What is a Conspiracy Theory?

Erkenntnis:1-28 (2021)
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Abstract

In much of the current academic and public discussion, conspiracy theories are portrayed as a negative phenomenon, linked to misinformation, mistrust in experts and institutions, and political propaganda. Rather surprisingly, however, philosophers working on this topic have been reluctant to incorporate a negatively evaluative aspect when either analyzing or engineering the concept conspiracy theory. In this paper, we present empirical data on the nature of the concept conspiracy theory from five studies designed to test the existence, prevalence and exact form of an evaluative dimension to the ordinary concept conspiracy theory. These results reveal that, while there is a descriptive concept of conspiracy theory, the predominant use of conspiracy theory is deeply evaluative, encoding information about epistemic deficiency and often also derogatory and disparaging information. On the basis of these results, we present a new strategy for engineering conspiracy theory to promote theoretical investigations and institutional discussions of this phenomenon. We argue for engineering conspiracy theory to encode an epistemic evaluation, and to introduce a descriptive expression—such as ‘conspiratorial explanation’—to refer to the purely descriptive concept conspiracy theory.

Author Profiles

Kevin Reuter
University of Zürich
M. Giulia Napolitano
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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