Episteme Review #5 – Are Conspiracy Theorists Irrational? – David Coady

Are Conspiracy Theorists Irrational? – David Coady


It is widely believed that to be a conspiracy theorist is to suffer from a form of irrationality. After considering the merits and defects of a variety of accounts of what it is to be a conspiracy theorist, I draw three conclusions. One, on the best definitions of what it is to be a conspiracy theorist, conspiracy theorists do not deserve their reputation for irrationality. Two, there may be occasions on which we should settle for an inferior definition which entails that conspiracy theorists are after all irrational. Three, if and when we do this, we should recognise that conspiracy theorists so understood are at one end of a spectrum, and the really worrying form of irrationality is at the other end.


I heard this paper weeks before I read it and only when carefully working through it did I realise that it is a paper not on Conspiracy Theories but rather on Conspiracy Theorists. Seems obvious from the abstract but when I heard the paper it was a mere two hours before my own paper on a related topic and I simply heard what I was expecting to hear. The paper is a reply to Levy’s paper where David (I think regretfully) critiques Levy’s use of a term David introduced to the debate, ‘Official Stories.’ David’s thesis is simple; there are two senses of Conspiracy Theorist; those who are interested in Conspiracy Theories and those who excessively believe in them. The pejorative sense of Conspiracy Theorist belongs to the latter but once we recognise that fact it becomes clear that we need to introduce labels for other parts of the associated spectrum, such as Coincidence Theorists, who are people who are inclined to excessively not believe in Conspiracy Theories. Part of his thesis is a direct rebuttal of Levy; Levy’s thesis has it that trusting epistemic authorities is a truth-conducive activity. David points out that this is all well and good but it is just an ideal and possibly even a dangerous one as it could (as he critiques Chomsky and Co. for as well) allow some malign behaviours to go unnoticed. Under Levy’s ‘deeply social’ epistemology the externality of knowledge (well, the way it is arbitrated by reality) should lead to socially-networked claims being truth-conducive but David’s point is that they don’t and Levy’s claim that truth is rewarded seems patently untrue (witness the success of the politicians who backed the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that the Hussein-led regime was developing WMDs. His other example is Lysenko-ism in Communist Russia). David then runs a line that goes something like this: Conspiracy Theorists (of either ilk) have a role in the transmission of propositions in a community of speakers and hearers because even if we consider them to be irrational (because they do make the most of our shared epistemic resources) the fact that they question sources can be a) rational or b) can lead to greater rationality because if they are wrong we can gain further trust in these shared epistemic resources. The so-called intellectual vice of Conspiracy Theorists, excessive belief in a given theory, is shared by many others, of which Levy, Chomsky and Co. are examples thereof, and it is unfair to single out Conspiracy Theorists (especially as it tars two different groups, those who are interested and those who believe in with the same brush).