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Conspiracy Theories are propaganda for deep beliefs
Reasonable People #44: Quassim Cassam's account of Conspiracy Theories, and what it means for how to respond to them.
Conspiracy Theories are a form of propaganda, and should be understood as political objects - discussion of the individuals who believe them, and their intellectual character, is a side issue. This is the argument of Quassim Cassam in his book Conspiracy Theories (2019):
The case is worth making explicitly because it marks a change in Cassam’s previous account of Conspiracy Theories, and contradicts a lot of work in philosophy and psychology on Conspiracy Theories (including things I’ve covered in this newsletter, see RP#29, RP#42).
Previously Cassam has written about the epistemic vices which lead people into Conspiracy Theorising - the habits of mind which push some people into believing Conspiracy Theorising, or fail to save them. “The study of the nature and effect of epistemic vices couldn’t be more pressing”, Cassam wrote in 2018.
There are at least two major problems with the attempt to identify the epistemic vices and/or personality type of Conspiracy Theorists.
First off, it isn’t clear how to define these vices. Are Conspiracy Theorists too closed minded, because they reject mainstream accounts? Or are they too open minded, because they believe Conspiracy accounts? There’s a great documentary about Flat Earthers called “Behind The Curve” and a lot of the drama there stems from the efforts of the Conspiracy Theorists to collect evidence, and demonstrate by reason, the Flat Earth Theory. They might be wrong, but the process they are engaged in looks very right, and it is hard to put a finger on exactly what is wrong apart from pointing at the content of their beliefs and saying “they are untrue”. Believing untrue things is no good as a definition of Conspiracy Thinking - not only does it beg the question, but it over-inclusive, since all of us believe some untrue things.
Second, and related to the difficulty of definition, attempts to create scales of Conspiracy Belief or Conspiracy Mentality show that there is a spectrum which captures all of us - there is no clear division between those who do and don’t endorse Conspiracy Theories. And, indeed, some studies show that half of people endorse at least one Conspiracy Theory (Oliver & Wood, 2014).
Against these challenges Cassam sets out his new account. He says that defining the intellectual character of Conspiracy Theorists is a distraction, the focus should be on the Conspiracy Theories themselves, and he offers an overall characterisation (Conspiracy Theories as propaganda) and a new list of defining features.
That Conspiracy Theories are propaganda isn’t so much argued as asserted by Cassam. In this account, the political nature of most conspiracy theories is central. If someone believes that the Holocaust was faked, the focus, says Cassam, should not be on the reasoning flaws that led someone to that belief, but to the abhorrent moral position of that account. Conspiracy Theories have the form they do because of politics, and express political messages - either explicitly expressing a position (like “the government is evil”) or implicitly, legitimising a position or perspective on the world (like “things aren’t what they seem”). Under this account it isn’t incidental that most Conspiracy Theories are right-wing and/or anti-government, and that anti-Semitism runs through the majority of past and present Conspiracy Theories as a constant motif.
The way to understand what they are is to understand what they are for, to grasp their basic function. Their basic function is to advance a political or ideological objective, be is opposition to gun control, anti-Semitism, hostility to the federal government or whatever. Conspiracy Theories advance a political objective in a special way: by advancing seductive explanations of major events that, objectively speaking, are unlikely to be true but are likely to influence public opinion in the preferred direction.
(Cassam, 2019, p11)
Defining Conspiracy Theories
Cassam also advances some features of Conspiracy Theories, using capitalisation to distinguish them from mere theories about conspiracies. Pre-2019 Cassam is ambivalent about how plausible Conspiracy Theories are (“conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily false or unjustified”, Cassam, 2018). But in this book Cassam says Conspiracy Theories (capitals) are false, or likely false, by definition. Here are the defining features he identifies (quotes are from Cassam, 2019, chapter 1):
speculative : Conspiracy Theories are conjectural (“the only way to uncover a conspiracy is by focussing on odd clues or anomalies that give the game away...it’s all about connecting the dots”).
contrarian : contrary to the official account, and contrary to appearances, the obvious explanation of events. Conspiracy Theories assume a “fundamental mismatch between how things look and how they are”.
esoteric : Conspiracy Theories, by virtue of ruling out the obvious, are often bizarre.
amateur : Conspiracy Theories privilege amateur investigators, and denigrate professionals credentials. Nevermind the expert consensus that a single shooter could have killed Kennedy, or plane-impact could have collapsed the twin towers, listen to what someone without prior experience of ballistics or engineering thinks about these things!
premodern: In Conspiracy Theories things happen for a reason, and particularly because of the deliberate intention of individuals or a small group of them (the conspiracy). Conspiracy Theories reject the idea that sometimes “shit happens”, or that there are forces at play at the suprahuman level (the logic of institutions, bureaucracies, cultures etc).
self-sealing: Conspiracy Theorists, by definition, reject obvious, established explanations, so it is hard to refute their beliefs (not least because they also reject the obvious, established experts).
I like this list a lot – it goes further than anything else I’ve seen to putting a finger on what it is that makes a Conspiracy Theory a Conspiracy Theory rather than just a theory about a conspiracy.
In Cassam’s revised account, Conspiracy Theories are reflections of ideological commitments, not personalities. Contra pre-2019 Cassam, the focus is on the effects of Conspiracy Theories at the individual level - epistemic harms – rather than the causes of Conspiracy Theories at the individual level – the possible epistemic vices.
Open arguments are now everywhere.
Recently, Mike Caulfield has been writing about the applying a model of argumentation to our current information environment (a good introduction is here). Part of the story he’s developing, which is relevant here, is the idea of ‘open arguments’, contentions which hover in the background of arguments which appear on the surface to be about something else. I’ll quote at length from his 21 June 2023 post ‘The open argument must be fed: The peculiar case of Fox News and the pleasant smoke’:
[T]here is nothing more human than making a claim and then attempting to convince people of its reasonableness.
But that isn’t the only type of argument we have. A lot of times an argument is not time-bound. Let’s take the example of Steve, and assuming that your plan is to lend Steve money in six months. And you and I disagree on the prudence of that. And let’s say we intensely disagree.
What happens over the next six months? Every action Steve makes or new piece of information about Steve is interpreted in light of whether it presents more evidence for one side or another. Steve mentions they are laying off people at work. “Hmmm,” I say, with a knowing look towards you. The value of Steve’s paid-off house skyrockets in a sellers’ market. “Fascinating!” you say, looking at me.
It makes for weird conversations. “My house just increased in value by $50k” says Steve to us, casually, over drinks, simply happy to share some good news. “Yeah,” I immediately reply, “but with the current interest rates I’m betting it’d be hard to get money out of it in a re-fi.” You jump in pointing out that Steve owns the house outright, and does not need refinancing. Steve looks at us both a bit confused wondering what he has walked into.
In these cases there is a bizarre conversation happening on the surface, which is explained by an open-ended argument that is playing out just beneath the surface.
Caulfield makes the connection to Conspiracy Theory explicitly and his account complements Cassam’s: Conspiracy Theories are propaganda for ideologies, and the way they work is to express deep beliefs (“elites are evil”) or cast doubt on positions seen as opposed (e.g. that climate change is real, in the case of Conspiracy Theories about wildfires).
Cassam says that Conspiracy Theories are at heart political propaganda. At first, I wasn’t convinced by his argument. Many, maybe most, Conspiracy Theories have a political message, but not all, so why should that be defining? What, I thought, about Conspiracies Theories about the faked-death of Elvis, or about vaccinations, or other positions such as Creationism, which don’t get called a Conspiracy Theory, but seem to me like they have many of the same features, but appear scientific rather than political?
One reconciliation to this objection is provided by Caulfield’s idea of Open Arguments, and particularly his claim that open arguments are now everywhere
most social and political issues are open issues. As events happen or new information comes to light, people look at this novel data and ask themselves if it relates to any of the open questions on their mind: Did the MeToo movement have lasting effect? Was the 2020 election stolen? Is climate change a pressing threat?
So even ostensibly non-political Conspiracy Theories can support ideological positions indirectly. The idea that the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t happen and the parents are “crisis actors” gives succour to the idea that stricter gun control isn’t necessary. That the moon landings were fake supports the idea that Government Can’t Be Trusted.
Another angle on the existence of ostensibly non-political Conspiracy Theories - such as vaccine conspiracies or Creationism - is to read Cassam’s argument as Conspiracy Theories being propaganda for ideologies, deep beliefs which may not be immediately Political. So, vaccine conspiracy theories shore up a constellation of ideological positions, including Natural is Good, Technology is Bad, as well as Government Bad (since vaccine programmes are usually state sponsored). Creationism may be the non-Political exceptions which proves the rule: obviously Creationism exists as propaganda against evolution by natural selection and atheism, and in favour of biblical theism.
Even the Conspiracy Theory about Elvis can be read in this way, as propaganda for the deep belief that Things Happen For A Reason. Elvis was world-famous, successful, a epoch defining talent. Surely, the Conspiracy Theory suggests, he can’t have just died, without warning, at the age of only 42…on a toilet?!
Conspiracy Theories, as Cassam says, reject the idea that sometimes Shit Just Happens.
His account also directs us to consider forms of counter speech for Conspiracy Theories. Since Conspiracy Theories are propaganda, not fact claims, they should be addressed, he says, as ideological objects. Thus one under-attended counter-speech strategy is making explicit the political implications latent in Conspiracy Theories, to name and therefore directly address the positions they seek to undermine or succour. Last word to Quassim Cassam himself (Cassam, 2019, p106-108):
Here are the questions one should insist on coming back to. What is it that people who promote Conspiracy Theories are trying to achieve, and what do they have to gain, politically or in other ways, from their theories being taken up? What is their ideological agenda? Cui bono?
Where Conspiracy Theories are part and parcel of a broader political ideology, the only way to respond to them is to criticise their ideology. Conspiracy Theories do not exist in isolation. They are part of a larger theory about how the world works and can’t be effectively undermined without tackling this larger theory.
Mike Caulfield (12 July 2023). Rethinking Information Disorder via Argumentation Theory Lens
Cassam, Q. (2018). Epistemic Vices and Conspiracy Theories. https://blog.apaonline.org/2018/02/28/epistemic-vices-and-conspiracy-theories/
Cassam, Q. (2019). Conspiracy Theories. Polity.
Oliver, J. E., & Wood, T. J. (2014). Conspiracy theories and the paranoid style (s) of mass opinion. American journal of political science, 58(4), 952-966.
Reasonable People #29 Conspiracy thinking - I look at how scales measuring conspiracy thinking are constructed
Reasonable People #42 What conspiracy theorists get right - I argue that features of Conspiracy style thinking can be virtues, in the right circumstances
Kevin Dorst explains the apparent irrationality of a classic cognitive bias, and provides this convenient tl;dr at the start of his post
The endowment effect is the finding that merely owning an item seems to make people value it more. It’s a problem for standard economic models, and helped spur the rise of behavioral economics. But a simple generalization of those standard models—one that philosophers have long defended—can explain the empirical data.
Short, clear paper from Tomer Ullman which argues a) that LLM (GPT 3.5) performance on ToM tasks is very fragile and b) even if it wasn't, simulating ToM behaviours is not the same as having ToM processes
Intuitive psychology is a pillar of common-sense reasoning. The replication of this reasoning in machine intelligence is an important stepping-stone on the way to human-like artificial intelligence. Several recent tasks and benchmarks for examining this reasoning in Large-Large Models have focused in particular on belief attribution in Theory-of-Mind tasks. These tasks have shown both successes and failures. We consider in particular a recent purported success case, and show that small variations that maintain the principles of ToM turn the results on their head. We argue that in general, the zero-hypothesis for model evaluation in intuitive psychology should be skeptical, and that outlying failure cases should outweigh average success rates. We also consider what possible future successes on Theory-of-Mind tasks by more powerful LLMs would mean for ToM tasks with people.
Ullman, T. (2023). Large language models fail on trivial alterations to theory-of-mind tasks. arXiv preprint arXiv:2302.08399.
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