Compare and Contrast

One of the complaints about the paper I’ve taken to heart is that it features too much terminology too quickly. My taxonomy of Conspiracy Theories and non-Conspiracy Theories, which comes out of the three questions ends up producing this (somewhat) bewildering array of options:

    Unwarranted non-Conspiracy Theories
    Unwarranted Sneer non-Conspiracy Theories
    Unwarranted Unendorsed Conspiracy Theories
    Warranted Unendorsed Conspiracy Theories
    Warranted Sneer Conspiracy Theories
    Warranted Endorsed Conspiracy Theories
    Unwarranted Sneer Conspiracy Theories
    Unwarranted Endorsed Conspiracy Theories.
    Unwarranted Endorsed non-Conspiracy Theories
    Warranted Endorsed non-Conspiracy Theories

Now this is problematic because:

a) Having to explain the difference between a Unwarranted Sneer Conspiracy Theory and a Unwarranted Unendorsed Conspiracy Theory in the matter of a few minutes is tricky, given the time I have to spend on the really interesting contrast between Warranted Sneer Conspiracy Theories and Unwarranted Endorsed non-Conspiracy Theories, and

b) It turns out the real issue really isn’t the contrast between Warranted Sneer Conspiracy Theories and Unwarranted Endorsed non-Conspiracy Theories but rather the role of Unwarranted Endorsed Explanations.

The first half of the paper introduces a much too complex taxonomy for the task at hand. When its simplified it produces a much more elegant taxonomy and, crucially, makes it easier to give examples of the kinds of explanations I am concerned with:

I do not think I need to say much about Unwarranted Unendorsed Explanations, explanations which have no epistemic credentials and have neither positive or negative institutional status. However, the range of possibilities between these and Warranted Endorsed Explanations do present some interesting options.

Warranted Unendorsed Explanations

Some explanations will have the right kind of epistemic credentials but have neutral institutional status, in that they will be neither endorsed (have positive institutional status) nor sneered at (have negative institutional status).

New explanations of a phenomena, for example, might well fall into this category; the individual scientist generates her explanation of an event, using her best inferences, and, before submitting the explanation to the process of peer review, has an explanation which does not yet have institutional status.

Warranted Sneer Explanations

Some explanations will have the right kind of epistemic credentials to be considered warranted but will have negative institutional status.

There are numerous examples of such explanations in the Natural Sciences. Whilst we all now accept Tectonic Plate Theory as an explanation for the shape and motion of the continents we must admit that when it was first proposed it was sneered at, despite its epistemic credentials being good. The same story can be told about the explanation that H. pylori causes peptic ulcers ((With regard to both of these examples of Warranted Sneer Explanations I think we can tell a reasonable story as to why the warranted explanations were sneered at; in both cases the new explanation went against the “received wisdom” of its day and thus the new theories had to shoulder and discharge the Burden of Proof, which they did.)).

Unwarranted Sneer Explanations

Some explanations have no epistemic credentials but may have negative institutional status.

For example, that thesis that the events of 9/11 were caused by a Conspiracy by the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States of America using ultra-sonic weaponry and hologrammatic representations of two Boeing 747s to bring down the Twin Towers is an explanation that has no epistemic credentials and has negative institutional status, in that it is sneered at by the relevant authorities.

Warranted Endorsed Explanations

Some explanations have both the right epistemic credentials and have positive institutional status.

The explanation of the events of 9/11 that cite a Conspiracy on the part of Al-Qaeda to commit a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers with Boeing 747s has the right epistemic credentials and has positive institutional status.

Unwarranted Endorsed Explanations

Some explanations have no epistemic credentials yet positive institutional status.

One version of the explanation as to why it was necessary to invade Irag in 2002 was that the Saddam Hussein regime were said to be making Weapons of Mass Destruction; some senior figures in both the Bush and the Blair Governments argued that Hussein and his regime were conspiring to hide that fact. This explanation was, it turned out, a Unwarranted Endorsed Explanation; it had no epistemic credentials but was endorsed by two relevant institutions, in the matter of authorising invasions, the Governments of the USA and the UK.


Stephen says:

I find your labels confusing because I parse “warranted sneer” as “a sneer which is warranted”.

If you used “sneered-at”, or maybe “disparaged”, I would find it a lot easier to skim your work without double-taking a lot.

Possibly. The ‘sneer’ label comes from an even earlier taxonomy where I was using ‘mere’ rather than ‘unwarranted’ so I had ‘Mere Sneer’ Conspiracy Theories and non-Conspiracy Theories, which just sounded nice. I’d actually like to drop the ‘sneer’ thing entirely; perhaps go for ‘opposed.’

Stephen says:

Using an obvious adjective form like “opposed” would be a big help to the novice reader like me — when you write your best-selling popularisation, please do so.