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Knowledge in a Conspiratorial World

by Ori Freiman

There is a widespread attitude towards conspiracy theories and their proponents. This attitude takes for granted that beliefs based on conspiracy theories are inherently suspicious and suffer from various logical errors and therefore are irrational and bogus. Believing in a conspiracy theory is relentlessly considered a result of biased world views, probably due to some kind of paranoia. At their most extreme, conspiracy theories deal with shape-shifting alien reptiles which control humanity through the world’s social elite. It is easy to associate all conspiracy theorists (those who articulate the conspiracy theories) with those who believe in conspiracy theories invoking paranormal mind-control by governments. After all, to follow this common attitude, proponents of conspiracy theories are ultra-skeptic, paranoid and irrational. We should dismiss conspiracy theories and prevent the false beliefs they cause from spreading.

This attitude, of dismissing a theory just because it asserts the existence of a conspiracy, is exactly what Matthew Dentith’s book The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories argues against. Dentith emphasizes those possibilities in which beliefs in conspiracy theories might be rational, and therefore should not be easily dismissed just because they cite conspirators and conspiracies. Whether one dismisses, or supports, belief in conspiracy theories, the book offers a wide range of tools for the analysis of extraordinary evidence that conspiracy theories might raise, and suggests methodological ways that make the weighting of conspiratorial explanations against other explanations, possible.

Dentith is a self-described conspiracy theory theorist – meaning he theorizes about conspiracy theories from a standpoint that particular conspiracy theories can be rational (p. 8). In this book he argues that conspiracy theories are worth taking seriously and as such should be analyzed properly. The first step towards an unbiased analysis consists in discarding the pejorative connotations that are currently associated with a belief in conspiracy theory. Once that is behind us, the second step is to seriously consider the extraordinary evidence that conspiracy theories usually cite. It is only after we have considered the evidence that we can move to the third step, which is seriously assessing the conspiracy theory in question – in light of other possible explanations of the event the conspiracy theory was articulated to explain. The book consists of twelve chapters which gradually build upon each other; the division of the book into three successive steps is my own way of outlining the argument.

Our attempt to start a conspiracy theory.

Our attempt to start a conspiracy theory.

So why, according to this book, should we discard the pejorative meanings of the term conspiracy theory? Doing so can reveal a lot about those conspiracy theories which are rational. One of the benefits of this approach, so the argument goes, is that it enables us to treat conspiracy theories in various positive ways, for example as a mode of political expression: it enables us to view conspiracy theorists as having an important role within a democratic society – such as exposing certain failures and wrongdoings, just as whistleblowers would. Changing our attitude in this way is not an easy task: the term conspiracy currently holds an extremely large variety of pejorative meanings, perpetuated not least by the vast, and growing, academic literature about conspiracies found in various fields. Endorsing these pejorative meanings, Dentith argues, not only downgrades much of the work of those who analyze conspiracy theories and those who believe in them; it also influences the ability, or lack thereof, of politicians and other socially responsible decision-makers within society – such as journalists and intellectuals – to bring into focus or investigate explanations that, to put it simply, cite conspirators and conspiracies. What’s truly at stake here is that these debates will slowly whitewash, distort, downplay, or even dismiss what should, on a more neutral stance, be considered as evidence. By the same token, it negatively affects our trust in public institutions and authorities (p. 172). In a climate in which the term conspiracy theory is associated with a variety of misinformed and derogatory connotations, even a conspiracy theory that is genuine and rational to believe in, is likely to be treated as irrational and will be ignored or dismissed. Referring to Tony Blair’s talent for this practice, the book’s foreword (by Charles Pigden) illustrates the tactic of arguing that a conspiracy theory is not worth discussing quite well.

Before delving deeper into the book’s content, it is essential to point out that this book serves as a good example of practical and applied philosophy. Applied philosophy, generally speaking, is a branch of philosophy that covers a broad spectrum of issues and offers its conclusions to decision takers such as public policy makers – in education, law, and health care, to name but a few. The specific sub-field of conspiracy theories within the philosophical field of social epistemology (that is, the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge in a social context) carries great value, such as understanding our social reality and how we can act in the world in order to prevent, or to a greater degree, even cure, social injustices. As such, the book addresses, and might be interesting to, a wide variety of audiences, among them journalists, economists, historians, politicians, and, even more broadly, social activists and intellectual citizens.

The book is, above all, dedicated to the philosophical mission of arguing that conspiracy theories can be rational. While the context of this argument is crystal clear to the few scholars studying conspiracy theories from within social epistemology, the context of the argument will likely be far from obvious to most other readers. Part and parcel in analytic philosophy is that a defense of a view includes an attack on all opposite views and defends itself from possible objections. As such, generally speaking, defending the view that there are genuine conspiracy theories which nonetheless are rational, is an attack on current, and intensifying, views prevalent in the political establishment and its intellectual backup in which conspiracy theories are quickly dismissed simply because they are conspiracy theories. And this happens: the dismissal of a genuine conspiracy theory is used as a disingenuous tactic to shut down debates (p. 33). The book’s foreword, written by Charles Pigdin, a pioneer in the philosophical investigation of conspiracy theories, explains the context of the argument’s relevance. In a distinctively logical fashion, Pigdin argues clearly for the importance of this book: in a political climate that immediately dismisses conspiracy theories, it is common that even genuine conspiracies escape detection and are more likely to succeed. The main argument in the book, viz. that conspiracy theories can be rational, contains nothing counter-intuitive or surprising. The core argument, which forms the skeleton for the practical applications of how we should examine and treat conspiracy theories, is simple and plainly makes sense: Beliefs in conspiracy theories need not be prima facie suspicious of being irrational.

Original filing cabinet from the Watergate Hotel. Conspiracies do happen. (Source: Wikimedia, Photo by: Kenneth Lu, released and used under CC A 2.0 Generic LIcense)

Original filing cabinet from the Watergate Hotel. Conspiracies do happen. (Source: Wikimedia, Photo by: Kenneth Lu, released and used under CC A 2.0 Generic LIcense)

As is the custom in a number of the methodologies analytic philosophers deploy, Dentith goes straight to the heart of the conceptual analysis – the definition of “conspiracy theory”. By reviewing a variety of competing definitions, mostly put forward by scholars during the past half-century, he first argues against the pejorative meanings that the term conspiracy theory currently carries. The pejorative meanings can sometimes contain the characteristic of taking for granted the spread of false beliefs, positing an existence of a theory that, de facto, does not exist, or suffering from bad reasoning. Many of the definitions that are surveyed prevent, in various ways, the possibility that in some cases conspiracies are rational. Other arguments surveyed raise questions whether a conspiracy theory must be about morally suspect issues, involve a sinister plot, can be about good actions, only refer to political issues, or must not refer to political issues. Other arguments regarding definitions deal with questions about the scope of the events, whether we can refer to a theory as a conspiracy only if the end goal of the conspirators was achieved, whether the act of discovering a conspiracy means that it is not genuine (since conspiracies are secret), or whether it must be an alternative to an official theory. One by one, Dentith rejects the definitions and the conditions they impose on the analysis of conspiracy theories. The definition he is after must resist the constant dismissal of conspiracy theories. It therefore must have minimal limitations and cover a wide range of events.

After reviewing the problems the various definitions raise, Dentith turns to his own definition, which aims for the most minimal definition of what counts as a conspiracy, and, of course, is devoid of any pejorative meanings. His own definition (pp. 50, 56-57) builds upon three conditions that have to be met:

1) The Conspirators Condition – that some agents exist (or existed) with a plan;

2) The Secrecy Condition – that steps have been taken by the agents to minimize the awareness of what they are up to; and

3) The Goal Condition – the agents desire some goal(s).

With this minimal definition even some boardroom meetings and the organization of a surprise birthday party can qualify as genuine conspiracies. The umbrella of genuine conspiracies, according to his argument, covers many common activities. However, this does not bother Dentith, since as he mentions and exemplifies, we live in a society in which genuine conspiracies are not rare events at all (for example, “government hiding trade deals with a foreign nation, or an academic department trying to bamboozle the dean of the Faculty”, p. 176). By paying the price of including many common activities as conspiracies, the minimal definition becomes Dentith’s weapon in his fight against the constant dismissal of conspiracy theories. In such a way, a theory that posits a conspiracy as a cause of events can be treated just like other theories found among the wide pool of legitimate candidate explanations for a particular set of events. As a result, a conspiracy theory does not carry a special, a priori, burden of proof – just because it is a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories can now be an object of an impartial investigation.

Dentith admirably completes the philosophical mission of arguing that conspiracy theories can be rational. While doing so, he distills the essential features from the many views regarding what a conspiracy theory is, and what believing in such a conspiracy theory entails. Almost all of the definitions and positions surveyed are highly intriguing and interesting of their own. Dentith deserves credit for charitably presenting most of them, and for spicing the various views with appropriate examples (or counter-examples) of conspiracy theories.

After the first step of constructing a definition of what a conspiracy consists of and achieving the non-dismissal of beliefs in conspiracy theories just because they are conspiracies, a new challenge arises: How can we dismiss beliefs in some conspiracies while accepting beliefs in others? Dismissal of an alleged conspiracy might, of course, be based on not meeting the conditions of the definition. However, if the alleged conspiracy does meet the definition, we must further examine it before we can declare that the theory is warranted, and moreover, probably true. The second step then consists in offering tools regarding knowledge about issues of evidence, authority, expertise, and trust. The third step concerns decisions between rival theories and offers methodologies for determining which theory among the various available theories can be inferred as the best explanation for the events the conspiracy theory was intended to explain.

Readers who seek to find out more about the details of specific conspiracies will be disappointed. The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories does not go into the finer details of conspiracies (as plenty of other books do). However, a huge variety of conspiracies – the Gunpowder plot, the Watergate affair, WikiLeaks, NSA material leaked by Edward Snowden, the claim that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, the Iran-Contra affair, MK-ULTRA, Litvinenko’s poisoning with polonium-210, Operation Northwoods, the planning of the landing in the Normandy, the Oklahoma City bombing, Lee Harvey Oswald, NASA’s allegedly faking of the moon landing, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, Illuminati, and more – are presented clearly in a context of serving as examples for various arguments. The tools and methodologies Dentith suggests get quite sophisticated and complex, yet the many examples from a wide range of conspiracies throughout history make the process of understanding easy and intuitive.

Building upon how historians detect and identify the motivations and intentions of conspirators (by using the example of the murder of Julius Caesar, pp. 58-60), the book suggests that we look for the right experts to identify the intentions of the conspirators. This involves both looking for the right kind of specialist, and recognizing whether the particular specialist is an expert who has the required skills. Issues such as the expert’s training, credit, and qualification for supplying plausible inferences concerning those who conspire and their intentions, are discussed. However, the making of inferences to beliefs and desires of the conspirators is, in many cases, not possible and may not always be necessary. Even more drastically, the conspirators’ actions sometimes lead to the opposite of their intentions (such as in the case of the kidnappers of Mikhail Gorbachev at 1991, pp. 166-167). It is possible, in most cases, to base inferences on documented evidence.

Stalin, Rykov, Kamenev, and Zinoviev in 1925; the latter three were later shot foilowing the 1930s show trials. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Stalin, Rykov, Kamenev, and Zinoviev in 1925; the latter three were later shot following the 1930s show trials. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Here, the book turns to dealing with doubts about, and skepticism towards, public institutions’ data, and institutions as playing part in a conspiracy. It is interesting to note that in this part the author lists known purveyors of conspiracy theories, such as David Icke, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, and others, as examples for various views of radical skepticism towards large part, or even the entirety, of public data (known conspirators are referred to quite often throughout the book). Views that lead to radical skepticism are attacked. All in all, the author argues that we do have grounds to trust public institutions, but nonetheless with some skepticism, i.e. not blindly. It is demonstrated how various conspiracy theorists do appeal to authorities for evidence, and how various institutions play a part in legitimizing theories which are sometimes false. The main example that is given (pp. 87-88) is the 1930s Moscow mock trials (which, in brief, are a series of trials of alleged supporters of Trotsky, who had been “persuaded” by torture to give false testimony that Trotsky was conspiring against Stalin). In contrast, the (John) Dewey Commission’s report developed an alternative explanation to the official theory. The report’s version was that Trotsky and innocent people had been falsely accused in order to legitimize Stalin’s efforts to get rid of his political rivals. The commission’s report had supported its theory with evidence; however both the UK and the US ignored the report, leaving it as a rival and contrary theory to the official one. Almost 20 years later, when Nikita Khrushchev became the leader of the Soviet Union, what we now acknowledge as the truth was admitted by the Russians. It was only then that the status of the Dewey Commission’s report turned from an underdog theory to an official theory. The lesson to learn is that just because a theory has an official status it need not be warranted or backed by evidence.

Two other important lessons: First, whether a conspiracy theory has the status of being official or not, there is a need to examine, whenever possible, the evidence that supports it. Nonetheless, going into how institutions accredit theories is equally important. How, then, is it possible to analyze the evidence for or against conspiracy theories? As the author explains, this can be especially tricky when it comes to the evidence brought forward by rival competing theories, since what both sides consider as evidence is not at all clear. Evidence for one theory might not even be acknowledge as such by its rival theory.

Therefore, when we look at evidence, we also have to look at how it has been presented and whether the evidence presented has any extraordinary signs that conspiracy theories might have. For example, presentation of evidence can be selective by nature. Selectiveness of evidence is an “activity of presenting an explanation that uses evidence that has been specifically selected from a wider pool of evidence to make a candidate explanation look warranted when it otherwise might not be” (p. 125). There are several ways in which selectiveness of evidence can be presented, such as confusing facts and fiction, editing unrepresentative data taken out of a larger pool of data, presenting information in a way that is taken out of context for building a desired narrative, and more. Selective evidence, sometimes, plays a key role for conspiracy theories, even for official ones.

Similar to his discussion of the variety of issues that surround selective evidence, Dentith discusses several other kinds of extraordinary characteristics of evidence, among them contradictory evidence, manipulated evidence, and, surprisingly, evidence which is too good to be true (such as the claim that “Flight 77 crashed into the only section of the Pentagon which was reinforced to withstand such an impact”, p. 139). Evidence that is not mentioned by the rival explanation, and deals with the vagueness of the evidence (since the conspiratorial activity is secret) are also discussed, as well as counter-facts, cover-ups, falsifiability, and how conspiracy theorists resist counter-evidence. Each of these issues gets developed by (also) engaging with the views of other scholars, and as before, with a wide range of examples of conspiracy theories. The plethora of kinds of extraordinary evidence and the fabric of examples which covers them is where I found myself most fascinated. I am sure many readers will find this part especially intellectually stimulating.

What can (and should) be done after examining the evidence? Once we have recognized the relevant and valid pool of evidence, we need to focus on what could be disinformation, such as, in some cases, state-organized disinformation campaigns. The worry is that disinformation is not always the result of conspiracy, but is nevertheless being used by conspiracy theorists to further support what they want to prove. Here we, as laypeople, are left with few choices other than to resort to experts and authorities’ judgment for clearing the fog surrounding matters of distorted or fabricated information. Yet this, as Dentith points out, raises the question of trust in experts and authorities, once again.

The third part of the book (once again, according to my structuring of the chapters) is about inferences from evidence to theorized explanations, and how to choose the best explanation among several. The last three chapters take the overall analysis made so far, and offer a practical way to determine how we should respond to the theory: dismiss, support, or even be agnostic about it. It is common that an inference is made to a conspiracy theory, simply by not having encountered, or by ignoring, other potential explanations. Likewise, conspirators do not always cause the events the theory wants to explain. Even if we are convinced that a conspiracy exists, it still does not mean that the events we are seeking to explain are the result of the conspirators’ actions.

Showing that a conspiracy theory exists, and that it is backed with evidence is just not enough. One must show that the conspiratorial activity is the salient cause of the events the theory wishes to explain. Dentith’s approach demands that the explanation must demonstrate a tight connection between the existence of the conspiracy and the events in question. If the conspiracy theory is the most probable explanation among other, rival, theories, it is only then that it is the best among all possible explanations.

Before concluding, I raise three points, not necessarily negative, that accompany this positive review: First, Dentith argues against the general dismissal of beliefs in conspiracy theories, with a particularist approach that seeks to investigate every conspiracy theory in light of the events associated with it. However, the practical principles he offers, though presented clearly and profoundly, are not presented as a systematic approach. The gap between Dentith’s way of analyzing and between building a general model for the analysis of particular conspiracy theories is not that big. What would be desirable is for the series of analytical questions, tools, and methods to be embedded in some kind of process model, or even a flow chart if you will. This kind of model would communicate the book’s insights in a much more appealing package.

Second, though the book engages with a wide range of views and positions from various fields that deal with conspiracy theories (and though it is probably the most encompassing book on the subject of rationality and conspiracy theories), one highly influential voice is absent: that of Noam Chomsky. In brief, Chomsky advocates for a “propaganda model”, which avoids the label of conspiracy and argues that some events (mainly associated with the media) are significantly an outcome of economic and political market forces. Chomsky’s approach is institutionally-structured and impersonal. As such, I hope that, one day, perhaps a second edition of Dentith’s book will encompass Chomsky’s view as well.

Third, the analogy between conspiracy and non-conspiracy theories, on the one hand, and currently accepted and not-accepted scientific theories, on the other hand, is inevitable. Despite this, little is said about this parallel. Dentith is well aware of this alluring analogy, and he uses it several times, though too briefly. For example, he mentions tectonic plate theory and the thesis that Helicobacter pylori causes peptic ulcers as examples of theories which were warranted, but belittled, since “the theories went against the ‘received wisdom’ of the day” (p. 90). In addition, the most interesting analogy is perhaps the reference to unobservable causes in conspiracy theories and unobservable entities within scientific theories. In conspiracy theories, unobservable causes are the causes of the events by the conspirators that we cannot have evidence for (because of the secrecy condition, i.e. conspirators minimizing the awareness of what they are up to). In science, unobservable entities are found in many accepted scientific theories. They are, roughly, theoretical (yet, many claim, real) objects that we can have no direct experience of, such as bosons, neutrino, and black holes. Dentith does develop this point further (e.g., in relation to the burden of proof problem, pp. 151-154), yet many readers with a minimal scientific background will probably come up with thoughts about this analogy more often than is reflected in the book. Then again, the scope of this book is limited, and the topic of conspiracy theories, in its philosophical context, has much more in store.

Having said that, Dentith’s approach not only covers a significant and important social issue, but is also refreshing. Together with a unique style of choosing pertinent examples, he advocates for an unbiased approach towards conspiracy theories and suggests tools and methods for examining what a theory consists of and how to choose between competing theories. To sum up the bold arguments in The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories: it is true that some (or perhaps most) conspiracy theories are irrational. However, some conspiracies are rational, and therefore we must not dismiss a theory only because it is a conspiracy theory. Once we acknowledge that a belief in conspiracy theories can be rational, we can further investigate the existence of a conspiracy and the evidence the theory cites. If we succeed in making a tight connection between the conspirators and the events in question, we can consider the conspiracy theory in relation to other possible explanations. If the conspiracy theory is the best explanation, then not only do we have a prima facie rational conspiracy theory, but one that also warrants belief, since it is the most probable theory to explain the events. Written intelligibly and intelligently, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories is an important, thought-provoking and unique read.

Matthew R. X. Dentith,
The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
ISBN: 978-1137363152
190 pages, Hardcover, GBP60.00

Ori Freiman is a graduate student in the Programme in Science, Technology and Society (STS) at Bar-Ilan University, Israel.


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