Conspiracy Theories

In today's post Quassim Cassam (Warwick) is presenting his new book, Conspiracy Theories (Polity, 2019). See also his post on the Polity Books blog on why we should not ignore conspiracy theories, and the interview on the New Books Network on conspiracy theories as a form of propaganda.

In my book, I address four questions: What is a conspiracy theory? Why do people believe them? What is the problem with conspiracy theories? How should we respond to them? The take home message of the book is that conspiracy theories are a form of political propaganda. This is, in a technical sense, their function, and also what makes them dangerous. The deeper meaning of conspiracy theories is political, and these theories are as pernicious as the political causes they promote. In practice, these causes have often been extremist causes. Anti-Semitism is part of the DNA of conspiracy theories, and even seemingly apolitical theories are a gateway to more overtly political theories.

Here is one popular but misguided way of thinking about conspiracy theories: a conspiracy theory is a theory that explains a significant happening by reference to the actions of a small group of people working in secret to do something harmful. Some conspiracy theories are true, others are false. We are justified in believing a conspiracy theory – say that theory that 9/11 was an inside job – when the evidence supports it. As philosophers we can argue about what counts as evidence, and what it would take for us to be justified in believing a particular conspiracy theory. However, there is no justification for thinking that we could never be justified in believing a conspiracy theory.

On this account, conspiracy theories can be adequately understood and assessed using the standard tools of the epistemologist or philosopher of science. To think of conspiracy theories in this way is to epistemologize them. In contrast, the propaganda model I defend in my book politicizes them, that is, recognises and focuses on their political or ideological function. I distinguish between well-documented theories about conspiracies – like the theory that Al Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 - and capital C, capital T Conspiracy Theories. As well as being politically motivated, the latter tend to be speculative, esoteric and amateurish. The theory that 9/11 was an inside job is not just a theory about a conspiracy but a Conspiracy Theory.

It is typical of a certain kind of philosopher not to see the politics of Conspiracy Theories but that doesn’t make it any less of a mistake. I contend that it is also a mistake to psychologize Conspiracy Theories, that is, to understand belief in them purely psychological terms. To take an obvious example, Hitler and Stalin were Conspiracy Theorists because Conspiracy Theories were integral to their political ideologies. To explain their conspiracy theorizing by reference to their cognitive biases or a psychological trait they had in common is not just implausible but also misses the ideological purpose of their theories. Conspiracy Theories are as pernicious as the ideologies they promote, and their social harms also need to be taken into account.

This shows the importance of combatting conspiracy theories by highlighting their politics. The philosophy of conspiracy theories is an increasingly popular research area, and a number of influential figures in this area are sympathetic to conspiracy theories. Such conspiracy apologists either miss the point of conspiracy theories altogether or misunderstand their real political significance. Either way, they risk associating themselves with repellent political ideologies.