So, that paper I’ve been working on, about conspiracist ideation? It’s hit version three, and in its latest incarnation I’ve made what might appear – at first – to be a major shift in my point-of-view.
Let me backtrack. In previous editions of this series I’ve discussed how to define conspiracism (the view that there is a kind of belief in conspiracy theories which is due to or caused by factors other than there being good arguments or evidence in favour of such theories), who counts as a ‘conspiracist’ (potentially everyone), and why we should stop claiming that we can use the views of some conspiracy theorists to judge the merit of conspiracy theories generally (don’t hate on the game just because you hate the playa). I’ve been shopping the paper around, and some of the feedback I’ve got has been incredibly useful.
One piece of criticism I’ve got from a colleague-who-also-happens-to-be-a-good-friend has perplexed me, though. Said friend and I saw a lot of views about the academic debate surrounding belief in conspiracy theories, and I thought we were on the same page when it came to this topic. Yet their feedback consistently indicated that we weren’t, and yet as far as I could tell, the problems they were describing in my paper seemed to get my view upside down. After a long email correspondence, I realised that the impression of conspiracism I gave in the paper didn’t exactly fit with what I was saying in response. That, in turn, made me realise my views about conspiracism and conspiracists had moved on from what I had written in the book. Not just that, but the paper was a hybrid of the old and the new, and the bits of the old were disguising the newness of the new!
In The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories I argue that we should use the term ‘conspiracist’ to refer to wacky and weird conspiracy theorists. I endorsed a version of the perjorative gloss on conspiracy theorist because, well, it’s hard to get past the fact some conspiracy theorists are, for lack of a better term, wacky, and their beliefs are not predicated on good reasoning. When it came to writing up these thoughts some three years later, however, I motivated talk of conspiracist-style analyses with reference to recent literature by social scientists (who, as a class, typically treat belief in conspiracy theories as irrational). In the paper I argue that conspiracism is something social scientists diagnose as a feature of being a conspiracy theorist. This was a shift in position; I took it that when I was discussing conspiracism I was discussing something social scientists hold to as being true of the general class of conspiracy theorists. I contrasted that position with the claim that, at best, conspiracism is true only of some conspiracy theorists.
Obviously elements of my original position (let’s respect the common, pejorative usage of conspiracy theorising/conspiracy theorist) crept into the new paper. Time after time, email after email, my friend (and peer) kept talking about how I was defending what was, in essence, some claim about a personal propensity to believe conspiracy theories erroneously. I kept responding that I thought I was simply arguing that this is what many social scientists believe, and how I was stressing how we should not necessarily accept their diagnosis in this matter.
Looking back over the paper, I realise it was not particularly clear that my position had changed post the book. There I somewhat endorsed the terms ‘conspiracist’ and ‘conspiracism’, because I still thought it useful to keep some aspect of the pejorative gloss in use. In the new piece it was clear my analysis of what the social scientists were saying was accurate. But my own position? It was too opaque to at least one philosopher, and that was one philosopher too much.
So, what is my new view on this thing I call ‘conspiracism’? Well, whilst I am oft tempted to use the term ‘conspiracist’ to refer to weird conspiracy theorists (and have even encouraged others to do likewise), I guess I’m only using that now as a rhetorical ploy. Yes, I’m still prone to using ‘conspiracist’ to refer to conspiracy theorists whose views I think haven’t got an epistemic leg to stand on, but… Well, I should just drop it as a label, and critique the theory (rather than attack the theorist). When it comes to the academic notion of conspiracism… Well, it’s a thesis I take is evident in much social science critique of belief in conspiracy theories, and it is the belief that some conspiracy theorists hold to their conspiracy theories for factors other than arguments and evidence. My worry about conspiracist-styled critiques is they assume conspiracy theorists are generally conspiracists, and thus we can derive the belief that conspiracy theories are generally irrational. That I take it is a gross mischaracterisation; whilst all conspiracists will turn out to be conspiracy theorists, not all conspiracy theorists are conspiracists. We should not smear the beliefs of a general class (the conspiracy theorists) with the predilections of a (quite possibily hypothetical) few. That’s the real problem.