Presentation for my Oral Exam

So, at 2pm on Monday the 13th of February, I gave the following presentation in my oral/viva as part fulfilment of my PhD.

The Oral Presentation

My interest, in this work, is analysing whether we have good grounds for a prima facie suspicion of explanations that appeal to the activities of conspirators.

Now, it’s normally accepted that the term “conspiracy theory” is pejorative: it refers to explanations that we normally consider to be prima facie suspicious. However, I argue that an analysis of the wider class of conspiratorial explanations} shows that the problem for conspiracy theories, in the pejorative sense, are actually problems which are shared with other explanations of social phenomena; the epistemic issues we normally associate with such conspiracy theories are epistemic issues for explanations in general.

I use the term “conspiracy theory” throughout my thesis to cover the wider set of conspiratorial explanations in order to emphasise the similarities between the ones that people are interested in (the pejorative sense of conspiracy theory) and all the other explanations that happen to invoke conspiratorial activity.

So, with that said, this is my stipulative definition of a conspiracy theory: an activity which is undertaken in secret by conspirators who desire to achieve some end

This definition has three features I take to be interesting in developing my analysis of conspiracy theories.

The first is that it includes any explanation of conspiratorial activity, including the organisation of a surprise party.

The second is that conspiracy theories, on my definition, do not need to be about sinister activities or states of affairs.

The third is that, by my definition, all of us should be conspiracy theorists of some stripe because we should accept as warranted some conspiratorial explanation of an event.

As noted, it might be argued that this definition does not conform to our ordinary usage, which has it that if something is a conspiracy theory it is a wacky and unwarranted explanation.

However, anyone with even a smidgen of imagination should be able to point to some conspiratorial explanation that they consider to be a warranted explanation of an event, whether it is an historical explanation of some Elizabethan treachery, the recent actions of a government hiding trade deals with a foreign nation, or a department trying to bamboozle the dean.

It is, I argue, easier to address the question of when it is rational, or irrational, to believe one of these explanations, if you take an interest in the broad class of explanations that are covered by my definition rather than when you operate with the pejorative reading of “conspiracy theory.”

If people want to continue using the term “conspiracy theory” as a pejorative, so be it, but we should not use that as a reason to dismiss belief in particular conspiratorial explanations out of hand.

Now, one of the reasons for thinking conspiracy theories are a suspicious kind of explanation is that a lot of the evidence in support of them is errant data — data which is contrary to or contradictory with other, rival, explanatory hypotheses. Certain philosophers, like Brian L. Keeley, have argued that in trying to provide an account as to how such errant data is not really errant, conspiracy theories engender a radical, and thus inappropriate, skepticism of public data in general. This, in turn, will lead to a global skepticism about just how open, and non-conspired our world is.

Now, even if belief in conspiracy theories engendered the kind of radical skepticism Keeley is worried about, and I argue it does not, we should not use that as an excuse to label belief in particular conspiracy theories as suspicious as we should always look at the evidence and ask “Is this particular conspiracy theory warranted?”

Another reason that is often put forward for being suspicious of conspiracy theories is that they exist in contrast to rival explanations with official status, and we should prefer such endorsed explanations. However, to make sense of that move we need to ask questions about what role official status actually plays with respect to such explanations. This is where my thesis, I believe, beings to provide a novel and unique contribution to the still young Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories.

It is not clear that having some attendant official status is a version of a legitimate appeal to authority. For example, whilst we can show there is a case for thinking that academic endorsements strongly suggest that such explanations are supported by the evidence, there is no similar argument in the case of political endorsements.

Whilst it is reasonable to explain away an agent’s preference for explanations with official status, because it is easy to assume that the availability of an endorsement implies that the explanation is supported by the evidence, such a preference can end up being a problem for the average person who simply does not have the time or expertise to analyse the evidence for each explanation she holds. This is just a consequence of how social our knowledge is: we defer to one another all the time and sometimes our trust is misplaced.

The worry many conspiracy theorists have is the worst case scenario: the explanation in question, say, one with official status, has been endorsed insincerely by some influential institution and the evidence has been selected for or fabricated in such a way that it makes the explanation look warranted when it might otherwise not be.

Now, if we have the ability to inspect the pool of evidence for a given explanation, then we can, at least, check to see whether evidence has been selected for. The worry about fabricated evidence, however, is not so easily overcome, even if we can go and look at the evidence. Inspecting the propositions being put forward is one thing but being able to ascertain whether the propositions are actually true, which is to say they are pieces of evidence and not disinformation, is another thing entirely. In this respect, trust really is our only arbiter on subjects on which we know very little, or nothing about.

Many of these concerns about explanations in general hinge on the issue of trust: can we trust the sources of our explanations? To provide an account of how we might answer this question I contrast the transmission of conspiracy theories with the process of rumouring. It is fair to say that these two activities are often treated as being important and similar in the existing literature. It has been argued that as we seem to be rightfully suspicious of rumouring, because we should not trust rumourers to be sincere, we should also be suspicious of the spread of conspiracy theories.

Rumouring, I argue, is a form of fact-finding, where propositions we have heard and think are plausible are tested against the beliefs of others. If a rumour is implausible it is unlikely to spread far because hearers, presumably, are interested in auditing such propositions, whilst if a rumour is plausible, then the hearer might go and test it on someone else to see whether it is coherent with their beliefs. It is this set of facts about the testing, or teasing out, of the plausibility of rumours that leads me to think that rumouring is a reliable process, which is itself a novel contribution to the epistemic debate on rumours.

Rumour-mongering, however, is the insincere and pathological counterpart of rumouring. Rumour-mongerers may embellish or even fabricate the rumours they spread.

Now, I argue that the process of auditing rumours means that embellished and fabricated propositions will typically end up being implausible to hearers, but, in some cases, they will persist. This is a bullet we have to bite: because we are dealing with a reliable process we cannot guarantee that all rumours will be plausible.

The spread of conspiracy theories, however, is different. conspiracy theories are typically asserted as the explanation of an event. The conspiracy theorist does not merely believe their conspiracy theory is plausible; they believe it to be the explanation. Whereas rumouring is a kind of fact-finding, the assertion of a conspiracy theory is an attempt to persuade a hearer that the actual explanation of some event is due to the existence of a conspiracy.

This neatly brings me to the question of just when is it rational to believe a conspiracy theory?

My arguments, thus far, merely show that the kinds of explanations we seem to think are preferable to conspiracy theories are problematic in the same kinds of ways that conspiracy theories are, which means that our usual arguments for dismissing belief in conspiracy theories are a kind of modern superstition. However, I go further than my peers in advancing an argument as to when belief in a conspiracy theory is warranted.

To warrant a conspiracy theory there first must be a warranted inference to the existence of a conspiracy and, secondly, the aforementioned conspiratorial activity must be the best explanation of the event.

Warranting a claim that a conspiracy exists requires we show that there was a set of agents who planned, that they desired some end, that they undertook work towards that end and they took steps to minimise public awareness of their work.

Satisfying all four of these conditions can be difficult, but it is not impossible. However, satisfying such a claim does not tell us that the conspiracy itself is the best explanation of the event; conspiracies can occur and yet yield no result. To warrant belief in a conspiracy theory we need to show that there is a tight connection between the claim of conspiracy and the event in question, such that the conspiracy is the best explanation of the event.

This requirement that a conspiracy theory rest both on a warranted inference to the existence of a conspiracy and be the best available explanation makes the burden of proof on someone trying to show that a conspiracy theory is warranted a difficult one to discharge. Does this, then, amount to an argument that our prima facie suspicion about conspiracy theories is warranted?

I think not. A conspiracy theory is a candidate explanation of an event that cites a conspiracy as a salient cause. Like any explanation, we must have good grounds for believing it to be the best explanation. Whilst we might be worried about claims that conspiracies exist, because supporting such claims can be difficult, or because they might be vague with respect to who or how, this does not mean that we have a warranted prima facie suspicion about conspiracy theories in general. At best, it means we should be agnostic with respect to particular claims that a conspiracy is the explanation of an event unless we plan to investigate those claims properly.

This is why I think we should be conspiracy theory agnostics, admittedly agnostics with a duty to check, when presented with a conspiratorial explanation, whether the inference to the existence of a conspiracy is warranted and whether the right kind of connection has been made between the conspiracy and the event to generate a good explanation.

I think that many of the suspicions we have about conspiracy theories really are part of the set of worries we should have about explanations in general: most of the arguments traditionally put forward for the suspiciousness of conspiracy theories point towards us needing to be suspicious, to a certain extent, about any explanation.

Or, at least, that is what my studies conspire to make me think.


Ben Wilson says:

Best of luck, Matthew.