Why We Should Be Suspicious of Conspiracy Theories

What will the next major world event be? It’s difficult to make predictions, as the physicist Niels Bohr once said, especially about the future. But one thing can be prophesied with near certainty: whatever will happen, the event in question will spawn a range of conspiracy theories. The official version of events, whatever it turns out to be, will be dismissed as one Big Lie that hides a much more sinister truth. People will point to strange anomalies and inconsistencies in the official story promulgated by media and authorities, and they will concoct elaborate theories of what is “really” going on behind the scenes.

Why is it that any major historical event gives rise to conspiracy theories? Why is it so easy to construct conspiracy theories around any historical event, even if the event already involves a conspiracy (such as the 9/11 attacks)? My new paper on in this question has just been published in the journal Episteme. I have written about the self-sealing logic of conspiracy theories before, in the context of self-validating belief systems (see here and here), but this is my first full-length paper on the epistemology of conspiracy theories, which also engages with the sprawling philosophical literature on conspiracy theories that has developed over the past decade. A sequel paper on the concept of “epistemological black holes” is in the pipeline.

In recent years, many philosophers have argued that the widespread suspicion towards “conspiracy theories” is just an irrational prejudice on the part of certain academic elites, and may even he dangerous (because real conspirators can wield the derogatory phrase to dismiss any suspicions about their malfeasance). This position, which is known in the literature as “particularism”, argues that there is nothing wrong with conspiracy theories per se, and that each conspiracy theory should be evaluated on its own merits. Perhaps surprisingly, given the bad reputation of conspiracy theories in the public arena, this viewpoint has almost become the consensus among philosophers of conspiracy theories. In my paper, I show (hopefully) why these philosophers are wrong. It is of course true that real conspiracies abound in the historical record, and that a blanket dismissal of all explanations involving conspiracies would be as irrational as the must lurid conspiratorial fantasy. But I hope to have shown that a prima facie suspicion towards “conspiracy theories” is nonetheless justified.

I started writing this paper two years ago, and getting it published was not a walk in the park. My paper attacks a position that is subscribed to by the majority of philosophers, and the academic debate on the (ir)rationality of conspiracy theories has been remarkably heated at times. One influential philosopher has described the position that there is something suspicious about conspiracy theories as “one of the most dangerous and idiotic superstitions to disgrace our political culture”. Still, I have tried to take on board the insights of some of those “particularists”, and in a way I am seeking a compromise between the two opposing camps. I am grateful to all those pesky reviewers who tried to poke holes in my argument, because at the end of the day I think their objections have made my argument much stronger than it was in the original version. I’m quite happy with the end result, especially my arguments about “causal asymmetry” and overdetermination (based on David Lewis and Carol Cleland), as well as the probabilistic account of conspiracy theories, which I think are novel.

Here’s the summary (abstract) of my argument:

“What, if anything, is wrong with conspiracy theories (CTs)? A conspiracy refers to a group of people acting in secret to achieve some nefarious goal. However, given that the pages of history are full of such plots, why are CTs regarded with suspicion? According “particularism”, the currently dominant view among philosophers, each CT should be evaluated on its own merits, and the negative reputation of CTs as a class is undeserved. In this paper, I defend a moderate version of “generalism”, the view that there is indeed something prima facie suspicious about CTs, properly defined, and that they suffer from common epistemic defects. To demarcate legitimate theorizing about real-life conspiracies from “mere conspiracy theories” (in the pejorative sense), I draw on a deep asymmetry between causes and effects in the natural world. Because of their extreme resilience to counterevidence, CTs can be seen as the epistemological equivalent of black holes, in which unwary truth-seekers are drawn, never to escape. Finally, by presenting a generic “recipe” for generating novel CTs around any given event, regardless of the circumstances and the available evidence, I rescue the intuitions beneath colloquial phrases like “That’s just a conspiracy theory.”

I wrote about this handy “recipe” for creating novel conspiracy theories in 2020 already, in a post for the blog of the American Philosophical Association. I also used it in my opening lecture for the Etienne Vermeersch Chair on conspiracy thinking in 2021 (English subtitles available), because I think it fits nicely with an approach to critical thinking called “active inoculation”. By learning how to construct your own (irrational) conspiracy theory, and appreciating how damn easy that is, you can enhance your mental immunity against novel conspiracy theories you encounter in the wild.

Here is the fine-tuned recipe, from my paper:

  • The official story. Take the official version of events accepted by mainstream media, governments, or scientists. Whatever this official version, this is not what actually happened. It is a cover-up invented and disseminated by the conspirators working behind the scenes to distract the public’s attention from some far more sinister events. By definition, the efforts of the conspirators will always appear “successful” because the view they wanted to impose on the rest of society is exactly the official, mainstream one.
  • Official conspiracies. If the received version of events already involves a conspiracy (such as 9/11), one just has to invent a higher-order conspiracy, in which the officially accepted conspiracy is nothing but a false flag operation. The designated “conspirators” are never the real conspirators.
  • Refutation of the official version. To attack the official version, focus on any unresolved questions, apparent contradictions, or minor gaps in the official narrative. This will not be too difficult. No matter how well-documented, no historical account of any event is ever fully complete. Historical explanations are always “fuzzy around the edges” (Dentith 2019). Indeed, the more extensively documented a historical event, the more opportunities for finding such suspicious anomalies (the 9/11 attacks partly happened on live television). From these “errant data,” as Keeley (1999, 52) called them, one can derive the conclusion that the official narrative cannot possibly be true and that something dark and sinister is going on.
  • The identity of the conspirators. Who is really behind the event? It suffices to find any party who has benefited in some way from the historical event, or could conceivably have benefited. Because major historical events will always happen to benefit someone or another, especially powerful groups or organizations, this step will not be too difficult.
  • Lack of evidence for the conspiracy theory. As explained, absence of evidence need never discourage you. Under the assumption of your conspiracy theory, missing evidence is precisely what you would expect if the conspirators have been very scrupulous in covering up their tracks.
  • Evidence against the conspiracy theory. Any counterevidence can be turned on its head and presented as further corroborating your conspiracy theory. It is reasonable, after all, to assume that the conspirators will fabricate evidence to shore up the official version and discredit those who might reveal their secrets.
  • Critics. Any critics of your conspiracy theory can be accused of being complicit in the plot, of being stooges paid by the conspirators to thwart honest investigations, or of being “sheeple,” gullible dupes of official propaganda.

As should be clear, this recipe is composed of perfectly general steps, which will work regardless of the nature of the historical event and the received account accepted by mainstream media or historians.

The only bad news is that, as a result of an evil plot hatched by a the greedy, rent-seeking academic publishing industry, my paper is hidden behind a paywall. But here you can find the penultimate version, freely available. If you want the final PDF, just send me an email (namesurname@gmail.com)!