Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

The study of conspiracy theories has undergone a drastic transformation in the last decade. While early scholarly treatments relied on historical cases and cultural analyses, more recent works focus on the individuals who subscribe either to specific conspiracy beliefs or to more generalized conspiratorial thinking. This shift in focus presents scholars with an opportunity to learn more about how and why conspiracy theories gain followers. But also, this new focus presents dangers which have yet to be fully considered by the psychologists, social-psychologists, and political scientists spearheading the research. In this essay, I highlight the potential benefits and pitfalls of the current scholarly agenda.

The study of conspiracy theories and the people who believe them largely began with Richard Hofstadter’s look into the “paranoid style” in the 1950s and 1960s (Hofstadter 1964). In the decades that followed, the study of conspiracy theories remained largely a domain of historians (Davis 1972, Gribbin 1974, Hogue 1976, Wood 1982). The 1990s saw a shift towards cultural critiques (Knight 1997, 1999, Melley 2000, Markley 1997), and the turn towards the new century ushered in a flurry of work from philosophers and epistemologists (Basham 2003, Clarke 2002, Coady 2003, Dentith 2014, Heins 2007, Keeley 1999, 2003, Pigden 1995, Raikka 2009). During this time, a few social scientists studied conspiracy theories (McHoskey 1995, McClosky and Chong 1985, Goertzel 1994, McCauley and Jacques 1979), but these studies tended to be one-off treatments unconnected to a broader research trajectory. Both the historians and cultural scholars treated conspiracy theories in a qualitative way, looking at historical episodes and broad trends. Scholars made little effort to better understand—at the induvial level—what factors drove people to believe in conspiracy theories, or conversely, what factors could “cure” people of their unwarranted conspiracy beliefs. This abruptly changed in 2008.


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