Monday, March 23, 2015

Cassam on Conspiracy-Theory Thinking

Quassim Cassam has an interesting article at Aeon on conspiracy-theory thinking, arguing that it is rooted in intellectual vice. The argument as it stands seems to me to have a serious weakness, though: the particular vices he takes to exemplify conspiracy thinking seem to be gullibility and closed-mindedness, which seems rather implausible. He understands the terms as follows:

Oliver is gullible because he believes things for which he has no good evidence, and he is closed-minded because he dismisses claims for which there is excellent evidence. It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that what counts as good evidence is a subjective matter.

What counts as good evidence for this purpose is certainly not a subjective matter, but it is a matter relative to context, including other evidence available. One of the unusual features of conspiracy-theory thinking, distinguishing it from many other kinds of bad thinking, is that conspiracy-theories tend to be unusually evidence-rich. I guarantee you that the average 9/11-Truther knows massively more real and genuine evidence about the collapse of the towers than your average person who rejects 9/11-Truth conspiracies. Very, very few people who are not inclined to believe some conspiracy are motivated to dig into the details to the extent that believers in the conspiracy are -- usually, in fact, it's only people who are irritated enough by the conspiracy theory to spend massive amounts of time and effort answering the arguments that conspiracy theorists multiply. What is more, conspiracy theorists tend to be open to changing their conspiracy theories, whereas most people who are not conspiracy theorists go around rejecting conspiracy theories out of hand without even looking at the evidence. For this reason, I think that if Oliver, accused of being closed-minded, replies that the accuser is in fact a better candidate for closed-mindedness than he is, he will often -- not always, but often -- be right. In intellectual as in moral matters, we are sometimes saved not just by virtues but also by vices on the opposite side.

What is more, most conspiracy theorists seem not to be more gullible than anyone else. Contrary to the common stereotype, most conspiracy theorists are not conspiracy theorists about everything, but only about a family of things; and I know of no evidence whatsoever that they are more likely to be duped across the board, which should be the case if gullibility were a common vice associated with conspiracy theories.

What vices might more plausibly be named as contributing to conspiracy-theory thinking? The vices have to be associated with major features that tend to structure conspiracy theories generally: suspicion of supposed expertise, hypothesizing, and emphasis on detail. Conspiracy theories tend to involve a refusal to accept the explanation that most people would accept on the testimony of someone else, and to be built by elaborate hypotheses based on minute details. Thus the intellectual vices associated with conspiracy theories will usually be the vices that oppose the ones in Cassam's Oliver example. Conspiracy theories tend to result from the vices of excessive suspicion of authority, excessive confidence in their ability to hypothesize well, and deficiency in willingness to abstract from the evidence in order to remove mere noise. All three of these seem more plausible, because they relate to typical structural features of conspiracy theories themselves.

But perhaps there might be even better candidates?


  1. There is a docility issue in play for sure, but your way of accounting for it is definitely better than Cassam's. It's not that conspiracy theorists are the gullible listening to the gullible (infinite regress of folly incoming in 3...2...1...). It's that insane self-reliance that you mention, manifesting in an unusual way--the only authority a CT will acknowledge is someone like herself. It becomes a self-isolating community of the intellectually proud. "Sure I could listen to the morons on CNN, or I could listen to, who actually has access to all the information and is not afraid to look at it like I am. Yeah, I'm the dumb one guys." It's like a gnostic mystery cult.

  2. Anonymous1:02 PM

    I really am struggling to see the 'other side' from my admittedly CT mindset. If CT's dedicate more time to study and research, who is better equipped to hypothesize? Does a doctor consult a plumber to diagnose an illness? Would a doctor be relying on 'insane self-reliance' if he consulted a second opinion from another doctor?

    At the root of it we have an emphasis on testimony, and as a CT I admit I place much weight on it. My most cherished belief is based on a book of eye witness testimony, that being the Bible and the entire account of the resurrection.

    And c' can't say it's the 'truthburns11@yahoos' but dissociate it from being gullible. That WOULD make me gullible. Once again, I place belief in the evidence and testimony of persons I feel qualified to make an opinion. In the case of 911, it would be the videos and testimony of professional structural engineers. What's so unreasonable about that?

  3. branemrys1:28 PM

    The doctor analogy would be relevant only if CT's were experts on conspiracy theory generally; so that, for instance, they would always be better qualified to identify any type of genuine conspiracy. But as noted in the post, most CT's are in fact only CT's about very specific things. So the question becomes merely a question of whether their reasoning about those specific things is better than anyone else's. Being more informed about background information and details can indeed improve hypothesizing; but it is not at all enough for having a good ability to hypothesize. Indeed, a survey of the history of physics shows that getting the best hypotheses often requires not considering finer details -- sometimes they are just noise or misleading appearances. And everyone knows pedants (even apart from CT's) who miss very obvious things because, despite knowing lots about a field, they get lost in the details.

    I'm not sure I understand your point about testimony. My view is that CT's are not in general reliant on testimony but either suspicious of it in general or very selective about how they treat it. There's obviously a spectrum here, and I do not mean that all CT's are suspicious or selective with regard to testimony, but it means that placing a great deal of weight on testimony at least suggests that you might not actually be a CT.

  4. branemrys2:37 PM

    Prima facie, yes, those are topics that tend to collect CTists, and so are 'conspiracy theory topics'. But I think the real determination would tend to depend on how the 'official story', for lack of a better word, and the testimonial evidence offered for it, factored into one's causal reasoning about the situations in question. (On the testimony side, of course; for CT in general there are also the questions about how hypotheses are formed and whether and how allowance is made for noisy or misleading data.)

  5. Timocrates4:22 PM

    I would be careful here. Bad authorities are often the people ultimately responsible for conspiracy theories. For example, there is at least one U.S astronaut running around claiming that they were followed by UFO's on their trip to the moon. This creates conspiratorial style thinking in two ways: those who believe it and those who in denying it (because they are reasonable) as a consequence begin to suspect everything else the authority has claimed. Now who is guilty of gullibility here? Actually, it's the people who reasoning from the trustworthiness of an alleged authority that fall into the most absurd beliefs; whereas, those who were skeptical are being rather more logical and critical. Lying politicians in this way stimulate conspiratorial thinking; and the bigger, more serious and more brazen the lie the more likely people are going to question things they said about things at least equally as important if not less.

  6. branemrys5:49 PM

    I think this is a quite clearly mistaken diagnosis; conspiracy theorists don't listen to such people because they are authorities (otherwise all the opposing authorities with similar credentials would weigh more), but because they have reached conclusions conspiracy theorists have already reached, or else conclusions that fit very well with conclusions that conspiracy theorists have already reached and thus provide something that can be assimilated.

    Further, you seem to fall into the same trap as Cassam in assuming that there is a binary opposition here; but this is never going to be the case with virtues and vices, which inevitably build ternary oppositions: excess, virtue, defect. Most people who are not conspiracy theorists are not conspiracy theorists not because they are intellectually virtuous but because they have vices opposite to those of conspiracy theorists.

  7. Timocrates6:51 PM

    I have to disagree with your opening premisses as they imply an infinite regress, which you accuse me of. But you have not identified the cause of conspiratorial thinking in the first place. Your argument presupposes the existence of ready-made conspiracy theories; as if there were conspiracy theories regarding 9/11 before 9/11, which all other "Truthers" picked up. There most definitely was not. Therefore there must have been some cause for such conspiratorial thinking.

    Children, for example, do not generally distrust their parents until they have some cause. It is certainly not natural to distrust or doubt them. Could vice on the child's part be responsible? Surely. But it may well have been vice on the parents part. Anyways, conspiracy thinking has justification from history. Governments lied to their people in the past, quite en masse. There is therefore nothing impossible about conspiracies involving government.

    Now I placed the cause of conspiracy theories on bad authorities. Many have noted that the American public's trust of their government took a deep decline after the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war. It seems logical enough for such distrust or skepticism to foment a susceptibility to conspiratorial thinking. And indeed, typical North American distrust of government is supposed to be based on what? Conspiracy theories? For the British, no doubt. But in reality it was based on the (bad) conduct of authorities: the actual abuse or at least misuse of power. In reality, it was the vices of authorities that provided ground for refusing to trust them or caused people to be sceptical of their claims. A government is arguably doing well when the abuse of power is considered an historical fact and possibility; it is doing badly when it is considered a living reality, as this undermines authority.

    Indeed, anti-CT rhetoric borders on granting to public authority a virtual infallibility. It is never made clear when people would be allowed or justified in suspecting foul play.

  8. branemrys7:44 PM

    On the contrary, my account precisely indicates the origin of conspiracy theories: suspicion of authority, eagerness to hypothesize, and obsession with detail. No ready-made conspiracy theories are assumed. It is your position that assumes ready-made conspiracy theories, namely, those proposed by the authorities other people are gullible enough to believe.

    But again (throughout your discussion of authority) you are falling into the trap of binary opposition that I have previously noted. The opposition here is ternary: the intellectual vices underlying conspiracy thinking are opposed by both intellectual virtues and opposing intellectual vices. Any non-ternary structure here is by that very fact certainly not a correct account of the landscape in terms of virtue and vice.


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