Getting both hands dirty – the first draft of a reply to Basham on Dentith

Call it an academic Ponzi scheme, or yet another way in which publishers make coin off of the free labour of researchers (note: my tongue is firmly in cheek ((As the editor notes in the comments, the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC) is owned by its members, not Routledge (who publish Social Epistemology, the journal my article was in), and no one at the SERRC gets compensated for their work.))), but I have been invited to pen a reply to Lee Basham's response to my paper, 'When inferring that a conspiracy theory might be the best explanation'. It's a curious task (and ask), because Basham's response isn't exactly critical of my paper. At worse he accuses me of not going far enough in my analysis, and yet even that criticism (slight though it might be) is tempered with the admittance that, really, there were two tasks, and I chose – in this paper – to focus on one of them.

Basham notes (citing Australian philosopher David Coady as support) that 'A careful attention to conspiracy theories of society-shaping events is basic to any healthy democracy.' This is a point on which we are both in agreement. Yet Basham pushes a point which should be basic to anyone's understanding of the kind of Western democracies (he sensibly restricts his talk – as most of us should who are not political theorists proper – to the kind of political systems we 'know and love'): conspiracies are everywhere, and not just that, they are normal.

Basham's argument is simple, yet like many a good philosophical argument, has a conclusion many seem to take to be contradictory to common sense. He points out that:

If we start with personal experience, conspiracy explanations are natural, ordinary and often justified. We are a communication driven, highly social coordination-able species, imbued with the gift of tactical deception. We are also adept at intentionally coordinating this ability with others.

One might be tempted to link this behaviour with that of our close cousins, but given I'm no expert in primatology, I couldn't possibly comment. ((An in-joke for those who know me.))

Basham goes on to ask the sensible question:

Don’t our political and economic elites retain these abilities? Why should we expect they neglect our well-developed human powers for cooperative deception when shaping the course of a polis? What is the reasoning, psychological, sociological, epistemic or otherwise, that indicates they would?

The argument is this: if conspiratorial activity is normal in everyday life, why would we think it is abnormal (and thus accusations thereof being deserving of ridicule) in political life?

The answer is, I think (and I can confidently say Basham also thinks) is a combination of the status quo (everything thinks this because everyone has been told to think this by people who already thought it in the past), as well as a certain Establishmentarian thinking; it's best people think of conspiracy theories derisively, because we don't really want people thinking badly of the existing democratic structures we have in the West.

The Establishmentarian mindset (found in both the politics of the centre left and the centre right) is a curious one, give that it sometimes produces unusual (and illiberal) consequences. As Jack Z. Bratich notes in his wonderful book 'Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture', liberalism can be a remarkably intolerant political position, given that the sensible middle is where all political actors should desire to be. As such, when marginal voices grow loud, the standard liberal reaction is to chastise the fringe for not adhering to the politics of the centre, even if the centre is failing to address the issue at stake. Black lives matter? No, all lives matter! Trans folk are being mistreated by the Police and Corrections? Don't upset the queer police and corrections officers by mentioning that fact!

Yet for our case here, the weirdest Establishment reaction to talk of conspiracies (or even just open and corrupt behaviour) within the polis has been the talk of giving up on democracy. Take, for example, Andrew Sullivan's piece in The New York Magazine, which effectively argues that democracy is ruining things for the political class who know what is best for us. Let's leave to one side the worry that history doesn't exactly show that this class really does act in the best interest of the polis, or the idea that even if the political class is an epistemic elite who knows best, surely we should still be asking 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes'. No, let's just focus on the idea that this fosters belief in conspiracy theories, because it signals to the rest of us that we cannot be trusted to know our best interests, and sometimes people have to work to save us from ourselves in secret. ((For another example of weird Establishmentarian thinking leading to undemocratic consequences, see Cass Sunstein's and Adrian Vermeule's 'Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures', in which the authors argue the best way to cure society of conspiracy theories is to conspire against the conspiracy theorists. Both Eco and DeLillo wrote about this in an almost satirical sense, but some people advocate this as policy.))

Conspiracies are part-and-parcel of our political culture. Where Basham 'chastises' me is not 'pursuing this more basic issue', but then praises me for opting:

[T]o “get his hands dirty” with the details of today’s strategies in academia and derivatively in mainstream media, to avoid alternative conspiracy theories.

In essence, Basham is pushing me to turn my attention to the other, and larger, concern of primary epistemic sources in our information hierarchies. The issue is not just 'What are our sources for claims that particular conspiracies are, or are not, occurring?' Rather, it is dual question of what those sources are/how we identify them, and what our epistemic (and I would say ethical) obligations are with respect to these sources.

This is a challenge I am willing to accept. Largely because I am already working on this more basic issue. My new project, 'Investigating Conspiracy Theories', which I will be working on in Bucharest come the end of this year, is the chance to get my other hand dirty (so to speak). But news of how that project will deal with the issues Basham raises must wait, necessarily, for the 'cautious and measured' work I am known for.


Jim Collier says:

Matthew – I can assure that my heart is—mostly—pure. The SERRC aims to practice the social epistemology it preaches. The members own the SERRC, not Routledge (the publisher of Social Epistemology). The “coin”, as it were, for Routledge would be that exchanges on articles published in Social Epistemology to lead to more downloads of the articles—which may serve you as well. Like you as a researcher, I am not compensated for my work as an editor of the SERRC. I invited you to respond in order to hold a conversation about your views whether or not your interlocutors are critical. And if you want other interlocutors to join in, please let me know. I am happy to support the conversation. Thank you for agreeing to respond.

Hi, Jim.

Sorry; it would have been clear to regular readers of the blog my tongue was firmly in cheek when making comments about Ponzi schemes and the like. I’ve added in note to that effect to ensure no further confusion.