Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

I criticise Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s influential critique of conspiracy theories in “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”. I argue that their position depends on an equivocation over the meaning of the term ‘conspiracy theory’. This equivocation reflects a widespread assumption that conspiracy theories tend to be false, unjustified and harmful, and that, as a result, we can speak as if all conspiracy theories are objectionable in each of these three ways. I argue that this assumption is itself false, unjustified, and harmful. There are many true, justified, and/or beneficial conspiracy theories. This is because people often conspire, we often have good reason to believe that people are conspiring, and there is often a significant public benefit in exposing their conspiracies. I compare conspiracy theories to scientific theories, arguing that just as most of us regard bad scientific theories (i.e. false, unjustified and harmful ones) as an acceptable price to pay for good scientific theories, we should regard bad conspiracy theories as an acceptable price to pay for good conspiracy theories. I go on to argue that Sunstein and Vermeule’s proposed ‘cure’ for conspiracy theories is unlikely to work and is inconsistent with the values of liberal democracy.

In this paper I will criticise Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s work on conspiracy theories. There are several reasons I think such a critique is worthwhile. First, their original essay on the subject appeared in a highly prestigious philosophy journal, The Journal of Political Philosophy. Second, Sunstein is not merely another academic contributing his two cents worth to philosophical debate. He was until recently a senior government official of the most powerful country in the world. He was a close friend and advisor to a president of the United States and Head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where his responsibilities included overseeing policies relating to “information quality”. His philosophical mistakes have the potential to cause very serious harm. Not only is he in an unusually good position to propagate errors and confusions, he is, as we shall see, in a position to influence some really terrible public policy as a result of those errors and confusions. This will not be the first work of philosophy to critique Sunstein and Vermeule on this subject, but it will be the first to do so in the kind of depth which, given the above points, it seems to merit.


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