Paper Review – Counterfact Conspiracy Theories (Susan Feldman)

Susan Feldman’s paper, “Counterfact Conspiracy Theories,” (International Journal of Applied Philosophy 25:1, 2011) is an examination of a particular kind of conspiracy theory, the “counterfact theory.” As she writes in the introduction to the paper:

In this paper, I highlight and explore a subgroup of conspiracy theories, which I call “Counterfact Conspiracy Theories” (CFCTs). Like all conspiracy theories, counterfact theories assert the existence of a conspiracy. Unlike most conspiracy theories examined by philosophers and social scientists, the assertion of a conspiracy is not provided as an explanation of historical events. The distinctive feature of counterfact theories is their assertion of counterfacts, claims of fact which run contrary to accepted factual claims and their evidence. (p. 15)

Feldman is focussing her discussion on a subset of conspiracy theories in general (which she describes as a kind of explanation about historical events; I don’t think it’s unfair to say that she thinks conspiracy theories are a kind of historical explanation). However, there are some odd points to her discussion of the more general definition of “conspiracy theory.” She states that we should not add to such a definition that the conspirators have malign motives (p. 15), which I agree with, but as she then goes on to state that conspiracy theories can never be examples of official theories because conspiracy theories are counter-narratives (under her definition) (p. 15).

However, what I find contentious about Feldman’s paper is that she borrows some terminology from Michael Barkun to distinguish three kinds of conspiracy theory. “Event theories,” which explain a well known event through the actions of a hidden conspiracy; “Systemic theories,” which assert the existence and activities of hidden, powerful, long-term and often large groups of conspirators, whose activities might well be responsible for large chunks of world history and “Superconspiracies,” which are a mix of systemic and event theories. Event theories are explanatory but systemic theories need not be, apparently, as they should be seen as being an attempt to establish a set of what she calls “hidden facts” about the existence of a set of conspirators. Systemic theories can be explanatory but it is not their primary goal.

I’m not all that familiar with with Barkun’s taxonomy, so my comments on this will be brief ((Barkun’s book “A Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America” is on the reading list; I had it once before but it got recalled before I was able to read it)). As I’ve stated several times before though, I’m just not convinced that we need to use a size criterion to distinguish between types of conspiracy and whilst Barkun’s distinction is not entirely size-based, I still think it’s problematic to assert that the kinds of conspiracy theories which assert large groups of conspirators/large conspiracies are somehow automatically less credible than small ones; I’m perplexed by the claim such a difference means that the bigger ones are somehow epistemically suspicious or inadequate as explanations.

Notably, Feldman doesn’t defend Barkun’s taxonomy but, rather, uses it to advance her own argument. I would have liked to see some defence of it, because I’m not convinced by the taxonomy and thus I’m suspicous of its use in Feldman’s argument. I’m especially suspicious because Feldman then goes on to add a fourth type of conspiracy theory, the “counterfact theory:”

However, there are some non-explanatory conspiracy theories which do not fit the systemic pattern. These non-explanatory theories assert counter- facts—they claim facts which run contrary to accepted and authorized beliefs and maintain that knowledge of these counterfacts is suppressed by conspiracy. By ‘counterfacts’ I mean claims of fact contrary to what is accepted or assumed. To call a claim of fact a “counterfact” carries with it no implication as to its truth value.

Let us call these theories counterfact conspiracy theories. The aim of CFCTs is to establish counterfacts and uncover the conspiracy hiding them from general view. As previously noted CFCTs, like systemic theories, assert hidden facts rather than explain already accepted events. However, the hidden facts that systemic theories assert involve the existence of conspiracies, while counterfact theories invoke conspiracies as the means of hiding counterfacts. (p. 16)

Feldman claims there is a:

rough two-step schema typical of any counterfact conspiracy theory:

(i) assertion of counterfacts, and (ii) invocation of a cover-up conspiracy. (p. 17)

and, like systemic theories, such counterfact theories can be explanatory but “the primary purpose of the counterfact theory is not to explain but to put forward the counterfacts.” (p. 17)

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this addition to Barkun’s taxonomy is; Barkun’s systemic theories assert the existence of a hidden facts whilst Feldman’s counterfact theories assert the existence of what she calls a “counter-history” but surely the one dovetails into the other?

Feldman’s examples of such counterfact theories, the Birther conspiracy theory (about President Obama’s supposed illegitimacy to be president of the USA) and claims about the covering up of evidence which suggests that UFOs are alien spacecraft, are, I think, problematic for her account precisely because these theories seek to explain both some contested phenomena (Obama’s reluctance to release the long-form copy of his birth certificate; various unexplained sightings in the skies) and the conspiracy which exists to suppress such information.

A lot, I think, rests upon the notion of contested evidence. Feldman, on page 18, talks about how event theories work with uncontested facts whilst systemic and counterfact theories challenged the uncontested facts and argue for different facts to be accepted within the scope of the argument. Feldman seems to think this is a problem for such theories, but surely this is a problem for theories (especially explanations) of all stripes because sometimes the evidence really is interpretated differently and thus what is considered factual to one theorist is controversial to another.

In the end, though, Feldman’s more sophisitcated definition of a counterfact theory, which she puts forward in the last half of her paper, seems close to her description of a systemic theory:

A CFCT is a counter-narrative account about a significant portion of reality, asserting counterfacts, knowledge of which has been suppressed by a conspiracy of powerful actors usually for their own sinister purposes. (p. 19)

In this definition such counterfact theorists are asserting the existence and activities of hidden, powerful, long-term and often large groups of conspirators, whose activities might well be responsible for large chunks of world history, in this case a set of counterfacts. Thus, it looks to me that Feldman has simply elaborated on Barkun’s thesis, rather than added a new category of conspiracy theory to it.

I’m also not convinced, even if we grant that systemic theories and counterfact theories are different, that such theories are not primarily explanatory. Surely, if Feldman and Barkun are correct, they explain both the existence of a set of conspirators and the reason why such conspirators and their aims remain (largely) unacknowledged by the general populace? Yes, they do this by asserting reasons as to why the conspiracy is not well known, but the assertion of the hidden facts or counterfacts is part of the explanation. Most conspiracy theories are of the type “You don’t know this, but…” where the explanation of the clause after the “but” also explains why you do not know it.

Indeed, Feldman, I think, acknowledges this when she writes:

In practice it may be hard to draw clear lines between ECTs and CFCTs, since the latter do provide some explanation and the former do put forward some counterfacts. (p. 20)

Feldman admits to this but goes on to talk about “idealized” forms of these explanations (p. 19), which suggests to me that she is working with a spectrum here rather than hard-and-fast types of conspiracy theories. Indeed, I think it turns out that what she is talking about is not types of conspiracy theories at all, but rather the kind of strategies conspiracy theorists might use to try and persuade non-conspiracy theorists:

It is useful to pay attention to distinctive strategies that proponents of conspiracy theories deploy. ECT proponents turn their guns on the explanatory adequacy of the official account. In contrast, proponents of CFCTs attack accepted facts in order to clear the field for their counterfacts. To do so, they target the evidence supporting accepted facts by disputing its legitimacy and then doing the same with any additional evidence provided in response to the earlier challenges. Few if any of the accepted facts in the relevant range are left unchallenged on the grounds that proffered proofs or evidence for these facts are defective. (p. 19-20)

I think her argument just shows that the dialect of conspiracy theorising is multifaceted. I don’t think it shows that some conspiracy theories are not primarily explanatory and I don’t think it shows that there is a difference between so-called “systemic theories” and “counterfact theories.” Rather, it shows that some conspiracy theorists want to assert claims of conspiracy that link multiple events, cite the existence of disinformation and are (often?) inferences which are not warranted by the actual evidence.

The last third of her paper supports my contention, I think. Feldman describes how counterfact theorists put forward and argue for their views and what she describes is the strategy of particular conspiracy theorists rather than something which is unique to their particular conspiracy theories. I don’t even think the process she describes is one that is unique to conspiracy theorists (let alone her counterfact theorists).

Maybe the problem (at least to my mind) is not recognising that the process of coming up with a conspiracy theory (conspiracy theorising) is not the same thing as analysing the merit of a given conspiracy theory? There are lots of ways to generate a conspiracy theory (and to defend it) but that doesn’t necessarily tell us that process by which the theory was generated makes the theory itself good or bad (yes, there is going to be some connection between vapid conspiracy theorising and the merit of the expressed conspiracy theory, but it isn’t so tight a connection that we use it to dismiss particular conspiracy theories, let alone conspiracy theories in general). Lots of good scientists come up with inadequate scientific hypotheses; some conspiracy theorists generate warranted conspiracy theories (and might, in some cases, stumble quite accidentally, upon the truth).

Feldman ends with this:

Diagnosing a theory as a counterfact theory goes a significant distance in suggesting the futility in engaging the theory as evidence based, and indeed presumptively supports assessing it and its proponents epistemically defective. Epistemic evaluation might be beside the point, however, when dealing with CFCT proponents. Epistemic considerations relate to the way beliefs connect to evidence and at least indirectly, truth or likelihood of truth. While counterfact theorists purport truth, perhaps the kind of truth we should take them to mean is not factual but expressive—the theory is “true” because it expresses a deeply held world view, a subjective set of connected associations, values and meanings. It is possible to take notice of the expressive truth of the theory without engaging in futile exchanges about facts and counterfacts. The point of engaging such theorists is therapeutic rather than epistemic. By engaging sincere counterfact theorists on their underlying expressive truth, perhaps the roots of their views can be exposed, allowing them to the opportunity to understand what they are expressing through their views, and allowing outsiders to understand the meanings and values roiling the body politic. (p. 22)

Once again, I think this points towards Feldman’s analysis really being on the strategies certain kinds of conspiracy theorists use to argue their views, which does not, I would argue, necessarily tell us anything about the merit/warrant of such views. Yes, the way that we come up with and support our theories has some bearing on the merits of our theories, but I think we should be cautious and not dismiss particular conspiracy theories (or conspiracy theories in general) because of the way in which the conspiracy theorist theorises.