How I learnt to stop ideating and love conspiracism

One thing that was completely new when it came to reworking the dissertation into “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories” was my discussion on this thing called “conspiracism”. Conspiracism, or conspiracist ideation, is a frequently used term in the academic literature on belief in conspiracy theories, where conspiracists – aka conspiracy theorists – are diagnosed with some pathology of reasoning or psychology. Conspiracism, as a thesis, both explains the conspiracist’s weird belief in some conspiracy theory, as well as why the rest of us are justified in our scepticism of conspiracy theories generally.

As readers of this blog will know, I do not consider belief in conspiracy theories to be inherently problematic. Rather, I think belief in particular conspiracy theories is a problem when said belief does not resemble an inference to the best explanation. However, I think there is room for discussion of conspiracism, as long as we acknowledge that not all conspiracy theorists are conspiracists. Sure, some conspiracy theorists – the conspiracists – believe conspiracy theories for rationales not related to arguments and evidence, but it would be a mistake to diagnose those conspiracy theorists and apply said diagnosis to all conspiracy theorists.

Yet, this is what a lot of conspiracy theory theorists – my fancy term for academics who study conspiracy theories – end up doing. They construe belief in conspiracy theories as conspiracism, diagnose what is wrong with conspiracists and then declare “Case closed!” This is what Quassim Cassam effectively did in his article “Bad thinkers!” ((I have co-written a reply to Cassam’s piece with me colleague and friend Lee Basham; expect me to trumpet it to the heavens when it gets published.)), and it’s a worrying tradition. In part it causes concern because it shows that a lot of smart people are getting their methodology back-to-front (you don’t assume belief in conspiracy theories is bad to sure that belief in conspiracy theories is bad; you have to examine the common sense intuition and ask “Is that actually true?”) and because, as Peter Knight has argued elsewhere, it resembles a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theorists (since conspiracy theory theorists are claiming they are colluding in a process they actually don’t seem to necessarily be involved in).

I’ve been thinking about writing a paper on conspiracism for a while, in part to build on the analysis of the book and in part to get the idea out there in a shorter form (after all, the book is both expensive and long). Whilst I was in Brisbane waiting to get on my plane to LAX back in March, I discovered – to my horror – that I had already written some form of this paper in the middle of last year and completely forgotten about it. Turns out teacher training, practicum and endless (and mostly pointless) assignments made me forget I had written almost five thousand words on the topic. Not only that, but there were two versions of the paper I had written at two different times, both of which shared the same structure but used different examples and sources.

I have now spent the last month rewriting both versions of the paper into one new version, which I’m about to share with my peers for feedback before submitting it to a journal. In about six thousand words ((I’d like to trim it down to about five thousand, but that does not seem to be working out at the moment.)) I start by defending a general definition of conspiracy theory with no pejorative implications (i.e. it does not build in that belief in such theories is prima facie irrational) before showing how conspiracism is talked about in the literature and why we should restrict talk of conspiracism to a subset of conspiracy theorists – the conspiracists – rather than all conspiracy theorists.

The first section – on a general, non-pejorative definition – is basically the first two or three chapters of the book in three thousand words (so, one fifth of the previous analysis) and if you have been reading this blog for a while it’s all rather predictable (and I pay homage to my mentor, Charles Pigden, an awful lot). The second section – on conspiracism – is actually a notable improvement on the work in “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories” (although it might still peeve my friend Lee Basham just a little), in that I diagnose the fault of the existing talk of conspiracism and conspiracists in a more finessed way than I did when I first approached the topic about a year and a half ago.

Basically, in the book I say “Here’s a term we use loosely in the literature, so let’s just get more precise in our usage!” Now I am arguing the problem of talk of both conspiracism and conspiracists in the literature is that people use it (probably without thinking) to mask a transition between claims that, yes, some conspiracy theories might turn out to be warranted but, oh by the way, conspiracy theorists are crazy so let’s just ignore conspiracy theories! So, the problem is not so much that the term is being used loosely but rather the term masks a shifting of the burden of proof from conspiracy theory theorists to conspiracy theorists. Rather than requiring conspiracy theory theorists to support their assertion that belief in conspiracy theories is suspicious, conspiracism shifts the debate into requiring that conspiracy theorists effectively say “I’m not a conspiracy theorist!” (because conspiracy theorists and conspriacists are taken to be one and the same) to avoid being charged with irrationality or suffering from some psychological defect.

The paper, which currently has the title “#notallconspiracytheorists” (because I’m hip, down with the kids and making fun of the hashtag #notallmen) is almost ready for public consumption of some sort. So, expect more thoughts on this in a public forum soon. Still, why not give me your thoughts in the comments? I’d love to hear what you think on this topic.