For an interesting peek behind the curtain, revealing the various academic “tribes” who study conspiracy theories and/or conspiracy theorists, see “What I Saw at the Conspiracy Theory Conference,” by Jesse Walker.
Below, I focus on prominent members of my own tribe.
The philosophers and other scholars in this tribe prove what should have been obvious (but apparently wasn’t): A particular conspiracy theory should not be dismissed simply because it is a conspiracy theory. Rather, each theory ought to be judged on its own particular merits.
David Coady has done some of the best work in this area. His book What to Believe Now, which has a chapter on conspiracy theories, as well as other related material, is clear and compelling.
What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues
Blurb: What can we know and what should we believe about today’s world? What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues applies the concerns and techniques of epistemology to a wide variety of contemporary issues. Questions about what we can know-and what we should believe-are first addressed through an explicit consideration of the practicalities of working these issues out at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Coady calls for an ‘applied turn’ in epistemology, a process he likens to the applied turn that transformed the study of ethics in the early 1970s. Subjects dealt with include:
Experts-how can we recognize them? And when should we trust them? Rumors-should they ever be believed? And can they, in fact, be a source of knowledge? Conspiracy theories-when, if ever, should they be believed, and can they be known to be true? The blogosphere-how does it compare with traditional media as a source of knowledge and justified belief?
Timely, thought provoking, and controversial, What to Believe Now offers a wealth of insights into a branch of philosophy of growing importance-and increasing relevance-in the twenty-first century.
Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate
Coady also edited a book Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate. It includes articles from Charles Pigden, Lee Basham, Brian Keeley, and Steve Clarke, as well as himself, and an influential excerpt from Karl Popper. Coady’s and Pigden’s contributions, in particular, are outstanding. (Unfortunately, the price is prohibitive.)
Blurb: Conspiracy theories have a bad reputation. In the past, most philosophers have ignored the topic, vaguely supposing that conspiracy theories are obviously irrational and that they can be easily dismissed. The current philosophical interest in the subject results from a realisation that this is not so. Some philosophers have taken up the challenge of identifying and explaining the flaws of conspiracy theories. Other philosophers have argued that conspiracy theories do not deserve their bad reputation, and that conspiracy theorists do not deserve their reputation for irrationality. This book represents both sides of this important debate. Aimed at a broad philosophical community, including epistemologists, political philosophers, and philosophers of history. It represents a significant contribution to the growing interdisciplinary debate about conspiracy theories.
Matthew Dentith popularized the phrase “conspiracy theory theorist” by repeatedly declaring himself to be one. His works theorizing about conspiracy theories include the following:
The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories
Blurb: Conspiracy theories are a popular topic of conversation in everyday life but are often frowned upon in academic discussions. Looking at the recent spate of philosophical interest in conspiracy theories, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories looks at whether the assumption that belief in conspiracy theories is typically irrational is well founded.
This book also contains a short but excellent forward by Charles Pigden.
“When Inferring to a Conspiracy might be the Best Explanation,” Social Epistemology 30 (2016)
Abstract: Conspiracy theories are typically thought to be examples of irrational beliefs, and thus unlikely to be warranted. However, recent work in Philosophy has challenged the claim that belief in conspiracy theories is irrational, showing that in a range of cases, belief in conspiracy theories is warranted. However, it is still often said that conspiracy theories are unlikely relative to non-conspiratorial explanations which account for the same phenomena. However, such arguments turn out to rest upon how we define what gets counted both as a ‘conspiracy’ and a ‘conspiracy theory’, and such arguments rest upon shaky assumptions. It turns out that it is not clear that conspiracy theories are prima facie unlikely, and so the claim that such theories do not typically appear in our accounts of the best explanations for particular kinds of events needs to be reevaluated.
Dentith maintains a website and hosts a podcast, the Philosopher’s Guide to the Conspiracy. Find out more about his positions here.
Pigden’s 1995 refutation of Popper’s influential arguments, “Popper Revisited, or What is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?”—reprinted in Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, contributed substantially to the legitimization of serious sympathetic treatment of conspiracy theories in the academy.
Abstract: Conspiracy theories are widely deemed to be superstitious. Yet history appears to be littered with conspiracies successful and otherwise. (For this reason, “cock-up” theories cannot in general replace conspiracy theories, since in many cases the cock-ups are simply failed conspiracies.) Why then is it silly to suppose that historical events are sometimes due to conspiracy? The only argument available to this author is drawn from the work of the late Sir Karl Popper, who criticizes what he calls “the conspiracy theory of society” in The Open Society and elsewhere. His critique of the conspiracy theory is indeed sound, but it is a theory no sane person maintains. Moreover, its falsehood is compatible with the prevalence of conspiracies. Nor do his arguments create any presumption against conspiracy theories of this or that. Thus the belief that it is superstitious to posit conspiracies is itself a superstition. The article concludes with some speculations as to why this superstition is so widely believed.
Pigden’s other important papers on conspiracy theories include:
“Completes of Mischief,” in Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate.
Abstract: In Part 1, I contend (using Coriolanus as my mouthpiece) that Keeley and Clarke have failed to show that there is anything intellectually suspect about conspiracy theories per se. In Part 2. I argue (in propria persona) that the idea that there is something suspect about conspiracy theories is one of the most dangerous and idiotic superstitions to disgrace our political culture.
“Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom” in a special issue of Episteme (June 2007) dedicated to conspiracy theories, which was guest edited by David Coady.
Abstract: Conspiracy theories should be neither believed nor investigated – that is the conventional wisdom. I argue that it is sometimes permissible both to investigate and to believe. Hence this is a dispute in the ethics of belief. I defend epistemic “oughts” that apply in the first instance to belief-forming strategies that are partly under our control. But the belief-forming strategy of not believing conspiracy theories would be a political disaster and the epistemic equivalent of self-mutilation. I discuss several variations of this strategy, interpreting “conspiracy theory” in different ways but conclude that on all these readings, the conventional wisdom is deeply unwise.
See Pigden’s ResearchGate page to download unofficial versions of his writings.
Pigden has also given a talk at Cambridge University titled: “If You Are Not a Conspiracy Theorist Then You Are an Idiot.” See here for a short description.
Basham’s work includes, “Living with the Conspiracy” and “Malevolent Global Conspiracy,” both of which are included in Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate.
Basham’s particularist position does not come across clearly in these early writings. He is much more explicit now, as can be seen in his response to a group of social scientists who aim to help the French government “scientifically” undermine conspiracy theories (co-authored by Matthew Dentith and endorsed by Yours Truly and others). See “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic.” See also Basham’s further remarks in “Pathologizing Open Societies.“
In the very interesting lecture below, Basham discusses the relationship between conspiracy theories and what he calls “toxic truths.”
Professor Emeritus of Public Administration, deHaven-Smith has contributed significantly to the academic theorizing about conspiracy theory. He coined the phrase “State Crimes Against Democracy (SCADs)” as a way to discuss very real crimes that tend to be dismissed under the rubric of “conspiracy theories.”
Conspiracy Theory in America
In Conspiracy Theory in America, de-Haven Smith discusses the origin of the pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theory.” He also usefully categorizes SCADs into types that help us see significant relationships between individual cases, and he points out that both proven and plausible SCADs tend to serve the interests of the military-industrial complex.
Blurb: Asking tough questions and connecting the dots across decades of suspicious events, from the Kennedy assassinations to 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, this book raises crucial questions about the consequences of Americans’ unwillingness to suspect high government officials of criminal wrongdoing.
Joel Buenting and Jason Taylor
In a 2010 article titled “Conspiracy Theories and Fortuitous Data” (Philosophy of the Social Sciences 40.4), Buenting and Taylor first articulate the distinction between the “generalist view” and the “particularist view” as follows:
According to the generalist view, the rationality of conspiracy theories can be assessed without considering particular conspiracy theories. On this view, conspiratorial thinking qua conspiracy thinking is itself irrational. The particularist view about conspiratorial thinking denies that the rationality of conspiracy theories can be assessed without considering particular conspiracy theories.(p. 568-569)
Wisely, Buenting and Taylor take the particularist side.
That would be me. See: My Work on Conspiracy Theories.