Conspiracy Theories have become an object of considerable academic research lately. Yet they present a particular conundrum for scholars. At present, there is a significant rift within the field of studies relating to conspiracy theories. Much of the most prominent and highly funded work is being done by social scientists, especially social psychologists, who aim to diagnose the cognitive error and psychological predispositions involved in creating and believing conspiracist ideas. On the other hand, a smaller band of scholars based in philosophy – a discipline especially dedicated to epistemological questions – take a more dispassionate view of theories of conspiracy. Done right, these could represent an intellectually respectable and potentially enlightening activity in a world where conspiracies happen and where the public has an interest in understanding what is happening.
What both sides of that scholarly divide would agree is that knowledge needs to have a credible basis, and that dealing with disinformation requires some epistemic resilience and epistemic fluency. A need for resilience against falsehoods, fallacies, distractions, distortions and so on is well enough understood on all sides. The need for epistemic fluency, however, is perhaps less overtly acknowledged; and what it means – either in general or in relation to the problem of conspiracy theories – is perhaps less clearly worked out, on either side.
Indeed, perhaps the very fact of the scholarly rift is evidence that neither side has fully come to grips with the question of what epistemic fluency entails and how to foster it. The social psychologists emphasise how conspiracy theories can often involve rejecting the opinion of experts, and this is clearly problematic; but what also needs to be appreciated is that when it comes to understanding conspiracy, a variety of different kinds of knowledge claim have to be considered, and in combinations that do not fall within the established field of any specialist expertise. The study of each particular putative conspiracy is likely to require its own distinctive set of specialist knowledge skills to theorise. In short, whenever there could be a conspiracy to uncover, we cannot assume that there is any single expert with all the knowledge and skills needed to uncover it. Such an individual would have to be at least as sharp as Sherlock Holmes, and not a fictional character.
The need is for a set of robust cognitive skills that can accommodate flexible combinations of expertise, but without succumbing to the laxness that characterises the kinds of belief that are rightly criticised as conspiracist. This set of skills may not be possessed by any individual expert but may in principle be developed by a suitably organised group. Such a group would bring together independent researchers and academic scholars, along with professionals from various walks of life – and others who may be consulted on ad hoc bases – thus pooling intellectual resources to arrive at cogent theories of actual conspiracies that can be subjected to full rigorous epistemic testing.
At this point (in case you didn’t see it coming) I would commend the examples produced by my colleagues at the Working Group Syria, Propaganda and Media as Briefing Notes (WGSPM). Each of these engages in exactly the kind of inquiry that goes to the heart of contemporary controversies about fake news, conspiracy theories and epistemic crisis, with a motivation to get at the truth. The work of the group is sometimes objected to in principle because the researchers are not individual experts in this or that other particular specialism. What that objection overlooks is exactly the point being argued here, namely, that there are no specialist experts to look to as authorities with respect to the whole of a complex multi-disciplinary inquiry. The expertise of the group comes from combining different kinds of expertise in a spirit of cooperation, good faith and due intellectual humility. The value of this activity as a whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
WGSPM aims to combine expertise and insights from a range of different perspectives and specialisms to assess relative likelihoods of different possible scenarios in order to try and explain a troubling event – like the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, for instance, or the alleged chemical attack in Douma in April 2018. Its findings are always open to correction by anyone who examines them with appropriate care and good faith. When the group evaluates the evidence favouring competing hypotheses it is engaging in theoretical work relating to putative conspiracies. So critics who call the group conspiracy theorists have a point. It is just that the point is not quite the point some of them want people to think it is.
What the group is doing is demonstrating epistemic fluency in action. It is plainly a fact that an event like the Skripals poisoning involves a conspiracy, so anyone who advances any claim at all on the subject can be said to be engaging in conspiracy theory. WGSPM simply aims to evaluate the evidence favouring each possible explanation over the others, rather than simply accept whatever UK Government tells us. The group’s work stands to be rebutted by showing where it has evaluated evidence incorrectly or has ignored relevant evidence. Unfortunately, apparently being unable to do this, the Government prefers to let it be understood that our group is part of the problem. And it has no shortage of serviceable allies in the corporate press to get that message across. It has also been prepared to support some more covert arrangements, as was recently exposed in relation to the so-called Integrity Initiative.
Scholars emphasise a need to provide epistemic resilience against conspiracy theories. That is right, as far as it goes. Yet we also need to recognize which conspiracy theories people need protecting against and which, to the contrary, may serve to alert us to real threats we need defending against. And the only way, really, to know whether a conspiracy theory is wrong, or not, is to engage with it. Simply stigmatising anyone who does so as cognitively defective is not what any scholar – or journalist or public figure or any serious person – should be engaged in doing.