Book review – Believing Weird Things (Bernard N. Wills)

I recently reviewed Bernard N. Wills new book “Believing Weird Things” for the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, which you can read here.

Here’s a peak:

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition…

Paper review – Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game?

Paper review – Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game?

Ole Bjerg and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen

Theory, Culture and Society

DOI: 10.1177/0263276416657880

In ‘Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game?’ Ole Bjerg and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen seek to untangle the many senses of these things we call ‘conspiracy theories’ with reference both to Early and Late Wittgensteinian approaches to language, and Agamden’s politics of exclusion. They see a social function to these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ (or, if not a social function, they have a recognised or purported role) vs the epistemic question of what conspiracy theories tell us about the world in which we live, and how we should assess them.

At first it seems that they buy into some sense of the pejorative when talking about conspiracy theories, especially when they claim:

‘Conspiracy theory’ is no trivial word. As we are going to see, any use of the concept of conspiracy theory always already implies a demarcation between legitimate, rational knowledge and illegitimate, irrational non-sense. (p. 138)

That is, of course, false. The claim 'any use of the concept…' can be rendered false simply by showing that there exist language users who do not accept that when they talk about conspiracy theories (or admit to being conspiracy theorists) they are talking about belief in some nonsense. Examples of what we might call 'sensical conspiracy theories' can be found in the academic literature, and in literature written by self-described conspiracy theorists. Still, this ends up being a minor point of contention, because Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen are not committed—I would argue—to conspiracy theories being nonsense, but rather in explicating why the label 'conspiracy theory' is sometimes or often (your mileage may vary) not treated as simply being the conjunction of the words 'conspiracy' and 'theory'.

To show this they demarcate between three category of academic research into conspiracy theories. However, in the end they really only need to talk about two of them (go read the article if you want to know about the third…): research which analyses conspiracy theories as expressions of psychological, social, or political pathology, and the philosophical research programme I am a part of. Basically, the generalists who pathologise belief in conspiracy theories, and particularists—like myself—who argue we should assess individual conspiracy theories on their respective (ultimately evidential) merits.

Now, having said they do really seem to buy into the pejorative as being the right way to treat these things called 'conspiracy theories', they do take particularists like myself to task, claiming that our definition:

[S]eems too broad in terms of its empirical extension as it cap- tures a range of theories that we would clearly hesitate to call ‘conspiracy theories’ in any meaningful sense of the word. (p. 143)

So, they don’t buy that, for example, organising a surprise party is conspiratorial, or that some theory about a low-level conspiracy would be a conspiracy theory. This is because they do think that to be a conspiracy theory is to be some theory contra an official theory. This is a position which has been argued for before in the philosophical literature (the best defence of this position can be found in the works of David Coady, although he doesn't think the distinction means anything epistemically). Yet the way they present this distinction seems problematic, because they seem to be switching between talk of conspiracies and conspiracy theories here, either without noticing, or because they appear to see no difference between the terms. Yet the issue at stake is what counts as the subject of a conspiracy theory, not what counts as conspiratorial per se (well, it might, but that is not what they seem to be arguing).

This isn't my only problem, though. In the second half of the paper Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen run an analogy between the label 'conspiracy theory' and the label 'terrorist' which seems to be ahistorical. They start with the claim that:

[O]ne could here suggest a striking similarity or homology between the concept of terrorism and that of a conspiracy theory. Terrorism seems to relate to our current paradigm of government and sovereignty as conspiracy theories relate to our current paradigm of knowledge and truth. We thus suggest that conspiracy theories are conceived as a kind of ‘epistemic terrorism’. (p. 149)

This seems like a weird version of the ‘correlation does not imply causation’ fallacy; surely the problem of the pejorative aspect of the label ‘conspiracy theory’ predates the linguistic shift we got from 'freedom fighter' to ‘terrorist’ post 2001? They, I would argue, are get the historical ordering wrong; the pejorative, epistemic 'terrorism' associated the the label 'conspiracy theory' happened (at least in some polities) well before the shift we associate with the word ‘terrorist’ (at least as we know it today).

Which is not to say that I disagree with their general conclusion:

In summary, what makes it tempting to argue that conspiracy theories are treated as a kind of ‘epistemic terrorism’ is a shared form of exceptionalism. What is invoked by the concept of conspiracy theory is thus arguably a ‘state of epistemic exception’. (p. 150)

I just don't think they get the history of the labels round the right way.

About halfway through their paper, the authors make what I think is their main claim:

[W]e can demonstrate how the political function of the concept of conspiracy theory is performed through a ‘short circuit’ of the two conceptions of language that we find in the early and the late Wittgenstein respectively. What is inconsistently combined in this ‘short circuit’ is the seeming adherence to open rational empirical inquiry combined with a simultaneous rhetoric of exclusion deeming empirical examination superfluous if not inappropriate. (p. 144)

It’s a nice encapsulation of the problem of the pejorative label 'conspiracy theory' which some think is prevalent in common language, but a) they didn’t need to take philosophers to task for operating with a general, non-pejorative definition to get here because b) once we recognise the short circuit, we can avoid it by insisting that we make note of it and exclude it from the key concept when discussing these things called ‘conspiracy theories’… I'm also not entirely sure they needed Wittgenstein per se to get to this point, given a plethora of more modern theses about framing and language, but that is by-the-by. The actual conclusion is sound, even if I think some of the apparatus used to get there is superfluous (but not inappropriate).

Paper review: Conspiracy Formation Is in the Detail: On the Interaction of Conspiratorial Predispositions and Semantic Cues

Fabian Gebauer, Marius H. Raab, and Claus-Christian Carbon

Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2016

DOI: 10.1002/acp.3279

Abstract: Significant events are frequently followed by discussions about the event’s ‘true nature’. Yet, there is only little evidence whether the conspiratorial reasoning of conspiracy believers and sceptics is a priori determined, or if certain characteristics of information are responsible for provoking a polarization. We investigated how depicted causation (direct vs. indirect; Study 1) and intention (strong vs. weak purposeful; Study 2) might invoke a bias in believers and sceptics regarding conspiratorial reasoning about an ongoing event, namely, whether US investigations against FIFA were more or less likely to be seen as a conspiracy against Russia to sabotage the football World Cup in 2018. We revealed that judgments of conspiracy believers and sceptics about the event’s ‘true nature’ are not a priori divided—in fact, conspiracy formation is only affected when direct causation or strong purposeful intentions were obvious. Results point to the relevance of conspiratorial predispositions and semantic cues in conspiracy formation.

This paper examines the thesis that people with high conspiratorial predispositions (i.e. people who think conspiracies are common) are more likely to accept statements about directly caused or intended conspiracies than those with a low conspiratorial predisposition. I basically have two issues with the paper.

The first is the way in which they get to their talk of people with low or high conspiratorial predispositions. This talk of conspiratorial predispositions is phrased in psychological terms, and it’s clear from the literature they cite, that people with high conspiratorial predispositions suffer from a variety of psychological ills. As such, we’re not talking here about people who might have a considered epistemic judgement about the conspired or unconspired nature of our world. This, I think, is a problem, because it seems to be the automatic assumption in the social science literature that being prone to suspect conspiracies is a psychological problem in some sense, but being ‘sensible’ and sceptical of the existence of conspiracies is… Well, no one seems to bite the bullet and say that’s the result of some psychological feature of the person in question; indeed, it’s often implied to be due to the sceptic being epistemically superior to the conspiracy theorist. Yet surely we need to ask ‘Is scepticism of conspiracy theorising also psychological?’ (if, indeed, we buy the argument those with high conspiratorial predispositions really are just seeing conspiracies for the sake of it).

Now, I would be the last to deny that there are psychological components to conspiracy theorising, and suspecting that conspiracies exist. I’d also be the last to deny that some conspiracy theorists might well be members of a problematic class of such theorists, the conspiracists. After all, denying that would be equivalent to denying the fact some theists are psychological predisposed to believing in the existence of the gods, or that some political proponents of the thesis of anthropogenic climate change couldn’t justify why said scientific theory is true if you gave them a whiteboard and an entire day to explain their reasoning. However, starting from the perspective that people like this make up the general group of conspiracy theorists is intellectually bankrupt; we should treat these people as the outliers they are, and theorise accordingly.

The second issue comes out of my response to this paragraph:

However, the research area on conspiracy theories is still missing a systematic approach that relates specific properties of information to the emergence of conspiracy beliefs. We assume that the semantics of intent and responsibility—the semantic linkage of information—might interact with conspiratorial predispositions.

Their contention that such a systematic approach is missing is only true if you ignore the work of epistemologists on this issue (they quote just one philosopher, Steve Clarke). Then again, they kind of have to ignore us, given that the epistemic literature is largely sympathetic to conspiracy theorising, and the authors – as noted – basically argue that conspiracy theorising is a psychological, rather than epistemic phenomenon. I can’t help but think that a more than cursory glance at the philosophical literature would have helped here; we philosophers have been looking at the way in which evidence informs beliefs in conspiracy theories, and the idea that being historically and politically literate informs your belief in the possibility that a) conspiracies are occurring here-and-now, and b) how such beliefs inform our appraisal of conspiracy theories.

There’s also a worry (which I find myself feeling nearly all the time when reading social scientists on conspiracy theories) that they take any positive attitude towards some conspiracy theory as evidence someone takes that theory to be warranted, as opposed to the notion ‘I’ll buy that for a dollar’ or ‘That’s worth considering’. Not everything needs to be couched in terms of ‘x believes that p’; sometimes a positive attitude towards some proposition simply tells us that x believes p to be plausible, or x would like to investigate p, and so forth. This doesn’t seem to be picked up upon by much of the social science literature, leading to bizarre conclusions like ‘Conspiracy theorists believe contradictory theories’ (no, they are typically entertaining contradictory hypotheses whilst trying to work out which one is warranted), and the like. A little look at what the work in epistemology would clear up an awful lot of these issues, if only the social scientists would take the time to do some reading outside of their own domain.

Paper review – The ‘Alice in Wonderland’ mechanics of the rejection of (climate) science: simulating coherence by conspiracism

Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook, Elisabeth Lloyd

Published in Synthese on the 19th of September, 2016

DOI 10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6

Abstract: Science strives for coherence. For example, the findings from climate science form a highly coherent body of knowledge that is supported by many independent lines of evidence: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human economic activities are causing the global climate to warm and unless GHG emissions are drastically reduced in the near future, the risks from climate change will continue to grow and major adverse consequences will become unavoidable. People who oppose this scientific body of knowledge because the implications of cutting GHG emissions—such as regulation or increased taxation—threaten their worldview or livelihood cannot provide an alternative view that is coherent by the standards of conventional scientific thinking. Instead, we suggest that people who reject the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing due to greenhouse gas emissions (or any other body of well-established scientific knowledge) oppose whatever inconvenient finding they are confronting in piece-meal fashion, rather than systematically, and without considering the implications of this rejection to the rest of the relevant scientific theory and findings. Hence, claims that the globe “is cooling” can coexist with claims that the “observed warming is natural” and that “the human influence does not matter because warming is good for us.” Coherence between these mutually contradictory opinions can only be achieved at a highly abstract level, namely that “something must be wrong” with the scientific evidence in order to justify a political position against climate change mitigation. This high-level coherence accompanied by contradictory subordinate propositions is a known attribute of conspiracist ideation, and conspiracism may be implicated when people reject well-established scientific propositions.

This article is ostensibly on conspiracism, but as conspiracism is never explicitly defined in it (the authors, it would seem, take conspiracist ideation to be where people have psychological – not epistemic – reasons to accept some claim of conspiracy over a non-conspiracy – and by extension – epistemically warranted theory), really it’s an article on the incoherence of certain arguments against the thesis of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, there’s little about conspiracies in the paper, despite the reference to conspiracism; it’s as if the term ‘conspiracism’ is being used here as a pejorative for a kind of irrationality directed against scientific theories (whilst it is true many climate change denial theories also include auxiliary hypotheses about a conspiracy to cover up the truth, this is not a focus of the authors’ work here).

The basic thrust of the paper is that the arguments of anthropogenic climate change deniers are incoherent; they tend to believe mutually contradictory views, and – as such – that is a reason to prefer the standard scientific account of anthropogenic climate change over that of the deniers. There are some excellent examples of incoherent views in the climate change denier camp, and – in this respect – the paper is a good primer for anyone interested in debating such sceptics. However, the paper also suffers from a general problem found in most conspiracist-style critiques, which is conflating the beliefs of certain prominent deniers (the paper takes Australian climate change denier Ian Plimer to task quite extensively) with deniers in general. Now, the authors are aware they might be critiqued for this, saying:

It is possible, therefore, that individuals within this community would only hold one or the other of two incoherent views, and that each person considered in isolation would not be incoherent. In that case, one could argue that there is merely a heterogeneity of views in the “community” of denialists, which might in turn be interpreted as being an indication of “healthy debate” or “scientific diversity” rather than incoherence.

But they reject the idea of making an appeal to diversity, arguing that the best explanation is really some account of epistemic vice (my term, not theirs), with that vice being some account of how the views of climate change deniers generally are incoherent. Yet there are two problems here.

The first (and relatively minor) problem is that the authors present something of a false dilemma: either the views of climate change deniers as a group are incoherent, or they indicate the existence of a healthy debate. There are other options; the debate need not be healthy, or scientifically diverse. It just needs to be a debate in the climate change denier camp. I feel the authors salt the pot (so to speak) here.

The second issue is the more serious. In defence of what they construe to be the scientific method, and the corpus of scientific theories, they have to gradually concede ground. As they argue later in the paper, there is disagreement by scientists about the inclusion of some scientific theories, and thus there is some incoherence in science proper. However, they downplay the significance of such debates because ‘any incoherence contains within it an impetus for reconciliation’.

They are trying to have it both ways; there is incoherence in the Sciences. For example, look at the debate in Physics and the central role of string theory in particular. Whilst it’s true there is an impetus for reconciliation, that reconciliation has a) not yet happened, and b) might not happen (and, c) certain sides are antagonistic in this debate). So the happy picture of the scientist and her chums working together that the authors describe does not quite resemble what really happens in the real world of scientific research.

This also means that claiming the climate change deniers are incoherent is a little rich. Surely what the authors should be claiming is that the level of incoherence in climate change denial theories generally is a problem for their views. It’s not that climate change deniers are incoherent. Rather, it’s the kind of incoherence that we find in them which is a problem.

Maybe they would be better off talking about climate change denialism as being a degenerating or stagnant research programme (ala Steve Clarke), rather than with respect to incoherence, because the more they paint the consensus, the more they have to excuse it’s form of incoherence as being epistemically virtuous in some sense.

Indeed, I think their critique really is on the fact there aren’t that many scientists in the climate change denial camp, rather than the incoherence of their particular views. Then authors make frequent reference to the fact that when you investigate the credentials of the supposed rebel lot who promote climate change denialism, you find few scientists, and even fewer active researchers. The low number of actual scientists in climate change denials entails greater incoherence, because whilst there will be some incoherence in the Sciences (even the anthropogenic climate change camp), such incoherence will be washed out by the sheer number of scientists agreeing with one another.

I’m really not sure what to think of the paper generally. It’s a good primer on weird arguments in the climate change denier camp, but its portrayal of both climate change deniers and scientists as groups makes me worry the authors are misrepresenting both sides to get to their conspiracist-style conclusion.