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Psychology and conspiracy theories


Coady, D, Psychology and conspiracy theories, The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology, Routledge, D Coady and J Chase (ed), New York, pp. 166-176. ISBN 9781138932654 (2019) [Research Book Chapter]

Copyright Statement

Copyright 2019 The Author

DOI: doi:10.4324/9781315679099


I have argued elsewhere that although the terms "conspiracy theory" and "conspiracy theorist" have no fixed meaning, they do serve a fixed function (Coady 2012: Chap. 5). They function in much the same way that the terms "heresy" and "heretic" respectively did in medieval Europe. The former terms, like the latter, serve to narrow the range of acceptable opinion and restrict the terms of acceptable debate. They are, in effect, policing devices, for the enforcement of orthodoxy. People aren't often denounced or punished for being heretics anymore. On the contrary, the label "heretic," to the extent that it is used at all, is more likely to be worn with pride than shame. However people are routinely denounced (or ignored, condescended to, sneered at, etc.) for being"conspiracy theorists." Furthermore, they are punished in the court of public opinion for believing, wanting to investigate, or giving any credence at all, to anything that can effectively be labeled "a conspiracy theory."

If the persecution of those labeled as "conspiracy theorists" in our culture is analogous to the medieval persecution of those labeled as "heretics:' then the role of psychologists in our culture is analogous to that of the Inquisition. Outside of the psychology literature, some authors will some­times offer some, usually heavily qualified, defense of conspiracy theories (in some sense of the term); they admit that they are not all false, or that it is not necessarily irrational to believe some­thing just because it is a conspiracy theory, or that believing a conspiracy theory (whether it be true, false, rational, or irrational) need not cause the believer, or anyone else, any harm. But within the psychology literature, the assumption that conspiracy theories are objectionable in all three of these ways {i.e., that they are false, irrational, and positively harmful) appears to be universal.

This is a very troubling situation, especially since the beliefs that attract the pejorative label "conspiracy theory" tend to be marginalized political beliefs. There is a disturbing history of psychologists and psychiatrists pathologizing marginalized political views. We are not yet for­cibly institutionalizing people whose political beliefs are deemed unacceptable by the state or other powerful institutions in psychiatric hospitals, as happened in the Soviet Union (see Bloch and Reddaway 1985), but we have got to the point that a group of prominent psychologists have written to a leading French newspaper, Le Monde, calling on the French government to more effectively "fight" the "disease" of conspiracy theories. The authors of this letter do not say what they mean by "conspiracy theories," nor do they define related terms, such as "con­spiracy thinking" or" conspiracism" which they use in the letter. It is simply assumed that we all know what these terms refer to and that the things that they refer to are very bad things indeed. One of the most striking things about the conspiracy theory literature, including the literature from within psychology, is that authors almost invariably assume that they are all talking about the same things, when closer examination reveals that they are not. I hope to make it dear that when Michael J. Wood claims in an article in Political Psychology that "since the mid-1990s, a growing psychological research tradition has generated a great deal of knowledge about the antecedents and consequences of beliefs in conspiracy theories" (Wood 2016: 695), he is mis­taken. Equivocations over the use of these terms has created an illusion of progress.

Another two assumptions the authors of the letter to Le Monde make, which are widely shared in the psychology literature and beyond (e.g., Keeley 1999: 45-46; Wilson 1998: 1-2), are that conspiracy theories are a distinctively contemporary phenomenon, and that they are becoming increasingly widespread. However we decide to understand the concept of a conspiracy theory, these assumptions appear to be unfounded. "What is distinctively contemporary and becoming increasingly widespread is the use of the terms "conspiracy theory" and "conspiracy theorist." These terms were not widely used before Sir Karl Popper's discussions of the "Conspiracy Theory of Society," and only appear to have gained popular currency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (or more particularly the Warren Commission's report on the assassination). Since then the terms have been employed more and more often by more and more people. They have also given birth to a host of new terms ("conspiracism,""conspiracist;' etc.) and a thriving academic industry, as people have become increasingly concerned about this allegedly new phe­nomenon ( or cluster of phenomena). This situation bears all the marks of an epistemic panic, like the contemporary panic about Fake News (as if false and deceitful news stories haven't always been with us), which the conspiracy theory panic often merges with. It seems clear that those who think conspiracy theories are proliferating are confusing the proliferation of references to conspiracy theories with a proliferation of the (alleged) phenomenon referred to.

I will not be introducing my own definitions of"conspiracy theory" or "conspiracy theorist;' etc., here. That is because I don't believe there are any correct (or even good) definitions of these terms. My position is that ideally we should avoid using (as opposed to mentioning) these terms altogether. The fact that these terms are multiply ambiguous is not, on its own, a reason for not using them. The words "conspiracy" and "theory" are arguably both ambiguous, but I certainly wouldn't suggest that they should not be used. In most contexts it is dear enough what they mean. By contrast, the terms "conspiracy theory" and "conspiracy theorist" are rou­tinely used as if they always meant the same thing, despite the wide variety of incompatible definitions (and quite often the absence of definition) and arguments that they are a problem are routinely guilty of the fallacy of equivocation. Of course, I can't hope to make a particularly convincing general case for this in this chapter; I will be content to alert the reader to some of the fallacious equivocations in the psychology literature.

Item Details

Item Type:Research Book Chapter
Keywords:psychology, conspiracy theories
Research Division:Philosophy and Religious Studies
Research Group:Philosophy
Research Field:Epistemology
Objective Division:Expanding Knowledge
Objective Group:Expanding knowledge
Objective Field:Expanding knowledge in philosophy and religious studies
UTAS Author:Coady, D (Dr David Coady)
ID Code:128323
Year Published:2019
Deposited By:Office of the School of Humanities
Deposited On:2018-09-13
Last Modified:2020-08-24

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