrates the truth of knowledge claims) but rather just that we offload some processes that are too costly to perform ourselves (because we could do (most of) them if we had to). We rely on epistemic authorities because not relying on them means we have to do more work (work we could do if we needed to; Levy uses a rather strange example of calculators saying that we need them to do complex multiplication but that doesn’t seem to be the case. We rely on calculators because the time it would take to do complex multiplication mentally is time we could profitably use elsewhere). Levy is right to argue that externalities matter but I think he is wrong to argue that these external factors have not been taken into account by recent work in Social Epistemology, something that becomes clear in the next paper in the volume, by David Coady.