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A theoretical reading of conspiracy theory

Embracing conspiracy theories may have psychological detriments and pathological implications

September 10, 2023


he term conspiracy theory has become commonplace in political discourse. However, it is often used incorrectly or with misplaced context and connotations.

The focus here is on the theoretical aspect of conspiracy theories with the benefit of historical perspectives. A conspiracy theory involves explaining events through the secretive actions of influential groups driven by political motives, even when more plausible explanations exist.

These theories resist verification and are fortified by circular reasoning, often associated with scepticism towards authority and disillusionment with politics. Embracing conspiracy theories may have psychological detriments and pathological implications, linked to diminished analytical thinking and cognitive capacity.

Conspiracy theories may be justified and unjustified; political or non-political; scientific or ideological. They can promote critical examination of authorities but also undermine transparency in a society. Moving from positive to potentially harmful impacts of conspiracy theories, it is important to consider their effect on our trust in institutions. Conspiracy theories have the power to erode our trust in political, scientific and media organisations. For example, an anti-vaccination conspiracy theory suggested that politicians and pharmaceutical companies were hiding vaccine problems. The narrative could make people lose trust in science.

Some experts, like Huneman and Vorms, are concerned with telling the difference between valid criticism of science and baseless doubt. The worry is that if we stop trusting institutions, we might end up in a situation where any claim repeated by many people is seen as true, even if it’s not. Additionally, research has shown a connection between conspiracy theories and increased division, populism and racism.

Philosopher Karl Popper disliked conspiracy theories because they can mislead us about the real causes of social events. Instead of looking at the larger social and economic factors, conspiracy theories blame secret groups, which can hinder efforts for positive change in a society. Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen argue that conspiracy theories can create a situation similar to Giorgio Agamben’s concept of a “state of exception.” Just like terrorism can lead to actions that go against democratic principles, conspiracy theories can harm rational conversations and lead to irrational actions. This means that conspiracy theories are often considered outside of official discussions, seen as irrational, and not taken seriously. In this view, conspiracy theories are like a form of “epistemic terrorism” because they erode trust in institutions that share knowledge and information.

Beyond the straightforward dichotomy of either accepting or rejecting conspiracy theories, there exists a spectrum of possible responses and behaviours to consider when dealing with such theories.

It is essential to broaden our perspective and acknowledge that the discourse surrounding these theories encompasses a wider array of responses and actions.

Much of the philosophical dialogue in this domain has primarily revolved around the actions that governments and political entities might or should take in response to conspiracy theories. This attention is warranted, as conspiracy theories can have significant implications for governance, policy-making and public trust. However, it is important to recognise that individuals, communities and institutions also play vital roles in responding to conspiracy theories. Their responses can vary widely, from active engagement with the theories to outright dismissal.

These responses and actions can have multifaceted consequences, influencing public perception, social cohesion and policy decisions. Thus, understanding and analysing the diverse ways in which people and institutions interact with conspiracy theories is a complex but essential aspect of addressing their impact on a society.

Sunstein and Vermeule’s significant study in 2009 explored government responses to conspiracy theories. They not only examined why people believe in these theories but also suggested various ways that governments could react to harmful conspiracy theories.

Their proposed actions included banning these theories, taxing them, using counter speech and infiltrating the groups that spread conspiracy theories. While they discarded the first two options, they focused on counter speech and cognitive infiltration.

Counter speech means the government provides a different story to challenge the conspiracy theories. However, this may not work well, especially when the conspiracy theories involve the government itself. Another approach is to engage private organisations in online discussions related to conspiracy theories, introducing diverse perspectives and disrupting one-sided conversations dominated by conspiratorial ideas.

Some people didn’t like the ideas put forward by Sunstein and Vermeule. David Coady, for instance, pointed out that they assumed that the governments always do good work, which might not be the case. Also, because these ideas came from scholars who worked in the government, these could actually make conspiracy theorists surer that the government was up to something secretive.

If the hidden infiltration idea they talked about ever got out, it might make conspiracy theorists even more convinced that they were right. So, the government trying to change people’s minds secretly might make people believe in conspiracies even more, which is not what the governments want.

Muirhead and Rosenblum in 2016 talked about three types of conspiracy theories that the government should oppose. These are theories that make people angry, say that disagreeing with the government is like being a traitor, or generally doubt experts. When these kinds of theories come up, politicians have to tell the truth, even if it makes some people not trust them any longer.

They also mentioned the “new conspiracism” in 2019. This is a kind of conspiracy thinking that’s still common even when there’s a lot of transparency. To deal with this, they say we should not only say no to conspiracy theories but also follow the rules and processes for making public decisions carefully. They call this “democratic enactment.”

Sunstein, Vermeule, Muirhead and Rosenblum all talk about how to deal with conspiracy theories. They say we shouldn’t treat all conspiracy theories the same way. Instead, they suggest that we should step in and do something when we see conspiracy theories that are really bad, like when they spread lies, cause harm or make people angry. They think it’s important to look at each situation and decide what to do based on that.

Conspiracy theories can erode trust in institutions and sometimes lead to more division and distrust. Philosophers and scholars have proposed different strategies for governments and individuals to address these theories, but these approaches also have their criticisms and potential drawbacks. It’s clear that conspiracy theories are a multifaceted issue that requires careful consideration and a nuanced response from both government and the society at large.

The writer is grateful to Mr Shahid Anwar, who convenes the academic interaction called Mukalma in Islamabad, for encouraging him to deliberate on this important theme