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On the vices and virtues of conspiracy theories

This entry was posted in 9/11, Current conspiracy theories on 15 July 2013 by

A special issue on “the psychology of conspiracy theories” has just appeared in the journal Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences.

One of the papers, by Michael Wood and Karen Douglas of the University of Kent (I put the pdf in our dropbox), looks at the styles of persuasion adopted on internet discussion boards by 9/11 conspiracy theorists and those who defend the conventional account. They find that “conspiracist commenters were more likely to argue against the opposing interpretation and less likely to argue in favour of their own interpretation.” Conspiracy theorists are also more likely to positively reference other unrelated conspiracy theories – this fits with earlier research by the same authors, referred to recently by Hugo in a blog post. Most interesting to me, however, is their conclusion that conspiracy theorists are defined less by their belief in a particular conspiracy theory than by their suspicion and “generalised rejection” of an official or conventional account.

It puts me in mind of recent work on argumentation theory, put forward by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, among others. Argumentation theory treats reasoning as necessarily social and dialogical in character. The point of reasoning is not for the individual mind to independently cogitate its way to true beliefs. Rather, the point of reasoning is to find and evaluate arguments that support what the reasoner already believes, and to scrutinize reasons that support opposing positions. Readers will recognise within this a version of the “confirmation bias” – the tendency of people to seek arguments in support of things they already believe and to discount or reject argument that undermines their existing beliefs. This is usually treated as a pathology of individual reasoning. However, on the argumentative theory, as Helene Landemore argues in Democratic Reason, a recent book on collective wisdom and democratic theory, the individual vice of the confirmation bias can become a collective virtue. When diverse groups of people seek reasons to support their own cherished positions, and scrutinise the reasons that would undermine them, they are effectively performing a kind of “cognitive division of labour” (Landemore 2012: 142). The positive collective effect of such distributed argumentation is pretty much what JS Mill put forward in On Liberty: the individual vice of one-eyed commitment to a particular argument has the positive effects of motivating scrutiny of other positions and exposing people to many different arguments by generating a clash of opinions.

What does this mean for studying conspiracy theories, and in particular for looking at conspiracy theories in their relation to democratic norms and practices?

Well, the idea that the confirmation bias is not only an individual cognitive vice but also a potential collective virtue puts much of the current psychological research on conspiracy theories in a new light. It is often observed that, among many other things, conspiracy theorists routinely fall prey to the confirmation bias. This in turn is taken to be a problem in itself, because it leads them to hold false beliefs, and a problem for everyone else, since false beliefs have various destructive effects. But the old Millian idea of looking at the collective effects of the process of generating a clash of arguments suggests that there may be a collective benefit to having groups of people who, partly due to their attachment to unconventional and socially disapproved theories, are motivated to closely scrutinize official narratives in a way that most of us are not. Of course, these effects won’t work if everybody is a one-eyed partisan. As Mill emphasised, the positive effects of a clash of opinion fall on the impartial spectator. And clearly a great deal depends on the quality of the deliberative environment, about which we have many reasons to worry. But it might be worth at least considering whether conspiracy theories contribute to valuable argumentative diversity, and think about when these effects may be outweighed or undermined by other effects.

To take up Andrew’s zoological metaphor for conspiracy theories, some of these strange creatures may in fact be making some valuable and surprising contributions to the discursive ecology of advanced democracies.