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What is the problem with conspiracy theories?

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories, Public events on 30 August 2013 by

What is the problem with conspiracy theories?

One of the panels at the conference I’m currently attending was devoted to the psychology of conspiracy theorizing. It looks extremely interesting (more later), but in this post I just want to pay attention to the question why, exactly, conspiracy theorizing is a problem.

So why are conspiracy theories problematic? And why in particular are they problems for democratic government? How, when, and for whom have conspiracy theories become a problem?

1. Distraction

Conspiracy theories can prevent governments from getting on with the business of governing. How? Because they can lead to investigations, accusations, and trials that take up the attention and resources of governments. At the extreme, the danger here is that conspiracy theories represent the degradation of oversight into groundless suspicion and the utter incapability of people to believe that governmental actors might be honest and sincere. For example, Parent et al. mention the way in which “birther” conspiracy theories took up time at press conferences, absorbed the energy of spokespeople, and eventually led Obama to display his birth certificate at a press conference. They also refer to the constant harassment of the Clinton administration. Of course, Hilary Clinton once famously that suggested that by disabling and distracting the administration with frivolous accusations, their critics fulfilled their real aim. It was part of a “vast right wing conspiracy”.

2. Non-cooperation
Conspiracy theories can undermine public policies by motivating non-cooperation among target populations. For example, the conspiracy theory that polio vaccine was really a way for the American government or corporations to test drugs on Africans contributed to widespread refusal to cooperate with the programme, leading to the spread of preventable disease in those populations. Similar examples could be given for MMR conspiracy theories in the UK, and the belief in South Africa that HIV does not cause AIDS and therefore that antiretrovirals are a waste of money. The danger to democratic government is that such misinformation has the effect of undermining public policy by motivating non-compliance with democratically authorized policies.

3. Distorted deliberation
Conspiracy theories undermine democratic deliberation by undermining the conditions of rational persuasion. They are often taken to indicate that citizens are misinformed, that is, not only ignorant but firmly convinced of something that is false (though, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m skeptical of how far we should take endorsement of a conspiracy theory as a firm belief, rather than, as John says, a hypothesis we are willing to entertain). Conspiracies are also taken to indicate bad reasoning. And, perhaps most dangerous to ideals of democratic deliberation, conspiratorial thinking involves a vicious circle of mistrust: Any attempt at persuasion is undermined by lack of faith in the basic sincerity and motives of the one doing the persuading. David brought to my attention an example from a Jon Ronson radio documentary in which a 7/7 conspiracist refuses to accept the testimony of one of the survivors. Conspiratorial thinking indicates an absence of the minimal trustworthiness needed for the exchange of arguments.

4. Justifying violence
One of the most commonly invoked dangers is that conspiracy theories contribute to political violence. For example, suspicion of the offical account of 9/11 is widespread in the middle east and is thought to play a role in justifications of violent extremism. Sunstein and Vermeule make this connection. Bartlett and Miller also frame the central problem of conspiracy theories in connection to political violence. They claim that conspiracy theory is a “radicalising multiplier” (Bartlett and Miller 2010: 4), which both binds extremist groups together and pushes them in “an extreme and sometimes more violent direction” (Bartlett and Miller 2010: 5).

5. Delegitimizing Dissent
Where an agenda is advanced and defended by invoking the image of a hidden hand working against the interests of the group. For example, the Turkish government’s dismissal of public protests as being organized by foreign agents has the effect of distorting public deliberation by discounting an entire group and refusing to engage with them. If they are mouthpieces for foreign powers, then why talk to them? Similarly, the idea that climate change deniers are conspiracy theorists might justify disengagement. Why argue with someone who so fundamentally mistrusts you? This also points to an important strategic use of the label of conspiracy theory. Andrew mentioned a US government document that shows the intention of American authorities to delegitimize critics of the official account of the Kennedy assassination by calling them conspiracists (hope I’ve remembered that correctly, Andrew.)

I’m sure there are more, but this is all that occurs to me right now. And, I should note, I don’t take a stance here on the substantive merits of any of these claims.