Inquiry Without Atrocity

A critical examination of the “conspiracy theory” taboo, part 1.

Posted Jan 15, 2020

This is Part 1. Readers can access Part 2 here.

I recently happened upon a comedian’s tweet of an intriguing-looking psychology review article. Though the tweet is relatively fresh, the article itself is two years old: “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” by Douglas, Sutton and Cichocka (2017). The collected references for the article, along with my corroborating search in Google Scholar for “psychology” and “conspiracy,” suggest that the inclination to believe conspiracy theories has received quite a bit of psychological attention.

When psychologists investigate a phenomenon, it is rarely because they regard it neutrally. The objects of psychological investigation tend to be inclinations that investigators wish to either encourage (e.g. helping behavior) or discourage (e.g. prejudice). In some cases, researchers acknowledge that a psychological phenomenon is complex in this regard—that is, it can manifest either encouragement-worthy or discouragement-worthy behaviors. 

For instance, self-esteem is great except insofar as it correlates with narcissism; intrinsic religiosity is great except insofar as it correlates with dogmatism, fundamentalism, and authoritarianism; and achievement values are great, except insofar as they correlate with the Dark Triad. The inclination to take an interest in evidence that might bolster a “conspiracy theory” seems, on its face, to be one of these complex phenomena. Curiosity and investigative enthusiasm are great, except when they lead a person to believe dumb, malicious and false things.

Popular discourse on “conspiracy theories,” however, seems almost exclusively pathologizing or defensive rather than balanced and nuanced. This polarized view of conspiracy theories reflects a mainstream taboo against making conspiratorial assertions about surprising or unusual events. Such conspiratorial assertions can indeed be preposterous and harmful sometimes. Few responsible parents, for instance, would like to see their children echo Alex Jones’ assertion that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged and that, as the New York Times paraphrased it, “victims’ families were actors in a plot to confiscate firearms from Americans.”

But the anti-conspiracy theory taboo proscribes not only certain kinds of assertions, but also a lot of mere inquiry. To support investigating hypotheses that, if collectively corroborated, would bolster a conspiracy theory, is almost as taboo as jumping prematurely to a conspiracy theory conclusion.  CNN commentator Van Jones, for instance (no relation to Alex), lost a position in the Obama administration when it emerged that he had signed a petition calling for further investigation of the 9/11 attacks. The petition did not promote a specific alternative theory of the attacks, but simply asked that they be further investigated.

The effective implication of Van Jones’ experience is that some subjects of inquiry are more taboo than others. This anti-inquiry taboo is understandable for the forms of it stained with enthusiasm for—or highly implausible denial of—mass-murderous evil. Generally, though, inquiry is an atrocity-free enterprise. Inquiry arguably reduces the likelihood of power committing atrocity with impunity. “Inquiry without atrocity” is the norm, in other words (see my inaugural piece for PT to understand why I like to use the descriptor “without atrocity” as an understatement).

The tone of psychological research into why people adopt conspiracy theories largely echoes mainstream taboos. Douglas and colleagues’ (2017) short review article is generally no exception, though it contains some reference to the reassuring psychological succor that conspiracy theories can provide to some disadvantaged groups. It also includes a much less developed end-of-article admission that “history has repeatedly shown that corporate and political elites do conspire against public interests” (p. 541). Since this is indeed true, conspiracy theories are only psychologically interesting to the extent that they misfire, and they do seem to misfire quite a lot.

The reasonable pursuit of truth regarding mendacity and malfeasance by power morphs all too often into a kind of authoritarian blunting of rational discernment. Once blunted, the conspiratorial accusation shifts from blaming those with real power to blaming instead the relatively marginalized. Consider Alex Jones again, who spent years after 9/11 asserting that it was an inside job with more confidence than evidence. This is a claim that, whatever other factual and inferential obstacles it faces, at least has the virtue of being difficult to square with Islamophobia.

And yet this implicit blame of rich white men at the pinnacle of American power for 9/11 has not stopped Alex Jones from jumping on the Islam-excoriating bandwagon as his media platforms have become echo chambers for endorsing Trump's policies. Alex Jones' case is an almost textbook example of an inclination to hold power accountable for imagined misdeeds misfiring via authoritarian stupidity into scapegoating the marginalized and vulnerable, and thus becoming a tool of power's misdeeds. Examining such misfires is not the animating spirit of conspiracy theory research, however, which tends to treat all conspiracy theories—whether reasonable or unreasonable, underdog or authoritarian—as equally worthy of discourse-crippling taboo.

One of the benefits of examining psychological research on any subject is to see what discourse on that subject looks like under a microscope of scholarly rigor. The norms of scholarship call for careful conceptual and operational definition of terms, the clear articulation of standards of evidence, and the actual demonstration of evidence. What most caught my attention in this regard was Douglas and colleagues’ definition of “conspiracy theories” as claims that “explain important events as secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups” (p. 538). This strikes me as an astute intuiting of the implicit definition most people have in mind when they use the term. 

If this definition indeed captures the zeitgeist, so to speak, then a conspiracy theory is a strange thing against which to invoke a broad social taboo. What makes this taboo strange is its stigma on adopting (or even examining) theories of a certain kind of content. A more reasonable taboo would be one against processes of inquiry pernicious to discourse—like logical fallacies or other errors of argumentation, or relying on risible standards of evidence when seeking to make a case for some theory.

Under the more common content taboo, a particular claim of mendacity and malfeasance by the powerful might have a mountain of evidence for it and adhere carefully to all the best norms of deductive and inferential logic and still be condemned as a “conspiracy theory” simply because of its thematic content. Likewise, an official story theory may have minimal to no grounding, flout many reasonable logical rules, and contradict the weight of reasonable historical and scientific evidence and still escape the “conspiracy theory” stigma simply by encouraging the trust and adulation of existing power and authority. It’s far from clear what social utility there is in having such a content-based taboo against conspiracy theories. I see why such a taboo might be useful for powerful governments, corporations, groups, and institutions, but the benefits to the public at large seem more dubious.

I suspect public discourse would be much better served if cultural influencers critiqued the most absurd conspiracy theories on the basis of unsound inferential and deductive processes rather than bizarre or offensive content. To this end, consider a short sketch (linked here) by comedian John Oliver. The sketch ironically purports a conspiracy behind the continued existence of Cadbury creme eggs (which are indeed repulsively inedible). The punchline is that when those eggs are split in half they look like an Illuminati eye.

Admittedly, it is technically a content critique to mock the belief that there exists a powerful and secretive “Illuminati” group running the world and putting its symbols on everything. But most of the sketch is a process critique. It focuses on the chain of logically absurd non-sequiturs that are often woven with coercively urgent self-confidence to reach a conspiratorial conclusion. 

In sharp contrast with John Oliver’s parody, consider the possibility—briefly admitted by Douglas and colleagues—that specific hypotheses consistent with a broader conspiracy theory might sometimes be well-supported by evidence. Consider this possibility not only with regard to the occasional value of conspiracy theories, but also in terms of the potential harm done by a general taboo against them. 

To the extent conspiratorial hypotheses are even sometimes well-supported by facts, a content-based taboo against conspiracy theories could be actively harmful to public discourse. The taboo may particularly distort domains of discourse customarily linked to holding power accountable, like journalism and historical scholarship. A content-based conspiracy theory taboo guides discourse down potentially false paths by fomenting a widespread fear of finding evidence for the truth of certain kinds of claims—specifically any claims that carry a whiff of “secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups.”

For instance, Douglas and colleagues, in the opening paragraph of their article, describe as a “conspiracy theory” the claim that “Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy” (p. 538). This may indeed be a conspiracy theory, or at least a conspiracy hypothesis, but it also happens to be a hypothesis that was endorsed for almost a decade by the U.S. government. 

In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded that at least one other person assisted Oswald in assassinating Kennedy. Closer examination of the evidence for a second shooter led to the U.S. government abandoning this conclusion in 1988, but to the extent that the original HSCA made errors in judgment, they were understandable and reasonable ones rather than flagrant and absurd ones. The 1979 findings of the HSCA, in other words, do not seem to warrant a pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theory,” but rather a neutral one.

Even though the most striking HSCA revision of the Warren Commission conclusion was later abandoned, it is still an odd juxtaposition to lump the belief that Oswald didn’t act alone with the belief that “global warming is a hoax.” Douglas and colleagues include both as exemplary conspiracy theories in their first paragraph (p. 538). In sharp contrast to the former belief, though, the latter one is absurdly implausible given the ever-growing cascade of scientific evidence and overwhelming scientific consensus. This use of thematically-related content to lump together two claims characterized by very different evidentiary processes illustrates one of the dangers of the “conspiracy theory” taboo.

Please read Part 2 for more examples of conspiratorial hypotheses with contrasting degrees of evidence for them, and for a hopefully helpful conclusion.

References

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current directions in psychological science, 26, 538-542.