On the shoulders of giants

There is – as there is for everyone – a special circle of Hell for academics. The Peer Review Circle (as I believe Dante wittingly called it) is a place where everyone you say is questioned, and nothing you claim is accepted. It is a place where even the most reasonable suggestion is taken to be contentious, and arguments occur over the content of a simple gesture, like saying ‘Good morning’ to a friend. Yet this circle pales in comparison to the other academic Hell, the Hall of Unheard Voices. This is the place where certain academics – who have written on some niche or specialist subject – find themselves, howling into the darkness, their words ignored or unseen.

I recently found myself in this particular hell, joined by a number of my colleagues. The occasion was the publication of ‘Vice Epistemology’, a piece by the University of Warwick’s Quassim Cassam. Long-time readers of this blog will immediately recall that name, given discussion of his work in earlier posts (here and here) Cassam’s new piece – an extension of his ‘Bad thinkers’ article over at Aeon Magazine – is a curious beast. It purportedly tells the story of a conspiracy theorist by the name of Oliver, who only believes some particular 9/11 conspiracy theory due to being gullible, from which Cassam derives the claim all conspiracy theorists are wracked with epistemic vices. It is an article which seemingly explains why we are suspicious of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorist, and is a welcome contribution to the debate. It’s just also one which is deeply weird.

Scan through Cassam’s article and you will note a curious lack. There is no reference whatsoever to any philosophical work on belief in conspiracy theories. For the uninitiated, here is a non-exhaustive list of recent work on that very topic:

  • Basham, Lee. 2011. ‘Conspiracy theory and rationality.’ In Beyond rationality, edited by Carl Jensen and Rom Harré, 49–87. Newcastle on Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Basham, Lee, and Matthew R. X. Dentith. 2015. ‘Bad thinkers? Don’t be so gullible!’ 3 Quarks Daily, edited by S. Abbas Raza. http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2015/08/bad-thinkers-dont-be-so-gullible.html.
  • Buenting, Joel, and Jason Taylor. 2010. ‘Conspiracy theories and fortuitous data.’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40 (4): 567–78.
  • Clarke, Steve. 2002. ‘Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorizing.’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 32 (2): 131–50.
    • ———. 2006. ‘Appealing to the fundamental attribution error: was it all a big mistake?’ In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 129-132. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.
    • ———. 2007. ‘Conspiracy theories and the internet – controlled demolition and arrested development.’ Episteme 4 (2): 167–80.
  • Coady, David. 2006. ‘Conspiracy theories and official stories.’ In Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, edited by David Coady, 115-128. Hampshire, England: Ashgate.
    • ———. 2007. ‘Are conspiracy theorists irrational?’ Episteme 4 (2): 193-204
    • ———. 2012. What to believe now : applying epistemology to contemporary issues. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. 2014. The philosophy of conspiracy theories. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Feldman, Susan. 2011. ‘Counterfact conspiracy theories.’ International Journal of Applied Philosophy 21 (1): 15–24.
  • Keeley, Brian L. 1999. ‘Of conspiracy theories.’ The Journal of Philosophy 96 (3): 109–26.
  • Levy, Neil. 2007. ‘Radically socialized knowledge and conspiracy theories.’ Episteme 4 (2): 181–92.
  • Lipton, Peter. 2004. Inference to the best explanation. Second Edition. London: Routledge.
  • Mandik, Peter. 2007. ‘Shit happens.’ Episteme 4 (2): 205–18.
  • Pigden, Charles. 1995. ‘Popper revisited, or what is wrong with conspiracy theories?’ Philosophy of the Social Sciences 25 (1): p.3–34.
    • ———. Forthcoming. ‘Conspiracy theories and the conventional wisdom revisited’ In Secrets and Conspiracies, edited by Loukola, Olli. Rodopi.
  • Popper, Karl Raimond. 1969. The open society and its enemies. 5th ed. Vol. 2. London; Henley: Routledge Kegan Paul.
    • ———. 1972. Conjectures and refutations. Fourth Edition. Routledge; Kegan Paul.
  • Räikkä, Juha. 2009a. The ethics of conspiracy theorizing, Journal of Value Enquiry, 43, 457-468.
    • ———. 2009b. On political conspiracy theories, Journal of Political Philosophy, 17 (2), 185-201
  • Räikkä, Juha and Basham, Lee. Forthcoming. ‘Conspiracy theory phobia’. In Conspiracy theories and the people who believe them, edited by Joe Uscinski.

How long would it take to read all of that? I wager little more than a week. Yet not one of those articles (or the many more that do not appear on that list) appear in ‘Vice Epistemology’. It’s almost as if Cassam was completely unaware that there existed an extant literature on the topic of belief in conspiracy theories within Philosophy.

That caveat is important, because Cassam does quote work on belief in conspiracy theories from outside the philosophical domain (some of which references the above works…); he has done some of his homework, just not all of it.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but when writing on a topic, I do like to cast about and see if anyone else has done any work in the area. It seems both prudent (who wants to be told ‘But x already said that!’) and polite (no one likes someone barging into their area of expertise, claiming to have reinvented their wheel). Cassam’s well-written article reads as imprudent and impolite; he reinvents a wheel that others have already discussed and discarded (it turns out it was the wrong colour; the hairdressers were right after all…). Cassam’s argument would be all the more stronger had he at least mentioned prior work only to dismiss it, but the lack of references comes across as ignoring a literature that would prove irksome to his thesis. ((Cassam knows of the work of other philosophers in the field; at least one colleague of mine has been in contact with him.))

Lest you think this is me simply complaining that I didn’t get cited on an article, let me say that, yes, I am annoyed by the lack of citation, but I’m also mollified by the fact none of my colleagues in Philosophy were either. Being left out when everyone else is invited is one thing; when no one you know makes the cut, then it’s hard to take it that personally. Rather, I’m astounded both by the fact Cassam did not think to make even a cursory reference to the larger philosophical literature (especially since some of it directly talks to his thesis of belief in conspiracy theories being due to character flaws on the part of conspiracy theorists), and that the editor and reviewers at ‘The Monist’ did not think to ask ‘Has anyone else written on this?’

Answers on a postcard. Meanwhile, tomorrow, another example of the above.


Dr. Lee Basham says:

Thank you Matt,

Your list is a primer for any serious student of the subject and sent me back to my own library.

Cassam’s paper is transparently sophomoric, and what is remarkable about it beyond that singular fact, in the context of its publication, is its publication. Clearly we are facing an intellectual honesty gap concerning the topics you explore, and do so expertly. No one conversant with the literature would find anything of value in “vice epistemology” except an unfortunate but illustrative example of the failure of peer review (not applied in this case), and an author’s failure of proper study and preparation.