A couple of people recently sent me a link to this article by Quassim Cassam (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick) which recently appeared on the online magazine, Aeon. In it, Cassam asks “Why do some people believe conspiracy theories?”, and answers “It’s not just who or what they know. It’s a matter of intellectual character.”
It is not surprising that he personifies conspiracy thinking as the result of poor thinking – such an approach has been the mainstay of academic and popular studies since Festinger’s 1954 article, The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Fewer studies acknowledge that this is what the term was coined to do, according to CIA Document #1035-960 which sought to quell criticisms of the Warren Commission into JFK’s death. Using the term “conspiracy theory” uncritically is simply repeating the Othering claims of epistemic and political hegemonies. While many conspiracy theories are irrational, plenty are not – Watergate being a clear example, but remember when only conspiracy theorists claimed that the US had drones in Syria and were tapping every communication?
On the other hand, it is unusual to see the point stated so bluntly: to quote Cassam, “Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks.” If there is something wrong with how Oliver thinks, then there’s something wrong with how most of us think. Figures show that belief in supernatural and paranormal phenomena remains high, higher indeed than rates of identification with more conventional religious traditions. Indeed, it is telling that the other examples of “bad thinking” riddled with “unsubstantiated speculation” given by Cassam (“the Moon landings were faked, that Diana, Princess of Wales, was murdered by MI6, and that the Ebola virus is an escaped bioweapon”) do not include the claim that a creator god who, despite being benevolent and omnipotent, nevertheless created suffering and condemned an aspect of himself to incarnation and brutal death. This claim too is surely unsubstantiated (at least by the standards which Cassam would accept), but is held by up to 80% of the US population. Is this bad thinking too? Or is Cassam not prepared to criticise those bad thinkers?
I would argue that such assumptions are, in fact, typical of much academic work, and not only in Religious Studies. We tell people who think and act “correctly” (ie, people like “us”) what the defects are which causes people to think and act “wrongly” (ie, “them”, “the Other”). For example, (and to appropriate Russell McCutcheon’s recent post) no one is writing articles explaining why “our” soldiers go off to shoot at people in other countries. But if someone wants to go and fight for another group, they must have been brainwashed, or radicalized due to deprivation, right? In other words, there must be a reason why they don’t think and act like “us”.
“Oliver”, by the way, is the name of the conspiratorial thinker around whom Cassam bases his piece, and whose background and beliefs are elaborated as it progresses. The problem is that Oliver is completely fictional. We cannot adequately judge Cassam’s conclusions, as the only evidence presented has been invented for rhetorical purpose. Now, imagine this was an article about another marginal group, another Other: women, perhaps, or Jews. Meet Ruth. She’s a Jewish woman. Sex makes her anxious and she thinks The Hunger Games was overrated. It means nothing. I made her up. But when supposedly objective studies by serious scholars are based on invented evidence and uncritical assumptions, they can only perpetuate and reify cultural discourses which Other one group at the expense of another.
Cassem hits the nail on the head when he writes;
It is in the nature of many intellectual character traits that you don’t realise you have them, and so aren’t aware of the true extent to which your thinking is influenced by them. The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded. The only hope of overcoming self-ignorance in such cases is to accept that other people – your co-workers, your spouse, your friends – probably know your intellectual character better than you do. But even that won’t necessarily help. After all, it might be that refusing to listen to what other people say about you is one of your intellectual character traits. Some defects are incurable.