Conspiracy Theory Theory



Chris lives in Austin, TX, where he once shook Willie Nelson's hand.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    What is this more true than truth business?Report

  2. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I used to live like 5 minutes from where B.o.B.’s pic was taken. I can tell you that the folks up there are definitely not up to date on the shape of the earth.Report

  3. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    In order to compare apples to apples, I’m going to need to see Kriss’s argument in rap form.Report

  4. I read the actual essay and am not sure I understand it fully. It seems to jive with C.K.’s point recently that some extremist positions are manifestations of the truth. (Or I think that was his point. I forget now if he was arguing it or repeating someone else’s argument.)

    Also, and not to defend B.o.B. (who I’ve never heard of until now…and I didn’t listen to the rap, just read what Chris quoted from it), heliocentrism is wrong. The sun isn’t the center of the universe. It’s only the center of the solar system. And given that the planets’ orbits are elliptical and not purely circular, can the sun really be their geographic “center”?

    Or to take the point in a different direction: We live on earth, and it’s our “center.” While it’s false to say the sun revolves around the earth, we experience the earth as home and we see the sun “rise” and “set.” If we contemplate distant planets or distant galaxies, it’s hard–maybe not impossible, but hard–not to do so in reference to their distance from us, from the earth. The earth is almost necessarily our de facto center. Maybe that’s an illusion or delusion, but it’s one that’s useful in many ways.Report

    • And given that the planets’ orbits are elliptical and not purely circular, can the sun really be their geographic “center”?

      The sun is at one focus of each ellipse. You can prove that with a bit of calculus.

      OK, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. For each planet-Sum pair, there’s a center of mass that lies between the centers of the two and which both orbit. But the Sun is so much more massive than any of the planets that the center of mass lies within the Sun, so the planet orbits and the Sun wobbles a bit.Report

  5. Also, and this is only tangential to Kriss’s argument, I believe the notion of what constituted conspiracy under the law was much better defined long before the 1977 codification (in UK?) that Kriss describes. I’m not a lawyer, but as early as the late 1800s, and perhaps earlier, “conspiracy” was two or more people joining together to commit an unlawful act. That concept was vague enough to do a lot of mischief, of course, but it was at least one step removed from witch hunts.

    Not sure whether this affects his overall argument. Probably doesn’t.Report

    • to commit an unlawful act

      To plan an illegal act. Conspiracy exists whether the act takes place of not. I was a prospective juror once on a trial where the charge was a conspiracy to commit a kidnapping that never took place.Report

  6. Avatar Zac says:

    As soon as I read the description of this in the sidebar, I thought, I wonder if this is about that recent Sam Kriss post. Cool to see I’m not the only one around here who reads his blog.Report

    • This is my first introduction to it. I’m probably going to read some more.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        A real-life philosopher – or so he (if he really is a he) claims – has responded at length, and quite critically, to Kriss:

        • His reply is interesting, and pretty far beyond my training. I know almost Jack about epistemology, and I’m not even sure how I know even that much.

          But I’ll back up a bit and go back to the WMD example vs., say, Saddam Hussein as a leader of a longtime durable cult that controls the world. Yes, to say that “the claim Iraq had WMD’s is a lie” does posit a “conspiracy,” in the sense that more than one person would have had to be involved with the intent to deceive. But that doesn’t seem to be the type of conspiracy people generally mean when they say “conspiracy theory.” And I think what most people mean by the latter is that the “conspiracy theory” isn’t just the theory that there’s a conspiracy, but that the mechanisms by which the conspiracy is supposed to have worked are so implausible as to call into question the possibility that it could be true.

          Perhaps, then, they’re haggling over what to call what? If that’s what’s going on, maybe the better question is to ask “in what ways is x claim” a conspiracy theory, or “how plausible is x claim” a conspiracy theory? To me, the WMD claim is “less of” a conspiracy theory than the Saddam Hussein cult claim.

          That’s assuming the haggling is really what Kriss (and his critic) are talking about. I’ve said above I’m not sure I understand Kriss’s argument. I’m not sure I understand his critic’s argument, either.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            I think you’re right. Aside from some quibbling about the essence of modern Anglo-American epistemology (and I think they’re just talking past each other here), I think most of the reply misses Kriss’ point, both with respect to the lie vs. conspiracy question, and on the larger point Kriss is trying to make about conspiracy itself.Report

            • Hi. As the author of that reply to Sam Kriss, I’m kind of interested as to why you think said reply misses Kriss’ point. What is it you think the reply fails to address?

              And as to the we were talking past each other about epistemology; Sam asserts a view as being axiomatic in a field where it is not axiomatic. That’s not talking past one another; that’s Sam claiming something is true when it is not.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                @matthew-r-x-dentith I believe Kriss lays out why in his reply to you.

                On the nature of epistemology, your reply — that post-Gettier epistemology focuses on whether we should believe propositions — is consistent with his criticism of epistemology (with respect to conspiracy theories at least), in its focus on, if not the truth, then the reasons for believing particular propositions, rather than what the proposition reveals about the world even if there are no reasons for believing it, which is what Kriss is talking about (his more true than the truth bit).

                Since Kriss’ point concerns what conspiracy theories reveal, his claim about the stance conspiracy theorists take towards reality — his “generalist” claim about conspiracy theories — is meant in that light, particularly in the prescriptive claim with which he ends the post. Your remaining criticism seems to be largely about whether he got Pigden right.Report

              • @chris And as I pointed out in my reply to him, I think he’s being uncharitable both to people who research the theories of conspiracy theories, and conspiracy theorists themselves. What Sam is describing is a pejorative and inaccurate portrayal of what happens when people put forward conspiracy theories, and that’s a damn shame.

                As for the stuff on epistemology, I’ll still happily maintain – as a social epistemologist who studies conspiracy theories – that Sam is describing a disciplinary position some fifty years out of date.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                It may be out of date, but Gettier cases don’t say anything about whether it is.

                And his view of conspiracy theories doesn’t seem even the least bit pejorative to me. It might be inaccurate — I don’t think he intends it as a polished psychology of conspiracy theories — but it’s not pejorative.Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            *shrugs* Real conspiracies are a ton more fun than making them up.
            “How to make Russians Radioactive — In Three Easy Steps!”
            (yes, this was actually done. Involved Chernobyl and laundry detergent).
            The better question, as always, is not “was this done?” but “why???”Report

      • Avatar Zac says:

        If you like his style, check this one out, it’s a recent favorite of mine.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Who the hell is B.o.B. and why is he relevant to my life?Report

  8. Avatar DavidTC says:

    Kriss’s article is interesting, because it basically takes what I’ve been thinking for years, and applies it to conspiracy theories.

    I have the concept that fiction is probably as important, perhaps more important, as actual events, when figuring out how people think.

    Fiction is how people think the world behaves, both because the creators of said fiction are deliberately trying to do that, *and* because people ingest that fiction and that is the only way they experience most of the world outside their own tiny sphere.

    Fiction might not be ‘true’, but it’s *important*.

    Conspiracy theories, are generally thought of, by people who believe them, as ‘fact’, so we tend to classify them as ‘wrong facts’ instead of ‘fiction’.

    But they are fiction, and it is perhaps somewhat humbling to notice that *we mostly believe fiction*. All of us. Sure, we know the events on screen where the CIA guy dangles from the helicopter to save the president didn’t *happen*, but we think that is what could happen and how it would happen. And unless we lived in New York, when we watched Friends or Seinfeld, we thought that was how New York worked. We know there aren’t vampires, but we are willing to mentally operate in a world where they exist and try to solve problems there.

    Likewise, there is nothing about most conspiracy theories that means they couldn’t happen. And in fact I, very recently, objected to a few specific ones on that grounds on the grounds that they couldn’t happen, because they made no sense, narrative speaking. Basically, I claimed that they were *bad* fiction, with plot holes and insane behavior of the characters. (When you think about it, that’s a weird objection.)

    But the thing is…plenty of people ‘believe’ bad fiction, in the sense that they don’t think it’s real, but in the sense that they don’t seem to see anything wrong with nonsensical plots and bad acting. (Scorpion is still on the air, after all.)

    We are not that far from conspiracy theory ourselves, we just draw a line in the sand and declare one side truth and one side fiction. And this line is mostly correct, don’t get me wrong. I’m not asserting that belief makes it real or anything like that. But *belief doesn’t work like we think it works*.

    A while back, I got in a discussion here about Hillary Clinton, about how at some point, with all the conspiracies and nonsense about her, people started suffering mental fatigue and ended up with just a vague dislike of her based on…nothing. Because they had to keep entertaining things *they knew weren’t true* about her, but even that has an effect.

    Minds don’t work like we think they work. Belief doesn’t work like we think it works. Everything we’re thinking about is true when we’re thinking about it, even if we know it’s false. Fiction, conspiracy theories, outright slander…it’s all true when we’re considering it, even if our conclusion is ‘This is not true’.

    It might be worthwhile to stop thinking of conspiracy theories as craziness, and instead think of them as a shoddily-written real world ‘expanded universe’. They’re not *canon*, but they do inform how we think about the world. (Which is, like I said, mostly fiction itself, outside of our tiny bubble.)

    Now, some of them are weird enough that we dislike people making political decisions based on them, but that’s sorta a separate problem, and perhaps one we shouldn’t worry about as much as we do, considering that 80% of the population is making political decisions based on really really stupid beliefs *anyway*.Report