Paper review: Conspiracy Formation Is in the Detail: On the Interaction of Conspiratorial Predispositions and Semantic Cues

Fabian Gebauer, Marius H. Raab, and Claus-Christian Carbon

Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2016

DOI: 10.1002/acp.3279

Abstract: Significant events are frequently followed by discussions about the event’s ‘true nature’. Yet, there is only little evidence whether the conspiratorial reasoning of conspiracy believers and sceptics is a priori determined, or if certain characteristics of information are responsible for provoking a polarization. We investigated how depicted causation (direct vs. indirect; Study 1) and intention (strong vs. weak purposeful; Study 2) might invoke a bias in believers and sceptics regarding conspiratorial reasoning about an ongoing event, namely, whether US investigations against FIFA were more or less likely to be seen as a conspiracy against Russia to sabotage the football World Cup in 2018. We revealed that judgments of conspiracy believers and sceptics about the event’s ‘true nature’ are not a priori divided—in fact, conspiracy formation is only affected when direct causation or strong purposeful intentions were obvious. Results point to the relevance of conspiratorial predispositions and semantic cues in conspiracy formation.

This paper examines the thesis that people with high conspiratorial predispositions (i.e. people who think conspiracies are common) are more likely to accept statements about directly caused or intended conspiracies than those with a low conspiratorial predisposition. I basically have two issues with the paper.

The first is the way in which they get to their talk of people with low or high conspiratorial predispositions. This talk of conspiratorial predispositions is phrased in psychological terms, and it’s clear from the literature they cite, that people with high conspiratorial predispositions suffer from a variety of psychological ills. As such, we’re not talking here about people who might have a considered epistemic judgement about the conspired or unconspired nature of our world. This, I think, is a problem, because it seems to be the automatic assumption in the social science literature that being prone to suspect conspiracies is a psychological problem in some sense, but being ‘sensible’ and sceptical of the existence of conspiracies is… Well, no one seems to bite the bullet and say that’s the result of some psychological feature of the person in question; indeed, it’s often implied to be due to the sceptic being epistemically superior to the conspiracy theorist. Yet surely we need to ask ‘Is scepticism of conspiracy theorising also psychological?’ (if, indeed, we buy the argument those with high conspiratorial predispositions really are just seeing conspiracies for the sake of it).

Now, I would be the last to deny that there are psychological components to conspiracy theorising, and suspecting that conspiracies exist. I’d also be the last to deny that some conspiracy theorists might well be members of a problematic class of such theorists, the conspiracists. After all, denying that would be equivalent to denying the fact some theists are psychological predisposed to believing in the existence of the gods, or that some political proponents of the thesis of anthropogenic climate change couldn’t justify why said scientific theory is true if you gave them a whiteboard and an entire day to explain their reasoning. However, starting from the perspective that people like this make up the general group of conspiracy theorists is intellectually bankrupt; we should treat these people as the outliers they are, and theorise accordingly.

The second issue comes out of my response to this paragraph:

However, the research area on conspiracy theories is still missing a systematic approach that relates specific properties of information to the emergence of conspiracy beliefs. We assume that the semantics of intent and responsibility—the semantic linkage of information—might interact with conspiratorial predispositions.

Their contention that such a systematic approach is missing is only true if you ignore the work of epistemologists on this issue (they quote just one philosopher, Steve Clarke). Then again, they kind of have to ignore us, given that the epistemic literature is largely sympathetic to conspiracy theorising, and the authors – as noted – basically argue that conspiracy theorising is a psychological, rather than epistemic phenomenon. I can’t help but think that a more than cursory glance at the philosophical literature would have helped here; we philosophers have been looking at the way in which evidence informs beliefs in conspiracy theories, and the idea that being historically and politically literate informs your belief in the possibility that a) conspiracies are occurring here-and-now, and b) how such beliefs inform our appraisal of conspiracy theories.

There’s also a worry (which I find myself feeling nearly all the time when reading social scientists on conspiracy theories) that they take any positive attitude towards some conspiracy theory as evidence someone takes that theory to be warranted, as opposed to the notion ‘I’ll buy that for a dollar’ or ‘That’s worth considering’. Not everything needs to be couched in terms of ‘x believes that p’; sometimes a positive attitude towards some proposition simply tells us that x believes p to be plausible, or x would like to investigate p, and so forth. This doesn’t seem to be picked up upon by much of the social science literature, leading to bizarre conclusions like ‘Conspiracy theorists believe contradictory theories’ (no, they are typically entertaining contradictory hypotheses whilst trying to work out which one is warranted), and the like. A little look at what the work in epistemology would clear up an awful lot of these issues, if only the social scientists would take the time to do some reading outside of their own domain.