Conspiracy Corner – The Wikileaks Edition

Baby, if you’ve ever wondered, wondered whatever became of me. I’m living on the air each Thursday, 7:45AM, 95bFM…

Yeah, it doesn’t quite scan like the original, but you get the picture. I’m back, now in a weekly slot with not one but two hosts, Vince and Connor, for a weekly look at conspiracy theories. If you, like me normally, weren’t compos mentis at 7:45 this morning, you can listen to today’s show below.


Triple X says:

Matthew, your shows are entertaining.

I gotta say a few words as somebody told me today that your show is back on air.

It is always easy to flame up lay people by effectively suggesting that the basis for their beliefs lack a certain “type of” rationality, especially if they are religious, political or else. But really for a postgrad in philosophy, that’s a cheap self-gratification exercise. Similar in a way to letting it off on a defenceless pet when trying to establish who’s the alpha dog around here.

Before trying to impress poor mortals by throwing around fancy jargon we learn in our undergrad phil years, like e-pi-ste-mo-lo-gy, may be you should be honest with others (or yourself for that matter) and may be start by defining the concepts like rationality, explanation, substantive-ness, science and so on. Perhaps, it will be really appreciated by the un-enlightened others if you just briefly mention why all those concepts are taught in a philosophy class. This way your show would loss the gloss, but your *epistemic* position would definitely stop looking so troubling in its intellectual dishonesty.

Until you do come out clean with the terms you define arbitrary and vaguely enough to promote whatever view you might hold, you are not really a philosopher. At best, you can cross Symonds street to join the faculty of science, since they know all the answers there are out there. But I suspect the better place is social sciences, since you really start sounding like you are looking for a job and want to get noticed by those folks. If you did not get any job offers yet, don’t worry, you will. The system of control is always looking for talent:

I’m sure you know whom you want to be down there, don’t you, Matthew?

But as I said I enjoy your shows.

Two things:

1. I think the kind of study I am engaging in is part of the social sciences; I am, after all, a social epistemologist. I’m not all that concerned with ontology, just what it is rational for people to believe, given the context of their surrounds.

2. If I had an hour each week, then I would quite happily go into quite some depth about things like what justification is, what a justified true belief is and the like (as I do in the courses I teach). However, given the limitations of my time slot, I sometimes have to be brief and use vulgar definitions. I also rely on the regular listeners to remember previous definitions of key terms; I just don’t have the time (in my five to fifteen minutes) to go into as much depth as I’d like. Still, I do try to have a certain amount of rigour, so sf you can actually point out where I’ve been inconsistent or intellectually dishonest, then please do so. I’d appreciate the commentary.

A third thing: I’d like to be able to have a platform in the media to critically discuss philosophically important concepts, but there is no demand for such a thing and TV and radio is, by and large, driven by what the broadcaster thinks the audience desires. If you want more critical discussion on air, you need to campaign for it. I’m doing my part by trying to present material in such a way that isn’t so dumbed down to be useless.

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack says:

Triple X:

I’m a bit puzzled by your comment. You claims that Matthew is full of “intellectual dishonesty”, but you don’t mention any specific examples, and instead you go straight to postulating malign motives on Matthew’s part.

— frank

Triple X says:


My point is that you deceive lay people by saying that things like *a justified true belief* are actually more than a figment of your imagination. I don’t know if it’s of malice or ignorance, most likely neither, probably just of amoral intellectual dishonesty which allows you to project your greater educational credentials and superiority (see my previous post). Now, you can probably guess my response to a suggestion of *giving you more air time*…

The most bothering aspect of your programming, whether, you realise it or not, is that in effect it is an indoctrination campaign to reinforce an existing *informal public norm* by an *authority figure*. In your case, the informal public norm is that it is idiotic to believe in conspiracy theories, while your authority is academia. This is a classic textbook propaganda device whether it’s used by the governments or the individuals.

One can embrace a view that the public is idiotic and probably not really worth much in many respects and thus lying to them is not really a big deal especially since one’s direct impact on them is probably negligible. But still… Have you ever wondered about personal responsibility of wilful dissemination of this *so innocently looking* informal public norm? The norm, which, if not there, might not have allowed the Middle East WMD story (for example) to take off, and thus prevented the massacre. Or countless future massacres?

My point is that not of moralising, but projecting onto you my own personal intellectual (or moral for that matter) superiority. In return. For, if you did not think about personal responsibility before, now you do know why the reference to a weekly *private escort* show on air on bFM breakfast is used by few people around Auckland.

Disclaimer: are my posts ad-hominem? Yes, just like much of what you are saying on air.

Three things:

1. I’m not sure how you get from my position on justified true beliefs (which are, incidentally? I have a fairly non-standard, in my discipline, gloss on the notion of what constitutes knowledge and whether JTBs are the right way to understand it) to my being intellectually dishonest. I happen to have a view you don’t agree with and thus, because of that, you are saying I am part of the system of control? That’s not an argument; you’re just peeved that someone doesn’t agree with you.

2. I don’t think all conspiracy theories are unwarranted; like Charles Pigden, Lee Basham and David Coady (three other philosophers who write on the topic) I think there are plenty of warranted conspiracy theories (the official theory about 9/11 is a warranted conspiracy theory). I tend to talk about the unwarranted ones more because they are better examples of where thinking goes wrong, but I do touch on warranted conspiracy theories, like the Moscow Show Trials, an awful lot, both in my thesis and on the radio.

3. You’re trying to avoid talking about the issue (what it is you find problematic about my position on the warrant of conspiracy theories, which I don’t think you quite understand anyway) by moralising in an argument’s stead; you’re playing the passive-aggressive/condescending game of trying to get me to change my mind based upon you going “Oh Matthew, tut tut.” That isn’t going to work on me; I have spent over four years writing on this topic, reading the available literature, going to talks by conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theory theorists alike. I am driven by good arguments, not emotional blackmail. I’ve had to change my mind on issues to do with the warrant of conspiracy theories numerous times because evidence and reason lead me to unexpected conclusions. If you want to debate me, debate me. Don’t pull the “You’re entertaining but dishonest line.” It’s not fooling anyone.

Edward says:

Matthew is right, Triple X isn’t fooling anyone and is in fact being horribly rude and aggressive while saying nothing much at all. You just look a fool who’s using rhetorical and emotive language to try and argue a point which isn’t even remotely clear. You spoke earlier, rather condesendingly and arrogantly, about undergraduate philosophy, social sciences as ‘social control’, and the science department as some authoritarian juggernaught. For someone who obviously thinks so highly of themselves, while showing distain for the abovementioned, you don’t act like someone very well versed or informed in these subjects at all. You come accross as someone with a chip on their shoulder, a dislike of authority, and a love of trendy relativistic thinking. I am trying to figure out if you are either a first year fine arts student full of their own importance or merely some boring old uninteresting fool with issues. A bit of humility wouldn’t go astray ‘triple’. Neither would a bit of staying on topic if you have issues with Matthew or rational enquirey.

For the record, I think Matthew is trying to do a service to the public through discussion of philosophy and critical thinking. It amazes me that someone would take issue with that.

Triple X says:


The range of analytical tools available for your “conspiracy theories analysis” is inherently inferior even to what they use in so called scientific enquiry. Since scientific methodology has many unresolved controversies (that is why it is taught in phil departments to start with), and since your methodology is not even scientific (it is sociological or psychological at most, and historical at best), what you are presenting is not a philosophical analysis of conspiracy theories, but rather a projection of other people theories on your own belief matrix. The only philosophically speaking “rational” conclusion regarding your research field is that no conspiracy theory can be shown more rational than another.

You can try kidding others by creating some “rational” basis for your delineation, unfortunately your mental constructions are nothing more than futile rationalisations for drawing a line in the sand. Which is not a problem in itself for that is how people reason — it is a problem because of two things. First, you are trying to present it as philosophical scholarship which it is not.

The second problem ties back to all my previous comments. Since epistemologically speaking these theories are indistinguishable, I am very uneasy about the fact that your publicly aired “line in the sand” is not really arbitrary. It’s curiously aligned with certain official establishment versions of world history and events. Your assertions about the official 9/11 conspiracy theory, or that Sweden cannot seriously be influenced by CIA in Assange’s case, just two recent examples of this. Sadly, the list is much longer than that.

So, yes, I might seem rude calling you intellectually dishonest (since I know that you must know what I’ve written above about the nature of your *philosophical* claims), but really, I’m being generous as otherwise I would probably call you either ignorant or inept (which is probably less likely the case).

The rest of my personal ad-hominem comments stand as they are. I have nothing else to add at this point. In no way I was trying to change your mind about selling yourself intellectually. My intention was less bold – I was just trying to embed it on the back of your mind that when next time you put up that smug attitude towards the weak-minded theorists, remember whose interests you are serving. Regardless if you get that job in the end or not, just keep remembering that. And also about the people who can recognise your insidious dishonesty. There are more of those who can see through you that you can think of.

Rimu says:


Lisa says:


(+1 to Edward).

Josh says:

OK, I wasn’t sure until that last post, but it now seems pretty clear that Mr X’s problem is that by poo-pooing certain popular conspiracy theories, Matthew is acting as a tool of the establishment, P.S. here are some big words.

What a dick (this is the totality of my rebuttal to his points, and all the rebuttal they deserve).

Kumquat says:

Perhaps it is unfair to drag this old post by Matthew into the discussion, but I think it may help put a finger on some of the issues raised by Triple X that I see crop up time and time again in these type of discussions.

Quoting from the “Hello, Truthers!” post:

You are simplifying my position; I’m not saying a theory is true because many people believe it (although, strangely enough, Gage does seem to say that on the Kim Hill interview). The best you can get me on is the claim that if a theory has the right credentials and is endorsed by the right kind of authorities then there is a case for saying it is sufficient to cite an appeal to authority as a reason for holding that belief; I’m talking ‘Legitimate Appeals to Authority’ and you’re construing that as the fallacious ‘Appeal to Popularity’).

To begin, we do not know whether a theory has the right credentials or not. Presumably the whole point of engaging in a process of rational reflection is precisely to determine whether or not the theory in question has the “right credentials.” So, when you say “if a theory has the right credentials and is endorsed by the right kind of authorities …” it seems this should simply read: “if a theory is endorsed by the right kind of authorities …” But your argument would then read as follows: “if a theory is endorsed by the right kind of authorities, then this provides a reason for holding that belief.” In order to avoid a crude and direct appeal to authority, you go on to clarify, “I’m talking ‘Legitimate Appeals to Authority’ and you’re construing that as a fallacious ‘Appeal to Popularity’.” Well, what is the difference? On what ground do you justify your distinction between a “legitimate” and an “illegitimate” authority? What makes someone a “right kind” of authority? Where do you draw the line? I suspect it is at this meta-level where the problem emerges.

In order for your argument not to collapse into a crude appeal to authority, you need to demonstrate on what ground your appeal to authority is legitimate opposed to illegitimate. Well, let us hypothesise for a moment that there is someone or something endowed with “the right kind of authority” capable of determining whether or not an appeal to authority is legitimate or not. Your argument might then read as follows: “if a theory is endorsed by an authority, then this provides a reason for holding that belief, on the condition that the endorsement by this authority is deemed legitimate by some other authority.” You can see the problem. Who or what legitimises this other authority?

Obviously this problem cuts both ways. However, it seems that ultimately the problem boils down to an issue of credibility (i.e., trust). In addressing conspiracy theories, it seems we need to acknowledge in the first instance that they are premised on a loss of trust in the official story (author/ity). As such, it seems inherently problematic responding to conspiracy theories or theorists in a way that implicitly or explicitly presupposes the credibility of the very authority whose trust they have lost.

Edward says:

More waffle from Triple. I like the way he/she uses “so-called” all the time, implying that it isn’t really so. Hence we are left with science which tells us nothing but lies, social science which does nothing but control, and philosophy which, without being allowed reason, is crippled. What does Triple leave us with? Not much. Muted whingings about how disgruntled he/she is with officialdom and whispered desires for all manner of conspiracy theory to be true.

You criticise Matthew’s analytical tools as inferior to the scientific, sorry, “so-called”, scientific method, as well as sociological, psychological, historical and, apparently, rational. But what method or set of analytical tools is he (or anyone) to use then? As usual, triple wafts in on the breeze leaving nothing but a bad smell and nothing substantial. A bit like a fart.

The way in which you use inflated rhetoric to criticise someone while offering nothing in return reminds me of a rather well spoken Celtic-NZ conspiracy theorist I had the displeasure of bumping into once. He too would drift like a drunkard from claims akin to their being no one truth to claims that officialdom was deffinately wrong based on his own unclear reasoning. But then, when you hold yourself to know everything, I guess you needn’t expalin yourself.


When I say:

…if a theory has the right credentials and is endorsed by the right kind of authorities then there is a case for saying it is sufficient to cite an appeal to authority as a reason for holding that belief…

A theory’s credentials (which range from the strength of the inference in the theory, how well the theory is supported by the evidence, and so forth) is an issue which is separate from the theory being endorsed by the right kind of authorities. For example, theories with bad credentials are endorsed by the right kind of authorities (see the historical debates on the nature of phlogiston) and theories with good credentials have been dismissed by the right kind of authorities (see the historical debates on the nature of electromagnetism); a theory’s credentials are independent of the endorsement of some set of authorities.

Which means that your argument against me is wrongheaded; you’re assuming I’m arguing that a theory’s credentials are dependent on endorsement (or are the same as said endorsement). I am not.

Kumquat says:

Let’s assume a theory’s credentials is an entirely separate issue to the endorsement of the right kind of authority. Then why suggest that endorsement by the right kind of authority plays “any” role in holding a belief? If you are willing to concede that it does play “some” role, then my point is not “entirely” wrongheaded.

However, I suspect that endorsement of the right kind of authority plays a larger role in your argument than you are willing to admit. For example, how do you establish that a theory has the “right kind of” credentials? Presumably theories can have the wrong kind of credentials. Where do you draw the line? And more importantly how? Again, this ultimately boils down to an issue of credibility and trust. For arguments sake, let us assume that we can unproblematically specify when a theory has the right kind of credentials: e.g., rational form, empirical evidence supporting the claims and so forth. Why would there be any disagreement “within” the scientific community about a whole range of theories? On the surface we cannot explain the disagreement on account of endorsement because, at least in this example, all the participants of the debate have the “right kind of authority,” by definition. But it then seems they must be arguing about the theories credentials? Well then, granting that there are some basic ground rules that most people agree to most of the time, it seems a theory’s credentials are not nearly as unproblematic (read: self-evident) as you make it out to be. Which brings me back to the initial point, why would you need to add “and is endorsed by the right kind of authorities” if this did not play an important role?

The reason why we need to talk about the credentials of a theory and the separate issue of its endorsement by authorities is that:

a) theories can become entrenched, so authorities become complacent,

b) fundamental assumptions about how the world works can change and authorities will sometimes fail to map those changes on to existing theories and

c) there can be psychological reasons which explain why authorities might ignore a theory’s changed credentials.

I think your problem here is that you’ve simplified down the “rationality” of holding a belief to mere endorsement and infer, rightly, that mere endorsement is problematic, but that is not what I claim. I am talking about how the laity decide where the burden of proof lies. If a suitable authority endorses a belief, then a lay outsider can use that endorsement to say “The burden of proof is on those who oppose the authority” (and we need to ensure that the appeal to authority is legit, so it needs to satisfy the following four conditions: 1. The person appealed to is a genuine authority in a field relevant to the truth of the conclusion, 2. There is substantial agreement among experts in that field that the view endorsed is correct, 3. The expert is testifying honestly and 4. The expert opinion is not being used as a reason for rejecting somebody’s argument). That doesn’t tell us that the theory is correct; it just tells us that it is rational to hold, all other things being equal. In an ideal world we still need to go and check out the theory’s credentials, but we live in a less-than-ideal world where we only have the time and energy to check out some, but not all, the credentials of theories we believe. Thus we make appeals to authority and, yes, sometimes those appeals to authority will lead us astray but appealing to a suitable authority is a good reason to believe that some theory is at least plausible.

If you then want to engage in an argument about the rightness or wrongness of some theory, you can’t just rely on the appeal to authority; you need to check out the theory(-cum-argument). There’s a big literature on this because theory change, especially in the Sciences, is well-studied.

Triple X says:


A great tradition of sophistry!

A – a theory has the right credentials
B – a theory is endorsed by the right kind of authorities
C – there is a case for saying it is sufficient to cite an appeal to authority as a reason for holding that belief

Your original quote:

A & B -> C

Kumquat’s response:

A is not known, so what your original quote might be effectively saying is

B -> C

Your defence:

B -> C is wrongheaded because A & B are independent.


Kumquat says:

I think your problem is that you have complicated the “rationality” of holding a belief to something more than (ultimately) mere endorsement.

A suitable authority is someone who:

1. is an authority in a relevant field, i.e., is a suitable authority
2. is endorsed by many of his or her peers
3. is credible
4. does not reject a contrary argument.

Endorsement by a suitable authority is sufficient for holding the belief, but it is not sufficient for holding the belief to be true. In an ideal world, we would still need to challenge the credibility of the belief, which is to say, challenge the suitable authority that endorses this belief. But, given the contingencies of the real world, we instead appeal to the credibility of the authority to substantiate the credibility of the belief. This will sometimes lead us astray, but at least it guarantees the belief is credible.

But you also add that a suitable authority is someone who does not reject a contrary argument, that implicitly challenges his or her own authority. In other words, although this does not by itself diminish the credibility of the authority, the authority is open to the possibility of having made an “honest mistake.”

Now, what happens when someone “in the real world” questions the credibility of the belief, and thereby implicitly challenges the authority that endorses the belief? As you suggest, in the real world, the credibility of the belief is substantiated with an appeal to the credibility of the authority that endorses the belief. While this may lead us astray (insofar as we have not yet established whether the belief is a justified true belief), at least this guarantees the belief is credible. However, it is precisely the credibility of this belief that is put into question by the outsider.

So where does the burden of proof lie? It seems on this account, it is not sufficient for the outsider to merely propose a contrary argument, because in order to substantiate the credibility of the opposing view, the outsider must also presuppose that either, the opposing view is acknowledged by the authority that endorses the status quo, or, in the case where the opposing view is dismissed (as is often the case with politically charged conspiracy theories – which then begs the question whether they should still to be considered “suitable” authorities), must undermine the credibility of the authority that endorses the status quo.

Now, how does the rationality of holding a belief ultimately not come down to mere endorsement?

Two points:

1. Making an appeal to an authority is one way to justify your belief in some claim but it isn’t the only way. I’m not saying “Appeal to an authority and damn the consequences!”; I’m just saying that such an appeal allows us to say where the burden of proof lies with respect to people who make extraordinary claims.

2. There are a number of tricky cases when it comes to working out who appropriate authorities are (for example, who are the appropriate authorities on issues to do with the gods? Philosophers? Theologians? Evolutionary biologists? Debate rages as to who we should appeal to) and no one thinks it is a cut-and-dried issue. Because we can have debates as to who appropriate authorities are (which conspiracy theorists engage in; when the 9/11 Truthers say Richard Gage is an authority on this matter and the authors of the NIST report are not, presumably they are not just appealing to their clique of authorities but have reasons to question the authority of their critics) and these debates are argumentative in nature, it seems obvious that we have other grounds to assess the rationality of theories other than an appeal to authority.

Kumquat says:

That should read:

I’m not saying “Appeal to an authority and damn the consequences!”; I’m just saying that such an appeal allows us to say where the burden of proof lies with respect to people who make extraordinary claims.

This point merely addresses the type of authority in question. In other words, a claim to a suitable authority simply means (among other things) that this authority is open to criticism and precisely does not say “damn the consequences!” But you have thereby not addressed the issue of appealing to authority per se.

Making an appeal to an authority is one way to justify your belief in some claim but it isn’t the only way.

Because we can have debates as to who appropriate authorities are … and these debates are argumentative in nature, it seems obvious that we have other grounds to assess the rationality of theories other than an appeal to authority.

Making an appeal to authority is not the only way to substantiate a belief. It is simply in view of the contingencies of the real world that we substantiate our beliefs in this manner more often than not. But because we also have debates about who appropriate authorities are, it is self-evident that we have other grounds to establish the credibility of the belief other than an appeal to authority. For example, we might proceed to examine the matter ourselves and try to form an “independent” conclusion. But does this not involve the lay person becoming an expert in the relevant field themselves? In other words, in contentious debates where we cannot easily determine who the appropriate authorities are, it seems that one way to avoid the problem of appealing to authority (in this case questionable), is simply to become one yourself!

Indeed, is this not precisely what you are doing yourself? Which then begs the question, what makes you a suitable authority? For one, this would mean that you are (among other things) open to criticism that implicitly challenges your authority. Indeed, as you point out “I’m not saying “Appeal to an authority and damn the consequences!” Now, what happens when someone “in the real world” questions the credibility of your belief, and thereby implicitly challenges your authority? It seems that in this instance for the criticism to be deemed credible, you must first of all acknowledge the criticism (e.g., that you may be incorrect in your endorsement as to what constitutes a rational belief, i.e., the proverbial “line in the sand”). To the extent that you are dismissive of criticism, you bring the suitability of your own authority into question, and furthermore, incite your opponents to undermine the credibility of your authority! Insofar as we find ourselves in an argumentative debate, what other grounds does the lay person have in assessing the rationality of holding a belief, other than an appeal to authority, whether this be you, some other “suitable” authority, or ultimately themselves?

Two things:

1. You don’t have to become an expert in a field to assess a theory’s credentials. For example, I’m not a theologian but I do think the various responses to the Argument from Evil that most theologians trot out to explain away the presence of evil in the world are fallacious. So no, I do not accept your assertion that it’s appeals to authorities all the way down.

2. Even if one is an expert in a field and appeals to authority were all there were, you don’t have to recognise all criticisms as being credible; some criticisms of a thesis, for example, originate from people not understanding the thesis or holding radically different assumptions or, as the psychological literature in the field of conspiracy theories argues, some criticisms stem from psychological issues.

As for your question “what makes you a suitable authority?”; ask me if I get my PhD. At the moment I am a student writing a thesis on the topic of conspiracy theories which I will hand in to my peers later this year. If it passes muster, then maybe I will be an accredited expert on matters to do with conspiracy theories, but there is a large group of conspiracy theory theorists out there and they may well come to the conclusion that my radical thesis (that the prima facie suspicion of conspiracy theories is itself suspicious) is false. I may never be accepted as an expert if I my theory’s credentials do not pass muster and thus lead to experts rethinking what appear to be some fundamental theses in theories about conspiracy theory.

It is true that people in the media like to talk to me and get me to comment on matters to do with conspiracy theories, so some people obviously do view me as an expert, but that was never something I sought.

Kumquat says:

You are one slippery customer.

1. That you do not accept my assertion is one thing. But you have not thereby explained at what point an appeal to authority (whether direct or indirect) stops, and some other thing “down there” starts. All you have demonstrated is that the definition of what constitutes a suitable authority is much broader than “an expert in the relevant field.” Which furthermore begs the question, why does endorsement by one’s peers matter, if for example, a peer reviewed theologian can nonetheless be legitimately dismissed as presenting a fallacious argument?

2. Surely this cuts both ways, and again, only serves to illustrate that credibility is at the heart of the issue. Insofar as a criticism is dismissed on the grounds that it presupposes different assumptions, this merely demonstrates that one subscribes to a different story (read: author/ities). To the extent one resorts to the “nutcase” argument, one should be very careful and demonstrate in what sense a “psychological issue” undermines the legitimacy of a criticism, and not simply explain why someone would propose such a criticism. Just because a rooster crows does not cause the sun to rise.

In any case, I wish you all the best with your Ph.D, and no doubt, in the not too distant future you will be recognized as an expert in the field.

As I have said, endorsement matters for working out who holds the burden of proof.

ABC says:

Thank you Matthew, you have lifted a great weight off my shoulders to know I am justified in pursuing a life of wilful ignorance. Why carry the burden of not towing the party line?

I do find it amazing that if someone like me goes “Actually, I think the qualified experts might be right about this because…” I get accused of working for “them” or adhering to some party line. Next you’ll be accusing me of cognitive dissonance.

Also, I don’t think I accused you (have we met?) of wilful ignorance. If you’re ignorance is wilful that means you should know better but choose not to. Is that the case? If I was to be accusing you of anything (and once again, as I don’t think I’ve met you, I’m not actually accusing you of anything), it would probably be unwitting ignorance. Unwitting ignorance is much more common that wilful ignorance.

Also, how is one justified is pursuing a life of wilful ignorance? Enquiring minds want to know.

Still, nice comment for a change; it’s usually conspiracy theorists who accuse me of being wilfully ignorant.