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Debunking conspiracy theories

Abstract

In this paper I interrogate the notion of `debunking conspiracy theories’, arguing that the term `debunk’ carries with it pejorative implications, given that the verb `to debunk’ is commonly understood as `to show the wrongness of a thing or concept’. As such, the notion of `debunking conspiracy theories’ builds in the notion that such theories are not just wrong but ought to be shown as being wrong. I argue that we should avoid the term `debunk’ (and other such loaded terms) and focus on investigating conspiracy theories. Looking at recent research work in epistemology on conspiracy theory, I argue that the best way to avoid talk of `debunking’ conspiracy theories is by (a) working with a non-pejorative definition of `conspiracy theory’, and (b) forming communities of inquiry which allow us to investigate the warrant of such theories without the prejudice associated with working with a pejorative definition.

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Notes

  1. See, for example, Butter and Knight’s ‘Bridging the Great Divide: Conspiracy Theory Research for the 21st Century’ (2016).

  2. See, for example, the work on conspiracy theory theory which is taking place in the journal of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.

  3. For a good overview of the literature, see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on ‘Conspiracy Theories’ (Pauly 2020) or the edited collection ‘Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously.’ (Dentith 2018c).

  4. See also Pigden’s discussion of the ‘cock-up theory of history’ (in press), and Basham and Räikkä’s discussion of ‘conspiracy theory phobia’ (2018) for more on the problems of coincidence theory (and its near relatives).

  5. Or conspiracies involving private, influential institutions which are taken to have a political or political-adjacent character; people are concerned about the lobbying activities, for example, of companies like Google or Facebook, because despite being private institutions, they also wield an awful lot of power when it comes to dealing with nation states and their representatives.

  6. See, for example, the work of Brotherton and French (2014), Douglas et al. (2016), and van Prooijen (2016).

  7. See, for example, Ward and Voas (2011), Wood and Douglas (2013), Franks et al. (2013), Franks et al. (2017), and Uscinski (2018a).

  8. For a survey of definitions see Dentith (2018b).

  9. See the aforementioned Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on ‘Conspiracy Theory’ (Pauly 2020).

  10. Both ‘generalism’ and ‘particularism’ are terms of art we owe to work of Buenting and Taylor (2010).

  11. See, for example, Basham (2011), Pigden (2018) and Hagen (2018).

  12. This is not to say that suspicion of something being wrong in the body politics is not sufficient to generate a theory about some conspiracy. Rather, it is to say that such suspicions do not necessarily commit people to conspiracy theories; someone can think that politicians are untrustworthy, for example, without thinking they are engaged in conspiracies (they could, for example, just be seen as venial and self-serving).

  13. For more on this, see Wood (2017), Dentith (2018a), and Lukicab et al. (2019).

  14. For more on this, see ‘The Problem of Conspiracism’ (Dentith 2018a).

  15. For more on the Romanian situation, see ‘Conspiracy Theory Theory, Epistemology, and Eastern Europe’ (Dentith in press).

  16. Arguable conspiracy theorising in the sense of being attentive to potential conspiracies is vital in any nation, in that conspiratorial activity is a suspicious activity we ought to keep in check.

  17. See, for example, ‘The Conspiratorial Mindset in an Age of Transition: Conspiracy Theories in France, Hungary and Slovakia’ (Gyárfášová et al. 2013).

  18. Measures of perceived corruption exist: Transparency International (TI) produce a Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which considers corruption as perceived by business members and the members of other large organizations who work in a given society (Transparency International 2018). There is also the ‘Digital News Report,’ which focusses on trust and misinformation when considering news consumption (Radu 2017). Eastern European polities tend to score on average as being relatively corrupt compared to their Western counterparts.

  19. For more examples of this, see the chapter on Slovakia in ‘Conspiracy Theories in Europe: A Compilation (Mesežnikov 2014)’.

  20. Much of this kind of analysis owes itself to Pigden’s seminal work, where he argues that as ‘History is littered with conspiracies successful and otherwise (1995, 3)’ the superstition that says we ought to dismiss conspiracy theories is untenable in the face of the evidence.

  21. See, for a discussion of the problems that come out of skewed definitions of what counts as the proper topic of a conspiracy theory, Hagen (2017).

  22. See my joint work with Keeley for more on this (2018).

  23. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded instance of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ refers to it as being a ‘recrudescence’ of an earlier conspiracy theory, suggesting that the pejorative way in which that theory was being discussed was all due to some previous investigation of the claim (2011).

  24. Indeed, in an ideal world, communities of inquiry will use counterfactual reasoning in their analyses anyway: not only would they assess the arguments on the available evidence, they should ask ‘What would need to be the case for this to be true?’ As such, a comprehensive analysis of some particular conspiracy theory will encompass alternative arguments as a given.

  25. For further discussion of this see Basham (2018) (particularly footnote 40), and Dentith (2018d).

  26. See, for example, ‘The Study of Conspiracy Theories (Uscinski 2018b)’.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to two anonymous reviewers for comments on this paper, particularly `Reviewer B’ who suggested the labels `pro-democracy argument’ and the `Debunker’s Fallacy.’

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Dentith, M.R.X. Debunking conspiracy theories. Synthese 198, 9897–9911 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-02694-0

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Keywords

  • Community of inquiry
  • Conspiracy
  • Conspiracy theory
  • Conspiracy theory theory
  • Epistemology