While this isn’t specifically about the recent incidents in France or Nigeria, some of the comments I’ve read have reminded me of a discussion that I’ve had multiple times over the past ten years. I suppose that this is technically about the epistemology of conspiracy theories, as well as a seemingly self-contradictory or self-defeating feature of certain sets of beliefs. Scepticism is nothing new in philosophy, so I think it’s practitioners might have something to contribute in this case.
With the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I have seen at least a few comments on The Conversation that dispute the official account of events. In particular I have noted a few claims that this was some sort of ‘false flag’ operation perpetrated by CIA (or similar) agents. (I’ve yet to read any similar claims about the activities of Boko Haram for some reason.) Now, I’m not going to get into trying to assess these claims. But I do wonder how one might rationally justify a belief in these sort of things.
A core part of an individual accepting an alternative interpretation of these events is that certain sources of information and interpretations of events are seen as more reliable and trustworthy than others. Where the conspiracy is only partial, this is relatively unproblematic; the main-stream media and/or the state will selectively withhold or distort information. This is almost certainly true – even if only slightly. So the extent of, and intention behind, such manipulations form the contested area here.
In the context of over-arching conspiracy theories, where the reach of the conspiracy approaches ubiquity, epistemological problems become more apparent. An example of this is the belief that the US government had infiltrated conspiracy theory forums in order to spread disinformation and distrust and undermine ‘the truth’. The paper by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, Conspiracy theories: Causes and cures*, was presented to me as evidence of this. This was in part because it reportedly suggested or even advocated such covert ‘cognitive infiltration’, but also because Cass Sunstein was close to the Obama administration. The argument comes down to something like this:
The government is out to manipulate people who believe in conspiracy theories out of knowing the truth, or to at least undermine their confidence in their beliefs. We know this because a source close to the government suggested it might be advantageous to do so.
I think there are some problems with this argument.
- For the sake of argument let’s agree that the US government does engage in conspiracies to manipulate our perception of the truth of certain matters and to alter our political, commercial and social behaviour in covert and insidious ways.
- If you accept premise #1, it is deeply implausible to suggest that Sunstein and Vermeule’s article made it into circulation on the Web without the approval and knowledge of the government.
- If it is the case that the article was published with the approval and knowledge of the government, and #1 is taken as being true, then the article itself has to be seen to be, at least potentially, part of the conspiracy.
If Sunstein and Vermeule’s article is part of the conspiracy to subvert ‘the truth’, then you can’t trust anything in it, inducing any suggestion that there is a conspiracy. This does not mean that governments do not do such things, but this article does not count as evidence either way.
More generally, if the manipulation of evidence is everywhere, then how do you know that the evidence pointing towards such a manipulation is to be trusted?