“Conspiracy Theories and Monological Belief Systems.” Argumenta (Journal of the Italian Society for Analytic Philosophy), special issue on the ethics and epistemology of conspiracy theories. (Forthcoming)
Abstract: Recent scholarship has claimed to show that conspiracy theorists are prone to simultaneously believe mutually contradictory conspiracy theories, as well as believe entirely made up conspiracy theories. The authors of those studies suggest that this supports the notion that conspiracy theories operate within “monological belief systems,” in which conspiracy theorists find support for conspiratorial beliefs in other conspiratorial beliefs, or in related generalizations, rather than in evidence directly relevant to the conspiracy in question. In this article, I argue that all of that is either wrong or at least misleading.
“Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style: Do Conspiracy Theories Posit Implausibly Vast and Evil Conspiracies?” Social Epistemology (2017)
Abstract: In the social science literature, conspiracy theories are commonly characterized as theories positing a vast network of evil and preternaturally effective conspirators, and they are often treated, either explicitly or implicitly, as dubious on this basis. This characterization is based on Richard Hofstadter’s famous account of “the paranoid style.” However, many significant conspiracy theories do not have any of the relevant qualities. Thus, the social science literature provides a distorted account of the general category “conspiracy theory,” conflating it with a subset of that category that encourages unfairly negative evaluations of conspiracy theories. Generally, when evaluating theories, one should focus on the most plausible versions; the merit of a theory is independent of the existence of less plausible versions of it. By ignoring this and glossing over important distinctions, many academics, especially in the social sciences, have misclassified many conspiracy theories and in doing so have contributed to an epistemically unfair depiction of them. Further, even theories that genuinely fit the description of “the paranoid style” cannot be completely dismissed on that basis. All conspiracy theories ought to be judged on the totality of their individual merits.
“What Are They Really Up To? Activist Social Scientists Backpedal on Conspiracy Theory Agenda.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6.3 (2017)
Excerpt: In a joint statement published in Le Monde, a group of social scientists called for more research on conspiracy theorists in order to more effectively “fight” the “disease” of conspiracy theorizing (see Basham and Dentith 2016, 17). In response, a number of scholars, including myself, signed an open letter criticizing this agenda. …
So, what were they up to? The very title of the Le Monde statement makes it clear, “Let’s fight conspiracy theories effectively.” They worry that the “wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease” (see Basham and Dentith 2016, 17). The “disease,” of course, is conspiracy theorizing, which they conflate with “conspiracism,” expressing their desire to help “fight against this particular form of contemporary misinformation known as ‘conspiracism’” (17). In putting it this way, they reveal their bias: the presupposition that conspiracy theories are a form of misinformation. … (Click to read the whole article)
“Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts.” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies 21.2 (Fall 2011)
Abstract: In an article published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, an Obama appointee, Cass Sunstein, and his Harvard Law School colleague, Adrian Vermeule, have argued that the government and its allies ought to undermine groups that espouse conspiracy theories deemed “demonstrably false.” They advocate using “cognitive infiltration” to “cure” conspiracy theorist, treating the “crippled epistemology” which accounts for the spread of false views. They base their proposal on an analysis of the “causes” of such conspiracy theories, which emphasizes informational and reputational cascades. Some regard Sunstein and Vermeule’s proposal as outrageous and anti-democratic. I agree. However, in this article I will merely argue that Sunstein and Vermeule’s argument is flawed in at least the following ways: (1) their account of the popularity of conspiracy theories is implausible, and (2) their proposal relies on the use of misleading “stylized facts.” For example, their proposal is based on caricatures of those who doubt official narratives and on a deceptive depiction of the relevant history. In the interest of peace and justice, all people ought to be allowed to freely assemble and pursue their inquiries without infiltration—even those who dare to question official narratives.
“Is Infiltration of ‘Extremist Groups’ Justified?” The International Journal of Applied Philosophy (Fall 2010)
Abstract: Many intellectuals scoff at what they call “conspiracy theories.” But two Harvard law professors, Cass Sunstein (now working for the Obama administration) and Adrian Vermeule, go further. They argue in the Journal of Political Philosophy that groups that espouse such theories ought to be infiltrated and undermined by government agents and allies. While some may find this proposal appalling (as indeed we all should), others may find the argument plausible, especially if they have been swayed by the notion that conspiracy theories (or a definable subset thereof), by their nature, somehow or another, do not warrant belief. I argue that Sunstein and Vermeule’s proposal not only conflicts with the values of an open society, but is also epistemically indefensible. In making my case, I adopt their favored example, counter-narratives about 9/11.
“Review of David Ray Griffin’s Cognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory.” Florida Philosophical Review XI.1 (Summer 2011)
Excerpt: … In Cognitive Infiltration [David Ray] Griffin takes on two Harvard law professors, Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule. In an article published in the Journal of Political Philosophy1 Sunstein and Vermeule propose that the government and its allies infiltrate groups that promote conspiracy theories deemed (somehow) to be “demonstrably false.” They take conspiracy theories about September 11 as their “running example.”…
Griffin’s strategy is surprising. He argues, or rather pretends to argue, that Sunstein’s article may have two levels of meaning: a surface level that will not offend the powerful, and an esoteric level for the truly astute reader, namely, “one who reads footnotes” and the sources cited therein. Even though this is really a joke intended to dramatize just how deeply and pervasively flawed Sunstein’s arguments are, it is nonetheless surprisingly convincing. At every turn, Griffin exposes the clear falsity of Sunstein’s claims (or sometimes faulty logic), often citing Sunstein’s own tacit, and sometimes explicit, admission of said falsity, or else pointing to a source cited by Sunstein himself from which the falsity of his claims can be surmised. The idea is that Sunstein’s arguments are so bad—they are based on premises so obviously false (especially when one reads the articles cited in his own footnotes)—that it actually begins to sound plausible to argue that Sunstein was intentionally signaling to astute readers that he could not possibly be serious. …
(Click hear to read whole review)