On the Origin of Conspiracy Theories

Philosophical Studies:1-21 (forthcoming)
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Conspiracy theories are rather a popular topic these days, and a lot has been written on things like the meaning of conspiracy theory, whether it's ever rational to believe conspiracy theories, and on the psychology and demographics of people who believe conspiracy theories. But very little has been said about why people might be led to posit conspiracy theories in the first place. This paper aims to fill this lacuna. In particular, I shall argue that, in open democratic societies, citizens justifiably presuppose that the epistemic authorities—journalists, academics, scientists, and so on—are engaged in a good faith pursuit of the truth. This presupposition generates certain normative expectations on the behaviors of the epistemic authorities—they ought to be open to new evidence, possess a healthy degree of skepticism, be willing to engage with opponents, and so on. So, when an epistemic authority is presented with some putatively anomalous data or an alternative hypothesis for some event or phenomena, people expect the epistemic authority to respond in a way that is consonant with these norms. In some instances, however, the epistemic authorities do not respond in this way and instead are dogmatic, dismissive, and engage in ad hominem. From the point of view of the citizen, there's a tension here between how the epistemic authorities ought to behave and how they have, in fact, behaved which is best resolved either by taking the epistemic authorities less seriously or by positing a conspiracy theory. Put another way, the failure of the epistemic authorities to adhere to the norms by which we take them to be governed when presented with apparent anomalies or alternative hypotheses is one reason for which one might initially posit a conspiracy theory.

Author's Profile

Patrick Brooks
Rutgers - New Brunswick


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