Inferring to the Existence of a Conspiracy

The current chapter, which really could have any number attached to it, is on the exciting and fallacious move that is inferring to any old explanation rather than to a good, let alone the best, explanation. As part of my introduction says:

Perhaps more novel-ly, I am going to argue now that a significant problem for conspiracy theories is their “Just So” nature, in that belief in a conspiracy theory requires what I will call an `Inference to Any Old Explanation1‘ or the “Just So” Fallacy. For belief in a conspiracy theory to be considered warranted an epistemic agent will need to make an Inference to the Existence of a Conspiracy. The Inference to the Existence of a Conspiracy is not something that merely affects bad conspiracy theories2 but is, rather, part of the process by which warranted and unwarranted \textit{conspiracy theories} are accepted. There will be instances of the Inference to the Existence of a Conspiracy which are warranted but, I contend, this will not be common and thus, typically, such an inference will be an example of an Inference to Any Old Explanation.

Originally this chapter was meant to be the primary and most important novelty in the thesis as a whole (such novelty is a required feature of doctoral work) but it is now just one of three novel analyses found in my thesis(or, at least, I will assert that this is the case); my analysis of Rumours (and their fit with conspiracy theories along with my disambiguation of what “officialness” means in respect to explanatory accounts, being the other two.

The Inference to the Existence of a Conspiracy analysis is something that Jon and I have been kicking around for a while; well, morese the precursor notion, the Inference to Any Old Explanation.

The Inference to Any Old Explanation is the more formal-sounding name for “Just So” stories, those wonderful tales of Rudyard Kipling. In a “Just So” story an explanation that fits the facts is presented for some phenomena, and such explanations are, in Peter Lipton’s words, lovely because the explanation promotes an understanding of why things are the way they are. The “Just So” stories of Kipling are wonderful because they present explanations of features that say “Someone (or thing) wanted it to be this way,” and this really does resemble some of the kind of reasoning conspiracy theorists engage in. “They” wanted the Twin Towers destroyed in the same way that they wanted the leopard to have spots; someone was responsible.

More importantly, for my analysis, such stories have a very designed feel to them. We know leopards have spots, so all we need is a god story to provide an explanation as to why this might be the case. In the same respect, we know the Twin Towers fell, so we need an explanation to explain why this was the case. In the leopard example the “Just So” story provides an explanation which is unlikely but lovely; the spots being painted on may make very little sense, given what we know about genetic inheritance, but it renders the feature with an aspect of understanding. In the Twin Towers example the notion that the American Government orchestrated the event is unlikely but, once again, lovely; the event must have occurred for a reason, so who better to make it occur than the world’s superpower?

Nothing in the stories, however, suggests that the proffered (better yet, candidate) explanations are likely; genetics rules against the leopard example and the long-standing analysis, understanding and knowledge of the aims of certain terrorist groups, as well as claims about the USA’s role in Middle-Eastern politics strongly suggests that it was Al-Qaeda, the group that claimed responsibility for the event, who were behind the September 11th attacks.

Now, importantly for my analysis, an Inference to the Existence of a Conspiracy is not merely an Inference to Any Old Explanation. Some Inferences to the Existence of a Conspiracy will be warranted. Explicating just how this can be the case, and why it is so hard to do, is the task that, if it weren’t the excitement of watching the finale of “LOST” tonight overriding my feelings, consumes my every waking minute (and some minutes of sleep, I must admit).


  1. Whilst this is a new term of art, I cannot claim sole credit for the name; my good friend, teaching colleague and supervisor, Dr. Jonathan McKeown-Green and I came up with the term whilst working out how to discuss conspiracy theories in the context of a critical thinking course we taught in 2004.
  2. Where `bad’ here refers to conspiracy theories which could be incoherent or false.

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