On this week’s Real Politik our guest is New Zealand-based philosopher and conspiracy theory researcher Matthew R. X. Dentith. He is a self-described “conspiracy theory theorist” who wrote his doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theories.
In addition to teaching courses in political philosophy and critical thinking, Matthew is the author of the book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). He also hosts his own podcast, The Podcaster’s Guide to the Conspiracy, and blogs at all-embracing.episto.org/
Matthew’s scholarly approach breaks from the commonplace disparagement of “conspiriacism” and “conspiracy theorists.” Instead, he argues that engaging with and thinking seriously about political conspiracies would likely contribute to a much more vibrant political discourse than what is observable today. “If you go back historically you get people like philosopher Karl Popper and political scientist Richard Hofstadter,” he notes.
They’re really concerned about belief in conspiracy theories because they worry about the social consequences about belief in particular theories. I approach it from a completely different aspect. I say, “Well, look. What exactly is a conspiracy theory?” It seems to be a theory about a conspiracy, where the conspiracy plays the salient cause for some event within the world–it’s a kind of explanation. And when we look at conspiratorial explanations as a larger class there seem to be lots of really good conspiratorial explanations out there.
So why is it that we create a subset of these conspiratorial explanations, call them ‘conspiracy theories,’ and then slap on a pejorative label; “Oh, that’s just a conspiracy theory. You don’t want to believe that.” I find that to be a really fascinating way that the discourse seems to have run.
Along these lines, frequently opinion leaders, such as politicians, scholars and journalists, are perhaps most heavily influenced for fear of being labeled a conspiracy theorist.
I do think there’s a social consequence for being someone who looks at conspiracy theories either in a neutral way or even in a positive way. So I think it’s very true that if you’re in the political sphere, the notion that you even toy with conspiracy theories can be a kind of death knell to you political career.
I think within the journalistic field it becomes really quite tricky because lots of journalists go around routinely uncovering criminal conspiracies, for example, but there seems to be a kind of backing off when it comes to talking about political conspiracies. They’re much more concerned with making claims that members of our government or even our local councils are engaging in conspiratorial malfeasance.
Academically I’m not entirely sure what’s going on there. You would think within the academic realm, one would be able to have kind of a neutral gloss on what a conspiracy theory is, and simply have conversations about our beliefs in these things, particularly good or bad. Can we warrant individual theories? Are conspiracy theorists actually irrational? And yet for some reason–and I’ve yet to actually work out why this is–there seems to be a kind of conservatism to talk in academic circles. If conspiracy theories are bad, we have to explain why that is.
Matthew initially began to study the orientation toward conspiracy theories through a personal uncertainty of their overall merits. “I am an epistemologist by training. My particular interest is in how we generate knowledge about the world. I sort of came to the discussion about conspiracy theories as a bit of a conspiracy theory skeptic, truth be told. I was teaching a critical thinking course at University of Auckland. We were looking at common fallacious moves people make in argumentation. And my colleague and I said, ‘Lots of people infer to any old explanation rather than the best one, and a really good example of that seems to be conspiracy theories. People believe in conspiracy theories. They often end up being not particularly good explanations of events. So let’s investigate that further.’ And the more time I spent looking at the epistemology of conspiracy theories–whether they can be warranted, whether they’re rational and such like–it turned out that actually often there are good grounds to believe conspiracy theories. So it’s actually quite fascinating that there’s a kind of deep-seated resentment towards discussion, both in public discourse and in academic discourse.”
In fact, revelations from sources like Wikileaks and Edward Snowden suggest that conspiracies are a common occurrence, and information that emerges. “It’s quite clear that when you actually look at the Snowden trove there are conspiracies going on within various world governments all around. We’ve had our Snowden trove revelations in New Zealand. It turns out that the GCSB, which is our external spy agency, has been engaging along with the NSA, mass collecting data throughout the Pacific. Most New Zealand citizens didn’t think we were complicit in this. Thus we are understandably outraged that our government has been complicit in that type of mass collection. And so it shows that these organizations engage in sinister activity. But not just that. They routinely lie to the public about the fact they’re doing it, and that’s where the conspiracy comes in.”
The conversation further encompasses conspiracy theories on Jade Helm 15, the influence of journalistic work and public suspicion on New Zealand politics, the premature denial of Stalin’s many crimes as “groundless,” in addition to consideration of the roles played by established political commentators/”conspiracy theorists” such as Alex Jones and David Icke.