"The appeal to traditional wisdom is always fallacious", a friend of mine frequently remarks. She is right; if all your support for some view boils down to "Well, that's just what my predecessors believed", then you haven't got much of an argument. Traditions are all fine and good, as long as you can explain why keeping to them now is a good idea. Defending traditions just because they are traditional tells us nothing about their import to the now.
This is no introduction to some piece where I take to task a cultural practice, or claim that my family of views is better than some other family of views. Rather, this is a piece about how the appeal to the accepted wisdom – which is the same thing as "traditional wisdom", but is more likely to be taken to be respectable in academic circles – adversely effects the kind of work I do.
Because it does, and I'd like that to stop, please.
As long term readers of this blog should know by now, I write on and about conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists and – probably most importantly – conspiracy theory theories and conspiracy theory theorists. I've read enough on the subject to write a respectable academic book on the topic. I know the literature well (almost too well, really), and so I'm very much aware of just how weird it and all over the place it is. Despite sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and philosophers (among many others) all sharing a similar interest in the topic, very few specialists seem to read outside their discipline, and when they do, the results are mixed. I've seen, for example, psychologists give one line summaries of a philosopher's work which gets their contribution back-to-front.1 However, that is not the biggest problem. No, the elephant in the room us the surfeit of accepted wisdoms in the literature.
I am going to pick on the work of a multitude of nameless social psychologists, mostly because I've just co-written a paper on some recurrent issues in that literature. There have, of recent note, been a raft of papers by social psychologists, charging conspiracy theorists with a slate of psychological and epistemic vices. Belief in conspiracy theories is, variously, the result of magical thinking, is quasi-religious in nature, likely the product of the conjunction fallacy, et cetera et cetera. Some of these ideas are quite interesting, but many of them are have been hashed out before and found wanting. Yet they continue to see play in the literature, mostly because, I charge, some famous person posited them. They are accepted wisdoms, and many of them are unexamined.
Take, for example, the quasi-religious angle. Karl Popper suggested that belief in the conspiracy theory of society was analogous to theistic belief. It is an idea which crops up in the literature every decade or so, with each new proponent of the idea seemingly ignorant of their forebears' criticism. Yet critiques aplenty there have been, most of which show that the analogy falls apart at some crucial stage (for example, it is not clear that the way in which actual conspiracy theorists describe their beliefs really resembles religious belief at all, and even if some such theorists believe that way, this tells us little about belief in conspiracy theories generally). So, why does the idea persist in the face of such criticism? Are people just not reading widely enough to detect the various critiques, or is the problem more one of ancestry and hereditariness?
I'm going to downplay the former, even though I happen to know – from talking to people at the conference back in March – that there is more need for interdisciplinary work here, and hypothesise about the latter: I think there are certain old views which, despite being the target of sustained critiques, refuse to die because they are the accepted wisdom of the field.
Take Karl Popper. His work on the conspiracy theory of society is important because it a) is relatively early work in the field and b) it sets out an important critique of belief in conspiracy theories. Popper's work is interesting now, I would argue, precisely because it is wrong-headed; Popper associates belief in conspiracy theories generally with the faults of a few conspiracy theorists, and then declares "Case closed!" Other academics have taken Popper's work on conspiracy theories to task (again and again), yet Popper's general view continues to echo throughout the wider literature. Why? Well, because in part it's become part of the accepted wisdom; qua Popper we all start out thinking that belief in conspiracy theories is problematic, and thus is a problem in search of a cure. This is held as a central intuition to much of the subsequent work, despite critiques which show that said intuition is itself a problem.
"Ah," you might be thinking, "but if that's the intuition, then maybe the fact it persists despite arguments to the contrary, there is something to it the various critiques don't adequately refute." That's a perfectly good response; sometimes our intuitions are good guides as long as we can argue for them, and sometimes our intuitions are just lousy. One way in which they can be lousy is if the intuition is itself the product of an appeal to accepted wisdom. i.e. Is the widespread belief that conspiracy theories are bunk predicated on such theories being bunk (which causes the intuition) or is the belief that conspiracy theories are bunk the product of us being continually told by alleged experts that such theories are bunk (which would also lead to people thinking this is a commonly-held intuition)? I have an intuition (yes, really) that it's the latter; we are constantly told "But conspiracy theories are stupid!" and this leads to us thinking "Sure, I can buy that!" Given the critiques, it looks as if it's very plausible that it's appeals to the accepted wisdom all the way down.
This thesis of mine – that's there's a lot of appeals to accepted wisdom going on here – also makes sense of the fact that in cases where people do seem to have read widely, they do not appear to take on board critiques of the accepted wisdom. If we are constantly being told conspiracy theories are bad, dangerous and the like, then we are likely to read the literature with that in mind and pick out the few data points in articles that confirm that view, even if the articles themselves go against the common wisdom. Certainly, it makes sense of a lot of the literature I have immersed myself in
It also suggests that a major problem with talk of conspiracy theories is, in fact, the conspiracy theory theorists. They are (and as I'm not naming names here, I'm not attributing blame) – according to this argument – just as likely to believe conspiracy theories are bad due to the accepted wisdom as they are to believe they are bad because their arguments show that they are. You could say it's a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theory theorists, but it's more a Chomskian analysis; it's a product of the institutions that produce conspiracy theory theorists more than a desire on the part of such theorists to skew the debate. As to how we solve this problem; well, that I don't know. Better ask a social psychologist…
- I've also seen philosophers summarise the work of others in a paragraph to disastrous ends, but that's another matter for another time.↩