Quassim Cassam’s “bad thinking” on Philosophy Bites

Last week I sent you all off to read an article Lee Basham and meself had written; a reply to Quassim Cassam’s (Warwick) piece “Bad thinkers”. This week I want to focus on Cassam’s explication of his view over at “Philosophy Bites” (a somewhat frequent podcast on Philosophy which is well worth a listen, especially since it obeys the rule “The Podcaster’s Guide to the Galaxy” ignores, which is “Shorter is better!”), because I think his explication of his view makes his case both better and yet worse.

One of the problems a lot of us in the nascent Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories field have with Cassam’s “Bad thinkers” is that it pays no attention whatsoever to the existing contemporary philosophical literature on belief in conspiracy theories. This literature is at least twenty years old, it’s not hard to find and is still small enough that you could get to grips with it within a month. If Cassam had done his homework, he would have seen that his argument is awfully similar to one advanced by Steve Clarke in 2002 (“Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing”), an argument which Clarke has since distanced himself from. This is not just a problem for Cassam; typically the interlocutors at Philosophy Bites are very good at placing an individual philosopher’s work into the existing literature. Yet Cassam’s pronouncements on conspiracy theorists were treated with the reverence of someone who was made out to be trailblazing, rather than contributing to a literature he does not appear to have read. ((I say “does not appear” because, of course, he might have read his Keeley, his Pigden and his Basham (maybe even his Dentith) and decided against citing it. If he has, he does nothing to show it.)) The whole episode felt very disappointing, and as one of my correspondents pointed out, if they wanted to talk to a philosopher with a long history of writing about conspiracy theories, there are quite a number of us (some with quite established publication credentials) they could have gone for who would have been much more representative of the field.

So, with all that in mind, let me discuss what I take to be some key points from the episode.

The first thing to note is that Cassam seems quite happy to work with a very general definition of what counts as a conspiracy theory – roughly, any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a cause – which was not something that was clear in “Bad thinkers”. In that respect he’s working from the same playbook as most of us. However, in the podcast he maintains that conspiracy theorists or conspiracists – he uses them in a roughly interchangeable way – have bad reasons to believe 9/11 Inside Job style conspiracy theories. Not just that, but such theorists are not amenable to reason.

Lee and I have already argued against this; he’s:

a) construing a sub-set of conspiracy theorists (what I call “conspiracists”) as resembling the class of conspiracy theorists in general, and
b) calling such conspiracists “gullible” when he really just means “stupid”.

As such, Cassam’s argument gets by on misrepresenting conspiracy theorists as conspiracists in order to get to some claim that such theorists are typically gullible. In the podcast, however, he’s a little more nuanced; he admits that individuals can have both sensible and insensible views, and that we shouldn’t necessarily carry criticisms of one view over to some other. This seems to allow that conspiracy theorists could be right some of the time or wrong some of the time, and so we should not assume from either case anything about their other (possibly related) views. That seems like an improvement on what Cassam claims in “Bad thinkers” and yet flies in the face of the generalist conclusion he argues for, that such conspiracists generally suffer from the intellectual vice of gullibility.

Cassam also claims that he doesn’t want to say that conspiracy theorists are crazy or irrational. No, they are just gullible, it seems. He admits that someone like Oliver will have arguments and evidence for their views (which is an improvement on the argument he presented in “Bad thinkers”) and that the real problem is how someone like Oliver uses said evidence and arguments. Indeed, he admits conspiracy theorists can look intellectually virtuous by dint of their engaging in questioning views, and generally being sceptical. Yet he continues to asserts “They are not right”. And not just that; in the podcast he claims you can’t reason conspiracy theorists out of their belief. That doesn’t seem like gullibility; surely a gullible person can be persuaded to change their mind? No, that seems like they are, under Cassam’s view, irrational after all, despite his protestations.

As Lee and I argue in “Bad thinkers? Don’t be so gullible!” Cassam is really arguing for some claim about conspiracy theorists being stupid, and that seems like an implausible take on conspiracy theorists generally.

On the positive side of the ledger, now when Cassam discusses “Oliver” – his effigy of a conspiracy theorist – he talks about him believing information he shouldn’t and disbelieving evidence he should. Unlike in “Bad thinkers”, Cassam is not just insisting this is the case; he lays out some grounds for going “Look, these explanations are complex by their very nature, and thus hard to assess!” But he continues to claim, despite that, that Oliver’s belief in a particular 9/11 conspiracy theory must be down to him being a gullible kind of person. His defence that Oliver is just plain wrong after all? Well, he doesn’t think or believe like us, and we’re the sensible ones, right?

Cassam also makes use of some questionable psychology to reaffirm his views; he thinks conspiracy theorists suffer from some special and localised gullibility with respect to conspiracy theories. He ties this localised gullibility to what social psychologists sometimes call “conspiracy thinking”, “conspiracist ideation”, or “the conspiracy mentality”. Yet this seems like special pleading; “Look”, his argument says, “conspiracy theorists are gullible yet information rich; how we can explain the discrepancy between the fact conspiracy theorists offer arguments and evidence for their views, and yet we just know they are wrong? Well, it can’t be that they are gullible, because they don’t seem to be gullible about everything. No, they are only gullible when it comes to conspiracy theories!

If we were take Cassam seriously (and he has a funded research project on this starting next year, so someone is taking him very seriously indeed), conspiracy theorists have some special and localised gullibility just when it comes to beliefs in conspiracy theories. Doesn’t that strike anyone as particularly odd?

This is the big problem with Cassam’s view, his constant assertion that the conspiracy theories people like Oliver believe are just obviously wrong. Cassam’s exemplar cases are theories like the various 9/11 Inside Job hypotheses, and it isn’t obvious that these theories are wrong in any trivial “anyone can see it sense”. I, too, am sceptical about 9/11 being an inside job, but that’s not because I think the various MIHOP theories are obviously unwarranted. Rather, it’s because I’ve spent the time looking at the theories and prising them apart. Yet I’m also aware that many of my “fellow travellers” have done nothing of the sort, and yet they’ll happily proclaim Inside Job hypotheses nonsense because that’s what sensible people believe!

If Cassam really believes inside job theories are obviously wrong, he’s naive and probably has not looked into the really quite complex claims Truthers typically make. These theories cite a lot of evidence, some of which requires an analysis of which experts are being referred to (and which are being ignored), the weight of the evidence with respect to the various theories and auxiliary hypotheses, and the like. Debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories is no trivial task, and yet Cassam seems to think we can just assert “These theories are obviously wrong” without saying why that they are obviously wrong. ((The implication seems to be that sensible people believe they are obviously wrong. Sensible people also said Iraq was home to Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2002. Sensible people believe a lot of things which turn out to be problematic when actually analysed…))

As such, a big part of the problem with Cassam’s view is that he is looking at the class of unwarranted conspiracy theories without actually stating his criteria as to what makes a conspiracy theory unwarranted in the first place. This is frustrating, because there is a decent literature on this (which is ably discussed in many places, including my book), which Cassam could at least point to, yet doesn’t. As such, Cassam’s view assumes the very thing he should be interested in questioning: is belief in conspiracy theories really problematic? Instead, he gives us an argument which says such views could be problematic if they were the product of gullible thinking. It’s the same old thinking we typically see in the social science approach to talk of conspiracy theories, and it’s not good enough. Cassam (and the hosts of “Philosophy Bites”) is a philosopher. As such, it would be nice if he took the time to look at what the rest of us have written on the subject before wading into the debate.