Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

Is a Unified Account of Conspiracy Theories Possible? [Special Issue]

Topics: Epistemology, Ethics, Theoretical philosophy
Keywords: Rationality Cognitive biases, Scientific pluralism., Theory


This paper proposes a critical assessment of the concept of “conspiracy theory” as a coherent object of investigation, and evaluates the prospects for an integration of various avenues of research—sociological, epistemological, psychological—that deal with it. Because of the threat posed by conspiracy theories to public health and political stability, academic efforts to understand the sociological and cognitive basis for the adoption of such views, as well as their epistemological flaws, are undoubtedly needed. But the preliminary question of the unity, and of the specificity of the class of things called “conspiracy theories”, is often overlooked. It is addressed in this paper.
Starting from a tentative classification of the various ideations labelled “conspiracy theories”, we then focus on a particularly important subclass thereof, namely those promoting anti-scientific views. From this, we draw a first, sceptical conclusion as to the existence of a clear-cut boundary between conspiracy thinking and healthy rational critique of science (both sociological and philosophical). This leads us to evaluate the attempt of analysing conspiracy theories’ epistemic flaws in the light of philosophical standards for scientific theories. Having shown that this route is a dead-end, we highlight what appears as a major divide among philosophical and psychological accounts of CTs, namely whether one should treat them as irrational, or as merely wrong (in the latter, rationalist approach, CTs would just be wrong statements resulting from rational operations). Focusing again on anti-science CTs, we finally argue in favour of a politically and socially contextualised approach to the growth and spread of conspiracy ideations, over a scheme considering CTs as abstract entities, independently from the socially situated agents who hold them.

With the rise of the Internet and the social media, and the subsequent information revolution, it seems that conspiracy theories have found a way to spread and develop more quickly and widely than ever before. Whether this observation is true or not is an important empirical question. But whatever the answer, talking of conspiracy theories, especially in a pejorative manner, has become extremely widespread in the general public, much beyond academia. Not only are some particular conspiracy theories put under critical scrutiny, but also it is common parlance, nowadays, to denunciate the pervasiveness of a ‘conspiracist’ worldview more generally, and to emphasise that such a thought tendency is at the root of many social diseases, such as religious radicalisation and terrorism, or many public health problems (like those caused by anti-vaccine movements). In many Western countries, there is a governmental effort, sometimes in collaboration with school teachers and social workers, to fight the development of conspiracy ideation among the youth.


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