The Week in Conspiracy Theories – 3/8/2015

Quassim Cassam contributed a piece to the Independent, announcing a survey to find out why “some are more ‘receptive'” to conspiracy theories. Cassam hhas softened his position a good deal since his last piece; he here states clearly that “conspiracy theorists” aren’t mad or mentally ill, merely “more vulnerable to “intellectual vices” such as dogmatism, gullibility and close mindedness”, which therefore “makes them more likely to listen to extreme “alternative” sources of information”. Presumably, Cassam doesn’t count the Independent as “alternative” media.

Nevertheless, there is no definition of what a “conspiracy theory” might be – rather there is the implication that we all know already. Those who don’t think like “us” have something wrong with the way they think. It’s the only possibility, right? We couldn’t be wrong. They are “extreme”, “overly dismissive”, “gullible” and “irrational”, because they believe things that “go against common wisdom”. Whose common wisdom? Because Cassam’s knowledge, of which he is so certain, would be challenged in many places, perhaps most places in the world.

In my opinion, Cassam commits two intellectual sins. Firstly, like the scholars of the colonial period, he assumes that there is something wrong with those who think differently from him, and sees his task as a scholar to correct them. Secondly, at the same time, he fails to follow up the implications of his argument, and challenge powerful groups who use the same styles of thought as the marginal groups he studies: Christians, Muslims, Jews and any large religious group – not to mention Republicans and Democrats. Isn’t that Cassam being “overly dissmissive” of evidence that goes against his own beliefs?

Meanwhile, over at the right-wing, populist Telegraph, Alex Proud opines that “conspiracy theorists may have had it right all along”. Surprisingly, he only makes passing mention of the EU, and his conclusion is rather odd for the Telegraph: “we need more regulation”:

This nice, cozy state of affairs lasted until the early 2000s. But then something changed. These days conspiracy theories don’t look so crazy and conspiracy theorists don’t look like crackpots. In fact, today’s conspiracy theory is tomorrow’s news headlines… Of course, our real-life conspiracies aren’t much like The X-Files – they’re disappointingly short on aliens and the supernatural. Rather, they’re more like John Le Carre books. Shady dealings by powerful people who want nothing more than to line their profits at the expense of others. The abuse of power. Crazy ideologues who try and create their own facts for fun and profit. Corporations supplanting governments via regulatory capture.

One for the “David Icke: Was he Right?” file: The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announce an investigation into claims that Wiltshire Police shelved a child abuse investigation to cover up links to Edward Heath. While Icke has often claimed to have named Jimmy Savile as a paedophile prior to his death, he did not do so publicly. Heath, on the other hand, he did, and Icke is not going to miss the opportunity to point  this out:

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Another Other: Do Conspiracy Theories = Bad Thinking?

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”.

X, X Everywhere  - Folk categories Folk categories everywhere

“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.