Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Boudry on Conspiracy-Theory Thinking

As I've noted, conspiracy-theory thinking has become quite common. I happened to come across an interesting example just yesterday:

So here we have a philosophy professor at an Ivy League school noticing that during Presidential election years, which naturally involve intense political debate, there has been a massive surge in worries and complaints about how things are described and presented in politically relevant contexts, and his first impulse is to construct a literal conspiracy theory to explain it. That seems to sum up the point to which we have degenerated: philosophy professors inventing conspiracies to explain things that weren't even surprising or in need of special explanation to begin with.

Maarten Boudry has an interesting post on conspiracy-theory thinking at "Blog of the APA". I often disagree with Boudry's work, but I liked his recent paper on the subject, Like Black Holes in the Sky: The Warped Epistemology of Conspiracy Theories (DOC), of part of which the post is a more popular presentation. I think, however, he makes a mistaken assumption that, while it seems common among people who study conspiracy theories, nonetheless does not always fit very well with the features of actual conspiracy theories that you find in the real world:

Lack of evidence for your conspiracy theory. As pointed out already, absence of evidence need never discourage you. If there really is a conspiracy going on, absence of evidence is precisely what you would expect. Didn’t I tell you the conspirators are very devious?

Very few conspiracy theories seem actually to take this attitude toward evidence. Conspiracy theories are evidence-driven failures of reasonableness. 9/11 Truthers are not claiming that there is an absence of evidence that the US was behind the 9/11 attacks; they regularly claim that there is an abundance of evidence that this is so -- a vast array of things that fail to add up if you believe the official story, a vast array of particular things that are better explained by that hypothesis. The same is true of people think the moon landing was a hoax. Conspiracy theorists don't generally think there is an absence of evidence that the conspiracy is true, although some hold that the evidence is non-obvious. There is even an entire branch of conspiracy theories in which it is a fundamental idea that the conspiracy (whatever it might be) leaves obvious evidence both of what really happened and the cover-up just to enjoy the power of getting people to believe whatever they want regardless of what the evidence actually says. And, of course, there are conspiracy theories like the Stanley theory that the reason why "hysteria about political correctness" increases during years with intensely contested political elections is "covert funding" by nefarious people behind the scene. There's no acceptance of the idea that the evidence is lacking; the evidence is a phenomenon that is treated as very obvious. There is the appeal to 'covertness', but it's a mistake to think of this element of conspiracy theories as implying absence of evidence; rather, it implies obscurity or non-obviousness of causal mechanism to which the explanation of the evidence appeals.

One of the things that is nice about Boudry's account overall is the non-condescending nature of it. Too many accounts of conspiracy-theory thinking run aground on a tendency not to recognize an important feature of it: that, while a failure of reasonableness, conspiracy theories are highly reasoned. They are driven in part by evidence, analysis, research, and argument; their immunity to evidence is not stubbornness but flexibility and adaptation in the face of new evidence and argument as it comes in; their rejection of the official story involves all the tropes we usually associate with critical thinking. Conspiracy theorists are often quite intelligent, they are often far more informed about details than most of their opponents (indeed, a common problem with conspiracy theories is treating trivial details as if they were immensely important), and far more willing to ask questions. This is all part of what makes them a fascinating field of study. A serious account of conspiracy-theory thinking requires recognizing that they can often involve "considerable ingenuity and creativity", as Boudry puts it, and his willingness to recognize this is a major plus for Boudry's account. But I think the absence of evidence trope is in fact carried over from approaches to conspiracy theories that fail to make this fundamental recognition.