[See also Conspiracy Theory page]
It is well understood that effective citizenship depends on freedom of thought and expression. But how free can our thinking be in reality? Can we really express ourselves as freely as we would wish?
The effective exercise of these freedoms depends on access to reliable information about the world, combined with the possibility of discussing it objectively and dispassionately.
Where today can we get reliable information as citizens? Can mainstream news media be relied upon?. What about the alternative news sources? How can we evaluate their accuracy and integrity?
And when it comes to discussing what we think or puzzle about, how can we do that? In social media we are liable to find ourselves either in echo chambers – where everyone already agrees with us – or else in the midst of trolls who are most disagreeable to us. People who test out controversial views in sight or hearing of trolls are liable to be hounded, drowned out and smeared. They are liable therefore to retreat to small circles of like-minded folk, but then not to get to test out their ideas rigorously at all.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that we see a flourishing of conspiracy theories. Yet, where once these were summarily dismissed by ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ people, we are now in a situation where reasons to take seriously the activity of conspiracy theory are becoming quite pressing. That is why it is now a topic for both my teaching and research, as well as something I have spoken about in public debate.