Rethinking conspiracy theories

Synthese 200 (4):1-29 (2022)
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I argue that that an influential strategy for understanding conspiracy theories stands in need of radical revision. According to this approach, called ‘generalism’, conspiracy theories are epistemically defective by their very nature. Generalists are typically opposed by particularists, who argue that conspiracy theories should be judged case-by-case, rather than definitionally indicted. Here I take a novel approach to criticizing generalism. I introduce a distinction between ‘Dominant Institution Conspiracy Theories and Theorists’ and ‘Non-Dominant Institution Conspiracy Theories and Theorists’. Generalists uncritically center the latter in their analysis, but I show why the former must be centered by generalists’ own lights: they are the clearest representatives of their views, and they are by far the most harmful. Once we make this change in paradigm cases, however, various typical generalist theses turn out to be false or in need of radical revision. Conspiracy theories are not primarily produced by extremist ideologies, as generalists typically claim, since mainstream, purportedly non-extremist political ideologies turn out to be just as, if not more responsible for such theories. Conspiracy theories are also, we find, not the province of amateurs: they are often created and pushed by individuals widely viewed as experts, who have the backing of our most prestigious intellectual institutions. While generalists may be able to take this novel distinction and shift in paradigm cases on board, this remains to be seen. Subsequent generalist accounts that do absorb this distinction and shift will look radically different from previous incarnations of the view.

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Matthew Shields
Wake Forest University


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