Modelling my reasoning – an update on conspiracism

So, that paper I’ve been working on, about conspiracist ideation? It’s hit version three, and in its latest incarnation I’ve made what might appear – at first – to be a major shift in my point-of-view.

Let me backtrack. In previous editions of this series I’ve discussed how to define conspiracism (the view that there is a kind of belief in conspiracy theories which is due to or caused by factors other than there being good arguments or evidence in favour of such theories), who counts as a ‘conspiracist’ (potentially everyone), and why we should stop claiming that we can use the views of some conspiracy theorists to judge the merit of conspiracy theories generally (don’t hate on the game just because you hate the playa). I’ve been shopping the paper around, and some of the feedback I’ve got has been incredibly useful.

One piece of criticism I’ve got from a colleague-who-also-happens-to-be-a-good-friend has perplexed me, though. Said friend and I saw a lot of views about the academic debate surrounding belief in conspiracy theories, and I thought we were on the same page when it came to this topic. Yet their feedback consistently indicated that we weren’t, and yet as far as I could tell, the problems they were describing in my paper seemed to get my view upside down. After a long email correspondence, I realised that the impression of conspiracism I gave in the paper didn’t exactly fit with what I was saying in response. That, in turn, made me realise my views about conspiracism and conspiracists had moved on from what I had written in the book. Not just that, but the paper was a hybrid of the old and the new, and the bits of the old were disguising the newness of the new!

In The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories I argue that we should use the term ‘conspiracist’ to refer to wacky and weird conspiracy theorists. I endorsed a version of the perjorative gloss on conspiracy theorist because, well, it’s hard to get past the fact some conspiracy theorists are, for lack of a better term, wacky, and their beliefs are not predicated on good reasoning. When it came to writing up these thoughts some three years later, however, I motivated talk of conspiracist-style analyses with reference to recent literature by social scientists (who, as a class, typically treat belief in conspiracy theories as irrational). In the paper I argue that conspiracism is something social scientists diagnose as a feature of being a conspiracy theorist. This was a shift in position; I took it that when I was discussing conspiracism I was discussing something social scientists hold to as being true of the general class of conspiracy theorists. I contrasted that position with the claim that, at best, conspiracism is true only of some conspiracy theorists.

Obviously elements of my original position (let’s respect the common, pejorative usage of conspiracy theorising/conspiracy theorist) crept into the new paper. Time after time, email after email, my friend (and peer) kept talking about how I was defending what was, in essence, some claim about a personal propensity to believe conspiracy theories erroneously. I kept responding that I thought I was simply arguing that this is what many social scientists believe, and how I was stressing how we should not necessarily accept their diagnosis in this matter.

Looking back over the paper, I realise it was not particularly clear that my position had changed post the book. There I somewhat endorsed the terms ‘conspiracist’ and ‘conspiracism’, because I still thought it useful to keep some aspect of the pejorative gloss in use. In the new piece it was clear my analysis of what the social scientists were saying was accurate. But my own position? It was too opaque to at least one philosopher, and that was one philosopher too much.

So, what is my new view on this thing I call ‘conspiracism’? Well, whilst I am oft tempted to use the term ‘conspiracist’ to refer to weird conspiracy theorists (and have even encouraged others to do likewise), I guess I’m only using that now as a rhetorical ploy. Yes, I’m still prone to using ‘conspiracist’ to refer to conspiracy theorists whose views I think haven’t got an epistemic leg to stand on, but… Well, I should just drop it as a label, and critique the theory (rather than attack the theorist). When it comes to the academic notion of conspiracism… Well, it’s a thesis I take is evident in much social science critique of belief in conspiracy theories, and it is the belief that some conspiracy theorists hold to their conspiracy theories for factors other than arguments and evidence. My worry about conspiracist-styled critiques is they assume conspiracy theorists are generally conspiracists, and thus we can derive the belief that conspiracy theories are generally irrational. That I take it is a gross mischaracterisation; whilst all conspiracists will turn out to be conspiracy theorists, not all conspiracy theorists are conspiracists. We should not smear the beliefs of a general class (the conspiracy theorists) with the predilections of a (quite possibily hypothetical) few. That’s the real problem.


Dr. Lee Basham says:

Hi Matthew,

I believe the argument is about the term itself and how readily, and even intentionally, it is a term of abuse and social dismissal; a ban on those it is applied to in political discourse. So such a term deserves nothing but dismissal by anyone interested in evidence and even deserves a reaction of disgust by rational, informed individuals. It is inherently generalist. We would never say some is a Marxist, unless we believed this was a general condition of their mental and political orientation. The suffix (blank)ist is in English a generalist marker, and understandably and usefully so. Your defense of this preservation of this term in the context of political explanations is misguided as conspiracy explanations, as you note, are particular to particular claims, and, as you note, contrary to the psychological literature’s use of the term—as a term of abuse—are almost always defended in particular terms: case by case. No case, no showing of a conspiracy. On this we agree.

In other news, I would love to see your excellent book go mainstream as a paper back, whatever compromises you wish to make with the current, and I believe deeply flawed, vernacular.

Let’s play!

So, in reverse, it would be great for the book to go mainstream, but I suspect it needs to hit the magical sales number which invokes the paperback clause. At the moment it’s a pricey book, and pricey books are a hard sell in this market. Would have been good if the journals who were sent review copies had reviewed it. I suspect I probably need to write a mass market book, and pitch it to Penguin or something. Although that would be an easier pitch if I could point them towards a few good reviews of the academic tome.

In re conspiracism, I think we’re in agreement about the approach to dealing with these things called ‘conspiracy theories’, but maybe it isn’t clear what I’m doing when talking about conspiracism now. I diagnose conspiracism as a thesis certain social scientists think applies generally to belief in conspiracy theories, and am now chastising them for thinking that a theory about – at best – some conspiracy theorists could possibly apply to all conspiracy theorists.

Now, maybe if social scientists buckle down, and focus only on the putative subset of conspiracy theorists – the so-called ‘conspiracists’ – who may well believe conspiracy theories for grounds other than arguments and evidence (I don’t think it’s impossible that some people end up believing particular conspiracy theories “just because”, in the same way some people, when questioned about their political views or theistic views, end up being able to offer no arguments or evidence for their positions, and just insist they are entitled to their opinion when pressed on the matter), they may discover something interesting, but it would be surprising if that turned out to something unique to belief in conspiracy theories.

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Isn’t that weird, how it repeated the post?

Very. Did you cut and paste the comment into the box, or write it wholesale there? Anyway, I’ll trim the comment (censorship!), which will then have the added delight of making both these comments seem very out of context.

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Thanks, Matt,

Good thoughts. But I am still rather concerned about any efforts to legitimize this unfortunate and potentially oppressive category, “conspiracism”.

I would, and think I just might, defend the thesis that no one is a conspiracist. They simply don’t exist.

The trash can dismissal of the “paranoids” is very easily abused, and seems unlikely in any particular case as concerns the fact the person does, in fact, give reasons. For a fun, if dated, pop-culture reference, consider the classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. So the religion analogy seems flawed, as we are considering people’s particular explanations of other particular persons co-ordinated behavior (conspiratorial behavior), not a general “feel for the universe” or a similar sentiment. Conspiracy theories are intrinsically explanatory constructs that by their very nature involve the assertion of opportunity, motive and ability (the triangle of crime). That drives us to a consideration of the logical reasoning and the likelihood the premises deployed in these explanation are true. Which is not the case in mystical commitments. In other words, a case-by-case evaluation of reasoning and evidence. Old hat, and both part and parcel of your approach. I suppose we would have to do a longitudinal case study in search of persons who believe in any conspiracy theory who also offer no reasons whatsoever to believe in these theories. I think these would be very hard to find, perhaps non-existent. If we retreat to the “good reason” standard–no “good reason” for belief in conspiracy theory A, so the sin of conspiracism–then I’m not sure, again, what the category of “conspiracism” can possibly accomplish, because it either becomes ridiculously complicated to apply (as what counts as a “good reason” will lead us far, far afield), or merely dogmatic about “good reasons”. I’m concerned you are just going in circles here, either identifying a phenomena that is virtually non-existent, or cloaking a complex epistemic judgement in a term that only means, in the end, a theory we do not, on a complex study of the evidence, agree with. Which has nothing to do with “conspiracy theory” but would include, for instance, all of law, science and philosophy. Even this post.

At least that is the concern I have at this time, in addition to the concerns about the abuse of your defense mentioned above. I think if we don’t import the extraordinarily complex and contested concept, in the context of conspiracy theories, of “reasons good enough” (by what general standards, on what assumptions, on what reading of history, what estimates of the epistemic reliability of public sources of information?, etc.), there are probably literally no conspiracists. Or such a tiny percentage of the population, .000001(?), as to render the concept epistemically and otherwise useless.

Unless, of course, our uses are those of mere dismissal of persons concerns and so control. That is an opportunity and situation in which we should exercise extreme caution to not enable. But for now, let’s focus on the critique immediately at hand, as I have made the political point already in the previous response.

Thanks again for your great work on the general topic, even if we occasionally disagree.


Lee Basham

Okay, this somewhat confirms my suspicion you haven’t read the most recent version of the paper I sent you, as I address this concern in the penultimate section (it’s basically an advance on this earlier post on the topic). Maybe check your emails?

Dr. Lee Basham says:

Hi Matt,

Well, haven’t seen it.

Let’s take the most reasonable route of explanation. Do you have any idea how bad the email is here? No, I haven’t received your paper and I’m quite happy (and inductively well-justified) on blaming it on our fragmenting, struggling IT. Weirdly, it’s about parking lots. Lots of parking lots. That’s what they want, ever vaster ones.

Not decent internet. Long story, and one understandably understood as growth pains, as we’ve gone from 12,00 to 35,000 here. I originally came down here to witness this and learn from it. So far, so good! Welcome to the refugee crisis on the Southern US border. I’m tempted to argue that it is largely the product of the US dept. of State and the US dept. of Justice, but that would be rude and I’d prefer continued access to your website. 🙂

So, please try again.