The truth about conspiracy theories

Are they simply mad, bad and dangerous?

Conspiracy theories seem to be worryingly on the rise. But what do we do when a so-called conspiracy theory turns out to be true? And why are we so dismissive of putative conspiracy theories and yet accepting of similarly unfounded scientism or psychologism, asks Matthew Dentith. 

Conspiracy theorists have a bad reputation in academia. They have been accused of subscribing to contradictory theories, promoting beliefs which have negative social consequences, overemphasising conspiracies over coincidences, being susceptible to epistemic vices, and a whole lot more. According to many scholars of conspiracy theory (whom we might call the “conspiracy theory theorists”) conspiracy theories are mad, bad, and often dangerous.

Yet curiously enough no one doubts that conspiracies—cases where two or more people act in secret towards some end—occur. Whether you are a student of Soviet Russia (the Moscow Trials), American history (Watergate), or the Middle-East (the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003), no one doubts that people in power sometimes conspire to cover-up the dubious things they are doing.

The generally negative view of conspiracy theories exists in a curious tension with the acceptance that conspiracies do happen. The academic question is how do we resolve this problem?

Herein lies a problem: what are we to make of cases where conspiracy theories turn out to be true?

The first answer is simply to say that belief in conspiracy theories is different from belief in cases of real conspiracies. That allows us to maintain the claim that conspiracy theorists are mad, bad, and dangerous; whatever they believe, it is not a proper explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a cause. In this view, conspiracy theories are more than theories about conspiracies. Rather, they must be the product of psychological or epistemic vice. Indeed, there is a name for this: ‘conspiracism’. People who believe conspiracy theories suffer from conspiracism, and conspiracism is not healthy.

Herein lies a problem: what are we to make of cases where conspiracy theories turn out to be true? The people who believed that the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s were an elaborate sham orchestrated to justify a purge of Stalin’s enemies where called “conspiracy theorists”. It turned out that they were right. Journalists initially thought Woodward and Bernstein were conspiracy theorists when they presented a case for the Watergate Complex break-in being politically orchestrated. The governments of the US and the UK called people who thought the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - to locate those still missing WMDs the Iraqi regime was alleged to be manufacturing - “conspiracy theorists”.

Secondly, we might say that a conspiracy theory is not a conspiracy theory when it becomes an official theory. This is nothing more than a labelling practice. The problem with this labelling practice is that people in positions of power have used the label to cover up malfeasance. Accepting that the labels “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” are necessarily pejorative does not answer the question of how we should respond to cases where we should believe conspiracy theories.

There is a third, more philosophical answer to the problem that some conspiracy theories are true. Rather than define belief in “conspiracy theories” as generally irrational, we could simply treat them as theories - as putative explanations of events which cite a conspiracy as a salient cause. This way of looking at conspiracy theory has become the norm in the philosophical literature on the topic (with a few notable exceptions). Philosophers have become interested in when it is rational to believe conspiracy theories, and what—if any—grounds there might be to have a prima facie suspicion of some of them. Instead of treating them as a class of suspicious beliefs, and then trying to work out why it might be rational to believe some of them, the academic task is to analyse how the evidence and arguments stacks up for or against conspiracy theories on a case-by-case basis.

What is it about conspiracy theories which means they deserve more opprobrium than other cases of similarly fallacious beliefs?

Outside this field, conspiracy theories are treated more harshly than other types of theory. Some people are so concerned with ‘conspiracism’ that they design research projects to work out why people believe conspiracy theories and how also to dissuade them from doing so. Why aren’t the same people concerned with other -isms, like scientism (the tendency to believe any old scientific-looking explanation or theory), psychologism (where people put forward folk-psychological theories to explain complex human behaviours)? These -isms also lead people to believe contradictory theories, to promote beliefs which have negative social consequences, to ignore the role of coincidences and are examples of epistemic vices. What is it about conspiracy theories which means they deserve more opprobrium than other cases of similarly fallacious beliefs?

We might think that it is because belief in conspiracy theories is dangerous. No doubt, belief in some conspiracy theories is dangerous; we are all bearing witness to the role of various COVID-19 conspiracy theories, some of which will lead people to ignore social distancing or to refuse to take a vaccine when it becomes available. Yet scientism around purported COVID-19 cures is also a cause for concern.

Take, for example, the drug hydroxychloroquine, which has been proposed as part of the treatment plan for patients who have contracted COVID-19. The drug made the headlines when US President Donald J. Trump touted its apparent efficacy, yet the majority of medical studies have indicated there is no particular benefit to patients using the drug when it comes to treating COVID-19. Yet people have called for hydroxychloroquine to be made available for patients affected by the novel coronavirus. This is not based upon science. It is, instead, a case of faith in something which looks scientific. Scientism, and not science, is behind its demand.

We see the same thing with people putting forward alternatives to COVID-19 lockdowns, or fad dietary advice in the media: ideas are presented as scientific and so are elevated to high position because of scientism: the belief that if something looks scientific, it ought to be believed. The fact that these are minority views, or faddish theories is left to one side.

More fundamentally, think about the failure rate of scientific theories in general. The process of generating and testing theories in the sciences means that new theories are proposed, tested, and discarded constantly. Few theories survive long enough to be part of the scientific consensus.

Other domains also suffer from this kind of problem. There is a replication crisis in psychology: It turns out that many of the crucial, even foundational, findings in areas like social psychology have failed to be replicated when tested. On this basis, plenty of work in psychology is, at the very least, questionable.

The issues we excuse in other domains are treated as knockdown objections when applied to “conspiracy theories”.

No one says, however, that we should treat scientific or psychological theories as “mad, bad or dangerous” in the same way as conspiracy theories. The issues we excuse in other domains are treated as knockdown objections when applied to “conspiracy theories”.

We are left with the question: Why do people pick on conspiracy theories?

A lot of the debate around conspiracy theories is definitional: how we define the proper subject of a conspiracy theory determines whether belief in particular conspiracy theories is rational.

The “mad, bad, and dangerous” label is a narrow definition of conspiracy theory. It excludes the broader set of explanations which cite conspiracies as salient causes such as the accepted explanations of the Moscow Show Trials, the Watergate Affair; 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The pejorative label of “conspiracy theory” only applies to are those which are clearly false and, thus, irrational to believe.

If scholars are only being interested in conspiracy theories which are have already defined as irrational, then research that shows conspiracy theories to be “mad, bad, and dangerous” is neither interesting (it confirms what we already know) nor can it be extended to the broader set of “conspiracy theories.”

Philosophers who study conspiracy theory have argued that we should talk about conspiracy theories in the broader sense. We should be interested in analysing the entire class of conspiratorial activity rather than just the conspiracy theories we already suspect to fantastical. If our analysis is squarely focussed on theories we already think are prima facie false or problematic, then the analysis of what we consider to be proper conspiracy theories will only confirm what we think we already know.

Defining conspiracies theories narrowly is not just uninteresting, it could be dangerous. No one denies that conspiracies sometimes occur. If we treat conspiracy theories dismissively we will fail to investigate the suspected conspiracies that are worth treating seriously. After all, the Soviet government assured the West that the Moscow Trials were true and fair when they were not. Nixon denied any involvement in the break-in of the Watergate Complex but he was lying. Blair and Bush assured their people that there was clear evidence that the Saddam Hussein regime was producing weapons of mass destruction but their evidence was doctored.

The danger of conspiracy to the polity cannot be understated, and a prima facie dismissive attitude to allegations of conspiracy can empower governments to get away with their cover-ups. Stalin died naturally in his bed despite helping orchestrate a massive conspiracy with respect to the Moscow Trials. Nixon won a landslide re-election after Watergate. Bush and Blair got their war in Iraq despite the doctored nature of the dossier which was used to justify their military action.

It cannot be denied that some (possibly many) conspiracy theories look very suspicious. From claims about alien, shape-shifting lizards to New World Order plots, a number of conspiracy theories look, prima facie, fantastical. Yet even these should not be automatically dismissed; someone should be evaluating them on their evidential merits. If it turns out evil reptilians really do control the British monarchy, or that the Deep State exists, these are the kind of things vigilant citizens ought to stand up to.

Along with other philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and cultural theorists, I have argued that we should stop picking on conspiracy theories simply because they have been given this pejorative label.” Rather, we ought to treat them like any other theory and judge them on their merits. That does not mean that we ought to treat them uncritically. It does mean that we need to question our assumptions and, sometimes, leave them behind. Dismissing the idea that conspiracies could be behind certain world events only invites trouble.


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ida sanka 2 September 2021

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Tom Johnson 1 11 January 2021

In response to Joycelyn Campbell's comment, I'd like to point out you're incorrect in your assumption. The author did not conflate the definitions of "conspiracy" and "conspiracy theory."

The only way to come to that conclusion is if you didn't read the entire article or if you didn't understand it correctly.

Conspiracy theories are implausible but not impossible. The article is highlighting the importance of that differentiation. The author makes a valid point in that it is dangerous for the public to assume all conspiracy theories are impossible.

A quick search for "conspiracy theories that turned out to be true" proves this conclusively. Every conspiracy theory on those lists would still only be thought of as a theory if everyone falsely thought all conspiracy theories are impossible.

Joycelyn Campbell 1 September 2020

A conspiracy is not the same thing as a conspiracy theory. (You could look it up.) Conflating them contributes nothing positive to the discussion.