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The epistemic predicament of the conspiracy theorist

15 June 2020

A group of international public health scientists has recently published a statement in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet about the origins of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, the pathogen responsible for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In their statement, they report that on the basis of the publication and analysis of its genomes, scientists from multiple countries have achieved the overwhelming conclusion that the causative agent originated in wildlife. The explicit aim of the statement is to debunk “the conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin” and that it has been bioengineered in a Chinese military laboratory. In some versions of this theory, the virus would have been purposely released to spread a global pandemic in the attempt to harm rival economies; according to a milder version of the theory, the virus would have leaked accidentally from the lab and the Chinese authorities would have covered it up. This theory is not an isolated phenomenon. Quite on the contrary, in the dawn of the Covid-19 pandemic conspiracy theories proliferate widely. As of today, to take just another example, many 5G towers have been set to fire in the UK and in the Netherlands, presumably by people persuaded of the existence of a causal link between the epidemic and the new technology.

That so many people should firmly believe conspiracy theories such as these, and even end up acting upon them, have long attracted the interest of scholars from multiple disciplines, including philosophy. For the most part, the philosophers who have devoted their attention to this phenomenon have been driven by the aim to investigate its normative dimension; namely, to understand whether the proponents and consumers of conspiracy theories, as it is commonly alleged, are criticisable almost by definition; and, if so, for what distinctive fault they can be so criticized. K. Popper, among the first philosophers to walk along this path, has described as the “conspiracy theory of society” the methodological assumption that major historical events are always to be explained as the result of the secret undertakings by a small group of powerful individuals. This assumption Popper derides as overly simplistic, as a view which is blind to an obvious fact: society is far too complex and articulated for any large-scale plan, such as those postulated by average conspiracy theories, to ever come off as intended.

Popper hasn’t had the last word, though. For even if the whole of human history could not possibly be described as the unfolding of an uninterrupted series of conspiracies, we know that some conspiracies in history have been successful. So, we must admit that some conspiracy theories were true after all, and that at a certain point it has been rational on our part to believe that they were.

Granted, we have no a priori guarantee that conspiracy theories are false and unreasonable. Many philosophers still insist that there is something epistemically illegitimate with such theories, or with those who propound and endorse them: the conspiracists. Q. Cassam is an example of the latter approach. In a recent book, Cassam has proposed to explain the usual concerns with conspiracy theories by suggesting, roughly, that those who accept them typically exhibit a number of criticisable epistemic vices, such as gullibility, dogmatism, closed-mindedness, and negligence. A different approach focuses more chiefly on the theories themselves and their epistemic flaws (there’s no real conflict, of course: it is nothing but to be expected that the tendency to accept epistemically flawed theories reveals epistemic vice.)  Many philosophers, for instance, have observed that conspiracy theories have a pathological relation to adverse evidence. Whenever a conspiracy theory is faced with contrary evidence, or simply evidence not favoring the theory, the theory can resort to its core claim––the existence of a conspiracy––and re-interpret the evidence as confirming the theory, by claiming  that the evidence has been faked by the conspirators.

This in-built capacity to immunize themselves against refutation and to craft fresh support from contrary evidence can appear illegitimate. After all, it threatens to render them unfalsifiable, and this, again by Popper, we are told is an epistemological peccatum mortale. But, on the other hand, that adverse evidence must be fake evidence seems to be exactly what your overarching belief in a conspiracy rationally commits you to believing. The conspirators, after all, want to hide and have power. So, that they pollute the evidential environment so as to put their existence beyond anyone’s epistemic reach is precisely what you should expect.

I think that there is some grain of truth in both reactions. The conspiracists are right. Once you believe in a conspiracy, you are rationally committed to construing adverse evidence as evidence favoring the theory. But they are also wrong. To reinterpret the evidence in the way just advertised is often open to epistemic criticism. All depends on the grounds for which the conspiracists believe in the conspiracy to start with. Let me explain. Let (P) be your conspiracy claim, for instance the claim that the current pandemic is the result of biological warfare. It follows from P that (Q) a global conspiracy is going on. Finally, let assume that the sole available evidence (E) is evidence reporting the existence of the Lancet report. Taken at face value, (E) disconfirms (P). But as is apparent, your belief in Q allows you to read the Lancet report as a fake (“the Lancet scientists are part of the conspiracy”); hence, to read E as evidence favoring P. But Vorsicht: your belief in Q must be justified independently of P, if E is to be legitimately interpreted so as to lend the desired support to P. For suppose your only ground for believing Q is P and E is your only ground to believe P. In this case, your entire reasoning would exhibit a criticisable form of circularity: P could be justified on the basis of E only if Q were justified; but Q could be justified only if E justified P, and P, in turn, Q.

According to recent epistemology (e.g. J. Pryor, C. Wright), the skeptical challenge can be cast along similar lines. The deliverances of our senses––so the sceptic is portrayed as arguing––could justify ordinary perceptual beliefs like the belief that we have two hands only if we had antecedent justification for believing that there is an external world, and that we are properly connected to it. But the only way in which we could justifiably believe such things would be via inference from such beliefs as that we have two hands. Hence, according to this sceptic, we are caught in a circle and doomed to epistemic disaster.

If my reconstruction of her epistemic predicament is on the right track, the conspiracist is in a slightly better position, and is left with some room for manoeuvre. First of all, there’s no principled reason why a conspiracy theory could not be supported by direct evidence, namely not by prima facie adverse evidence reinterpreted as favoring evidence. Moreover, if they manage to pile up some independent evidence that a conspiracy is going on, they are allowed, epistemically speaking, to exploit this background belief in the attempt to motivate their characteristic reinterpretation of adverse evidence as evidence for their theory.

Successful conspiracy theories––such as the Watergate––arguably exhibit just these epistemic features. The problem with most conspiracy theories is however that the right sort of evidence is normally not available and is very hard to find. Even worse, it is rarely sought after, or the need for it felt.

Image via Flicker – Bio Lab  by Amy Loves Yah – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CCBY2.0)